View of “Melvin Edwards: Five Decades,” 2015. Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas. Photo: Kevin Todora
Over fifty years’s worth of work by sculptor Melvin Edwards is now on view at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. Well-known works from his ongoing “Lynch Fragments” series, 1963–, hang next to surprises—a roiling, hanging tumble of metal titled Cotton Hangup, 1966, for example, which was used as a prop in “Crazier than Cotton,” an episode of the anthology TV program Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater. “Melvin Edwards: Five Decades” runs through May 10, 2015.
BETWEEN THE AGES OF SEVEN AND TWELVE I lived in Dayton, Ohio, home of the Wright Brothers. In those years the headquarters of the United States Air Force—or its closest approximation—was housed at Wright-Patterson Field. It was like our NASA, and I enjoyed anything that had to do with experimental flying. The reality of that time, during World War II, was that everybody was conditioned to look out for planes in the sky—it was part of living. It sensitized me, possibly, to these feats of engineering. Obviously, I don’t make sculpture that looks like airplanes, but seeing the planes on exhibition at the airfield helped me understand how three-dimensional things in the world were designed, that the planes were sculptural in some way. That experience ended in 1949 when my family moved back to Houston.
I don’t tend to use the word influence. If we were talking about football you could say I was influenced by Lou “The Toe” Groza, by watching him kick. I learned technique from him—how to hold your toe when you kick. But no one talks about influence in that way. With my sculpture, I’ve evolved independently. I understood that abstraction meant to take form and develop something else, or just start from nowhere—but also that these are all your developments and you keep it personal. My work doesn’t look like it came from another source; I make my own music.
For example, I continue to push my ideas by creating circular rooms. This is actually an old idea of mine, and it came from a book I was reading about the aesthetics of perception and how people who live in round architectural spaces are less attuned to optical illusions than those who live in square spaces. In Oklahoma I designed an exhibition with one room that was an equilateral triangle, one that was absolutely square, and one that was octagonal to approximate the idea of a circle. The difference was nothing I could describe, but it was different, without question. Factually, the experience was different.
I have a capacity to dip back into the past, whether it’s four days, two years, or forty years. This is why I returned to the “Lynch Fragments” series I started in 1963. Seeing my work hung in the Nasher makes me consider how I would group it differently. Again, a feeling but not something I could describe. In that sense, your life is just as old and just as new. Yesterday always proposes tomorrow.
Iman Issa, Heritage Studies #1, 2015, blackened wood, vinyl text, dimensions variable. Sharjah Biennial 12, Sharjah.
Iman Issa is an artist based in Cairo and New York. Her sculptural series “Heritage Studies,” 2015–, which revisits forms drawn from history, will be featured in the Twelfth Sharjah Biennial from March 5 to June 5, 2015. New iterations of this project will also be on view this year in Issa’s solo presentations at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami (April 2 to October 4) and the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (May 18 to June 28).
THIS SERIES started from the feeling that I was coming across elements from the past that resonated with subjects on which I was working at the time. It emerged specifically out of a project I completed in 2013 titled “Common Elements” for which I produced a large amount of material based on existing museum objects and displays. It was interesting to me that I found such material appropriate for illustrating what I deemed as familiar in the personal narratives of four public figures on which I was working at the time, even though these elements had nothing to do with those texts and, in some cases, were separated from them by thousands of years.
And it was while working on that project that I started to wonder why any artist would feel the need to revisit forms from the past, and if this need is identified, how does one go about it without succumbing to an oppressive political project or social agenda? It seemed to me that whenever one looks back, a line is drawn to the present and possibly the future; whether it is one of progression or decline or mere continuity, it didn’t matter.
A project emerged from all of those questions and concerns. I had a feeling that it was indeed essential to revisit these elements and forms from the past, that they would have something relevant to say to the present. Thus came the idea of titling the series “Heritage Studies.” Unlike history, whose study might appear self-evidently constructive, heritage studies seemed to be framed with a practical relevance to the present. As a field it is presented as serving a function, and in many cases that function is clearly articulated. I was drawn to this. In a way, I preferred the essentialist claims of a clearly instrumental field to other ones that might have less apparent agendas when revisiting the past. I was also interested in the idea that these studies I was undertaking would serve a clear need in the present—that they too would have a function.
I was slightly unnerved, though, by the actual forms I ended up producing. I like to think that I go for the most compact way to adequately present my ideas. But for this project, it was clear that the forms had to be large-scale sculptures made out of specific materials, whether from steel, wood, plaster, copper, bronze, aluminum or other. And even though I have made many three-dimensional objects in recent years, I’ve always imagined them to function more like images, whereas it was clear that these elements would function differently. I was enticed to place them in the middle of the room and not against the wall as I had done before. I imagined them to occupy and account for their space as well as the potential movement of the viewers who encounter them in a more aggressive manner. I imagined that they would beg for a different sort of interaction from other recent works.
I also would not be comfortable in calling them copies or remakes since most look significantly different from the objects on which they are based—which brings me to the question of, What do these new elements share with their sources if it is not the material, color, appearance, or shape? The answer that I have been able to come up with, thus far, is that they share a speech act. They are addressing or saying something similar to each other, and it is perhaps through doing that that they become the “same.” It is an ambitious claim to make but one I am eager to propose. And having said that, it is important to stress their status as studies, since in no way am I able to posit these as final or conclusive forms, regardless of how finished or precious their presentation may be. You can think of them as propositions waiting for the one who will come by and say: “No, they should actually look different than this. They should be smaller, bigger, a different color, material, or shape.”
The captions are also an essential part of the work. I rarely think of myself as someone who produces objects, films, or photographs. Rather, I view these works as displays with various elements that interact with and rely on each other as well as on the time, space, and various conditions in which they exist and are presented. Even though the sources sometimes appear hidden in much of my work, I am not interested in hiding things or in having the viewer engage in some sort of guessing game. On the contrary, my ideal imagined viewer is the one who would interact with what is present in the space and only what is present. If I can get someone to look, to truly look and perhaps engage in the conversation I believe I’m starting, then I think I am off to a good start.
View of “Simone Leigh,” 2015, Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, Kentucky.
Simone Leigh’s solo exhibition “Crop Rotation” is on view at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft in Louisville from February 6 through April 5, 2015, and a show titled “Moulting” is on view at Tilton Gallery in New York from March 3 through April 18, 2015. Here, Leigh discusses some of the sources that have inspired her recent work.
WHILE I WAS IN COLLEGE, cicadas emerged from a seventeen-year cycle to mate. It felt biblical. It was as if it had been written somewhere that in seventeen years now would be the time. I’ll never forget the deafening sound—it was like a freight train. So many years later, this moulting, a destiny to change and adapt, seems the perfect metaphor to describe my involvement with sculpture as an ongoing exploration of black female subjectivity. I am charting a history of change and adaptation through objects and gesture and the unstoppable forward movement of black women.
Last year I created an installation inside a black woman’s home. The house was in Brooklyn, and the woman’s name was Josephine English; she had been the first woman to open a private gynecological practice in New York State, in 1958. She also founded the Paul Robeson Theater in Brooklyn. I established my project, the Free People’s Medical Clinic, at her house. I looked around the neighborhood and found a mansion owned by a secret society of black nurses, the United Order of Tents, who have gathered since the time of the Underground Railroad to perform good works and take care of the sick. From this Order, a master herbalist named Karen Rose gave lectures about self-knowledge, Julia Bennet ministered to over one hundred visitors who received acupuncture and her sage advice, and Aimee Meredith Cox–a former Alvin Ailey dancer and anthropologist–taught black folk dance. With this project I spent over a year focused on legacies of black self-determination in Brooklyn. It was so humbling. When I describe my reality, it sounds like someone’s essentialist fantasy—but I really was surrounded by Super Blackwomen. On the last day, I was taken by surprise when two doctors who had worked in an original clinic run by the Black Panther Party in Brownsville, Brooklyn, appeared. These two doctors told me that Panthers had been so embattled in conflict with the police that their clinic was covered with sandbags, like a bunker.
When the clinic closed, I came back to my studio and returned to a body of work that I had started in Atlanta, using an odd restaurant called Mammy’s Cupboard as a point of departure. This metaphorical black woman’s cupboard is a large skirt where you can enter to eat pancakes. Formally, the spectacle of architecture meant to signify the inhabitation of a black woman’s body is stunning. But using the apparatus of its white ball-gown-shaped skirt to cover this embodiment aligns it with many social and political histories. I think immediately of sexual assault but also of “sweating the rice,” as Zora Neale Hurston described a Jamaican folk ritual that can cast a spell and make someone fall in love with you.
I’ve also started making jugs with Lizella clay, one of which will be in my show at Tilton Gallery. I’ve been told that African-American face jugs are made to look ugly to ward off evil spirits. Using the ugly, sometimes literally taking on the garment of your oppressors, is a device used often in the global south. In Namibia, some members of the Herero Genocide committee showed me how to get properly Herero dressed: The garment I tried on had four petticoats. These dresses are understood to be adaptations of missionaries’ costumes. This kind of mimicry can be misunderstood as a desire for the other, an assimilationist gesture. But I see it as a strategy of self-definition—a radical black practice of using what is at hand, as well as a kind of camouflage, which is self-defense. In Haiti, during Karnaval, Chaloskas wear a barred teeth mask and the costume of Charles Oscar Etienne, a police chief who killed many political prisoners in one night in a remarkable feat of police brutality. This reenactment of evil is also a purging.
For my recent installation, Crop Rotation, I worked with local materials and found objects to push through some of these ideas. I attached tobacco hands to a hoop skirt shaped like a cotillion ball gown, and I also incorporated a window removed from my father’s church. This window, its fleur-de-lis and the colored light it casts down, was one of my earliest experiences with art. I imagine it to be a kind of bottle tree, with its borrowed symbolism and illusion of shelter and protection against evil through colored light. I wonder what offers you more protection: a skirt of bananas, or an architecture that functions as a symbol of your own demise.
The 2015 commission for Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth Program, Hans Haacke’s Gift Horse takes as its points of departure an etching by George Stubbs and a statue of William IV on horseback that was initially planned for the plinth in 1841. A meditation on capital and casualty, Haacke’s work will be unveiled in London on March 5, 2015, and will remain on view for eighteen months.
I WAS ONE OF SIX ARTISTS invited to submit proposals for the Fourth Plinth on the northwest corner of Trafalgar Square. The plinth has been empty for more than 150 years. George IV, whose equestrian statue graces the plinth in the northeast corner, had spent so much money during his reign that there was not enough left for his successor, his younger brother William IV, to also get a ride on a bronze horse.
The historical background was one of many bits of information that eventually jelled for my idea of the Gift Horse. Contemporary London, and social and political conditions in today’s world, also entered into the equation. It helped that I am a newspaper addict.
After scrapping several ideas, I thought it might be appropriate to allude to the custom of immortalizing rulers on horseback. (I am not the first of the Fourth Plinth artists to do that). Mine was to be a horse skeleton, adorned with a live decoration—and no rider.
I picked up on an earlier work of mine. In 2010, with the assistance of technical wizards, I projected three of the five TV channels of Silvio Berlusconi’s media empire live into empty areas of badly damaged eighteenth-century frescoes in a former Franciscan church (Spazio Culturale Antonio Ratti) in Como, Italy. At the time, Il Cavaliere was still holding forth as Italian prime minister. Running through blank bands of frescoes depicting the legend of Saint Francis, I had the ticker of the Milan stock exchange giving us the ups and downs of the moment. This live “collage,” embedded in the imagery of the saint of the poor, served as a precedent for my tying a knot with an LED live ticker of the London Stock Exchange on the raised front leg of the Gift Horse.
Part of the proposal for the Fourth Plinth was the inclusion of an image of what it eventually would look like. Having no experience with horse skeletons—I believe I am not unique in this regard—I asked a librarian whether she knew of any relevant publications. She directed me to The Anatomy of the Horse by George Stubbs. I knew paintings by Stubbs of horses and the English horseback-riding gentry from visits to the Tate. But I had no idea that Stubbs was the son of a tanner, had personally dissected horses, and had published engravings of his findings in The Anatomy of the Horse. I then discovered that a portrait of Whistlejacket, a rearing Arabian horse—commissioned by its owner, Charles Watson-Wentworth, the second Marquess of Rockingham—was hanging in the center of a major gallery of the National Gallery, just behind Trafalgar Square. This Marquess was twice a Whig prime minister of England and, according to Wikipedia, “exceptionally rich even by the standards of that wealthy group.”
As for whether the Gift Horse is a memorial or a monument, if you like, you can take it as a tribute to the City, the Wall Street of London.
Lucy Raven is an artist living in New York. Her site-specific installation Tales of Love and Fear—which consists of a custom-built rig of rotating platforms, a stereoscopic photograph split between two projectors, and sound based on field recordings made in India—was commissioned by the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, and will be presented there on Friday, February 27, 2015 at 8 PM.
TALES OF LOVE AND FEAR is a cousin of Curtains, a work I finished a couple of months ago that uses a similar anaglyph technique of separating right eye from left. Curtains is a fragmented portrait of the work that goes into making Hollywood’s 3-D blockbusters, a process that, as it has shifted from production to postproduction with the disappearance of celluloid, has created a global visual effects assembly line, where one film is broken up and sent piecemeal to the lowest bidder, then composited, or reassembled, back in Los Angeles. All visual effects are achieved painstakingly, frame by frame. 3-D conversion is especially labor intensive, as it requires the digital creation of a synthetic second-eye view for every frame in the film. Big-budget films—what the people in Curtains are working on—get distributed on identical hard drives to movie theaters all around the world. You can see Superman in 3-D in Beijing or London or Omaha or Kuala Lumpur, and you’re watching identical files played in megaplexes outfitted with a thousand new features that adhere to Digital Cinema Package, or DCP, standards.
While doing research for Curtains I was also writing a series of illustrated lectures. One of these, Low Relief, focuses on a formal relationship between bas-relief carvings and 3-D images. In that talk, I look at different histories of bas-relief carvings in the US and in India—and each culture’s history of depicting spatial depth—as a way to discuss Hollywood’s outsourcing of the work converting films to 3-D, a process that’s high tech, but also on some level artisanal, done by hand, and subjective. After trips to postproduction studios in Chennai, Mumbai, and Trivandrum, I went to central India to visit some of its oldest rock-cut temples. I came to feel that I was doing very deep background research, examining these ancient reliefs that emerged from the same geography where 3-D images are now being made in virtual space. There has always been a desire to see behind the flat image.
In a way, if Curtains is about labor then Tales is about relief. I mean bas-relief but also relief from work, and a real enjoyment in watching movies. When I started talking to Victoria Brooks, the curator at EMPAC, about what I could do there, I said I was interested in creating a unique instance of cinema. A cinema made for a single film, which contains a single image. I took a lot of 3-D stills on my trip to the ancient caves and temples, and in a way the one I chose isn’t anything special. I like that there’s no figure in it and I was very drawn to the architecture in this image, which rhymes with the columns in the concert hall at EMPAC. I consider Tales to be as much a movie as it is a kinetic sculpture performing the architecture of the theater it is in. I worked in collaboration with EMPAC’s genius production team on the concept and design of the rig, and with a very talented composer, engineer, and producer, Paul Corley, on the sound. The sound, based around field recordings I made during a horror film I went to in Mumbai, takes advantage of the incredible acoustic possibilities in EMPAC’s concert hall.
Despite what Oliver Wendell Holmes says in “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph” about the verisimilitude of the stereo photograph, you are not seeing into infinite depth with 3-D. The illusion works best when it is shallow; often that’s when you’re really grabbed by the solidity of forms within it. When I started looking back to the earliest patents for 3-D, I saw that many of them spoke about the illusion created in terms of relief. As it turns out, the etymology of anaglyph is from the ancient Greek for “work in low relief.”
As part of its continuing fortieth anniversary celebrations, Danspace Project invited the poet and critic Claudia La Rocco to curate an iteration of its Platform series of performances and events. Titled “Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets” after poet-critic Edwin Denby’s 1965 essay of the same name, La Rocco has produced a wide-ranging catalogue and brought together thirteen dance artists working in the “three nodal points of Balanchine, Cunningham, and the Judson Dance Theater” to engage in dialogues, workshops, and performances. The Platform runs through March 28.
SEVERAL YEARS AGO, as I was phasing out of being a daily newspaper critic, Danspace director Judy Hussie-Taylor and I were talking about this stubborn gulf that exists between various aspects of the New York dance world. Everybody thinks we should have better words for the “uptown”/“downtown” split but we don’t. Why does this gulf persist, and would there be a way to mess with it?
“Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets” is the ninth iteration of Danspace’s “Platform” series, which began with Hussie-Taylor thinking about how to create a context for dance that is richer and more specific than a traditional “season.” She imagined different ways for Danspace to exist in the world. Danspace Project actually grew out of the Poetry Project. In 1974, a group calling themselves The Natural History of the American Dancer approached Larry Fagin, who was the assistant director of the Poetry Project. They were interested in performing in the sanctuary at Saint Mark’s Church, where the Poetry Project was (and still is) in residence. Fagin had been watching dance for a long time, and had credited the poet-critic Edwin Denby with teaching him how to see. There’s a sentence on the Poetry Project’s website that mentions that Fagin had been “shuttling between New York City’s three nodal points of Balanchine, Cunningham, and the Judson Dance Theater.”
This got me thinking about where those nodal points are in 2015. There’s a historical grounding here, but I’m not looking at this as a historical platform. I thought about who some of the artists are that I’m most interested in who are working in those traditions right now. I decided I would take twelve dance artists and make combinations out of pairings.
Really the interest was in finding smart and curious people who would be comfortable moving away from the standard way of operating where you have a gig and you make a piece and there it is. Could we create something that’s more about conversation and research? Something that could result in a finished work or open a window into a process that had really no “results” to show for itself? I really love the idea of the mobile body archive. I wanted to create a container in which failure wouldn’t be a bad thing.
The artists are not meant to be doing anything beyond being in some form of conversation. We’re calling all the evenings “dance dialogues.” It could happen in the form of actual conversations, it could happen in the form of them teaching repertory to each other. At one point, one of the pairings was going to do a carpentry project.
The first weekend, February 19–21, is Kaitlyn Gilliland and Will Rawls and Silas Riener and Adrian Danchig-Waring. Then the second weekend is Sara Mearns and Rashaun Mitchell and Jodi Melnick and Sterling Hyltin. The final weekend is Jillian Peña and Troy Shumacher and Emily Coates and Yve Laris Cohen. Then Pam Tanowitz, who works in all three of these traditions, has a full day, March 23, in which she is building a work with both City Ballet dancers and two former Cunningham dancers with whom she regularly collaborates. The entire thing will be created in a day, with its “premiere” that evening.
A number of these artists are coming from New York City Ballet, the house of Balanchine, and this will be the first time most of them will have worked in Danspace. Many of them had never even been there as audience members. Artists working in ballet and downtown New York traditions can have very different processes. In the downtown milieu, you could work for an entire year or two years and then the piece goes up for three days, whereas at City Ballet you put something together in a few weeks and that could be in the repertory for decades. It’s interesting to bring together artists and audiences who have such different expectations. To think about creating a third possibility.
It felt very important to honor these histories and at the same time to see how one could mess around with them in the present day. It’s just my New York, and this Platform feels very much like a love letter to the city.