July 11, 2013
For her newest piece, Indian-born artist Rina Banerjee’s site-specific installation, which opens July 13 at the Sackler Gallery, depicts the river as a site of cultural exchange and communication. The sculpture incorporates ostrich eggs, shells and other natural and synthetic materials. Work on the project began Tuesday and visitors were invited to witness the progress Wednesday before the grand opening. Curator Carol Huh says, “Banerjee weaves a fairytale encounter with a place at once playful, dangerous, and endangered—like the river itself.”
The full title of the piece hints at some of these elements: “A world Lost: after the original island, single land mass fractured, after populations migrated, after pollution revealed itself and as cultural locations once separated merged, after the splitting of Adam and Eve, of race black and white, of culture East and West, after animals diminished, after the seas’ corals did exterminate, after this and at last imagine water evaporated…this after Columbus found it we lost it imagine this.”
June 20, 2013
Artworks either hang on the wall or sit on the shelf, so by and large, you wouldn’t think that they would require much in the line of maintenance aside from the occasional cleaning. Not so. Art pieces can be made from a wide variety of materials, each one with its own set of potential care and maintenance issues. But even a well meaning cleaning job can ruin an object or devalue it. Countless episodes of Antiques Roadshow bear witness to that catastrophe. The value of bronzes and Tiffany lamps are decimated once an overzealous polishing job removes the original surface quality of the work.
While garments come with tags that instruct you on how to launder your clothes and tech companies offer help desks for when your gadgets malfunction, but rarely does an artwork come with an instruction manual for how it should be maintained. This kind of knowledge belongs to the pros, like those at the Lunder Conservation Center, whose counsel I sought recently.
A recent purchase of a vintage poster on eBay from the 1950 Judy Garland/Gene Kelly musical Summer Stock arrived in my mailbox with more than its share of issues. The gauzy photos used in the auction listing hid a lot of the stains, the severe creases, and on taking the poster out of its grungy wood frame, I discovered packing tape patches on the back that had me feeling a little ill at ease. While still the perfect pop of color to brighten the living room wall, this poster was one sick puppy. It was time to contact Lunder.
Kate Maynor, who has been a conservator at the American Art Museum since 1986, greeted me at the Lunder Conservation Center’s paper lab. As I laid my poster on a table for examination, Maynor began by explaining the nature of the beast.
“Paper,” she said, “is a very open and porous. It makes works on paper very vulnerable to agents of deterioration.” She began by examining the back of the poster, and immediately pointed to the packing tape patches. It turns out that they were much worse than a merely inelegant repair job. Maynor explained that adhesives can cause an alarming amount of deterioration because the adhesive can migrate into the paper, causing it to stain or turn transparent. The other problem was surface grime—and the poster had plenty of that—which can also migrate and effect the aesthetic quality on the reverse side of the artwork.
Turning the poster over, Maynor brought over a halogen lamp and illuminated the poster from the side. While not a lighting choice for standard display purposes, it revealed tears and silverfish damage I never noticed when examining the piece at home. She then pointed brown acid stains caused by a bad frame job, explaining that, before the advent of acid-free and archival-grade materials, framers would use whatever was on hand to prepare an artwork for presentation. She had even seen cases where wood roofing shingles were used to back paper pieces, and over time, imparted wood grain-patterned acid stains onto an artwork.
Now that I had seen the poster, warts and all, it was time to brace myself for Maynor’ diagnosis. “What I try to do in order to discuss this is ascertain which of these conditions are contributing to the deterioration of the artwork and which conditions are stable,” she said. “And we have to weigh the effect of those condition problems. Some kinds of disfiguring stains might not be as important in an archival piece as opposed to an artwork where aesthetics are important. We have to be mindful of the original characteristics: is it glossy, is it matte, etc. All those characteristics need to be noted and maintained during treatment.”
Thankfully, the poster’s condition is unlikely to get worse, she assured me. The tape should be removed sooner than later and the piece should be surface cleaned. When re-framing, I should make sure that I use a mat board, so that the paper can breathe, and consider having a professional framer do the job since tapes are usually used to affix an artwork to the mat board in a DIY frame job. Before leaving, she wrote down a list of conservators in the area I could contact, and I was able to leave the museum with a game plan for how to ensure that Judy and Gene can beautify my walls for years to come.
June 19, 2013
Photography is said to be the truest representation of reality. The ability to capture still and moving image inspired artists to document life, rather than embellish it. Filmmaker Dziga Vertov inspired the genre cinéma vérité or truthful cinema. Today, photography maintains a special claim to objective truth alongside news stories. Rarely is the hand of the artist acknowledged in the making of a photograph.
But it’s everywhere in the work of New York-born, South Africa-based photographer Roger Ballen. A new exhibit at the African Art Museum, curated by fellow artist Craig Allen Subler, takes 55 works from Ballen’s nearly half-decade career shooting in black and white to illustrate the ways in which the artist has utilized the tools of drawing, namely mark-making and line, to create his unique aesthetic world.
Spanning from his early portraits to later, denser works that reference theater as much as photography, the exhibit, “Lines, Marks, and Drawings: Through the Lens of Roger Ballen,” shows just how thoroughly the concept of line infiltrates and structures his work across his entire career. Mangled hangers, clotheslines, stick figures drawn directly on the walls–the lines of Ballen’s photographs exist like totems, complete with their own psychic drama similar to Jackson Pollock’s early experiments with Jungian archetypes, or Pablo Picasso’s exploration of mythic figures like the minotaur. The exhibit moves roughly from portraiture to theater to a collaborative image-making that fuses the subject with line so completely that all that’s left is a peek of an arm or a disembodied head.
The artist, who spent nearly a year hitchhiking from Cairo to Cape Town as a young man, is also a geologist who claims citizenship in what he sees as the last generation of photographers working with black and white film. Though he has lived in South Africa for more than 30 years, his work maintains an outsider art aesthetic. Interior shots in the homes of rural South Africans, from his Platteland series, seem to exist at the precise moment chaos turns to order and vice versa: live animals exist alongside their more domesticated toy counterparts, white walls that are otherwise unadorned have smeared handprints or childish doodles scrawled right on the surface and people are typically in some state of undress.
In South Africa, the aesthetic has reached a certain counter culture cache embodied in the idea of Zef. Taken from the Afrikaans word for “common,” zef’s unofficial ambassador is the band Die Antwoord, which collaborated with Ballen on its video “I Fink U Freeky,” also included in the museum’s exhibit.
“They told me when they first saw [my] work that they stopped what they were doing for a year and went in a different direction,” says Ballen of the hip-hop-rave group who reached out to him to work on the video. He says their two styles organically fused and the whole video took only four and a half days to shoot.
When Ballen first saw the exhibit, he says it felt instantly right. “The exhibition is quite silent,” he says, pleased with the outcome. In fact, it’s almost eerily so. The aesthetic still hits just as hard when combined with the rambunctious music of Die Antwoord. Standing in the middle of the gallery space, surrounded by work from his entire career, Ballen says it’s exhilarating to confront himself, to look at what exactly has been guiding his work for so long. “It’s very gratifying,” he says. “Looking back at the work, you feel, well, at least I’ve preserved something through all those years. . .there is a line that runs through.”
“Lines, Marks, and Drawings: Through the Lens of Roger Ballen” is on view at the African Art Museum through February 9, 2014. Ballen will be at the museum Thursday, June 20, for an artist talk.
June 13, 2013
In the shadow of the Blue Mountain foothills on the Umatilla Reservation in Orgeon, Crow’s Shadow Institute of Art has been nurturing and cultivating American Indian artists from across the country. The works of seven of those artists are now on display at the American Indian Museum’s Gustav Heye Center in New York City.
“Making Marks: Prints from Crow’s Shadow” will feature pieces from Rick Bartow (Wiyot), Phillip John Charette (Yup’ik), Joe Fedderson (Colville Confederated Tribes [Okanagan/Lakes]), Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds (Cheyenne/Arapaho), James Lavadour (Walla Walla), Wendy Red Star (Crow) and Marie Watt (Seneca).
Check out a preview of some of the work from the show:
“Making Marks: Prints from Crow’s Shadow” is on view through January 5, 2014 at the American Indian Museum Gustav Heye Center in New York.
June 7, 2013
For the past few months, students, families, as well as church and synagogue groups around the D.C. area have been busy making human bones out of materials like plaster, glass, metal or wood. In fact, some 100,000 people from every state and 30 countries have made bones. Now, the hand-crafted bones–one million of them–will be placed on the National Mall in a symbolic act of artistic intervention, which they call a “visual petition” to act against the ongoing crimes of genocide around the world. Organized by the award-winning artist and activist Naomi Natale, the three-day event beginning this Saturday, June 8, will include a bone-laying ceremony, workshops and a visit to representatives on Capitol Hill.
Natale’s own experience in college reading the wrenching account of the Rwandan genocide in the book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch made her realize how little was understood about the violent 1994 slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis. Together with Susan McAllister, she co-founded the Art of Revolution, a group working to inspire social change, which led to the One Million Bones project.
One Million Bones, says Natale, seeks to educate participants about the mass atrocities occurring in places like Syria, Somalia, Burma, Sudan, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo with the belief that once someone makes something with her hands, she forms a new connection to it that will transform her thinking and action. It’s a process she says she has witnessed and experienced. We asked her to tell us about the project.
How did the project start?
As an artist and a photographer, reading these horrific, yet beautifully written, descriptions of what happened in Rwanda made me want to bring the image I had made of [Gourevitch's] words here to the U.S. and think, could we create a symbolic mass grave here? And would people see that? And would it bring something that’s far away close to home?
I did work before on the Cradle Project and that was looking at the issue of orphaned children in Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2002, I was in Kenya as a documentary photographer working with a nonprofit, photographing orphaned children. I worked on this project that was directly related to this personal experience I had in Kenya and it was a call to artists around the world to create a representation of an empty cradle and then they would all be displayed in one space. In the end we had 550 of them.
And from that evolved this idea of participatory art?
Right, exactly, that came out of the project. At that point, I really didn’t understand the kind of impact the project would have on the individual artists who participated. I was just looking overall at the impact of when people would view all those cradles or the impact–we were raising money as well because we asked the cradles to be sponsored and then auctioned off. After the project was done, [I was] able to understand that it actually did have some very significant impacts on these artists and it was a way to bring this issue far away really close to home. I knew I wanted to do this One Million project. I had this vision and I thought it will have an impact on people who make the bones.
And what has been the most impactful?
One that was pretty significant for me, specifically, was in Albuquerque, when we laid our first 50,000 bones down. We’ve had two preview installations–one in New Orleans and one in Albuquerque. A refugee from Congo and a survivor of the massacre in Burundi, about an hour into it, came up to me. And said he was going to go back to his room, his hotel. I offered to drive him and he said: “No, I’m going to walk.” So I offered to walk with him. And he said: “No, I just have to go back to my room and I have to cry for a little while, it’s just so hard.” It was a really important moment, because we had never laid the bones down; and we never knew how people were going to respond. Most importantly, [for] those who [the project] was meant to serve. So I apologized, and I said I would never want to make it harder. And I asked if there was anything that he thought was offensive about it, or wrong. And he said: “No, that’s not it, but you have to understand, we lost so many people and we never saw what happened to those people and in your mind you want to think something else happened.” And he said: “But I saw them today, and it’s so hard, but we have to face it.”
How do you think the process will go in the nation’s capital?
I know it’s going to be extraordinarily powerful. I consider the Mall to be sacred space and powerful. I think that people feel that when they’re there.
We have partnered with the Enough Project. They work on the policy level and on the ground around these issues particularly in South Sudan and Congo. It’s a three-day event, Saturday is the laying of the bones and Sunday we have educational workshops. and a candlelight vigil in the evening, and then Monday is an Act Against Atrocities day so you can bring a bone to Congress. The Enough Project is leading that, so we do hope to make this powerful statement visually and then go to our leaders and explain that these are issues that are really meaningful to us and ask for their leadership.
Is there anyone in Congress who is particularly responsive to the issue?
There’s a number of them. There’s Representative Jim McGovern form Massachusetts. He’s been fantastic. He even made a bone and made a video, as well as Frank Wolf [of Virginia]. There’s Karen Bass in California. There’s definitely a number, Senator Chris Coons in Delaware, who’s been a champion on these issues as well.
When we were speaking to McGovern, he was telling us a story that I thought was really interesting and opened my eyes to how just connecting with our representatives and explaining what’s important to us, can make a difference. He said that a group of students came, their teacher brought them down to D.C. to talk to him about what was going on in East Timor. And they asked him if he would help. From that one meeting, he ended up going to East Timor. And he said, “I pretty much had said I would do something to help, and asked what’s the one thing you want me to do? And they said that, so I said, I guess I have to go.” I think that’s a pretty incredible and extraordinary example of the power of persuasion. At the same time it opens your eyes to the fact that it’s certainly not going to happen if we don’t ask.