Visual Citizenship @ MSU Broad Museum

Visual Citizenship, installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2020. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

The exhibition Visual Citizenship, on view at Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum through December 26, is a considered show that comprises politically-charged prints and photographs that snugly fill the museum’s trapezoidal Collections Gallery.  Its title comes from scholar, author, and filmmaker Ariella Azoulay, who argues that image-viewing is an active civic engagement, and Visual Citizenship explores the implied moral, ethical, and civic questions and obligations presented when a viewer confronts images, particularly images of injustice. The show is thoughtful, timely, and visually satisfying, and it includes artists whose names carry some real weight in the art-world, such as Kathe Kollwitz, William Hogarth, Francisco Goya, and others.

The advents of photography and printing democratized the image to a degree unparalleled until the age of the internet.  They’re both relatively inexpensive media, and they don’t rely on moneyed and powerful patrons.  Furthermore, photos and prints are easily reproduceable, and together they helped introduce a new visual language of civic and political discourse.

Francisco Goya wasn’t the first artist to harness printmaking to document social and political injustice, but he’s certainly among the most famous.  His series of just over 80 prints which comprise his Disasters of War relay in first-person perspective and with unrelenting honesty the gritty and violent events that transpired when Napoleon’s army invaded Spain.  The show’s informational panels aptly compare Goya’s etchings to the photographs captured by a modern-day war correspondent.  On view is an etching from his Disasters, showing hangmen leading prisoners to a makeshift scaffold where several dead bodies already swing.  There are also several etchings from his satirical Follies series.  These images, never published in Goya’s lifetime, are freighted with dark and surreal imagery that seems to anticipate by a hundred years the style of the early 20th century symbolists.  Goya’s work is rarely pleasant, but it’s a welcome foil to much of the fawningly polite Napoleonic propaganda produced by the likes of Jacques Louis David or Antoine-Jean Gros.

Duro es el paso! (The way is hard!), from The Disasters of War, 1810-14. Etching and aquatint, 9 1/2 x 12 7/8 inches. MSU purchase, funded by the MSU Development Fund 64.76

Perhaps the most arresting and uncomfortable ensemble of images in the show is the Erased Lynchings series by conceptual artist Ken Gonzales-Day.  Gonzales-Day scanned images from actual postcards spanning from 1870 to 1940, all of which depicted photographs of the lynching of Lantin Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans.  He then digitally erased the victims, leaving only the spectators, who now become the subject of the image.  The series addresses the role that bystanders and spectators play during social and political atrocities, and also the erasure of uncomfortable moments from our national narrative.

Erased Lynchings, installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2020. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

Lynching of Frank MacManus, Minneapolis, MN, 1882, from Erased Lynchings 2006-2019.  Archival inkjet print on rag paper mounted on cardstock, 6 x 4 ½ inches. MSU purchase, funded by the Nellie M. Loomis Endowment in memory of Martha Jane Loomis, 2019.17.1-5

A generous selection of photographs of significant political marches, rallies, and protests highlights the role that documentary photography played in making people aware of the Civil Rights Movement, perhaps something easily taken for granted now that anyone with a smartphone and a social media account is a potential lay-photojournalist.  These images include an ensemble by Leonard Freed, a photojournalist whose seminal work Black in White America (1968) documented the Civil Rights Movement with sensitivity and empathy, emphasizing the humanity of his subjects rather than the acts of violence and brutality they endured—the reverse of what Susan Sontag referred to in On Photography as the “atrocity exhibition,” which have a danger of becoming counterproductive to their cause.  Here, a selection of Freed’s photographs variously document a civil rights protest in Brooklyn, the historic 1963 March on Washington, and the 20th Anniversary March on Washington in 1983.

1963, Washington D.C., USA (March on Washington, 8-28-’63), 1963. Photograph  11 x 14 inches.   Courtesy Special Collections, MSU Libraries, Michigan State University

Finally, a quartet of engravings by William Hogarth adds some levity to the exhibit, as Hogarth’s wry, satirical works always tend to do.  His characteristically tongue-in-cheek series Humours of an Election, based on an actual 1754 Oxfordshire election, implicates both the Whigs and the Tories in trying to hijack the election through any means necessary.   Hogarth’s humorous approach to political critique is about as far from Goya’s nightmarish visions as one could possibly get, though both artists certainly shared a jaundiced perception of those in political power.

Four Prints of an Election: Plate II, Canvassing for Votes, 1757. Hand-colored engraving, 15 3/4 x 21 1/4 inches. MSU purchase 64.16

Visual Citizenship is a rewarding show, and each vignette of photographs or prints could easily be the starting point for a subsequent exhibition.  It’s certainly relevant and timely, and not just because this happens to be an election year. After all, in the age of social media, the smartphone, and the viral video, images have become the primary way we gather news and process information, which certainly seems to underscore Ariella Azoulay’s original point that image-viewing is a civic act.

MSU Broad – Visual Citizenship, on view at Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum through December 26, 2020

 

 

Black Matters @ Flint Institute of Art

Install image, Black Matters, FIA

Chicago-based artist Matthew Owen Wead never intended Shooting Targets to be an ongoing series.  Originally conceived in 2009, this body of work memorialized selected black victims of police violence spanning the years 1969 through 2009.  But the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery earlier this year sadly keep this body of work perennially relevant.   The thirteen works from Shooting Targets comprise the bulk of the exhibition Black Matters currently on view at the Flint Art Institute, a moving and considered exhibition of life-sized woodcuts that manage to cross into the realm of performance and conceptual art.

Occupying the FIA’s single-room graphics gallery, Black Matters consists of sixteen large woodcuts depicting black victims of police or vigilante violence; each print shows a black figure against a stark, white void, echoing the nearly universal formula for a typical target at a shooting range.  Using himself as the model for most of the prints, Wead imagined the possible expression and posture of each victim in the moment before their death.  Revealingly, it’s not necessarily always fear or panic we see; the five bullets that struck the mentally disabled Ronald Madison were fired into his back, for example, so some of these victims couldn’t react to what they didn’t expect.  Each image is accompanied with didactic text on the wall relaying the story of each victim.

Matthew Owen Wead, American, born 1984 Breonna Taylor, 2020 Woodcut on paper 36 x 24 inches Courtesy of the artist

These works are confrontational in scale and certainly make a strong statement presented together as an ensemble, but their size also references the approximate size of a target at a shooting range.  And we see each individual only from the waist up, also a conscious allusion to a target.  Close inspection of some of these prints reveals actual bullet holes in the print corresponding to the number of times each victim was shot.

Stylistically, these works conscientiously betray the influence of early 20th century expressionistic woodcuts, particularly the visceral and emotionally charged works of Kathe Kollwitz, which Wead acknowledges were a formative influence on his work, along with the dark and visually punchy works of the Baroque painter Caravaggio.

Matthew Owen Wead, American, born 1984 Johnny Gammage, 2009 Woodcut on paper 36 x 24 inches Museum purchase, FIA

All of these works apply expressive linework.  The agitated undulations and swirling light and shadow that appear on the jackets of Michael Pleasance and Khiel Coppin seem to help externalize their states of mind and underscore the drama of the moment, for example.  And the knee on George Floyd’s neck is rendered abstractly as a frighteningly oppressive network of chevron lines which consume half the page.  But there’s also an understated elegance in some of these images, as in the portrait of Ronald Madison, his back rendered with sinuous linework and deft application of light and shadow.

Matthew Owen Wead, American, born 1984 Ronald Madison, 2009 Woodcut on paper 36 x 24 inches Museum purchase, FIA

Both this exhibition’s title and font carry subtle references.  Black Matters, of course, references the Black Lives Matter movement.  But the “B” and “M” in Black Matters  double as a 3 and a 5, wittily referencing the Three-Fifth’s Compromise which emerged from the 1787 Constitutional Convention, a policy that determined that in assessing the populations of each state, slaves would be counted as 3/5 of a person.  The title and the 3/5 fraction together also subtly make the point that addressing systemic racism should always be a priority, not merely in those moments when a particularly sensational video happens to go viral.

Matthew Owen Wead, American, born 1984 George Floyd, 2020 Woodcut on paper 36 x 24 inches Courtesy of the artist

Install image, Black Matters, FIA

This show demonstrates that police brutality has been a problem well before George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbey unwittingly became names with which we are all familiar.  Personally, I found it sadly revealing that almost all of these individuals were people I had never heard of before, suggesting my own relative ignorance of the history and the scope of the problem.  Black Matters is a considered, moving, and pathos-laden exhibition, and it’s also an exhibition that shouldn’t have to happen.

Black Matters, Matthew Owen Wead, Flint Institute of Art

Soft Powers @Arab American National Museum

 

Soft Powers, dimensions variable, installation

Yasmine Diaz has already had work exhibited in both sides of the Atlantic ranging from venues such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Poetry Project Space in Berlin, and Station Beirut in Lebanon.  But soft powers at the Arab American National Museum is her first solo exhibition in a museum space, and as such seems like a debut of sorts.  Los Angeles based Yasmine Nasser Diaz recently completed her artist in residence in March 2020 at the AANM, and with Soft-Powers, she presents an intimate and largely autobiographical reflection on the experience of coming-of-age in the United States as the daughter of immigrants.

Soft Powers wittily puns on both the medium and the message of the exhibit, referencing the silk of the show’s fiber etchings and the “soft powers” immigrants are forced to develop as they navigate conflicting loyalties and cultures.  Diaz approaches the topic from first-person perspective, having herself grown up in Chicago as the child of immigrants from Yemen.

Say No To Drugs, 30 x 38,” silk-rayon fiber etching

The exhibition is divided into two sections, beginning with an ensemble of fiber etchings based on the artist’s own photographs of Yemeni friends and family in private interior spaces.  Her fiber etchings are mostly monochromatic (and of a warm rose color palette), and the figures they portray are reductive like those of an Andy Warhol screen-print.  But there’s enough visual information to suggest some of the tension (and fusion) of differing cultures.  In one image, we see a woman wearing a “Say No! to Drugs” t-shirt; in other images, we see women dressed in what appears to be more traditionally ethnic dress. In most of these images, we see women in a group or ensemble, often embracing, and exuding sisterhood and solidarity.

Thick as Thieves, 28 x 36,” silk-rayon fiber etching

Truth or Dare, 44 x 58,” silk-rayon fiber etching

The second space in the exhibit is an immersive installation of a bedroom with some interactive components.  This is the third iteration of her Teenage Bedroom series, and comprises all the elements you’d expect to find in the bedroom of two fictional children of immigrants to America.  There’s enough detail that wandering around the space feels almost creepily voyeuristic.  Having come of age myself in the 90s, I appreciated anecdotal elements like the California Raisin collectibles placed on the television set, and the Trapper Keeper binder on the floor, details that imparted a bit of whimsey and (for me anyway) shared experience.  Queen Latifah posters, stacks of cassette tapes, a stack of People magazines, Islamic prayer beads, and black and white photographs of presumed relatives are a few elements in the room that collectively hint at cultural synthesis as these children embrace American culture while acknowledging their traditions and family histories.

Video Courtesy of the Arab American National Museum

Unfortunately, by its nature Teenage Bedroom loses some of its impact when just viewed online, and since the AANM is closed indefinitely due to Covid 19, the show must be experienced digitally by default.  However, the AANM assembled a virtual walk through of the exhibit, narrated by Diaz herself.  And most of the silk-etchings from the show are viewable on her website.  Though the show can’t be viewed in person (for now), it remains a timely and relevant exhibit, particularly against the backdrop of the 2017 travel ban which affected aspirant immigrants from Yemen.  In this show, Diaz quietly urges us to look at arrivals from other homelands with empathy, and she imparts a healthy respect for the soft powers these immigrants develop as they tactfully navigate the bridging of cultures.

They Talk About Us,  36 x 30,” silk-rayon fiber etching

They Talk About Us,  36 x 30,” silk-rayon fiber etching

Visual Art in Virtual Reality

MSU Broad and Able Eyes

Over the past few months, cultural institutions have out of necessity navigated creative ways of making their content available online.   This works better for some forms of media than others.  Most of us already experience music digitally by default, and what happens in the recording studio is pretty much exactly what we experience through our headphones; little gets lost in translation.  But the visual arts exist in space, and they lose a dimension when viewed online.  But emerging technologies, particularly 360-degree photography and virtual reality (VR), have the potential to make digitally exploring visual culture much more rewarding.

Without getting into the technical details, a VR headset (like those offered by the brands Oculus and Vive) makes the Street View content from Google Maps fully immersive and interactive.  Since Google has taken its cameras into many museums, cultural institutions, and architectural spaces, this makes it possible to navigate these spaces not just on a regular computer screen, but also in VR.  With a VR headset, we see the Google Map imagery life-size and surrounding us in 360 degrees, and it really does disconcertingly seem to place us on location.

There are admittedly some problems with viewing art in virtual reality.  Pixilation can be an issue.  On a regular computer screen, a Google Street View image might look just fine, but with a VR headset, even slightly pixelated images are rendered as aggravatingly blurry.  The Google Street View rendering of the interior of New York’s Metropolitan Art Museum, for example, looks great on a computer screen, but the paintings get pretty fuzzy when seen in VR.  Exterior views of architectural spaces are much more forgiving.  A second problem (with or without VR) is that Google’s 360-degree cameras photograph interiors from a vantage point of about eight feet in the air, which can be problematic; if you try to “stand” directly in front of a painting you’ll often find yourself looking down at the work from an awkward angle.

In some instances, though, this elevated vantage point is actually useful.  One of the best places to digitally explore is the Doge’s Palace in Venice; the extra boost we get from Google’s camera offers us a marginally better view of the Renaissance murals which cover every inch of its walls and ceiling.  We can also get satisfyingly closer to the marbles which once adorned the Parthenon, now housed in the Acropolis Museum in Athens.  And we’re offered a much better perspective of some of the larger than life, cinematic Napoleonic propaganda (such as David’s Coronation of Napoleon) that adorns the walls of the Palace of Versailles.

Among the museums which are rendered in sufficiently high definition so as to not appear pixilated (even when viewed through an unforgiving VR headset) include the British Museum, where the imagery is so crisp that we can read the didactic text on the wall.  The same could be said for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.  Also impressively lucid are Google’s renderings of the Getty Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Some architectural spaces and ensembles especially worth exploring include the Peruvian city of Machu Picchu and the Palace of Versailles and its gardens.  The dazzling, colonnaded interior of the Mosque of Cordoba [later converted to a cathedral] is a fascinating bit of history set in stone; as we navigate its interior, we experience it as a mash-up of both arabesque and European architectural elements.  A personal favorite space to digitally wander is the luminous interior of Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia.   Closer to home is the much under-rated Driehaus Museum in Chicago, a three-story Gilded-Age mansion which has been preserved and functions as an excellent period museum.

“Machu Picchu as viewed in Google Street View”

“La Sagrada Familia as viewed in Google Street View.”

In Michigan, Google’s omniscient cameras have photographed nearly all our streets, but disappointingly few cultural institutions.  One notable exception is Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, rendered in impressively high resolution.  The park is now open again, but during the Covid shutdown, Meijer Gardens found inventive ways to bring the gardens to the public via Facebook, including posting 360-degree video walk-throughs of some of its spaces; although not as immersive as VR, this nevertheless made its Online content satisfyingly interactive.

One street in Michigan that doubles as a cultural institution is the Heidelberg Project.  An interesting feature about viewing Google Street View through the VR App Wander (a Google Map program specifically packaged for Oculus VR headsets) is that whenever a place has been photographed by Google more than once, we can reset the date, and see what the place looked like at each successive photoshoot.  The Heidelberg Project is particularly fluid, so it’s interesting to see how the project evolved yearly (starting in 2009, when Google first photographed the space) as its elements and structures appear and disappear.

We can also virtually navigate parts of Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum, which offers a VR-compatible virtual tour of its space, and in impressively high resolution.   The interior was photographed not by Google, but by Able Eyes.  Although we can’t enter any of the Broad’s exhibition galleries in this walk-through, we can still navigate the atrium and public spaces, which are enough to sufficiently showcase architect Zaha Hadid’s relish of counterintuitive, angular forms.

 

MSU Broad and Able Eyes

There’s certainly no substitute for seeing art and architecture in person, of course.  But it’s nevertheless exciting to be on the cusp of emerging technologies which help us experience visual culture in full immersion.  Increasingly, it’s becoming possible to experience art digitally much like we can with music, with little getting lost in translation.  Wolfgang Goethe once even described architecture as “frozen music,”  and these new technologies allow us to explore these spaces in surprisingly lucid detail, note for note, and in fully immersive, navigable three dimensions.

Contemporary Glass @ Flint Institute of Arts

Installation View, All images courtesy of the Flint Art Institute

Two years ago, the Flint Art Institute opened the doors to its newly completed 11,000 square-foot Contemporary Glass Wing, supplemented by a 3,620 square foot glass arena where glassblowers offer demonstrations to audiences who can watch from stadium-style seating.  Chic and emphatically modern, these new spaces seem to proclaim that while handcrafted glass is an ancient art, it’s also a medium for the 21st century and it will definitely be here in the future. The wing is home to a fine collection of eighty-eight glass artists representing sixteen countries, making this one of the best venues in the country for viewing contemporary glass.

The works on view come from the collection of the serendipitously  named Sherwin and Shirley Glass, and are currently on loan from the Isabel foundation.  The heart of the collection is glass that emerged from the Studio Glass Movement, which had its roots in Toledo, Ohio–itself home to a fine glass collection.  The movement began when Harvey Littleton and Dominick Labino engineered ways for artisans to create glass in their own studios with relatively small furnaces.  They held a famous workshop on the subject at the Toledo Art Museum in 1962 (among others, Dale Chihuly was present), energizing the movement and creating the nexus which allowed for it to attain a global reach.

Suggesting highlights from the collection is a little difficult, given its strength.  Karen LaMonte’s Dress Impression with a Traincertainly warrants mention.  Here, viewers encounter a dress reminiscent of what you might expect to find draped on a Greek Aphrodite, except there’s no Aphrodite under these folds, merely a void created from a cast of a model.  Her work subtly addresses the tension between the body and the spirit, though one’s principal thought will likely simply be “how did she make that?!”

Cast glass Dimensions: 58 5/16 × 22 1/2 × 43 5/16 in. Courtesy of the Isabel Foundation, L2017.143

Demonstrating the often-surprising trompe l’oeil possibilities of glass art, William Morris creates deceptive works inspired by African art like Zande Man and Bull Trophy, each seemingly fashioned out of wood and ivory.  Similarly deceptive are the organic-looking elements of Debora Moore’s Orchid Tree, which looks uncannily like an arrangement of brittle fragments of twigs and withered petals.  The overwhelming majority of works in this collection are sculptural, but Miriam Silvia Di Fiore’s Washing Boardapplies glass wire and thinly ground glass to create illustrative landscapes that seem almost painterly.

Blown glass, steel stand Dimensions: 26 × 16 × 16 in. (66 × 40.6 × 40.6 cm) Courtesy of the Isabel Foundation, 2017

Flameworked and kiln-worked glass, found object Dimensions: 30 3/4 × 16 × 5 3/4 in. (78.1 × 40.6 × 14.6 cm) Courtesy of the Isabel Foundation, 2017

This collection forcefully advances the argument that abstract art can indeed be stunningly beautiful (incidentally, the FIA has some impressively accessible abstract art across all genres).  The billowing forms of Marvin Lipofski are colorful abstractions reminiscent of Georgia O’Keefe flowers, but rendered in three dimensions.  And staple to any collection of contemporary glass are the works of Chihuly; here, a set of his characteristically biomorphic bowls nestle into each other somewhat like Matryoshka stacking dolls.  Works like these can easily serve as a gateway-drug into the world of abstraction for those who aren’t especially fond of abstract art.

Acid-polished blown glass Dimensions: 15 × 21 3/4 × 16 1/2 in. (38.1 × 55.2 × 41.9 cm) Courtesy of the Isabel Foundation, 2017

Many of these works are from Eastern Europe, a testament to the region’s history of glassmaking which stretches back to the Renaissance.  Surprisingly, even while Communism exerted its dampening effect on the arts, glass artists were comparatively immune from restrictive policies, since the authorities didn’t think glass art had any subversive potential. The abstract works of Stanislav Libensky and his wife Jaroslavia Brychtova are a foil to state-sanctioned Socialist Realism, triumphantly making the case for abstraction and self-expression.  The monumental scale of their collaborative Green Eye of the Pyramid helps to situate this work a visual anchor for the collection.

Cast, cut and polished glass, I-Beam pedestal, Dimensions: 82 1/2 × 113 × 29 3/4 in., 2000 lb.  Courtesy of the Isabel Foundation, 2017

None of this is currently on view to the public, of course, but it will be eventually.  In the meantime, the FIA has done an excellent job of digitizing its collection.  Viewers can browse an online catalogue of art from the museum; one page offers selected highlights accompanied with audio guides, making the experience more informative and satisfying than simply clicking through pictures online.  The Contemporary Glass page currently offers a catalogue of the FIA’s glass collection, and most works are accompanied by information about the artist.  The FIA also produced a fine print catalogue of its glass collection, replete with beauty-shots of each work that fill the entire page, and occasionally spill onto a second.

Centuries ago, Abbot Suger, the mastermind behind the French Gothic style, famously referred to the light that passes through stained-glass as Lux Nova, or transformed, heavenly light.  Best, of course, to experience its magic in person.  But not all is lost in translation when viewing glass online.  Many of these works are at their best when tactfully backlit by soft light, an effect that the luminosity of the computer screen almost seems to replicate.   So until the FIA is able to safely open its doors to the public again, do take advantage of the chance to browse its glass collection which has been placed online in its entirety, and, of course, is completely free of charge.

Installation View, Courtesy of the Flint Art Institute

Glass Exhibition at the Flint Art Institute. The FIA staff is working hard to get ready for the moment when they  will be able to open their doors to welcome you to visit the galleries. Although they haven’t set a date yet, FIA is preparing for the opportunity to reconnect with you while practicing social distancing throughout a virus free facility.