Louise Fishman, Haggadah, 1988, oil on linen, 37 x 50". From the series “Remembrance and Renewal,” 1988.
The artist Louise Fishman, primarily known for her large-scale abstract paintings, is the subject of two forthcoming exhibitions: “Louise Fishman: A Retrospective,” a fifty-year survey show at the Neuberger Museum of Art at SUNY Purchase, opening on April 3, 2016, and running through July 31, 2016; and “Paper Louise Tiny Fishman Rock,” an idiosyncratic presentation of her miniature works at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia which opens April 29 and will be on view through August 14, 2016. Here, she talks about her beginnings as an artist and the evolution of her work.
WHILE IN GRADUATE SCHOOL in Champaign-Urbana, I took the Illinois Central Railroad to Chicago and saw a hard-edged Al Held painting in a show of Minimalism at the Art Institute of Chicago, which had a big impact on me. The earliest painting in my retrospective at the Neuberger, In and Out, 1968, was influenced by that Al Held work. When I moved to New York after graduate school, I thought I was going to meet the Abstract Expressionists. I found out very quickly that there was no place for me, though; I wasn’t going to be sleeping with Milton Resnick or any of those guys for passion, for love, or to become an artist. My involvement with the women’s movement started out as a strict practice of feminist consciousness-raising, and then I got involved in the lesbian movement, which really changed my life. I blossomed in a way I don’t think I would have without it. I’d watched my mother and my aunt, who is a well-known painter in Philadelphia, be isolated and stepped on. It was hard to imagine a career as a female artist then—but I loved painting.
I am a very formal painter; I have a classic art academy background. On nights off from Tyler School of Art and my shifts as a salesgirl, I went to a community center in Philadelphia called Fleisher Art Memorial. I loved that place, and it was free. I took a class where they had a model pose for three and a half hours and you used water-based clay to render their form, and then you’d tear it down and throw it away. It was OK because it was just about learning. Understanding the clay, the feel, had a lot to do with how I developed as a painter. Color also takes on a materiality that I feel. There are periods when I have taken cold wax and mixed it with paint so that it has a different surface, it is much more physical. The group of paintings I made when I came back from seeing the Auschwitz and Terezín concentration camps in 1988, “Remembrance and Renewal,” used beeswax that had ashes and little pebbles ground in with it. Works from this series are also included in the Neuberger exhibition.
Scale is as important to me as any other material is—the thickness of the stretchers, how far the painting sits from the wall, in addition to color and surface. It is a very interesting thing to go from a little painting to one that involves the whole body. A little painting is your eyes and your nose and a little bit of your hand; a great big horizontal painting involves walking. Once you’re beyond the reach of your hands, it’s less about the body than it is about moving in the studio. I found these tiny canvases in an art supply store in Berlin and thought, Oh my God—this is perfect; what an idea, to use canvases that are this tiny. At the ICA, we will decide how to install those paintings in the moment—the museum is set up for this kind of improvisation. It’s a good fit because my work is so erratic and it’s all rather unique but interconnected—the books, the little paintings, and sculptures. It’s very interesting that I didn’t know that Ti-Grace Atkinson was the first director of the ICA, in 1963, but I knew her from the women’s movement—she was a brilliant feminist theoretician. Ingrid Schaffner, the curator of my show, said that we had to have Angry Ti-Grace, 1973, in it, which is part of my “Angry Women” series of paintings.
In dealing with the Neuberger retrospective and looking back at all my work from different periods, I see now that I was fully formed in each stage. It’s not like I’ve hit the top of my abilities yet either. I’m a little different from some painters, probably, in that my work varies so much. But then, as artists, we’re always becoming.
Wu Tsang, Duilian, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 30 minutes. Installation view, Spring Workshop, Hong Kong, 2016. Photo: MC
Wu Tsang’s installations, performances, sculptures, and videos move fluidly among documentary, activism, and fiction. Her 2012 film Wildness premiered at the Museum of Modern Art, and her work was also featured in the 2012 Whitney Biennial and in “The Ungovernables,” the second New Museum Triennial. Here the Los Angeles–based artist discusses her latest video installation, Duilian. This installation forms the focal point of her current exhibition at Spring Workshop in Hong Kong, which runs through May 22, 2016.
DUILIAN IS INSPIRED by the Chinese poet Qiu Jin, a famous revolutionary martyr from the turn of the twentieth century. I came across her story when I first went to China ten years ago to discover my roots. I gravitated toward Qiu and her relationship with another woman, Wu Zhiying, who was a calligrapher and publisher. Their unofficial love story stuck with me because, despite it being undefinable in modern terms, it was clearly transformative for both women—in a way that powerfully communicates across time. I’ve been researching Qiu Jin and the community of women that surrounded her after she left her husband and went to Japan in 1906.
If you go to the Museum of the Chinese Communist Party in Shanghai, she’s one of the official heroes and the only woman there. Qiu Jin was executed in 1907 for treason during a failed uprising against the Qin dynasty; she never lived to see her dream come true of overthrowing the government. At the time of her death, she wasn’t a hero; she was a convicted felon, who no one dared to mourn openly, even her family. It was Wu who wrote her initial history and brought her to light as a national figure. Qiu Jin was buried nine different times, most recently in 1981, because those in power kept digging her up and reburying her. Her body symbolized China’s ideal of democracy, and it became a reflection of the tumultuous century.
In Duilian I play Wu Zhiying, and my collaborator boychild plays Qiu Jin. I worked with some Wushu-trained young women in Shanghai and that’s woven into the film, and I had them come up with their own choreography in response to Qiu’s poems. The style of Wushu we were working with is called duilian, which is more dance than it is fighting. In the beginning I joked that I wanted to make a lesbian kung fu film—it was a joke because there’s no such genre—but in the end we kind of did.
We shot most of the film on a boat, which I envisioned as a floating theater. We filmed between Hong Kong and mainland China and set it in the present, but brought in period elements from Qiu’s life. Qiu dressed in men’s clothing and she always carried a sword. For me she’s a trans figure because she was inventing a way of being in a world where there were no models. I wrote the script based on my research. I was interested not in having a proper translation of events, but in having a community dialogue with queer people and other artists about how they might translate her poetry. Qiu Jin’s poetry has inspired me to think of translation in general as a parallel process to queer desire. Translation becomes a process through which we discover what we want to see in others, or want to say about ourselves. It happens when you want to understand something and you can’t fully—when you’re working with language that’s not your own. But that’s what happens in general with queer people trying to find their history—it will always be an approximation.
Queer people rarely exist in official history. We’ve always had to decode the past to find it. We don’t know who Qiu Jin was exactly, but it’s an interesting premise through which to talk about what we’re looking for. There’s been a lot of discussion about how Hong Kong is changing in relation to mainland China. People in Hong Kong have a lot of anxiety about losing their autonomy, their way of life, their freedom of speech. I read that the Chinese government recently announced that it is illegal to “distort” history. I became fascinated by that idea, because, to me, history is by definition a distortion.
Performance provides a ground for my films. I was inspired by Charles Atlas’s 1987 film Hail the New Puritan with Michael Clark. Atlas really created a language to document and capture Clark’s spirit. I’m also interested in the tension between documentary and narrative fiction, and this idea that one is more truthful while the other is a construction. Once you introduce a camera it all becomes a construction, because then people are performing. I think if we make it really obvious that we’re performing, then the real self can emerge anyway, because we’re not pretending to be ourselves anymore.
View of “Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History,” 2016. Photo: Will Ragozzino.
During Hollywood’s early days, actors didn’t just act—they also sang, danced, and played instruments. These people were, in the truest sense of the word, entertainers. The designer Isaac Mizrahi is similar—an old-school charmer who’d never settle on doing just one thing forever. This is abundantly evident in the exhibition “Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History,” put together by Kelly Taxter and Chee Pearlman, which opens at the Jewish Museum on March 18 and runs through August 7, 2016, the midcareer survey that explores Mizrahi’s life in fashion, theater, film, and television. Unzipped (1995), Douglas Keeve’s documentary on the making of the designer’s 1994 fall collection, will also be playing at Film Forum on March 22 and 26 and April 10. Here, Mizrahi talks about his show, fashion, and the horrors of boredom.
I NEVER THOUGHT ABOUT HAVING A RETROSPECTIVE. I didn’t want to be someone whose work could be amassed in that way—like relics on display. I didn’t think I was old enough for a retrospective, either! But one day, about three years ago, Claudia Gould called me and proposed the idea. I wasn’t really sure about it at first. It took me a few months to assure myself and realize that it might just work, that it could be interesting.
Years ago, when people asked if I considered myself an artist, I’d say no. I’m a fashion designer, and art and fashion, at least to my mind, operated in two different spheres. Art is made for its own sake, and fashion is made for the marketplace. Now, because I’m older, I can own it—I can call myself an artist. In my heart of hearts, I always knew I was an artist. I usually like the plainest thing or the plainest of ideas, and go from there. I’m really a problem solver. I bring something that only I can bring, and sometimes I end up really surprising myself. But I try not to go out and purposefully make art. Anytime I do, it just ends up being terrible.
In my fashion career, I got a lot of criticism for not being “consistent.” Let’s take Coco Chanel—she made all these suits with the corsage on them. That’s what she did, and we know her for that. And Karl Lagerfeld’s still doing the timeless braided chain and quilted bag at Chanel, and of course we all know what that is too. But I just never cared about doing the same thing over and over again or having an identifiable style, and I got a lot of flak for it. The people who knew me and understood me got that I wanted something else—doing a Mizrahi “thing” was never going to be my thing. I believe in fingerprints and the hand, but I don’t believe in signatures. I remember after my first collection, I had all these ideas about parkas: gowns that were inspired by them, jumpsuits that were parkas, or parkas that weren’t even parkas. Then Ellin Saltzman, who at the time was the fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue, came in and was like, “Where are all the parkas?” Are you kidding me!? I did as much as I could with it, I’ve moved on—the parka’s dull, done. So boring. Maybe if I had a huge design firm, I’d let them keep making parkas while I went ahead to the next thing. I think a lot of designers do that—they let the concerns of the marketplace run them.
I hate making the same joke twice. I once did a one-man show on Broadway for about a year, and I didn’t like it. I had to keep telling the same joke in very much the same way every night—it became unbearable. But I’ve done a lot of cabaret, too. And I love it because it can be really unpredictable—you can follow your own path and go where your imagination or the room takes you, and you don’t need to line up a punch line with a lighting cue or something. You say “Okay boys, let’s do this number now,” and they start playing and you make it up as you go along—it’s great. I do want to write a play though—that’s where I’m going now. I have the rights to Ingmar Bergman’s The Devil’s Eye (1960). I’m trying to make into a musical. And it’s insane because the odds of it actually happening are very, very, very not quite good. But I feel energetic about it, regardless. I don’t know where any of this is going to end up but what can I do? I just love the idea, and I want to write.
A lot of creative people want to be a master at painting, photography, fashion, whatever. I don’t want that—not at all. I want to be the opposite of that. I guess it’s kind of heartbreaking because every artist wants to be a master of something, right? But I don’t know—isn’t that kind of boring?
The programmer and designer Jason Rohrer—whose video game Passage, 2007, was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in 2012—recently became the subject of the first-ever museum retrospective for a video game creator. The exhibition is on view at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College through June 26, 2016. Here, he talks about the challenges of exhibiting video games in a gallery space, and the metaphorical possibilities of his medium.
WHEN MICHAEL MAIZELS, the curator at Wellesley, first contacted me, I initially thought he was yet another person who just wants to show Passage in a museum. But over time it became clear that this was much more involved than anything I had done in the past. As it dawned on me that this would be the first career retrospective for any kind of video game maker, and I thought more about what that means in terms of my history and the history of video games, it became stranger and stranger. A lot of institutions think about putting games into exhibitions, but they tend to engineer a very shallow, surface level of interaction and interfacing with the game for the public—you walk up and fiddle with a controller for a minute, and then walk away. The challenge of this show was trying to figure out how to show such work in a gallery context. Mike and I talked a lot during the two-year planning process about how to give people the feeling that it’s OK to stand for a long time with each of these pieces. Part of our solution was to have laptops in the side galleries with headphones and seats, so that there’s lots of opportunity for people to stop and play.
We made the conscious decision early on to not feature Passage; people expect to walk into a show of my work and see that piece on the wall, and it is playable in the show, but just as one of the many games on little laptops. We chose instead to feature several other games in the main room such as Inside a Star-filled Sky, 2011, which is about what it might be like to get lost inside infinity and recursion. That’s a game where you’re in a level and you’re a little guy running around in a maze and dealing with monsters and collecting power-ups or shooting bullets—standard top-down shooter game elements. But then every enemy and every power-up you encounter, and even yourself—each of these expands into another level you can enter. Another game included is Primrose, 2009, which is like Tetris meets the game of Go. And there’s also Diamond Trust of London, 2012, a two-player strategy game that takes place in Angola in 2000 right around the time the UN was passing this Kimberly Certification Process for rough diamonds to prevent what we now call blood diamonds from coming out of Angola.
Around the time I made Passage, I made another game called Gravitation, in 2008. It’s an autobiographical game that focuses on a relationship and family dynamics. What I made during this time used game mechanics that have metaphorical meaning, almost structuring them as if writing a poem. A lot of people know me for those games, but what I did after that is totally different. Mechanics as metaphor seems to have exhausted its potential. It was a baby step that games needed to take, because designers weren’t even doing that before. But now, how do we deal with more subtle meanings and more complex things that you can’t summarize in words?
With many of the games shown in this exhibition, I tried to put visual aesthetics in the backseat, because what we see now among new mainstream releases are these amazing visual displays, but I feel like that is misguided. It’s a great way to sell games to people, but very often what’s underneath that glitzy presentation has nothing new to offer. The visual delight is not going to last. We haven't even discussed the limitations of 3-D games yet. Even though they’re visually impressive, you’re simulating reality, and for consistency’s sake things are made to behave like they would in a three-dimensional physical world. Which means that you don’t even have a spooky action at a distance—objects can’t just appear and disappear without causality, you have to show the shards exploding or falling on the ground. What that does is cut off an entire spectrum of possible game design by climbing onto this one narrow branch. Everything I’ve been doing in two-dimensional games is about exploring an entirely different part of the tree—all the symbolic, iconic, and metaphorical uses of the picture plane.
Sudarshan Shetty, Shoonya Ghar (Empty House), 2016, HD video, color, sound, 59 minutes.
Sudarshan Shetty is an artist who lives and works in Mumbai and is best-known for his sculptural installations addressing themes of transience, loss, regeneration, and the precariousness of life. His exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi, titled “Shoonya Ghar (Empty House),” runs through March 6, 2016, and features, among other pieces, an hour-long film and a sculptural installation featuring the sets from the film.
THE TITLE OF THE EXHIBITION, “SHOONYA GHAR,” comes from poetry by the great twelfth-century nirgun (without form) poet Gorakhnath. In his work he talks about a yogi who is wandering about a city that is made of ten doors, referring to the ten openings in the body. I came to this poetry through Pandit Kumar Gandharva’s music, and then I got interested in the fifteenth-century poet Kabir, who led me to Gorakhnath. Gorakhnath literally invented the doha, or couplet composed of twenty-four matras, and I started examining its structure. Very often it establishes an image in the first line, with a different image emerging in the second line. They come together, though, to make up a worldview and to create an interpretative space. I have been trying to look at how best I can employ this strategy as a maker of objects.
The film is the central piece in the whole show for me. In it you see three things which all work together—the Indian music, the performance, and the building up of the set. These are parallel activities. The protagonist is the building of the set itself that is being created throughout the film, and characters come and go. I thought of it as a performative space. There are a set of four buildings that were made out of wood that came from dismantled structures in and around Mumbai, as a way of weaving unknown stories into the piece. The structures were then taken to an abandoned stone quarry to be reassembled again. The music was not written with the images in mind; it was written completely separately. I said to the musicians, “I am not going to tell you anything—you just make music and I am not even going to give you the script.” All the actors knew as much about what the story was as I did.
The film is very carefully constructed, like stretching a rubber band to a point where it is about to break but does not break. In the conventions of cinema, when you show someone entering a lift and then a house, you construct that linear narrative of how someone has reached that place. I wanted to stretch two moments like that and allow for multiple interpretations, like in a doha. There are times when the building is more complete than it is later in the film, as if it might have happened in the past or the future, and that playing with the notion of linear time is something that nirgun poetry proposes constantly. I wondered: Can you give up a story, even when you are creating a narrative?
When I make works, they are so diverse in terms of materials, but I want them to be read as one experience. Those formal choices are very essential to the show—every piece of material that is used here is recycled, and there is a mix of styles, from colonial-looking pillars, Hindu or Jain pillars, to a dome that is essentially Islamic. Everything is mixed up as a way of including unknown stories. The elements are old, but it is all done in my own idiosyncratic design. I’m interested in playing with the notion of what is old, what is new, what is real, what is not, what does this structure mean and who would reside in it, or what does it mean as an art object and who would buy that? It is about challenging my own relationship with the market as an artist. Since the current show is a museum show, it is an opportunity to push those boundaries in my work rather than doing a retrospective, which is what I was offered. I don’t want to do one of those ever in my life.
My earlier shows had pieces that were big, for those times at least. Now everybody makes big things. I was interested in that kind of aesthetic aspect, but conceptually, it was about building up a world that collapses under the weight of its own spectacle. Here, too, I’m playing with that: The installation is so grand in some ways, but it is also something that is eminently collapsible.
Betye Saar, Weight of Persistent Racism (Patented), 2014, mixed media assemblage, 25 x 9 x 7”. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California.
An icon of assemblage art whose work has stood proudly at the intersection of the personal and political since the 1960s, Betye Saar draws from such broad references as the work of Joseph Cornell and occult traditions of palmistry and voodoo. In her groundbreaking 1972 sculpture The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, for instance, Saar issues a challenge to stereotypes of race and gender by reclaiming the power of historically charged materials. Here, as Saar approaches what she calls her “ninetieth revolution around the sun,” she discusses her current retrospective, which brings together works from across her six-decade career. The exhibition is on view from January 30 through May 1, 2016, at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in Scottsdale, Arizona.
THIS RETROSPECTIVE includes over 130 works in installations and tableaux, along with additional collages and assemblages, all made between the 1960s and the present. They are exhibited in three sections: nostalgia and memory, mysticism and ritual, and politics and race. The work that lends the exhibition its title, Still Ticking, 2005, is a very personal piece. It’s a shelf covered with clocks, and there’s a little calendar that starts out with my birth and goes on to record my going to school, getting married, having kids, and then the death of my husband, Richard. It’s about “I’m still ticking, I’m still living, I’m still recording.”
When I was young, my mother was always encouraging us to draw and take craft classes. My grandmothers made quilts and painted china, and my mother was also gifted at making jewelry and sewing. That’s what women did then, and it was just a natural thing to follow. One of the things that moved me away from printmaking and two-dimensional works was inheriting the remains of my great-aunt’s trunk. She moved from Kansas City, Missouri, to California in the early 1920s, and when she passed in 1974, there were all these objects that had belonged to her when she was a girl—dance cards and invitations, handkerchiefs, gloves, and dresses, things like that. That was the start of using something from a previous generation and integrating it into my own work. I felt like I was paying homage to her, as well as expanding on my own creative expression.
Light is an important element for me, especially with these installations. I’ve had some experience with theater—I think that’s one reason why I feel comfortable doing my little assemblage boxes, because they’re very theatrical too, but mini-sized. And then when I started making installations, I could blow them up to room size. One of the more recent pieces in the show was originally shown in a tableau in my 2013 exhibition “On the Shelf” at Roberts & Tilton Gallery—just a simple shelf that had all these objects on it created from found scales. It was inspired by the recent events of violence against black people over the last two or three years. There are countless police shootings of black people—so I thought, This is how I can vent my anger and frustration, and it’s called Weight of Persistent Racism (Patented), 2014. I used the scale as a physical object to determine that weight, how it just won’t go away, against black people, and others.
I think of my process as a personal ritual: The first part would be finding the materials, the hunting and gathering. I go to thrift and antique stores or estate sales, looking for things and picking objects that have a sense of history or a story to tell. Then I move into the second part of the ritual, which is combining these pieces and manipulating their surfaces so they can tell another story—my story. Sometimes I work in a subconscious way and let the piece create itself—it’s a lot more fun to do it that way. The final part of the ritual is the release of the work.
I’ve always had a really vivid and active imagination, ever since I was a kid, and so every time I see objects, my mind just goes wild. Not that I can always verbalize what that is, but it’s a feeling that says, “If I had that, I would use it in a piece of art.” Similar to what a bowerbird does—sometimes they are so creative that they even select a color, and then they only collect that color. When the male sees a female, he makes a little arrangement to impress her, to woo her. I think it’s really interesting that when this behavior moves into the human world, we call it art.