Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Brooklyn Rail print essay: Embracing the Unseen (commission from David Levi Strauss, who asked 15 alumni from his MFA program to write on criticism)

Embracing the Unseen

I came to the art world because many people here are invested, as I am, in innovative political discourse. As I ventured further in, I found artists, writers, and thinkers who cared deeply about issues of social justice, and who were able to broaden and reframe the ideologies affiliated with these subjects by passing them through the lenses of art and aesthetics. The art world is, equally, a realm where believing goes beyond seeing: pure, untamed thought is rendered on blank pages and empty gallery walls. That is what makes it brave and exciting. Unfortunately, I have also found that the most potentially world-changing ideas born here tend to grow up and die here, without ever venturing outside the art world’s provincial little thought bubble.

I am someone who used her education to transcend the world she was born into. My parents were working class, and before and after I left my town as a teenager, I experienced many of the attendant difficulties of that life. Possessing this identity, I often feel like I inhabit two disparate worlds at one time. I am seen, predominantly, as the well-educated woman I have constructed myself to be, who has been afforded many opportunities to write, teach, and travel. And I am unseen, as a Massachusetts mill town girl who feels like her core identity is overlooked in favor of a more straightforward visual representation.

Our recent U.S. election describes a country unknown even to itself, blindly searching for a way out of a system that has infected its members with an unnamed suffering. I know exactly what this suffering tastes like. While I condemn their hatred-embracing choice, I can feel in my blood and bones why so many people voted as they did. They feel invisible, and are filled with a poisonous, misdirected rage. I also know, firsthand, that the more politically-oriented side of the art world has not, as of late, deigned to fully adjust its own clannish tendencies and obscurant homily in favor of constructing a broader public discourse. This dooms the conceptual thinking that transpires within it to be useless, if not altogether hostile, to a wider public.

This needs to change—before our new leadership threatens to change us—and will not do so if the art world continues to value thinking purely for the thought of it. Art writers need to move away from producing “insider baseball” prose, and begin to formulate and distill the political ideas brewed in our galleries, museums, classrooms, and art spaces to service a politicized readership beyond the (by now notional) creative class. And more artists, in a model brought forth by Theaster Gates, Suzanne Lacy, and others, need to use their political acumen to create an actionable community realpolitik (and perhaps—now that the floodgates are opened—even real politicians). If we want this world to mirror our most thoughtful, meaningful, and humanistic social objectives, it is time for us to stop looking only to, and at, ourselves.

AIMEE WALLESTON is a writer and editor who has worked for magazines including W, Interview, Jane and The Last Magazine. She has contributed essays and reviews to Art in America, T Magazine, Flash Art and The Brooklyn Rail, among many other publications. She currently writes cultural criticism for CR Fashion Book and teaches at the International Center of Photography. She received her MFA in Art Criticism and Writing from SVA in 2009.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Favorite little story about my mother, written long ago by my cousin

I'd like to start by telling you how much I admired your mother and how sad I am about her death. I was a really awkward teenager and she was always willing to listen to what I had to say and was very encouraging and inclusive. When I was in junior high school, my family was pretty poor and did not buy clothes for me or my sibs. I was painfully shy and dressed in an odd assortment of old clothes, so during one visit Susan went through her closet and gave me several pairs of her pants which I wore until they fell apart. Those pants gave me tremendous self esteem. It was such a kind act and I am so, so sorry that she died so young.

Very old poem I wrote for Frank Brunner (published in Abaton)



To understand a painter is to feel, at times, that they are more paint than person. The redolence clings, as does the slipperiness, and everything touched is left with painted fingertips—evidence of an indivisible character. The smell, sight and feel of paint commingle to become the one thought of oil and pigment. Honey, that sacred humectant form, exists always, even entombed, as its sugary self. Never drying completely, only crystallizing into more of what is. Though these substances address different senses, their ineffability results in synesthesia—honey is flowing everywhere, over eyelids, the scent of flowers and metamorphoses. Let them eat paint, the only cheap thing rich enough to mutate dumb surfaces into areas of pure thought. Alone it is just stuff, forever waiting to be given life.

Drenched in paint, dripping in honey—these are the messes we make, the substances of sensuous lives that, in the theatre of reality, can only play themselves.

Very old essay I wrote for Frank Brunner (published in Abaton)


What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”
Friedrich Nietzsche, on the concept of eternal return  

The allegorical themes of Frank Brunner’s paintings illustrate, mirror and reconsider the Nietzschean concept of eternal return. By depicting, time and again, historical narratives that are equally universal and personal, and by creating bodies of work that continually allude to one another, Brunner’s large-scale oil-on-canvas works act as the metaphysical retelling of an epic yet to be written.
If nothing happens twice, then nothing matters more than once. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera rescues the concept eternal return from Nietzsche’s weighty gravity by positioning that the opposite form of existence would be a life of unbearable lightness. If one lived bereft of recurrence, one would be doomed to an existence devoid of the all the profundities endemic to moments of repetition. Bees, which figure prominently in Brunner’s latest series of paintings, “Abaton,” are blessed with the eternal return as internal monologue. The lives of bees can be dismissed as those condemned to repetitious servitude, Maoist prisoners devoid of individualistic pleasure. And yet one finds, in their regimented devotion to nectar gathering and hive building, the absolute continuation of freedom. In its most exalted form, the eternal return of bees, and of humans, transcends a reenactment of the same. Recurrence instead becomes tied to the ritual of life itself, a noble form of action governed not by selfish seeking, but by an unbreakable connection to re-examination. There is beauty in repetition.
Honeybees have figured prominently in the life of Norwegian-born Brunner since he was a child. Brunner’s father is a hobbyist beekeeper in Norway, and has a quixotic and intensely empathetic relationship to the purpose of his bees—he feels such guilt at taking their honey that he must always leave some of it behind for them. In “Abaton,” Brunner has created a group of paintings, Hives, whose fictive narratives make the distinction between honeybees and humans almost inconsequential. The hooded beekeepers one finds within the works are both obscured and brought more into focus in a romantically ominous haze of mist and bees. These figures seem as much automaton cogs as the drones they seek to gather unseen honey from. The Abaton-like hives go through a series of transformations in the paintings, drifting off into the horizon line like New York’s endless skyline, and the bees, like humans, must temper their forays into the world with the eternal seeking of refuge and home. The pastel tones Brunner has used for the beehives aren’t nods to artifice—honeybees have the ability to discern color, and many beekeepers utilize the functionality of multi-hued beehives to allow their bees to more quickly orient themselves to their color-identified hives. Though this and other forms of human intervention may at times have helped the duty of bees, the impending tragedy of Colony Collapse Disorder tells us this is not always true. The story that threads these series of paintings becomes one of finality and destruction in Destroyed Hives #?, which depicts overturned and demolished hives, and a presumed annihilation of bees.
As the precursor to these pieces, an older series of paintings by Brunner, entitled “Plagues,” featured iterations of insects and animals whose decorative prettiness belied their biblical malice. Similarly, the swarms of bees that menace the picture plane of the Hives paintings point to an absorbing repetition that has defined much of Brunner’s past and present work. In Brunner’s paintings, thematic gestures have a way of signaling the cosmic ambition of eternal return. Touchstone elements reference past works and series, and there is a feeling of world without end that pervades all the paintings when taken together. There is also a certain heaviness of obsessive thought that lives within the paintings, but this weight willfully lightens when confronted time and again by a return to the enchantment of childhood. Stacks of suitcases crop up often and hint at the need for escape, though always with the comforts of home well in hand. Birch forests signal once again to the artist’s childhood landscape, and the trees underscore a fidelity to the natural world that is tacitly evident in Brunner’s eye and hand. In “Abaton,” there is also a nascent intrigue with fire as it reacts to both natural and humanistic constructions.
The perspective and depiction of reflection has also been a continued element in Brunner’s paintings—his previous series, 45˚, acted as a meditation on the human form as seen reflected from pools of water. One finds a return to this theme in another group of paintings within the “Abaton” series, Mirrors. In these works, Brunner connects his metaphysical forays into undiscovered worlds with an interest in the exacting empiricism of human technology. The content of the Mirrors paintings is based upon the “Heat Ray” experiment originally performed by Archimedes in 2nd century BC. As a forerunner to a weapon of mass destruction, the “Heat Ray” was created by Archimedes, who sought to use the power of reflected sunlight to set fire to a fleet of enemy ships. By using one large mirror, many small mirrors, or the polished shields of Roman troops (accounts differ), Archimedes and his fellow Greeks reportedly focused a ray of concentrated sunlight onto the prow of an enemy ship, which shortly thereafter burst into an inferno. 
There have been many disbelievers to the ship-sinking success of Archimedes’ endeavor—and of the veracity of the “Heat Ray” theory itself (mathematician RenĂ© Descartes was an avid denouncer). The experiment has been re-enacted repeatedly by scholars intent on proving its feasibility or impossibility. In 1973, the Greek engineer Ioannis Sakkas used seventy men holding bronze-coated mirrors to re-stage the experiment. Within minutes, the target of Sakkas’ intentions was in flames, proving, perhaps, the legitimacy of Archimedes’ legacy. Brunner has used many of the archival images from the Sakkas experiment—artifacts of genuine aesthetic fascination in their own right—as reference materials for the Mirrors paintings. With Western society’s utter reliance on forward momentum technology, we will perhaps never know the true efficacy of setting ships ablaze using reflected sunlight, though the peaceful reinterpretations of Archimedes’ objective are not without the charm of both serendipity and ambition.
Experiments can reveal the truth, though some truths exist only on their own terms. What one feels one knows, in Brunner’s paintings, drifts forward and backward, forever returning, like bees to different flowers in the same field. The narratives within the works present a vision of nature and humanity that lives in troubled harmony, yet always gleams with a sense of duty and optimism. Filled with his work and thoughts, Brunner’s studio, which juts out into the East River from a quiet pier in Red Hook, Brooklyn, is something of its own Abaton. Caught between the city and the sea, the world created within it is the physical space of psychic return—though the true destination, the work itself, remains forever its own quietly unreachable universe.

And I dream of a different soul
Dressed in other clothes:
Burning as it runs
From timidity to hope,
Spiritous and shadowless
Like fire it travels the earth,
Leaves lilac behind on the table
To be remembered by.

From “Eurydice,” by Andrei Tarkovsky