Tag Archives: Rennie Museum

AI (artificial intelligence) artist got a show at a New York City art gallery

AI artists first hit my radar in August 2018 when Christie’s Auction House advertised an art auction of a ‘painting’ by an algorithm (artificial intelligence). There’s more in my August 31, 2018 posting but, briefly, a French art collective, Obvious, submitted a painting, “Portrait of Edmond de Belamy,” that was created by an artificial intelligence agent to be sold for an estimated to $7000 – $10,000. They weren’t even close. According to Ian Bogost’s March 6, 2019 article for The Atlantic, the painting sold for $432,500 In October 2018.

It has also, Bogost notes in his article, occasioned an art show (Note: Links have been removed),

… part of “Faceless Portraits Transcending Time,” an exhibition of prints recently shown [Februay 13 – March 5, 2019] at the HG Contemporary gallery in Chelsea, the epicenter of New York’s contemporary-art world. All of them were created by a computer.

The catalog calls the show a “collaboration between an artificial intelligence named AICAN and its creator, Dr. Ahmed Elgammal,” a move meant to spotlight, and anthropomorphize, the machine-learning algorithm that did most of the work. According to HG Contemporary, it’s the first solo gallery exhibit devoted to an AI artist.

If they hadn’t found each other in the New York art scene, the players involved could have met on a Spike Jonze film set: a computer scientist commanding five-figure print sales from software that generates inkjet-printed images; a former hotel-chain financial analyst turned Chelsea techno-gallerist with apparent ties to fine-arts nobility; a venture capitalist with two doctoral degrees in biomedical informatics; and an art consultant who put the whole thing together, A-Team–style, after a chance encounter at a blockchain conference. Together, they hope to reinvent visual art, or at least to cash in on machine-learning hype along the way.

The show in New York City, “Faceless Portraits …,” exhibited work by an artificially intelligent artist-agent (I’m creating a new term to suit my purposes) that’s different than the one used by Obvious to create “Portrait of Edmond de Belamy,” As noted earlier, it sold for a lot of money (Note: Links have been removed),

Bystanders in and out of the art world were shocked. The print had never been shown in galleries or exhibitions before coming to market at auction, a channel usually reserved for established work. The winning bid was made anonymously by telephone, raising some eyebrows; art auctions can invite price manipulation. It was created by a computer program that generates new images based on patterns in a body of existing work, whose features the AI “learns.” What’s more, the artists who trained and generated the work, the French collective Obvious, hadn’t even written the algorithm or the training set. They just downloaded them, made some tweaks, and sent the results to market.

“We are the people who decided to do this,” the Obvious member Pierre Fautrel said in response to the criticism, “who decided to print it on canvas, sign it as a mathematical formula, put it in a gold frame.” A century after Marcel Duchamp made a urinal into art [emphasis mine] by putting it in a gallery, not much has changed, with or without computers. As Andy Warhol famously said, “Art is what you can get away with.”

A bit of a segue here, there is a controversy as to whether or not that ‘urinal art’, also known as, The Fountain, should be attributed to Duchamp as noted in my January 23, 2019 posting titled ‘Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Marcel Duchamp, and the Fountain’.

Getting back to the main action, Bogost goes on to describe the technologies underlying the two different AI artist-agents (Note: Links have been removed),

… Using a computer is hardly enough anymore; today’s machines offer all kinds of ways to generate images that can be output, framed, displayed, and sold—from digital photography to artificial intelligence. Recently, the fashionable choice has become generative adversarial networks, or GANs, the technology that created Portrait of Edmond de Belamy. Like other machine-learning methods, GANs use a sample set—in this case, art, or at least images of it—to deduce patterns, and then they use that knowledge to create new pieces. A typical Renaissance portrait, for example, might be composed as a bust or three-quarter view of a subject. The computer may have no idea what a bust is, but if it sees enough of them, it might learn the pattern and try to replicate it in an image.

GANs use two neural nets (a way of processing information modeled after the human brain) to produce images: a “generator” and a “discerner.” The generator produces new outputs—images, in the case of visual art—and the discerner tests them against the training set to make sure they comply with whatever patterns the computer has gleaned from that data. The quality or usefulness of the results depends largely on having a well-trained system, which is difficult.

That’s why folks in the know were upset by the Edmond de Belamy auction. The image was created by an algorithm the artists didn’t write, trained on an “Old Masters” image set they also didn’t create. The art world is no stranger to trend and bluster driving attention, but the brave new world of AI painting appeared to be just more found art, the machine-learning equivalent of a urinal on a plinth.

Ahmed Elgammal thinks AI art can be much more than that. A Rutgers University professor of computer science, Elgammal runs an art-and-artificial-intelligence lab, where he and his colleagues develop technologies that try to understand and generate new “art” (the scare quotes are Elgammal’s) with AI—not just credible copies of existing work, like GANs do. “That’s not art, that’s just repainting,” Elgammal says of GAN-made images. “It’s what a bad artist would do.”

Elgammal calls his approach a “creative adversarial network,” or CAN. It swaps a GAN’s discerner—the part that ensures similarity—for one that introduces novelty instead. The system amounts to a theory of how art evolves: through small alterations to a known style that produce a new one. That’s a convenient take, given that any machine-learning technique has to base its work on a specific training set.

The results are striking and strange, although calling them a new artistic style might be a stretch. They’re more like credible takes on visual abstraction. The images in the show, which were produced based on training sets of Renaissance portraits and skulls, are more figurative, and fairly disturbing. Their gallery placards name them dukes, earls, queens, and the like, although they depict no actual people—instead, human-like figures, their features smeared and contorted yet still legible as portraiture. Faceless Portrait of a Merchant, for example, depicts a torso that might also read as the front legs and rear haunches of a hound. Atop it, a fleshy orb comes across as a head. The whole scene is rippled by the machine-learning algorithm, in the way of so many computer-generated artworks.

Faceless Portrait of a Merchant, one of the AI portraits produced by Ahmed Elgammal and AICAN. (Artrendex Inc.) [downloaded from https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/03/ai-created-art-invades-chelsea-gallery-scene/584134/]

Bogost consults an expert on portraiture for a discussion about the particularities of portraiture and the shortcomings one might expect of an AI artist-agent (Note: A link has been removed),

“You can’t really pick a form of painting that’s more charged with cultural meaning than portraiture,” John Sharp, an art historian trained in 15th-century Italian painting and the director of the M.F.A. program in design and technology at Parsons School of Design, told me. The portrait isn’t just a style, it’s also a host for symbolism. “For example, men might be shown with an open book to show how they are in dialogue with that material; or a writing implement, to suggest authority; or a weapon, to evince power.” Take Portrait of a Youth Holding an Arrow, an early-16th-century Boltraffio portrait that helped train the AICAN database for the show. The painting depicts a young man, believed to be the Bolognese poet Girolamo Casio, holding an arrow at an angle in his fingers and across his chest. It doubles as both weapon and quill, a potent symbol of poetry and aristocracy alike. Along with the arrow, the laurels in Casio’s hair are emblems of Apollo, the god of both poetry and archery.

A neural net couldn’t infer anything about the particular symbolic trappings of the Renaissance or antiquity—unless it was taught to, and that wouldn’t happen just by showing it lots of portraits. For Sharp and other critics of computer-generated art, the result betrays an unforgivable ignorance about the supposed influence of the source material.

But for the purposes of the show, the appeal to the Renaissance might be mostly a foil, a way to yoke a hip, new technology to traditional painting in order to imbue it with the gravity of history: not only a Chelsea gallery show, but also an homage to the portraiture found at the Met. To reinforce a connection to the cradle of European art, some of the images are presented in elaborate frames, a decision the gallerist, Philippe Hoerle-Guggenheim (yes, that Guggenheim; he says the relation is “distant”) [the Guggenheim is strongly associated with the visual arts by way the two Guggeheim museums, one in New York City and the other in Bilbao, Portugal], told me he insisted upon. Meanwhile, the technical method makes its way onto the gallery placards in an official-sounding way—“Creative Adversarial Network print.” But both sets of inspirations, machine-learning and Renaissance portraiture, get limited billing and zero explanation at the show. That was deliberate, Hoerle-Guggenheim said. He’s betting that the simple existence of a visually arresting AI painting will be enough to draw interest—and buyers. It would turn out to be a good bet.

The art market is just that: a market. Some of the most renowned names in art today, from Damien Hirst to Banksy, trade in the trade of art as much as—and perhaps even more than—in the production of images, objects, and aesthetics. No artist today can avoid entering that fray, Elgammal included. “Is he an artist?” Hoerle-Guggenheim asked himself of the computer scientist. “Now that he’s in this context, he must be.” But is that enough? In Sharp’s estimation, “Faceless Portraits Transcending Time” is a tech demo more than a deliberate oeuvre, even compared to the machine-learning-driven work of his design-and-technology M.F.A. students, who self-identify as artists first.

Judged as Banksy or Hirst might be, Elgammal’s most art-worthy work might be the Artrendex start-up itself, not the pigment-print portraits that its technology has output. Elgammal doesn’t treat his commercial venture like a secret, but he also doesn’t surface it as a beneficiary of his supposedly earnest solo gallery show. He’s argued that AI-made images constitute a kind of conceptual art, but conceptualists tend to privilege process over product or to make the process as visible as the product.

Hoerle-Guggenheim worked as a financial analyst for Hyatt before getting into the art business via some kind of consulting deal (he responded cryptically when I pressed him for details). …

This is a fascinating article and I have one last excerpt, which poses this question, is an AI artist-agent a collaborator or a medium? There ‘s also speculation about how AI artist-agents might impact the business of art (Note: Links have been removed),

… it’s odd to list AICAN as a collaborator—painters credit pigment as a medium, not as a partner. Even the most committed digital artists don’t present the tools of their own inventions that way; when they do, it’s only after years, or even decades, of ongoing use and refinement.

But Elgammal insists that the move is justified because the machine produces unexpected results. “A camera is a tool—a mechanical device—but it’s not creative,” he said. “Using a tool is an unfair term for AICAN. It’s the first time in history that a tool has had some kind of creativity, that it can surprise you.” Casey Reas, a digital artist who co-designed the popular visual-arts-oriented coding platform Processing, which he uses to create some of his fine art, isn’t convinced. “The artist should claim responsibility over the work rather than to cede that agency to the tool or the system they create,” he told me.

Elgammal’s financial interest in AICAN might explain his insistence on foregrounding its role. Unlike a specialized print-making technique or even the Processing coding environment, AICAN isn’t just a device that Elgammal created. It’s also a commercial enterprise.

Elgammal has already spun off a company, Artrendex, that provides “artificial-intelligence innovations for the art market.” One of them offers provenance authentication for artworks; another can suggest works a viewer or collector might appreciate based on an existing collection; another, a system for cataloging images by visual properties and not just by metadata, has been licensed by the Barnes Foundation to drive its collection-browsing website.

The company’s plans are more ambitious than recommendations and fancy online catalogs. When presenting on a panel about the uses of blockchain for managing art sales and provenance, Elgammal caught the attention of Jessica Davidson, an art consultant who advises artists and galleries in building collections and exhibits. Davidson had been looking for business-development partnerships, and she became intrigued by AICAN as a marketable product. “I was interested in how we can harness it in a compelling way,” she says.

The art market is just that: a market. Some of the most renowned names in art today, from Damien Hirst to Banksy, trade in the trade of art as much as—and perhaps even more than—in the production of images, objects, and aesthetics. No artist today can avoid entering that fray, Elgammal included. “Is he an artist?” Hoerle-Guggenheim asked himself of the computer scientist. “Now that he’s in this context, he must be.” But is that enough? In Sharp’s estimation, “Faceless Portraits Transcending Time” is a tech demo more than a deliberate oeuvre, even compared to the machine-learning-driven work of his design-and-technology M.F.A. students, who self-identify as artists first.

Judged as Banksy or Hirst might be, Elgammal’s most art-worthy work might be the Artrendex start-up itself, not the pigment-print portraits that its technology has output. Elgammal doesn’t treat his commercial venture like a secret, but he also doesn’t surface it as a beneficiary of his supposedly earnest solo gallery show. He’s argued that AI-made images constitute a kind of conceptual art, but conceptualists tend to privilege process over product or to make the process as visible as the product.

Hoerle-Guggenheim worked as a financial analyst[emphasis mine] for Hyatt before getting into the art business via some kind of consulting deal (he responded cryptically when I pressed him for details). …

If you have the time, I recommend reading Bogost’s March 6, 2019 article for The Atlantic in its entirety/ these excerpts don’t do it enough justice.

Portraiture: what does it mean these days?

After reading the article I have a few questions. What exactly do Bogost and the arty types in the article mean by the word ‘portrait’? “Portrait of Edmond de Belamy” is an image of someone who doesn’t and never has existed and the exhibit “Faceless Portraits Transcending Time,” features images that don’t bear much or, in some cases, any resemblance to human beings. Maybe this is considered a dull question by people in the know but I’m an outsider and I found the paradox: portraits of nonexistent people or nonpeople kind of interesting.

BTW, I double-checked my assumption about portraits and found this definition in the Portrait Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

A portrait is a painting, photograph, sculpture, or other artistic representation of a person [emphasis mine], in which the face and its expression is predominant. The intent is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person. For this reason, in photography a portrait is generally not a snapshot, but a composed image of a person in a still position. A portrait often shows a person looking directly at the painter or photographer, in order to most successfully engage the subject with the viewer.

So, portraits that aren’t portraits give rise to some philosophical questions but Bogost either didn’t want to jump into that rabbit hole (segue into yet another topic) or, as I hinted earlier, may have assumed his audience had previous experience of those kinds of discussions.

Vancouver (Canada) and a ‘portraiture’ exhibit at the Rennie Museum

By one of life’s coincidences, Vancouver’s Rennie Museum had an exhibit (February 16 – June 15, 2019) that illuminates questions about art collecting and portraiture, From a February 7, 2019 Rennie Museum news release,

‘downloaded from https://renniemuseum.org/press-release-spring-2019-collected-works/] Courtesy: Rennie Museum

February 7, 2019

Press Release | Spring 2019: Collected Works
By rennie museum

rennie museum is pleased to present Spring 2019: Collected Works, a group exhibition encompassing the mediums of photography, painting and film. A portraiture of the collecting spirit [emphasis mine], the works exhibited invite exploration of what collected objects, and both the considered and unintentional ways they are displayed, inform us. Featuring the works of four artists—Andrew Grassie, William E. Jones, Louise Lawler and Catherine Opie—the exhibition runs from February 16 to June 15, 2019.

Four exquisite paintings by Scottish painter Andrew Grassie detailing the home and private storage space of a major art collector provide a peek at how the passionately devoted integrates and accommodates the physical embodiments of such commitment into daily life. Grassie’s carefully constructed, hyper-realistic images also pose the question, “What happens to art once it’s sold?” In the transition from pristine gallery setting to idiosyncratic private space, how does the new context infuse our reading of the art and how does the art shift our perception of the individual?

Furthering the inquiry into the symbiotic exchange between possessor and possession, a selection of images by American photographer Louise Lawler depicting art installed in various private and public settings question how the bilateral relationship permeates our interpretation when the collector and the collected are no longer immediately connected. What does de-acquisitioning an object inform us and how does provenance affect our consideration of the art?

The question of legacy became an unexpected facet of 700 Nimes Road (2010-2011), American photographer Catherine Opie’s portrait of legendary actress Elizabeth Taylor. Opie did not directly photograph Taylor for any of the fifty images in the expansive portfolio. Instead, she focused on Taylor’s home and the objects within, inviting viewers to see—then see beyond—the façade of fame and consider how both treasures and trinkets act as vignettes to the stories of a life. Glamorous images of jewels and trophies juxtapose with mundane shots of a printer and the remote-control user manual. Groupings of major artworks on the wall are as illuminating of the home’s mistress as clusters of personal photos. Taylor passed away part way through Opie’s project. The subsequent photos include Taylor’s mementos heading off to auction, raising the question, “Once the collections that help to define someone are disbursed, will our image of that person lose focus?”

In a similar fashion, the twenty-two photographs in Villa Iolas (1982/2017), by American artist and filmmaker William E. Jones, depict the Athens home of iconic art dealer and collector Alexander Iolas. Taken in 1982 by Jones during his first travels abroad, the photographs of art, furniture and antiquities tell a story of privilege that contrast sharply with the images Jones captures on a return visit in 2016. Nearly three decades after Iolas’s 1989 death, his home sits in dilapidation, looted and vandalized. Iolas played an extraordinary role in the evolution of modern art, building the careers of Max Ernst, Yves Klein and Giorgio de Chirico. He gave Andy Warhol his first solo exhibition and was a key advisor to famed collectors John and Dominique de Menil. Yet in the years since his death, his intention of turning his home into a modern art museum as a gift to Greece, along with his reputation, crumbled into ruins. The photographs taken by Jones during his visits in two different eras are incorporated into the film Fall into Ruin (2017), along with shots of contemporary Athens and antiquities on display at the National Archaeological Museum.

“I ask a lot of questions about how portraiture functionswhat is there to describe the person or time we live in or a certain set of politics…”
 – Catherine Opie, The Guardian, Feb 9, 2016

We tend to think of the act of collecting as a formal activity yet it can happen casually on a daily basis, often in trivial ways. While we readily acknowledge a collector consciously assembling with deliberate thought, we give lesser consideration to the arbitrary accumulations that each of us accrue. Be it master artworks, incidental baubles or random curios, the objects we acquire and surround ourselves with tell stories of who we are.

Andrew Grassie (Scotland, b. 1966) is a painter known for his small scale, hyper-realist works. He has been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Tate Britain; Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh; institut supérieur des arts de Toulouse; and rennie museum, Vancouver, Canada. He lives and works in London, England.

William E. Jones (USA, b. 1962) is an artist, experimental film-essayist and writer. Jones’s work has been the subject of retrospectives at Tate Modern, London; Anthology Film Archives, New York; Austrian Film Museum, Vienna; and, Oberhausen Short Film Festival. He is a recipient of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship and the Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant. He lives and works in Los Angeles, USA.

Louise Lawler (USA, b. 1947) is a photographer and one of the foremost members of the Pictures Generation. Lawler was the subject of a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 2017. She has held exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; National Museum of Art, Oslo; and Musée d’Art Moderne de La Ville de Paris. She lives and works in New York.

Catherine Opie (USA, b. 1961) is a photographer and educator. Her work has been exhibited at Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio; Henie Onstad Art Center, Oslo; Los the Angeles County Museum of Art; Portland Art Museum; and the Guggenheim Museum, New York. She is the recipient of United States Artist Fellowship, Julius Shulman’s Excellence in Photography Award, and the Smithsonian’s Archive of American Art Medal.  She lives and works in Los Angeles.

rennie museum opened in October 2009 in historic Wing Sang, the oldest structure in Vancouver’s Chinatown, to feature dynamic exhibitions comprising only of art drawn from rennie collection. Showcasing works by emerging and established international artists, the exhibits, accompanied by supporting catalogues, are open free to the public through engaging guided tours. The museum’s commitment to providing access to arts and culture is also expressed through its education program, which offers free age-appropriate tours and customized workshops to children of all ages.

rennie collection is a globally recognized collection of contemporary art that focuses on works that tackle issues related to identity, social commentary and injustice, appropriation, and the nature of painting, photography, sculpture and film. Currently the collection includes works by over 370 emerging and established artists, with over fifty collected in depth. The Vancouver based collection engages actively with numerous museums globally through a robust, artist-centric, lending policy.

So despite the Wikipedia definition, it seems that portraits don’t always feature people. While Bogost didn’t jump into that particular rabbit hole, he did touch on the business side of art.

What about intellectual property?

Bogost doesn’t explicitly discuss this particular issue. It’s a big topic so I’m touching on it only lightly, if an artist worsk with an AI, the question as to ownership of the artwork could prove thorny. Is the copyright owner the computer scientist or the artist or both? Or does the AI artist-agent itself own the copyright? That last question may not be all that farfetched. Sophia, a social humanoid robot, has occasioned thought about ‘personhood.’ (Note: The robots mentioned in this posting have artificial intelligence.) From the Sophia (robot) Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Sophia has been interviewed in the same manner as a human, striking up conversations with hosts. Some replies have been nonsensical, while others have impressed interviewers such as 60 Minutes’ Charlie Rose.[12] In a piece for CNBC, when the interviewer expressed concerns about robot behavior, Sophia joked that he had “been reading too much Elon Musk. And watching too many Hollywood movies”.[27] Musk tweeted that Sophia should watch The Godfather and asked “what’s the worst that could happen?”[28][29] Business Insider’s chief UK editor Jim Edwards interviewed Sophia, and while the answers were “not altogether terrible”, he predicted it was a step towards “conversational artificial intelligence”.[30] At the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show, a BBC News reporter described talking with Sophia as “a slightly awkward experience”.[31]

On October 11, 2017, Sophia was introduced to the United Nations with a brief conversation with the United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, Amina J. Mohammed.[32] On October 25, at the Future Investment Summit in Riyadh, the robot was granted Saudi Arabian citizenship [emphasis mine], becoming the first robot ever to have a nationality.[29][33] This attracted controversy as some commentators wondered if this implied that Sophia could vote or marry, or whether a deliberate system shutdown could be considered murder. Social media users used Sophia’s citizenship to criticize Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. In December 2017, Sophia’s creator David Hanson said in an interview that Sophia would use her citizenship to advocate for women’s rights in her new country of citizenship; Newsweek criticized that “What [Hanson] means, exactly, is unclear”.[34] On November 27, 2018 Sophia was given a visa by Azerbaijan while attending Global Influencer Day Congress held in Baku. December 15, 2018 Sophia was appointed a Belt and Road Innovative Technology Ambassador by China'[35]

As for an AI artist-agent’s intellectual property rights , I have a July 10, 2017 posting featuring that question in more detail. Whether you read that piece or not, it seems obvious that artists might hesitate to call an AI agent, a partner rather than a medium of expression. After all, a partner (and/or the computer scientist who developed the programme) might expect to share in property rights and profits but paint, marble, plastic, and other media used by artists don’t have those expectations.

Moving slightly off topic , in my July 10, 2017 posting I mentioned a competition (literary and performing arts rather than visual arts) called, ‘Dartmouth College and its Neukom Institute Prizes in Computational Arts’. It was started in 2016 and, as of 2018, was still operational under this name: Creative Turing Tests. Assuming there’ll be contests for prizes in 2019, there’s (from the contest site) [1] PoetiX, competition in computer-generated sonnet writing; [2] Musical Style, composition algorithms in various styles, and human-machine improvisation …; and [3] DigiLit, algorithms able to produce “human-level” short story writing that is indistinguishable from an “average” human effort. You can find the contest site here.

Kerry James Marshall: a ‘song’ of racism in multiple media

Racism and social justice are two themes often found in the works featured at the Rennie Museum (formerly Rennie Collection). Local real estate marketer, Bob Rennie has been showing works there from his collection since at least 2009 when I wrote my first commentary about it (December 4, 2009).

Kerry James Marshall, the latest artist to have his work featured (June 2 – November 3, 2018), carries on the tradition while making those artistic ‘themes’ his own n a breathtaking (in both its positive and negative meanings) range of styles and media.

Here’s a brief description of some of the works, from an undated Rennie Museum press release,

Rennie Museum presents a survey of works by Kerry James Marshall spanning thirty-two years of the artist’s career. Kerry James Marshall: Collected Works features pieces from the artist’s complex body of work, which interrogates the sparse historical presence of African-Americans through painting, sculpture, drawing and other media. …

The sculptural installation Untitled (Black Power Stamps) (1998) [emphasis mine], Marshall’s very first work acquired by Bob Rennie, aptly sets the tone of the exhibition. Five colossal stamps and their corresponding ink pads are dispersed over the floor of the museum’s four-story high gallery space. Inscribed on each stamp, and reiterated on the walls, are phrases of power dating back to the Civil Rights Movement: ‘Black is Beautiful’, ‘Black Power’, ‘We Shall Overcome’, ‘By Any Means Necessary’, and ‘Burn Baby Burn’. The sentiment reverberates through the three 18 feet (5.5 metre) wide paintings installed in the same room, respectively titled Untitled (Red) (2011), Untitled (Black) and Untitled (Green) (2012). Exhibited together for the first time in North America, the imposing paintings with their colours saluting the Pan African flag echo the form of Barnett Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III (1967).

Commanding attention in the center of another room is Wake (2003-2005) [emphasis mine], a sculptural work that focuses on the collective trauma of slavery. Draped atop a blackened model sailboat is a web of medallions featuring portraits of descendants of the approximately twenty African slaves who first landed in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. Atop a polished black base evoking the deep seas, the medallions cascade over and behind the mourning vessel in a gilded procession, cast out in the boat’s wake. The work commemorates an entire lineage of people whose lives have been irrevocably affected by the traumatic history of slavery in the United States, while simultaneously celebrating the resilience and vivacity of the culture that flourished from it.

Garden Party (2004-2013) [emphasis mine] is a long-coveted painting that Marshall re-worked over the course of almost ten years. Created in a style that harkens 19th century impressionist paintings, the work depicts a scene of leisure – an array of multi-ethnic friends and neighbours casually gathered in a backyard of a social housing project. Painted on a flat canvas tarp and hung barely off the floor, the image highlights an often-overlooked perspective of the vibrant everyday life in the projects and invites its viewers to join in the gathering.

In a dimmed room is Invisible Man (1986) [emphasis mine] – a historic work and one of the first to feature Marshall’s now iconic black on black tonal painting. Referencing Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel of the same title, Marshall’s work literalizes the premise of black invisibility. Only distinguishable by his bright-white eyes and teeth, and the subtle warmth that delineates black body from black background, Marshall’s figure, like Ellison’s protagonist, subverts his own invisibility, using colour as an emblem of power rather than of submission. The work’s presentation at Rennie Museum provides an opportunity for viewers to explore the full mastery with which Kerry James Marshall layers his various shades of black.

As always, you book a tour or claim a space on a tour (here) to see the latest exhibition and are guided through the gallery spaces. What follows is a series of pictures depicting the Marshall pieces in that first room (from the Rennie Museum’s photographic documentation for Marshall’s work), Note: There are five pages of documentation and I encourage you to look at all five,

Installation View. Courtesy:: Rennie Museum

Blot, 2014. acrylic on pvc panel 84 × 119 5/8 × 3 3/8 inches (213 × 304 × 9 cm). Courtesy: Rennie Museum

Sculpture (Ibeji), 2006. wood, fabric, beads 24 × 12 × 14 inches (61 × 30 × 36 cm) Courtesy: Rennie Museum

Heirlooms and Accessories, 2002. 3 inkjet prints on wove paper, rhinestone encrusted wooden artist’s frames each: 56 5/8 × 53 3/4 inches (144 × 137 cm) Courtesy: Rennie Museum

I’ve placed the pieces in the order in which I viewed them. Being at the opening event on June 2, 2018 meant that rather than having a tour, we were ‘invited’ to look at the pieces and ask questions of various ‘attendants’ standing nearby. The ‘Blot’, with all that colour, immediate drew my attention and not having read the title of the piece, I commented on its resemblance to a Rorschach Inkblot. It was my only successful guess of the visit and I continue to bask in it.

According to the attendant, in addition to resembling said inkblot, this piece also addresses abstract expressionism and the absence of African American visual artists from the movement. In this piece as with many others, Marshall finds a way to depict absence despite the paradox (a picture of absence) in terms.

‘Heirlooms and Accessories’ is an example of Marshall’s talent for depicting absence. At first glance the piece seems benign. There is a kind of double frame. The outermost frame is white and inside (abutting the artwork) a diamante braid has been added all around it to create a double frame. The braid is very pretty and accentuates the lockets depicted in the image. There are three white women pictured in their lockets and beneath those lockets and the white paint lay images of African Americans being lynched. The women, by the way, were complicit in the lynchings. It was deeply unsettling to learn this as my friend and I had just moments before been admiring the diamante braid.

Marshall’s work seems designed to force the viewer to look beneath the surface, which means stripping away layers, which with ‘Heirlooms’ means that you strip away the whitewashing.

As a white woman, the show is a profoundly disturbing  experience. Marshall’s range of materials and mastery are breathtaking (in the positive sense) and the way he seduces the (white) viewer into coming closer and experiencing the painting, metaphorically speaking, as a mirror rather than a picture. Marshall has flipped the viewer’s experience making it impossible (or very difficult) to blame racism on other people while failing to recognize your own sins.

The third piece in the room, the sculpture is a representation of a standard of beauty still not often seen in popular culture in North America. Weirdly, it reminded me of something from a December 21, 2017 posting on the LaineyGossip blog,

[downloaded from http://www.laineygossip.com/princess-michael-of-kent-racist-jewelry-greets-meghan/48728]

I don’t know well you can see this, but it’s an example of ‘Blackamoor jewellery’. The woman wearing it is Princess Michael of Kent and at the time the picture was taken she was on her to a Christmas 2017 lunch with the Queen of England. The lunch is where she was to meet Meghan Markle who describes herself as a woman of mixed race and is now the Duchess of Sussex and married to the Queen’s grandson, Harry. For anyone unfamiliar with ‘Blackmoor art’ here’s a July 31, 2015 essay by Anneke Rautenbach for New York University,

… Blackamoors—a trope in Italian decorative art especially common in pieces of furniture, but also appearing in paintings, jewelry, and textiles. The motif emerged as an artistic response to the European encounter with the Moors—dark-skinned Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East who came to occupy various parts of Europe during the Middle Ages. Commonly fixed in positions of servitude—as footmen or waiters, for example—the figures personify fantasies of racial conquest.

I trust Princess Michael was made to remove her brooch before entering the palace.

The contrast between Marshall’s sculpture emphasizing the dignity and beauty of the figure and the ‘jewellery’ is striking. The past, as Marshall reminds us, is always with us. From Rautenback’s July 31, 2015 essay (Note: A link has been removed),

Gaudy by nature, and uncomfortably dated—a bit like the American lawn jockey, or Aunt Jemima doll— … Blackamoors are still a thriving industry, with the United States as their no. 1 importer. (In fact, the figurines are especially popular in Texas and Connecticut—search “Blackamoor” online and you’ll find countless listings on eBay, Etsy, and elsewhere.) Unlike their American counterparts, which focus mostly on romanticizing scenes from the era of slavery, these European ornaments often depict black bodies as exotic noblemen. And not everyone considers them passé: As recently as September 2012, the Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana invited outrage when it included a caricatured black woman figurine on an earring as part of its spring/summer collection.

Encountering bias and (conscious or unconscious) racism in one’s self is both deeply  chastening and a priceless gift.  It’s one that comedienne Roseanne Barr seems determined to refuse (from a June 14, 2018 article by Marissa Martinelli for Slate.com (Note: Link have been removed),

Barr […] suggested on Thursday [June 14, 2018] that it is only “low IQ” people who would interpret describing a black woman as “Muslim Brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby” as racist. The real explanation is apparently much deeper:

Roseanne BarrVerified account @therealroseanne

Rod Serling wrote Planet of The Apes. It was about anti-semitism. That is what my tweet referred to-the anti semitism of the Iran deal. Low IQ ppl can think whatever they want.

Low IQ people and Rod Serling’s screenwriting join Ambien and Memorial Day on the growing list of entities that Barr has used to justify the racist tweet over the past two weeks. The one person whose name you will not find on that list of people responsible for what Roseanne Barr said is Roseanne Barr herself.

Even with such an obvious tweet, Barr can’t (consistently) admit to and (consistently) apologize for her comment. It may not seem like a gift to her but it is. Facing up to one’s sins and making reparation can help heal the extraordinary wounds that Marshall is making visible.

You may have noticed that I called this show ‘a song of racism’. It’s a reference to poetry which in ancient times was sometimes referred to as a song (Song of Solomon, anyone?). It was also a narrative instrument, i. e., used for storytelling for an active, participatory audience.

Marshall tells a story in allusive language (like poetry) and tricks/seduces you into participating.

On that note, I have one last story to tell and it’s about the placement of Marshall’s artworks in the first floor room. It’s my story, yours and Marshall’s might be different but he has inspired me and so …

The ‘Blot’ or Rorschach Inkblot is a test, which tells a psychologist something about you and how you apprehend the world. It’s the first piece you see when you enter the Rennie Museum space and it sets the tone for all that is to come.  What you see says much about you.

The women, in the sculpture and the lockets, provide contrast and, depending on your race, hold a mirror to you. What is ‘other’ and what is ‘you’?

There was religious imagery in much of Marshall’s work elsewhere and I was particularly struck with the hearts that appeared in some of his paintings. I was reminded of the ‘sacred heart’, a key piece of religious iconography usually associated with Roman Catholicism although other religions also use the imagery.

It is a symbol of love and compassion although I’ve always associated it more with guilt. (My mother favoured the version featuring the heart pierced with a crown of thorns.)

Getting back to “What is ‘other’ and what is ‘you’?” Marshall seems to be hinting that after guilt and suffering, forgiveness is possible.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

As for Marshall, he is a thoughtful artist asking some difficult questions. I hope you’ll get a chance to see his work at the Rennie Museum. As I write this, every tour through June is completely booked and first set of July tours is getting booked fast. You’d best keep an eagle eye on the Visit page.

ETA June18, 2018: Kerry James Marshall was in Vancouver and gave this talk about his work just prior to the show’s opening: https://vimeo.com/274179397 (It runs for roughly 1 hr. and 49 minutes.)

A dance with love and fear: the Yoko Ono exhibit and the Takashi Murakami exhibit in Vancouver (Canada)

It seems Japanese artists are ‘having a moment’. There’s a documentary (Kusama—Infinity) about contemporary Japanese female artist, Yayoi Kusama, making the festival rounds this year (2018). Last year (2017), the British Museum mounted a major exhibition of Hokusai’s work (19th Century) and in 2017, the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute benefit was inspired by a Japanese fashion designer, “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between.” (A curator at the Japanese Garden in Portland who had lived in Japan for a number of years mentioned to me during an interview that the Japanese have one word for art. There is no linguistic separation between art and craft.)

More recently, both Yoko Ono and Takashi Murakami have had shows in Vancouver, Canada. Starting with fear as I prefer to end with love, Murakami had a blockbuster show at the Vancouver Gallery.

Takashi Murakami: a dance with fear (and money too)

In the introductory notes at the beginning of the exhibit: “Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its own Leg,” it was noted that fear is one of Murakami’s themes. The first few pieces in the show had been made to look faded and brownish to the point where you had to work at seeing what was underneath the layers. The images were a little bit like horror films something’s a bit awry then scary and you don’t know what it is or how to deal with it.

After those images, the show opened up to bright, bouncy imagery commonly associated with Mrjakami’s work. However, if you look at them carefully, you’ll see many of these characters have big, pointed teeth. Also featured was a darkened room with two huge warriors.At a guess, I’d say they were 14 feet tall.

It  made for a disconcerting show with its darker themes usually concealed in bright, vibrant colour. Here’s an image promoting Murakami’s Vancouver birthday celebration and exhibit opening,

‘Give me the money, now!’ says a gleeful Takashi Murakami, whose expansive show is currently at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Photo by the VAG. [downloaded from https://thetyee.ca/Culture/2018/02/07/Takashi-Murakami-VAG/]

The colours and artwork shown in the marketing materials (I’m including the wrapping on the gallery itself) were  exuberant as was Murakami who acted as his own marketing material. I’m mentioning the money It’s very intimately and blatantly linked to Murakami’s art and work.  Dorothy Woodend in a Feb. 7, 2018 article for The Tyee puts it this way (Note: Link have been removed),

The close, almost incestuous relationship between art and money is a very old story. [emphasis mine] You might even say it is the only story at the moment.

You can know this, understand it to a certain extent, and still have it rear up and bite you on the bum. [emphasis mine] Such was my experience of attending the exhibition preview of Takashi Murakami’s The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

The show is the first major retrospective of Murakami’s work in Canada, and the VAG has spared no expense in marketing the living hell out of the thing. From the massive cephalopod installed atop the dome of the gallery, to the ocean of smiling cartoon flowers, to the posters papering every inch of downtown Vancouver, it is in a word: huge.

If you don’t know much about Murakami the show is illuminating, in many different ways. Expansive in extremis, the exhibition includes more than 50 works that trace a path through the evolution of Murakami’s style and aesthetic, moving from his early dark textural paintings that blatantly ripped off Anselm Kiefer, to his later pop-art style (Superflat), familiar from Kanye West albums and Louis Vuitton handbags.

make no mistake, money runs underneath the VAG show like an engine [emphasis mine]. You can feel it in the air, thrumming with a strange radioactive current, like a heat mirage coming off the people madly snapping selfies next to the Kanye Bear sculpture.

The artist himself seems particularly aware of how much of a financial edifice surrounds the human impulse to make images. In an on-stage interview with senior VAG [Vancouver Art Gallery] curator Bruce Grenville during a media preview for the show, Murakami spoke plainly about the need for survival (a.k.a. money) [emphasis mine] that has propelled his career.

Even the title of the show speaks to the notion of survival (from Woodend’s article; Note: Links have been removed),

The title of the show takes inspiration from Japanese folklore about a creature that sacrifices part of its own body so that the greater whole might survive. In the natural world, an octopus will chew off its own leg if there is an infection, and then regrow the missing limb. In the art world, the idea pertains to the practice of regurgitating (recycling) old ideas to serve the endless voracious demand for new stuff. “I don’t have the talent to come up with new ideas, so in order to survive, you have to eat your own body,” Murakami explains, citing his need for deadlines, and very bad economic conditions, that lead to a state of almost Dostoyevskyian desperation. “Please give me the money now!” he yells, and the assembled press laughs on cue.

The artist’s responsibility to address larger issues like gender, politics and the environment was the final question posed during the Q&A, before the media were allowed into the gallery to see the work. Murakami took his time before answering, speaking through the nice female translator beside him. “Artists don’t have that much power in the world, but they can speak to the audience of the future, who look at the artwork from a certain era, like Goya paintings, and see not just social commentary, but an artistic point of view. The job of the artist is to dig deep into human beings.”

Which is a nice sentiment to be sure, but increasingly art is about celebrity and profit. Record-breaking shows like Alexander McQueen’s Savage Beauty and Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between demonstrated an easy appeal for both audiences and corporations. One of Murakami’s earlier exhibitions featured a Louis Vuitton pop-up shop as part of the show. Closer to home, the Fight for Beauty exhibit mixed fashion, art and development in a decidedly queasy-making mixture.

There is money to be made in culture of a certain scale, with scale being the operative word. Get big or get out.

Woodend also relates the show and some of the issues it raises to the local scene (Note: Links have been removed),

A recent article in the Vancouver Courier about the Oakridge redevelopment plans highlighted the relationship between development and culture in raw numbers: “1,000,000 square feet of retail, 2,600 homes for 6,000 people, office space for 3,000 workers, a 100,000-square-foot community centre and daycare, the city’s second-largest library, a performing arts academy, a live music venue for 3,000 people and the largest public art program in Vancouver’s history…”

Westbank’s Ian Gillespie [who hosted the Fight for Beauty exhibit] was quoted extensively, outlining the integration between the city and the developer. “The development team will also work with the city’s chief librarian to figure out the future of the library, while the 3,000-seat music venue will create an ‘incredible music scene.’” The term “cultural hub” also pops up so many times it’s almost funny, in a horrifying kind of way.

But bigness often squeezes out artists and musicians who simply can’t compete. Folk who can’t fill a 3,000-seat venue, or pack in thousands of visitors, like the Murakami show, are out of luck.

Vancouver artists, who struggle to survive in the city and have done so for quite some time, were singularly unimpressed with the Oakridge development proposal. Selina Crammond, a local musician and all-around firebrand, summed up the divide in a few eloquent sentences: “I mean really, who is going to make up this ‘incredible music scene’ and fill all of these shiny new venues? Many of my favourite local musicians have already moved away from Vancouver because they just can’t make it work. Who’s going to pay the musicians and workers? Who’s going to pay the large ticket prices to be able to maintain these spaces? I don’t think space is the problem. I think affordability and distribution of wealth and funding are the problems artists and arts workers are facing.”

The stories continue to pop up, the most recent being the possible sale and redevelopment of the Rio Theatre. The news sparked an outpouring of anger, but the story is repeated so often in Vancouver, it has become something of a cliché. You need only to look at the story of the Hollywood Theatre for a likely ending to the saga.

Which brings me back around to the Murakami exhibit. To be perfectly frank, the show is incredible and well-worth visiting. I enjoyed every minute of wandering through it taking in the sheer expanse of mind-boggling, googly-eyed detail. I would urge you to attend, if you can afford it. But there’s the rub. I was there for free, and general admission to the VAG is $22.86. This may not seem like a lot, but in a city where people can barely make rent, culture becomes the purview of them that can afford it.

The City of Vancouver recently launched its Creative Cities initiative to look at issues of affordability, diversity and gentrification.

We shall see if anything real emerges from the process. But in the meantime, Vancouver artists might have to eat their own legs simply to survive. [Tyee]

Survival issues and their intimate companions, fear, are clearly a major focus for Murakami’s art.

For the curious, the Vancouver version of the Murakami retrospective show was held from February 3 – May 6, 2018. There are still some materials about the show available online here.

Yoko Ono and the power of love (and maybe money, too)

More or less concurrently with the Murakami exhibition, the Rennie Museum (formerly Rennie Collection), came back from a several month hiatus to host a show featuring Yoko Ono’s “Mend Piece.”

From a Rennie Museum (undated) press release,

Rennie Museum is pleased to present Yoko Ono’s MEND PIECE, Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York City version (1966/2015). Illustrating Ono’s long standing artistic quest in social activism and world peace, this instructional work will transform the historic Wing Sang building into an intimate space for creative expression and bring people together in an act of collective healing and meditation. The installation will run from March 1 to April 15, 2018.

First conceptualized in 1966, the work immerses the visitor in a dream-like state. Viewers enter into an all-white space and are welcomed to take a seat at the table to reassemble fragments of ceramic coffee cups and saucers using the provided twine, tape, and glue. Akin to the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-sabi, an embracing of the flawed or imperfect, Mend Piece encourages the participant to transform broken fragments into an object that prevails its own violent rupture. The mended pieces are then displayed on shelves installed around the room. The contemplative act of mending is intended to promote reparation starting within one’s self and community, and bridge the gap created by violence, hatred, and war. In the words of Yoko Ono herself, “Mend with wisdom, mend with love. It will mend the earth at the same time.”

The installation of MEND PIECE, Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York City version at Rennie Museum will be accompanied by an espresso bar, furthering the notions of community and togetherness.

Yoko Ono (b. 1933) is a Japanese conceptual artist, musician, and peace activist pioneering feminism and Fluxus art. Her eclectic oeuvre of performance art, paintings, sculptures, films and sound works have been shown at renowned institutions worldwide, with recent exhibitions at The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Copenhagen Contemporary, Copenhagen; Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; and Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires. She is the recipient of the 2005 IMAJINE Lifetime Achievement Award and the 2009 Venice Biennale Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, among other distinctions. She lives and works in New York City.

While most of the shows have taken place over two, three, or four floors, “Mend Piece” was on the main floor only,

Courtesy: Rennie Museum

There was another “Mend Piece” in Canada, located at the Gardiner Museum and part of a larger show titled: “The Riverbed,” which ran from February 22 to June 3, 2018. Here’s an image of one of the Gardiner Museum “Mend” pieces that was featured in a March 7, 2018 article by Sonya Davidson for the Toronto Guardian,

Yoko Ono, Mend Piece, 1966 / 2018, © Yoko Ono. Photo: Tara Fillion Courtesy: Toronto Guardian

Here’s what Davidson had to say about the three-part installation, “The Riverbed,”

I’m sitting  on one of the cushions placed on the floor watching the steady stream of visitors at Yoko Ono’s exhibition The Riverbed at the Gardiner Museum. The room is airy and bright but void of  colours yet it’s vibrant and alive in a calming way. There are three distinct areas in this exhibition: Stone Piece, Line Piece and Mend Piece. From what I’ve experienced in Ono’s previous exhibitions, her work encourages participation and is inclusive of everyone. She has the idea. She encourages us to  go collaborate with her. Her work is describe often as  redirecting our attention to ideas, instead of appearances.

Mend Piece is the one I’m most familiar with. It was part of her exhibition I visited in Reykjavik [Iceland]. Two large communal tables are filled with broken ceramic pieces and mending elements. Think glue, string, and tape.  Instructions from Ono once again are simple but with meaning. Take the pieces that resonate with you and mend them as you desire. You’re encourage [sic] to leave it in the communal space for everyone to experience what you’ve experienced. It reminded me of her work decades ago where she shattered porcelain vases, and people invited people to take a piece with them. But then years later she collected as many back and mended them herself. Part contemporary with a nod to the traditional Japanese art form of Kintsugi – fixing broken pottery with gold and the philosophy of nothing is ever truly broken. The repairs made are part of the history and should be embraced with honour and pride.

The experience at the Rennie was markedly different . I recommend reading both Davidson’s piece (includes many embedded images) in its entirety to get a sense for how different and this April 7, 2018 article by Jenna Moon for The Star regarding the theft of a stone from The Riverbed show at the Gardiner,

A rock bearing Yoko Ono’s handwriting has been stolen from the Gardiner Museum, Toronto police say. The theft reportedly occurred around 5:30 p.m. on March 12.

The rock is part of an art exhibit featuring Ono, where patrons can meditate using several river rocks. The stone is inscribed with black ink, and reads “love yourself” in block letters. It is valued at $17,500 (U.S.), [emphasis mine] Toronto police media officer Gary Long told the Star Friday evening.

As far as I can tell, they still haven’t found the suspect who was described as a woman between the ages of 55 and 60. However the question that most interests me is how did they arrive at a value for the stone? Was it a case of assigning a value to the part of the installation with the stones and dividing that value by the number of stones? Yoko Ono may focus her art on social activism and peace but she too needs money to survive. Moving on.

Musings on ‘mend’

Participating in “Mend Piece” at the Rennie Museum was revelatory. It was a direct experience of the “traditional Japanese art form of Kintsugi – fixing broken pottery with gold and the philosophy of nothing is ever truly broken.” So often art is at best a tertiary experience for the viewer. The artist has the primary experience producing the work and the curator has the secondary experience of putting the show together.

For all the talk about interactive installations and pieces, there are few that truly engage the viewer with the piece. I find this rule applies: the more technology, the less interactivity.

“Mend” insisted on interactivity. More or less. I went with a friend and sat beside the one person in the group who didn’t want to talk to anyone. And she wasn’t just quiet, you could feel the “don’t talk to me” vibrations pouring from every one of her body parts.

The mending sessions were about 30 minutes long and, as Davidson notes, you had string, two types of glue, and twine. For someone with any kind of perfectionist tendencies (me) and a lack of crafting skills (me), it proved to be a bit of a challenge, especially with a semi-hostile person beside me. Thank goodness my friend was on the other side.

Adding to my travails was the gallery assistant (a local art student) who got very anxious and hovered over me as I attempted and failed to set my piece on a ledge in the room (twice). She was very nice and happy to share, without being intrusive, information about Yoko Ono and her work while we were constructing our pieces. I’m not sure what she thought was going to happen when I started dropping things but her hovering brought back memories of my adolescence when shopkeepers would follow me around their store.

Most of my group had finished and even though there was still time in my session, the next group rushed in and took my seat while I failed for the second time to place my piece. I stood for my third (and thankfully successful) repair attempt.

At that point I went to the back where more of the “Mend” communal experience awaited. Unfortunately, the coffee bar’s (this put up especially for the show) espresso machine was not working. There was some poetry on the walls and a video highlighting Yoko Ono’s work over the years and the coffee bar attendant was eager to share (but not intrusively so) some information about Yoko and her work.

As I stated earlier, it was a revelatory experience. First, It turned out my friend had been following Yoko’s work since before the artist had hooked up with John Lennon and she was able to add details to the attendants’ comments.

Second, I didn’t expect was a confrontation with the shards of my past and personality. In essence, mending myself and, hopefully, more. There was my perfectionism, rejection by the unfriendly tablemate, my emotional response (unspoken) to the hypervigilant gallery assistant, having my seat taken from me before the time was up, and the disappointment of the coffee bar. There was also a rediscovery of my friend, a friendly tablemate who made a beautiful object (it looked like a bird), the helpfulness of both the gallery assistants, Yoko Ono’s poetry, and a documentary about the remarkable Yoko.

All in all, it was a perfect reflection of imperfection (wabi-sabi), brokenness, and wounding in the context of repair (Kintsugi)/healing.

Thank you, Yoko Ono.

For anyone in Vancouver who feels they missed out on the experience, there are some performances of “Perfect Imperfections: The Art of a Messy Life” (comedy, dance, and live music) at Vancity Culture Lab at The Cultch from June 14 – 16, 2018. You can find out more here.

The moment

It certainly seems as if there’s a great interest in Japanese art, if you live in Vancouver (Canada), anyway. The Murakami show was a huge success for the Vancouver Art Gallery. As for Yoko Ono, the Rennie Museum extended the exhibit dates due to demand. Plus, the 2018 – 2020 version of the Vancouver Biennale is featuring (from a May 29, 2018 Vancouver Biennale news release),

… Yoko Ono with its 2018 Distinguished Artist Award, a recognition that coincides with reissuing the acclaimed artist’s 2007 Biennale installation, “IMAGINE PEACE,” marshalled at this critical time to re-inspire a global consciousness towards unity, harmony, and accord. Yoko Ono’s project exemplifies the Vancouver Biennale’s mission for diverse communities to gain access, visibility and representation.

The British Museum’s show (May 25 – August 13, 2017), “Hokusai’s Great Wave,” was seen in Vancouver at a special preview event in May 2017 at a local movie house, which was packed.

The documentary film festival, DOXA (Vancouver) closed its 2018 iteration with the documentary about Yayoi Kusama. Here’s more about her from a May 9, 2018 article by Janet Smith for the Georgia Straight,

Amid all the dizzying, looped-and-dotted works that American director Heather Lenz has managed to capture in her new documentary Kusama—Infinity, perhaps nothing stands out so much as images of the artist today in her Shinjuku studio.

Interviewed in the film, the 89-year-old Yayoi Kusama sports a signature scarlet bobbed anime wig and hot-pink polka-dotted dress, sitting with her marker at a drawing table, and set against the recent creations on her wall—a sea of black-and-white spots and jaggedy lines.

“The boundary between Yayoi Kusama and her art is not very great,” Lenz tells the Straight from her home in Orange County. “They are one and the same.”

It was as a young student majoring in art history and fine art that Lenz was first drawn to Kusama—who stood out as one of few female artists in her textbooks. She saw an underappreciated talent whose avant-pop works anticipated Andy Warhol and others. And as Lenz dug deeper into the artist’s story, she found a woman whose struggles with a difficult childhood and mental illness made her achievements all the more remarkable.

Today, Kusama is one of the world’s most celebrated female artists, her kaleidoscopic, multiroom show Infinity Mirrors drawing throngs of visitors to galleries like the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Seattle Art Museum over the past year. But when Lenz set out to make her film 17 long years ago, few had ever heard of Kusama.

I am hopeful that this is a sign that the Vancouver art scene is focusing more attention to the west, to Asia. Quite frankly, it’s about time.

As a special treat, here’s a ‘Yoko Ono tribute’ from the Bare Naked Ladies,

Dance!

Solange Knowles and the Rennie Museum in Vancouver, Canada on April 27 and 28, 2017

Tickets ($35 CAD?) were sold out in less than an hour. Drat! On the upside, the Rennie Museum (formerly the Rennie Collection) is one of nine venues in nine cities hosting Solange Knowles’ music tour of art museums. (Not my usual topic but I have covered shows at the Rennie many times throughout the years.) This tour is discussed in Emilia Petrarca’s April 24, 2017 article for W magazine,

While Knowles isn’t formally touring for A Seat at the Table, she will continue on the festival circuit and is also working on a performance art-inspired “museum tour,” which she’ll perform at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as well as the Guggenheim Museum in May [2017].

On wanting to be more than just a singer:

“Singer is probably at the bottom of the barrel in terms of what I’m trying to achieve as an artist. Visually, through many mediums—through dance, through art direction, through color theory—there are so many things that I’ve dabbled in that I’ve yet to immerse myself in fully. But I think right now, I’m creating the live show and music composition, production, and creating from the ground up is when I feel the most at home.”

On her history as a dancer:

“I used to want to be a modern dancer when I was younger and go to Juilliard and do the whole thing, but I had a knee injury when I was 15. I was actually dancing for Destiny’s Child. And that was how I started to write, because I thought I was going to be an [Alvin] Ailey girl [emphasis mine] somewhere.”

On styling the costumes for her festival shows and museum tour:

“I’m touring two shows this spring/summer/fall, and one takes place in museum lobbies. For me, Donald Judd’s idea that we take on our surroundings as a part of the art itself really, really punctured me in the way that I look at performance art. It’s really rare that an artist gets to perform in daylight, unless it’s at a festival. So I really wanted to play with creating a strong color palette. I’ve been playing around with a lot of neutral tones since the record came out and Issey Miyake has been a huge influence. We’re also wearing a lot of Phillip Lim and really comfortable, moveable fabrics. On stage, I’ve really been empowered by the color red. I think it’s associated, especially with women, as this fiery, super volatile, and strong-willed color. Almost stubborn, if you will. So we’re wearing all-red for our festival shows and playing with the lighting for all the moods red can express. Color theory is this really nerdy side of me that I’ve been wanting to explore more of.”

It’s impossible to emphasize Alvin Ailey’s impact enough. Prior to him, there were no African American dancers in dance It was thought African Americans had the wrong body type until Alvin Ailey proved them wrong. (The topic of body type and dance is bizarre to an outsider, especially where ballet is concerned. It lends itself to racism but is rampant throughout the world of modern dance and ballet. I followed the topic for a number of years.)

Getting back to Solange Knowles, Tavi Gevinson’s Sept. 30, 2016 article for W explores her then new album ‘A Seat at the Table’,

Solange’s new album, A Seat at the Table, is so many things at once: an antidote to hate, a celebration of blackness, an expression of the right to feel it all. After a move to Louisiana and period of self-reflection, the artist joined forces with a range of collaborators to put her new discoveries to music. Hearing it for the very first time, my heart went in and out of slow motion: swelled at a layered vocal, stopped at a painfully apt choice of words, sped up with a perfect bass-line. Mostly I was struck by A Seat at the Table as a nurturing force among the trauma of anti-blackness; a further exploration of questions posed by Solange on her Twitter, last summer: “Where can we be safe? Where can we be free? Where can we be black?”

So much of your album explicitly discusses racism and celebrating blackness, and one of the interludes talks about taking all the anger and metabolizing it through the work. Does that start with you through the lyrics or the sounds?

The writing process of this album was not more unique than any of my other processes, in that it typically starts with the melody idea and the words evolve based off of what I listen back to. Nine times out of ten, you’re freestyling, but you’re piecing the puzzle pieces together after you settle on a melody that you like. I definitely had concepts I wanted to explore. I knew that I wanted to make a song experiencing and communicating the exhaustion, the feeling of being weary and tired and energetically drained. I knew that I wanted to discuss this idea of the “angry black woman” in society, and dissect a conversation that I’ve had one too many times. I knew I had these concepts that I wanted to communicate, but I was resistant to letting them lead the creative process. So the first layer of making the album, I just jammed in a room with some incredible musicians. It was a great energy in the room, because it was not so much like, ‘I’m going to make this album about this specific thing. It was just music-making. Then, I took that music and I went to New Iberia for that time, and I needed that insular time to break down what I was saying, what I was going to communicate and how I was going to do that. From there, I spent that summer writing lyrics. It was an interesting process because I’m a mother and I had to balance making an album and raising a preteen. And having my hands in all these different pots, so it was either all or nothing to me. I spent three months in New Iberia, and I recorded some of the album in Ghana and Jamaica. I had to have these isolated experiences creatively in order to turn off and listen to myself.

For all of the continued awareness of systemic violence and oppression, there isn’t a lot of talk about that psychological toll of racism, at least in white circles and white media. That is so heavy in the album, and I’m really excited for people to have that to turn to.

That is such an ignored part of the conversation. I feel there were a lot of traumas that I had to experience during this creative process, that I didn’t identify as traumas until I realized just how much weight and how many triggers [there are] like constantly seeing the images of young black people lifeless in the street, and how many cries of mothers that you’re constantly hearing on a daily basis. Outside of those traumas, just the nuances that you have to navigate through everyday as a black person living in this country. It absolutely has a psychological effect on you. There are clinical and scientific studies that show the brain dealing with the same type of PTSD that we know of in other traumatic instances and experiences, but society has not yet come to terms with applying it to race. But I have a lot of optimism in the fact that we’re even able to have this conversation now. This isn’t something that my mom and one of her white friends would be discussing in their time. It’s not always easy, and it’s not always comfortable, and the person leading it usually gets a lot of shit for it, but that’s with any revolution.

Here’s a little information about the upcoming Vancouver show from an April 21, 2017 news item on the Georgia Straight (Note: Links have been removed),

Solange Knowles, woke artist, activist, feminist, and producer of one of 2016’s most critically acclaimed albums, has announced that she will be playing a show at Vancouver’s Rennie Museum (51 East Pender Street) on April 27.

The singer published an image to her Instagram page yesterday (April 20), revealing that Vancouver is one of nine cities she will be stopping in over the next two months. Shortly after, the Rennie Collection, one of the country’s largest collections of contemporary art exhibited at the Wing Sang building in Chinatown, shared on its social media pages that Knowles will be conducting a “special performance”.

“Her album [A Seat at the Table] is very artistic,” Wendy Chang, director at the Rennie, tells the Straight by phone. “She’s on the West Coast this week and, because she has nothing planned for Vancouver at all, we thought we’d take advantage of that and have her perform and have all proceeds go to a charity.”

Chang reveals that the “very small, very intimate” performance will benefit the Atira Women’s Resource Society, a DTES–based nonprofit that provides safe housing and support for women and children affected by violence.

Not much else has been confirmed about the last-minute show, though given the venue and the sold-out act Knowles plans to present at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in May, fans can expect an interdisciplinary set that explores blackness, prejudice, and womanhood both visually and sonically.

In March, Knowles also debuted “Scales”, a performance project “examining protest as meditation through movement and experimentation of unique compositions and arrangements from A Seat at the Table”, at Houston’s Menil Collection. More recently, she appeared at the Pérez Art Museum Miami.

In addition to Vancouver, Knowles is making stops in cities such as San Francisco, Mayer, Arizona, and Boston between now and June [2017].

I did find a review for Knowles’ April 21, 2017 show in Portland, Oregon (from  Emerson Malone’s April 22, 2017 review for DailyEmerald.com,

The unsinkable Solange Knowles played the headlining slot for Soul’d Out Music Fest, a soul and R&B music festival based in multiple venues around Portland, on Friday, April 21, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. The festival’s events from April 19–23 have included Travis Scott (who brought Drake out to get cozy in the crowd); Giorgio Moroder, The Ohio Players and Cory Henry and the Funk Apostles.

One of the most admirable elements of Solange’s live show is the impeccable choreography. It’s so precisely designed that every subtle movement, every head nod and jazz hand-wave, was on cue. At times the group would form a tight chorus line and sway back and forth in unison, with everyone (save the trombonists) continuing to play.

When she demanded that everyone dance during the bubblegum-pop hit “Losing You” from her 2012 EP “True,” the entire hall erupted at her behest. The encore performance “Don’t Touch My Hair” — Solange’s exhortation of the casual fetishization of black women  — was phenomenal. She turned her back to the audience and acted as conductor, commanding the musicians with loud, grandiose gestures. As the drummer smashed the cymbals, she mirrored him, thrashed her limbs and windmilled her arms.

Following the show, even one of the Arlene’s security guards — who just spent the last hour dancing — was quietly weeping and speechlessly shaking her head in awe. Solange isn’t just a firebrand individual, and her show isn’t just an opulent, elegant triumph of performance art. She is a puppet master; we’re marionettes.

Unfortunately, the Solange Knowles’ Vancouver show sold out within minutes (yes, I know I’m repeating it but it was heartbreaking) and I gather from the folks at the Rennie Museum that they had very little notice about the show which is being organized solely by Knowles’ people in response to my somewhat grumbling email. Ah well, them’s the breaks. In any event, there are only 100 tickets per performance available so for those who did get a ticket, you are going to have an intimate experience with the artist  and given the venue, this will be a performance art experience rather than a music show such as the one in Portland, Oregon. There will be three performances in Vancouver,. one on Thursday, April 27, 2017 and two on Friday, April 28, 2017 (you can see the listing here). Enjoy!