Documentary, Special Interests, and Television movie
This release contains the first and second season of PBS' acclaimed documentary, which takes a look into the future at how art will be changing people's lives in the 21st Century. Artists of many fields and levels of establishment are caught … see full wiki
art:21 seasons 1&2 covers eight themes and 33 artists. It is specifically about living, breathing contemporary art—all artists, except for one in Mexico City are living in America regardless of origins.
First layer of Recommendation
If you do not like or would not like to learn about contemporary art then even just one of these episodes is going to be a waste of time. Many of the artists or what they produce may anger and frustrate—for me this is part of the draw, but for someone wanting a more relaxed time, this is not a good use of that time. If you like discussions of art or at least a chance to confront some of the metaphors contemporary art wants to tackle or simply create, then you will probably enjoy it, but it will require very close attention. I don’t think this series is for a casual viewer.
Second Layer of Recommendation
I will get more specific when I move down another layer or two, but in general I can say the series is very poorly structured. For example, the episode on “Time” has four artists who have nothing to say about time at all and their work doesn’t reflect anything with regards to it no matter how deep you want to dig. Two of the artists in the “Place” episode don’t really belong there and one of the artists in “Stories” belongs only in the “Place” episode.
So if this poor matching of theme to artist will frustrate or anger and you would rather avoid those feelings today, then don’t spend the time here. If, however, you want to look at the structure as a metaphor for the way contemporary art can work, then you are likely an aesthete and used to this kind of frustration anyway. So on to the
Third Layer of Recommendation
All art is metaphor, but how wide the metaphor goes depends on what the piece is (give me some latitude, I’m writing a review not an article for Art in America magazine).
We tend to come to Thomas Cole’s landscapes with a shared sense of awe: we know what it is and the size and scope are overwhelming whether you actually like the painting or not. Its meanings fall within a fairly narrow range because it is so representative. Monet opens the metaphorical possibilities because what he paints purposefully only suggests what it is. It literally blurs lines (more on this in the personal section in a sec). With it less clear, more of us have a different view of not only what it might mean but for what it is in the first place.
When you move forward to Salvador Dali . . . are we supposed to laugh at a painter of classical technique using his abilities to paint melting watches over gross possible pieces of humanoid hairy body parts, or are we supposed to lament that obviously the world has gone mad if the painters are painting melting things on hairy mutations? There are no blurred lines in his work, but the potential meanings grow depending on your willingness to look for more than a few minutes.
The only true agreement any of us can have with a Jackson Pollock painting or an Alexander Calder mobile (or stabile) is on the dimensions because they are the only objective thing any of us has to hold on to. At this point we are near a metaphorical critical mass when things just explode into so much . . .
Contemporary art. All art was once contemporary, but some art is more contemporary than others.
If none of that gave you a real headache, then you’ve been through the only crucible I know to create.
Important personal bit: I am perniciously colorblind. My visual handicap prevents me from being able to engage in an ocular conversation with so much art. I am far too steeped in the humanities just to lump all art together thus never to set foot in a museum because it would be a forever reminder of a form of illiteracy. A decent portion of modern art and the vast quantity of contemporary art is less specifically tied to color, so I am not automatically excluded from the conversation before it even begins. What follows in italics is a deeper biographical vomit about the nature of trying to explain being colorblind to those who know what ecru looks like.
At nine I announced that my newly coveted box of 64 crayola crayons was broken. I had the first epistemological debate of my life with regards to the meaning of color. I said I had something like 12 green crayons and 12 purple crayons and 9 brown crayons. No, you have one green and one yellow-green and one sea green and one purple and one violet and one midnight blue and one maroon. No, I have one crayon that says green on it I have one crayon that says sea green on it but they both make the same mark. I have one that says maroon but it is brown sometimes and purple sometimes. Take it back and tell them to put the right crayon in the right paper wrapper.
I still have the same debate today.
I am told that I do, in fact, see violet (which I never have), I just call it something else. Pardon me, but I’m not new to English, I would have learned to put the two together long before now if I knew how to do it. My color spectrum has only 6 colors with the last band being 2 spaces wide: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, purple (or indigo, indigo, or violet, violet if you really want to hack me off). My eye processes indigo and violet as the same color.
It’s easiest from a painting perspective for me to put it like this: Monet’s Water Lilies is lots of purple blobs and lots of green blobs and some blue linking the blobs together. What is sublime for many is just a poor early example of Jackson Pollock with happier color dribbles. I cannot match clothes. Skin-tone is often lost on me to the point where, since my pain threshold is very high, I cannot tell if I’m tan or sunburned unless someone tells me. I cannot tell the difference in color between venal and arterial blood, for that matter there isn’t a wide enough difference for me to tell a vein from an artery anyway. I had to get a pass in a physics class because I cannot read the resister code on that little ceramic dealie. So, I cannot be a doctor, nurse, or an electrician. As far as the military goes, I can only be a secretary (or other administrative function). Color-vision is required to join the Defense Language Institute, a Valhalla of sorts for me. I almost cried when I found that out and the recruiter nearly cried too. Oh well, I can’t be too hacked off because I’d have been one of the victims of the Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell gay purge of expert Arabic translators. And I can’t be a decorator of any kind.
Where is my handicap sticker, dammit??
The structure. Each episode has a theme, an introducer and four artists (except for “Loss and Desire” that has only three). Each artist has a bit over eleven minutes of airtime. None of the artists is truly interviewed; they describe and explain their own work and processes. There is no commentary by any expert of any kind. Structurally, this is a brilliant scheme.
The art generally. Without most of the blah blah blah, art really does need to be witnessed in person to get the full scope.
A significant number of works covered in these episodes are installations. From the standpoint of television, seeing these large works in the process of being put together brings kinesis to something that would otherwise not have much camerawork. This decision turns out to be a failed sort of leveler. First it shows too many things in an incomplete state so we really don’t get a full sense of what it is, let alone what it might do, let alone still what it might mean. To be blunt, some of the artists are not very communicative at all or about their work, so these incomplete projects just make them look small and can make them look severely scattered.
As a concept this fails, however it should not be taken to mean that the art is bad or that the artist is bad. That is still left up to each viewer.
Now, there is one controlling metaphor for a viewer that I think is necessary. Maybe twenty years ago, 60 Minutes ran a scathing piece on contemporary art at the time. I think the exhibition was at the first Tate in London. Wherever it was, there was a pair of older British ladies in overcoats and wool caps. They looked at a plexyglass box containing 2 short pyramids of basketballs; the box sat balanced between two plastic classroom chairs. The women stared for a few moments and one said “I just don’t understand it, perhaps we should simply retire.” No matter how I come to any piece or exhibit, there is always the possibility that parts of it or the whole thing will leave me confused and needing a gin and tonic along with these befuddled pensioners.
Richard Serra: sculptor (I’ve seen his work in person)
His work is generally massive steel planes (flat or curved) that create significant lean or overhang that really does fill me with a sense of crushing doom. He speaks in art-school language and describes his work in such a way that it seems the viewer is a nusance. It is also very telling—and he isn’t the only one—that he doesn’t pour the steel, ship it, place it, or anchor it. He watches. He never gives any credit to the people who pour, ship, place, or anchor.
Sally Mann photographer (I know her work very well)
I have a very hard time being even close to objective here. I ripped her book of purposefully distressed landscape book Deep South apart with every word I could imagine.
The project she worked on during the filming was photographing dog bones. Despite that almost absurd sentence, her section is worth watching mainly because two of her three children (adults now, who oddly call her Sally) talk about her early work—the work where they were the subjects. And they flip through rejected photos from the books At Twelve and Immediate Family which is what brought her to our attention. And I think if you don’t know anything about her going in, you will only see her as an atheist former kiddy-porn photographer now using a very old form of photography to take pictures of dog bones.
Margaret Kilgallen and Barry McGee graffiti artists, installations
They are graffiti artists. The only thing that separates them from the mass of talented taggers is that they have gallery representations. Still, they consider what they do subversive because it is anti-commercial and all in-your-face. The film shows them drawing simplistic things on railroad cars and getting nervous when they see someone else and bolting like naughty middleclass kids. Both feel compelled to continue to tag surfaces (they don’t consider this activity to be vandalism because what they do can be painted over) because they feel guilty because they can show their work in a gallery. Their almost clueless flippancy is one of the attitudinal ingredients for people rejecting art as a whole not just the contemporary sort.
Pepon Osorio installations
Mr. Osorio is a Puerto Rican living in New York. He was a former social worker who did art on the side. His work appears to be entirely installations. The pieces we are shown are all extremely layered and cluttered. They do, to the extent that I have witnessed elsewhere, represent the real place and the dream-like space he wants to present. As with any installation if you know the artists motives (or psychological scars) it limits the scope of the work and can make the neat or even sublime seem silly, childish and embarrassing (“No Crying in the Barbershop” was an older man’s memory the trauma of his first haircut and it comes across as pretty silly).
Ann Hamilton main medium textile, textile sculptor and installations
Most of what we are shown is a metaphor for pre-union textile mill workers and conditions and slavery and its scars. She has a clear understanding of what she wants her work to convey. Her installations are personally frustrating because there is no way for me to see them as they are no longer in operation. One is huge room with white walls; magenta powder (purple to my eyes) falls down the walls revealing fingerprints that spell out part of the Declaration of Independence in Braille. Seeing the powder fall and reveal the prints was just truly cool.
John Feodorov semi-folk art, mix media, installations
Mr. Feodorov is a Navaho artist who uses kitsch as a form of spiritual joke and protest. He creates types of altars or totems and decorates them with dime-store toys and other cheap forms of commercially produced items. His work is fun for lack of a more esoteric word. The message he wants to convey is, I think, different from what he shows. In a somewhat cliché way, he claims to lament the failing way of life not just of Native Americans but any culture struggling in a post-colonial world. The problem I see with this is that he is using a low-grade satire that winds up equating this since of native spirituality with the kitsch so that the first is cheapened by the drollness the second adds.
Shajzia Sikander miniture painter, installation
Ms. Sikander is a Pakistani woman whose main focus is on intensely intricate miniature paintings using a dozen or so layers of paint. They blend Hindu with Islam in a chaotic way because she is using her talents to try to make sense of the religions, the history, and femininity. The film shows these pieces and an installation where she uses semi-transparent paper layered the way her paint is to create a room sized representation of the intimate work that is her norm. She is also one of the artists whose work and description of motive actually do go together.
James Turrell mainly, really, an architect, um, well, kinna
The finished piece that we see is of a Quaker Meeting house he built for a Society of Friends in NY. It’s a convertible building—the roof above the meeting room itself opens. This grew out of something his grandmother said when he went to his first meeting: we’re going in to greet the light. He certainly knows how to explain what his work is, does, and means and needs no interpreter. But . . . he dreams so huge that he divorced twice after spending 7 years and almost $2 million buying a “ranch” that had a small natural crater on it. It’s the Roden Crater Project. It is described as a massive naked eye observatory and what it does seems fantastic. The problem with it, and view it as a leitmotif if you like, he’s been building it for 30 years, its still not slated to open until 2001. Regardless of when it opens, it will take 3 plane flights, a bus, a train, another bus, a buggy, a horse, then a mule and a pair of rollerskates to get there and that doesn’t include the price of admission (but the pix online are cool).
Bruce Nauman sculptor of sorts video artist of the worst kind
He is a self-proclaimed obsessive about efficiency. This has nothing to do with the overly broad theme and nothing to do about his work. We see him staring at a small Sony television playing footage of a night vision camera in his studio filming the possibility of mouse activity. His efficient solution for solving the mouse problem seems to have been to film them and watch at real speed, because if you watch in fast motion, you’ll miss something. He creates sculptures of stairs mainly and he says they are divorced from their function. Well, not really. They are stairs, they function as stairs. That one terminus doesn’t go anywhere doesn’t change the fact that they are functioning stairs. And he creates exceedingly annoying video installations. One has him meanly screaming THANK YOU over and over. He’s the kind of artist I want to kick (hard) because I get annoyed but I cannot imagine the horror that museum guards suffer for someone who spends 8 hours of a day watching for only the possibility of a mouse running by. Oh, and it solves no problem.
Kerry James Marshall mostly a painter
He is the first artist in the series so far whose work has a solid foundation in style and meaning that make it something just about anyone would immediately find interesting because it is so rooted in early 20th century American art. How you react to it after you see it will differ widely, but what he calls the “grand narrative style” of painting will engage more than just the aesthete. But what strikes me most about him is how he puts race, art, and a broad sense of identity in history. Of all the artists in these episodes, he is the only one shown interacting with students. He appears as an educator first—and not in the metaphorical sense, but the real one.
Maya Lin architect, monument maker
She did the Vietnam Wall. I can almost stop there because your feelings about the work itself minus the names will determine whether you like her or not. The film has her working on a park in a somewhat dangerous park in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It is a beautiful slopped indention into the ground with an ice skating rink at the bottom. Under the ice are light bulbs that mimic rather than copy the reflection of the sky (impossible given the fact that there would be very few stars to show in the night sky over a well-lighted city. She is conscious and cogent and connects with the viewer. She, Mr. Marshall (above), Kara Walker and Do-Ho Suh (both in the “Stories” section to follow) are the only artists of the thirty plus that can truly explain what they are doing and why. >p />
Louise Bourgeois sculptor
She is an elderly French woman who immigrated to the US in the 1930s. Her section opens with an epigraph: “I am what I do with my hands.” Her work is rooted firmly in the work from the time around when she moved to New York. It is easy to see Arp and Modigliani in her work. But most of her eleven minutes are spent with her working out the details of a sculpture, intended for outdoors, of a massive steel cube base and an interlocking set of casts of her hands on top. It looks like a metal sketch of rejected hands from a Rodin piece. She spends an inordinate amount of time talking about the fragility of the hands and fear of graffiti. I couldn’t help but wonder about the obvious: make the bonds with the hands stronger or make a different piece and if fear of graffiti limits your art then fear of an unfortunate side-effect of the contemporary age has essentially shut off your ability to share your art.
Michael Ray Charles largely a painter
Mr. Charles’s work is somewhat similar to Kerry James Marshall (above in the “Identity” episode). He uses advertising from the 1940s and before that use the exaggerated “negro” to sell products and pushes them to an even greater extreme. These are the images we now look at and that generally make us cringe with embarrassment and maybe a little cultural shame. Also like Mr. Marshall, his work should be easily engaging for a more traditional art museum patron. His work and that of Kara Walker (in the “Stories” episode) is so aggressive that its metaphors are not as varied as those of the other artists in these episodes; the metaphor is obvious and deeply visceral.
Matthew Barney mostly a video conceptualist
He’s one of the “head scratcher” artists. He makes relatively short films experimental in nature but owing a great deal of homage to David Lynch in their supreme weirdness and reliance on what I’ll call the differently-formed. The “piece” that takes up the majority of his time on camera is some kind of nightmare cum art deco horse race with the horses covered in latex paint. Yea, I don’t know either and he does very little to try to assuage my utter confusion. It is worth noting that Richard Serra—the first artist in the series—plays a part in one of Mr. Barney’s films. Serra’s early work in the 1960s is something called thrown lead. Mr. Barney uses him in the video to throw Vaseline. Yea, I don’t get it either.
Andrea Zittel maker of rectangle textiles and a plastic island
I hate to sound glib, but she is either a burn-out, over-medicated or off her meds. For a couple of years she made clothes that she would wear for a season, but they had to be rectangles that she would wrap in some way. She also created self-punishing installations that had her living in a very small space where everything she needed was in a space the size of a walk-in closet. But what is easily the oddest thing is a plastic island, complete with soil for growing things. She spends a month on it, floating in the North Sea off Denmark wearing what looks like a 40 pound crocheted hooded body sweater. Here, though, is the kicker. She hates being alone. She is only the first artist who chooses purposely to suffer for “art.” One of her statements is: “The things you find so confining can be the most liberating.” Mel Chin conceptualist???
He has a great imagination and a neat sense of humor. He lives in Detroit that was at the time still under the culture that created Devil’s Night (the night before Halloween where people would set fire to abandoned houses). He has the idea to take one of the houses and make it so it can rotate on one corner exposing the basement to the sky. The basement would be a farm for baitworms called Devil’s Nightcrawlers. (his part ends with a commercial for these worms). His completed work, though is a video game walkthrough of tents made out of dying (no pun intended) if not almost totally lost rug patterns for rug making cultures around the world (Native American and villages in the Middle East). Most of what we learn about him, though, are his ideas not really that much about a larger body of work.
Stories (easily my favorite episode)
Kara Walker sarcastic profile cutter??
I really want to see her work in person. She creates a room size Cyclorama shadow scenes of the last days of Slavery in the South as the war was winding down if not over. A quick glance just makes it look like a large shadow representation of Joel Chandler Harris’s “Brer” animals and their surroundings. But a closer look shows kids with knives running after others, murders, rape, and other brutality. She creates this with such a dark and biting sense of humor that it is one of those fantastically funny and horribly nauseating experiences. Like her work, Ms. Walker is dark and funny and has an easy ability to explain what it is she does and why she does it. Kiki Smith sculptor primarily
The first work of hers we see is a memorial of the “witches” murdered in Salem. To a large extent, it is this sense of the victimizing the unusual that drives the work we see. She is also driven by images of wolves in general but specifically to St. Genevieve (Paris’s patron saint). In most ways, her work would fit more solidly in the “Spirituality” episode.
Do-Ho Suh sculptor mostly
Mr. Suh is a young Korean émigré who doesn’t say it outright but is agoraphobic and steeped in Korean history that frightens him and drives him to try to understand why. The first work we see is a portable house. It’s a gossamer fabric copy of the house he grew up in, intricate, delicate and a group project the included relatives. One of the things he feared was what he saw as the enforced uniformity of Korean culture, particularly the military. This leads him to create a room-sized sculpture of a traditional Korean type kimono made of overlapping dog tags. His work is approachable, accessible, and more unambiguous than not.
Trenton Doyle Hancock largely a painter with a comic book sensibility
I don’t want to be insulting or glib when it comes to a quick evaluation of emotional sophistication or stability; however, since so much of contemporary art is more driven by psychological and behavioral motivators, how the artist seems to function is entirely relevant. Mr. Handcock largely sees his relationship to the world in the form of comic books. He has created an autobiographical mutant character that is part vile and part superhero. He seems to be in the vein of the so-called primitive artists so popular throughout the rural south a decade or more earlier. The main work we see is an installation of the last part of his comic book story.
Loss and Desire (only Ms. Schorr has anything specific to the word “loss” and an implied one to desire, but that is the limit to the inclusion of either of these extremely loaded and important words and that is frustrating as all get out)
Collier Schorr photographer
Her work is divided into three different themes; there is some overlap but each is significantly different to merit different explanations. The work we see her do is specific to high school wrestling. Her logic is to catch a devotion to an activity to something that isn’t popular enough to gain a wide audience. She also prefers pictures of evidence of minor injury and of loss (I prefer the same thing in my sports/activity photography). The other project is something called Jan (German male, so it’s Yan). She used Andrew Wyeth’s Helga drawings as her model and had Jan mimic the poses. His physique is somewhat androgynous, so the almost illusion but contrast in gender give great layers to this mimicked work. Her third project involves a German family she spent summers with. She uses the young men in the family who played army to resurrect this activity as older teens. She captures them in US uniforms and in Nazi (which is disturbing in many ways). What she captures is too subtle to put in a thumbnail but comes across very well in her section.
Gabriel Orozco largely conceptualist working with games
He is the only artist in the series so far to live outside the US; he lives in Mexico City. He has a great sense of humor much of which (at least that we are shown) involves bending rules of understood concepts, games in this instance. He creates a 4-player ping pong table (a plus not just like a doubles match) with a small pond in the middle as an expanded neutral space. He also created an elliptical pool table that also has a billiard ball as a pendulum that can interfere with the vectors of the standard balls (to be specific though, there are no pockets in the table so it is a focus on the chaos of motion instead of a true game). He has a very clear understanding and easy explanation of his goals and motives.
Janine Antoni mixed media of sorts
As with many artists in this series, she is poorly placed. I think she probably belongs in the spiritual section based only on her interpretation of her own work. Artists are not known for being selfless, but her work is so centered on her body that it is impossible for me to divorce the woman and the work (and she admits this in a round about way by saying that her work is partly what she can do with her body). The best example of this is 2 busts she had made, one of soap (the old fashioned fat/lye sort) and one of chocolate. She bathes with the former and licks the latter, watching herself disappear. YAWN.
Martin Puryear sculptor
Except for his last name containing the letters y-e-a-r, there is nothing in the man’s work to indicate time at all. The sculptures we see in his section are all sort of head shaped things minus noses and ears. He does say that he prefers to work with “vernacular” tools, but only when he’s making his head-like things in wood. At best that is just a choice of material, not a comment on time. He is also just one step less frustrating than Richard Serra (all the way back to the beginning of this endless essay) because he actually does take time to thank the Chinese pair that actually crafted the main sculpture for his section. He literally watches as two Chinese marble craftsmen literally make “his” piece. Yea, the wrong names will be on the plaque marking the piece . . .
Paul Pfeiffer video installations
He is another artist that really belongs in another episode, “Consumption.” The work we see is existing archival sports footage where he edits out some or all of the participants (an Ali boxing match with both boxers removed, an invisible player carrying the Stanley Cup around the rink). There is a sort of interesting after-image in his work, but it is only mildly interesting. The only reason I can see for putting him in this increasingly frustrating episode is a comment he makes about a 20-minute video installation. He says “it is not very viewer friendly” because you really do need to sit through the whole 20 minutes sunrise looking thing to get the whole effect. Yea, I’m baffled by him panning his own work too.
Vija Clemins painter?
She uses the word “image” more often than the word “the.” The work we see her perform is a small canvas that is copying an astronomical photograph of a distant comet against its patch of sky. Two things: she is leaving out the comet for vague reasons and (and here is the kicker) she says she hates what she’s working on and is already on what might the ninth layer of do-over paint. That is the majority of her 11 minutes. Apart from that strangeness we get short hazy descriptions of work she’d done before. She is also an artist (to be perhaps mean) in some state of medicinal flux.
Tim Hawkinson installations
We see three major projects and not one of them is particularly associated with time. The first is a mechanized copy of his face where the movable bits are driven by receptors on a video screen (each portion moves in one direction or other depending on the brightness on its part of the video monitor). Using the same sort of logic, he makes a alien octopus looking thing that drips water against tin plates—it actually does make a predictable rhythm, for what that’s worth. The biggest, though is this huge organic Dr Seuss bad-fish nightmare pipe organ. It works on a piano roll concept where light/dark portions of a plastic “score” determine which bulbous horn makes what noise and for how long. He is also incapable of explaining anything but certain processes, nothing at all about why he does them.
Humor Margaret Cho opens this episode. I’m not a huge fan of hers anyway, but what she said and did was not even remotely funny at best it was silly. And that is how the episode plays out, with one exception.
Eleanor Antin videographer, photographer
Don’t trust a “funny” person that calls her or his own work “hysterically funny.” The main work we see her putting together is a souped up version of the last days of Pompeii. Many people in the bacchanalia photos are her wealthy neighbors who live on a fault-line in California. She considers it a hoot and holler that the people she’s photographing are the same sort that died in Pompeii (laissez les bons temps rouller). The photos really seem like filler pictures for 1970s issues of Playboy or similar magazine. There is nothing funny or even interesting. At best her work is droll. At best.
Raymond Pettybond mess maker
In his section, we hear from his landlady. She claims two things: Raymond is a slob and he is funny. Yes he is a slob. No he is not funny. His work is a slobbish copy of Roy Lichtenstein’s poorer work.
Elizabeth Murray painter mixed media
Nothing funny here. The work we see her creating is little more than globular and perhaps “comic” shaped block pieces that she paints in bright colors then adds to the mess of other brightly colored blocks of globular shapes. Here is the quote I lifted. She says she keeps “painting and painting and painting until the right thing happens.” Yea, that’s the one-woman/one-paintbrush version of an infinite number of monkeys and typewriters. Eventually any of us could create a bona fide masterpiece by painting and painting and painting. She wasn’t being funny by the way; she was stone cold serious.
Walton Ford painter, print maker
His work contains a fantastic amount of dark humor. He paints like a naturalist What we see him doing is mimicking his gruesome pictures of birds doing horrific things in the Audubon style. At first glance, it looks like an Audubon painting, but a second glance shows disemboweling or other totally natural but darkly portrayed animal behavior. And in a complete binary turn around from the first artist in the episode, his work really is hysterically funny, but he doesn’t really play it up at all, he presents it as matter of fact.
If you’ve made it to this mark of nearly 6000 words . . . you have my praise and my sympathy.
What did you think of this review?
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