Post-late-80s, when has the art world been deemed “on the right track.” Yet the art world is making it easier than ever to remain highly critical of its goings on. The Armory Show seems an easy target these days, with its focus on the blue chip market that has an ingrained tendency to play it safe, creating a feeding ground for likable work that doesn’t say much. If anything, we can all agree upon fairs in general, are a happening; a place to be seen and seen in style by anyone hip or hiprentending who wants in on that.
What we really want to know is, what has the art world got to say for itself? In that sense, art fairs are a way to consume a great deal of information from multiple perspectives all at once, with the attendee engaging on their own terms for as long or short as what appeals to them. With those basics on the table and considering the global shift and upheaval, we’ll contemplate the artist’s intention. That an artist should not be deemed a hero, foretells the probability of being human and subjectable to the kinds of cultural conditionings that parlay into self-referential manifestations of boredom and anxiety and other forms of cultural ailments. Anxiousness being a $42bn industry in America alone, the artist is sure to find solidarity, reinforcing a jittery nucleus. Or we can choose to highlight artists who stand still and hold their ground amidst crashing waves, facing the challenge head on.
With its focused format of solo exhibitions, Volta manages to balance the vacuousness that fairs are sure to attract. The content in Volta is much more grounded and definitely taking some risk.
This year VOLTA included a special exhibition curated by Derrick Adams, Something I Can Feel, showcasing (and represented by their gallery) the works of 8 artists. The program introduction written by Dr. LeRonn P. Brooks states that the artists are “…exploring the idea that bodies are sites of tension and provocation.”
Photo: From Volta’s website
Two artists showed the ecstasy and agony of humanity. Leonardo Benzant with his Shamanistic paintings and beaded sculptures explore the artist’s very personal journey into beliefs and practices of Shamanism, and Doreen Garner’s silicone, pearl, and Swarovski Crystals sculptures render injustice, pain, and scarification of the mind, body, and soul of black women.
Benzant’s physical, emotional, and psycho-spiritual experiences communicated on tapestry canvases show a glimpse of the transcendental, but in no way attempt to tell a complete story for his is one of the diaspora—a dimension unfolding exponentially creating a firmament of interplay within realms as a form of consciousness, and tapping into the Unitive State. Rhythmic patterns of color; strong representation of the elements, Avifauna and aquatic create an organic process, calming the need to seek theoreticized meaning.
On the other end of the spectrum and at opposite sides of the shock pink carpeted space at the entrance, was Doreen Garner. Miss. Garner’s works are seductive. They glimmer with Swarovski crystal, pearls, and candy-colored chunks.
Upon closer inspection, you’re peering under a microscope slide of body fat or the makeup of the Melanin cell, pubic hairs or even more disturbing, surgically mutilated genitalia. The RISD, Skowhegan, and Temple University Grad is a feminist artist, who happens to be black, whose latest body of work is aide-de-camp to African Diasporic History.
Hair weave, discarded wedding dress, pearls, and crystals—a spell shocking anyone who bothered to hear or read the story (a brief intro makes up the title): “NOT ONLY HAD SIMS TO CLOSE THE NATURAL OPENINGS IN THE RAVAGED VAGINAL TISSUES; HE HAD TO MAKE THE EDGES OF THESE OPENINGS KNIT TOGETHER. HE OPTED TO ABRADE OR “SCARIFY” THE EDGES OF THE VAGINAL TEARS EVERY TIME HE ATTEMPTED TO REPAIR AN OPENING.HE THEN CLOSED THEM WITH SUTURES AND SAW THEM BECOME INFECTED AND REOPEN, PAINFULLY, EVERY TIME”, is a ghastly scene from the history of the objectification and mutilation of the black female body. Doctor James Marion Sims is a monster known as the “father of modern gynecology.” Back when Europe and Christianity decided that black people weren’t actually human, we became lab things for modern science. Sims used enslaved African women.
Silicone, Hair Weave, Swarovski Crystals, Pearls, Polyester Fiber, Wire, Discarded Wedding Dress 45X70 in 2016
Without using the actual body shape (torso, limbs) to make a more human-like representation (visual impact), Garner goes under the microscope which adds to the shock value when you really get what you could possibly be viewing. However, the work is exquisitely executed, and I felt a sense of justice after the initial shock of horror. Like a beautiful Goddess come down from the sky, but to Slay.
SPRING/BREAK and the need to BREAK/FREE
Last year I claimed SPRING/BREAK to be one of my favorite fairs, and it remains so. Predominantly young, still intergenerational, however, the majority of what gets a room at the cavernous curator-driven Moynihan Station creates a Mall of the atmosphere.
Photo Credit: Andy Rolfes
SPRING/BREAK and its art party notion most reflects the rejection of hierarchy and the need to break free. With good reason, there’s a need to break out from the status quo that got us into so much global trouble in the first place. This is the same hierarchy that sold these predominantly younger artists on the desire to obtain a costly MFA in the first place. What we have between the generations is a lack of trust, and what turns out to be a mob mentality of ecstatic energy bombing all over the place. And then we understand that leaving one status-quo leads you to yet another. What makes one status-quo better than the other? If its ideology lacks a structure to create a groove, leads to a clattering cacophony of disjointedness, becoming the new noise. Art is not a new platform like Social Media, but yet SPRING/BREAK’s individually curated rooms read like noisy facebook walls and carefully curated Instagram streams. Hungry for attention (selfie generation), the game is to appear the most outlandish or clever, for s/he/ne/ve/ze/xe who makes the biggest splash gets noticed in a time when more people than ever identify as degreed artists. Pausing for a moment to iterate that this group I am focusing in on is certainly not talentless, in fact, are quite passionate.
Moynihan Station photo credit: Andy Rolfes
They can afford to be wild and free because the art world hasn’t invested in them the kind and nurturing guidance a creative mind needs “Either they produce dollar signs or they don’t”, and therefore aren’t beholden to its demands. So what have they got to lose with being constantly making in this perception of structureless creativity? They reject some other generation’s (the 90s) status quo and adopt their own. But this creates the problem of not being understood and it doesn’t help that you will be hard pressed to hear so many unable to speak competently about their work. Confidence a non-issue, hidden behind a thin veil of wild excitement, they can talk about their work, but the conversation leans more to a self-referential treatment. A generational border creates containment, subjugating any substantive reactionary elements.
Scenes from SPRING/BREAK Photo Credit: Andy Rolfes
Wandering in and out of those rooms, you’re left to ask yourself “But why?” Their peers, born of the same generation, are clamoring around hungry for more because it speaks to them specifically.
Installation View at SPRING/BREAK Photo Credit: Andy Rolfes
But the diametrical poignancy here is that chaos always breeds some kind of new movement, and until the predominant mode begins to prevail it is anyone’s guess what that next move will be. So I say that what is most notable about what SPRING/BREAK represents is the antonymous times we live in. With good reason lines wrapped around Moynihan Station, days into the fair. Whereas the ADAA, filled with great works, had far less attendance, at least on the day I visited.
Scenes from SPRING/BREAK photo credit: Andy Rolfes
Every generation is on this exploration of self; to define one’s self and their place in this world. And every generation has to clean up the messes of the ones who came before them. It has always been this way, but now this ceremonial dowry is the preeminent excuse as to why Gen X can lollypop away and make crap and just have fun. Like it or not the consequences are too high for a laissez-faire attitude. Furthermore, the demographics of this group (as is true with the generation before and before that) is White Euro and White Americana—they have all the leisure and all the comfort and privilege in the entire world to play fuckery with the future. This cultural demographic, as the majority, has the tremendous responsibility to lead us to a status-quo that is more equanimous. But what do they do, they actually mimic two generations before them. They stick together like glue and create the same kind of exclusivity, that doesn’t produce enough of _______??? Yes, diversity! So you see, one status-quo for another but because of this generational breakdown, they don’t see or have the courage to face the privilege they have inherited. The world wouldn’t be a mess, if you as the majority, got up and did something about it. Shaping the future isn’t this American Dream of being in a creative space and having lots of fun. It is also daunting and hard work, involving a tremendous amount of sacrifice. When that hard work is ducked, avoided, eluded, you get vague and vapid endeavors.
So to be clear most art is in some way a conversation of self, in so far as art is a culturally reflective practice. Even when the face is absent you have these abstract portraits of the artist.
I’m not shutting down the show here. I love the history and making of the New York art scenes and community, and I hate to see it lose its footing. It is more than OK to say that the unequal distribution of wealth has corrupted many worlds, including art. That inequality, a survival mechanism of late capitalism, doesn’t want you rocking the boat. Even the work of Kehinde Wiley isn’t causing a destabilization of wealth inequality, it is not challenging others, rather it is an internal “uplift” dialogue and something created for those on the outside looking in to perceive. All black art doesn’t have to be a protestation. Said another way, his work does not challenge the idea of Whiteness and so white people can adore it and feel good about themselves because they see him as an equal. But the minute he steps over that line, they will take his work down. And I feel like most young artists aren’t equipped to deal with that and would just watch in disbelief as it happens. All I’ve said here is the equivalent of a global history treatment and nothing more.
And then I walk into a room like Genevieve Gaignard’s “APT.#3104” who happens to be of mixed ethnicity, I’ll make a blind assumption here and say one parent is white, the other black. She, as her Instagram handle declares, is a curvy ginger. Curated by Shulamit Nazarian (L.A.), Miss. Gaignard’s room was fully activated and presciently charged with domestic cultural artifacts immediately relatable, causing a shortness of breath and an unexplainable excitement. The installation hits home on ethnic identity and body consciousness.
To be in a major art fair with hundreds of artist, and to walk into this room and to be overcome with “Wow! This feels like home!” Genevieve successfully created a melting pot in a former bureaucratic office which at one point in time you have to know witnessed copious amounts of sexism and racism in its day. Within the transformation of space, the things and ideas that she holds dear are arranged in the form of objects and photographic self-portraiture creating a dialogical emergence. Also known as a path for the individual to communicate with the other.
Author’s Side Note: Being black is what’s HOT right now. The media says so. I think it is natural to fear that this is a trend rather than authentic lasting engagement.
Talwst (Curtis Santiago)
Intricate dioramas created by Talwst (Curtis Santiago), engaged the audience in an examination of his works, the imagery, and no doubt the role we play or don’t. In his series Minimized Histories, the black community is held at gunpoint by a militarized police agent, We Gon Be Alright (2016), contained in a tiny jewel box, the artist pays close attention to detail giving each miniature figure and bit of landscape a focused treatment. Do you think that our local governments might try doing the same? Or do they just not have the desire to do so? The aphoristic Santiago does, and it shows.
Alli Coates and Signe Pierce
Alli Coates and Signe Pierce exhibited AMERICAN REFLEXXX a looping video installation of an experimental performance piece gone wrong (?) that premiered at Art Basel Miami. The piece, so the duo thought, would be about this sexy cyborg lady on a brightly lit and flashing tourist strip in Myrtle Beach. As the crowd grew around them, things got ugly and Pierce ended up battered and bloody on the ground. They unintentionally show how real life mob mentality runs amuck in society. You can watch the video on YouTube. The silent cyborg never breaks character, which is the primary reason why this became a social experiment reaching a graphic climax.
has is a path of communication. Generational difference is a readily available lens to understand contradictory ideas in art history and art contemporary. Yet, everyone’s after the exact same thing. As the producer of content, artists who find themselves misunderstood or not at all, should think about a translatory shift in their practice. There is always hope that fairs and artists focus more on the content than the buzz quality. Trends have a short lifespan, art is forever. And everyone just wants to be understood.