The Spine of the Earth
In October of last year an unprecedented six-month project opened across Southern California. Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945 – 1980 is a collaborative series of exhibitions and performances that for the first time create a coherent narrative for the birth of the Los Angeles art scene. Organized and funded in large part by the Getty Research Institute and Getty Trust, respectively, the enormous festival include the work of 1300 artists in 68 museum exhibitions and 70 gallery shows. It covers everything from Pop Art to modernist architectur e, the rise of installation and multi-media art, Chicano and African-American art movements, and artists’ collectives such as the Woman’s Building.
A unique segment of “PST” was the 11-day festival of performance and public art that had artists recreating, reinterpreting, and re-envisioning seminal events from the past as well as creating new works. Artists such as Eleanor Antin, Judy Chicago, Suzanne Lacy, Robert Wilhite, and James Turrell installed and performed work. Among them was Lita Albuquerque, who made what amounted to the second part of an earthwork first done in 1980 on the El Mirage Dry Lake bed in the Mojave north of Los Angeles. Spine of the Earth was an ephemeral land art drawing created by Lita and executed with the help of art students from Long Beach State University. The work was executed as a choreographed performance piece in red, yellow, and black pigment, a design that connected heaven earth through geometrical forms oriented to celestial events. More than 600 feet in diameter, the work could be seen in its entirety only from the air, a physical circumstance that reinforced the connection of sky to ground. The central figure of the work was a red spiral, a traditional form used worldwide in rock art, as well as by artists such as Robert Smithson.
For the new work, Albuquerque assembled more than 300 people in red jumpsuits atop the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook, which stands in between the Los Angeles International Airport and Culver City. Spine of the Earth 2011 commenced movement when a skydiver jumped from 3,000 feet above the site and plummeted downward, trailing a plume of red smoke, and landing on a hilltop target. Her landing in the middle of the spiral initiated its unspooling, which proceeded down the steep stone steps connecting the top of the hills to the plain below.
Once again the work could only be perceived in totality from above, which is where photographer Michael Light and I were circling in a helicopter anywhere from 1000-1500 feet above the performance. The red human spiral was last used by Albuquerque in the Antarctic for her Stellar Axis project, the records from which reside in the CA+E Archive Collections. Both projects will be included in the book that we’re publishing about Albuquerque’s work that we’ll be publishing with Skira Rizzoli in 2014.
Seattle Studio Visits: Lead Pencil Studio — Part 3 of 3
The last stop David Abel and I made in Seattle on our studio visits was to meet with Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo of Lead Pencil Studio. They live in a self-designed concrete house a few blocks down the street from Ellen Sollod, their structure a very contemporary anomaly among the more conventional houses of Capitol Hill. Annie and Daniel, architect-trained artists, have begun to garner a national following for both their architecture and installations.
Where those two practices often come together in a spectacular fashion is in their public artworks, a recent example of which is the 30-foot-high, fifty-foot-long “non-billboard” the couple erected in 2010 at a border crossing into Canada near Vancouver. Commissioned by the General Services Administration as part of their Percent-for-Art Program, and constructed of welded stainless steel rods, the sculpture is massive yet delicate, utterly unexpected, and offers a frame for viewing changes in the atmosphere. It’s one of those works that stops you in your mental tracks (even while driving past it) because of its beauty. The empty frame creates a lacuna in which you have the time to understand its function and meaning, which is to say how we frame the world through our eyes, the windshield, and our preconceptions.
An earlier and renowned example of this negative framing, which is a central tool in the Lead Pencil kit, is from 2006, a large sculpture erected on the tall Oregon bluffs atop the Columbia River east of Portland. It faces the Maryhill Museum that sits across the river in Washington State, and is an exact spatial recapitulation of the mansion museum. Maryhill, built from 1914 through 1940, was conceived of by the man who created the Columbia Gorge Highway. It is a deeply eccentric institution that features on its grounds a life-sized recreation of Stonehenge, among other curiosities. Maryhill Double is not so much a critique of the concrete château as it is of the process of replication. It’s also a reminder of how walls enclose space within while keeping out the space surrounding them. Built simply out of scaffolding and construction netting, the sculpture was almost a building, but not quite. It there and not-there, a finished work that look like an idea in progress, and a profound delight to those who were able to view it during the three months it was up.
All of the artists whom David and I visited broadened our ideas about human creative interactions with various environments–but also demonstrated how those interactions benefit the public culture in which we live. We’ll have more to say that as we develop archives and programs that include their work.
A special word of thanks both to artist Ellen Sollod and Jim McDonald, Senior Program Officer in Arts and Culture at the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation in Seattle. Ellen and Jim helped put together our itinerary and provided introductions, and that’s part of an ecology in the arts that is a pleasure to be around, and for which the Northwest is rightly famed.
Seattle Studio Visits: Ellen Sollod and Steve Peters — Part 2 of 3
Ellen Sollod has had an artistic career that spans ceramics, photography, writing, and art and design for public places. Along the way she worked at the Visual Arts Program at the NEA, directed the Colorado Arts Commission, and ran the Seattle Arts Commission. I’ve been her colleague during many of those incarnations, and it was a pleasure to call her up about a project she had done locally, Lake Washington Palimpsest. When David Abel and I visited her home and studio in the Capital Hill district of Seattle, we were able to view some of the pinhole photographs from the project, which were based on two years of research, and involved any number of her previously honed bureaucratic skills.
Lake Washington is the second largest body of freshwater in the state, a glacier-carved ribbon lake that in the second decade of the 20th century was severely altered in order to create a ship canal from Puget Sound inland. The lake was lowered nine feet, its shoreline reduced by eight miles, 1,000 acres of wetland destroyed, and the new canal dried up the entirety of the existing outflow, the Black River. Ellen navigated the records of the Seattle Public Library, the Washington Geology Library, and the archives of the United States Geologic Survey–and that was just to find a map showing the changes. The archive of this unique project will be coming to the Museum later this year.
After lunch with Ellen, we drove over to the Chapel Performance Space, where composer/musician Steve Peters runs the experimental Wayward Music Series in the handsome Good Shepherd Center. I’ve known Steve almost since his founding of the Nonsequitur Foundation in Santa Fe in the late 1980s, and have long admired his work, which uses environmental recordings, ambient and found sound, musical instruments, electronics, and the human voice to create understated, subtle, and entirely gorgeous site-specific works.
We listened to several of his Chamber Music pieces that he started in 2005, and which are made by recording empty architectural spaces, often late at night. The empty and supposedly silent spaces–which range from museum galleries to library reading room s to freight elevators–are actually filled with architectural sound, which he minimally filters to find resonant frequencies. These create a background drone which can be overlaid with traces of found sound artifacts (a plane flying overhead, a passing vehicle, etc.). Steve then presents the work in the space where it was originally recorded, feeding back the sound of the architecture to itself.
Both Ellen and Steve in these particular works are activating spaces in time, Ellen through historical research and making apparent environmental and social chance, Steve through the elastic durations of recording and playback. After listening to recordings and checking out the old chapel where Steve runs his music series, we retired to Elemental, a restaurant where you’re not told what you’re being served, nor what the accompanying wines are. the food and dining become an experience where you construct meaning by direct interaction with the materials at hand. Which seemed an appropriate meal for the day!
Seattle Studio Visits: Lorna Jordan and John Grade — Part 1 of 3
I spent the days before Christmas with CA+E Research Fellow and writer David Abel making studio visits in Seattle. It’s hard to imagine a more congenial and collegial group of people than the six people with whom we met. Upon our arrival on a Thursday afternoon, we first visited environmental artist Lorna Jordan, who has worked on projects for public spaces from Arizona to Wisconsin, Fort Worth to Calgary. As is obvious by the drawings, blueprints and models in her spacious studio, her designs are informed by the marks humans make on the land, sustainability issues, and systems theory. Increasingly, she acts as much as an urban planner and architect as an artist, employing a variety of professionals in various fields to work on projects as needed.
Jordan has conceived her current work for “Central Park” in Madison, Wisconsin as “a laboratory that synthesizes nature and art, utility and recreation…. [that] manifests the expressive potential of art in an emerging eco-society.” Working as the artist within a large design team, she appeared to us to be raising the bar for how an urban park can reclaim a former brownfield through green technologies, as well as providing a unique aesthetic experience in the city. There’s an excellent interview with Lorna in the March 2011 issue of Sculpture Magazine, if you want to learn more about her work.
The next morning David and I travelled downtown to the former residential hotel where sculptor John Grade has colonized several of the ground floor rooms, converting them into a woodworking studio on a large scale. The first thing John pointed out were sections of 165-foot-long wooden beams salvaged from a 19th-century sailing ship, pieces of which will be assembled into a 65-foot-high sculpture suspended from the ceiling of Seattle’s new Museum of History and Industry. The museum is built on a pier over Union Lake, and the work, which you will be able to gently swing by the push of a hand, will pierce the floor to connect with the water below the pier. This will allow the bottom of the sculpture to slowly degrade over time. Grade, while making exquisite objects large and small, never travels far from his preoccupation with entropy. An almost surreal metaphor for this connection to time and decay were his exhibitions in 2009 and 2010 of tall white forms suspended over and then lowered into pools of black ink, which essentially melted them. Grade has also buried wooden sculptures in Washington State and Nevada to see how they disintegrate differently over time.
Evident during both visits were commitments to the integrity of concept, high levels of craft, and a desire to serve the public as well as the formal demands of their media. This would continue throughout the other visits we made, more about which in the next two posts.
Larry Mitchell and the Disappearing World
Perth, a city of 1.5 million people and capital of Western Australia, is the most remote major city in the world. South of the city is the town of Fremantle, an ocean port that hosts a number of noted artists, the painter Larry Mitchell among them. A petite man who favors sun-bleached jeans, t-shirts, and no shoes, Mitchell’s studio is in a converted garage that opens onto his backyard. Most often he paints in open air under a tarp, courtesy of Perth’s moderate climate.
Mitchell worked in London in various contemporary art practices, including abstraction, but fifteen years ago started to paint pictures of the islands off the shores of Australia and up through the biogeographic region of the Central Indio-Pacific. Its seas and straits connect the Indian and Pacific oceans, encompass the South China sea down to northern Australia, New Guinear over to Vanuatu, and contain the greatest diversity of corals and mangroves in the world. Mitchell has sailed as far abroad as Patagonia and the sub-Antarctic islands, but these warmer climes are where he keeps his feet planted on the deck of a boat most of the time.
I visited with Mitchell at his house and studio in early October in preparation for writing about his desert paintings based on trips into the Pilbara region that he, Barry Lopez, and others had taken together last year–and I’ll write more about those soon–but I first wanted to describe his ocean work, as it is the basis for an archive collection that we’re bringing to the CA+E perhaps as early as next year.
Mitchell doesn’t just sail around the islands, but has formed longlasting friendships with their inhabitants, and a deep attachment to their independent lives and family-based fishing businesses. He saw how the twin pressures of economic globilization and global warming were eroding both the local societies and shorelines of the islands, and began to paint them, mostly in panoramas made from a vantage point slightly offshore. Mitchell’s depictions of ocean water are an astonishment. “There’s an underlying geometry to water. It’s infinitely complex, and a digital camera can’t capture it,” he told me last year. From fifteen feet away it looks like you could dive into the paintings. He joked, ““I’m a photographer; I just work really slow.” But once you’re within five feet of the canvas, you realize just how abstract is the brushwork. As he puts the lessons he earned in London, ”I learned a lot about paint by pushing it around to no end.”
Mitchell’s work, like that of the 19th-century landscape painters traveling in South America, Africa, and Asia, comprise a baseline visual record of a fragile environment in steep transition. The islands are literally disappearing before our eyes. The paintings are beautiful and tragic at the same time, and Larry Mitchell’s archives as poignant a set of documents made by an artist as can be.
Dr.Byron Vreeland Shows Off His Lamp
On a rainy morning in early October several of us drove up a narrow Los Angeles street so steep it was practically a waterfall. We were venturing deep into one of the storied canyons of the Hollywood Hills to meet Byron Vreeland, a notable collector of Tiffany-era glass work who is lending us several lamps for an exhibition in early 2012. At the end of the street was his house, one of the most sculpted works of architecture I’ve ever seen. As a young man Vreeland worked in the shops of a major movie studio for twelve years, then went on to become a dentist. How all that comes together in his house is the result of a decades-long fascination with the flowing lines of Art Noveau.
Forty years ago Vreeland began converting what was originally a rather plain 800-square-foot house into an architectural fantasy that he admits “even Gaudi would find overdone.” Combining his carpentry skills with plastering techniques learned as a dentist, he transformed a wooden post in the house into a slender and intricate white tree trunk. Stretching out from its base and running on the floor into the kitchen was a tile mosaic of the same tree blooming in full color. It was a witty reversal of shape and shadow, nature and culture, the outside brought in, and typical of a house where every wall and ceiling has been reshaped into spirals, curling branches, shells, and other curvilinear forms.
A few window frames, door jambs, and bookshelves have straight lines, but Vreeland has moulded almost everything other structural element of the house into curves, which he finds not simply more pleasing to the eye, but more conducive to a healthy life. The more than two dozen richly colored stained glass shades of the antique lamps cast a warm ambience, even on a stormy morning. A bulldozer parked below the house attested to the frequency of mudslides there, but the house has weathered earthquakes and being buried to the rooftop in mud without so much as a crack, a testament to his construction skills.
Working with collectors to prepare for an exhibition is often tedious–selecting, photographing, and measuring the objects to be included, writing down their history and provenance, then designing shipping containers and methods. It’s painstaking work for the curatorial staff–but the house was so full of surprises that the morning’s work was done before we knew it. Our only regret was that we couldn’t bring the house into the museum, as well as the lamps.
Travels in Australia: Paruku — Part 6 of 6
At the end of the two-and-a-half weeks in Paruku, the painters from Mulan and the visiting artists, the writers and conservationists, the scientists and local Aboriginal rangers, had created a layered and linked body of work unlike anything I’ve witnessed elsewhere. A fine trope for it all was the portfolio to be created by Basil Hall, a printmaker from Darwin with whom Mandy Martin and Aboriginal artists have collaborated for years.
Basil gave the Aboriginal artists sheets of acetate upon which to paint each color from their paintings in order to reproduce them as prints. In some cases, the artists took to painting new works directly on the acetates. Notes from the scientists, sketches by the visiting artists, a poem from me–all of it would be incorporated. Even drawings by Chris Curran of the water and diesel pumps he repaired for the community would be layered into the work. Some of art would tell stories dating back thousands of years, others to last week.
And the men’s painting, although it wasn’t completely finished when I photographed it the morning we were driving back to Alice Springs, was breathtaking. A large selection of works from the project will tour parts of Australia, and the project archive and many of the artworks then come to the Center for Art + Environment. But it was difficult to envision that particular painting leaving Paruku. It’s not simply that the painting was a representation of Paruku and its Dreaming, but that the painting itself is considered country.
All of the work was linked, a culture of markmaking that started during our trip with mud being smeared on us in the lake as a gesture of welcome to country and that would continue as the artists both from Mulan and elsewhere would contribute work in future years. And, in turn, this expedition was linked into that much, much long arc of art on the continent that started with body decoration and rock art tens of thousands of years earlier.
Travels in Australia: Paruku — Part 5 of 6
The men’s painting of the dingo tracks along Parnkupirti Creek took days. At first, each of the five artists picked up one of the five panels and sat apart, painting his own style onto the canvas. By the end of the first day the panels were beginning to come alive with rich patterned color–but none of the panels matched. Dingo tracks were painted along Kim’s creekbed, and ended in a pool of blue pigment painted by Hanson to represent where the two dogs went to ground.
On the second morning the men took the five panels back down into the creekbed, along the way torching some of the spinifex. It was done casually with a tossed match, which astonished me, coming from a state where out-of-control wildfires regularly consume thousands of square acres. But, despite the fierce afternoon winds that rose, the fires stayed contained within a few square yards, a testament to the wisdom of burning country on a regular basis, and a land management tool that’s been used on the continent for at least fifty thousand years.
Hanson’s brother Cyril took each of the panels and completely covered over the white creek that Kim had painted across them with thick black paint. Then he repainted them again with white, and completely redid the dingo tracks in a manner that was consistent, thus starting to reinforce how the individual pieces would jell into a single story and work of art.
As I was sitting crosslegged on the ground nearby, taking notes about the progress of the painting, I also kept staring at the bank of the creek opposite me, which Bowler had studied and sketched. A hundred thousand years of lakeshore sediments was exposed, and the men were painting a story that was so old it was almost geological in its origins.
Travels in Australia: Paruku — Part 4 of 6
One morning Kim Mahood drove out from Mulan with a five-canvas template-map of Parnkupirti Creek, one of the feeders into Lake Gregory, to the site along the creek where the Australian geomorphologist Jim Bowler discovered the oldest human artifact on the continent. It’s also the site where the major Dreaming story of region, Two Dingoes and the Emu, concludes. Bowler has spent more than forty years untangling the paleoclimate of the ancient lake systems of the interior, and along the way done more to push back the dates of human presence in Australia than anyone else. At this site during his 2006-2007 field season he discovered worked rock between 47,000 and 53,000 years old. The place we stood with the artists from Mulan was the site of the oldest continuous cultural tradition on the planet.
The Dreaming–or Dreamtime as it is sometimes called–is the period when country was created, but it’s also a system of beliefs and practices that govern everything from hunting and marriage to land management. The stories are an ancient oral system of knowledge that’s the basis of what has been called the most complicated non-technological society in the history of the world. The Dreaming story where Kim spread out her painting is about two dingoes hunting and eating an emu, then going underground where they still reside. Kim had painted one of her topographical templates of the creek for the women to talk over and paint, but after a few minutes of discussion, the women decided that this was “men’s business,” and that the men should take responsibility for the project.
Hanson Pye, the senior man of Mulan, led the men down into the creekbed by Bowler’s dig site, where they set out the five panels, the creek a meandering white path connecting each of the canvases to one another. Then he pulled out a printed reproduction of the only painting ever done of the story, one done by his father during the 1990s, and began to compare it with the template. To paint the creek, the country, is to paint the Dreaming, hence using art to express and maintain the relationship of the people to their environment. It was not something to take on lightly.
Travels in Australia: Paruku — Part 3 of 6
The Paruku Project out at Lake Gregory in Western Australia wasn’t just about Indigenous people painting, but also work by the artists Kim Mahood, Mandy Martin, and David Leece. David, who is known more for being one of Melbourne’s leading architects and photographers, worked on a series that captured two views of the same scene on a single canvas, one horizon stacked above the other, a cognitive record of how we never see the same scene twice in an identical manner. Mandy, who is the definitive Australian painter of the romantic sublime, used various ground earthen pigments and acrylic to built up complex 5-part field sketches. They’re complete works in and of themselves, but also notes toward the much larger oil paintings she’ll do back in the studio.
Kim, daughter of a Tanami rancher, grew up in the region and was raised in part by Aboriginal people; she has a distinctly different and deeper relationship with the community here, living and working in Mulan for three months out of the year. Since 2007 she’s been painting a set of very large canvases that are at first simple topographical maps of the land. But the ochre-colored canvases showing the location of the lake and creeks and dunes are just the start. The community women then sit with her, tell stories, and paint information into the work. One map might be a history of local events, another the extent of water from year to year, and a recent one documents burn scars where fire has swept through the spinifex and grasslands during the last five years. The maps are both works of art, but also documents that can help influence politics and policies.
When you look at the story paintings that the Mulan women are doing, the work by the visiting artists, and Kim’s maps, you begin to get an inkling of the layers involved both in landscape as a human construct, but also how deep here those physical layers extend.