Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Top 10 of 2014

I love "year end lists" and "best of" lists, and I read them all the time. At the end of every year, that is. My favorite lists are Pitchfork's and Tiny Mix Tapes' Top 50 Albums of the Year lists. These lists allow me to get ahold of all of the music I missed over the past year, and also feel a strange sense of accomplishment when an album I really liked ends up on the list. In addition to these lists I recently read a list from the Journal Sentinel on the top Wisconsin artists of 2014 that placed my two favorite people John Shimon and Julie Lindemann at the top, and a list in the Shepherd Express on the Best of Milwaukee 2014.

You could say I'm a bit list-crazy recently, and this is true. But instead of sitting back and allowing everyone else to make the lists, I decided I would make a list of my own covering some art stuff from 2014.

Obviously making a list for art is a bit more difficult than making a list of the best albums of the year, because there is no way I could have seen all of the art that was shown all over the whole entire world over the past year. So mine is a list of the top ten things that I personally managed to see this year in 2014.

The Top Ten Art Things I Saw In 2014
(starting at 10)

10. "Preservatif" at Stockholm in the Fortress Building, Milwaukee, WI
Although nobody I talked to was as impressed as I, I maintain my opinion that this exhibition was very important for Milwaukee, a city which has a bit of trouble talking about taboo topics.

9. The Museum of Wisconsin Art, West Bend, WI
This museum in little ol' West Bend is a perfect day trip from Milwaukee. Don't be put off by its small town stature. It often has shows that rival those at MAM. Not to mention a shiny new building!

8. "Missing You" by Kristina Rolander at Usable Space, Milwaukee, WI
I immediately liked Usable Space as a gallery space, but Rolander's floating letters solidified this visit as one of my most pleasant gallery experiences on a muggy June night in Bay View shortly after I moved to Milwaukee.

7. An accidental painting I discovered in my grandma's old instructional painting binder
When my grandma died she left behind all sorts of paint, paintings, and other supplies. She also left behind a binder that I never really looked through until recently, revealing the magnificent eagle painting above. This study was slightly out of her realm of expertise and subject matter, which usually consisted of small, garden birds and regional flowers. 

6. "Ray Yoshida's Museum of Extraordinary Values" at JMKAC, Sheboygan, WI 
[source: jmkac.org]
This was an exhibition of Chicago Imagist Ray Yoshida's personal collection. I spent many of my lunch breaks wandering around looking at the objects until the exhibition was deinstalled midway through my internship at JMKAC. It was in this exhibition where I discovered tramp art for the first time, which I wrote about in this post from January.

I discovered Rifle Paper Co.'s whimsical postcards, greeting cards, and other fanciful paper products while working at Broadway Paper. This husband and wife team started out small in Winter Park, FL putting simple floral patterns on postcards. Now they are rich and famous and sell their products at stores like Anthropologie. Despite the fact that they sold out just a little bit, I like the idea of Rifle Paper Co. because it proves that simplicity and handmade products are still valued in society.

4. Dabl's African Bead Gallery, Detroit, MI
Although the name indicates that the bead gallery was the main attraction, it turned out that the real draw was an outdoor art installation located behind the gallery/ store created by Detroit artist Olayami Dabls. The best part was getting to meet Dabls himself and chat with him before and after viewing the installation.

Not only was this museum awesome, but the staff was super friendly, and their amazing day-long workshop allowed me to learn a new artistic process that would otherwise be difficult to access. 

I spent two and a half hours wandering this museum, and it was not just because it was raining heavily outside. The Ogden has a fascinating collection of art from artists who live(d) or work(ed) in the south (states including Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, North Carolina, and South Carolina). Shown above is a painting by Howard Finster of Georgia, one of my favorite artists. Although Milwaukee has a large collection of his art, I had never seen anything of his outside of MAM's collection before, and was excited to see these pieces in the Ogden's collection.

1. The Heidelberg Project, Detroit, MI 
Perhaps it's not fair to include the Heidelberg Project on this list, because it was not only my favorite art viewing experience of 2014, but also of my life up to this point. The Heidelberg Project is one of those things that sticks with you forever if you realize how profound it actually is. Created by Detroit artist Tyree Guyton, the Heidelberg Project's sole mission is to breathe life into an otherwise decaying, impoverished neighborhood through art. This was the only time I have actually been to a true "ghetto," a burned and abandoned city street where a gigantic art installation was neighbor to a man growing corn in his side yard. I wish that all art was like the Heidelberg Project. In an ideal world, art would always be a vehicle to bring the community together to strengthen and repair. HP makes me believe in art like nothing else. It will certainly be hard to top this in upcoming years!

2014 was so good. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Human Touch is Back in Vogue

Last Saturday, I ventured up to Two Rivers, Wisconsin to visit the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum. I had heard about the museum mainly through Instagram, and through my co-workers at Broadway Paper. I hear the term "letterpress" everywhere, not to mention the number of letterpress products we sell at work. It seems like a self-explanatory term, but on the several occasions that I was asked to explain it to customers, I came up short. In addition, I recently made the resolution to improve my relationship with the tactile activities that I abandoned when I went to college in favor of more conceptual ones. Thus, I decided it was time to take a workshop at the museum.

If you ever happen to drive past the Hamilton Wood Type Museum, don't be put off by its facade. If anything it resembles an abandoned laundromat, with its white industrial exterior and retro vintage lettering spelling out "Hamilton" on the side. (I later learned that I was not completely out of line for comparing it to a laundromat. Hamilton, an innovative businessman, manufactured dryers in addition to wood type, printing machines, and furniture. Recognize this font below?).

After stepping inside, you are finally awash with what you expected to see:

Wall of colorful letterpressed posters

Letterpressed sign above toilet: Please do not flush sanitary products,
tampons, paper towels, tissues & trash, used diapers, goldfish,
prosthetic limbs, hopes & dreams 
down this toilet.

The 9-5 day starts off with a quick tour. I was immediately impressed with the energy and welcoming attitude of the staff, despite the earliness of the hour on a Saturday morning. I learned quickly that the museum only really has two staff members: Jim Moran, the museum director, and Stephanie Carpenter, the assistant director. Stephanie led the tour while Jim waited to later give the demonstration for the workshop. On the tour, we learned about the history of the museum, and of J. Edward Hamilton, the man who started all this letterpress madness in 1880. We also learned about the machines and equipment the museum holds in its collection. The space pictured below is a working space used for cutting type, an art that few living people still know how to do. We learned that a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board is the one source of funding for teaching and preserving this art today. Without it, the knowledge could very easily die out and the machines would turn into relics. 

Hand-cut wood type

Carpenter made a point to emphasize that the Hamilton is a "preservation museum," acknowledging that the only way to preserve the art of letterpress is to actually use the museum's collection. This is why we were allowed access to a shocking number of vintage wood type for the day's workshop, as well as a gigantic studio with an individual letterpress for each person.

Gasp! Drawers filled with letters

The studio

Access to all of this equipment was exciting, but I was still scared to throw myself into the process. However, the demonstration given by Jim was thorough, calm, and non-intimidating, and by the time he was done everyone in the room (there were about 10 of us) was able to print one word of type before breaking for lunch. 

On my break I wandered through the museum's gift shop, browsing the handmade postcards, posters, and art prints that the museum was selling. One thing that struck me was how easily I could tell that the products were handmade. When I held up two of the same postcards right next to each other I could discern which one was printed first and which was printed second due to the saturation of the ink on each print. When the lunch break was over I was more than ready to throw myself back into it. Perusing the gift shop made me realize that there was no way I could really screw up. The beauty of letterpress is to be able to see the imperfections of humans in the finished product. Below is a perfect example:

The zig zag lines may seem like an intentional technique used by a pro, but they were actually created by a strand of my unruly hair that fell onto the brayer. I printed over this background with red ink a quote from Andy Dwyer of Parks and Recreation: "The show must go wrong."

The workshop flew by, but it was also intense. Even for me, a person who took art classes all throughout my academic career, 3-4 full hours of art making was a long time. I was exhausted and sweaty, and didn't realize how much my feet hurt and how thirsty I was until the day was over. At the end of the day my workspace looked like this: 

Did I make anything I was really happy with? Not exactly. But I also didn't really have any expectations for how the work would turn out. It was a day for learning, experimentation, and fun. As I write this post two days later, I am happy to see all the prints that I made lined up on a shelf in my room. But the best gift I came home with the was the ink that is still underneath my fingernails. Every time I catch a glimpse of it I am proud of myself for doing something with my hands. Conceptual ideas are great. But at the end of the day, the ink on my hands reminds me that we are humans, and doing things with our hands is the best idea we ever had. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Art of the Hobbit

I don't know about you, but I've got the winter blues.

Looking back on past winters, there is always one thing (besides overdoses of sugar, of course) that manages to cheer me up, and that is The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films.

I haven't seen the newest installation of The Hobbit yet, but yesterday on a visit to the library I came across this book, conveniently placed in a display in the foyer (waiting for me, obviously).

The Art of the Hobbit, by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull

I thought this was going to be a book of trite fan art made by nerds devoted to the LOTR series, but it is actually a book of Tolkein's original illustrations for The Hobbit. What I learned from browsing the book is that these illustrations, particularly the color ones, weren't included in the original publication of the novel in order to keep the publishing costs low. In fact, the original publisher Allen & Unwin even concluded that the novel did not need illustration because its content alone painted a vivid picture in the reader's mind. This book reveals a fascinating look at the landscapes in Tolkein's mind.  Here are a few of my favorites from the book:

Trial dust-jacket

The Front Door [referring to the front door of the Lonely Mountain]



Bilbo Comes to the Huts of the Raft-elves

Riding down into Rivendell

Nargothrond [I have actually no idea which fictional 
place this illustration refers to, but I like its simplicity]

Another fact I learned from The Art of the Hobbit is that Tolkein was a self-taught artist. He initially created paintings from real life places surrounding his home such as the beaches at Cornwall. It wasn't until later, when his colorful stories as well as imaginary languages came to life, that he started drawing fictional landscapes.

When the world around you sucks, create your own.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Spoiler Alert! Spoiled Condoms Turn Into Art

Last night was the opening of "Preservatif" at Stockholm in the Fortress Building in Milwaukee. I've known about the exhibition for weeks, and was looking forward to seeing how on earth it was going to come together. The intrigue: the exhibition is made out of 21,000 pounds of donated, expired condoms. Woah.

In my head, this exhibition was a giant pile of unwrapped condoms thrown on the floor in different patterns, or something along those lines. I did not expect the fine craftsmanship that went into many of the works, or the variety of other materials that were used in tandem with the condoms. Additionally, there were several pieces whose conceptual merit gave me shivers as I wandered through the exhibition. Not to mention the space itself, which seemed the perfect venue for hosting the work of 23 different artists.

Stockholm, an event space in the Fortress Building

I was impressed, not just by the quality of the show, but at the amount of questions that the exhibition raised (no pun intended), as condoms, it seems, are usually at the butt of every joke (again, no pun intended).

First question: Why was the opening of this show on a Monday (December 1st)?
Answer: The scheduling was no accident. December 1st happens to be World AIDS Day. This connection was perhaps the most apparent in a piece by Kim Hindman entitled, Keep it to Yourself.

Kim Hindman, Keep it to Yourself, 2014


The piece is actually four arrangements of hand drawn images of different sexually transmitted diseases such as Gonorrhea and Chlamydia. Its simplicity reminds us of the dual function of condoms as birth control and as a barrier against STDs. 

Second question: Why are there so many expired condoms in the world, anyways?
Answer: I don't know. I don't manufacture condoms. But this piece by Tara Bogart can perhaps explain why condoms aren't used as often as we might think they are.

Tara Bogart, Desire Tabulations, 2014

On first glance I thought this piece was hilarious. Portraits of men were placed opposite from bowls of condoms. Some of the bowls were full, like this one above. Others were almost empty, or had only a few condoms in them. I thought it was quite brave of these men to reveal how much sexual activity they had had over the past year. But then I realized that the amount of condoms in the bowl is not a good indicator of how much sex a man has. Men don't use condoms for a variety of different reasons. Maybe they are married. Maybe they are trying to have a baby with their partner. Maybe they are sterile. This piece, and my initial laughter at the piece, made me think about the pressure men are faced with to have many sexual partners.

Third question: Why are condoms so taboo, anyways?
Answer: Your guess is as good as mine, but it seems to stem from the fact that sex, in general, is rather taboo, and usually talked about in secret rather than as a natural, necessary part of life. No one portrayed this better than Kim Dickey in this piece, a quilt pieced together from the back pockets of jeans.

Kim Dickey, Rest Assured, X Boyfriends, 2014


This close-up reveals a hidden condom in one of the pockets. I actually had a lighthearted argument with a guy next to me as to whether or not there is a condom in each pocket. I never found out the answer, but my guess is yes. To me this piece indicates the secrecy of sex, and the way its secrecy leads people to hide a milieu of important sexual information from their partners, friends, doctors, etc. This piece was one whose conceptual merit literally stopped me in my tracks. 

Fourth question: How much semen can a condom actually hold?
Answer: This much.

Demitra Coupolos, Public Safety Test, 2014


Demitra Coupolos' piece tested the boundaries of the material makeup of condoms, revealing their strength under extreme duress. If ever you've doubted the durability of condoms, well, doubt no more (although, the use of expired ones is still not recommended). 

Fifth question: What would feminist artists and art historians think of this whole thing?
Answer: I couldn't help but laugh and think about feminists like Linda Nochlin, author of "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists," and Judy Chicago, creator of the most vile piece of art on the planet, The Dinner Party.

Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1939 [source: The Brooklyn Museum]

Chicago's piece is a womb-shaped dinner table set for powerful women from history, complete with a hand-crafted vagina at every place. I hate it with an intense passion despite its significance to art history. Chicago probably would have hated this piece by Melissa Dorn Richards with an equal passion.

Melissa Dorn Richards, Tent, 2014

This giant phallus could be seen from any point in the room, clearly referencing phallic art historical monuments and men's domination of the art world (or at least, that's what Judy Chicago might think). Phallus or not, it seems to be comically referencing the tradition of the phallus in art history rather than celebrating it. There is also the obvious fact that it is made by a woman. Additionally, it is still part of the larger exhibition, which, as a whole, felt feminine. I mean this in the stereotypical sense that it quite felt vulnerable. From the blatant vulnerability of a room full of strangers looking at sexually charged objects, to the more specific vulnerability of pieces like Dickey's and Bogart's, the exhibition did not feel like a masculine playground, but a meeting of the sexes, lunging forward together in a battle against sexual taboos and STDs. Women can also realize that an increase in sexual education about condoms can only benefit them. 

In reading the literature about this exhibition I learned that "preservatif" is actually the French word for condom. Knowing this, it seems fitting (pun?) that these condoms were preserved to be used in this exhibition. That was the other great thing about this show, how every artist took the medium of the condom so seriously. I advise you to take this show seriously as well, and go check it out before it closes this Friday. It's free! Unless you want to make a $5 donation, which goes towards a good cause. You'll also get some free condoms! Use them wisely.