Mark Lewis


Mark Lewis, Black Mirror at the National Gallery, 2011, still from a 4k 35 mm film transferred to 2k 35 mm film, 7 minutes 21 seconds.

Mark Lewis is a Canadian artist and filmmaker based in London. In 2009, he represented Canada at the Venice Biennale. Here he discusses the relationship the camera has to composition in his 2011 film Black Mirror at the National Gallery, which has screened at the Venice, Toronto, and Vancouver Film Festivals, and is currently featured in “No More Drawing” at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The show is on view until January 2.

I’VE ALWAYS LOVED the following haiku by Garry Winogrand. When he was asked, “Why do you take the pictures of the things you do?” He said, “Simply to see what they look like as pictures.” That’s what I try to do, and that’s how I understand my way of working. I make work to see what happens when I do it. I know that seems unbelievably banal, but for me it’s the only way I can work. Even if I have an idea of a good composition, I want the machine—and in Black Mirror at the National Gallery this means the camera, the mirror, the apparatus that carries the mirror and moves it through the space, and even the space itself—to come up with a composition through a collaborative exercise. The idea that the machine already has these possibilities programmed inside of it is something that feels right to me.

The film deals with a black mirror designed by Martin Szekely, and it literally plots the movement of this mirror as it travels through three of the small galleries in London’s National Gallery, in the rooms devoted to Dutch landscapes. The black mirror is mounted on a large cinematographic motion control machine, and the camera is mounted on a similar machine. These two machines have a balletic pas de deux in the galleries as they move. The mirror eventually finds an image of interest, and that picture, like the mirror itself, is circular. In a way, I thought of that work—Hendrick Avercamp’s 1608–1609 A Winter Scene with Skaters near a Castle—as the mirror’s doppelgänger, that in this picture it might find something of itself.

In general, we share a sense of what a good composition might look like. For Black Mirror, I thought of the historical relationship the idea of the “good composition” has to the Claude glass. The Claude glass was an instrument that was supposed to reveal a good composition out of a mass of detail. Painters in the nineteenth century were advised to hold this black glass up to a landscape and the condensed, reflected image would reveal whether or not you had a good composition. The point is that the mirror reduced the image.

When we started to shoot at the National Gallery, I wasn’t absolutely sure how the film was going to play out. I knew what the ending was going to be, and I knew more or less what the beginning was, and then I wanted to see what would happen when the mirror and camera started to move around. I did a lot of articulations and feints and eventually settled on the camera move that you see. I tried to imagine that if the mirror—and it’s very similar to the things I’ve imagined for previous films—if the mirror had a kind of consciousness, or a kind of sense of itself in relationship to other things, what would it look at? And I guess that it would skirt over most of the paintings, because it didn’t recognize them or had no interest in them or whatever. The mirror looks at the Vermeer for a while, and it looks at one or two of the other paintings, but in the end the only one it really looks at is Avercamp’s. In fact, what I think it does in the end is make a new composition out of that work and of the two other paintings that are on either side. It creates a kind of pictorial coherence that it didn’t know it was going to find.

— As told to Aaron Peck

Left: Jonathan Lasker, Idiot Savant (detail), 1983, oil on canvas, 78 1/3 x 53 1/2“. Right: Jonathan Lasker, Heavy Mental, 1985, oil on canvas, 71 x 71”.

For the past thirty years, Jonathan Lasker has been committed to producing bold and enigmatic abstract paintings. His current show at Timothy Taylor Gallery in London, which he discusses here, presents a gathering of his works from the 1980s. The show is on view until December 23.

LOOKING OVER THE EIGHT WORKS IN THIS SHOW, I found myself reflecting on who I was both as a person and as a painter between 1983 and 1992 and also thinking about what the surrounding context was like when I made them. Trying to assess that period of time gives me an unsettling feeling of reinhabiting my own past self, as well as the historical past.

In retrospect, I realize that many of the paintings in the show either became seminal for me or they were made in the early stages of one breakthrough or another in my work. Idiot Savant, for example, was one of the first paintings in which I conflated Pop imagery with gestural painting elements. Blobscape comes forward as the picture in which I first used scribbling as a background motif, which is something I have done in many subsequent pictures. Both of these paintings were important to me at the time, in helping to expand the discursive nature of my work.

In an archaeological sense, seeing Heavy Mental again also helped me to find my buried past self as a painter. This painting has rectilinear bars, which were thickly painted with a palette knife, in its background motif. Upon close inspection I noticed traces of maroon paint on the edges of these bars. That was part of an underpainting on the ground of the painting around the bars. On top of this I added silver paint, which was scumbled over with isolated brushstrokes of gold. The traces of maroon hue were intended to be evidence of painting process. In the intervening years I had almost forgotten that this is something I had done in many of my paintings. I experienced it as an intriguing atavism, which remains in the genes of my work.

I also realized how truly experimental this thing we call “context” really is. For instance, Idiot Savant has had a very checkered contextual biography. It was first exhibited in 1984 at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York in a three-person group exhibition titled “Fact and Fiction.” The other artists in the show were Thomas Nozkowski and Gary Stephan. This exhibition was involved with the dichotomy between pictorial and material space in painting—in other words, between fact and fiction. In 1987, however, an image of this painting was published in “NY Art Now: the Saatchi Collection.” Some of the artists in this grouping were Jeff Koons, Allan McCollum, Peter Halley, Haim Steinbach, and Philip Taaffe. The discourse applied to that group of artists involved issues such as consumer culture, appropriation, and signification. In between these two exhibitions Idiot Savant was also exhibited in my first solo exhibition at Michael Werner’s gallery in Cologne in 1986. Werner was best known as the dealer who developed the careers of Georg Baselitz, Jörg Immendorff, Markus Lüpertz, etc, who were considered to be neo-expressionists. This third context did not shape the reception of my work, nor was it intended to. If anything, it enhanced the sense of otherness of my work. But to this day, my work continues to have the odd distinction of being contextualized in two discourses that normally function in mutual exclusion of one another in art, namely the discourse that involves space in painting and the one involving signification in visual art.

— As told to Sherman Sam

Helene Winer


William Wegman's untitled photographs of Helene Winer in his San Pedro studio with still life props from the California State University, Long Beach, art department, 1970. Courtesy of Helene Winer.

From 1970 to 1972, Helene Winer directed the Pomona College Museum of Art, organizing Jack Goldstein’s and William Wegman’s first solo shows, among other important exhibitions. With Janelle Reiring, Winer opened Metro Pictures gallery in 1980. “It Happened at Pomona: Part Two, Helene Winer at Pomona” is the second exhibition in a series of three about the museum; the first illuminated Hal Glicksman’s curatorial work in the late 1960s. The show, sponsored in part by the Getty’s “Pacific Standard Time” initiative, closes on February 19.

FOR THE EXHIBITIONS AT POMONA, I was primarily looking for new work that reflected my own interest in the Conceptual art I had become acquainted with while living in London, where I was assistant director of Whitechapel Gallery. Before leaving Los Angeles and after two years as a curatorial assistant at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I was most familiar with the generation of artists now identified as being part of Light and Space, or Cool School, as well as with the concurrent, funky assemblage works of the Topanga artists: George Herms, Wallace Berman, and Ed Kienholz. The subsequent generation of artists I showed at Pomona included Allen Ruppersberg, William Leavitt, and Bas Jan Ader, along with John Baldessari and the artists and students associated with him at CalArts, like Jack Goldstein and Wolfgang Stoerchle, and others such as Chris Burden and William Wegman. But I also curated shows with Joe Goode’s staircases and John McCracken’s wall planks, which represented to me the preceding artists whose work I remained attached to.

There is an element present in all of their works that became indicative of a hybrid Los Angeles Conceptualism that made use of prominent and quirky visual material, theatricality, and humor. These artists strayed from the tightly scripted parameters of the New York Conceptualists, and without declaration they adapted the intellectual and cultural environment of the area.

There isn’t another art center that has a more exaggerated fictional identity and seductive romanticized environment than Los Angeles. Ed Ruscha in many ways exemplifies the direction that subsequent artists would take. His treatment of text as graphic design on neutral-surfaced paintings, in addition to his books, photographs, and films—combined with his glamorous persona—lent attitude and stance to the image of an artist, one decidedly not from New York or Europe. In an interesting evolutionary path, Ruscha’s artist persona along with Billy Al Bengston’s and Larry Bell’s, contributed to the expanded vocabulary of the Conceptual artists who came after.

Recent discussions generated by “Pacific Standard Time” have focused on the Light and Space artists, who supposedly drew from new materials of the local aerospace industry and car culture, as well as the city’s characteristic luminosity and environment. At the same time, there is little made of the intellectual presence of writers—European postwar immigrants, authors, detective writers, the technical expertise of the film and television communities. This aspect of the city contributed to the more entertaining Conceptualism of the artists I worked with and it aligns with my own experience of growing up there. My most memorable childhood outings involved visits to Western movie towns open to the public, convincing my parents to drive to Culver City studios to look for the enormous painted skies used as film backdrops, or parking alongside the El Segundo dunes to watch Ben Hur’s chariot races being filmed. In fact, I scheduled an exhibition at Pomona of California landscape painters from the 1920s, all of whom had jobs painting backdrops for Hollywood studios. The announcement card showed just that.

— As told to Lauren O’Neill-Butler

Left: Tania BrugueraAwareness Ribbon for Immigrant Respect Campaign, 2011. Right: First public reading of the Migrant Manifesto at the United Nations Student Conference on Human Rights, December 2, 2011.

Tania Bruguera is an artist whose work explores the role art can play in daily political life. For the past year she has worked with Creative Time and the Queens Museum of Art on her project Immigrant Movement International, which seeks to redefine the immigrant as a global citizen and to stimulate artists to create work that can be actively implemented into social, political, and scientific issues. As part of her project, Bruguera has planned a worldwide open call for artists’ actions to take place at 2 PM on December 18th, designated International Migrants Day by the United Nations.

WHEN DREAMS ARE CAST ASIDE AS IMPOSSIBLE, when social promises become utopia, when equality is co-opted, this is the point at which my art begins. By creating a parallel universe where daily affairs can unfold differently, my work functions as an exercise in accountability—people are forced to confront the “what if” moment. Behavior is the way through which my work communicates, and facts are my metaphors. Art becomes political when it achieves actual results: Politics are not a subject in my work but the material I use to create. As reality functions as my field of action, I employ art institutions as spaces from which to propose models of civil society—a place of education, where people can allow themselves the room to think and consider a different future. In my work, education is the process of learning how to redirect failure and frustration back into society: Failure is an operative and tactical element that has to be repurposed.

IM International began when I was living in Paris in 2005. It was clear to me then (and now) that the ability to move freely between nations is a hallmark of progress; however, it is treated like a special right available only to privileged few. Those in power have degraded human existence by enforcing laws that obstruct the movement of immigrants—laws that run counter to the ideals of an enlightened society. In Paris the outcome of the riots in that year was too intense for me to seclude myself in a purely fictitious dream space where this was not happening. Reality and dreams had to work for each other: Art for me has to be able to implement dreams. It was at this time that I first identified as an immigrant. I felt impotent and realized I had no other resource but art to address this situation; therefore, art had to be useful.

I decided then to create the Party of Migrant People, now IM International. Immigrant rights is for the twenty-first century what civil rights was for the twentieth century and what slavery’s abolition was for the nineteenth century—a means of eliminating an obsolete irrationality. For me, political art is working with the consequences: This project explores the way art can be part of the decision-making process in politics and operate in the realm of the political present tense instead of acting as commentator after the fact—as the news does, for instance. A vast majority of artists are immigrants themselves, and artists have a better networking support system than most immigrant groups. Thus on December 18, we are calling for artists who are not from the place where they live to identify themselves as immigrants and demonstrate with a simple action the need to respect immigrants and defend immigrant rights. People must do what their governments are not doing. My aspiration for this project is to exceed the art context and act as an exercise in civil society. My aspiration is not for everybody to become an artist but that all artists use the powerful tools they have to become responsible citizens. Herein, I am not an author or an artist but an initiator, commencing a project with the hope that it will become common property, and incorporating the creative process to advance the chances that immigration will become a collective, inalienable right.

— As told to Zachary Cahill

From left: Lydia, Lovey Guerrero as Santa, and Ann Liv Young as Sherry. (Photo: Michael A. Guerrero)

Since graduating from Hollins University’s dance program in 2003, Ann Liv Young has riled and thrilled audiences with her performances. Integrating music, movement, and direct engagement, in recent years Young has begun to make work that leans more toward improvisation than choreography. Here the artist discusses her alter ego Sherry, the subject of a “mid-career retrospective” (in Young’s first solo gallery exhibition). “Sherry Is Present” opens at Louis B. James in New York on December 7.

“SHERRY” IS A TOOL that I made when I was pregnant. I thought, “How am I going to make art and support a child?” I decided that if I made something indestructible then I could do it. And it really is working, which is amazing. Sherry is indestructible. Her show cannot be ruined. There’s this idea in theater that we have to impress the journalists and that people have to like the performance. And Sherry’s just like, “Fuck all of you. This is my show.”

Sherry is clear and direct. She acts like a mirror to whoever she’s looking at and she wakes people up. If I were to go out onstage as myself and try to do what Sherry does, I don’t think it would work. I’ve learned how to communicate by pretending to be this other person. She’s a sculpture. And she’s so kinesthetic. She reels people in with her costume and movements. I studied dance for a long time, so I’m hyperaware of where I am in space—where my head is, where my pelvis is. I’m very particular about Sherry’s mannerisms. It’s not so much that I can’t say what I need to say as myself; it’s that I need Sherry to make people listen to what I have to say.

During my show at the “Politics in Free Theater” festival in Dresden in October, there was a woman who looked angry and totally put off. I asked her, “What’s wrong with you?” and her response to me was: “I feel sorry for you.”

“Oh, do you really?” I said. “I feel sorry for you. Why don’t you leave if you hate this show so much?”

“I have to be here for my job,” she said. “You need me.”

It turned out she was hinting that she was a juror for a contest I didn’t even know about, that awarded fifteen thousand euros to three of the sixteen artists in the festival. Had I known about the contest I definitely would have said I didn’t want to be part of it.

She became the crux of the show and I was really hard on her. The other jurors told me later that they were considering me for the prize until I pissed her off so much. But it was so important for Sherry to be able to speak directly to this woman and say, “What is wrong with this picture that you think that I need you? You need me, because I am helping you so much more than you’ll ever help me.” The art world is full of people that think that they have the authority to say, “This is good, this is bad. This is art, this is not. This is worth fifty thousand dollars, this is worth nothing.” Sherry goes deep into those problems and tries to tear them apart.

I used to make work that was so rehearsed I wasn’t living my life. My performances were so much about perfection and everything was choreographed, down to the blinking of the eyes. I would have dreams that the blinks would be off and I would flip out on the dancers. I realized that was not OK. So I started going in a different direction. I wanted to make a show that I didn’t have to rehearse, with no preparation other than me living in the world. And I’ve lived in the world long enough to know what I want to say. So all of the Sherry shows are pretty much improvised.

Sherry is a good person with good intentions. A big part of her work is helping people, and at Louis B. James she’ll be doing one-on-one and couples therapy. She’s throwing a tree-trimming party for old people, where Sherry will teach them how to trim their bush. And she’s doing a Christmas lecture and a post-Christmas performance dealing with holiday stress. If you didn’t get what you wanted you can bring in those gifts and exchange them for things that Sherry has, or for other people’s things. She’s also having a bake sale in front of the gallery where she’ll sell her homemade lattés and cakes.

Mostly she’ll be selling her sculptures, which consist of her used items—wigs, heels, nails, and tampons—in Plexiglas boxes. Sherry believes these objects are good for people. She gives people specific, personal instructions, like, “Take the top off of the box at 6 PM every night and smell the object. This will enlighten you to become a better person.” In some ways she’s like a traveling salesman, because she is a bit of a swindler. But she also really believes that her sculptures are tools to help people become better. They’re mementos of their experience with her and they’re her way of saying, “This experience is never going to leave you. I’m so important to you, whether you know it right now or not.” Because that’s the thing: Even when people hate the work, it still changes their lives. It’s direct and potent and like something they’ve never experienced, no matter how much they try to get away from it.

— As told to Miriam Katz

Naomi Fisher


Naomi Fisher, Vizcaya, 2011, still from color video, 19 minutes.

Naomi Fisher’s latest video and installation, Jungle Sweat, Roseate, is a site-specific work commissioned by the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Miami as part of its Contemporary Arts Project (CAP). Here Fisher discusses the show, which is on view until January 16, 2012.

VIZCAYA IS a historic house that was built in 1916 as part of the Gilded Age expansion in Florida. It’s a miniature Versailles plopped in the mangrove swamp. When I was growing up in the tropics, it became a symbol for me of the balance between nature and so-called civilization. I was born in Miami, and I mostly grew up here; we also lived in Singapore. My dad’s a tropical botanist, and he was on a sabbatical collecting plants in Southeast Asia for a year. We’d go on rainforest expeditions in Malaysia and Indonesia.

While I was in school at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, I frequently found myself thinking, “Wow, there are a lot of brick row houses here, like the kind you’d see on TV––neat.” For me, conventional Northeast architecture was like the other, whereas for nearly everyone else, it seemed, the tropics were the other. So I had very different ideas than most of my friends about what is wild, what is natural, and what is primitive.

In the video portion of Jungle Sweat, Roseate, a woman comes out of the woods and finds Vizcaya. She then gets knocked out and ends up in a cage. The people who live in the house clean her up and dress her up and try to civilize her. She encounters the lady of the house, who tells her all of these stories about history that are not completely accurate.

Temporally, Jungle Sweat, Roseate twists around in a way that doesn’t resolve itself but puts things into question. The video starts out with everyone in period costumes. The costume that the woman is wearing is an antique ballet dress that looks like the dress on Degas’s Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, but she’s covered in mud and it’s tattered. Having the woods creature dressed like a Degas dancer raised by wolves is, for me, a way to talk about the tragicomic element of the voiceless female subject. I know that my love for Gauguin, Nolde, and others who have depicted the female nude is definitely tied to an interest in the nostalgic depiction of nature versus female, and tropics versus conquest. But it also more simply connects with deep admiration for beauty and paintings that resonates with the life I’ve lived straddled between the tropics as my psychic reality and the American/European academy as my educated reality.  

In the video, there are three women dressed in Grecian gowns with their ankles chained together. It’s based on a performance by an Isadora Duncan revival troupe that I saw at Vizcaya when I was in high school. The dancers were sixteen and seventeen, and they told me that doing the dance felt very restrictive. Later I read Duncan’s biography and was struck by how radical she was in her time––dancing barefoot, wearing diaphanous Grecian gowns without clothes underneath. She had this personal vision that was all about freedom. The reenactment that I saw was completely for aesthetics, and not a philosophical one. Duncan would never have performed like that. But to historically experience it, you have to restage it aesthetically, which is ultimately restrictive. Is something real because it looks real? Or is it real because it’s philosophically true?

— As told to Hunter Braithwaite