View of “Liz Deschenes,” 2016. Photo: John Kennard.
Since the early 1990s, Liz Deschenes has made photographs stripped bare, focusing on elements of light, material, and space to expose the aesthetic and conceptual boundaries of the medium. Here, Deschenes discusses her current midcareer retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, as well as her fascination with the histories and challenges of photography. The show is on view through October 18, 2016.
PHOTOGRAPHY IS still being historicized and I’m happy about that, but I’m no historian. What I am most interested in is how long it took for certain discoveries to be worked out. For example, it was discovered in the early 1700s that silver halides are light sensitive, but it was not until the early 1800s that people—the inventors of photography—learned how to arrest the action of the light on silver, and not until 1839 that this research was formally presented. I make work, and do research for the classes that I teach, that responds directly to these histories of photography and art.
Just like other disciplines, photography needs to be reinterpreted constantly. I’ve become fascinated by an economy of means: to make the most out of the least amount of materials, and to not put more work forward in an exhibition than absolutely necessary. With that, I’m often surprised by what occurs in both making and exhibiting. Just as camera translates into “room” in Latin, many of my photograms take on the rooms they’re exhibited in as a viewing device, where the viewers can actually see themselves seeing and can have a clearer understanding of the object’s construction—as well as of their own perception. I’d like people to have agency with the work and their experiences, to develop a deeper sense of their relationships to space, light, color, and, of course, photography.
For my current retrospective at the ICA, I worked closely with chief curator Eva Respini to collect pieces that are critical to the trajectory of the work and could be brought into new spaces and conversations. Over the course of a year we developed a scale model for the exhibition, while simultaneously editing a book that would not copy the show at all. Through the pieces and the curatorial choices—from the placement to the walls themselves, and the light within the galleries—we’ve presented an opportunity for people who have never seen the work to view twenty years of it, in absolute ideal conditions.
The eleven new works for the series “Timelines” came from a prompt from Eva last summer to respond to the building, specifically the founder’s gallery, which connects the east and the west galleries with one of the most tremendous views of Boston. Over time and many site visits, I arrived at a proposal to make and install works on the windows—specifically, photograms that I made a few months ago, which are all curved in their artist frames, and descend or ascend in height depending on which way the viewer moves. They produce an illusion that the works will continue beyond the building. I installed them on every other window panel, and the works can look like part of the building or reveal themselves as artworks, while simultaneously drawing attention to the panes of glass and the weather that is held at bay. As a New Englander, I am acutely aware of the ever-changing weather patterns in Boston and all of New England. It’s also important to note that through the model and 3-D sketch-ups, we constructed the walls and decided on the “anchor” works for the exhibition. I only wanted to exhibit works that would reveal my current concerns as a maker. I hope there is a through line through the twenty years worth of work.
Like many other artists, I really do not remember a time when I did not have the desire to make images. At the Rhode Island School of Design, students have to choose their major during their freshman year. I chose photography because I knew very little about the medium but at the same time was constantly surrounded by it. Until this decision, I had only had experience with cameras on family outings and at school events. I did not know how to load a 35 mm camera or use a reflex or range finder. Through that experience I was presented with challenges, technically and otherwise, and I made a tremendous number of mistakes. Today, I’m still fascinated by photography’s complexities, uncertainties, and potential to captivate. Curiosity drew me to it, and I continue to be enthralled by the discipline and history of photography.
Robert Irwin with a construction crew at the Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas, 2015.
In 1970, Robert Irwin abandoned his studio. Rejecting conventions, he developed what he now calls site-conditional work—art created spontaneously in response to the myriad and minute details of an environment. His latest piece recently debuted within the curved walls of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, where “Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change,” his first major US survey outside of his native California since 1977, is on view through September 5, 2016. He also has a permanent installation, untitled, (dawn to dusk), 2016, opening at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, on July 23, which focuses on the town’s singular weather patterns.
THE CLOUDS IN MARFA, instead of coming way up in the air like they do everywhere else, they come at a treetop level and just run across the sky. I wanted to do something outside, but Chinati wanted me to do something in this empty building. I gave it fifty windows on each side, and I made them a little high, so that when you look out there’s landscape, but the land is just a thin line and everything else is sky. When the lights come in, that’s pretty fucking powerful. Basically, I’m courting that light.
The walls are curved in the Hirshhorn. That’s kind of hard on art. So in the last room, I stretched a scrim between the curves. The scrim is a great material; it both is there and it’s not. It’s pretty magical. There’s nothing on the curved walls in that room, so basically I’m squaring it, which I think is a very powerful gesture. It’s a critique of the architecture. That’s the punch line.
Humans are perceiving beings, and that is essentially one of our great strengths. Part of my shtick is to make you aware of how fucking beautiful the world is. If there’s a role for art, then it’s somewhere in that realm, because we have no other real reason for it. What we’re charged with as artists is to examine and develop that ability to enrich our lives, to enrich what we do. You have to do your homework and find what fits with what you feel the emotional tension of a place is. At one point, I took my whole practice apart, piece by piece, and it genuinely became just straight lines—with a straight line, there’s no pictorial connotation at all. I spent I don’t know how many hours just putting a line up and down in relationship to another one. I would sit there and try to figure out why one was better than the other, why one was more correct, looking at it critically and trying to understand why and how it works.
Right now, art is an economic model. The proof of that is how almost essential art fairs have become. One of the assumptions there is that everything the artist does can be hung on a temporary wall with temporary patching and in temporary lighting, which is bizarre. And the more and more influential this becomes, the less it has anything to do with art. I don’t fit inside that model.
What is the nature of the game we’re in? Malevich said, No, it’s not “I think, therefore I am”—I feel, and therefore I think, and therefore, I am. And that is the name of the game. The brain is not in a bell jar, it’s in a body. All feelings count. Instead of being an artist playing to the concept of art being in a bubble, I left the studio, and I said I’d go anywhere for anyone. That’s essentially what a conditional art is. You don’t make anything until there’s some place or some situation or some thing that you’re going to examine. You start out where you don’t have a plan or an activity, then you go from there. You find that emotional tension. That’s a whole process of actually exercising the other side of what human beings are. We’re an incredible machine.
Wangechi Mutu, Throw (detail), 2016, paper, ink, dimensions variable.
Wangechi Mutu is a Kenyan-born, New York–based multimedia artist. Her work is currently featured in the group exhibition “Blackness in Abstraction,” which is curated by Adrienne Edwards and will be on view at Pace Gallery in New York through August 19, 2016. Here, Mutu discusses Throw, 2016, the site-specific action painting, made of black ink and pulp from magazine pages, that she produced for the show.
I’VE COLLECTED paper materials for my collage paintings for many years, and I realized recently that I had way too much in my studio. So I began to purge by shredding a lot of it and ended up with bags and bags of shredded magazines and junk mail. And then one day I experimented, turning it into a porridge—a mushed-up pulp—and at that point something new and simple happened. I mixed it with some ink and found I’d opened up something. I knew how I was going to work with this material that was now sculptural. I thought: I need to animate this material; I need to do to it what I often feel about it—which is that it’s vile, it’s alive, it’s dead, and its deadness is meaningful. As I threw it onto the wall at Pace, it was wet and heavy and very organic—it had tea and food dyes as well and since I have it sit around in bins, eventually it ferments and smells. I think disassociating ourselves from live matter or from nature is is one mishap in the development of human knowledge.
I tend to read more news than I read about art. I have the radio on a lot. I’ve always been fascinated with how women protest, especially in my home country, where in many ways, women are seen as secondary to men in terms of their voice and their power publicly. Often it’s dangerous to be a woman protesting, so women have to come up with specific ways of drawing attention to themselves.
From Pussy Riot to the disrobing Kenyan Mothers to the Arab Spring, there have been so many women who have been so creative and at the same time courageous in unexpected ways in order to protest abuse of their rights and mistreatment, especially for the particular places that they come from and the severity of the politics that they’re up against. I certainly wanted to merge this gesture of demonstration with the placement of painting on this wall. A wall that is in many ways inert—quite passive, quiet, and inaccessible. Throw is supposed to embody all of that: the movement and the resulting chaos and beauty of protest and of paint that hasn’t had calculation in where it should be placed or forethought in how it is composed.
In the belly of this show there is a rumble about speaking up inside a space that is silent, and about certain things that blackness has to say. In my case, I wanted to do something that I have only so much control of, going back to the root of painting, the root of art, the root of the ritual of representing our humanity outside of ourselves. Of course, I am aware that my understanding of blackness, as an African, is quite different, coming from a country that has a black majority, rather than perhaps someone who has been raised in a country that has used the word black to demonize and to denigrate its people.
In Throw I’m looking to show the soul in blackness, the heart of blackness—taking and twisting around Joseph Conrad’s title, if you could think of it that way, to be generative and indeed positive. There is something that draws people to blackness. There is something inside of all of us that is mysterious and black—in our relationship to Africa through our DNA, and in the relationship to questions of the mind that have no color.
Soon after arriving from Hong Kong to study at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1990, Shirley Tse abandoned philosophy for visual art, and relocated to Southern California, receiving an MFA from ArtCenter College of Design in 1996. Almost immediately she embraced plastics as material and metaphor. Of late, she has expanded her palette to glass baubles, wire mesh, figurative CelluClay sculptures, and literary texts; this is all on view in Tse’s latest exhibition, “Lift Me Up So I Can See Better,” which is partly inspired by Oscar Wilde’s sad children’s tale “The Happy Prince.” The exhibition will be on view at Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Santa Monica from July 9 through September 3, 2016.
FOR A LONG TIME I worked with carved pale blue Styrofoam insulation sheets and plastics. I became known for it. But then I found myself burning out. I asked myself: Since I need energy, why not build an electrical power plant? The result was the Power Tower installation that I showed at Pomona College Museum of Art in 2004. Speaking English as a second language, I take language very literally, and here I turned it into these sculptures. Power Tower involved a lot of research into the history of energy production and insulation materials, but it was linked to a personal narrative. Molding and carving these concurrent narratives became the new “plasticity” for me.
In 2009, I launched the “Quantum Shirley” series, which entailed making a new body of work using maps, fabric, metal, crystals, and video. “Quantum” turned out to be a very generative conceptual framework. It allowed me to make ongoing work that addresses the multidimensionality of experience, and how we negotiate dissonant realities. The pieces in this series combine personal stories, quantum theory, the trade movement of colonial products like rubber and vanilla, and the Chinese diaspora. But for now, the “Quantum Shirley” series is on hiatus.
“Lift Me Up So I Can See Better” is a departure from my previous output. A convergence of multiple events animates the works in this show. In 2014 I came upon a trove of variously colored glass chunks from the estate of the artist Miriam Wosk. Around the same time, I read Oscar Wilde’s story “The Happy Prince.” The story goes like this: A town erected a statue of a prince who died young. Gilded with gold leaf, the statue had precious gems for his eyes and his sword. But standing and looking out over the poverty across the city broke his heart, and he asked a swallow to pluck out the jewels for the poor.
I built a CelluClay model of the prince, using Wosk’s gems for his eyes, and set him high up on a C-stand. The stands repeat across the show in the sculptures Optic Nerves, Jade Tongue, and One Left. The gallery mesh used in these sculptures reappears in the form of a prostrate dead man in Happy Prince and Swallow, Horizontal. Gems, stands, wire, and eyes are reconfigured across the sculptures in various ways—but the allegorical sadness of Wilde’s story repeats across the work, too. The crumpled and ripped paper sculpture Income Inequality is held together with slips of gold jewelry, a charm bracelet, and two chains, which was my “dowry” when I left Hong Kong. While I don’t work associatively in any deliberate way, I like forming connections between things and watching the way these connections can multiply across various levels.
I never liked figurative sculpture much, but since I’m pursuing heterogeneity on both a conceptual and material level, I decided to embrace my aversion and make a few figurative pieces to live alongside the more abstract sculptures. The exhibition as a whole, and some of the individual sculptures, are simultaneously figurative and abstract. For example, the wire mesh pieces in the “Vehicle” series look like heads with huge eyes as their only feature. These structures showcase some wonderful glassblowing remnants: They just happen to be formed like heads. Or, you could say that the head forms provide an excuse to examine these jagged glass chunks. In Hobo Eyeballs, the mesh and the glass chunks are draped over a blue stick that emerges from a bunch of large plastic grapes. It’s an exercise in balancing the weight of different materials; but then again, it can be seen as a pair of wandering eyeballs.
In this exhibition, I’m looking at form and plasticity and human experience in multiple ways. The pieces function together, but each stands alone. My recent work is decidedly sculptural. The challenge is to let different components negotiate with each other to form an integrated whole—an endeavor I think of as negotiated differences—which of course can extend beyond the gallery walls.
Rereading the Wilde story, I realize it’s a tale about seeing, and the position from which someone sees. The prince was oblivious to human suffering until he was given a different perspective. It’s a timely parable. We need a few happy princes and swallows who are willing to see and to take action now.
Jibade-Khalil Huffman, IF THIS MEANS YOU, 2016, single channel video, color, sound, 5 minutes 45 seconds.
Jibade-Khalil Huffman is an artist working fluidly across poetry, video, photography, and installation. Fence Books has published most of his poetry—including the collections Sleeper Hold (2015) and 19 Names for Our Band (2008). Currently an artist in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem, he will present recent works in the group show “Tenses,” which is on view there from July 14 through October 30, 2016. Huffman is also opening a solo show in Los Angeles of a newly commissioned series of works. Titled “Verse, Chorus, Verse,” this exhibition is on view at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) from June 29 through August 14, 2016.
I STARTED MAKING ART because there were things I couldn’t articulate in writing. Occasionally I would have some sort of projection in the mix while reading poetry, but then projections became primary and now I see myself as an artist who uses text. I like working with media that already exist and exploding them with poetry. If you asked in one sentence what I do, it’s that. Leveling hierarchy is also important to me, both ethically and formally. I don’t want text to ever be more important than the visual. Objecthood as it relates to language is interesting to me—how do you make language as present as objects?
At LACE there will be primarily video works. IF THIS MEANS YOU is made of found stock footage of products and commercials in one frame and then a text is on screen for one second. It cuts really fast so the viewer has to attempt to catch up and process both the visual and the written. Also on view will be You, or, RGB, or, The Color Purple, a large projection I shot with performers walking through the neighborhood of Inwood in Manhattan. The installation will also have a room you can look into through peepholes to a three-channel video projected over paintings on tablecloths that are hung as screens. When you have to move and go up to the wall and look through a hole, looking becomes less passive than it usually is, but it’s not participatory either. It’s this in-between. The show is titled “Verse, Chorus, Verse,” and there is also going to be a live performance presenting excerpts of an ongoing long-form poetry project I’m working on with Triple Canopy concerning hip-hop, music videos, race, and visibility in media.
I’ve never been in two shows that open in such quick succession. The photographs in the Studio Museum exhibition are part of my exploration of collage, painting, and photography and are made from stuff that I’ve been shooting out in the world and then bringing into Photoshop and taking them through a process of collage. I shoot six or seven photographs of the same thing, layer them, and then remove parts. Early on, I also knew I wanted to work with found windshields. I wanted to play around with the defrosting lines on them as lines, as drawing. I’m thinking about these as another kind of viewing screen. There will be wall works partly lit by some projections so there are moments where a photograph is changed by video. I’m interested in an exhibition that isn’t fixed—there might be three minutes when a part is just dark, you can’t see it, and that’s OK. In some cases you’re watching a flat-screen through a windshield, and you’re watching a video of people in a car behind a windshield behind a windshield.
This work is meant to be dark. There’s a lot of rage. I’m interested in therapy versus religion in the African American community and wanting to deal with that as a subject along with existential rage, anger, and depression—things that still aren’t really talked about in the black community. There’s more trust from an older generation in religion versus therapy. Within a black church, the pastor will often pause the sermon before it begins and say, “Congregation, turn to your neighbor, say, ‘Neighbor, God is good,’ ” or something like that. In the Studio show, there will be a screen print of a text that reads, “Turn to your neighbor, say ‘Neighbor,’ ” and it’s called Call and Response. It’s the first piece I made for this show and it’s also a reaction to a meme spawned by the Drake and Future album What a Time to Be Alive. (The meme had Future dressed up as a pastor saying, “Congregation, turn to your neighbor, say ‘Neighbor, what a time to be alive.’ ”)
What happens in this process of taking this verbal thing and not memorializing it, but fixing it, is interesting to me. If I want to make a work about police brutality and being a black man in America in 2016, there is a responsibility. Poetry allows me to be the person being attacked, the eighteen-year-old in the hoodie and the person standing outside of that. Writing provides me with the ability to slip in and out of different registers and that is ultimately why I’m working the way I do.
View of “Martin Creed: The Back Door,” 2016. Photo: James Ewing.
A large-scale expression of his ongoing interests in play, rhythm, and scale, Martin Creed’s exhibition “The Back Door” will be on view at the Park Avenue Armory in New York through August 7, 2016. His largest survey in the US to date, it features two new commissions, a retrospective of his films and music videos, a troupe of roving musicians, and evenings of cabaret. Creed’s latest album, Thoughts Lined Up, will also be released July 8 from Telephone Records. Additionally, Creed's Public Art Fund project UNDERSTANDING, 2016, is on view in Brooklyn Bridge Park through October 23, 2016.
I WANTED to do a show that’s looking out at the world instead of in. The Armory’s drill hall is such a huge space, occupying a whole block; its sheer size is one of its most obvious features. It’s scary. I didn’t want to make something big just to fill it, and I didn’t want to create a world inside. I wanted to look out onto the world.
Something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is that art galleries, studios, and houses can be cut off from the world. They are designed to keep things precious and away from dirt and difficulty. I think this produces a great danger: you’re looking away from life and not toward it.
When I was here on a visit I noticed a roller shutter on the back door of the building that opens onto Lexington Avenue. It just happened to be open with some trucks driving in. The view from the hall onto the street was amazing. So the whole exhibition was then designed to make that view of the street into something that could be enjoyed, almost like a film of real life. The main space is empty and dark to try to maximize the view of the street when the back door opens. I was working on just doing that and nothing else. But then I started thinking about making new films to alternate with the roller shutter opening and closing. ’Cos if the roller shutter were open all the time maybe you’d just get used to it.
The new films show people opening their mouths, and in each person’s mouth there is food. The camera zooms in on the person, and the person opens and closes their mouth. It’s like a nature film, in slow motion. The people I filmed are important to me: my mother, my partner, my stepdaughter, and my oldest friend.
As for coming up with things, I don’t really know…but I often write things down in a notebook. I also make a lot of audio recordings, so ideas often are spoken or written down. If they keep coming back to me, maybe that’s what makes me do something—basically to try and get rid of the idea because I don’t want to hear the bloody voices in my head anymore.
There are roving musicians in the show that are singing arrangements of songs I’ve been working on recently, little lyrics repeated from voice notes I’ve recorded and turned into songs. The songs are a lot like the other works: a little thing magnified or amplified. Some little thing, but then you make a song and dance about it.
Martin Creed performs “Let’s Come to an Arrangement” for 500 Words.
I’ve been thinking a lot about work as a way of tidying up. The world is a mess. If you concentrate on a little bit of the world and you make a little composition, you’re effectively tidying it up. You could say that a song is noises tidied up, made slightly neater. Rhythm is a form of neatness that separates the sound from the world. What you might call dirt over there you put in the trash, and this bit here you keep, you care about it for some reason.
I actively try and work with people—do a painting for example with others, make music with a band, put on a show with a gallery or a curator, many different people. I like being on my own, but I’m scared that if I’m on my own too much I go into a deluded bubble world. When I work with people I have to state my ideas, get them out from under the table, and I think that helps me to work out whether they’re worth doing. It feels like often works are started and finished by using words to talk about them, even if the final work isn’t finally taking the form of words.
I also try to work from the basis that I don’t know what is best: to not prejudge, to just see what happens, to use words as well as actions and things. The ultimate idea would be to make onstage and offstage the same thing. If only your feelings could be more directly turned into something. That would be better work, more full of life.