April 1, 2013 § Leave a Comment
British artist Tom Phillips has found inspiration in alteration, and the result of that constitutes a long term project from which he still makes discoveries.
Phillips has spent the last four decades working and reworking the Victorian novel A Human Document, by W.H. Mallock, into a series of collages that comprise A Humument, which will be displayed as part of the show “Life’s Work,” opening at Mass MoCA on Saturday, March 23.
The project began in November, 1966, when Phillips and a friend were rummaging through bargain bins of old books and Phillips bragged that he would take the first book he found for threepence — three pennies — and use it for a long term art project. The honor went to Mallock’s book, this the ninth edition from 1892.
Forty years later, the entire book has been reworked into five different version, including a digital one, with over 1,000 pages all compiled.
Born of chance, Phillips says such randomness has continued to play a role in the development of the art, often without him prompting its involvement.
“In the first version, I worked on the pages in random order and now am doing so again,” he said. “This time is the work’s last chance saloon, so to speak, and I get through the pages picking here and there. As I find new things to make them do I narrow the field inch by inch and towards the end I am left with less and less choice. I will finish up with only one unpredictable page to do. I don’t have to invite chance any more. It is inviting itself.”
Phillips hasn’t attempted to know too much about Mallock himself, and has only done some cursory investigation for his half of the collaboration across eras.
“I haven’t learned much about Mallock in recent years,” Phillips said, “nor have I made much effort in that direction except on occasional visits to Wincanton looking for his grave, an element I would like to feature in A Humument.”
Last year, Phillips did come across a 1907 photo of Mallock that he describes as “terrifying” and used in the latest edition of the work.
“He looks like an embittered and irascible old man,” said Phillips. “What his appearance was at his death in 1926, I shudder to think.”
Mallock hasn’t been his only writerly collaborator, and not even his only unintentional one, as with poet Humbert Wolfe’s books
“I have poked at pages here and there and collaborated with poets and others in books published, in one side and out the other,” Phillips said, “but the process was different with poetry, tending to paraphrase rather than transform and, largely, too easy.”
Last year, Phillips was asked to work on a page of the King James Bible for Professor Yvonne Sherwood’s book, “Biblical Blasphemy,” released this year, and found it a challenge to his method.
“I looked at the Old Testament and found it already so outrageous, where it was not magnificently poetic, that it defied or preempted treatment,” he said.
In the end, a page from A Humument was used for the cover of the book.
Phillips has recently brought A Humument into the digital era with an iPad app version that he sees not as a replacement of the original at all, as well as a DVD.
“The medium of the book is of course still paramount and all other media point back to it rather than away from it,” Phillips said. “The DVD consists of myself reading the page as it appears on screen, a selection of around a hundred pages from the revised edition. It’s all recorded at the same kitchen table where I have been making the book itself for so many years.”
With the digital editions behind him, Phillips feels that his intentions in pursuing this work becomes more clear to the viewer, with the digital presentations making the work less obscure to some who encounter it, but also helping to draw connections from the Humument to his many other works.
“I hope this will clarify for some people how I think the poetry of the piece works, though alternative readings are possible,” he said. “It goes some way towards helping the reader know what I am up to, or what I think I am up to.”
“I want the book to reflect these things brought in from other work and to show perhaps that my practice in art is, at least to me, one unified field.”
April 1, 2013 § Leave a Comment
More than a decade ago, Jason Simon and Moyra Davey began an annual party in their barn in upstate New York — now their get-togethers are becoming the source of a retrospective installation at Mass MoCA.
“One Minute Film Festival 2003 – 2012″ opens at Mass MoCA on Saturday, March 23.
The film festival began with the capabilities to pull it off becoming available. Simon had come into possession of a video projector, left over from a short-lived artist group he had been a member of. At the same time, he and Davey were being evicted from their live and work space in Hoboken, N.J., and decided to follow other artist friends and look to Western Sullivan County in upstate New York for a home.
The couple found land with a finished basement that they could live in, while taking the next few years to build a barn on top of that.
The barn, Simon says, was begging to have a gathering in it, so he and Davey decided to hold an annual summer party which asked each guest to bring a one-minute video they had made, along with any food and drink.
“I had film projection equipment of my own already, and I had the video projector, and I had a history of doing a lot of different kinds of work in film and video as a day job, and so I could pretty much show anything,” said Simon.
The enthusiasm surprised Simon and Davey, with their guests often taking it far more seriously than they had expected, and pursuing their next year’s movie with deliberate intent. Artists with successful careers who had always been interested in filmmaking thought the party was a perfect testing ground, with low stakes and in a friendly environment.
“In a way that we didn’t anticipate, it definitely caught on,” Simon said. “People started to get into making their movies and wanting to raise the stakes for their movies and get the response for their movies and incorporate this kind of filmmaking into art practices that otherwise didn’t have it.
“That really happened more than a few times to more than a few people in a way that ended up being quite special. That caught us and them by surprise and really contributed a lot to the positive energy in it.”
Over time, Simon and Davey agreed on a 10-year-cap on the party and never really worked hard to turn it into a bigger event. Each year, though, more and more people showed up.
“It has zero online presence,” Simon said, “and we would hand out or send out the postcard, and then people would bring other people. We would also be busy during the year, traveling for work, and people would have already known about it and asked about it. We would just say, ‘yeah, show up.’ “
The final party was in 2012, where Simon found that planning the event required a much different tactic, thanks to the way technology had changed over its existence. It was decided to pre-arrange an exquisite corpse-styled project among the filmmaking partygoers in order to give some cohesion to the technical side of the party.
“When we started it, it was analog, and so I was vee-jaying tapes, VHS tapes, occasionally a DV tape, but still on tape, sometimes film projectors,” he said. “I became quite good at switching back and forth between formats so there was no interruption. As technology started to change that became harder to do.”
“People started bringing their movies in on keychains and stuff. It required a lot of advance work on a computer up there in the barn, which I never had to deal with before. I really reached my limit for tolerance of this combination of event culture and digital culture. I don’t think they’re a great combination actually. I think events should be analog.”
The planning began 18 months in advance of the final party, and the process saw a film being made and then the last second of that film — 30 frames — being sent to the next filmmaker to continue the work.
“We were able to get 63 people into that chain,” said Simon. “It took on this exquisite corpse structure. You didn’t know what your predecessors film was, you just got to see the last second. It was a way to try and take technology that was actually becoming increasingly frustrating and use it to our advantage.”
One second turned out to be a more generous prompt than it might seem.
“In fact, a second is a long time, it’s one-mississippi,” said Simon. “You can get a lot of information out of that. A lot of people actually did extraordinary transitions and, yes, the scenes merge and people pick up threads that they get in the last second. Other people just did what they decided to do no matter what they got in the mail
The final component came in the form of movie posters for some of the movies, created by the filmmakers themselves. It started out with 18 posters hung in the barn for the 2011 party, following which a formal call was put out, and the resulting movie posters are part of the space in Mass MoCA where the videos will be shown. The creation of the movie posters allowed the festival to end its life and begin, as Simon calls it, “an afterlife.”
“The goal was to make it another thing because it would never be like that thing,” he said, “and I think the posters really go a long way to making that transition happen. I think the posters are quite important in terms of that migration.”
The installation at Mass MoCA will also allow the show to live as a ghost in many other venues. Simon and Davey had done a few versions of it as guests in other places, but had typically turned down most offers to make it an official on-the-road film festival.
“Typically, we would say no, but just organize your own, it’s not rocket science,” Simon said. “Places that had asked us if we would bring it there, a few years ago we could start to say no, but if you wait till after the 10th year, you can just take the show. Some version of that will happen.”
It also has the promise to be a template for a BYOV — bring your own video — party, and Simon sees the benefits of others adapting the format into their artistic and academic practices.
“When you are working, if you are a visiting artist at another school and you’re there for a week or a month or a semester or something, it can be just a really nice way to wrap up a process, to summarize a process that you’ve been going through with students. It doesn’t have to be a focus.”
April 1, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Artist Mark Dion has made it possible for visitors to Mass MoCA to actually enter and browse his own mind in his new installation.
Dion’s “The Octagon Room” opens at Mass MoCA on Saturday, March 23.
“An interesting experience with the piece is a contrast between the outside, which really does give the impression of a concrete bunker, and the inside, which is a spacious, gentleman’s parlor,” Dion said. “There’s something about the work that does confound people’s expectations from what you see on the outside. The piece functions a little bit like the kind of psychological space that we create around ourselves, blocking off the nightmarish that happens in every-day life, and create a special place for ourselves to contemplate other things happening in the world.”
Dion’s piece is a reaction to the last 12 years of life in America, most specifically the Bush years, and it functions partially as a self-portrait of the part of the artist that is less easily represented in realistic terms as it is in psychological ones. Dion’s view of the presidency of George W. Bush is a demoralizing one that created a sense of helplessness and self-preservation among the very crowd that would usually be the most vocal in their defiance.
“There was a kind of retreat among intellectuals and artists and other people, because everything seemed so terrible, especially after the second election,” said Dion. “The forms of conventional resistance, like demonstrations, and other fields of opposition expression seemed so compromised, and over-coated with failure, and, also, really sidelined by police strategies.”
“It just seemed like the forms of resistance were futile and we were caught in this place just trying to understand how it could be this bad. I think that brought people, like maybe what was happening with French intellectuals in the Nazi occupation, you had people create their own isolated worlds.”
Dion’s major interest is in systems and taxonomies, and the room manifests these in context of its eight sides, each of which represents one part of what kept Dion busy during the time he was making his own isolated world.
One wall will focus on travel, another on books, and still others on people and different roles that were undertaken by Dion. They offer a catalog of detritus from eight years of doing his best to ignore the breakdown of dissent.
“In no way do I want to pose that retreat as a positive thing,” Dion said. “This is meant to be, at least for me, a very self-critical piece. This is how I fiddled while Rome burned.”
Dion was inspired to use the octagon shape through the work of Orson Squire Fowler, a 19th-century phrenologist who lived a good portion of his life in New England, where he attempted to popularize octagonal houses.
Fowler’s idea was that nature is the perfect architect and the circle is the most perfect natural form, but the best humans can do to achieve that shape in building is to utilize the octagon, a linear form Fowler pronounced close enough to a circle. Dion found Fowler’s ideas fascinating, particularly those of use of space and energy efficiency that octagonal houses would be of benefit for, and the hint of utopianism they espoused.
In practical terms, it also struck Dion that the eight sides of the house coincided with the eight years of the Bush administration, and would help him organize what he describes as his “memory theater,” serving as a retrospective of his own ideas and work.
“I feel like I designed my own prison cell and I sentenced myself to a luxurious eight years of self-interrogation,” he said, “which had manifestations that are works, and then this also refers to some of those didn’t become work or didn’t make it into a final work, but are things on the boundaries of those works.”
Of particular concern to Dion, and visibly so in the work, are the ecological conditions of the world. This is another area that optimism has overtaken, and his view of conservation efforts over the last 30 years have offered few victories and much dread. He acknowledges that because of this, the piece at MoCA might not be considered uplifting, which he understands is not always what people want out of art.
“At a certain point, when you have confronted loss after loss, and degradation after degradation, you lose your optimistic edge, and the work become less optimistic and more pessimistic,” Dion said. “Not cynical, but pessimistic. I don’t really have a lot of faith in the notion that we’re going to work things out in a very positive way. I think that permeates a lot of my work, and this piece as well. I think people want to look at art, and especially want to look at socially engaged art, being a reservoir of hope.”
Dion says that part of his shift also has to do with the changing nature of environmental problems, in that at one time, it was an information problem — people didn’t know and it was part of the job of art to get it out there. Now people know all about issues like climate change, but that hasn’t inspired any more action. That can’t help but be reflected in his work.
“People just don’t have the will and there’s not the political will, there’s not the leadership, to do a damn thing about it,” he said. “That leads us to a really weird and complicated place where we’re all just sitting out the end of the world instead of imagining the kind of nature that we want and working toward that.”
“It’s a very grim place, and a place I wouldn’t particularly want to arrive at, but maybe it is the place that a work like this helped me understand that if I was being honest with myself and honest with the viewers, that’s where I am. There’s a lot of weirdness being in a place like that because of the huge amount of pressure to be positive, but if you look at it very soberly, there’s not really a lot to be positive about.”
September 21, 2012 § Leave a Comment
The Infamous Stringdusters have won the hearts of bluegrass fans, but their appeal has been steadily moving beyond that audience and into the rest of the world.
The band plays tonight at 9:15, as part of the FreshGrass Festival at Mass MoCA.
The band includes Andy Hall (Dobro), Andy Falco (guitar), Chris Pandolfi (banjo), Jeremy Garrett (fiddle), and Travis Book (upright bass).
Book joined in 2004, just as the first line-up was coming to fruition, after a chance meeting with them at the annual bluegrass convention in Louisville, Ky. Book walked off an elevator with his bass — by coincidence, the still-forming group was seeking a bass player and not having any luck. Book was in invited to come to Nashville for a formal audition — a year later, he was in the band and living in Nashville.
The roots of the band began when Berklee College of Music graduate Andy Hall headed down to Nashville. He had met Pandolfi at Berklee prior to graduating — Pandolfi would move down in a few years after his own graduation — and Jeremy Garrett in Nashville. With two other original members also in place along with Book, they released their first album, “Fork in the Road,” in 2007, with four more albums since.
Prior to the encounter in Kentucky, Book was living in Durango, Colo., and playing with as many bands, of as many genres, as he could. One of those bands was helmed by a Georgia native with long background in
bluegrass, and the introduction to the music that he provided Book with chang ed the course of his musical career.
“I really fell in love with the scene around the music, and I love the harmony,” Books said. “It reminded me of singing in church with my family, singing parts. I loved that it was such a social music, I loved the festival scene. I was all in at that point and went from the electric bass to the upright bass. It was just a really good fit for me and that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing for the last 10 years.”
The challenge for the Stringdusters from the very beginning was to maintain credibility by honoring the traditions of bluegrass music, while still allowing their musical instincts to guide their direction and achieve a sound that stood out from the norm. It was a matter of deciding what to embrace and what to move forward with.
“We were blessed with really diverse musical backgrounds,” said Book. “Several of the guys, having studied at Berklee, were steeped in a lot of jazz and improvisational art forms. I came from more of a jam band background, so we all came to bluegrass with a really broad perspective on sound and what music could be. The common thread was our love of traditional bluegrass”
With bluegrass as the common language between them, using the system of the original art form as a springboard to ex ploring some of their own ideas.
“The traditional art form of bluegrass is amazing and it’s fun to play,” Book said, “but we were all really inspired to make original music that was true to our experience. From the very beginning we straddled that line.”
Part of the move forward — both musically and career-wise — was dependent on the what bluegrass had already laid down over decades. There was no point in arriving on the scene and claiming they knew better right off the bat — the Stringdusters had to build credibility before they messed with too many formulas.
“It was essential for our career to engage the bluegrass community and the bluegrass traditionalists,” said Book, “not only because we love that theme. And it was a great launch pad for our career, a common fan base, but we also knew that we didn’t want to be an impressionist band or impersonators of this music.”
The band’s first record was embraced by the International Bluegrass Music Association, a sign that they had achieved what they set out for right off the bat. The band wasn’t content to sit still with that approval, though.
“Immediately as we started playing shows, we were integrating more improvisations and more different types of rhythm than just the standard two beat bluegrass,” Books said. “The further we go down this path of playing music to gether, the more music we hear and the more diverse our influences become, and I think the more interesting and the more unique our music becomes.”
The Stringdusters continued in this manner, gradually uncovering what they could and couldn’t do, and what kind of sounds they could make as a band. This evolution of sound was part of the plan all along, but one of the biggest lessons the band learned along the way was not about sound, but about performance.
“We had a major revelation at some point probably about three years ago,” Book said. “It dawned on us that for our music to be at its best, it really needed to be about more than just us playing the music on stage. There was this larger experiential element to a live show. The music, the show, the experience is unique and different every night, and it requires an immense amount of presence from the band.”
“The major revelation was our presentation could be much more natural and much more in line with our instincts. That is to say that the perfection of the solo or the perfection of the performance was secondary to the uniqueness of the experience.”
The band moved from playing for seated audiences concentrating on the musicianship to more open venues where the aud ience can experience the per formance however it wishes to.
The band’s philosophy is that it’s your Saturday night, you do with it what you want — just know that you are in a place of like-minded people who seek the same experience, and that includes the band itself, who is there to provide a one-time-on ly experience for your night out.
“That’s bigger than the notes we play, the notes we sing, the songs we play,” Book said. “Adopting that philosophy has made playing music together a much richer experience and it’s also made our shows just infinitely more enjoyable for people. Our expectation isn’t that the audience do anything in particular, and at the same time, that has really freed us up to be a little less self conscious and focus a little more on being present and listening to each and allowing the music to be what it is on that night.”
Book thinks that while that resonates with general music fans, who are generally surprised by the accessibility of the music, it also sits well with their bluegrass fans, for whom such an experience is not the norm. That’s still part of the Stringdusters’ challenge — even after finding success, they still are conscious of not moving so far away from what bluegrass fans might enjoy, and do their best to walk the two worlds they feel they inhabit.
“There’s not this thing in rock music like there is in bluegrass,” he said. “No one ever listens to a rock band and goes, ‘that’s not rock music.’ Thing about bluegrass — and jazz has it going on too — that whole attitude of judgment and comparison is really antithetical to what we’re all about as musicians.”
“Part of our revelation years ago when we decided that we wanted to play for more open minded people was the acknowledgment that some of our existing fans may not be prepared or they may not be interested in coming along for the ride with us, but we believe in our music and our music, and it has to be meaningful for us.”
Book acknowledges that the band occasionally makes some creative choices that might be curious to hard-core bluegrass fans, but hopes that the challenges to the pure sounds of the genre will not only challenge listeners, but expand their worlds just as the music does to the Stringdusters as they perform it.
“My dad always taught me that if you listen to a record the first time and you struggle with it, you don’t like it, if you give it some time it may end up being one of your favorite records,” said Book. “That takes a lot of effort as a music fan, but we take music very seriously, and if something is really, really easy to digest, it probably means that you’re going to get it out of your system pretty quick.”
September 12, 2012 § Leave a Comment
There is a stereotype of Canadians among Americans, and it centers around a kind of mild-mannered approach to life and the sense that they are just calmer versions of Americans themselves.
To many Americans, Canada’s the place they know little about — mostly because they think there’s little to know — and the place they threaten to move to when the politics of their own country become unbearable.
This tells you more about Americans that Canadians, though — it shows that Americans are probably too lazy to make a life-changing, long-distance move to a completely alien place. It’s a “no, thank you” protest, gormless and presumptuous.
If you spend enough time in Canada, though, you figure out that Canadians are completely different from Americans, and that the stereotype hits on a truth even as it misses the mark completely. The reason is Americans tend to judge Canadians against themselves — and, indeed, it could be argued that Americans exist in order to make Canadians look better. But each national identity needs to be qualified on its own, not in comparison to others.
The major difference be tween Canada and the United States, it has always seemed to me, is that Canada doesn’t have a bombastic, holier-than-thou origin story that trickles through the hearts of all its citizens, makes it feel superior and pushes it to spread that heart-swelling nonsense to the rest of the world.
Put more simply, Canadians just aren’t as full of themselves as Americans are.
They are also not centralized in the same way — people from Missouri and Maine will claim a deep, national bond with each other that folks from Nunevit and Prince Edward Island would probably never echo. Canadians don’t seem to care much about that.
They do like their provinces, though, and that is certainly one of the keys to Canadian-ness — to understand its people, its far more important to know about Alberta-ness and Quebec-ness and Nova Scotia-ness.
Which brings me to “Oh, Canada,” the book, a companion to the massive show at Mass MoCA with the same name.
Curator Denise Markonish had a sprawling and challenging obsession through the years it took her to compile that massive show, but in gathering artworks, there is a cohesion that doesn’t always require explanation.
This is furthered by two other facts that step in if Can adian-ness is not to be found.
One is that the show — and book — operates as a travelogue of Markonish’s journeys through our northern neighbor’s landscape.
The other is that works included are just funny and warm and friendly, and that is not something you encounter very often in contemporary art.
For the companion book, though, Markonish was charg ed with the same issues as the show, as well as adding the written and spoken word to the mix, both of which are in regard to direct questions about the nature of Canada and the ponderings that ensue. To accomplish this, Markonish hands much of the book over to the Canadian artists in the show, as well as several Canadian essayists, that turns it into more of a casual hangout north of the border where the conversations touch on some heavy topics, though with a good humor about it all.
It’s getting this persona, easy-going time with the artists that reveals as much about the country and its provinces as their art work does. And they are obviously the stars of the show, with their wonderful work as the main spectacle of allure.
As a survey of current Canadian art, and a primer in the history of Canadian art, the book is probably indispensable if you’re interested. But that large scope is just a side bonus — it’s the more intimate mo ments that capture your heart, the conversations between the artists, and Marknoish’s own look back at adventures in her beloved Canada.
What starts out as an art book and morphs into a travelogue becomes a love letter, as Markonish flat out states, and an opportunity for the artists of the provinces to show their real selves as real people and, yep, Canadians — and not just as future hosts for Americans who disagree with one of their political parties.
By the end of the book, the colors, the shapes, the structures, the words of the artists convince the reader that Canada doesn’t need negative Americans skulking about. Canada is delightful. There’s a province for everyone! You’ll find the one you love. If you must go, go be happy there. Look at the art and laugh, and thank goodness for Canada.
August 25, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Richard Criddle is well-known as the chief fabricator at Mass MoCA, a job that casts him as a master problem solver, where he is expected to figure out realistic ways to accomplish the impossible. A new art show reveals these as the same skills that Criddle brings to his own work as a sculptor.
Criddle’s show, “Compendium,” opens at Gallery 51 on Thursday, Aug. 30 , featuring sculptures and drawings by the artist, as well as a documentary film about him by his son, Jack Criddle.
Criddle’s sculptures are a mix of materials that come together through his hands, and memories that flow through his brain — bronze, steel, copper, plastic, aluminum, wood, fur, bone and much more are all bound together as three-dimensional representations of his psyche and world views.
“It’s a mix of me finding things, fabricating things, cutting things, tailoring things, putting things together — it’s a collage,” Criddle said.
Criddle’s sculptures are part self-investigation and biography, part historical investigation and social commentary and part engineering experimentation, all in the service of fashioning bizarre creatures of unexpected materials.
In one piece that speaks to his larger body of work, Criddle combined parts of a plastic toy horse and a store mannequin with a fur coat, a translucent ladder that Criddle fashioned himself with huge bones used for dog chews as steps, to create a grotesquerie that just might make you wonder what’s going on in his head.
“I set up this huge propane torch and a grill outside and I had to cook all the remaining meat off and drip the fat off these bones,” he said. “Then I had to paint them and shellac them and drill them and pin them into this bullet-proof Lexan. This isn’t just your off-the-shelf Plexiglas, this is bullet-proof Lexan leftover, the off-cuts leftover from supporting Nari Ward’s boat.”
But that’s just what it is in front of your eyes. What led to this monster in Criddle’s studio goes back decades to his years in art school in his native England, when a working-class boy found himself hanging around the aristocracy. Simply put, the idea of taxidermy and a vulgar rich woman wearing a fur coat add up to the same thing to Criddle, but that statement doesn’t do justice to the story that lurks behind the alarming image that he presents, which is as much real autobiography as imaginary nightmare.
“Art schools in London were definitely a finishing school for the rich, particularly the debutantes, the young ladies who would come to art school rather than go to Swiss finishing school in Geneva,” Criddle said. “If you got invited out to the country to visit mummy and daddy, if you got your knees under the table with British aristocracy, one of the questions they would ask you was, ‘Oh, darling, do you hunt?’ Or, better still, ‘Darling, do you ride?’ Ride? I ride a bike.”
“I came from a working-class background and I’m going to art school and I’m mixing with the offspring of the aristocracy, and going to stay up in Inverness. This is weird. They filled their houses with, I’d never seen so much taxidermy. Stag’s heads coming out of the walls, stuffed foxes, they seem ed to like to stuff everything.”
Criddle came over from England with his wife and family in the 1990s. An early encounter with Joe Thompson cemented his position at the museum even before the museum existed, but also changed his life and work in ways he hadn’t expected. It wasn’t in the plan to immigrate to America, and it wasn’t in his trajectory to do the kind of sculpture he is now well-known for. In England, he did a lot of bronze casting, creating his own work and teaching it, and that was at the center of his creativity. The loss of access to a foundry changed everything.
“I couldn’t make art without pouring molting metal,” said Criddle. “I certainly was an eclectic sort of sculptor, but more often than not, I would have tak en molds of things and taken the various found objects and cast them into another material.”
“For a long time, I was lumbered, my cross to bear was the craft of bronze casting. If you don’t have the convenience of either a commercial foundry, where they put up with you, or run a college foundry, you’re working with what you’ve got here, which is welding gear, and a band saw, and a table saw, and more power tools that you can shake a stick at. I make all of this stuff with what any guy can go and buy at Home Depot.”
The work he does now — both in his employment at the museum and as a sculptor — hearkens back to his roots more than the work he did in England. Criddle was raised in a working-class family in South End on Sea, a Coney Island-like resort town on the banks of the Thames as it comes in from the North Sea. His dad was a former Royal Air Force airplane mechanic and later a union shop steward and truck driver with a penchant for auto repair.
Criddle’s schooling from age 11 to 17 had a huge shop component in it, learning woodwork and metal work that was entrenched in the world he was growing up in and the prospects for a kid in his position.
“I was always the kid who was resourcefully building and repurposing things,” he said, “like some thrown-out supermarket trolley or somebody’s old pram on a dump, we would be making go-carts. I was always building dens and shacks in the backyard, and bomb sites — there was always plenty of dereliction that was a feast for us kids. It’s like Peter Pan, I suppose I never grew up.”
Criddle says that even though he loved all that, he never felt like that world was quite for him — he had another side, a creative side, that dictated his needs, and a trade job would never offer him.
“I was also the kid who loved to draw,” he said, “and whenever there was the opportunity in school to do a project that was creative, like make a model of an iron age hill fort or something, that was it, it was a great thing to do. If you went to trade school back then, they would beat that sort of creativity out of you with a whip.”
Criddle ended up going to art school, convinced that graphic design was his calling — a diagnostic first year changed that when he encountered sculpture, which brought together all his worlds.
“I was into that for about at term and then discovered the sculpture studio,” said Criddle, “and the fact that you could make a noise, you could make a mess, you could use tools and mix buckets of plaster and crap like that, and I got bitten by the bug, and all I can say is it must be terminal, because I’m still doing it.
“It was just amazing that this whole spectrum of sculptural possibilities were there. You could learn stump carving or you could learn bronze casting or you could perfect welding skills or you could work with a table saw and they would teach you how to do it, but the real thing was they would also teach you to think — think like a sculptor and have dialogues with other sculptors.”
Sculpture, as Criddle learned it, became an outward manifestation of an inward journey, a form of visual poetry to express the abstract truths that are learned through communion with oneself. In Criddle’s case, it became a way to take all the parts he amassed, all the skills he had learned, and use work to fashion three-dimensional, psychological signposts.
“It wasn’t just about stuff, it was about what goes on up here,” he said. “The real thing they taught you to do was talk to yourself. They say that’s the first sign of real madness, don’t they, but that creative dialogue that goes on in your mind, it’s like listening to voices. When I come in here with my sandwich box and thermos flask on a Saturday morning, you’ve got to shut up and listen to the voices. So when you have a bit of this and a bit of that, there has to be a bit of time to sit back in that chair over there. It’s not all just crash, buzz buzz, ying ying, weld weld, it’s like I’ve got to think about this.”
“Half the time, things are held together with a thousand clamps. I’m not going to drill a hole in it in case I screw it up, so I clamp it together first. Things are left what I call cooling. You’ve got to set them up, clamp them together, and walk away, and give yourself some menial task to do, laboring, and then maybe when you turn around and look back at it clamped together, the voices will start. You’ll actually see it with a fresh eye.”
While many of his sculpture’s parts are salvaged from other places — his job at the museum also puts him in contact with a network of professionals who are always putting aside material for him, including carnival ride parts — it’s Criddle’s own hunter/gatherer instinct that provides the purest pleasure of his process.
“One of my favorite things to do is go to flea markets and tag sales,” said Criddle. “I still like to carve and I still like to cast and I still like to weld stuff together, but I really like the shopping part of it. You’ve got to have your antenna out to not ice the bits and bobs that are out there that form the words and the phrases and the passages that make the visual poetry.”
There is also a problem-solving aspect to the sculpture that is also key to Criddle’s job in the museum, but with his own work he’s able to apply that skill in a more free form way, with no expectations toward what the process leads to.
“The first thing you have to do is work out the problem and then you have to think about how to try and solve it, or if solving it is the right thing to do,” Criddle said. “Maybe you just set up another set of questions.”
“But with me in the studio, the key is to be prepared to play, so that’s like going back to being a kid. It’s freedom, and it’s supposed to be fun, isn’t it? When I come in here, this is freedom. This is the free zone. This is not like having to do what some other artist needs or wants, or a curator asks me to do, or what people expect.”
June 30, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Calgary artists Jennifer Saleik and David John Foy pile it all out there for everyone to see, leaving multi-layered canvases that capture their two minds working as a singularity.
Saleik and Foy are part of “Oh, Canada,” showing at Mass MoCA.
“The big piece in Mass MoCA, when we finally got it complete, we just stared at it forever,” Saleik said. “I was so pleased at how awkward it looked. It was sort of this awkward teenager, not really sure of itself, and then Dave says, ‘Ah, it’s like a self-portrait.’ Oh, yeah, that’s totally how I see it.”
The couple met eight years ago while finishing art school, and though they describe their styles as very different at the time, it was their compulsion to enter into the other’s work that made it impossible for them to go their separate ways. Along the way, the styles have melded as they have created their own language with which to work.
“We definitely have learned from each other for sure; there’s no way we couldn’t. And then I think together we make one competent artist,” Foy said.
As time went on, they began to put more into their work together — literally on the canvas, its all their thoughts and efforts making the painting cluttered and piled and saying many things at once. Their paintings contain such a complex system of strokes that it can takes months to finish one — “And the Voyager Returned” at Mass MoCA took more than a year to complete.
The couple’s paintings are often sprawling works that stand as reflections of and constructs by their “over-saturated minds.” They say their multi-layered creations are the result of their attempt to create a nexus between painting, sculpture and installation, a rich physical representation of mind-maps of their own psychological space.
“Everything starts as a concept, but then, because we’re painters in Alberta, we can’t really deny the fact that we have a very formal background, have formal training,” Saleik said. “I think there’s always that fine line. I think Dave and I need to root ourselves in materials because that’s how we communicate effectively.”
Foy added, “We never have a completed concept at the very beginning. We have a loose idea of what we want to do and just have the paintings evolve through layers, so dissolve the narrative and all that stuff slowly gets added, and we don’t really, necessarily know where it’s going to go in the end. We have a basic idea.”
This makes any given painting a journey with a mystery at the end, and the process wraps in anything and everything that might happen during the course of a day, and builds on these. The couple attempts to split duties so evenly that co-authorship with the appearance of singularity in conception and realization is at the center of their practice — they want it to look like something that was made by one person.
They try to work on pieces at the same time as often as possible, which makes larger works more amenable to their process, but each has veto power on the other’s concepts. One of them might think they have a great idea, but part of the process is convincing the other that it is so.
“More often than not, we just compliment each other’s ideas and build on them and change them slightly,” Foy said.
Both Saleik and Foy agree that one of the strengths of this type of partnership is that it is possible for one unit of the whole — that is, one of them — to function for both of them and keep the idea moving in the absence of another.
“You can leave a little while to go get a drink or something, and then you come back and the painting’s actually changed somewhat significantly, so you get surprises,” said Foy. “And then other times you can get stuck on something and then the other person can just come in with fresh eyes and finish it.”
Saleik describes it as a free fall. If the process is one of discovery, and where the work ends is an unknown at the beginning of the process, then what each individual brings to it is a whole other level of unpredictable. They may work as one, but they each represent different sides of the painterly super-organism’s psyche, and any given work is the result of that confluence.
Though the process allows for freedom, it also has some limitations at the end. It isn’t so easy for either in the couple to just look at something, decide it didn’t quite work out like they’d hoped and manipulate some brush strokes to correct the problem. The brush strokes are buried under layers of resin that bind every artistic decision or flourish to a form of eternity.
“We do a layer of paint and then we pour a layer of resin when we’re happy with that layer,” Foy said, “and then, in order to adhere the next layer of resin after, and the paint, we have to sand it to give it some tooth, and that frosts out everything from behind. So the further and further you get out, the less you can see of what you’ve done before. You’re always working a little blind.”
“Right until the end, you don’t know what the finished product is going to be, but those surprises can be really great,” Saleik said. “That’s the free fall aspect of it. But sometimes you find yourself desperately trying to reign something in right at the end. It’s a very interesting mind puzzle.”
Because of the process they employ, the works represent not only the couple’s prowess at painting, but their ability to create solutions. Any given piece is an example of the two of them positing their own problem and then working to bring it to a conclusion — what’s left is the result of that process, with the steps laid on top of each other for visitors in a gallery to ponder. Sometimes these solutions only come at the last moment. Sometimes they elongate the process far past the original perceived schedule, but they always eventually happen and that is at the center of the couple’s artistic concerns
May 4, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Some artists are accused of building walls between them and their audience, but walls are a part of Kim Faler’s creative specialty, as well other everyday things you’ll find around the house, in an attempt to reconfigure them for mischief.
Faler’s latest sculpture is featured in the show, “Invisible Cities,” at Mass MoCA.
Faler’s wall is made of soap — or more precisely, two by fours fashioned out of soap have been used to build a wall. Faler has cast about 30 building pieces, each 10 feet long, all white, in front of exposed brick directly before the entrance to Building 5.
“It is white, so it has a foreignness to it just because of the color, and then there is the smell,” she said.
Faler loves making work that address objects and structures people come into contact with everyday and pay little mind to, with the idea that if she changes an aspect of it, even in a subtle form, that will upset the experience between person and place to a degree that person will actually notice place more than usual, thanks to the disruption of it.
“We have such an overwhelming experience with architecture that we don’t think about it, it’s omnipresent,” Faler said. “So here, I’m just trying to re-tilt the scales and bring the viewer back into the world that they already live in. I’m changing the material to give some sort of sensorial reaction to something you would never have a sensorial reaction to, like a piece of wood. I shift the material and hope that it triggers some sort of idea of memory and idea of your personal interaction with not only soap, but architecture.”
Faler describes it as a recalibration of the senses.
“I try to make you see stuff that you couldn’t otherwise,” she said.
Architecture and design are central to Faler’s work and fascination. This began full force in a design course that highlight the restraints dictated on the practitioners by the subjects of creation out of necessity for functionality. What if functionality were messed with a little?
“It has to be held this way, and it has to be made of this material, and sit in spite of this thing, in order for it to work,” said Faler. “I really got motivated by all these constraints that design puts on itself, just because it’s tied so much to functionality.”
“When I started to make my own work, I began with traditional sculpture, but then the idea of design and the constraints they follow began to sneak in my work, but in the end, I’m always trying to undermine functionality just to make it art.”
Faler’s work has become an exercise in “unfunctional” design. You can look at one of her works, you can see it is a wall or a sink or a shelf, but you can also see that there’s no way, as realized by Faler, that it could possibly work for the purpose it was originally designed, and that’s something that makes Faler laugh.
“I think the idea of taking something functional and taking the functionality out of it is, in itself, innately funny,” she said. “If you take a coffee cup and you take the bottom out, it’s not going to work, it’s not going to do what it’s supposed to do.”
Faler’s work becomes an examination of how people relate to their housewares and houses, and the ways in which their dependency is so reliant on the smallest portions of the object’s design. One small change to the object and the relationship with the person shifts as well. This is nothing a person ever thinks about, and it’s only in the disruption that it becomes crystal clear. It’s like the old adage that you only appreciate what you have once it’s gone.
“It’s just like a habit. You do this over and over and over again, so you stop thinking about it,” Faler said. “But if you just shift it slightly, it has a cascade effect where you’re allowed to see it again and actually think about what you’re doing.”
The Mass MoCA sculpture is not the first wall Faler has created. In graduate school, she fashioned a huge, cracked one, and shortly after, a subtle curved one that looked wrong without offering the viewer the chance to figure out exactly what was wrong until they walked around the corner and could see the latex skin behind it that caused the warp.
“It was pretty entertaining because most of the other work was either behind glass or a sculpture and most people didn’t even see this work until they got in the room and turned around and saw it,” said Faler.
Humor is key to Faler’s work, as well as part of the natural reaction to it. Her piece “Slack Tide” features crumpled blue paper on a shelf — Faler’s visual joke has the color blue leaking out of the paper and off the edge of the shelf down the wall. Some of it has dripped onto a pile of clothes, which is dumped next to a mysterious bunch of bananas — it elicits a quirky tranquility with a mess at the bottom.
“I wanted this casualness with the clothes and what was already there, and the banana is to play on this idea of time and temporality and the life span of a piece,” Faler said.
“A lot of my work, where it actually lives is hard to define, because it’s so temporal and so site specific, a lot of it is — is the actual artwork the artwork or is it the photograph or is it the experience of it? With that piece, it’s both. I think the documentation of it is satisfying, and the piece was, too.”
Unexpectedly, the bananas played into the temporal nature of the work — although they look enticing in the documentation, they weren’t freshened during the exhibit. The bananas became an organic indicator of the passage of time.
“When I showed it, I told them to update it, but they did not update it,” Faler said. “For a couple weeks, it was rotting bananas.”
Faler recently finished a chandelier for the DeCordova Museum that is made out of wax. Over time, the chandeliers deteriorate and Faler has to go and restock them for longevity.
“I was playing with that idea of temporality and the decorative and the fragility of what is around us— if you even notice it being fragile,” she said. Another piece had Faler creating a paper bicycle and placing that in the snow to photographed.
“I actually left that in the snow to disintegrate and dissolve,” she said.
Faler did the same thing with “Barn,” another outdoor work that featured an actual barn with the cloth tulle spilling out of it.
“I left the tulle there all winter and it blew all over the neighborhood,” Faler said.
The very nature of temporal work requires letting go serve as one of the prime artistic qualities. This might be the case for any artist who sells their work, but in Faler’s case, the work often goes away without a trace. Walls are torn down, paper bicycles are victims of the elements. Experiencing the moment — and, sometimes, capturing it — is as important to Faler’s work as the objects themselves.
Soap, tulle, drywall — it all goes away, and its passing is as important a part of the work as its arrival.
“When you’re making temporal work, you have to just let it die,” said Faler. “It’s not always about the potential of dying. Being a sculptor, especially at a young age, you come to terms with putting a lot of your stuff in a dumpster. It is what it is. You have to balance it out with something that sustain time like photography and drawing and things of that nature, but it all balances out.”
April 30, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Writer and director Ain Gordon’s work has often been preoccupied with the past, but his stage production, “Not What Happened,” focuses as much on a direct thematic line between what was and what is.
“Not What Happened” will be performed Saturday, April 28, at 8 p.m., at Mass MoCA.
Gordon’s work captures the experiences of two women separated by time. One lives in 1804 and the play captures her in her kitchen, during summer, on a baking day. The other is a tour guide 200 years later in the same physical location, now a historic farm. Her job is to reenact this same woman, and she’s been doing it for half her life.
“The character is actually more comfortable in her historical role than she is in her own body,” Gordon said. “She’s verbose and talkative, un like the other one, but the way they’re connecting, I don’t want to give it all away, but where they’re connecting is also about being in mid-life and in any era, what is the visibility of women in mid-life in this country.”
In Gordon’s conception, the 19th century is a time when women, especially of a certain social and economic class, were born into roles that they were require to play — there were very specific kinds of lives that a woman could lead. The re-enactor is also playing a role and, in the layers upon layers, embracing that same role the previous woman is required to live.
“It is a lot about the mirrors that we don’t necessarily think
about and how these things are still going on cloaked in other guises,” said Gordon, “and also about all of us, as humans, our knee-jerk rush to create a story that makes sense out of anything that happens. Is any of that ever true and how fast do we do it, and how fast are we departing from the truth?”
The show at Mass MoCA is the third of a three-date tour designed to further development and as presented on stage, the play is still a work in progress. Gordon says to expect a basic staging with two actors holding their pages in front of projections, what he describes as an advanced stage reading. From there, the production will hibernate for a year while Gordon finishes up two other commissions, and then returns in the summer of 2013 for a full scale workshop, and then production the following fall.
Gordon’s real interest in history is in the stories of ordinary people, of how those stories are uncovered and perceived now and of whether we ever actually get to the truth of any situation.
“I was interested in what some people might say was a woman of no consequence on a day of no importance engaged in an act of no significance,” he said. “I was really interested in what it would look like to think about that as a historic piece of information. I very consciously tried not to endow her with the traditional things that would make it worth watching her and to see if I could make her interesting enough and the workings of her mind interesting enough that the fact that this isn’t a do or die day, it’s just a day, would matter.”
Gordon’s 19th-century character is not based on any specific person, but is rather a figure of marginalized history, which remains center of his narrative fascination. Gordon teamed with artist and historian Forrest Holsapple and went on frequent trips to Vermont over a period of time that had the team tracking the landscape Gordon was portraying in the work. Hols apple’s photographic work and photo manipulations of period photography will be used in the performance — the Mass MoCA show represents their debut on stage.
Time spent investigating re forested pasture land, cellar holes, foundation corners and abandoned graveyards gave Gordon the opportunity to think about the physical space his character inhabited and what that meant to her every day life.
“I spent a lot of time contemplating the real distances that everyone was navigating,” Gor don said. “How long it took to get anywhere to see even another person, to even have a visit, therefore how lonely it was, how silent it was, how solitary a woman alone on baking day really would be. “
Gordon augmented those visits with a trip to Historic Deerfield, where the hearth cooking experts taught him how to bake bread like the woman would have. He also delved into the world of re-enactors, interviewing someone in that world and spending a lot of time on their posting boards online, finding out their concerns on the job, the sorts of things that would affect his modern woman character.
Gordon traces his interest in ordinary stories of historical people — and the often un steady ways they are related to listeners — to his childhood.
“I spent a lot of time as a child with old people, particularly old women,” he said.
With a great-grandmother who lived into his early teens, and two sets of grandparents — one in New York, one in London — that he spent a lot of time with, there was ample opportunity for mining family lore to amuse himself.
“Both of them did not go out anywhere except to buy food,” said Gordon. “They didn’t play. They didn’t watch television. They didn’t do anything. There was nothing to do, and in England, in particular, they lived in a small seaside town that was kind of a forgotten place and everybody there was 80, so nobody did anything. The only thing there was for me to do was talk to them, and I realized not just by luck, at some point, early like 7 or 8 years old, that they had stories and that if I would unlock the door, they would entertain me.”
More than just storytelling sessions, though, the activity became a way for Gordon to exercise his analytical abilities in regard to narratives — it began to seem to him that the information he was being given was not the most solid information despite the fact that these were real stories about real people.
“I began to realize that the stories were inconsistent, that they would change,” said Gor don, “because they would get repeated and new details would emerge and other ones would go away and things would be contradicted, and that I couldn’t know what really happened, I could only piece together these things.”
When Gordon would return home and tell the stories to his parents, he found that they had no idea about any of it — their own parents were a mystery to them. It was at that point Gordon realized that each person is a closed treasure trove of stories and interpretations.
“Inside these aged, stooped, relatively inactive people were scandalous, active, wild, un known people, sexual people, but you couldn’t see anything of it anymore,” he said. “Inside these people were these other people, and I think that’s where it really started for me, with this idea that there’s all this invisible history that is being pushed to the side.”
When Gordon began to apply this experience with the discipline of history, he realized that the field requires a historian to take the chaos out of real life and, as he says, “create a traceable sequence of events in order to tell that story.”
“I’m interested in all the sidebars that ended up on the cutting room floor,” said Gordon.
To Gordon, this is an exercise that makes life bearable, and the very non-linear quality that history, as related through people, exhibits offers an outline to living within the chaos, and that’s something he brings to his work.
“For me it actually makes present day a little less hard,” he said. “When my life seems like it makes no sense and is just a pile of crap, well, that’s what everybody’s seems like at some point and the way we hear a story now makes you think that your life would make sense and should be on a progression instead of doubling back on itself all the time, which is what life does.”
April 13, 2012 § Leave a Comment
To look at one of Diana Al-Hadid’s sculptures is to enter a point of perception that leaves you struggling — is this an architectural structure? The ghost of one? Or accidents meant to evoke structured, physical space? The Syria-born artist focuses on place as monuments to memory in her work — not necessarily specific locales, but more general swathes in the nostalgia that can infect our emotions and provide emotions of belonging through more vague structures that seem to span ages.
Her new work at Mass MoCA, “Nolli’s Orders,” which is part of the “Invisible Cities” show that opens on Saturday, April 14, reflects this quality in Al-Hadid’s work, mixed with a fascination for the human figure as it appears in classical paintings.
Pulling bodies from Renaissance paintings and reconfiguring them within the architecture of the sculpture, Al-Hadid has brought the relationship between the human body and its structural creations to a logical extreme.
“I started pulling from these figures in paintings a little bit at random. It was kind of privileging figures that I’ve had that were extremely different from each other as I collect them,” said Al-Hadid. “Holding a very different posture, but always looking a little bit relaxed.
“The first figure I pulled, he’d been stabbed with an arrow in his side and he’s laying down super-heroically and really comfortably, like he’s taking a nap under a tree. He had just been shot and it was a very weirdly beautifying as a violent moment.”
“They all have that quality about them where they look relaxed or comfortable. I felt like if I could get this part, then everything would fall into place, because they’re the anchor of the piece.”
Al-Hadid began the piece over a year ago, before being approached to participate in the Mass MoCA show, and while it was on the basis of her previous work that she was considered, it was really when Mass MoCA curator Susan Cross saw the beginnings of the piece in Al-Hadid’s studio that her inclusion was queried and the sculpture’s fate became linked with the actual show.
“I’m sure the concept of the show affected how I saw the piece, although I had sketched it out in advance of the piece,” Al-Hadid said. “I think there was something in my earlier works that is architecturally very structural and I think alludes to a city, but I think it’s really more of a structure that relates to a single figure. I mean that in terms of the scale but also in terms of the concept that might have inspired the work.”
The piece has grown upward from its beginnings down below, which have created a threetiered world for Al-Hadid to design. She wanted to include pedestals, and ended up placing six at the bottom, big white boxes from which the sculpture moves toward the figures.
“I’ve been treating the pedestals as a spatial blank canvas in my work recently,” she said. “I started by setting up six pedestals and started removing the figures from these paintings and started treating them as a compositional element rather than characters. So I set them up and I made the piece from one side very pyramidal and triangular and then changing a bit from different perspectives, from one perspective it’s really deep and from another it’s diagonal.”
The pedestals begin to resemble a Roman city, on top of which is a grid of sorts, with dripping elements, that form into a theoretical mountain flanking the city, above which the figures float like gods on Mount Olympus. The piece is inspired by Nolli maps of Rome, 18th century cartography meant to measure the density of a city by capturing the structures within in it, like a photograph taken in the air.
“I’ve been determined to create a mass, a population rather than a single entity or a work that corresponded with one,” said Al-Hadid. “So I started with that. I was looking at a lot of these paintings and I knew that I wanted to isolate figures from these paintings because I wanted to remove them from their narrative, decontextualize them. So I go off with some paintings here and there, and I would draw a line around a figure that I wanted.” Al-Hadid says that her latest sculpture is different from her previous work in several ways, most notably that in the past she had made use of computers to plan out the pieces and test ideas, which gave her more of a clear vision of what the sculpture would look like in the end. She started her work with a clear floor plan that gave some idea of what was to come, but “Nolli’s Order” retained mysteries even as she moved ahead on it.
“This one looks a lot different, it’s a lot more improvisational, a little bit more painted,” Al-Hadid said. “It’s a different kind of painting. This one’s little more like an expressionistic painting, while the last one’s more like a modernist painting in terms of the organizing principle, in terms of the surfacing.”
“This one started out a little more like groping in the dark. I’ve often had some kind of key to how to make the first move on a sculpture, and I really haven’t done that on the last year’s worth of work and it’s totally changed how I work. “ The long process is part of what makes “Nolli’s Order” different from previous works. Al-Hadid juggled four other commissions during the period of time she created it, but the lead-up to the Mass MoCA show offered her the excuse for full concentration and the ammunition to bring it to full fruition with spontaneity. It was a change of process that will affect all works to come “It was really hard to return to and give it the full attention after a year of not working on it one hundred percent,” she said. “It was like it had been at this stage fro a real long time and I have to change it completely and really fast, and it changed completely and really fast. In a month. I dealt with the problems.”