2020: Coming up for air, albeit with a mask

It’s been a year since my last post and there were many reasons for that. First was work, developing taxonomies and controlled vocabularies for machine learning related projects. Then Covid happened, so I couldn’t go out to museums and galleries. Then I had to become a learning coach for my teen who is taking multiple AP classes online. Add to this ongoing efforts to stay current on technology and knowledge management by taking webinars, reading books, and going to virtual conferences. On top of all that, the hot mess that was American politics. It is Dec. 1st and I have finally come up for air – albeit with a mask.

I will do my best to re-cap and document the beta launch of Austin’s EAST online studio tour in a second post. It happened a couple weekends ago and unfortunately overlapped with an online conference so I was not able to attend in real time, but I will do my best to document for posterity.

After this I will try something new. All this time I have been tracking and posting links on Twitter for a variety of topics: online museum resources, digital humanities, digital preservation, open access courses, ethical AI, Asian visual culture and literature, taxonomy, ontology, linked data, and more. I’d like to attempt once a week to compile and curate these into newsletter type posts.

Once a month I will do my best to safely find a way to go out and look at art and review it. I will perhaps also make a post once a month looking at what local exhibitions are currently open for view and will share safety notes and tips, as well as share what online resources are available for those wanting to stay at home.

I will also work toward making occassional posts promoting resources and options for those wanting to live a more eco, sustainable, plastic-free lifestyle as that is top of mind as well.

I’d like to also share and promote local, small businesses in featured posts, pulling in photos from my Instagram account.

2021 will begin in just one more month – and I am feeling very hopeful that we will get past all this.


Mexican Modern Art at the Harry Ransom Center

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Running for just a couple more days is the Harry Ransom Center’s exhibit “Mexico Modern: Art, Commerce, and Cultural Exchange, 1920–1945.”  One of the main points this show raises is the impact that transnational curators, gallery owners, and journalists had on political artists in Mexico during and after the the Revolution.

The archival photographs, letters, books, prints, and paintings are, as always at the HRC, brilliant and worthy of deeper study. Drawing from over 200 works including jewelry and decorative pieces this exhibit “highlights the important history of 20th-century art…how both countries instigated a cultural phenomenon by creating and promoting art that pioneered a synthesis of indigenous traditions and international aesthetics,” explained the curators. There are examples of many works and correspondences from Diego Rivera, David Alfaro, Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco, as well as Frida Kahlo, Miguel Covarrubias, and photographers Edward Weston, Manuel Bravo, and Tina Modotti.

Poster for Mexican tourism, published by Asociacion Mexicana de Turismo, 1940, 97.2 x 73.3 cm.

However, as an overall installation it was not moving, and I really wanted it to be. Not sure if it was the weather, the last days of the exhibit, post-holiday fatigue (there were a lot of visitors), but I wanted something dynamic and colorful, doing the subject matter justice.

As is often the case with archival exhibits, an immersive or experiential element is missing. I worry that younger people may not have background on the Revolution, or why it was important or meaningful for the artists to make the statements that they did. Sometimes these exhibits can be heavy on the text, and could benefit from more documentary footage, music from the era and more art. Performative or sculptural pieces could provide dynamism and three-dimensionality to the exhibit. Without enough narrative flow and context the pieces can come across as random and flat, which is a tragic disservice.

Paul Strand (American, 1890–1976), Cristo with Thorns, Huexotla, 1933; printed 1940. From the portfolio Photographs of Mexico. Photogravure, 26.1 x 20.5 cm (image).

If you knew nothing about early 20th century Mexico or modernism, this might not be the best introduction, unless perhaps you signed up with a tour with a vibrant docent. On the other hand, if you find the collaboration between journalists, curators and artists, across Mexico and the U.S. during the first half of the twentieth century fascinating, you will find plenty to read and explore.

Ultimately what these exhibits are about, is giving the public a taste of what the Harry Ransom Center has in its collections, tempting scholars to do further study. Many of these holdings can also be found in the exhibit catalog. 

Mexicana: A Book of Pictures by René d’Harnoncourt, with cover illustration by d’Harnoncourt, published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1931.

Review: Come As You Are – Art of the 90’s

The sign upon entering the exhibit warns the viewer of adult content; this is real. Come As You Are: Art of the 90’s is probably one of the strangest and most unsettling exhibits I have seen in the Blanton. I had the sense the student and volunteer staffers felt a little destabilized with the content and its sensory challenges. This was not pretty art that lay quietly on the wall, it was a collection of jarring pieces that did not all play nicely. Each piece was provocative in the overall sterile space, like an isolated scream or a fist thrown up in an environment that expected polite behavior. When I discussed the exhibit with another 90’s era friend, we joked about how tempted we were to pull pranks with some of the participatory pieces. We would probably be kicked out but it would have been in keeping with the spirit of that time.  It’s always a strange thing to navigate a space that historicizes a time you either know intimately or know was anti-establishment. I felt similarly at odds visiting Punk and Fluxus retrospectives in museums. One could not help but feel the work better suited to dingy warehouses filled with cigarette smoke and the noise of motorbikes.

Ultimately however, the work has the last laugh….poking out at the viewers, making them shift uncomfortably and glance away. There is an overwhelming drone of noise that fluctuates in the space, partly stemming from an adrenaline-triggering installation of a late 90’s Aeron chair, typical of those populating 90s start-ups. The chair in Glenn Kaino‘s piece the Siege Perilous (2002) revolves within a glass box, faster and faster, simulating the feeling of the intensifying dot com era, until it whirls madly, filling the air with the sound of a something out of control. I couldn’t help but wish it was juxtaposed with something signifying the crash.

The other loud drone comes from a video piece across the hall in a small viewing room. Doug Aitken‘s Monsoon (1995) is a sobering, eerie piece, from the artist visiting the site of the Jonestown 1978 mass suicide almost 20 years later. The camera follows the overgrown jungle, littered occasionally with abandoned vehicles like a deserted, tropical ghostown. The only sound is that of insects, birds and the slowly building noise of an impending monsoon. The piece develops so much tension and unanswered questions that you expect the rain to wash it all away, but the rain never comes.

While you’re listening to these insects and thunder you overhear the LA babble from one of Alex Bag’s characters in her proto-YouTube/proto-reality show video diary (Untitled, Fall ’95), perhaps the new art student who is struggling with identity, theory and expectation. Her valley girl tones pierce your experience of all the art as she battles with perception and articulation.  Are her characters ironic or truer than the audience wants to admit?

Alex Bag, video still from “Untitled Fall 95.” From “Come As You Are: Art of the 1990s." Alex Bag (born 1969, USA) Untitled Fall 95, 1995 57 min, color, sound Courtesy of Team Gallery and Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York Alex Bag
Alex Bag, video still from “Untitled Fall 95.” From “Come As You Are: Art of the 1990s.”

Does the exhibit capture the 90’s? To this I have to say no, because there was so much more to that era and these are only snapshots from a selection of conceptual artists.  It’s difficult to build something immersive and cohesive out of time when we felt full of questions and rejected all the answers. Explaining to someone who was not there, or who was not in their youth at this time, it would be difficult to say that these pieces spoke for me, or even spoke to me. The show does call attention to most of the major issues of the time however, from the fallout after the AIDS crisis to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was a period after the 80’s when people wanted to pull down and critique all the walls and conventions.

If I were to curate the period I would  select different some different pieces. Mine would likely overlap with the 1980s as that was a time that the early 90’s was still trying to digest and rebel against. I would probably cover the period 1987 to 1994 and would highlight some pieces by Joel Peter Witkin bringing attention to the influence he had on 90’s industrial band Nine Inch Nails. I would have to incorporate performance pieces by Guillermo Gomez-Pena and films by Greg Araki and Jon Moritsugu.  I could weave music by Portishead with Sonic Youth and Janes Addiction. I would like to include dioramas featuring old Amiga computers, external 56k modems, bottles of Orbitz sodas and Jolt cola, Doc Marten boots, art by Taraoka Masami and Dave McKean, novels by Anne Rice and Kathy Acker, Mondo 2000 magazines and Fringeware zines.  The exhibit would span the beginning of the Indie/Alternative scene breaking through to the mainstream, to the beginning of the dot com era, because for many of us the latter signaled a domestication of these energies. The full story of this time has not yet emerged, but, Come as You Are is a great place to start that conversation.

Secret Art of Dr. Seuss

The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss on view at the Art on 5th Gallery on S. Lamar til April 9th.

Many of us grew up with the visual vocabulary of Dr. Seuss’s art. His wild trees with their fluffy tops or the whimsical horns on his animals all communicated not just creative freedom but also gave us a sense that there was more to the world than we were being taught.  Apparently there was more to Dr. Seuss as well. During the day he wrote children’s books, by night he was a surrealist painter.  Art on 5th Gallery has a wonderful collection of his many works, spanning a variety of styles and ranging from the familiar to more mature interpretations of his literary oeuvre.

at Art on 5th Gallery

Maybe you were one of those children who would spend hours pouring over the imagery in his books, absorbing the nuances in all of his characters wild expressions.  You owe yourself a favor to spend some time now, revisiting these wonders in a new light. While you discover more to Dr. Seuss than you knew you may gain a new look into your own grownup imagination and perhaps marvel at the journey you both took.

If viewing these works up close at Art on 5th Gallery is still not enough, there is a wonderful volume on this secret art of Dr. Seuss that offers an introduction by the equally formative Maurice Sendak. Similarly there is another work on his secret art entitled the Cat Behind the Hat (which is also the title of one of his works featured in the Gallery.)


East Austin Studio Tour Survival Guide

The first weekend of EAST is over but you have one more weekend to check it out! Perhaps you didn’t get a chance to go or perhaps you went and weren’t able to see all the galleries.  I recommend heading out early to beat the crowds.

Stack out a spot at Sa-Ten, the amazing Japanese fusion cafe inside the Canopy art complex where you can enjoy your cappuccino with a breakfast of smoked salmon with sriracha mayo, nori, mozzarella on toast. That’s just one of many offerings, in addition to everything from oatmeal to allegedly the famed Red Rabbit vegan donuts.  But wait, you say…Red Rabbit vegan collective closed, how is it I can get my vegan donut fix on?  Wheatsville Co-op came through and saved the day. Point is, when EAST is happening you don’t want to spin your wheels elsewhere in town doing brunch, you need to get out into it early.  As the day progresses at Canopy you can enjoy the best teriyaki gluten-free fried chicken with a side of kimchi, and some of the galleries offer free beer (sorry not gluten-free).

This is the 14th annual EAST that Big Medium and the Austin art community have put together.  Featuring 287 artists, 152 exhibitions and 7 happenings there’s more than enough for everyone. They’ve even put out a handful of different guides to curate and help plan your attack.

Taking kids? Check out the events in their family-friendly guide, like Austin’s Tinkering School, Austin’s own Maker Space, for hands-on art-making activities.  Or Creative Action‘s Community Art Sunday on Nov. 22 where you can enjoy dance, music, food, art and inventing.  Or perhaps you and your kids would like to check out kinetic steel sculptures inspired by Jean Tinguely. Your purchases will go to Save Our Springs Alliance at Barry George’s collection at 204 Attayac St.

I went to EAST last weekend and was impressed with what I saw from the following artists.

  • Diana Presley Greenberg‘s delicate abstracts are like viewing a gentle bouquet of flowers through a soft curtain of linen.  Other examples feature bold splashes in complex relationships upon white canvas, bringing to mind Swedish interiors.
  • Gert Johan Manschot produces dramatic works resembling Japanese Zen calligraphy.
  • Alex Diamond‘s work was a personal favorite of mine, for his fantastic sense of texture, line and intensity, with a cartoon/graffiti edge.  He produces woodcuts, photo paintings and installations.
  • Chun Hui Pak creates gorgeous geometric abstract works inspired by the structures of origami.  Her pieces serve as 2-D interpretations of the ancient art of paper-folding.
  • Ann Fleming produces vibrant abstractions with bold punches of color that relate to each other in surprisingly ways.
  • I was blown away by the assemblage work of Janie Milstein.  Inspired by cityscapes her textured work features architectural abstractions, layers of material and an industrial palate that will leave you speechless.
  • Rothko Hauschildt is a budding encaustic artist whose pieces communicate intensity and release.
  • Flip Solomon is an incredible illustrator, her drawings are eclectic and full of wonder.

So get out there and see these and other artists. And if the crowds become too much, escape to the quiet retreat of Zhi Tea on Bolm. If the weather is fair they have a beautiful garden patio under the trees.

Strange Pilgrims – Environment & Place

The Contemporary Austin is offering til January 24th of next year,  a surreal, experimental journey hosted in three parts, at the Jones Center, Laguna Gloria and the Visual Arts Center at UT.  Inspired in part by the title of the collection of short stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, these three showings feature “vignettes offering dark and surreal meditations on memory, mortality and the passage of time.” The following artists’ work is present in the exhibition:  Charles Atlas, Trisha Baga, Millie Chen, Phil Collins, Andy Coolquitt, Ayse Erkmen, Roger Hiorns, Nancy Holt, collective Lakes Were Rivers, Angelbert Metayer, Bruce Newman, Yoko Ono, Paul Sharits, and Sofia Taboas.  UT Press has published a 250 page catalogue of the exhibit.

The Jones Center is offering the first installment of the three-part exhibition, Environment and Place showcasing installation, video, architectural and landscape oriented works. 1960s-1970s conceptual and minimalist art by Bruce Nauman and Nancy Holt share space with contemporary artists Millie Chen, Andy Coolquitt, Roger Hiorns and Angelbert Metayer.

Bruce Nauman’s Green Light Corridor (1970) is about changing perspectives by inviting the viewing to walk through a narrow corridor lit by green neon lights. It’s presented within the large upper space of the downtown Jones Center, with its historical stone, wood and industrial walls. The juxtaposition of this piece with its neon to the cool, calm of the natural elements in the building is jarring.  I did not see many viewers volunteer to walk inside the corridor, perhaps because we are so often surrounded by neon and artificial light.  It would be interesting to compare audience perceptions from its original debut and environment 45 years ago.

Millie Chen’s Tour (2014) invites us to return to a different kind of temporal site.  In hers she presents four historical killing fields viewed while walking through tall grasses or meadows that have reclaimed the land. As we walk away from and through these sites of trauma we hear lullabies and gentle folk music from the Lakota, Khmer, from Rwanda and from Yiddish artists. Each site blends meditatively into the next allowing us to take this tour and reflect.

Running the Numbers – Austin Museum of Art

“Running the Numbers” is an exhibit that opened this weekend at the Austin Museum of Art, of Seattle-based artist Chris Jordan who produces artistic visualizations of the data of American consumption and waste. All of his works reproduce or reflect canonical works from art history or use a variety of familiar aesthetic techniques, to produce arresting pieces of beauty. However, this was a sobering and uncomfortable viewing, revolving strangely less upon the physical works themselves, the blown-up photographs and digital mosaics, than upon his visualization techniques, political conceptualization and in particular, the grim data presented.

The piece “Ben Franklin” (2007), a digital mosaic composed of small hundred dollar bills totaling 125, 000 (representing $12.5 million) created the pixilated image of Benjamin Franklin. The work was a visualization of the amount of money spent on the war in Iraq every hour from 2003 to 2008. It was a very large image (as were many of the political and environmentally oriented artworks) and in front of the piece sat a bench. Contextually what struck me the most about these works was the behavior that they inspired in the viewers. This was the first art exhibit that I attended with the audience spending more time reading the signage than gazing upon the pieces themselves. There was almost a sense of shame and nervous sobriety as the crowd milled about, glancing in furtive awe at the works. At the same time however, the atmosphere grew to resemble a quiet town hall, as viewers found themselves sitting on benches in from of these pieces and opening up into thought provoked discussions. These conversations were not so much about the artist, or even his aesthetic execution or material, but about the concepts that he was trying to drive home. Two individuals sat in front of the “Ben Franklin” work sharing an intimate discussion of the war, with personal experiences and regrets . I had to walk gingerly around them to gain a look at the artwork’s signage, their presence providing almost a layer of community performance art, protected by the meditative, free speech zone of the provided bench.

The ownership of the object in question was not clearly stated, but the exhibition was organized and distributed by the Museum of Art at Washing State University. As the piece was a digital photograph blown up to dramatic scale, the object’s condition was not in considerable danger by being exhibited as a digital master copy resided elsewhere. There was a difference in the information about each object between the signage, consisting predominantly of data, and the brochure describing the pieces’ artistic contributions: their composition, visual techniques, and which famous pieces they were nods to. A third informative layer was exemplified by the cell phone audio guide, which was found next to environmental pieces and provided information on how to keep Austin green and beautiful or asked what the role of artists in a green world was. These three forms did not contest each other, but each served different purposes: describing standard fields of information, providing historical and subjective assessments and offering relevant tie-ins with the audience and meaningful community opportunities.

As for any noticeable bias, the political views expressed by the artist were consistently backed up by the accompanying literature, promotional materials and audio guides. This is not entirely surprising, as the artist is alive and was engaged in the exhibition of his ideas. There were no critical or alternative views presented, no refuting of his statistics or techniques by the museum or curators. While greater detail on the source of the data would be appreciated, counter-arguments might be unnecessary as his critiques of American waste, consumerism and military spending are already generally debated and suppressed through the influence of corporate interests upon the media and public policy. The exhibit contained no comment on this political context and gave little depth or explanation as to “how we got here” other than providing benches in front of these large-scale, stunning works of terrible beauty.