Car Pooler #3 Makes You See

CRITICS CHOICE: Brooklyn based writer Nick Kolakowski has selected to write about Circuit Gallery artist Alejandro Cartagena‘s recent Car Poolers series.

Alejandro Cartagena, Car Pooler #8,#2,#10, 2011

Alejandro Cartagena, Car Poolers #8, #2, #10, 2011

Car Pooler #3 Makes You See
by Nick Kolakowski

We spend our lives refusing to see. We make a point of ignoring the disagreeable and the unjust. Every morning we board the subway or bus and stare past a rotating cast of homeless characters begging for change, even when they thrust a dirt-crusted hand under our noses; every night we click past images of genocide and warfare, instead directing our screens toward the scripted, bright and happy. You do it; I do it. There’s more than enough blame here to fill everyone’s bowl.

Alejandro Cartagena’s Car Poolers series hints at some Big Topic issues—immigration and exploitation, social status and the true cost of expansion—while forcing its audience to see what many choose to ignore. From most angles, the trucks he photographs would be nondescript. Shooting from high above, however, offers a view into the trucks’ flatbeds, and a world otherwise hidden by tailgates and steel sides: workers in worn jeans and dusty sneakers, packed flat amidst wheelbarrows and wooden pallets and buckets of tools.

Alejandro Cartagena, Untitled Car Pooler #1, 2011

Alejandro Cartagena, Untitled Car Pooler #1, 2011

Alejandro Cartagena, Untitled Car Pooler #2, 2011

Alejandro Cartagena, Untitled Car Pooler #2, 2011

Alejandro Cartagena, Untitled Car Pooler #4, 2011

Alejandro Cartagena, Untitled Car Pooler #4, 2011

Alejandro Cartagena, Untitled Car Pooler #3, 2011

Alejandro Cartagena, Untitled Car Pooler #3, 2011

In Car Pooler #1, Car Pooler #2, and Car Pooler #4 (all 2011) the workers appear asleep. An exception is Car Pooler #3 (2011), which features two of its three subjects awake but lying down, arms tight against their bodies; one of them has a hand cupped around his mouth, possibly smoking a cigarette. They are in transit, most likely to a construction site of some sort. There is a good chance that, if they keep quiet and still, nobody around them will notice their existence.

***

In a journalistic career spanning more than three decades of the twentieth century, Joseph Mitchell cataloged the people who built New York City and kept it fed. He wrote about the Mohawk construction workers scrambling along the steel skeletons of rising skyscrapers, and the hard lives of fishermen in the harbor. Whatever their occupation, the common denominator was pain: broken arms, failing livers, empty stomachs, dimming eyesight, and—perhaps worst of all—a creeping sense that in the end their efforts were all for nothing, that the world had abandoned them to die in crumbling hotels or on backwater reservations. One doubts many of the office workers in their gleaming towers, or the diners slurping down an oyster, gave much thought to the toil that had built the world around them.

Like Mitchell, Cartagena finds his subjects at low ebb, gathering strength for yet another shift of pouring concrete, shifting tons of soil, building the walls and floors of a new subdivision or office building. They create the bones of this world, even as they remain invisible to most of those within it. Cartagena’s environmental portraits aren’t imbued with the minutely choreographed symbolism of studio setups, but each is nonetheless weighty with subtext. We’re aware of the centuries-long fights over workers’ rights and immigration; we also know that, for as long as humanity’s existed, masses of people have been compelled into backbreaking labor for minimal payback. For anyone looking for a modern symbol of those eternal constants, it’d be hard to do better than a worker passed out beside his dusty tools, in a truck grinding toward the next job with the inevitability of Charon’s raft crossing the River Styx.

That’s what makes Car Pooler #3 so interesting. Unlike most other photographs in the series, two of its three subjects are awake. One of the pair wears sunglasses, hiding his gaze, but his compatriot to the right offers the viewer a flat gaze—wariness or defiance, depending on one’s point of view. Look at me all you want, he seems to be saying, or ignore me altogether. It makes no difference. I’m here, and I’m staring right back at you. Sooner or later, you won’t look away.

Nick Kolakowski is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn. His fiction and nonfiction work has appeared in The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Evergreen Review, Satellite Magazine, and Carrier Pigeon, among other venues. He’s also the author of “How to Become an Intellectual,” a work of comedic nonfiction. In the daylight hours, he helps edit the science-and-technology Website Slashdot.


See more work by Alejandro Cartagena available through Circuit Gallery:

Alejandro Cartagena, Suburbia Mexicana

Alejandro Cartagena, Fragmented Cities, Santa Catarina #2, 2008


Alejandro Cartagena, Suburbia Mexicana

Alejandro Cartagena, Father With Children After Gathering Wood In Juarez Suburb, 2009


Alejandro Cartagena, Suburbia Mexicana

Alejandro Cartagena, Fragmented Cities, Escobedo, 2008

David Grenier and Retro Masculinity

CRITICS CHOICE: Roberta Best writes about Circuit Gallery artist David Grenier‘s Petalhead series and retro masculinity.

David Grenier, Petalhead Portrait 18: circa 1952

David Grenier, Petalhead Portrait 18: circa 1952, 2007

David Grenier and Retro Masculinity
by Robert Best

I wear a vintage wristwatch that I inherited from my grandfather, a lovely man whose loose interpretation of masculinity strongly imprinted and affected my own gender development and identification. It’s a men’s timepiece of another age: elegant, understated and ‘masculine’ without the need for a series of unnecessary bells and whistles to proclaim a testosterone-driven life spent conquering aeronautics and the deep, dark sea.

A similar chord of gentle-manliness is struck in David Grenier’s “Petalheads” portrait series. I have to say, I crushed out a little with the men in these pictures the first time I came across them. These smartly-dressed fellows of earlier eras, whose facelessness belies a beauty all the same, prompted me to think about the ways in which some of my favourite topics—gender, memory, portraiture, sartorial splendor—all converge contemporaneously within the frame of these works.

David Grenier, Petalhead Portrait 17: circa 1944

David Grenier, Petalhead Portrait 17: circa 1944, 2007

Traditional portraiture is meant to affix a certain image of a person to a specific time and place. It is a genre often defined by the visage, the ‘mask’ that the subject wants to portray to the world, or alternately, the way in which the artist wants us (the viewer) to see the sitter. Grenier’s replacement of the sitters head with a flower undermines this convention, of course, as it would if he had used any object, but the specific use of a motif generally thought of as ‘natural’ and ‘beautiful’, gently tilts the viewer’s gaze towards his male subjects ensconced in a world that is both earthy and elegant. I would resist the urge to suggest that in removing the corporeal heads of his subjects, Grenier invites the viewer to extend their gaze to an actual implantation (pun intended) of their own self-image upon the sitter, except, well, I certainly did that with these pictures, finding myself strongly identifying with these nameless, faceless “Petalhead” figures.

The “look” of the sitter then, lies primarily in the pose, and specifically, in his clothes and accoutrements. At first I noticed the details: the watch fob in Circa 1939, the pocket poof in Circa 1944, the scarf in Circa 1984; even the greyhound, draped like a muffler around the neck of Circa 1977, all these little details which evoke their era, or at least the idea of it, in subtle, sartorial ways. I use the word ‘evoke’ here intentionally. Most contemporary uses of the term “retro” are often so heavy-handed—either in a tongue in cheek “I’m so cool I can wear these ugly leg warmers” kind of way, or with a waxy nostalgia for a glorified era that may, or may not, have even existed—that it’s hard to see beyond the uber-irony.

David Grenier, Petalhead Portrait 23: circa 1984

David Grenier, Petalhead Portrait 23: circa 1984, 2007

David Grenier, Petalhead Portrait 21: circa 1632

David Grenier, Petalhead Portrait 21: circa 1632, 2007

“Petalhead Portraits” takes a much more nuanced glance back at earlier times, and in particular, at types of masculinities which have since been incorporated into current styles and modes of being, contributing to an evolution of gender and sexuality. The materials in these works—ink with watercolours—combine specificity with softness, at once creating a certain image and then opening it up to interpretation. I suppose at first superficial glance the “types” of men in these portraits are indeed just that: preppy, dandy, businessman, etc., but the stereotypes they portray and clothes that represent them, and which originated in another era: the sweater vest (1952), the glen check jacket (1939), the military shirt (1984) are now all items worn by any manner of stylish gent or gent-identified gal on any given day (okay, perhaps not the shirtless Elizabethan collar worn by Circa 1632, except at Pride…) and in any and all manner of sexual stripe.

Who are these men? What are they thinking? Why are they there? With the traditional recognizable trait of portraiture, the face, removed and replaced with, essentially, a metaphor, these questions remain unanswered, and the portraits venture beyond the immediacy of the moment. Although dated then, as in most traditional portraits, these pictures are, I must assume, specifically titled “circa” their particular date, to denote an approximation of time. These portraits are not a reproduction of someone, but rather a reminiscence of an idea, the idea of a certain kind of ‘man’, and the era that produced him, though he clearly continues to walk among us still in contemporary variations. The dandy (gay) now shakes hands with the metrosexual (hetero), the boy with the boi. And like my grandfather, they are all, without regard to time and date, “my kind of guys”.


See more work by David Grenier:

David Grenier, Petalhead 7: Attack No. 2

David Grenier, Petalhead 7: Attack No. 2, 2007

David Grenier, Petalhead 15: Black Dawn

David Grenier, Petalhead 15: Black Dawn, 2007

David Grenier, Petalhead 11: Homicidal Hummingbird Maneouvre No. 2

David Grenier, Petalhead 11: Homicidal Hummingbird Maneouvre No. 2, 2007

Night School

CRITICS CHOICE: Nicola Mann writes about Circuit Gallery artist James Rajotte‘s compelling photographs of East High School as part of our ongoing series.

James Rajotte, Locker Room, 2005

James Rajotte, Locker Room, 2005

Night School
by Nicola Mann

I have a recurring dream. An unfortunate discrepancy in my academic record means that I must return to the U.K. to resit my ‘A’ Level exams, the British equivalent of the North American high school SAT tests. Embalmed in the prickly wire wool of my regulation Black Watch tartan kilt and without a pencil or protractor to my name, I shuffle through endless labyrinthine corridors looking for an exam I’m already late for. Hearing activity behind a door, I decide to forgo my exam in favor of the chokingly dusty realms of Mr. Puddephatt’s wood shop. You’re just in time, Nicola. It’s your turn on the band saw. Remember to be careful. With these fateful last words I – of course – break the band saw blade, nearly decapitating a crowd of terrified teens in the process. Banned from the wood shop (again), I find myself dismissed to the corridor and out into my waking hours.

James Rajotte, History, 2005

James Rajotte, History, 2005

It is into this maze of dreamy dread to which I am transported when looking at James Rajotte’s History and Locker Room, two works that make up his East High School (2005) series. The strict frontal spatial symmetry of both works invites the viewer to ‘step in’ through the threshold of the dream window and into a 3D time machine of sorts. Once absorbed in this tardis we are projected along the portals of our memories and back under the glare of the hot stage lights of our school days. Describing the cinematic spatial mysteries in Blue Velvet, David Lynch says, “(they) provide a corridor where you can float out.” In an analogous sense, Rajotte’s familiar stage sets provide an opportunity for the viewer to “float out” and fill with the ghostly actors of times past. One of the strengths of Rajotte’s Circuit Gallery work is its ability to ‘float’ evocatively between photographic precision and narrative obscurity; his theatrical set pieces generously set the scene and we direct, projecting our own personal melodrama into the space. The stark corporeal absence belies a paradoxical feeling of ‘fullness’. After looking at Locker Room, just close your eyes and imagine the proverbial array of winners and losers in front of you: tubby kids crying salty tears over bloodied knees, as chuckling snub–nosed pretty girls look on and you, well, if you’re anything like me you were still wrapped up in your Black Watch tartan trying to get out of P.E., doing anything to evade the spotlight, to be anything but a lead actor. But as these illuminated images reveal, much like my kilt, memory has you in a vise. Cue dramatic music: there is no place to hide. For as much as many of us proclaim to have hated our school days, we still can’t really let go, can we? Drawn by morbid fascination we attempt to recapture this time in the bite-sized chunks provided by social networking sites like Facebook. Locker Room tempts the viewer along the yellow brick road between now and then, playfully teasing this bizarre desire to compartmentalize the teenage experience by forming faux friendships with people we can hardly remember.

With its shallow patchwork grid of wooden boxes and its title placed along its top like a status update, History makes a similar claim to the (im)portability of history, alluding to events that are passed, but which we nevertheless carry with us. Rajotte’s Pandora’s boxes reside in the collision between our irrational desire to archive the fading shadows of the past in the hopes of gaining access to a comprehensive truth, and the impossibility of doing so. As Rajotte’s fantastic psychogeography makes tantalizingly clear, it is only as we close the curtains on the theater of our dreams – when we decapitate past ghosts instead of ‘friending’ them – that temporal proximities collapse and we are finally cast in the lead role. Preserved in our midnight hours (and only in our midnight hours), our teenage triumphs and traumas, and the phantoms that provoked them, are as alive as they ever were.

Nicola Mann is a doctoral candidate in the Visual and Cultural Studies program at the University of Rochester. She holds a B.F.A. from the Surrey Institute of Art and Design and a M.A. in Painting from the Royal College of Art in London. Nicola’s current area of research involves a critical investigation of late 20th century popular visual representations of Chicago’s public housing.


See more photographic work by James Rajotte:

James Rajotte, Nightclub, 2006

James Rajotte, Nightclub, 2006

James Rajotte, Kitchen Chair, 2008

James Rajotte, Kitchen Chair, 2008

James Rajotte, Yellow Light, 2007

James Rajotte, Yellow Light, 2007

Lo que no se ve en la fotografía de Alejandro Cartagena

Critics Choice: Salvador Alanis escribe sobre el trabajo fotográfico de Alejandro Cartagena.

Alejandro Cartagena, from the Suburbia Mexicana Project: Urban Holes

Alejandro Cartagena, from the Suburbia Mexicana Project: Urban Holes

Lo que no se ve en la fotografía de Alejandro Cartagena
por Salvador Alanis

Una preocupación común en la expresión contemporánea es reflejar con un lenguaje directo lo que no se puede ver de forma inmediata. Ante la evidencia y obscenidad de los medios, al artista se le presenta la alternativa de jugar con los mismos valores de una articulación formal que pretende mostrarlo todo para referirse a lo que subyace en la imagen. Dentro de lo aparentemente cotidiano, el artista presenta un subtexto que trasciende la formalidad. Alejandro Cartagena (República Dominicana, 1977), juega con los valores formales de la fotografía documental para subvertir el discurso y señalar la discontinuidad en lo que vemos retratado. Para Cartagena, el llamado fotodocumento es una herramienta valiosa para la expresión personal, o como lo dijera el crítico de fotografía mexicano José Antonio Rodríguez, significa el trabajo de “la circunstancia externa como pulsión individual” (28).

En principio, Cartagena, quien reside en México, participa de la tradición fotográfica mexicana que toma el paisaje como objetivo principal para estructurar su discurso. Dicha tradición se ha actualizado a lo largo de las diferentes generaciones, integrando las preocupaciones correspondientes a la época. En el caso del trabajo de Cartagena, el punto de partida evidente es el reflejo de las diversas transformaciones del paisaje, las marcas que dejan los diferentes estadios de las ciudades, las cicatrices del crecimiento y actividad humanas. Por eso, en primera instancia la lectura del trabajo de Cartagena es sin lugar a dudas relacionado con la responsabilidad ambiental, el desgaste del entorno, la multiplicación casi absurda de la mancha urbana sobre terrenos naturales mancillados.

Cartagena muestra en sus series fotográficas sobre la Suburbia Mexicana diferentes manifestaciones del desarrollo de las grandes metrópolis, basándose en el crecimiento de Monterrey, la tercera ciudad más grande de México. Cartagena toma la inserción de la ciudad a partir de viviendas en serie en la periferia inhabitada; dibuja el paso de las vías rápidas sobre espacios parafuncionales; da fe de la desaparición de los ríos al abastecer de agua las ciudades. La serie que Cartagena expone en Circuit Gallery, Lost Rivers, sigue la premisa documental que denuncia el daño ecológico que la ciudad infringe a las redes fluviales; muestra de arroyos y ríos secos de una forma visualmente muy afortunada. Sin embargo, más allá de esta preocupación evidente acerca del fenómeno, el documento pone de manifiesto instancias adicionales que pueden escaparse si solamente nos atenemos a lo eminentemente anecdótico del trabajo. Las fotografías de Alejandro Cartagena se centran en el registro de la discontinuidad, a partir de poner en evidencia espacios perdidos o mecanismos de sobreposición. Lo que importa en el trabajo a la vez paisajístico y documental de Cartagena es lo que no está, el elemento faltante. La falta se da como un encuentro formal, pero también como expresiones de la violencia. La discontinuidad genera un subtexto hacia lo antifuncional, aquello de lo que solamente queda el rasgo y que al mismo tiempo nos hace ver lo que realmente está en el paisaje. El crecimiento de la ciudad pone en evidencia lo faltante, el espacio inhabitable, lo perdido.

En otra serie del artista, llamada Urban Holes, Cartagena registra lotes sin construcción, los cuales de una forma o de otra escapan al continuo de las calles. En Symbolic Layering, el artista muestra capas y huecos en pasos a desnivel. Es lo que que no está lo que importa; lo que vemos es simulación, artificialidad, forma delirante que olvida espacios significativamente más importantes. La eficacia visual del trabajo de Cartagena logra poner en el mismo plano lo que no está en la fotografía de una manera que si bien, desde una perspectiva documental podría apuntar a una cierta nostalgia, en un nivel más profundo no es la nostalgia lo que opera, sino la presencia manifiesta de lo que no se ve, con todo su poder y misterio.

Rodríguez, José Antonio. “Los procesos de la fotografía contemporánea mexicana”, Huesca Imagen. Huesca: Huesca Imagen, 2004. 12-29.

Salvador Alanis (Mexico, 1964), is a writer. He has developed his work in the literary arena, as well as in the electronic media. He has been awarded by the National Fund for the Arts in Mexico and has been an artist in residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts. Salvador Alanis won the Multimedia Prize at the Video and Electronic Arts Biennial of Mexico, Vidarte, in 1999. He collaborates with major newspapers and magazines in Mexico, Spain and Canada. His published works include: “Del Paralaje” (Ediciones del Equilibrista, 1997), “Reojo” (Libros del Dragón, 1998), “Tránsito” (Libros del Dragón, 1999), “Fronteras, Borders” (La mano izquierda press, 2005), “De cuerpo presente”(Artes de Mexico, 2007), and “Fragilidad de las Fronteras” (K Editores, 2009). His visual work has been shown in several art spaces in solo and group exhibitions. He lives in Toronto.


See more work by Alejandro Cartagena available through Circuit Gallery:

Suburbia Mexicana

Untitled Lost River #2, from the Suburbia Mexicana Project, 2008

Suburbia Mexicana

Untitled Lost River #6, from the Suburbia Mexicana Project, 2008

Preparing to Continue

CRITICS CHOICE: Allen Topolski writes about Circuit Gallery artist Heather Layton‘s body of work entitled “Preparing to Lose” as part of our ongoing blog series.

Heather Layton, Training Exercise #1 (from Preparing to Lose), 2008

Heather Layton, Training Exercise #1 (from Preparing to Lose), 2008

Preparing to Continue
by Allen Topolski

Second place is so tragic. Third and all the rest hardly matter.

The Winter Olympic medal count just ran across the bottom of the TV screen – as if that is all we needed to sum it up. Who decided that the list’s order should be based on the over-all number of metals (US), as opposed to the most gold (Canada)? Aren’t we just altering the data so as to win?

Can’t we just say that ‘trying’ is all that matters and that losing only makes us stronger? Perhaps we’re not trying hard enough though; and who is to say if we are? And wouldn’t that be just a different strategy for winning?

Okay – ‘process.’ We can rest in the comfort of the ongoing. I like process. But process still does imply work toward an end. I’m afraid I have adopted process only because it continually poses the potential to become about trying or winning.

If only we could truly embrace continual transformation as a resolve… (It’s a paradox – I know – but we live plenty of them anyway.) Transition pushed to constancy bears out continuation. If we could desire that as a means of existence, we’d be happy to prepare to lose. Just as happy to practice to win or arrange our own downfall. Because the ‘endings’ would only exist in this scenario as points along a continuum, I guess what I’m talking about is just ‘being’ – but importantly, active ‘being’ and being a part for its own sake.

What Heather Layton is usually ‘talking about’ in her art – and what is so expertly presented in her ‘Preparing to Lose’ series, is ‘active being’ – the constancy or persistence employed by the collective and the splendor of contribution. Forget losing individuality to the collective, it doesn’t happen in the spaces of Heather’s art. If one truly commits to the role of the active participant, one’s desire for individuality – and the pride that comes with it – dissolves with the urge to conquer. Individuality is still there though – determined by fair distribution of different roles and separate objects – the weight of the buckets (Hospice) or the pattern of the bundles (Beautiful Burden).

Layton’s Circuit Gallery drawings look tragic to me – familiar and funny illustrations of futility – but that is only because I remain mired in finality. The parachute softens the landing and upon the landing it immediately becomes the – um, – burden? Nope. It immediately becomes the tool to manage a burden. Objects here are the same as people – they are what they can do or choose to do. By our common standards it may not be the best tool (that would be too similar to winning) and it may not be the best process (that would emphasize trying) but it is what it is and it is pointed not to a result divided and ranked but a shared experience, a story very worthy of telling.

Allen C. Topolski is a practicing artist, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Rochester (Rochester, New York). He teaches a variety of interdisciplinary courses. Topolski was raised in the coal region of central Pennsylvania. He was formally trained in painting and later realized the importance of artifacts from his post-industrial childhood town – they prompted the investigations of nostalgia and domesticity that dominate his work today. Topolski received his BA from Bucknell University and his MFA in 1990 from Penn State University. Topolski has a national exhibition record and is currently involved in a number of public art initiatives in the city of Rochester.


See more work by Heather Layton:

Heather Layton, Pull (from Preparing to Lose), 2008

Heather Layton, Pull (from Preparing to Lose), 2008

Heather Layton, Parachute Down (from Preparing to Lose), 2008

Heather Layton, Parachute Down (from Preparing to Lose), 2008

Heather Layton, Arsenal (from Preparing to Lose), 2008

Heather Layton, Arsenal (from Preparing to Lose), 2008

Butter, Art, and Affect

Marusya Bociurkiw writes about Susana Reisman’s “butter series” as part of our ongoing series “Critics Choice.”

Susana Reisman, The Real Thing (after Carl Andre), 2007

Susana Reisman, The Real Thing (after Carl Andre), 2007

Butter, Art, and Affect
by Marusya Bociurkiw

“Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.” That was what I heard a rather proper United Church lady said about a young rebellious boy.

I was a university student at the time, hired by the church to supervise the weekday feeding of breakfast to low-income children, in an otherwise well-heeled suburb. I had no idea what the lady’s comment meant, but the way she said it implied wrongful doing, or at least the potential for it. Sure enough, a few weeks later, the troubled boy pulled a knife on me. It was a dull kitchen knife; his hand shook as he held it. I gently pulled the bread knife out of his hand and then fed him some oatmeal. He went from angry aggression to meekness in a matter of minutes. Affect, fluid, irrational and changeable, can be like that (I never told the church lady about the incident).

Years later, I looked up the phrase. It’s meant to describe someone so cold they don’t even have the warmth to melt butter. I see now why I was confused. The boy was warm, hot, even: anger and confusion seethed through his veins. And butter, it seems to me, is almost always cold, shining with refrigerated gloss. But it can melt, too, just like the boy.

When I look at the series of photographs of sculptures featuring butter by Susana Reisman, I have a similar sense of contrasting temperatures. The careful arrangement of sticks and slices of butter references the work of artists like Carl Andre whose work, iconic of minimalism, attempted to remove all trace of affect from the process of making or viewing a work of art. No expression, no metaphor, no allusion. At a time, the 1960′s,when consumption and affect were becoming inextricably linked via advertising, stripping art to its bare elements could also be seen as a statement against capitalism in general and the art market specifically.

But affect is also of the body and those minimalist works did and do evoke feeling. Affect occurs in contact zones, between and among art works and bodies. A gallery, even an online one, is a contact zone, mediated by various presences. You can look at a work of art and feel many things: anger at not understanding what you think is meant to be understood; pleasure in regarding, perhaps even touching, smooth polished surfaces or rough distressed edges. You might feel pride in your own ability to appreciate a difficult work and that might sit against some secret, sticky shame – the bad reproductions hanging on your office wall, perhaps, or the ways in which your day job erodes your creative soul.

Butter may be cold initially, but there is a certain luxury to it, a sense of excess. I make my pie pastry only with butter – I use Joy of Cooking’s pâte brisée recipe, ignoring the call for 1/4 cup of shortening. Julia Child, that extreme butter enthusiast, provides us, in her infamous cookbook, with a multitude of uses for butter, from all manner of sauce to garnish (fill a pastry bag with butter and squeeze it out in fancy designs to adorn an appetizer plate). As I know from the experience of consuming my mother’s baking, there may be shame in consuming so much butter, but shame intersects with interest, a connection to other bodies and thus to the world. Eating mama’s torte links me to history, which is in part a history of domestic artistry, and a chain of affects that have shaped me both as a foodie and as an artist.

Reisman’s homage to Carl Andre, The Real Thing, is, like butter, temporary, fleeting, almost casual. It will melt. The use of domestic elements in art can be traced back through the history of painting but was foregrounded in both an ironic and political manner by the second wave feminist art movement. In this series, butter was pulled out of the fridge, mused upon, played with, in repetitive gestures evocative of domestic labour. I wonder: was the butter used up later in a sauce or a cake? Did it get slathered onto a thick slice of bread? I think about Su Richardson’s crocheted “Burnt Breakfast,” Martha Rosler’s “Semiotics of the Kitchen.” Marina Abramovic eating an entire onion, weeping. Regret, anger, and a simulated sorrow.

I don’t know what I feel when I look at the butter series. I hear my mother’s voice, something about wastefulness. I hear the happy sound of butter sizzling in a pan. I feel pleasure at the domestic familiarity of the work and then I’m afraid that the work will not fulfill my desire, an unnamable, overarching hunger I always feel when I engage with art. Desire that can never really be satisfied; a work of art that is careful not to do so.

Like my young charge from years ago: sometimes, I just don’t know what to feel.

It’s good when a work of art can do that, engaging you in a slippery circuit of affects, constantly moving and transforming.

Marusya Bociurkiw is a media artist, writer, and assistant professor of media theory in the School of Radio and Television Arts at Ryerson University. Her videos and films have screened around the world. She is the author of four literary books, including, most recently, a food memoir, Comfort Food for Breakups: The Memoir of a Hungry Girl. Her monograph, Feeling Canadian: Nationalism and Affect on Canadian Television, is forthcoming in 2010 from Wilfred Laurier Press.


See more work by Susana Reisman:

Susana Reisman, The Real Thing (after Robert Morris), 2007

Susana Reisman, The Real Thing (after Robert Morris), 2007

Susana Reisman, The Real Thing (after Donald Judd), 2007

Susana Reisman, The Real Thing (after Donald Judd), 2007

The Luminosity of Ordinary Things

Julia Creet talks with and writes about Dan Larkin as part of our ongoing series “Critics Choice.”

Dan Larkin, Blue Window Shade, 2007

Dan Larkin, Blue Window Shade, 2007

The Luminosity of Ordinary Things
by Julia Creet

“It took me two years to notice it,” said Dan Larkin, “even though I walked by it twice a week to do my laundry.” A door with a pull-down shade on the way to the basement that looks like a portal to heaven, not quite perfect, no-longer-used curtain-rod brackets, a battered knob, a door whose mystery should not be exited. Larkin is attracted by the luminosity of ordinary things, the contrast of primary colours, colour that reads as if black and white, duotones, contrast and clean lines.

Larkin’s images evince his eternal present, his nostalgia for the places where he grew up in that wistful decade between 1950 and 1960, still-lifes found and made, simplicity as a carefully crafted illusion. The coffee cup on the red table took forty setups to find that obscure angle; the cornbread crumbs on the old yellow plates never quite right. But the luminosity through the blue blind was an exercise in patience, waiting to capture the light as it crossed behind the window. It is a door he only opens a couple of times a year, a door that does not really function as a door, but a potential.

Larkin, in this series, set a condition of technical constraints that, like the content, harken back to an age of photography before digital manipulation. The production of the work is itself nostalgic, shot on Hasselblad 120 film in a square format, with minimal cropping. Counselor’s Room was in a boy-scout camp in Prince Edward Island, one of a series of photographs shot in empty cottages. The stark simplicity of the images, so familiar, yet so foreign, embody the ritual aspect of working with the camera: framing by square format, low light conditions, slow exposures (Blue Window Shade is a 8-9 second exposure), the isolation of details made remarkable for their symbolism of an outdated time. These are dream images capturing an idea or a colour that bring a lost childhood back to life for all-too-short a time, when mourning is temporarily replaced by having and seeing once again. A timeless space that still exists, but sweet and wry, melancholic with a sense of humour.

Larkin’s work in this series is largely intuitive, he tells me. Only after he has taken a photograph does he try and understand what it means to him. In this sense, he is very much like us, absorbing the image for the first time or again and again. The blue shade came with the house, bought from friends, passed by unnoticed and then one day . . .

Every image suggests a larger space, the outside of the image, focal points that pull you in only to lead you away to another time and place. Photographs of a melancholic smile.

Julia Creet teaches in the Department of English at York University. Her creative and research projects focus on private and public memory. She has directed a documentary, “MUM,” has edited a collection of essays, Memory and Migration (UTP Press, 2010), and is currently completing a work of literary nonfiction based on the memoirs of a holocaust survivor who tried to forget.


See more work by Dan Larkin:

Dan Larkin, Counselor's Room, 2007

Dan Larkin, Counselor's Room, 2007

Dan Larkin, Red Table, 2007

Dan Larkin, Red Table, 2007

Dan Larkin, Nail Clippings, 2007

Dan Larkin, Nail Clippings, 2007

Make-Believe

As part of our ongoing series “Critics Choice,” author Anand Mahadevan writes about Bill Finger’s evocative piece 1973- age 12 (Ladder).

Bill Finger, 1973 - age 12 (Ladder), 2006

Bill Finger, 1973- age 12 (Ladder), 2006

MAKE BELIEVE
by Anand Mahadevan

All that remains of childhood are images; time weathers places, withers people and even in the safe vaults of our minds, memory acquires a sepia taint such that when a remembered image coalesces into shape it teeters between fact and fiction.

Looking at Bill Finger’s 2006 work 1973- age 12 ( Ladder), a childhood game comes into sharp relief in my mind. Stealing a ladder to slink down into a hole for a game of hide and seek. And in the memories of my past, the hole is deeper so that the warm cylinder of earth swallows me whole, reassuring with its smell of mud – petrichor – and lidded only by a pale disc of a blue sky, clouds streaming across it. Then in a moment of pure cinema, the game is forgotten, replaced by a sense of disbelief, an inward hoop of joy as the silhouette of a plane crosses high in the sky above flying to romantic places: Timbuktu. And for the duration of its traverse across my pie-sky, I feel the hand of destiny caress me.

Now as an adult, I marvel at the chance of it all, the disparate props coming together. To my jaded eyes, the hole appears a pit now, wide and shallow and if now I were to lie in it and look up would the plane move as slowly as I remembered or would it dart across the sky like an arrow intent on finding its target?

Every one of Bill Finger’s carefully crafted works casts us back into the Technicolor of our pasts. Each photograph sits in the liminal space between a child’s imagination and an adult’s memory. House places the crenellated castle of childhood at just the right distance, far enough so the taste of danger whets our lips as we explore the forest of creatures among the roots of grasses and shrubs and yet close enough to run to when the wanton gaze of flocculent clouds changes with darkening moods. The Devil’s Den provokes memories of scrapped knees and bums sore from sitting on jagged rocks of boyhood. How secret were our hiding places, the adult self looking at the photo asks of our memories? Mattress carries the stench of childhood shame, its wet betrayal and the bloom-like contours of dried piss-stains revealing our long and varied relationship with it. Is it because we dirty it through childhood that as sex burgeons, we press into its soft warmth and make it our first lover?

And if your adult-self cringes at the memories these photographs evoke, then I ask only that you look at these made up images with the relief that the sets that created them no longer exist. No more than the child who once bore your name. And in that sorrow, take comfort from the photographs that reveal to you again a life that once made magic from the barest of props.

Anand Mahadevan, a Toronto based novelist, is the author of The Strike and currently at work on his second novel. More information about him and his writing is available at www.anand-mahadevan.ca

See more work by Bill Finger.