Gerald Ferguson, Choral Reading of the Standard Corpus of Present Day English Language Usage Arranged by Word Length in 20 Units for a Chorus of 26 Voices, 1972/2016. Performance view, January 16, 2016, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Photo: Steve Farmer. Courtesy of the Estate of the Artist and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.


From 1967 to 1990, artist Garry Neill Kennedy served as the president of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax. It was a tenure that in many respects has become the stuff of legend—not only for the radical experiments in the institution and the classroom that Kennedy endorsed, but also because of the pivotal role NSCAD came to play as a far-flung focal point in the rise of Conceptual art. Kennedy captured much of this in The Last Art College: Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1968–78 (MIT Press, 2012), a chronological look back at the artists, projects, and events that marked his first decade at the school. A major survey exhibition of the same name, featuring NSCAD-related works by Joseph Beuys, Sol LeWitt, Gerhard Richter, Yvonne Rainer, Dan Graham, and Hans Haacke, among others, is on view through April 3, 2016 at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Here, Kennedy reflects on that heady era.

I ARRIVED IN HALIFAX in June 1967. I’d finished graduate school at Ohio University a couple of years earlier and had been teaching at Northwood College in Ashland, Wisconsin. I’d heard of a job opening at a school in Halifax and I thought, Let’s go for it. I got the job—as president. I was thirty-two. At the time, the Nova Scotia College of Art was located in an old church hall. It was an extremely conservative place with a very Victorian sensibility, drawing from plaster casts and that sort of thing. In Wisconsin, my students had been doing Minimalist work and Pop art. The difference was amazing. The first year we graduated fourteen students, and I didn’t renew the contracts of four faculty. All hell broke loose. There were all kinds of phone calls and serious protests with students in the streets. I’m not sure they quite understood what they had gotten themselves into when they hired me. I mean, Color Field painting was, you know, far out in Halifax, let alone Conceptual art! So I landed with a bang.

The next year I appointed a good number of friends. Some of them were from the Kansas City Art Institute, like David Askevold and Gerald Ferguson, both of whom had ties to New York, and Jack Lemmon, who packed up his lithography workshop and moved it to Halifax. We were all teachers and active political artists. CalArts was experimenting with the same sorts of things that we were doing at the time, but there was no specific model for how we wanted to run the school. Whatever we wanted to do, we did it. And as the president, I had the authority to make those decisions. This was the time of the Vietnam War and there were a lot of artists avoiding the draft by coming up to Canada. Students wanted answers to their questions. It was all about relevance—that’s an important word—we made the school relevant.

And it just so happens that, as a port city, Halifax is perfectly located between New York and Europe. The Italian Line stopped in there, and I remember Larry Weiner in 1969 got a first-class ticket for him and his wife for fifty-two dollars on the way to New York. It’s unbelievable. As word got out, people like Daniel Buren, John Baldessari, and Dan Graham came along—he recommended Kasper Koenig for the director of the school’s press. Kasper did very important books on Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer, which became the model for Roger Conover at the MIT Press. He has every one of the books we made. And then there was the Projects Class that David Askevold came up with and the envelopes with all of these projects that were suggested by amazing Conceptual artists. So you felt like anything was possible.

In 1969, we renamed the school the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and in 1970 there was the Halifax Conference. It was Seth Siegelaub’s idea to have these well-known artists come to Halifax and talk about issues in contemporary art. Joseph Beuys, Carl Andre, Mario Merz, Richard Serra, Michael Snow, Robert Rauschenberg—all of these people were in the boardroom right next to my office. Robert Smithson and a couple of other invited artists were demonstrably angry that the college was going to make all of this money out of the transcriptions and tried to break up the conference. The other artists didn’t agree. It was so interesting. I think it was Lucy Lippard who wrote and said, There are no women artists in this gang! What’s going on? She was right and we got the message, even if those weren’t the issues that the conference started with. We all became smarter. That is a really important part of the NSCAD legacy in general: It was a wake-up call.

— As told to Bryne McLaughlin

Tammam Azzam

02.23.16

View of “Tammam Azzam: The Road,” 2016.


Like many Syrian artists, Tammam Azzam left his homeland five years ago in search of safer shores. After arriving in Dubai, where he still lives, Azzam spent years making political art that lamented the international community’s passive efforts to put an end to one of the bloodiest wars in recent history. In 2013, Azzam’s Freedom Graffiti, a piece in which the artist superimposed Klimt’s The Kiss on the demolished facade of a Damascus building, went viral on social media and landed the artist in the news. His current exhibition, “The Road,” which is on view at Ayyam Gallery in Dubai through March 3, 2016, marks Azzam’s return to painting after years spent working in digital media.

AFTER I LEFT SYRIA FOR DUBAI IN 2011, I didn’t have a studio and had to stop painting for a couple of years. This drove me to make digital collages, which I saw as an interesting challenge and took as an opportunity to explore what had until then been uncharted territory for me. What began as a temporary fix became an integral part of my practice even after I was able to set up my new workspace.

My current exhibition is a culmination of that effort. As time went by, I found myself further invested in painting and this body of work. Most of the canvases on display are from 2015, which is when the work really started coming together. When I was living in Damascus, I used to draw my inspiration from the city itself and my daily encounters with its inhabitants. But now I’ve had to adjust to another reality—one that requires me to source my information elsewhere. As such, I began relying on journalistic images, as these photos represent the closest I’ll get to Syria. I chose photographs of places that felt completely vacant and desolate. I became obsessed with the brutality that this emptiness conveyed.

I’ve always been drawn to images of urban life and the liveliness that used to abound in Syrian cities. Now that the people are gone and the atmosphere is entirely different, I’ve begun to seek narratives found in the abandoned houses and the desolation of the deserted streets. The empty places have me wondering about the fate and whereabouts of the people who once filled these neighborhoods. I wanted the paintings to reverberate beyond the wreckage, perhaps as a way to counter the desolation brought on by the war.

While I know that my work will always be seen through the scope of the war, I’m more interested in exploring the theme of existential voids that comes out of this destruction. This is why I’ve turned the gallery’s staircase leading up the second floor into an installation by filling it with rubble and setting up a mirror at the end of the staircase that forces the viewers to face themselves amid the wreckage. I’d like to think that my work can go beyond the political narrative people will undoubtedly assign to it, and I hope that the viewer can judge my work based on its formal qualities as well. Political events come and go, but what remains is the art produced as a testimony of that time.

— Translated from Arabic and as told to Lara Atallah

Matmos

02.16.16

Matmos (M. C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel), 2015. Photo: Josh Sisk.


The music of Matmos, a partnership between the composers M. C. (Martin) Schmidt and Drew Daniel, often elides boundaries between musical genres and acoustic and electronic sounds. The duo’s latest album, Ultimate Care II, will be released on Thrill Jockey on February 19, 2016, and is a single long-playing track that the musicians, made entirely by sampling the sounds of the washing machine at their home in Baltimore. The appliance’s model name lends the album its title. Though the machine’s manufacturer, Whirlpool, declined to sponsor Matmos’s tour, the duo will nevertheless embark on a short run of shows at the end of this month, with performances in Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn.

AT FIRST it was a kind of dare—can we even do this? Then the washing machine began to seem a lot richer, in terms of its sexual and cultural politics, than we first thought. The album is not just a futurist celebration of everyday mechanisms as music, but also a reflection on how this machine creates a space in your day for dreaming, for time when you might dissolve into a little bit of a reverie. It gives you a baseline upon which to free-associate as you sit there and hear this drone. We want to have an experience that’s long form, and we think this album lets people have that.

There is still this idea floating around that all nonclassical music is made for impatient teenagers, and everything one does has to be measured against its popularity with such a young audience. We have a reputation as being willfully perverse, difficult people whose work takes hours to explain—but this time it’s easier: We made an album out of a washing machine. But we didn’t want to change what we actually do, and that’s a strange middle ground to inhabit. That’s what’s inspiring to us about musique concrète and the way it could be an academic form on one face and then have this other face that’s, like, Perrey and Kingsley’s The In Sound from Way Out! [1966], something utterly pop and which can circulate in that sphere—yet they belong to the same DNA.

The limitation of working with the machine put pressure on us to take its palette of sounds in the directions we wanted through synthesis and transformation. The sound of the washer with no clothes in it is more muted than with clothes in it. It’s more of a low-to-mid-range slop sound. And with clothes in it, it has much more high frequency content. I tried to do some laundry every time we used it. Dan Deacon brought over a weird modular synth rig that made these incredibly fast complex patterns and then sent that to a control voltage to MIDI converter, which would turn the signal into notes. And then we fed those notes to our samplers that were filled with samples of washing machine sounds. So we ended up with this kind of ecstatic pattern from him on the record, like a bit of his sheet music but played only by washing machines.

For the tour, we’re getting a special rig constructed with a submersible pump and a regulator, so that we can supply the machine and drain it safely on stage. Twenty-five gallons of water on a stage is not something your sound person wants to hear about. But you’ve got to dance with the one that brought you.

Electronic music in particular right now is so fertile and molten and in the midst of a lot of change. We’re not done with objects, though, and what they afford. There’s the boom now of object-oriented ontology and people obsessing about “thing theory.” This album is maybe picking up the same questions but from a different direction. I would much rather hear a bowl of chocolate pudding than an 808 kick drum.

We’re interested in the perversity of objects and the material world. One goal that’s been pretty consistent across our work is that it’s not about self-expression so much as letting the world in, allowing the world’s textures to be the music—a queerness that’s not human. A lot of queer, trans, and African American electronic artists are now talking about issues of representation explicitly, and also making records that are really good. But this music, from Wendy Carlos on, has always been a place where one explores such questions: What is natural, what is the body, and what is the virtual? What’s possible—what electronics makes available—goes beyond the acoustic immediacy or the givenness of bodies to open a space of freedom. Those utopian ideas are easy to make fun of, but on the other hand there is a political edge to the utopian imagination. Electronic music is one place where people are thrashing out those visions.

— As told to Paige K. Bradley

Ed Bereal

02.12.16

Ed Bereal, Miss America Presents Domestic Terrorism, 2003, graphite on paper, 45 x 48 1/2”.


In the 1960s, the Los Angeles art world’s detachment from the violent tumult of the Watts riots politicized Ed Bereal’s practice, propelling him toward a critical focus on multifarious forms of social inequality. He abandoned studio art in favor of guerrilla street theater, and later a satirical TV series for PBS. Both were ultimately deemed too radical for the general public’s tastes and shut down, and Bereal in 1990 returned to making what he calls “political cartoons,” which took the form of painting, sculpture, and assemblage. His latest exhibition, “Ed Bereal: Disturbing the Peace,” is on view at Harmony Murphy Gallery through April 2, 2016. It is his first solo exhibition in LA, showing works from 1963 through 2011, including footage of his performances with the theater troupe Bodacious Buggerilla and clips from his short-lived show on PBS.

IN THE 1960s, I was living a privileged life thanks to Bob Irwin and a few of my elders who had positioned me very well in the art world. Dwan Gallery was paying me to stay in my studio, and that was working pretty well until 1965. One morning during the Watts riots, I walked out of my house and there was a jeep parked across Venice Boulevard that just so happened to have a machine gun pointed right at my door as I opened it. I can remember looking at that National Guardsman and thinking, If I put all the articles that were ever written about my work and Irving Blum and Walter Hopps in front of me, that bullet would go through all of them. Those things had no real meaning.

During the riots, you could go into the Hollywood Hills and still see smoke everywhere. You could smell it. And the art world didn’t take notice. I began to realize that I was alienated from a place that had at one point informed me. I left my gallery and started writing things that turned into plays. My former students at UC Riverside and I made this monster called Bodacious Buggerilla, doing street theater about racial stereotypes, performing in bars and laundromats and on church steps. We got so good that we drew the attention of the FBI, who were investigating the Black Panthers, New Africa, paramilitary groups, the California grape pickers with Cesar Chavez—we were all in the same bag, as far as they were concerned. They started making it impossible for us, the students’ scholarships were put into question, and others were interrogated at their jobs. We morphed into Bodacious TV Works, a three-color-camera studio, and PBS accidentally let me through the door—then they shut it. That happens periodically to me, and then I find another door. We did a satirical game show called “Pull Your Coat,” which is a ghetto term for a warning. We disseminated information on there that the media wouldn’t share, using stereotypes of an egghead, a church lady, a black valley girl, or a guy shouting “Kill the Pig!” It was on national television for ten days, and then the management went, “Hey, shut that shit down.”

I’m not into art for art’s sake. I’m not into entertaining wealthy people. I think art can instruct, and I think it can destruct—it can be a weapon. Bob has a good eye, and we agree on a lot from a technical perspective, but once my stuff starts drifting into that idea of art as a weapon, he starts to back away. Bob comes from a different perspective in that way. I adore him. And you’ll never find a sweeter person than Ed Ruscha. But I don’t know if they understand me, and I don’t push it. I enjoy with them what I can enjoy with them.

I like some of what’s happening now—I love what Beyoncé did at the Super Bowl, it was something the mainstream media does not want her to do. I cosign that. But I did get a beautiful criticism from a young guy, one of my collectors’ grandsons who was in my studio. I told him, “I would like my stuff to have a conversation with people your age.” He said, “What’s your website?” I said, “I don’t have one,” and he said to me, “I thought you wanted to talk to us.” He’s absolutely right. I’m an old fart, but I’ve got to keep up the conversation.

— As told to Janelle Zara

Rosalyn Drexler, F.B.I., 1964, acrylic and paper collage on canvas, 30 x 40". © 2016 Rosalyn Drexler / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York.


Rosalyn Drexler’s life and work appear allergic to the word dull. Over more than five decades, she has made paintings (politically electric Pop compositions incorporating collaged figures from movie poster and newspaper images isolated in bold, graphic space) and penned multiple plays, novels, and articles. She also has several Obies and a book adaptation of the film Rocky under her belt—not to mention a stint wrestling as Rosa Carlo, the Mexican Spitfire. Here, on the occasion of her retrospective at the Rose Art Museum in Waltham, Massachusetts, she discusses her exuberant love of art. The show will run from February 11 through June 5, 2016.

IT’S WONDERFUL to be having a retrospective, like being a star again! Of course you also want to just run away.The show belongs to the people who created it now. It’s going to be wonderful, and then it’s going to be past, like all things. I’m going to try to be in the moment. Some of these artworks have been gone from me for fifty years. I’ve seen reproductions of them and wondered who did them, and thought, That’s pretty clever! So to see them all together will be incredible—one painting referring to another emotionally, and what was happening in my life at the time.

I don’t think my paintings were seen much back in the 1960s. It was the time for Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism; Pop was just beginning to rear its huge, glittering head. My work was a secret kind of thing. I was very close to the Abstract Expressionists, and to the women I worked with when we started Women in the Arts—but no one realized I was a painter because I was writing about painting. I was happy being productive and having good friends and being ignored. But now I’m getting angry about it, looking back!

I never thought about careers. I was even a wrestler for awhile. I learned how to look ominous and on top of things as I strode around the ring from corner to corner. But the truth is I hated it. I thought, Well, the experience should not be wasted—I should at least get a book out of it. I was also a waitress, cigarette girl, hatcheck, masseuse, anything to earn a living. And in between it all I was giving birth, writing books and plays, doing paintings, and going to parties. I met my husband Sherman when I was eighteen, married at nineteen, first kid when I was twenty and I was off to the races. I was married for sixty-nine years.

Rosalyn Drexler discusses her show at the Rose Art Museum.

Our closest friends were Franz Kline, and Bill and Elaine de Kooning, and they used up all the oxygen in the room, they were such heavy hitters. I thought painting was serious and wonderful, but I couldn’t put myself in that class. I was divided; I must have really thought of myself as a writer. My books were doing very well, getting published and critiqued. And there wasn’t a lot of interest in my painting, so I didn’t have that same kind of encouragement that I think you need. And I had no idea that what I was doing would interest anybody deeply.

I never studied art. But my parents exposed me to it from an early age. A newspaper had a special: For twenty-five cents you could get art posters and books, and my mother bought me Turner seascapes, Dickens, Twain. And my father took me to a museum once and showed me a Chardin peach. I couldn’t understand how wonderful that peach was. Later, my husband would take me by the shoulders in a museum, and we would exchange ideas.

I’m still painting. My husband was dying in 2014, and I was with him almost all the time, and then I would go into my studio and start a painting. He was a great critic, and I was able to share the making of these works with him. And now I have to get over the mourning, the sorrow, and I suppose that will bring a whole new kind of work.

There’s a narrative thread going through all my work. It may not be seen but it’s in my head, like a kind of music. I get an idea to paint, and then I get ideas by painting. Some of the works do tell a story, but it’s not like sitting down and telling a story, or even using one word, like some artists today. I don’t use words in painting because I use words in books and articles.

My love of art—an exuberance and a feeling that I wanted to do something, that I wanted to express myself—comes from when I was young. I wanted to be a writer even though I had only written one paragraph. A friend introduced me to a publisher who said, “I like what you’ve written so far, and I’m coming back in two years—give me a novel.” To start, I told myself: Just be honest, say something that means something, and amuse yourself. Well, how do you do that? So I had to find out.

— As told to Prudence Peiffer

Pablo Castaneda, Simulacro 48: Pueblo en llamas (Simulacrum 48: Town on Fire), 2012, oil on canvas, 20 x 24”.


I first encountered Pablo Castaneda’s work during a visit to Mexicali in 2011, where one of his paintings, Simulacro 15: Carretera imposible (Simulacrum 15: Impossible Highway), 2009, was featured in the Bienal de Artes Visuales del Noroeste at the Centro Estatal de los Artes. Later, I visited his studio and was overwhelmed by the range of his work: figurative paintings in muted colors as well as black, white, and gray monochromes that render familiar sites in this desert city newly strange. Sexy and violent, vulgar and tender, his paintings depict an everyday life enhanced by the presence of haunted faces and fantastic creatures. Born in 1973, he is part of a generation of Mexican artists living along the border who are equally influenced by Latin American fabulism and US mall culture. Six of his paintings are currently featured in “La Colección Elías-Fontes,” an exhibition on view at Centro Cultural Tijuana (CECUT) through April 3, 2016.

THE FIVE PORTRAITS in this exhibition all feature close-ups of faces as they would appear on a film screen, boiling with expressive power. For instance, the eyes are all highly defined. This technique is used sometimes in murals, but that’s not where I sourced it. All of my work is based on photographic material. Since discovering photography as a source, I’ve looked at photography books, art magazines, newspapers, National Geographic, etc., and also at museum photography exhibitions. I love the work of Cartier-Bresson, Jeff Wall, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Thomas Struth, and other photographers. I also take photographs of landscapes and scenery in the nearby Rumorosa Mountains. Taking and collecting photographs is a way of keeping a diary. And then I construct and reconstruct these found images in my paintings. I’m interested in aesthetic forms that relate to actual problems with a mixture of reality and imagination.

The five portraits currently on view in Tijuana are part of “Simulacro,” a series I began in 2008. The paintings are neofigurative, combining gestural force with the rational impartiality I find in Conceptual art. Since beginning the ongoing series—which so far comprises about fifty-seven paintings—I’ve used different techniques, sizes, and formats to depict the personality of each face. Throughout, I’m interested in a dramatized and documentary figurative style.

For example, Simulacro 48 depicts a young woman turning away from a fiery building after an explosion. A police officer in a black balaclava holding an automatic weapon stands behind her. I come across these kinds of newspaper images of drug war violence practically every day. But the tension between the depicted elements in the work suggests a narrative, so it’s no longer clear whether the image is fictional or documentary.

The only painting in the show that isn’t a portrait is Picture 8: Playa. It’s based on a photograph of the old wall in the Pacific Ocean along the northern border between Tijuana and California. It’s a black-and-white painting of a crude sea that shows the exhausted partition and a stray boat merging in turbulence. I’m drawn to realistic scenes suffused with a tragic or mysterious ambiance. For me, such images generate paintings where reality seems almost imaginary: the heightened sense of an allegory, but drawn from contemporary themes.

It’s nice to be in this show because Alonso Elias has collected my work since 2011 and almost all of the artists in his collection are based in Mexicali and Tijuana. He’s an unusual collector: Not only are art and culture a big part of his life, he sees them as a means of constructing a better future. Originally he was drawn to my work because it reminded him of art that he’d seen in New York, in the East Village during the 1980s. Border art, including the work being produced in Baja California, is advanced in the way that it mixes artistic tendencies. Latin American and Chicano art have different aesthetics, but they are influences, too. As a border artist, I’m excited by the imagery around me, and inspired by all of the arts. I think this position collapses the distance between different countries.

Translated from Spanish by Marco Vera.

— As told to Chris Kraus