For the moment, the beating heart of Los Angeles’s Pacific Standard Time is Betye Saar’s installation Red Time, 2011, at Roberts and Tilton. Saar has transformed the middle room of the gallery into a shrine for past, present, and future, painting Roberts and Tilton’s interior room a bright red and allowing a variety of her customary assemblage works to act as friends and neighbors to each other, despite where they were collected from or when they were made. In fact, one of the most striking things about Red Time is the position it takes on memory and history. While Saar has divided Red Time into three separate sections–”In the Beginning,” “Migration and Transformation,” and “Beyond Memory”–she has also unified them through her use of a singular, strong background color and their enclosure in one small room.
Saar first rose to prominence in the 1960s as a Joseph Cornell-inspired assemblage artist who insistently tackled issues of race and history, and these issues remain central, both figuratively and literally. Many of the pieces that make up the “Migration and Transformation” section of Red Time, which occupies the wall opposite the room’s entrance, are radical détournements of Aunt Jemimah and Uncle Tom figures, a technique that Saar may have been the first to utilize and perfect. In fact, it is the juxtaposition of the pleasing formal rhythms, the coziness of the physical space, and the chilling historical narratives referenced by pieces such as There Will Be Blood, 2011, To the Manor Born, 2011, and Is Jim Crow Really Dead, 1972, that drives the work.
Among the works that Saar felt absolutely needed to be present in the installation is Red Ascension, 2011, a wooden ladder hung toward the top of the wall in “Beyond Memory.” Nestled amongst the rungs are wooden sculptures that tell a familiar story: an African mask, several wooden ships, chains, and a crescent moon and star. The ladder points viewers to the wall that is both the first and last in the exhibit, the wall to which their backs are turned for the majority of time they are in the room. It is the wall with the entry and exit door, on which a series of masks hang, looking back at the viewers with all manners of expression. Red Time is not solely a time of despair or anger. It is also a time of rebirth and open-ended questioning.
Where art, pop culture, & politics collide. A bi-monthly column for DailyServing.com, #Hashtags provides a platform for longer reconsiderations of artworks and art practices outside of the review format and in new contexts. Please send queries and/or ideas for future to email@example.com.
For the last year, Bay Area artist Chris Sollars has sported a biblical behemoth of a beard, although his cleanly shaven cheeks are once again on view in Sollars’s newest project, Hairy, shown as part of YBCA’s Bay Area Now. It’s an interesting update on an identity-probing lineage that includes predecessors like Chris Burden, Gordon Matta Clark, James Luna, Ana Mendieta, and David Hammons. DailyServing recently had the opportunity to chat with Chris about the work.
DS: So! Since I haven’t seen you in a while, are you closest to Man, Woman, or Child?
CS: Closest to Child! But since I’m doing these hair events, I’ve been growing the beard back. It’s just not very long. I have scruff, but it’s not a “beard” beard.
DS: I have to ask, which came first, the beard or the art?
CS: Well, even before the beard, I’ve always known that I wanted to make a wig of my long hair, which I’ve had since high school, and wear it at a later date. That’s why the title is Hair and the subtitle is When I’m 64. I like the collision of those two moments of time—wearing hair from when I was thirty-four when I’m sixty-four. So I think that piece came first. As for the beard, I started growing it, and it just turned into its own thing. My girlfriend took a long trip and by the time she got back, I already had a bunch of things I wanted to do with it. Before I cut it, I wanted to let it grow a little longer and let it live on its own, and it inspired a series of works. I’d done a performance in 1998 at Skowhegan where I went to a tool shop in Maine with a lot of old tools and was drawn toward this long handled axe… I personally tried to sharpen it and make a video of me shaving with it. Of course, I didn’t have much hair back then, because I was 22, and I didn’t have the capacity to grow hair like I do now. Anyway, I decided that with this new beard I wanted to do it again, with an axe. Working with my wigmaker, however, I had to grow the beard as long as possible, and if I was going to shave it off with an axe, it wouldn’t work as a wig. It’s a really a rare thing, to make a wig out of someone’s own beard hair, because you’re hand-knotting, and working with different clumps of hair—looping it like a rug—and it’s a difficult thing, even if your beard is really long, because it’s still so short.
DS: It’s probably pretty brittle, too.
CS: Yeah. So I decided to do the beard wig first, and then grow back a beard that was substantial enough to shave off with an axe. So that was the process. And in between, before I cut off all the hair, I wanted to do a series of related videos.
DS: Were you intentionally trying to touch on issues of gender and masculinity?
CS: Well, yeah. I named the triptych (the photographs of myself) Man Woman Child (2011) on purpose, because… Well, a child would never have a beard like that and a woman would never have a beard to that extent. I’ve always had fine hair, and I’ve always been in between being kind of “girlie” and, well, not.
DS: Shaving your beard with an axe is such an over the top gesture! And you’re wearing this plaid flannel. But I noticed that as you started to talk about your work, you weren’t talking about gender as much as you were talking about intersecting moments in time, or an interest in working with certain tools.
CS: Well, [the interest in the axe] led to that. It led to the absurdity of knowing that I could cut down trees, but that I could also cut my face with the thing! There’s a moment in the videos where there’s a cut or change or rupture that happens. I’m thinking of the video edit like I am cutting hair, so there’s a real switch that happens, a change of one’s look, or the change that can happen with a cut when you juxtapose one image with the next. Leading up to the show, in fact, and even currently, I’ve been hiding out a little bit, just until people have seen that work [and realize that Sollars is now totally clean-shaven]. It’s kind of a strange performance that’s still going on. I was even wearing costumes to change my identity around town. I didn’t want to reveal that I’d cut my hair until the show had opened. I realized as soon as I cut my long hair that that pieces like mine and like Chris Burden’s I Became A Secret Hippy (1971) don’t exist as just performances, but as pieces of our identity from that point forward.
DS: What about race? Does that play in at all? I might be reading more into the project than what you intend, but I read an article in the New York Times about Matta Clark’s Clock Shower (1973), and writer’s spin was about how it was this glorious time in New York when this guy could walk to the top of the Clocktower building and cover himself in shaving cream and then diddle with the clock. And my thought was yeah, if he’s white, he can do this. Going from that thought, and looking at your work, which includes this golden ball of hair surveying a forest and the golden blonde Hair Lays and the Beard Rubs, which seem to be about marking or claiming in certain ways, I’m just curious if there are any thoughts about…
CS: …about identity in relation to race? Well, I think that perception of where I exist culturally, or politically or socially, changes with the haircut. Going back to Burden’s Secret Hippy, you might be a countercultural person, but you’re wiped of that in terms of your identity. I guess that’s why I also looked at Ana Mendieta’s piece with the transplanting of the man’s beard onto her face, taking on that masculinity. Or Adrian Piper’s Mythic Being. So I’m aware of these female performances and cross cultural performances with hair and identity, and I was thinking, okay, so if there’s this white man art with these things opposed to it or juxtaposed against it, what is white male identity art? Or what is it specifically to me? I guess that’s why I focus so much on the hair as a material, like with close-ups of the hair grain, which I think of as wood grain. Kind of just investigating what is it that my being is made up of. You know, the scraggly curly beard hair, the long fine hair… What happens when I change? When I’m separated from it? How does it exist on its own as an abstraction, like with the Hair Lays, or the beard itself rubbing on things? I think the masculine action of shaving with an axe kind of completes the picture of that identity of that person. And I’ve been so influenced by a lot of that ‘70s work that I was curious about performing that investigation on myself.
The year is 1964. The place, New York. The artwork? A series of realistically-gory meat sculptures, made of resin and placed in a series of Plexiglas vitrines. Meant as a critique of minimalism and its squeamishly hermetic attributes, Paul Thek’s Technological Reliquaries (1964–1966) were thought, at the time, to be hugely radical. According to the attendants at UCLA’s Hammer Museum — the third (and only West Coast) museum to host Paul Thek: Diver, A Retrospective — the radical nature of these pieces tends to be lost on many present-day museum visitors.
Apparently, most people brush through the first two rooms of the exhibit, where the Reliquaries are situated. In all honesty, the sculptures are pretty gross, hunks of fatty flesh trapped in transparent, rectangular boxes, with the occasional fly thrown in for effect. But for those of us with even the shallowest knowledge of what the capital-A art world was like in the 1960s, Thek’s work is heartbreaking.
Moving through the beginning of the exhibit at a slower pace reveals Reliquaries like Untitled (1966–1967) and Hand with Ring (1966–1967), transitional pieces that point toward Thek’s next major gallery show, The Tomb, at Eleanor Ward Gallery in 1967. Untitled is a cast of Thek’s arm, painted metallic silver with a series of pale pink bands around the wrist and lower part of the hand and displayed in a vitrine half-covered with a pink cloth ending in human hair; Hand with Ring, a cast of Thek’s hand, or three fingers and a thumb, sprouting forth from a pedestal and painted a la the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour album cover.
Thek’s interest in religion, mysticism, and the flesh (not to mention psychotropics and his conflicted feelings about his homosexuality) are at the fore of his work, placing him, in my mind, at least, with the Surrealists and psychedelic rock, rather than the conceptual artists and minimalists that formed his American milieu. Maybe Thek felt out of place, because despite the success of The Tomb, in which Thek laid himself to rest in a fleshy-pink ziggurat, Thek and his lover, Peter Hujar, relocated to Europe. Further proof of Thek’s uniqueness can be found in works from this period, including Dwarf Parade Table (1969), a table supported by wooden dwarves, usually installed to look like a large group feast has just ended, and Fishman in Excelsis Table (1970–1971), a table pulled up to the ceiling with an effigy of Thek tied to its underside, surrounded by fish and looking like Christ, aka the fisherman.
Despite his success as a sculptor and installation artist, Thek never seemed to give up painting, and Diver is peppered with these works, too: images of dwarves, mushrooms, seashells, and ocean scenes, including the diver of the exhibition’s title, dashed on sheets of newspaper. The paintings also include abstract color fields, although Thek’s muddy palette probably made Rothko grimace. Interestingly, Thek seemed to turn more and more to painting as the years passed. His work from the ’80s is nothing but tiny canvases in atrocious colors, covered with blotches, blobs, and phrases scrawled in childish handwriting. The thoughts articulated, however, are neither atrocious nor childlike, but probing and playful, such as “Hurrah Vacuii!!” and “Afflict the Comfortable/Comfort the Afflicted.”
Diver: A Retrospective ends with a transition between Thek’s ’80s pieces as installed by the exhibition’s present day curators and a restaging of Paul Thek’s last show, at Soho’s Brooke Alexander Gallery in 1988, and installed by Thek himself. This is perhaps the sweetest spot of the show. In 1987, Thek was diagnosed with AIDS, and by the time the show came around he was almost too sick to hang his work. Whether for this reason or for another, the paintings encircle the room at the height of a child. Mostly turquoise, they include images of butterflies, schools of fish, and dust, plus a barred window with the bars forced open. Peaceful, playful, and mournful, at the head of the room is a tiny, schoolchild’s chair, placed in front of two cityscapes in museum frames. One image in particular stands out: in it, the waning light of the sun hits the front of the buildings. Or, perhaps, for Paul Thek, it is not the end, but the beginning of the day.
It’s true. The state of Utah now owns Spiral Jetty. For the last decade, the Dia Foundation has paid Utah’s Department of Natural Resources $250 a year to maintain the 20-year lease on the land surrounding the earthwork. In February, the Dia received and paid its annual invoice, only to have the payment returned in June with a note that the lease had expired—a fact that had somehow escaped everyone’s attention, including the DNR’s. According to an article by Jennifer Dobner of the Associated Press, the oversight may have occurred due to the fact that the DNR’s Sovereign Lands coordinator, Dave Grierson—the man who should have sent Dia a notice about the lease renewal—passed away last year. Conspiracy theories about drilling aside, the Dia maintains that it has a “collegial” working relationship with the DNR and that they are in the process of re-negotiating the lease. But for the moment, the Jetty belongs to Utah, a fact that has the art community unsettled.
I first visited Spiral Jetty in August 2007, thirty-seven years after Robert Smithson installed it and thirty-four years after his death. I’d heard that the water level was low enough that the jetty was visible again, so I made a point to visit it on my way from Portland, Oregon, to Chicago, Illinois. I’d seen photographs, as well as the film of the construction that Smithson had made with his wife, Nancy Holt, but the physical experience caught me unprepared. Visiting Spiral Jetty in the flesh provides an experience of time unlike any other. Everything seems to halt, even as it remains in motion.
My approach via the long dirt road was almost exactly the same as what Smithson depicts in his film: the loud noise of a metal carriage on a washboard road, the horizon line of Wasatch Range, the dust pouring out from behind me. For a long while the lake maintains its distance, and then all of a sudden you are upon it. I expected to see Spiral Jetty immediately, but this is not actually the case; first you need to pass a half-submerged fence, and then a derelict oilrig. After seeing so many pictures where the Jetty fills the frame, its smallness compared to its surroundings was a little startling, but not nearly as startling as the color palette: the sky was blue, the lake was pink, and the jetty, a bright, bright white. Whereas in Smithson’s photos and film, the Jetty is the brown and gray of newly excavated dirt and rock, the Jetty I saw that day was encrusted with salt. Gleamingly white. Sunglasses white.
What was most striking, however, was the silence. Obviously, the sounds of the city were missing. But so were the sounds of things like birds and insects. Finally, after five or so moments of standing, listening to the vast and deep nothing, I could hear a splish-splash, like a tiny, passive kid waving his hands around in the bathtub. I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from, mostly because my sense of how far sound could travel in this area was drastically off. That is, until I heard a swish-swoosh, swish-swoosh that turned out to be scores of pelican wings flapping in unison. There are rookeries nearby, and if you’re visiting at the right time of year, you can see—and hear—the pelicans passing back and forth overhead as they search out food, or just paddling about in the water. I heard them coming for over a minute before I actually saw them.
After the silence welled up again, I spent an hour or so walking Spiral Jetty, the sound of my feet crunching against salt crystals occupying the silence. From the jetty’s center, you see the earthwork from an entirely different perspective, losing any synthesized, overall view. There are a few angles available in the story of Dia’s kerfuffle, including a level of bureaucracy that many of us find chafing. Then again, most of us wouldn’t be able to manage the kinds of projects that Smithson and his ilk pulled off, which often involved negotiation with all varieties of publics. There’s also the awkwardness of having to put one’s faith in a gentleman’s handshake, which is where the fate of the Jetty currently sits. I’d like to believe that Robert Smithson would find the whole situation at least a little humorous. After all, his number-one articulated interest was the disintegration of systems. Then again, what a man articulates to be his main intellectual purpose and what he chooses to do when his livelihood is threatened rarely match up.
In 1876, the wealthy railroad executive Daniel Stein took his progeny, Michael, Simon, Leo, Bertha and Gertrude, to Europe for three years. Afraid his children might be considered “uncultured” because of their California upbringing, he provided them with language and music lessons, making it clear that he expected them to rise above the uncouth wildness of their West Coast childhood. A black-and-white photograph taken in 1880 shows the Stein family as Daniel envisioned them, a scholarly patriarch and his wife, surrounded by his instrument- and book-wielding children.
One could say that Daniel needn’t have worried. One could also say that his fear so shaped his children that they became over-achievers in the arena of culture, set up as they were with something to prove. And just in case there is anyone left out there stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the relevance of Gertrude Stein and her siblings to contemporary culture, this month there arrive not just one but two shows to settle the argument: Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
To cover even half the work in both shows in any real depth would be exhausting, but I will say that I gained much from starting at CJM, where the focus is on Gertrude’s life through a multitude of images and portraits, as well as a collection of first-edition texts and magazines. The show is one of the most multi-media exhibits I’ve seen, which seems appropriate for a show about Gertrude, who was interested in so many mediums.
Visitors are greeted at the entrance to the exhibit by a cascading series of verbal and visual portraits: the headline from an April 1935 issue of the San Francisco Examiner: “Gertrude Stein arrives without a single comma,” an audio recording of Gertrude reading from her quintessentially circular text on Pablo Picasso, and a short black-and-white film recording of Gertrude in her garden. She walks out with a hoe or rake and works a small patch of ground over, and then smiles at us. In the next shot, she sits her poodle, Basket, with his back to the camera and asks him to shake.
Narrated via its wall text, the show is divided into five “stories” or segments: “Picturing Gertrude Stein” (representations of Gertrude), “Domestic Stein” (her life with Alice), “The Art of Friendship” (mainly focused on her connection to the neo-romantics, a group of post-World War I artists), “Celebrity Stein” (her literary success and 1934/35 tour of the United States), and “Legacies” (contemporary work influenced by Stein). By the time I was through, I had a thorough appreciation of the historical and social environs that shaped (and were shaped by) Gertrude, not to mention the Steins’ collection as a whole.
Seeing Gertrude Stein adds a social, almost anthropological, richness to The Steins Collect that is otherwise missing, although here, too, there is plenty of historical context. The press release for The Steins Collect — a joint production of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Paris — stresses that the show emphasizes the family’s connection to the Bay Area, and there is even a separate room devoted to the family’s presence here. The real draw, of course, is the tremendous aggregation of works by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, as well as other modern masters like Paul Cézanne, Henri Manguin, Juan Gris and Francis Picabia. The overly-bright colors and splotchy strokes of Matisse’s Woman with a Hat, for example, are only a few feet from Picasso’s muted Boy Leading a Horse, and only a few rooms from the startlingly abstracted series of faces that Gertrude tore out and framed from Picasso’s Carnet 10, the sketchbook that led to Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
The shows complement one another, each giving the other the kind of depth and detail that result from getting the right exposure in a photograph: textures become apparent and deep shadows show volume. Gertrude’s eventual estrangement with her brother Leo, for instance, though mentioned in both shows, becomes even more poignant when one reads the handwritten copy of Leo’s 1904 will at SFMOMA, in which he bequeaths nearly the entirety of his estate to Gertrude. Also similar to photography, certain details are blown out, or are perhaps overly considered, while still others become sharper in contrast to one another.
While Seeing Gertrude Stein discusses Gertrude’s odd combination of bold yet conservative collecting habits and includes many examples, my appreciation for her vision grew considerably after walking through The Steins Collect and seeing the difference between the works she chose and the works championed by her brother Michael and his wife, Sarah. Gertrude appears to have been less afraid of the abstract, collapsing figure. If anything, she seemed to fear the more intimate style of portraiture that Sarah and Michael eventually gravitated toward, and broke from them altogether in her embrace of cubism.
Regardless of their differences in taste, it’s obvious after seeing both shows that the Stein children did not just absorb intellectual and artistic culture; they shaped its trajectory. Give yourself several days to visit each show. You’ll find yourself wanting to go back.