Art & Shadows Update

Art & Shadows was made possible by the support of a generous one-year Art Writers grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation, administered by Creative Capital. Writing the blog was a wonderfully generative period that seeded several projects now coming to fruition. First up is further work on the aesthetics of complexity, an essay titled “Vulnerability, Brutality, Hope: Complexism and the 56th Venice Biennale” in a double issue of the Technoetic Arts Journal on complexism, for April, 2016. Material originally written for Art & Shadows will also be appearing in print, in augmented form, as part of The Routledge Companion to Biology in Art & Architecture which I co-edited with Charissa Terranova. That volume is due in August, 2016 from (no surprise) Routledge. As other projects approach publication, they will be announced here. My gratitude to the Art Writers Grant program for supporting a period of concentrated creative work knows no bounds.

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Who is Your Gail Wight?

The Abandon Videos

This is an odd time to be thinking about a dead leaf. Our songbird neighbors are turning up the volume and, in his impatience for love, our local skunk, normally a nocturnal fellow, has been scrambling up the hillside before sunset. Spring is upon us. Yet here I sit, absorbed in a video of a yellowed leaf, spotted with age, pirouetting in the breeze.

It is the humility of Abandon I, as artist Gail Wight titled her 2011 video, that gets me. There is nothing remarkable about her subject. If I looked out the window, I might see such a leaf. There are always dead ones around, despite the greening time of year. And it is not uncommon to see a leaf caught, as Wight’s subject was caught, by a bit of spider web, dangling in midair.

What is uncommon is the way Wight sees this leaf, and makes me see it, as a bit of life passionately, even exuberantly, absorbed in living, despite its imminent dissolution. Continue reading

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Dark Skies and Slow Thinking

Almost a year ago, I walked into an evening in the Canadian Rockies, disguised as a small installation space at UCLA’s Art|Sci Center gallery. It was a peculiar experience—how could it be that this windowless room held a mountain evening? Nothing in view seemed “natural.” An expanse of white foam with a curious surface, peaked like stiffly beaten egg whites, leaned against the wall. Two projectors sent surges of color over the foam, cycling through sunset orange to grey blacks and back again. The sight was intriguing. But if that were the whole of the piece, it would not have been a landscape. Continue reading

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I predict…

A couple of posts ago I wrote something snarky about Freud, which he himself did not deserve. A great thinker, he’s entitled to his museums. But while clambering over the heaps of theory built on his work one might be forgiven a bit of fatigue. Scholars strain to patch up his ideas: the Oedipus Complex is presented; the Oedipus Complex is hastily critiqued for its weird ideas about women. But really, what’s the point? Continue reading

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Truth, Beauty, and the Digital Way

Once upon a time I saw the art critic Dave Hickey defend beauty. At the time, mid-1990s, he was both famous and notorious for The Invisible Dragon, a book of essays in which he attacked the art world for neglecting “beauty” in favor of “meaning.” He found the beast academia, which he described as a “massive civil service of PhDs and MFAs [administering] a monolithic system of interlocking patronage,” guilty on this score.

Hickey’s delivery, in person and on the page, had a hero’s swagger—he seemed to see himself as Perseus, swooping in to save art, the beautiful Andromeda, from the monster of political correctness. Hickey writes wonderfully, but I think theorist Abigail Solomon-Godeau was correct when she called his book “yet another version of a very old game that operates to privilege a particular group of critics (almost all white men) as having access to the truth.”(1)

Hickey was on to something, though, in how he talked about beauty. Continue reading

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Ghosts in the Machine, III


If we were to catalog our age by its temptations, surely it would be called “The Age of Dreams”—and not because we’re sleeping well. Our big vice is the small screen, or so it seems to me when I log in to write and find myself, hours later, wandering down a primrose path of links. (Did you know that the earliest recorded usage of the phrase “primrose path” is in Hamlet? And that there have been two movies called “The Primrose Path,” in 1934 and 1940? Ahem…)

Dreaming, says the dictionary, is the “succession of images, thoughts, or emotions passing through the mind during sleep.” When I am “surfing” I am essentially asleep, at least in relationship to my surroundings and my conscious goals. If I may mix storied paths here, I become like Dorothy, whose progress along the yellow brick road to Oz is halted by sedative poppies. But wait… Continue reading

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Ghosts in the Machine II

Remote Viewing

Living in this “global” art world, I think quite a lot about exhibitions that I will never see. I read catalogs, and look at websites, and talk to people who made it to Kassel, or Havana, or Gwangju. There is a small mobile village of people who keep up with all the major international exhibitions in person. The rest of us read the reviews, and, if we live in an urban art center, encounter the work that someone liked enough to put into circulation. There are benefits to being downstream. In a world where we have access to much more art than we could ever appreciate (according to critic Eleanor Heartney, viewing all the video art in the 2002 Documenta would have cost 600 hours), I can live with having the first cut made by passionate viewers who don’t mind living in airports. But I know that there is knowledge that can be transmitted second-hand and knowledge that can’t. That there is a gap between direct and mediated experience is a truism. But what is falling into the gap? Continue reading

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Ghosts in the Machine

The Elaborately Signaled Landscape of Desire

You don’t have to be human very long to know that there are desires that are explicable and then there are the other kind. Sometimes we are indifferent to “good things” and intensely drawn to certain trouble. The twentieth century believed, for a while, that Freud explained those inexplicable desires — in case, dear reader, you are a child of the 21st century, his idea was that they echoed our infancy — but the Freudian model of personality doesn’t look so trustworthy today.

As we investigate the immune system with biomarkers, examine the brain with nano-imaging, capture complex group thinking on video, and compare our society’s “givens” with the “givens” of others, studying ourselves at many levels, the very notion of a “self” is changing. We are beginning — literally — to see the connection between mind, body, and environment. Analyzing inner experience in terms of “id” and “ego” seems curiously antiquated, as if we were discussing physiology in terms of “humors.” We have new ways of talking about subjectivity, about moods, about attitudes and desires. As philosopher Alfred Tauber writes, “the self” has been left exposed as a metaphor, whose grounding — philosophically and scientifically — is unsteady and thus increasingly elusive.”[1] Continue reading

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Arranging Ideas

As I prepare to present art to audiences who may or may not care for my comments (sometimes referred to as “teaching art history”), I occasionally play with thinking of the lecture as a flower arrangement. The key works, the showiest blossoms, can be displayed in a subtle grouping with less-famous examples; sometimes a flamboyant spray of greatest hits is called for; sometimes isolating a work within a generous amount of space makes the most powerful point.

Working with images day after day, one notices customs of arranging them. Planting works in a furrow — a timeline — is the classic form, the usual metaphoric shape for an art history survey. Clustering is another favorite — bouquets of art and artists conceptualized as “styles,” “movements,” or “themes.” Occasionally works are strewn around like loose petals, as when I choose works for a studio class that will relate to student projects. In an advanced seminar, one work (escaping my botanic metaphor) might become the center of gravity around which all the other material orbits.

But none of these structuring forms capture the way one experiences works with which one has a meaningful relationship. Continue reading

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Electrified Air and Fuchsia Skies

In the country, highway sounds can make you feel insignificant. The speed with which vehicles pass you by insists that the life worth paying attention to is somewhere else. It was that distant zoom that I heard on entering Christina Battle’s video installation Dearfield, Colorado (2012), the whoosh of a big truck racing down Highway 34 past a place that used to be a town. Continue reading

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