Tuesday, May 8, 2007

More art ---- Now with Photos!

As I said in my last post, over the weekend I went to LA see a feminist art exhibit, but simply by chance saw one of the other exhibits there and found it much more interesting. See, spontaneity is good! You can find stuff you hadn't ever expected, but really needed to see.

The main MOCA building, a much smaller building than the one that houses the WACK exhibit, has really pretty red stone on the outside and looks very new and inviting (that's it on the right, with a sculpture made out of airplane fragments in front of it). There, we saw an exhibit called "Poetics of the Handmade." It was a collection of very recent work by a bunch of Latin American artists, and I have to admit that, after the revolutionary 60s-style feminist art, it was a bit of a relief to be looking at works that did not harp quite so much on identity politics, and that had a sly sense of humor. These artworks aren’t simply handmade in an ordinary sense of the term; each artist, in very different ways, takes mass-produced items and then, through painstaking craft and detail, remakes them in some way. As the exhibition catalog states, “Their makers do not spurn manufactured products as Process artists did; instead, they make mass produced goods the starting point of their work” (“Art is Made by the Hands,” 12). However, the sheer amount of time and labor that goes into transforming these items sets them apart from both mass-produced commodities and the minimalist or conceptual art that sometimes appears, to put it uncharitably, to be putting one over on patrons and the public. Once, on a sightseeing tour of Chicago, the bus driver pointed out to me the museum of contemporary art or, as he put it, "the museum of I-can-do-that-too," and it is true that conceptual art, particularly bad conceptual art, often appears to be something that anyone could have done while simultaneously being so off-putting and pretentious that the average person would never do it, exacerbating a divide between artists and your general schmoes ---- a divide that I feel the feminist artists of the other exhibit were trying to cross and enable everyone to see themselves as capable of producing art.

The artists of "Poetics of the Handmade" attempt another way around these impasses of commercial vs. individual production, art object vs. readymade, by returning to the idea of craft, an idea of individual technical skill or ability, but one rooted more in the folk or arts-and-crafts tradition than the "great masters" studios of the classical painters. Whether it be Dario Escobar, who covers surfboards and skateboards with silver embossing, transforming sports equipment into reliquaries worthy of the Conquistadores, or Maximo Gonzalez who cuts old devalued money into intricate shapes and pastes a strange story of a war and conquest around the massive walls, or Marco Maggi, who etches Reynolds Wrap aluminum foil so that it resembles a map or a computer circuit, each of them played with what it means to “make” something, and what it means to have something be “hand made.” For all the hours of meticulous hand labor and skill put into these works, they aren’t what you would traditionally associate with “hand made” art or crafts. Their transformations also tend to make the objects unusable, as in the case of the skateboard above, or the cast plaster versions of thousands of paper cups, each crushed in a different fashion. The exhibit catalog notes that these artists are very interested in slight differences within uniformity, minor variations on sameness and repetition; another review of the show calls them "artists of the OCD," and there is definitely an obsessive attention to detail --- perhaps the tiny differences that occur between supposedly identical products as they come off the assembly line? Definitely, these artists seem to say, these ordinary objects become subtly differentiated from each other by their use, if not their origin, thus making a comment on people's individuality in an increasingly standardized and commercialized society.

But my favorite work --- to my relief --- was a woman artist (I was glad both that they had remembered to include women in the other gallery exhibition rather than ghettoize them in the WACK exhibition, and that I liked these new artists), named Livia Marin, whose piece "Fictions of a Use" (2004) consists of 2200 lipsticks, stood up on a long wooden base like a cosmetics counter. As you walk into the room and move closer, you notice that they are, indeed, lipsticks, and then you notice that each one is carved (the exhibition book says cast, but they look like turned chair legs or something) into a different shape and has a different color. Close up, they look like hats, a miniature cityscape, the tops of chess pieces, or even a crowd of abstract people. And the differing shapes call to mind how women, through using lipstick to transform themselves, in a sense, into works of art, also reciprocally transform their lipsticks, those humble everyday objects --- lipsticks may start out mass-produced, but through constant use they are worn down into a unique shape, depending on how the individual woman uses it. Again from the exhibition catalog: “The large quantity reinforces the idea of a mass production that is sustained by the fact that applying lipstick is a daily ritual for millions of women around the world. The iteration of shapes and colors builds up an optical vibration that becomes more evident as one approaches the piece. Once close enough to understand what the small forms are, the fictional aspect of Ficciones de un uso becomes apparent. The doubt as to whether the lipsticks were machine-produced or manual again raises the question of who made them and how they were made” (20).

And you know what else? They were still perfumed ---- I could smell them when I leaned over them to see if they were plastic or “real.” Sweet.

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