Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Adjunct Action in the Bay Area

It has been over a year now that adjunct professors in conjunction with SEIU Local 1021 have been negotiating a first contract at California College of the Arts (longer for those at San Francisco Art Institute). We turned in a full set of proposals last August that detailed 1-3 year contracts (most of us are semester to semester) job security (we can be let go at any time) and healthcare benefits (only available to those who teach a certain number of classes), and although we have made some progress, we are still waiting for management's response to those substantive issues. We are told they will come soon.

The Open Engagement conference, with a pre-conference symposium co-sponsored and held at CCA,  was held last weekend at the Oakland Museum of California, and many adjunct faculty, students, and alumni turned out to voice support and to point out the hypocrisy of art colleges that speak of social justice, yet don't follow up at home. Ironically, the topic of the conference was "power."

In the book The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide To Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job by Karen Kelsky (2015), she writes in a chapter called, "Leaving the Cult" that all the work an adjunct does: the service to the college, the devotion to the students, the loyalty, "will be rewarded with permanent employment at that institution (virtually zero possibility)." She is right. No matter what we do, we are expected to keep doing it, but are rarely rewarded for it. We love our job, we love the students, we have a passion for our subjects, and universities exploit that love. Most of us are asked to do work beyond normal prep and teaching and student conferences for no additional pay. We are not compensated for overtime; we are asked to work for free. Kelsky writes, "Unionization is one critical alternative in this process…virtually the only thing that has ever effectively intervened in adjunct exploitation at a collective level." There is power in a union.


Monday, May 2, 2016

Degas and Monotypes at MoMA

On our latest visit to New York City, we spent a full day at the Museum of Modern Art. (Granted, we ducked out for lunch and to buy shoes in the middle, but we came back for the rest of the day.) Two exhibits were particularly memorable. One, that I will describe today, was a showing of Edgar Degas' monotypes: A Strange New Beauty, which will be on view until July 24, 2016.

A monotype is both a painting and a print. The artist paints onto a plate, which could be made of copper, zinc, Mylar, glass, or other smooth surface, places a sheet of paper on top of the plate, then runs the plate through a press. The painting is now printed on the paper. With this technique the artist has slightly less control: the final image changes under pressure, and lines can blur, fields can widen. But Degas, who used the monotype as an experimental platform, appears to have controlled his prints masterfully, or at least had a master printer at hand.

In the May 12, 2016 issue of The New York Review of Books, there is also a review of the exhibition, and a bio of Degas (we will have to suspend our judgment about his character for the sake of his art) and a nice description of  his process. Most of the prints are in black and white, but he generally pulled two: the first, which was fully inked, and the ghost—the ink that remained on the plate after the first print. Often, he went back in with colored pastels to enhance the ghost. In this exhibit, some of the prints and ghosts with pastel enhancement are paired (an achievement since most had been long separated at birth). He also worked in at least two different techniques: "dark field" and "light field." The first meant inking up the plate and is a subtractive process—wiping, scraping, smudging or drawing away the lights. The second is an additive process; the lines are drawn or painted in black, the whites left blank.

A few images from the show. There is also a catalogue Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty, edited by Jodi Hauptman.

Here is the first that struck me. I kept going back to look at the rendering of the top hat. (A digital zoom will not display the marks properly, however, and I didn't take a closeup.) Titled "The Two Connoisseurs (Les Deux Amateurs)" c. 1880. The linework seems loose, yet the men, so detailed. This appears to me to have been done in a "light-field" manner.

 Here are some ballerinas, separated at birth in France, but reunited in New York City.
Definitely created with the "dark field" technique.
"Ballet Scene" c. 1879.
(You can see a closeup in The New Yorker article April 11, 2016.)
Original on the left, ghost with pastel on the right. 

And here are two connoisseurs who found the magnifying glasses placed strategically in holders around the galleries.

Up close, the markmaking is exquisite.
"The Fireside (Le Foyer [La Cheminee])" c. 1880-85.
The wall text says that Degas used his fingers, a rag, and a stiff brush to create this scene.

"Getting into Bed (Le Coucher)" c. 1880-85

And through the magnifying glass. 

The wall text reads: "…the visible fingerprints are a reminder of the artist's hand,
the role of touch in the making."

Fingerprints, brushstrokes, pastel marks—all are indications that someone was there. Through Degas's work we find the ghost of the hand that made them more than one hundred years ago. And a very fine hand it was.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Hedi Kyle and SF Center for the Book

The weekend workshop that Hedi Kyle was scheduled to teach at the San Francisco Center for the Book in April filled within an hour after it was posted to the website. There was a waiting list, but I was not on it. Having talked with Hedi Kyle in January at the College Book Art Association Conference, I was eager to talk with her again. Once her exhibit opened at SFCB and once the weekend began, however, I suspected I would not get a chance. Luckily, Julie Chen invited me to a little opening at Mills College where one of the book arts classes had curated a small show of a few innovative books that were invented or inspired by Hedi Kyle and others. Hedi would be there. And she was. 

So was Alastair Johnston, with whom she is speaking here.

And of course Julie Chen and Kathy Walkup.

And Sas Colby, who had had an exhibit with Betsy Davids and Jaime Robles at SFCB  a few months ago: Sisters of Invention. Other boldface names attending: Macy Chadwick and Dorothy Yule.

Sas invited Hedi and anyone else to come visit for the rest of the afternoon at her home and garden in Berkeley. It turned out to be just the three of us. We sat out on her deck and had tea/coffee and cookies and oranges. Her little dog Oscar flew through the air from floor to couch to floor to deck to lap. And I was so engaged I forgot to take any pictures whatsoever of that garden afternoon.

I visited Hedi's exhibition yesterday: The World of Hedi Kyle: Codex Curios and Bibli'Objets and took a few pictures to share.

I think of her title as the "Grandmother of Book Structures." Hedi is an artist and inventor. She dreams structures and forms. She seems to love materials and textures. In addition to books made with paper and ephemera, there is a whole case of work made with soap chips. Really, to study these images, you should get a copy of the catalogue from the Center. Hedi told me ahead of time that there were not many words in her catalogue because she just wanted to show the books. There is a brief introduction by Denise Carbone.

I loved this flag book made of mica. It appears so delicate, but because it is a mineral it has a strong material presence. According to the catalogue it is from an "Installation of appropriated cricket music on Mylar and Mica" (2007).

And why has no one else done this? These are "Cootie Towers" (2008). Graduated cootie catchers stacked up, made from "Japanese stencil facsimiles on UV Ultra paper." The patterning is wonderful and the tiny orange flag is an exquisite touch.

Part of the excitement of this exhibit lies in the three tables with "Touchable Books."

Hedi also makes collages with everyday materials.

I loved the use of the fishbone structure for "Morning with Spiders" (2009).

Another sculpture, which is in the catalogue, is a collection of graduated origami boxes that are attached to each other and displayed on their side. I posted instructions for these boxes in December, 2010 here. Hedi took them one step further by attaching them with the inner flaps of one box to the bottom of the next smaller one in "Nesting Boxes" (1993).

Nina at SFCB says the catalogues have been flying out the door. That students are lining up and waiting for the next shipment to arrive. It's not hard to see why. It feels like being close to the source.

If you are far away, you can still order catalogues from the Center on their website store.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

NYC, American Indian Art, and Teju Cole

Recent, intense work on projects has pushed out introspection in the past few weeks, but we were in Manhattan once again and took in many sights and experiences that warrant deeper thought and things to share. And just as once you look for something, there it is, I just finished Teju Cole's amazing reflection on life and New York City: Open City: A Novel. It won the 2012 PEN/Hemingway Award.

I was alerted to Teju Cole after someone read to me a comedic and pointed take on Ebola that he had written for The New Yorker, October 7, 2014. To me, the column shows an underlying interest in how we think, why we talk ourselves into things, and how absurd our rationalizations are. That was the kind of author I wanted to read. The book is not comedic, but it is beautifully written and with just those kinds of insights I had hoped for. The narrator walks all over Manhattan, meets people, has discussions and arguments, and tries to make sense of the world and his place in it. It touches on every subject, particularly every controversial and political subject you can imagine, but in a surprisingly gentle way.

Reading this on the heels of our own New York trip (we miraculously walked thirty miles in the few days we were there; that walking warranted the purchase of a new pair of shoes), it seemed time to do some connecting.

The National Museum of the American Indian is a branch of the Smithsonian. It is located in what used to be the Customs House in Battery Park. The building is high-ceilinged and majestic, as you might expect, but it houses American Indian art and objects from a variety of tribes, geographic areas, and cultures.

More startling, perhaps, is the realization, according to Cole's book, that the plaza, Bowling Green, was "used in the seventeenth century for the executions of paupers and slaves" (164), something you will not find in the Wikipedia entry.

A few highlights of the exhibition at the museum for me were from the contemporary collection, and they happened to be book and paper related. The weaving together of tradition and contemporary life, transforming that tradition, but keeping the essential emotional core, was what gave the work its weight. The technical skill and craft coupled with creativity gave the work its beauty.

Made of paper, graphite, and thread, this 2002 piece by Maria Hupfield (Anishinaabe, Wasauksing First Nation) is based on a traditional Anishinaabe woman's jingle dress. Each jingle features the name of an Indigenous writer. As the wall text notes it merges the oral, written and visual traditions. Usually, these cones are made of tin or other metal in order to jingle during a dance. Here, they are mute. But powerfully so.

Looking backwards, this Inka khipu (1425-1532) functioned as a ledger book. Its intricate knots, colors, and lengths stood as recording devices for inventories or accounts. One could think of it as a collection of series of numbers or as an early computer, the meaning lost to us, but we can still take pleasure in the tactile nature of the materials.

This takes us to ledger book drawings, roughly originating from 1860-1900 when the Plains Indians were forced off of their land into reservations. They used the paper traded, collected, or captured from the soldiers to draw and tell their stories, and they added new art materials to their practice. Some people might say that it made sense to use that paper then because it really was the paper of the time, but it has become part of the tradition to use the antique papers for contemporary work. The connection to one's ancestors is more prominent that way, additional meaning retained. The reminder to the past and to the history is embedded in the work.

Chris Pappan's (Osage/Kaw/Cheyenne River Lakota) artist statement says, "I intentionally distort portraits because people have a distorted idea of Native people." His style is his own, purposely not copying traditional ledger drawing styles in order to bring the work up to date and keep it fresh. Break from Tradition, 21st-Century Ledger Drawing No. 58, 2012.

Dwayne Wilcox (Oglala Lakota) includes contemporary objects, such as the cellphones in this image, according to the wall text, "to show how new technology is present in Native life and culture. The title is a play on the word for the number one, wánci (pronounced ONE-gee)." His flattened style is closer to traditional ledger book drawings, but his personal sense of humor transforms the work. 4G Better than One-G, 2012.

Seeing these reminded me of a book I own. At a 2014 memorial gathering for Yee Jan Bao, a colleague, his nephew told us to choose a book from Yee Jan's collection to take home with us. John Zurier and I both were intrigued with the same book, which he graciously let me have, "I think you want it more. You should have it." It was The Ledgerbook of Thomas Blue Eagle. My first impression was that it was an authentic copy of an Indian work, but on further examination, I realized it was a contemporary children's book. It has all of the characteristics of a historical document with its rounded corners, yellowed paper, and flat-style drawings, but it was published originally in 1994, reprinted in 2007. The artist does not, as far as I can tell, have an Indian background. I was disappointed. But after our trip I went back to it. It is based on true events, and the artist worked from historical documents and drawings from the original time period, and consulted with a Lakota advisor. Although this one is fictional, the history is real and tells an important story. It may be the only accessible example and teaching method we have. As I think about this, I'm not so disappointed.

Part of the premise of Teju Cole's book Open City is that perceptions of ourselves and of others can change as we get more or different information. We can enjoy the journey through New York City with him, but reflect and re-weigh our thoughts and feelings as we go. There is a value in being open.

More information on Plains Ledger Art here.