Mark G. Taber: The Physible Universe by Heather Topcik

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You could say we’re living in an Age of Algorithm Anxiety. I can’t recall exactly when it began, but after two decades of the commercial internet and a decade of Facebook, many of us who live our lives online are at least aware, if not deeply suspicious, of how much algorithms, artificial intelligence, and machine learning dictate what we encounter and experience everyday. The ads that show up in our search results and social feeds and pages we visit. The recommendations we get from Amazon or Spotify. The Twitter bots programmed to spread actual fake news. Against the drumbeat about robots stealing our jobs, it can feel like we’re on a fast train to Terminatorland.  And it’s why I’m grateful to artist Mark G. Taber for challenging us to reconsider what we think we know about algorithms and what these mathematical functions have to do with art.

In The Physible Universe, his new exhibition now on display at the Society for Domestic Museology, Mark presents a collection of abstract paintings based on designs generated by algorithms. Combining the automated determinism of computer programming with the vagaries of aesthetic judgment and the human unpredictability of artistic technique, these so-called Tychist Objects in Mark’s exhibition are visible meditations on the nature of creativity and art itself.

I first met Mark online, when a mutual Facebook friend shared an article about home art galleries and tagged me. After we exchanged comments on the post, I invited Mark to one of our openings and he showed me some of his early figurative experiments in using computers to generate variations on a given design.. When we reconnected months later, those early experiments had evolved into the colorful and intricate geometric forms that make up the current series and I knew they would make for great conversation at SfDM.

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Excited at the prospect of exploring the intersection of math and art, I made sure to invite my favorite numerical types to the opening, including Joe, a statistics professor and proprietor of his own SfDM gallery uptown, and Abigail, whose startup uses customizable remote-control cars to get kids — especially girls — into STEM subjects. (Sadly, our friend Daniel, a history of science scholar, was unavailable). In keeping with the math theme, the centerpiece of the hors d’oeuvres was an edible representation of the Golden Ratio — an array of carrots, radishes, zucchini, and boiled potatoes around a pot of aioli that covered nearly the entire table. (The Andalusian gazpacho and Victorian gin punch helped to cool down a hot July evening.)

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In his artist statement printed for the event, Mark acknowledges the incongruity of using algorithms in making art. “The use of an algorithm to generate a work of art may appear at first to be a hopelessly lifeless and mechanical procedure to create an art object,” he writes. But an algorithm does not necessarily automate the entire creative process; it is merely a recipe, “a set of fabrication instructions.” And as Mark described his own creative process, the discussion became a fascinating exploration of the essential interplay between determinism and intervention that underscores the creation of art.

The notion of “physibility” originated in discussions on file-sharing hub The Pirate Bay, where programmers mused on the capacity for 3D printing to turn data into physical objects. Applying this idea to art, Mark began to write algorithms to generate and manipulate geometric forms in digital Euclidean space. After entering randomly generated number values into the algorithm, he simply clicked the ‘Run’ command to generate infinite combinations of angular and parabolic lines and colors based on the RGB model. And here is where the automation of the algorithm collides with human, artistic intervention.  Just as the number of iterations is infinite, so is the function of the algorithm — until the artist intervenes, pausing the run of the algorithm to arrive at a unique visualization of a moment in time and space. After a painstaking process of selecting and discarding possibilities, Mark chose a series of images to render in acrylic on board. And here is where the notion of Tychism comes in.

Tychism is the doctrine, posited by philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, that “absolute chance” plays a crucial role in the unfolding of the universe. The interplay between determinism and indeterminism, or chance — the fundamental dynamic of creation, both in nature and in art — is the very thing Mark’s work explores. A random number plugged into a fixed mathematical equation begins an act of creation. An aesthetic choice intervenes to arrest the process and render a design. The design provides a template for the artist’s self-described “shaky, twitchy hand” to transform what began as pure data into a physible form. And the results are exquisite.

Set against backgrounds of white space, nearly diaphanous fields of silky acrylic lime, magenta, turquoise, and other gradations build layer upon layer, blending where they intersect and hinting at a third dimension within the paintings. (Indeed, Mark, a sculptor by training, is exploring the possibility of creating 3D fabrications of his designs.)  Apart from their delicate beauty — and accidental harmony with the color scheme of our apartment! — Mark’s paintings inspire us to reflect on the metaphysics of art and nature, creativity and creation, programming and intelligence, order and chaos. What a privilege it’s been to reflect on these things during the past week, when the alignment of mathematical predictability and astronomical chance resulted in awe-stirring beauty.

Sina Basila: Refashioned Garbage by Heather Topcik

Everyone knows about the 3 R’s — even the most willfully anti-environmentalist trash tosser knows the Holy Trinity of reduce, reuse, recycle. But artist Sina Basila is making a creative case for adding a fourth R, for refashion.

A photographer and documentary filmmaker whose multifaceted work addresses issues of social and environmental justice, Sina has been exploring the artistic possibilities of upcycling. Whereas recycling involves transforming waste into objects and materials of lesser value, upcycling is about elevating the value of the things we discard by giving them a new, higher purpose. In Refashioned Garbage, her current exhibition on view at the Society for Domestic Museology, Sina turns the detritus of contemporary consumer culture into haute couture.

I first became acquainted with Sina's work through social media in early 2016. She had just moved back to the U.S. after living in Berlin for six years, and her sister Nyasa, who babysat for our kids when they were toddlers, reached out to ask if I knew anyone in need of a nanny. She included a short bio of Sina and a link to her website. I was intrigued by the documentary photography I saw on the website, so I followed Sina on Instagram and soon became further intrigued by the self-portraits that began showing up in my feed.

The photos were dramatic and gestural, with the exaggerated seriousness of a magazine fashion spread but with a twist: all of the garments modeled by Sina were composed of things we typically throw away — cardboard, plastic packaging, tinsel, and other fabricated materials that had been transformed beyond recognition. The more I followed her work, the more eager I was to showcase this project and how it challenges us to consider our habits of consumption.

Consumption and waste are central themes in Sina’s work. She uses only found objects and discarded materials to create her garments — plastic bags, umbrellas, fruit and vegetable netting, old tinsel, and cardboard are among the staples. Through weaving, knotting, wrapping, and heat-treating, she transforms these castoff materials into wearable art.

For Refashioned Garbage, Sina hung three of her portraits (set, appropriately, in cardboard frames) and displayed a recently finished garment — a gorgeously slinky dress of beige recycled cardboard woven with magenta tinsel — on the dress form I keep around for just such an occasion.

The outfits themselves are ephemeral, designed to be documented in her self-portraits — the cardboard/tinsel dress wouldn't make it very far on an animate body. But that's not the point. While Sina's work gestures at the efforts of artists and designers determined to make the fashion industry more sustainable, the garments and images are also meant to call attention to the material components themselves. Is an umbrella still an umbrella once the fabric is stripped from its aluminum skeleton and made into a cape? What are umbrellas made of anyway? Nylon? Where does it come from?

Once Sina has created a garment — after an often painstakingly slow process of collecting and sanitizing bits and pieces of garbage — she documents each one with a self-portrait.  Beyond the novelty of the materials she is wearing, the images themselves are compelling, with dramatic, dance-like gestures and expressions. Garments like these demand theatrics — after all, if you’re going to wear a diaphanous dress made entirely of plastic bags, a grand gesture is almost required. Unlike high-fashion photography, however, in which a model interacts with a photographer, here Sina plays both roles, using the self-timer on her camera. The photo experience is a solitary one, and the expressions captured are private and unselfconscious.

Sina is expanding the project to include other people wearing her designs, and this idea was the inspiration for our opening event.  Alongside the installation, she gave a slideshow on her process and inspiration — a cardboard hat and umbrella cape photo was inspired by Beyoncé’s “Formation” video. And she also brought along a few accessories and sample materials for people to experiment with while she took pictures.

Inspired by the theme of upcycling and zero-waste, the menu for the opening featured hors d’oeuvres portions of entrees traditional made with leftovers: chilaquile bites made from old tortillas and leftover black beans, picadillo meatballs using leftover rice. Clairelicious brought beautiful bread puddings and mini-donuts made for the express purpose of using up leftover sprinkles. Sina’s mother, Hanna, provided fitting centerpieces for the table: tin-can vases filled with flowers from her home garden in upstate New York.  After presentation and discussion, guests jumped at the chance to model the sample items for Sina’s camera, like a hip art-world version of Bat Mitzvah photo booth. Many were chatting about what they might be able to do with their own discarded material. As it happens, Sina runs workshops teaching techniques for transforming household waste and found objects into wearable art.  While the immediate goal of the workshops is to inspire creativity, the ultimate goal is to inspire people to reconsider — and reduce — the things we use and throw away.

Once you’ve created a fascinator out of fruit netting, will you look at that bag of clementines in a new way the next time you’re in the produce aisle? Will you think again about where your clothing comes from? Maybe make more of an effort to consume less? If Sina has it her way, you will — and you’ll look fabulous.

 

 

 

 

 

KAREN MAINENTI: COSMETOLOGY by Heather Topcik

When I visited Karen Mainenti’s Brooklyn studio earlier this year, the first thing that caught my eye in her jewel-box workspace was the toilet paper.  

Pinned into place, like rare specimens of delicate fabric, framed under glass, and mounted on the wall were 25 squares of TP that Karen has collected from around the world. Entitled "Works on (Toilet) Paper," the collection exemplifies what I love about Karen's work: the combination of exquisite beauty and sly humor that seduces you into reconsidering the conventions of femininity — and misogyny — in the ordinary objects, accessories, and images that surround us.

The material culture of toilet paper is just one facet of Karen's prolific output of painting, collage, and sculpture.  While her various projects are diverse, her work coalesces around the central theme of feminine sexuality: the ways in which our culture and economy both productizes sexuality and sexualizes commercial products, particularly domestic products. I knew instantly she would be a great fit for the Society for Domestic Museology.

For her exhibition entitled, Cosmetology, which opened in November 2016, Karen hung examples from five ongoing series of work: Product Placement, a series of vintage pin-up shots of women with images of consumer products obscuring their naughty bits; Cooked Books, hand-colored images from vintage cookbooks; Color Me Beautiful, paintings of lipstick colors and their provocative names; Packaged Curves, new work she is doing in cast porcelain, and the aforementioned Works on (Toilet) Paper. 

For the opening evening, we paired the work with appropriately vintage food, a nod to the Cooked Books series:  deviled eggs, stuffed mushrooms, meatballs, all staples of the mid-century dinner party.

Karen began her discussion with the definition of the term cosmetology: the professional practice of beautifying the face, hair, and skin. It derives from the Greek kosmetikos, which can be traced back to the word kosmein, meaning "to arrange or adorn."

She then led us through a slideshow detailing the inspiration and process for each of her series of work, beginning with the Color Me Beautiful paintings on our living room wall. The title is a playful reference to the book of the same name that came out in 1987 (my mom had a copy, and I remembering reading it and discovering that I was a "Winter"). The four paintings on canvas are carefully stenciled with the familiar yet ridiculous names of common lipstick shades against a saturated backdrop of the color they represent. Encased in a black frame, the images evoke giant make-up compacts.  Drawing upon mid-century magazine ads for lipstick and inspired by the work of Robert Indiana, the bold color and evocative typography draw attention to the absurdity and insinuation in each shade of lipstick.  Some of them, like the rather rape-y Ravish Me Red, have been around for decades. Women, myself included, buy and wear these colors, maybe smirking at their campy names or likely not even noticing them at all.  But, as Karen points out, the tacit acceptance of this not-so-subtle sexism also says something about how women often see themselves.

Product Placement has the same combination of ironic humor and devastating commentary. How can you not laugh at the ridiculous image of a lounging nude woman with her ass obscured by a Hershey bar? But the apparent juxtaposition is only a slight exaggeration of actual advertisements that sexualize food and other products.

Recalling the work of Laurie Simmons, Ellen Gallagher and Linder Sterling, who have also  juxtaposed and recontextualized the ephemera of popular culture, Karen's pin-ups are both hilarious and alarming. The way she plays with scale, enlarging the product images to body size, gives the collages a surreal quality.

In our hallway, Karen hung a quartet from the toilet paper series, each with a different pattern (lambs, floral) that undeniably suggests "feminine." Why? What is particularly feminine about toilet paper, an item used nearly universally? (Though one guest pointed out that in some countries, toilet paper is a luxury item, which would help to explain why some of the most ornate squares came from some of the poorest countries). Is it that we take the connection between women and hygiene for granted? That which is intimate and domestic must automatically take on the visual cues of the feminine? The point isn't to answer these questions, necessarily, but to look more closely at the design of objects with which we are intimately familiar but don't truly see.

Next to the works on (Toilet) Paper, hangs another grouping of small, framed pantings entitled, Cooked Books. Taking black and white images from vintage Betty Crocker cookbooks and painstakingly coloring them with water color, using the same garish color schemes that were popular in that era.  The time consuming, labor-intensive process of coloring these images parallels the time-consuming recipes they illustrate.  After working for many years at Martha Stewart Living, much of Karen's work — and especially this series — is a meditation on the cult of domesticity.  As she showed slides of food advertisements spanning the last 60 years, our discussion turned to the moments in history where high domesticity reigned:  post-war United States as a way to bring working women back into the kitchen when they were no longer wanted in the labor force, the late 1990's and early 2000's as a backlash to the increase in working women again in the 80's.  The proliferation of glossy magazines like Martha Stewart Living made complicated meals look not only easy, but somehow required, all along reinforcing the accepted norms of femininity and sexuality. Karen compared these earlier images to the prevalent food styling of today, trying to parse out the subtext in what seems less overtly gendered, but is it?  In her presentation, Karen also placed this work in the context of other artists who use food as their subject: Wayne Theibaud's cakes and Julia Jacquette's witty food series.  Having Ms. Jacquette as a guest that evening was serendipitous good fortune.

The last series we discussed was Karen't most recent.  Having recently learned how to work with ceramic and plaster casting, this series of small sculptures are replicas of make-up cases.  By stripping them down to their bare shapes, devoid of color and marketing, the viewer is asked to consider what the shapes themselves convey. There are certain containers that need only their shape to communicate what they are for: lipstick, for instance, or most dish soap.  Is the latter's exaggerated feminine shape merely ergonomic? Or is it meant to evoke a woman's body? Does Feminine equal clean? Or just cleaning.

When approaching gender and femininity through art you have to tread carefully, lest the art be drowned out by the rhetoric. But Karen uses humor to draw you into a space where the point is made. The commodification and objectification of women is something that is particularly relevant right now, and in the wake of our election has been made visible. Having a President-elect who was in the business of beauty pageants and whose vision of "making America great again" harkens back to the days of lipstick, pinups and jello molds, makes this work all the more meaningful.

The context of Domestic Museology — that is, hanging this work in our home — gives it another layer of meaning.  A few days later, while unpacking groceries, it seemed I was examining every detail of our household products, from the toothpaste to the toilet paper, thinking of all of the design decisions encapsulate in each one and looking for the subtext. While sometimes a coupon is just a coupon, sometimes it is something else entirely.  

 

 

Daniel Carlson: I was raised by a dog named Dog by Heather Topcik

A couple of weeks ago, we opened our fall season with an installation by artist Daniel Carlson.  Dan works in photography, video, film and is also a musician.  We first met when he came to an earlier SfDM as one of the musicians who had collaborated with Andrew Zarou on Force Multiplier, which we exhibited last fall. For the past 20 years, Dan has also hosted a monthly gathering called Record Club, an evening where people eat, drink and share their favorite music.  Noting the similarities in our gatherings, we exchanged information and a conversation was started.

Shortly thereafter, a photo series Dan had been working on for several years was featured on Buzzfeed — large format photographs of the bedrooms of teenagers in the U.S. and Europe.  Taking the subject matter beyond the lens of social anthropology, the photos themselves are captivating, elevating what we think we know about the messy lives of today’s youth and their habitats to a meditation on domestic space, identity and home. What could be more perfect for exhibition at the Society for Domestic Museology?

For our September opening, Dan conceived of a multifaceted exhibition, the centerpiece of which was a 38" X 31" framed large-format print hung in what I like to refer to as our "main gallery", between the windows in our living room.  Accompanying that image was a video piece made for the musician, Meshell Ndegeocello. He then placed 9 smaller images from the same series in our hallway alcove, intermixed with our coat rack and bathroom door.  Down the hallway, Dan also installed a complex grid of 4 X 6 photographs, most of which were taken over the summer and reflect his daily photography practice which differs from his approach to the bedroom series.  

Guests arrived and dined on typical "teen foods" — sliders, tater tots, chips (not a green vegetable in sight). Around 8:00 we gathered to hear Dan talk about his trajectory as an artist and how the idea for the teen series came into being

The teen bedroom series grew out of the idea of doing a photo project that would address the fetishization of domestic interior photography — the kind that has proliferated in magazines and social media over the past twenty years.  There are endless images celebrating home and design, but rarely are spaces shown as they are truly lived in.  We clean up when people come over and we stage our Instagram feeds to present a certain kind of domestic reality.  When he approached a friend about taking a picture of her home in its natural state, she demurred but showed him to her sixteen year old son's bedroom, offering it up as a not-so-subtle ploy to shame him into cleaning up. Dan was struck by how much the room seemed to reveal. Everything was hanging out — not just the mess but the various objects and artifacts that project an identity in the process of being created.   

The photos are taken with a large-format camera, a process that requires a fair amount of set-up and forethought. Unlike my own habit of taking endless digital photos in order to find one good shot among dozens, with large-format photography one is usually only taking a few exposures in any given session. Thus the process of taking each photo becomes it's own kind of performance whereby Dan would arrive at the subject's home, set up his equipment and spend time finding the shot.  Though the rooms aren't staged, per se, the shots are not random either. Some kids participated in the process, preparing their rooms and helping with the shoot; others weren't even there.

The results are beautiful and formally striking. The balance of color and light and the composition in each photo creates a sense of immersion and presence in these spaces, which are at once familiar but also draw you in to look at every detail. And seen as a series they all work together in a kind of visual harmony, variations on a theme of an evolving personal space.

The photos also inspire nostalgia for one's own teenage room and the apparently haphazard yet very deliberate ways we once chose to arrange our space. I found myself wishing I had such evocative documentation of my own room, knowing that each detail would function as a mnemonic device, providing me with clues to a time in my life that feels so far away.  As one lovely 16-year-old attending the event pointed out, teenagers' rooms are where everything happens, especially in the suburbs where there is more space to work with. Teens arrange their rooms with just as much intention as their parents decorate the rest of the home, and there's a fundamental tension between what's left hanging out in the open and what's unseen.

There’s a similar tension in the project itself, between what we expect from the photos and what we bring to them. All we know about the subjects is their names, ages and where they live. The photos challenge us to read deeply into what the rooms reveal, to fill in the absent residents with our imagination. And yet they defy our urge to read too deeply, to assign greater meaning or intention. During the discussion, there were suggestions to unify the apparently random locations — New York, Chicago, Sweden,  — within a broader a cross-cultural study. And there was some frustration that the series lacked a socio-economic focus. But that would be a different project altogether. For now, Daniel intends to continue this series indefinitely to see what else will emerge and, indeed, it would be fascinating to compare a teen room in 2015, with one in 2025 and beyond. 

While most of the evening's conversation was focused on the photo series, we closed with a viewing of a totally different work: a video short created this summer at a residency through Experimental Film Virginia.  Collaborating with two dancers, the film is set to music composed by Dan and represents a departure from his earlier work and the first time working with dancers.  The (almost) three minute film is shot in black and white and shows the silhouettes of two dancers as they move in what seems to be an organic and spontaneous response to the music.  The film is mesmerizing and notably, wherever you might pause it becomes a beautiful, abstract work in and of itself.

It was such a pleasure spending an evening in conversation with an artist who is working on so many projects simultaneously, integrating photography, film and music composition. My only regret is that we didn't have much of a chance to discuss his prolific output of daily photography that was installed in our hallway for the evening.  These photographs, organized into a sort of taxonomy of the familiar: cars, cats, food, etc., find what is interesting in the minutiae of daily life, both here and abroad, and create a visual journal that he can revisit and mine for larger projects.

At the end of the evening, the ephemeral installation of small photographs came down, but we have the pleasure of continuing to live with the large teen bedroom, at least for awhile. For me, these photos resonated uncannily with the whole idea of Domestic Museology and the intersection of art with living space. Now that we share our apartment with a teenager of our own, we’re confronted daily with the various states of order and disarray, both in her life and her room. And as someone who is admittedly uptight about my living space, who comes home each day and immediately senses disorder, and who (like many people on social media) shares photos of a tidier version of my life that obscures the chaos, Dan’s series hits me on so many levels. Now, when I walk in the door and immediately start collecting the shoes and notebooks strewn about the living room, I look up and see — framed on the wall— a gorgeous photo of a messy room.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Jessica Langley: Color Divers by Heather Topcik

This summer, the Society for Domestic Museology has been exhibiting the work of Jessica Langley and we celebrated with an opening in July.  I first met Jessica through a mutual friend, Andrew Zarou, who told me that she also ran a small exhibition space out of her apartment.  Excited to find another home gallerist, I made an appointment to view the Stephen & George Laundry Line where they feature site-specific outdoor installations on the laundry line that connects their apartment with the one across the back yard.

Along with running their gallery, Jessica and her husband, Ben Kinsley,  are also artists, and on that visit we talked a little about her own work and she showed me her studio. I was struck by how prolific she was and the way her work combines both material processes and digital techniques.  Jessica starts with the traditional medium of painting and then manipulates it through digital processes and collage. I was thrilled when she agreed to show some of her pieces with us.

Much of Jessica's work is rooted in landscape and the natural world and references the language of Romantic landscape painting as a departure point for some of her abstract work.  For SfDM, she exhibited two works in different media, but both connected to the idea of nature and the sublime.  The first is a collage, part of a series of small works that can be seen here.  She begins by creating abstract watercolor painting, which she then digitally scans, manipulates, and prints.  The prints are then cut and assembled manually as collage, thus returning to their physical form.  

Next to the collage hangs Color Divers,  a digital animation shown on a vertically-oriented flat screen display. Color Divers uses digitized, abstract watercolors as the starting point, but here it forms a backdrop to the subtle animation of figures moving through space. Created as a commission for Electric Objects, a digital art platform that aims to bring electronic art into the home, the screen displays what first appears to be a static watercolor image, beautiful in and of itself.  But after a few seconds, a subtle animation appears — a transparent body tumbling into the depth before disappearing.  As the background image dissolves into another painting, more divers appear.  The animation was created through Rotoscoping, a process by which the artist draws directly onto video, layering the action onto the background. 

The result is a dreamlike space, where the falling of the figures is stripped somewhat (but not totally) of the anxiety evoked by images of people jumping and falling into a beautiful abyss. Indeed, in the discussion that followed Jessica's talk, we focused on the dissonant feelings that arise from seeing people fall — the exhilaration of watching cliff divers and the dread of seeing those iconic, terrible images of people leaping from the Twin Towers on 9/11.

The abstract swirls of color in the collage evoke the sky and the ocean — or as Jessica puts it, "like staring into a baby's iris." There are whole worlds in there!  In the same way the Hudson River School painters depicted the infinite nature of the universe with their expansive landscapes, Jessica's watercolors, abstracted and manipulated into animation and collage, give the viewer the feeling of looking into something vast and unending. In the context of our small, domestic gallery space, the pieces bring the outside in, as if someone cut two new windows into our living room wall that look out, not onto the brick wall of the building next door, but into a netherworld, where figures tumble dream-like through space and you can't quite comprehend it all.  

At a certain point in the evening, the discussion shifted to some of Jessica's other projects (she is involved in multiple collaborations), particularly The Stephen & George Laundry Line, where she has a full exhibition schedule of large-scale site specific work hanging outside of her building.  That same week, The New York Times had published an article on the proliferation of small, home galleries, and it was nice to think of our projects as part of something bigger, though clearly fragmented, happening in New York.

Also that week, NPR had run a radio feature on the Janks Archive,  a collaboration of Jessica, her husband, Ben Kinsley and Jerstin Crosby, whereby they collect and archive insults from around the world.  Earlier this year, they spent two months in Finland and Latvia, interviewing people and recording their culturally specific invectives. This summer, an installation of selected insults was on display at the 2016 Queens International, which closed at the end of July, though the archive continues to grow online.

This is the first time the Society for Domestic Museology has shown a work of digital art, and it has been captivating.  Screens are powerful.  For those of us with small children (and even those without, I suspect), the screen can be a kind of enemy, enticing us to watch or to play, stealing time.  When our children returned from camp and first saw Color Divers after a three-week screen detox, they thought it was a game and attempted to touch the screen when the animations appeared.  But after the novelty of the screen subsided, it became yet another frame, one capable of displaying a whole museum's worth of artwork in just one space.

 

 

 

 

 

An Evening with Christina Clare by Heather Topcik

This spring, we had the distinct pleasure of hosting an evening with Christina Clare.  As our 10th artist at the Society for Domestic Museology, Christina conceived a multifaceted program that included an exhibition of drawings and an original tunic on a dress form that provided the backdrop for a performance that encompassed opera, jazz, original songs, and audience participation. I had some trepidation about hosting a concert in our small living room, but the truth is, Christina could perform almost anywhere and it would be magical. And that's exactly what it was.

According to Christina, the drawings were created primarily at night, after her family was asleep, as a type of meditative practice. Each drawing is a free-form tangle of a single line made without lifting the pen from the paper from beginning to end. Once each line drawing is complete, Christina colors in the shapes to create abstract compositions that have a Rorschach test quality about them.  They are all works in progress, and they have the effect of making you want to try them, too.  A dress form wearing one of her sartorial creations stood like a museum guard. To round out the installation, she installed a gold fringe curtain to suggest a tiny stage in the corner. In the end, though, there were really no boundaries between Christina and the audience.  

Down the hall, in another room, was a continuous showing of the feature film I Like You, made by Christina's collaborator and husband, Fritz Donnelly.  Fritz plays himself while Christina plays all of the other roles — a testament to her versatility as a performer.

After some mingling and tapas-eating, we pushed our table back, brought in a couple of rows of chairs to transform our living room into a music venue.  With about 30 guests, it was standing room only in our tiny, domestic jazz club.

After a brief introduction, Christina emerged from behind the golden curtain, dressed in a long floral dress for her first number, the Bach aria, Bist du bei mir.  Foreshadowing the collaborative evening to follow, she asked for her first volunteer to accompany her on the cardboard organ. Artist and SfDM alum Andrew Zarou graciously donned the requisite wig, and the music began.

The piece was a lovely introduction into the evening and was followed by the jazz standard Cry Me A River, also accompanied by a bow-tie wearing, cardboard-guitar virtuoso, Jeff Elliott.

Christina followed with three of her own compositions, accompanying herself on the keyboard.  I love hearing Christina sing — her voice seems effortless, the same way she banters with the audience. Genuine and playful, the winding notes like the meandering lines of her drawings — lovely and inviting.

For many years, Christina and Fritz hosted regular interactive performance events, under the name HiChristina!, that were committed to dissolving the artificial boundaries between performer and audience and getting everyone to participate in something that would tap into the creativity of the group.  This spirit is central to Christina as a performer and artist. Her method of entertaining is all about intimacy, drawing you in, which made the close quarters of our living room the perfect venue.  And there always seems to be a communal element. You aren't just watching, you are part of the show.  So after a quick, but necessary, costume change, the third act of the evening starred the audience.

Donning a blue feathered headdress and black velour bodysuit, Christina handed out a number of tiny silver spoons.  Each spoon recipient was directed to find a few people they didn't know and form a group.  The assignment we were given was based on a sound piece she made for Andrew Zarou's Force Multiplier project — a short composition using two mobile phone recorders layered upon one another, working as a kind of DIY four-track.  After giving us all a quick tutorial on how to do it, each group retreated into whatever space that could be found in our apartment and got to work.  After about fifteen minutes, we came back together, having suddenly found ourselves in bands, complete with names and hit singles.

By the end of the evening, we were all basking in the glow that is Christina Clare. Effortlessly transforming our living room into something else entirely: a cozy performance space where in the end, we were all part of the show.

To find out more about Christina, check out her website, HiChristina, and to hear the full recording of Christina's original song, Sleight of Hand, click on the link below.

 

 

 

 

Kristine Bolhuis: Talking Through a Closed Window by Heather Topcik

After a longer than expected hiatus, we had the good fortune to open 2016 at the Society for Domestic Museology with a special guest: artist Kristine Bolhuis, whose work I have long admired.  I first met Kristine when we were undergraduates at the University of Michigan and lived in the same co-op.  In the intervening years, we lost touch, but thanks to the magic of social media, we reconnected some years ago and I have kept up with her career from afar.  Working out of her home studio in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Kristine creates intricately constructed metal jewelry based on geometric patterns.

 

When she was invited to participate in the LOOT2016 show this spring at the Museum of Art & Design just down the street from us, we started to hatch a plan.  Not only would she bring work she was exhibiting and selling at MAD, but she would bring some pieces from another series she has worked on over the years to install in our home.

The series, entitled Talking Through a Closed Window, consists of four complex and layered metal brooches, along with several "sketches" in metal, depicting the gestures of sign language.  Kristine began this series a few years after her son, Kaes, was born with Treacher Collins syndrome, a rare condition that causes significant hearing loss.  Before his first year, Kristine and her husband, John, had learned to sign with their son, and she was astounded at how much they could communicate through gesture alone at such a young age.  The inspiration for the series came from a poignant moment when Kaes was older and playing in the yard and Kristine marveled at their ability to sign a conversation through the kitchen window. Looking through baby pictures, she was struck by how many of them included signs that indicated what he was communicating in each captured moment.  She started experimenting with metalwork that depicted signs and gestures, ultimately using the photos to render her children’s tiny hands in metal.

The series is a departure for Kristine, whose art works more with form and function than with narrative.  As a young child, she was always interested in how things were constructed.  Later, after studying Art History at the University of Michigan, she pursued fine arts, first drawing and ceramics, before settling on metalwork, which she regards as a form of three-dimensional drawing.  The solitary nature of working with metals and their limited color palate appealed to her — as did the closed loop of the materials: all shavings and scraps are collected and melted down for new work, leaving virtually no waste.  She cites the early Modernists Charles and Ray Eames as inspirations, as well as the work of sculptor Harry Bertoia, who studied at Cranbrook Academy of Art, where she received her MFA.  Indeed, you can see echoes of Bertoia's famous diamond chair running through Kristine's kinetic jewelry.

In contrast, the brooches are more solid and symbolic.  Their creation was a way to channel the trauma of those early years of learning how to parent a child with differences.  Now almost 12, Kaes is thriving. Thanks to hearing aids, they no longer need to communicate through signing, so this series has become a commemorative document of a time she is only now revisiting.

On the left section of the wall, are several unfinished metal pieces that were made by transferring prints of Kristine's hands signing letters into metal silhouettes.  And hanging in the window are a series of small pendants showing the various gestures of a child's hand, all taken from photographs of Kaes and his younger sister. To round out the installation for our opening, Kristine included several examples of her jewelry, with slender, delicate lines that served as a counterpoint to the more substantial work on the wall.

What strikes me most about this series is the contrast between my preconceptions of metalwork as dense, static, and unforgiving and the dynamism of Kristine’s work, which is all about gesture and movement. The pieces are mounted on a white paper backing, underscoring Kristine’s sense of the work as sketches in three dimensions.  They hover off the paper, mounted on tiny wires and look poised to fly away.

For Kristine, the installation was a chance to reexamine this emotionally fraught work, and the domestic setting served to highlight its origins in the home as the place where love and communication between parent and child are forged.  Our opening event was a chance to discuss these ideas and consider her work in this context, as well as to celebrate our food co-op past with a vegetarian spread, including hummus, the staple of our diet back then. 

In the weeks since the opening, we’ve noticed how visitors to our home are drawn to the mysterious objects on the wall. Once they realize the objects are signs, the urge is there to decipher what they have to say. To me, they are a moving totems that represent the subtle and gestural ways we communicate those closest to us. 

 

 

FORCE MULTIPLIER AUDIO by Heather Topcik

..lend your ears to music, open your eyes to painting, and... stop thinking! Just ask yourself whether the work has enabled you to “walk about” into a hitherto unknown world. If the answer is yes, what more do you want?
— Attributed to Wassily Kandinsky

The term synaesthesia refers to the neuropsychological trait in which the stimulation of one sense causes the automatic experience of another sense. It also is used to describe the deliberate connections between the various senses through artistic experimentation, most often linking the aural and the visual.  Kandinsky might be modern art history’s most well known practitioner of such Visual Music, a term coined by Roger Fry in 1912 to describe his paintings, connecting the formal elements of the visual arts — color, line, shape — with the formal elements of music — tone, harmony, rhythm.

But the interweaving of sound and vision in art has been documented as far back as the ancient Greeks’ attempts to assign color to music. It has wended its way through western history, making notable stops in the 16th century, with Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s experiments in assigning color to the notes of the gravicembalo, and the 17th century, when Isaac Newton came up with his correlations between the color wheel and the musical scale, all preceding Kandinsky’s famous paintings in the early 20th century.

There is also a rich tradition of artist-musicians creating alternative visual musical notation, the most well-known probably being John Cage’s eclectic visual scores that are meant to be interpreted and played. It’s a history I have only just come to be acquainted with since our last opening at the Society for Domestic Museology back in November, featuring the work of artist Andrew Zarou, which was unlike anything we’d ever done before. The event was a celebration of synesthesia, artistic collaboration, and the generosity of spirit among artists talking openly about their work.

I first became acquainted with Andrew’s work when we were both attending the concert of a mutual friend. He showed me his notebook, a simple Moleskine of graph paper, filled with geometric drawings, defined by the underlying grid and a limited palate of gel pens. Despite these imposed limitations, the complexity and variation of the compositions were dizzying, with each page revealing a further iteration of the central theme.

Andrew is prolific, and the grid anchors his artistic practice in the series of drawings, which he refers to as an interplay between repetition and change. He titled the series Force Multiplier, referring to the grid as the factor that maximizes the effectiveness of this series, revealing the exponential variation that can be achieved through the limitations imposed by lines on paper.

When I asked him to participate in SfDM, Andrew proposed presenting Force Multiplier Audio.  For this project, Andrew selected a single image that had been conceived of as an alternative musical score. The drawing was then transformed into a limited edition silkscreen print by artist Kimberly Reinhardt.  Andrew then reached out to his wide circle of sound artists and musician friends and asked them to compose sound pieces of two minutes or less, using the image as a starting point. It is a testament to Andrew's integrity and capacity for collaboration that thirty-three artists took up the challenge, resulting in 28 audio tracks.

I had attended the initial release party last summer at a small gallery in Brooklyn called Gridspace (a most appropriate venue for Andrew’s work!), where a few of the participating musicians had played their pieces live accompanied by a small exhibition of his sculpture work and works on paper. I was intrigued by the idea of extending this project and wondered how it would play out in a small domestic setting.

Andrew conceived of the evening as a kind of listening party inspired by Record Club, a regular gathering of friends and fellow music lovers for sharing esteemed pieces of music and sound. Founded in 1998 by artist and musician Dan Carlson, Record Club invites each participant to bring two audio tracks to share and discuss with the group. The gatherings begin with dinner followed by the first listening round, in which each participant plays the first of the two tracks two times — once without introduction or commentary; a second time with context and conversation among the group. After a break for dessert, the listening resumes with the second tracks.

Riffing off this model, Andrew suggested inviting the artists who had participated in the project to our apartment for a Force Multiplier listening party. Andrew would talk about the visual component of the work, Kim would discuss the silkscreen, and then each sound artist would play their recording and talk about their experience with the project. Thirteen of the 33 artists accepted our invitation, and we spent an invigorating evening listening to and discussing 10 of the tracks on the album.

To get my head around the whole thing, I find it helpful to think of the Force Multiplier Audio project as a series of concentric circles. In the center, you have the original drawing by Andrew. The 41st in a series of grid-based compositions, it is an unassuming, yet deceptively complex drawing on a large sheet of graph paper comprising twelve vertical lines, each spaced four grid squares apart, that run in intervals of metallic silver and fluorescent orange. From a distance, they appear random, but looking closely a pattern begins to appear. There are two variations on the line: one with two-grid intervals and another with four-grid intervals. The lines themselves form a mirror image pattern on the page, a visual palindrome that takes some looking to discern. By the time I sorted that out, I had the distinct feeling that I was “reading” the piece, as if it was some kind of coded message to figure out. It made sense as a musical score, but offered no clues in how it should be interpreted. 

forcemultiplierdrawing.jpg

The second concentric circle is the Force Multiplier screen print, which amplifies Andrew’s drawing with the silver and orange intervals appearing to hover above the grid, vibrating in some kind of otherworldly harmonic. Kim Reinhardt talked about the challenges of translating this work from drawing to print, the interplay between precision and imperfection. Kim and Andrew (who are a couple, as well as artistic collaborators) also talked about the personal dimension to this work. In the end, it’s the series of screenprints that become the work, with the original drawing acting as a blueprint.

The third circle is the sound layer of the project — another force multiplier that takes the basic concepts of limitation and repetition, and translates them into an analogous array of aural interpretations (say that five times fast). Among those present that evening, the musical collaborators approached the project in one of two ways: While some read the markings as a logical system and created layers of sound and rhythm that corresponded to numerological elements of the drawing, the others used the grid as a conceptual starting point, playing on notions of multiplicity, generosity, and endless permutations.

The SfDM opening itself provided the final fourth circle as we gathered in our living room, viewed the work on the west wall while listening closely to the 11 tracks, heard from each artist about how they approached the project, and shared our thoughts and reactions. While everyone had heard the compilation before, many of the artists had never met in person.  Sticking with the conventions of Record Club, Andrew had each artist draw a playing card and follow in order from Ace to King.  The following are a few of my notes on each of the tracks.

Photo by Jonas Gustavsson

Photo by Jonas Gustavsson

 

First up was Colin Ocon (Track #14), who said he was inspired by the sonic repetition of the locked groove on a Moody Blues LP and layered sound, including a singing bowl, over a melodic rhythm that decayed with each repetition.

Ted Kersten (Track #22) took inspiration from his wife's sewing machine — both the sound of the motor, which provided a rhythmic anchor, and the notion of weaving patterns of sounds.  Ted also raised the question of how Andrew’s pattern was meant to be “read,” horizontally or vertically.  As a weaver, the print reminded me of the kind of patterns that weavers and knitters used and the link between Jacquard looms and early computing.

Brandon Koch (Track #28) used a recording his son at the playground to underpin his sung poem with acoustic guitar. The interplay between his song and the sound of son playing was a kind of dialogue, almost a secret language between the two. The child-like repetition of the phrase “one-plus-one” (“one plus one...is a mountain”) conveyed what Brandon described as “the generosity of the grid” and its infinite possibility. That lyrical riff became even more poignant when Brandon recounted that his son had gone through a liver transplant a short time before.

Kinsley + Langley + Ward (Track #27) took a literal approach to the drawing, using a singing bowl to translate the silver lines into bright accents over a meditative, impressionistic composition recorded live in a single take.

Dan Carlson (Track #21) noted that his track grew out of a process that was unlike his typical approach to composing and producing music. He began with a foundation of repetition, derived from "reading" the markings on the drawing, and built a more impressionistic interpretation upon that.

Steve Silverstein (Track #12) took a mathematical approach, dividing the 2 alotted minutes by 12 to get 10 second segments. Reading the print vertically, he translated the short intervals as fast segments and the longer ones as slow segments, to give the piece its structure. 

Christina Clare (Track #11) also read the piece mathematically, focusing on the number 9 as a touchpoint. using two iPhones to layer keyboard tracks in a kind of digital-analog overdub process.

BNDL - Paul Benney, Charles Goldman and James Sheehan (Track 23) divided Andrew’s drawing into rows that each interpreted separately and then played together.

Instead of a mathematical or interpretive reading of the piece, Pen Pritchard (Track #20) went with a straight blues riff, played while "thinking about the mind of Andrew Zarou"

Leah Beeferman’s piece (Track #2) was a perfect finale — a kind of holistic interpretation of the whole piece that captured the way it seemed to vibrate and hum in a crescendo of sound.

To sit with these artists, listening to and talking about works that shared the same inspirational source, there was an almost harmonic, at times meditative, energy — all radiating from Andrew’s drawing.

The food was appropriately collaborative, spontaneous, and directly inspired by Andrew’s work. I had found a tablecloth that looked like a piece of graph paper and couldn’t resist the idea of creating our own version of his drawing using geometric-shaped foods in a similar color palate — cubed purple potatoes with yellow aioli, rainbow carrots cut into rectangles, polenta squares, cubes of bacon, and cheeses, all arranged on waxed paper over the graph lines. Our friend Clare Stollak Gustavsson, an amazingly talented caterer whose meticulously crafted pastries are as delicious as they are beautiful, followed suit with pumpkin pavlova with pumpkin seed and pecan brittle, composed of layers of spiced meringue with a pumpkin cream.  There were also vegan/gluten free pumpkin donuts with a chocolate coconut frosting and candied ginger.  It was November, after all.

We started the Society for Domestic Museology to celebrate and build communal experiences around the creativity of our friends.  And we’ve been so gratified by the thought, respect, and humor people have brought to those conversations. Andrew Zarou and the collaboration he built around Force Multiplier Audio took that to a mind-blowing new level.  In the few months since the opening, I find myself listening to the audio compilation closely and often, and continually finding my own new repetitions and permutations on his generous grid.