Sunday, April 22, 2012

At the Edge of the Abyss

I heard about David Koker this morning on CBC. It's a poignant and compelling glimpse into his life in a concentration camp at Vught in the Southern Netherlands. There was also an article I found written about his diary. He had been a student  of philosophy, history and a poet.

You can listen to the podcast on CBC here:

You can read the tablemag article here:

Friday, April 6, 2012

Personal Is Political?

The meaning and relevance of the phrase “ Personal Is Political” in relation to artists directly involved with feminism during the 70s and 80s is still very pertinent today. It is powerful phrase that either has little value or could have wide reaching implications depending on what context it is used, and who is saying it.
There are a number of people that may or may not be the source of this phrase however as Gloria Steinem aptly suggests, knowing who first said it,would be like knowing who was responsible for first coining the phrase “World War 11.”
What is more significant I believe, is the debate surrounding the phrase as,  feminist Carol Hanisch states in her paper.

 “ Political struggle or debate is the key to good political theory.”

Carol Hanisch premises her paper , “The Personal Is Political “ by clarifying she did not give this title to the paper which began as a reply to a memo entitled “Some Thoughts in Response to Dottie’s Thoughts on a Women Liberation Movement”

 In many respects I think the feminist art movement during the 70s and 80s begins and ends with Judy Chicago, though I know there were many other women along side Judy Chicago, that if they had not been proactively present, she would never been enabled to accomplish what she did.      
At it’s core, feminism is collective and collaborative, personal, political, public and private.

Aya Dorit Cypis is very committed to the feminist idea of the personal as political in her art practice.  In her art statement she succinctly expresses the idea of how understanding the personal is a prerequisite to the political, the personal needs to be understood before the political can be realized or even recognized in one’s life and artwork.

“ I first studied sociology in the late 1960's but moved into the arts when I recognized that there was a crucial variable missing from my social studies, that is, subjectivity. How could I study others when I could not recognize myself?”

 Aya Dorit Cypist sees art as a reflection of the public and private, simultaneously reflecting the artist’s private life. She says art is both objective and subjective.
Sightlines, an installation of photographs by Aya Dorit Cypis, consists of oil clay sculptures of woman’s heads. The portraits are of the first female Palestinian suicide bomber, and of another Israeli woman who was killed in the explosion. The photograph of the two women was featured on the cover of Newsweek. Forensic investigator, Dr. Irma Rodriguez sculpted the portraits of the women who were murdered. The photographic exhibition engages the viewer in
personal and the political. Her work solicits a response to what we see, to question our own identity, culture and responsibility. We are psychologically drawn in and are somewhat enmeshed in the complicated relationships of contemporary cultural politics and we are forced to question our role in it. 

“ While an artwork may be interpreted to reflect on public life issues of culture and history, this same work simultaneously reflects on and is generated by the private life of the artist herself. Art is of and from the artist, yet is not the artist. Art, like a mirror, is utopic and heterotopic, present as form yet reflecting something outside of itself. Art is simultaneously objective and subjective, dependent on its power to represent or signify something larger than itself while tied to a social context of time and place and to being read by a receiver/reader outside of itself. Roles of public and private, always implicitly present in an artwork, are inter-reflexive
inseparable and infinitely uncertain.”

 The personal and the political are like ying and yang. It is difficult to not have one without the other, if not impossible. Everything we do is political however when Judy Chicago is asked in an interview if she thought the feminist idea of the  “personal is political” has a function in art, she insists that we can not think of art as just being personal as political, but should be setting our goals and aspirations beyond as the political is universal because the political realm is always changing and can make the art of the day redundant.

“It actually has limited usefulness in terms of understanding art. In order to make art that communicates or is meaningful, you actually have to transform the personal into the universal. If you only translate it into the political it becomes time-bound, and when that political period is over so is your art. One of the things that I’ve always attempted to do in my work is to deal with subjects that have universal meaning, even if they come out of personal experience.”
Art is about “transcending the personal” she remarks.

 Artist, feminist and social activist, Martha Rosler has lived and experienced both the personal and the political and I believe has a firm understanding what this phrase means not through books. but through hands on, actualized experience and struggle through the 60s 70s and into the 80s and what is commonly known as the second wave of feminism.

 Feminism in the 1970s was marked and punctuated by Judy Chicago’s full page ad announcing in Art Forum her official and personal name change to Judy Gerowitz, when the ad stated, she’s made the name change to divest “herself of all names imposed upon her through male dominance...” This was one of the earliest actions taken by Judy Chicago to make the personal political.

 Implementing America’s first feminist art education program in California State University gave her the impetus for the feminist art movement. This quickly evolved into the one of a kind department in any art school now at CalArts, with Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro  who was born in Canada by the way, where the instructors. 
 The historical Womanhouse, made the personal, political and it was the first public exhibition of “feminist art”

 “The age-old female activity of home making was taken to fantasy proportions. Womanhouse became the repository of the day dreams women have as they wash, bake, cook, sew, clean and iron their lives away.”

 The objective was three fold over a two month period. The 25 female students were give the tasks of firstly, to come to grips with their own personal problems while working to complete the physical repairs to the house which was an old deserted mansion. They were to learn new skills,
work collaboratively. Lastly they were forced to challenge themselves as artists and against the “role limitations” as women.”  

 Judy Chicago’s, iconic “The Dinner Party” was produced over a period from 1974 to 1979 the year it was exhibited. The collaborative art work is finely detailed place settings for 39 mythical and historically famous women. These 39 women being personally invited guests to a very public dinner that becomes powerfully politically charged with government officials using words like
“blasphemes”  and even “pornographic” in attempt to have The Dinner Party censored and removed and from being exhibited. Fortunately this attempt and was never successful and it is now permanently house in the Brooklyn New York Museum.

Suzanne Lacy who worked with The Whisper Minnesota Project in 1985-1987 is an another example of bringing the personal to the political again around a living table setting, creating the Crystal Quilt, where 430 women, 60 years of age gathered around tables placed on a 82 foot rug engaging in personal conversation about their lives around with tables that looked like a quilt, designed by Judy’s friend and colleague, Miriam Schapiro.

Recently Judy Chicago wrote a book that has been recently entitled, Frida Kahlo:Face To Face, coauthored by art historian Frances Borzello.
She makes the points in an interview that Frida Kahlo’s  work has never been looked at in relationship to other women and she hopes her book will enable a better understanding of Kahlo’s work.
 Chicago states in an interview about the book she discovered she has some things in common with Frida Kahlo.

 “ Our identification with our fathers, our use of color and our love of and representation of animals–I think those are the three major areas that we have in common.”
 She also points out that Frida Kahlo’s work has never been looked at in relationship to other women and she hopes her book will enable a better understanding of Kahlo’s work.
 Judy Chicago identifies with Kahlo’s primarily because of the what is the heart of feminism and how Chicago relates to the world as a woman, an artist and a feminist. She understands and epitomizes the meaning of the personal is political, inclusively and collaboratively, transcending place, time, gender, age, race, culture and religion. 

“I think that one of the things that is sort of startling about a lot of Kahlo’s images is that she is able to transform what was intensely personal into universal statements. Hence her image, for example, of The Broken Column, which  is very much about her accident and her unrelenting pain and the rods that were inserted into her spine. But that pales because it becomes an image of universal suffering and transcending illness. The idea of coming to consciousness thorough realizing the personal is political is one thing, but that is not what art is about; art is about transcending the personal.”

Judy Chicago understands and I believe epitomizes the meaning of the personal is
political, inclusively and collaboratively, transcending the personal, time, gender, age, race, culture and religion. 


Thursday, April 5, 2012

Jean-Michel Basquiat

There have been three films produced about Jean-Micheal Basquiat, the documentary, The Radiant Child , title taken from the article written in Art Forum by painter, art critic and poet, Rene Richard, Downtown 81 directed by, Edo Bertoglio and Basquiat directed by, Julian Schnabel and co-written by ,Schnabel and Lech J. Majewski , who directed the Mill and The Cross.

Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in New York City on December 22nd, 1960  and died August 12th, 1988.

Jean Michael Basquiat  was a beautiful soul and a remarkable artist. The film directed  by Julian Schnabel, was well done and well cast, especially Jeffery White's portrayal of  Jean-Michel was charismatic, convincing and made the character come to life. One could be left wondering, if Basquiat was a victim of his own persona, from all three films. Apparently always wanting to be famous, and because he'd gained such notoriety in a very short period of time as a graffiti artist and then developed into a Neo-expressionist painter, and he was quickly thrown into a world and an environment that perhaps because of his youth, it left him unable to cope, with an almost over night fame, and considering his nature and circumstance, it proved too much for him. It was said, by one of his friends, in The Radiant Child that," he didn't have the tools to get through the sea of shit".

According to the article written by NY Times , his father expressed that Jean- Michel was often taken advantage of by others. Considering this, it was likely very much the case, he was taken of advantage of, and combined with this, the trauma of having his mother institutionalized due to mental illness when he was a young child of 11 years, running away at the early age of 15, and experiencing discrimination  as a young black youth caused him to be very troubled and lonely. Added to these personal struggles, was his drug abuse and addiction which complicated his life, and lead to a downward spiral, ending his life tragically, at the young age of 27,  by a drug overdose.

I appreciated the portrayal of his close friendship with Andy Warhol, who seemed to have cared for him deeply, and greatly admired his talent although it appears that Warhol was Jean Basquiat's mentor.
David Bowie was superb as the character of Andy Warhol. His portrayal of Andy was both endearing and kind, especially toward Jean-Michel. He'd even used Warhol's wig to add to the authenticity of the character.

 The scene depicted Jean-Michel's reaction to Andy's death poignantly, and it was after his death that Jean-Michel went into isolation, his depression escalated, as did his drug addiction.

In his painting, The History of The Black People, what I found most interesting about Jean-Michel's Basquiat's art, is his use of language and in a paper written by Maica Sanconie, entitled "The Use of Language in Jean-Michel Basquiat's Art" states.

"Basquiat does not celebrate a culture. Rather, he points out the losses and dismembering of this culture. He attempts to reveal the African-American presence in America in its historical dimension. He goes backward in time, in a process of “self-creolization”, a process defined by Robert Farris Thompson to express Basquiat’s ability to fuse into effect his fluency in several languages. Or we could also say that he created his own language of self-emergence."

There was a great honesty and directness of character that was often not recognized, understood or appreciated in his work, but the following quotes are revealing.

"I had some money, I made the best paintings ever. I was completely reclusive, worked a lot, took a lot of drugs. I was awful to people."

"Believe it or not, I can actually draw."

"Since I was 17 I thought I might be a star."

                                                           Jean-Michel Basquiat

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Dresses and Dancing

When I was a young 13 year old I decided I wanted to sew a dress. The material I chose was from a car blanket, leopard motif. I had no pattern and it was hand sewn. I'd even made a little vest that completed the ensemble. It truly was a thing of grooviness! Later in at the age of  27 I made my wedding dress. The top was crocheted by my mother-in-law and I sewed the very full panel skirt on my grandmother's Singer tredle sewing machine. It's worked like a charm. I ran out of money to purchase more material and so I used white cotton sheets to make the remaining panels to finish the wedding outfit. I always loved the idea of appropriating and recycling material.

When I moved to the North West Territories, I again made a dress. This time it was made from unbleached cotton recycled flour sacks I purchased at the local Hudson's Bay Store.  It was two squares sewn together with crocheted edging. I wore it in the Summer months and it was like wearing no clothes at all. I still have it to this day and dyed it purple. It is now only worn as a night dress in the Summer relegated to the confines of my house. My dress making did not stop here, however I was not to make any more dresses until I discovered Mediterranean dance.

I have always had an ongoing relationship with the hand stitched, the crocheted, the knitted, the weaved and I could go on and on. I grew up in a family were making things by hand was a tradition as a skill, a craft and an art, that was considered very important and subsequently was passed on through the generations. As well I have had an ongoing love affair with dance. Some how for me there is a correlation between the dress and the dance.

My relationship with the dress was always very prominent all through my life really, until the constraints of being an artist no longer would allow, for fear of paint getting on my dresses. I am very grateful to have grown up with a mother and a grandmother who had a  fashion sense, as it was something I always took great pleasure in. I do believe my own involvement with wearing dresses was much more prevalent before the invasion of fat cells which hid  my "womanly figure". There is much body politic going on with this, however mainly happened in my mind and this had been the case for many years. Shredding the dress mentally, in the sense of not getting caught up with all  the social constraints it imbues, regarding ideal beauty,  is a freeing thing and I believe feminists have been attempting to do this, myself included.

As a belly dancer  I learned to embrace my body as it is, fat and all which was extremely liberating and simultaneously I could celebrate all that the dress embodies about the feminine, the tactile experience of beautiful fabrics against the skin, flowing, like satin, silk, organza and velvet to name a few. The decorative aspects of making my own costume satiated my need to hand sew, crochet etc. I felt like a million bucks! I was to never  look at Frenchie's, Value Village or the Sally Ann,  the same way ever again.

Looking at the new book, Portrait In A Velvet Dress,  about Frida Kahlo's wardrobe of costumes, blouses and dresses was so exciting, and how I long to see these in person. She may have indeed used these clothes to cover her body flaws and injuries but I prefer to believe she was embracing her body as it was, celebrating her femininity  through her costumes and in particular her dresses, adornments and she loved to dance as frequently as possible in her beautiful dresses.

Anna Torma

When I first saw artist Anna Torma I was immediately struck by her aura which was warm and light. She was so humble and soft spoken. I took careful note of what wise words she said and took them to my heart. " Create what you long for" " Your life can be art, your garden can be art",  "Process was more important than the final product".

These statements expressed to me how Anna Toma believes as I do, that it is vital to have an emotional connection to your art. I sensed during her presentation she was just scratching the surface of who she is and what she has experienced in life presenting only one aspect of her art work, her love of the garden, rose gardens and medieval  gardens.  I sensed a great depth of character that comes from struggle, loss, being an outsider, and living under the austere, communist regime coming from Europe, before she immigrated to Canada from Hungary in 1988.

The follow up lecture given by Dr.  Anne Koval was very enlightening after she read a paper she'd written reviewing and the theorizing of her work.

Her embroidered installations are beautiful and amazingly rich visually, that reflect the amazing person, woman and artist that is Anna Torma.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Paula Cohen

Found objects, interpersonal relationships and fat politics are all themes that define her reality and the world for feminist artist Paula Cohen's , who was our guest lecturer on March 26th for our Women, Art and Society class. She shared her personal story chronologically, about what influenced her as a women, her Catholic upbringing and how this informed her art and what was the starting point of her own feminism, what she studied during her education, what she worked at, how she became an artist and why.

Her art practice was wide and varied ranging from print making, woodcuts, dry point etching, lithography, silk screening, drawing, animation and soft sculpture.
Her lecture was entertaining, informative, and very engaging and I could listen to her all day because she is a natural story teller with a keen wit and intelligence.

Her talking about fat politics was very interesting to me, being a fat woman myself. She shared the story about her addressing the issue of her own body image, the response and perceptions of others who don't know how to react to her honesty surrounding her direct approach to her being fat, by saying out loud. " I'm fat."
This seemed to empower and free her from the tyranny of what I'll call, thin politics. It's been said that , "it's not obesity, but the panic over obesity, that's the real health problem."

Killing Us Softly 4

Professor Toni Roberts who teaches Gender Studies was the guest lecturer this past week, while Dr. Koval was away. It was a fabulous class and he is a very interesting man!

Firstly it was so refreshing to see a man who is so involved in feminism at the university level. I was discussing this with my friend and classmate over a burger at Mel's diner in Sackville. She said there had been some discussion and controversy over having a man teach Gender/Women's Studies and issues involving feminism. I think it is a progressive development that sees men taking a proactive role in raising consciousness within the female population but perhaps just as importantly, if not more so, within the male population that will hopefully demystify and deconstruct hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity that exists in our society.

We had a very engaging discussion after viewing Jean Kilbourne's lecture "Killing Us Softly 4".We were asked our opinion about this video and I expressed having lived through the "second wave" of feminism I have come to the conclusion education, personal and individual activism is this way to change. I felt that the situation surrounding advertising and the sexualization of woman in the media seems to have gotten far worse. Jen Kilbourne reaffirmed my perceptions about how women are dehumanized and objectified  that often culminates in violence and through the tyranny of the ideal of beauty and bodies are used to sell products.

I am anxious to read about Sandra Barky a Philosopher and feminist I learned about who is interested in doing phenomenology and what has been referred to as "feminist moral psychology "
I also learned two new interesting words during this lecture hetronormativity and para-thematic!

Dianne Arbus

I am always of the opinion, if you really want to find out something about an particular artist, it is wise to go directly to the artist's words. However sometimes a movie is able to convey the essence of a person as a result of a creative collaboration between director, writer, cinematographer and actor. Director, Steven Shainberg's "Fur " is one such movie, part fictional and factual imaginary story about photographer, Dianne Arbus.
My reaction to this film was one of enjoyment and a strange sense of some how understanding a little bit more, the inner workings of the photographer's  mind and why she chose the subject matter of her black and white photographs that were powerful, disturbing, beautiful and laudable. Patricia Bosworth (Crom) was a friend of and model for Dianne and Alan Arbus. She wrote, Dianne Arbus: A Biography, which the movie was based upon.

Nicole Kidman did not look like the artist, however she transformed herself into a very interesting character that left the viewer  with perhaps  a kind of essence of the person, with a desire to learn and know more about who Dianne Arbus was, and about the work she created in her photography.

Both Kidman and Robert Downey Jr. acted their parts intensely and without flaw, compelling you to believe in these characters. There was an intensity in the acting through the eyes, as  Robert Downey  Jr's character Lionel, was masked seducing both Kidman's character and the viewer.
The cinematography was excellent with authentic 50s environment. The grays, black and white of the Dianne's somewhat generic apartment , conservative and restrictive environment and lifestyle, was  contrasted with the lavish colours and visual imagery of Lionel's upstairs apartment, that overflowed with a virtual feast  of visual oddities and strange collections, enabling  numerous imaginations for the audience.
 There were exquisite close ups of certain scenes that caused the viewer to almost read what was going on within the thought process of Dianne Arbus through Kidman's portrayal of the artist. 

After her divorce she suffered from depression and in spite of receiving therapy Dianne died, committing suicide in 1978, at the age of 48. After her death in the mid 70s, she was the first American photographer to have ever been exhibited at the Venice Biennale. The ten photographs displayed were described as, "the overwhelming sensation of the American Pavilion" and "an extraordinary achievement."
A retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art was held in 1972 which traveled throughout North America and it was estimated 7 million people viewed the exhibition. Another retrospective traveled around the world in 1973–1979.

Her legacy of work and contribution to photography, laid to rest, her fear of being known as a  "photographer of freaks." She had once expressed to her friend Patricia Bosworth she feared this is how she would be remembered, which in fact unfortunately this was in fact the case.

One gets the impression she was constantly trying to work through something in her photographs, with the subject matter being, those living on the fringes of society, dispossessed and marginalized. It's difficult to know just what was going on in her mind, and I do not presume to know. What I do know, is I love her work in it's rawness and honesty. I would include her photographs in the same tradition and category with  such greats as, Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans  and Richard Avedon.

I think it is difficult to interpret with absolute certainty and knowledge of what her photographs are about, as photography is both an esoteric and rather elusive art. I  don't think it matters so much, as it is more about seeing and capturing that precise fleeting moment.  

I find it interesting how photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson's thoughts on photography, compare to Dianne Arbus. The sense of photography's estoteric and somewhat undefinable quality is evident and I would say perhaps even necessary. 

 Dianne Arbus may have referred to her subject matter as "freaks' as others have done, however I believe she had an admiration, respect, empathy and deep feeling for those's she portrayed through her camera lens. I believe she identified with them, had a repore and an affable relationship with those she photographed. I think this often went unrecognized because people did not want to see what was mostly considered the ugly and grotesque.

I believe there is beauty to be seen and found within the so called ugly. Dianne Arbus was successful at seeing and finding this beauty.

They . . . asked me:
"'How do you make your pictures?' I was puzzled . . .
"I said, 'I don't know, it's not important.'
- Henri Cartier-Bresson

Pictures, regardless of how they are created and recreated, are intended to be looked at. This brings to the forefront not the technology of imaging, which of course is important, but rather what we might call the eyenology (seeing). - Henri Cartier-Bresson

The most difficult thing for me is a portrait. You have to try and put your camera between the skin of a person and his shirt. - Henri Cartier-Bresson, Photography Year 1980, LIFE Library of Photography , Page: 27

“What I'm trying to describe is that it's impossible to get out of your skin into somebody else's.... That somebody else's tragedy is not the same as your own.”
Diane Arbus

“There's a quality of legend about freaks.
Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. Most people go through life dreading they'll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They've already passed their test in life. They're aristocrats.”
Diane Arbus

“A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.”
Diane Arbus

As time passes by and you look at portraits, the people come back to you like a silent echo. A photograph is a vestige of a face, a face in transit. Photography has something to do with death. It's a trace. - Henri Cartier-Bresson

“...I would never choose a subject for what it means to me. I choose a subject and then what I feel about it, what it means, begins to unfold. ”
Diane Arbus

 The thing that's important to know is that you never know. You're always sort of feeling your way.
Diane Arbus