Category "From The Field"

Texas Roundup, Part 1

- - From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Last week, I wrote a column that tried to tell it like it is. The world we inhabit, one that revolves around photography, is painfully un-diverse. Here in the United States, those in the profession are very, very likely to only interact with others of a similar background. (And skin color, sadly.)

While I left room for the exceptions, the fact that there seem to be so few is troubling. How do we change this? Whether it’s people complaining about all-white competition-jurys, all-male Superbowl commercials, or writers like me scrambling to review books by women and minorities, the numbers are obviously skewed. What to do?

The only answer I’ve been able to glean is to do some boots-on-the-ground style outreach. As I’ve said before, I spent seven years teaching photography to at-risk minority youth. I’ve done the work, and seen how easily art concepts can become embedded in young minds of any color or gender.

Another tried-and-true methodology is to honestly examine one’s own biases, and then try to challenge them. Most of us have a hard time admitting to negative preferences or stereotypes. Not a pleasant conversation to have with oneself.

Looking inward, I had to admit I was biased against Texans. (Here in New Mexico, it’s a state passion.) As I mentioned in a column a month or so ago, after years of seeing Texan plates on personal Tour Buses towing Hummers, it was easy to get angry. Throw in the bluster and big belt-buckles, and I can honestly say I was proud of the hate.

Whether geographically, racially, or gender-based, it’s not OK to dislike people en masse. (Obviously.) So I was thrilled to spend a little time in Houston last year, and realize that my pre-conceptions were off. I didn’t hate Texans, just the folks in the Dallas to Amarillo corridor. And even in Texas, that seems to be an established sentiment. (Yes, I am now mostly joking.)

As much as I enjoyed last year’s taste of Texas toast, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to re-visit H-town last week. I even planned a little road trip up to Central Texas for a quick visit to über-hip Austin. (Did I listen to some country music along the way? You bet I did. KNRG, the Renegade, is all Texas music, all the time. The first three songs I heard were all anti-urban. (Including a hysterical mockery of the aforemetioned Dallas.))

To be clear, this article is but an introduction to a series, like we did with San Francisco late last year. (How’s that for polar opposites?) I saw some fantastic art exhibitions, met with some intelligent, friendly and unpretentious art professionals, and ate some truly amazing food. Basically, I had a great time. From Texas hater to convert in 10 short months.

Before I leave you, though, I want to share one of my thin-sliced-stereotypical observations. I can’t take advantage of it myself, being chained by mortgage and blood to this extraordinary piece of rural paradise I call home. But some of you can. So here it goes.

Houston is the fourth largest city in the United States. The three cities above it, NYC, LA, and Chicago, are famously expensive. Houston is not. They are also known for exclusivity, and make it difficult to break into established networks, lacking the proper school connections and/or friend lists. Houston is extremely open and accessible, from what I’ve seen. (And the FotoFest Biennial provides entry to all comers.)

Beyond that, Houston has the kind of financial and cultural resources that exist in very few places in the world. Its economy is booming, and ought to continue to grow, as the energy sector is unlikely to wither. The port, connected to the city via the shipping channel, is also thriving. (And global trade is not going away any time soon.) The unemployment rate is below 6%, and the median income is over $70,000 per year. (Thank you for the statistics, Houston Public Radio.) Essentially, the place is leaking money.

The city is vast and diverse, with massive immigrant and minority communities, including Vietnamese, African-American, and Latino. It’s like a Texan Los Angeles in scope, minus the mountains and oceans. (Of attitude.) It’s the perfect place to encounter those from backgrounds different than yours: a city where biases go to die.

I noticed vacant commercial real estate everywhere; storefronts just waiting to be turned into artist-run galleries or commercial photo studios. I also spoke with an artist/curator who produces art shows for those downtown mega-corporate-skyscrapers that I mentioned in last year’s article. While state funding for the arts has been cut, (it is still Texas,) the public-private combination seems to offer insane amounts of cash and opportunities for the local community.

In the parlance of economics, Houston is an undervalued resource: a city just waiting for a fresh round of hipster-style-gentrification. And if you doubt me, you can trust Forbes magazine, which listed Houston as the coolest city in America in 2011. I’m not sure what their criteria was, and it’s likely to be very different from mine. (As Forbes itself is actually uncool.) But you can bet there will be a proverbial gold rush of 20-something energy-sector/hedge-fund yuppies who’ll rush down there due to Forbes’ blessing.

Who are they to you? Will they be your new friends, if you move to H-town? Probably not. Would you find them “cool,” in their khakis and button down polo shirts? It’s unlikely. (Again with the stereotyping.) But might they make up the bulk of your collector base, or client base, for decades to come? Now you’re getting the picture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jennifer Shaw Interview

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Jennifer Shaw is a fine art photographer based in New Orleans. Her project Hurricane Story was published in 2011 by Chin Music Press. She is represented by Guthrie Contemporary in New Orleans, and by Jennifer Schwartz Gallery in Atlanta. Ms. Shaw also teaches photography, and is the director of the photoNOLA festival.

Jonathan Blaustein: Did you ever watch the Jetsons when you were a kid?

Jennifer Shaw: Uh-huh.

JB: When you were watching people talking to each other on screens, did you ever think it would happen in your lifetime?

JS: Not really.

JB: And here we are.

JS: It’s my second Skype conversation ever.

JB: Ever? I’m honored that I pushed you to do something new. I just used a bank drive-thru window for the first time in my life. Sometimes technology is scarier than it ought to be. I always thought I was too dumb to figure it out, but it wasn’t that hard.

Do you use the drive-thru window?

JS: Of course.

JB: Everybody had it figured out but me. You are in New Orleans right now, as we speak.

JS: Right.

JB: But I saw in your bio that you were born in Indiana, and raised in Milwaukee. So you are a child of the great Mid-West.

JS: Correct.

JB: What brought you to NOLA?

JS: I graduated from art school. I don’t know if you went to art school, but there’s not exactly some great corporate job lined up waiting for you. It’s more of a decision of where you want to go to make a life as an artist. I always had this fascination with New Orleans. You know, the mystique. The Crescent City.

I decided after one last long, bitter winter in Rhode Island that I was going to move South. I came down here, and here I am.

JB: How long ago was that?

JS: 1994.

JB: 1994? Old school. I was just in New Orleans for photoNOLA, which all of our regular readers will know. When I do these travel pieces, I don’t have a lot of time to make observations. I keep my eyes open, and talk to people. It works. But the downside is that I’m making judgements based on a really thin slice of reality.

I wrote a piece about the city booming with money and energy and galleries. Putting Katrina in the past. That was a spot observation. I have to admit that I could be really wrong. Just because Mercedes Benz is sponsoring the Superdome…was I rushing to judgement? Or are things doing really well down there, as I surmised?

JS: New Orleans is always a mixed bag. There are parts of New Orleans that are doing really well, but there are still some areas that haven’t fully recovered from Katrina. But culturally, we’re definitely in a beautiful, Post-Katrina boom.

The arts scene is thriving. It’s always been healthy, but especially now. The St. Claude arts district is new. A lot of artist-run co-operative-type things going on. So that’s exciting.

JB: So I wasn’t completely off base?

JS: No, no.

JB: Because that was your opportunity to tell me I was full of shit in my article from a few weeks back.

JS: (laughing) No. I loved your observations.

JB: It’s 2013, so we’re coming up on almost 20 years of you living there. Is this boom unprecedented in your time in the city?

JS: I think so. A lot of the larger institutions have been here for many, many years. The Julia and Magazine St galleries have been here for a long time. But the St. Claude and Downtown scene, where it’s funky and fresh and vibrant, where the artists are starting their own spaces…that’s all pretty new. Post-Katrina.

JB: When I was in town, it was suggested that maybe part of the boom had come from the people who came down to New Orleans to help out after the storm, and then stayed. Thereby bringing in aggressive, fresh energy. Was that something that you noticed? Was it all the government money? What do you think was the cause of the Renaissance?

JS: There definitely has been some “brain gain,” as they say. People who maybe came down to volunteer to help with the re-building, and then just fell in love with the city. There certainly was money flying around afterwards, but I think that’s dried up to some degree. There was a point where there was federal or insurance money, and things felt really hopping. (With lots of construction and renovation everywhere.)

I almost feel like I’m not qualified to answer the larger, institutional-type questions.

JB: No problem. Ladies and gentlemen, while you read this interview with Ms. Jennifer Shaw, you can choose to disregard some of what she says because she does not claim expertise. All right? It’s in the record. You might not be the right person to answer these questions, but you’re on the other end of the video screen, so you don’t have much of a choice right now, do you?

JS: No.

JB: What about the Southern Hospitality? When you first moved South, what was your reaction?

JS: It’s charming, right? Makes you feel right at home.

JB: photoNOLA, as I understand it, is an off-shoot or project of the New Orleans Photo Alliance.

JS: Correct.

JB: And the Alliance is an artist-run, artist-founded, member-supported community organization, with its own gallery in the Lower Garden District. Is that about right?

JS: Yes, non-profit as well.

JB: When did it get started?

JS: The New Orleans Photo Alliance formed in 2006. Another one of those Katrina silver linings. Don Marshall runs the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, and has a long history of working in the arts in New Orleans. After Katrina, he started calling meetings with different groups of artists, encouraging us to form our own collectives and non-profits. To help resuscitate the arts, and the wider cultural rebuilding of the city.

Out of these groups of meetings with the photographers, we eventually decided what to do, what to be, and the name. One of the things I thought we should do was start a photography festival.

JB: Was that emergence concurrent with the creation of the Photo Alliance, or did it take some time?

JS: It was pretty concurrent; it came out of one of the early meetings. We first met in February or March of 2006. There had been a couple of Mardi Gras-themed group photography exhibitions. You know there’s always a big crowd at a group show.

Everybody came out and was just so thankful to see each other again. Hugs all around. Lots of “How did you make out during the storm?” There was this great energy flowing, and I think Don had attended one of those openings. I don’t know if that was one of his catalysts for getting us together, or if it was a part of his mission to organize lots of different types of artists, and getting us forming these self-sufficient organizations.

I’m totally losing track.

JB: It’s OK.

JS: So there were these two shows, and then a formal meeting is called at the Jazz and Heritage foundation. We decided, yeah, this is a good idea. Why not go ahead and do this?
Start an organization. So we had a series of monthly meetings to figure out what we might accomplish as a group. What sort of form it would take, and what the goals might be. What the structure would be.

By December of that year, we had our first officers, and a group show that started membership. We made it so the entry fee gave you membership into the New Orleans Photo Alliance. That was the beginning of it all. Don hooked us up with an exhibition at the Contemporary Art Center. When he got that plotted, I said, “Let’s take this December show at the CAC, and use it as an anchor to get the festival started.”

I knocked on the doors of galleries and other venues, and said, “We’re going to do a festival. Would you have a photo exhibition in conjunction with our show at the CAC? It’s going to be called photoNOLA, a month of photography.”

So that was the beginning. The first year was just exhibitions throughout the month, but nothing what it’s like now, obviously. (Portfolio reviews were added in 2007.)

JB: I didn’t know that the Photo Alliance came out of the immediate aftermath of Katrina. It’s a really interesting idea, the DIY ethos of artists getting together to do if for themselves. Given how much work it takes to do the business and self-promotion aspects of a career, the idea of getting together to lessen the load, and create the rising tide model, makes so much sense.

Were you the head of the photoNOLA festival from it’s inception?

JS: Pretty much so, yeah.

JB: Now, we both know that there are people who do that job, the Director of a non-profit, and that’s their only job. But on top of that, you also teach photography, and you have a full-time art career, and you’re a Mom.

JS: Right.

JB: So you’re trying to juggle everything at once. The 21st Century Hustle. I wanted to hear a bit about the founding of the organization, so thanks. It’s kind of a leading and inappropriate question, but do you think this would not have happened without the storm? Was there a burgeoning sense of collaborative energy because of the Internet anyway? Or do you think this was really a reaction to tragedy?

JS: I think it was totally a reaction to tragedy. I don’t know if something else would have come up in a different form later without the storm. But with Katrina, with everybody being out of the city for two months, and desperately wanting to get home, and desparately missing all of our friends and connections, I think it made us all appreciate people in a way that we never had before. Community ties too, not just in the art world.

There was a whole civic rebirth after the storm, on many different levels. Schools, and community organizations. So Katrina had a lot of silver linings, and the art scene and the Photo Alliance are certainly two of them.

JB: As is your book, “Hurricane Story.”

JS: (laughing.)

JB: So there’s that. My house got destroyed in a Hurricane, and all I got was a hard-cover book. Is that a T-shirt yet?

JS: (laughing still.) No. I should clarify, though, my house did not get destroyed. I’m on the sliver by the river, where there wasn’t any flooding. Just wind damage.

JB: Oh, congratulations.

JS: (laughing again.)

JB: I know, it’s seven years later, and I’m saying, “Congrats that your house didn’t get destroyed.” Let’s not give people the wrong impression.

I picked your book up and reviewed it in the very beginning of my book review column. I didn’t know you, or your name, or your work, or photoNOLA. I grabbed the little object off of my stack, and was kind of shocked. I hadn’t seen anybody personalize the tragedy in such an empathetic, but slightly light-hearted way.
Because you used toys.

JS: Right.

JB: What was the impetus for telling this really difficult story that way, about your evacuation, and having a baby on the day the storm made landfall? What was the genesis?

JS: I had a Holga that I’d modified into a macro-camera, and I hadn’t done a lot with it. I had some King Cake Babies lying around, and I think one day, I saw one lying around, and it reminded me of…I don’t know. Something just sparked, and I decided to pull out that macro camera and try it on those King Cake Babies, and maybe that’s the way I can deal with Katrina.

I’d taken some traditional disaster pictures, but didn’t feel like I owned that. You know? I felt like I was doing it in a documentary sense, for posterity. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable saying that was my art, or trying to sell that kind of work in galleries. I don’t know.

It was just these King Cake Babies, this macro camera, and a roll of black and white film. It just rolled, and made sense. This is it. This is what I need to be doing.

JB: What exactly is a King Cake Baby?

JS: Good question. Sorry. Every year from 12th Night through Mardi Gras, New Orleanians have mounds and mounds of King Cakes. Inside the cake is a little plastic baby, and the tradition is, whoever gets the slice with the King Cake Baby has to buy the next King Cake. It’s a continuing tradition at parties, and in offices, for weeks on end. We all get really fat. Getting the baby is a special thing, so you tend to collect them. They’re small and plastic, and made in China.

JB: Just like everything else.

We left in the dark of night

At 3:47 a boy was born

There were rumors of alligators in the streets

The chaos was hard to fathom

Convoys of rescue trucks passed in the other direction

Mardi Gras was amazing

photoNOLA, New Orleans, 2012

by Jonathan Blaustein

They say time heals all wounds. I’m sure that’s not true. To heal implies making things better. The parents of those poor Connecticut children will never be better again. With time, though, they will likely hurt less. They will keep on living. And in six weeks, most of us will forget they exist.

Sometimes, though, the rest of us, those glued to our screens during a tragedy, are the ones who get stuck. Occasionally, the bystanders will latch on to the moment of horror, and not let go. Like with Hurricane Katrina.

I went to New Orleans last month to attend the photoNOLA festival. I was booked for their portfolio reviews, and was also hoping to get around the city a bit and see things. But my very first impression, in the airport, served to solidify my preconceptions about this storm-ravaged region. The place was under construction disarray, with plywood tacked up willy-nilly. I even grabbed a snapshot of a marker-written “Baggage Claim” sign that was about as ghetto as anything I’ve seen.

Like I said, my vision was stuck a bit in 2005. When my Eritrean cab driver approached Downtown, I saw the Superdome up ahead, and then we drove right past it. At first, I held my breath, and saw those roof tiles gone in my mind. Then, I looked more closely. The place was shiny-metal-gleaming in the rosy late afternoon light. It is now sponsored, heavily, by Mercedes Benz. The stadium was stylish and expensive looking, in 2012.

I was on notice. The multiple cranes seen erecting buildings around the city were another sign of money and development. (You can learn a lot from the cranes on a skyline. We saw so many in Spain, in 2004, that I knew something was up. Or, as the Spaniards would tell you, tragically unsustainable.) Lucien, of whom you’ll hear later, told me the cranes were raising jails and hospitals. Two constant sources of cash.

I also learned that Eritreans will eat in Ethiopian restaurants. Though the two countries were locked in vicious wars for 30 years, that forced my cabbie to flee to America, apparently the food is pretty much the same. (He was sullen, so I tipped him poorly. I still feel guilty about it.)

The short version of my trip is that I found a city booming. So much so that I only saw a fraction of what was on display. Photography exhibitions were everywhere. Robot parades, Second lines, lectures, openings, music, art, it was everywhere. Good for New Orleans. While we may still have Katrina on the brain, especially in Sandy’s wake, the folks living there have most certainly moved on. Thank goodness.

I ate amazing food, day after day. I was kidnapped, three times, by photographers visiting from various parts around the South. The cliché about Southern Hospitality was on full display, and I’m now officially down with it. (For you foodies out there, Friday’s dinner was at Clancy’s. Book it. And celebu-chef John Besh’s pizza place, Domenica, was also a standout.)

The festival began a couple of days before I got there. There was a gala benefit on Thursday night, and lectures by Sasha Wolf and Mary Virginia Swanson earlier on Friday. I missed them all. You know I’ve got a baby at home, so my trip was too brief. If I return next year, I’ll make sure to stay longer. And I’d heartily recommend you go yourself, but don’t shortchange it.

My reviews were on Saturday, and I began with a meeting with an associate curator from the Museum of Modern Art. It was the first time I’d met with someone from there, the gleaming art Mecca, and I thought hard about how to approach it. I decided that the likelihood of her seeing something in a box, and it then ending up on the wall, or in the collection at the MoMA, was next to zero. Probably more like zero. (Maybe down the line, but still…)

The second route would be to be “insanely memorable.” While I can be charming on a good day, 20 minutes is not a very long time to strike up the kind of conversation that impresses someone enough to go straight to the top of their to-do-list. Possible, but, again, unlikely.

On the other hand, one thing I could reasonably hope for would be to get her honest opinion about my work. Presumably, you don’t work there unless you really know what you’re talking about. So advice, a critique, was something that seemed attainable, and potentially very helpful.

That’s how I approached it. I didn’t even show her prints from my established project, “The Value of a Dollar,” or try to woo her with my extensive resume. Rather, we focused on my in-progress work, where it was headed: what she liked, what she didn’t like. It was fascinating to hear her riff on my work, and very encouraging.

I’m sharing this, here, because I’ve been and am an advocate of portfolio reviews. The process has really made my career, and many others before me. But I’ve been victim, in the past, of that desire to make every meeting out be the game-changer. To hustle and schmooze. Talk without listening. What do they call that, the elevator pitch? Please.

The beauty of these events, and photoNOLA was an excellent example, is that you can learn more about what you’re doing from seasoned professionals. Can these meetings lead directly to exhibition, publication, and acquisition? Yes, they can. But even more, they can help push us further along, outside the domain of the “like-asphere.” (Am I coining this term, or does it already exist?)

The event was based out of the International House Hotel, just next to the French quarter. (In which the streets truly do smell of booze and urine.) The reviews took place in the hotel conference facilities, across the street, in a couple of rooms very well set up for the attending photographers. (Free wifi, free food, coffee and water? Classy.)

There were countless events in the evenings, so much that without a car and a better sense of direction, it was hopeless to try to attend most. I was bummed about that, as I didn’t get to see as much as I’d hoped, and was mostly restricted to the CBD and the Quarter. (Though one kidnapping brought me to the Lower Garden District. Cool spot. Hipster central.)

Ultimately, I realized that a surfeit of options of things to see is a good problem. You can only be in one place at a time, and you can’t talk to everyone. That’s why I’d recommend a longer stay, and why I hope to get back as soon as I can.

As for the events I did see? It started with the Shelby Lee Adams Lecture at the Ogden Museum of Art, on Friday night. He was super-intelligent, and showed a range of lesser-known work from his long career. Some of his portraits of Appalachians reminded me a lot of Roger Ballen’s pictures of poor South Africans. The pictures are straight, but the folks are so seemingly pitiable, and the lens so sharp, that the intent can seem mean or exploitative. Or, I should say, some folks interpret them as such.

As Mr. Adams is from and lives amongst his community, and his subjects love the depictions, I’m inclined to find them cool as hell. But he was very defensive about his critical reputation, mentioning it on three or four occasions. He took swipes at “Academics” at the University of Kentucky, and others. My companions and I all commented about it, as it seemed a waste of energy. He’s got great work, and is successful and acclaimed. (As he said, to paraphrase, once you get a Guggenheim, you can do whatever the hell you want.)

I was reminded of my own past fury at our pack of rabbly commenters, though I’ve since decided to leave people to their opinions. The critics are out there, in every field and forum. If you put your work out there, and it’s good enough to draw attention, then you have to learn how to take/live with the criticism. Because it will most certainly come.

Still, it was a great presentation over all, but we had to split a bit early for late dinner reservations. The next night, I was able to catch the end of a group Q&A with Keith Carter, Josephine Sacabo, Shelby Lee Adams, and Louviere + Vanessa at A Gallery for Fine Art Photography, in the French Quarter. The place is a must on any future visit to New Orleans. Tons of great historical work, and some contemporary Black and White photography as well. (Helmut Newton’s pictures jumped off the wall. Sexy photos, sexy town.)

Let’s wrap this up. photoNOLA rocks, and New Orleans rocks. It’s a city with an unfathomable amount of cultural events, and more insane restaurants than you could ever, ever eat at. The cost of the portfolio reviews is less than some competing events, which is a bonus. And every dollar you spend will pump right into the local economy.

The cabdriver who took me back to the airport was, in fact, right out extras casting for all the movies they’re shooting here these days. He could easily have been a character on David Simon’s “Treme.” Aforementioned, his name was Lucien, a fifty-something African-American guy, born and raised in NOLA.

He was funny, loquacious, and intently offered me his wisdom. We swapped stories for the whole ride back to the airport, talking shit about money and power. (I wish I could quote him on that week’s NFL shooting tragedy, but it’s NSFW.) When I lauded the local hospitality, and promised a speedy return, he summed it up for me as follows: “It don’t cost anything extra to be nice to people.” Amen.

The Best Photos I Saw This Year That I Haven’t Already Written About Yet

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

I have a dirty little secret. Photography is not my favorite medium. I have equal love for Painting, Sculpture and Cinema, which inspire me greatly as an artist. Perhaps they should take away my cool-guy-photographer club membership?

But when in professorial mode, my first lectures are always about the magic of photography’s essence. Light and time. Harnessing powerful elements of the Universe. Freezing people and moments, forever. Thinking about that gets me every time.

Unfortunately, a by-product of living in a time of unprecedented image saturation, I’d be hard pressed to say I see that magic within the rectangle, very often. I see a lot of photographs in my line of work, and then we all do via our massive media addiction. We’re all drowning.

Fortunately, when I was in San Francisco earlier this year, I visited the Legion of Honor Museum on the edge of the Presidio. The gorgeous, resplendent building abuts a golf course, and sits above the rocky cliffs jutting up from the Bay. The fog was thick, sitting in a bank that touched the tops of the Eucalyptus trees.

I didn’t even know the museum existed, but there were banners plastered around the city, promising a Man Ray/Lee Miller exhibition. That was enough to draw me. Who wouldn’t want to see his work? I’d heard of Ms. Miller before, but didn’t know her work or backstory at all.

Down some old-school-curved-stone stairs, with vaulted arches hard at work, the exhibit was in the bowels of the historical building. Did it used to be someone’s mansion? What was the history? I didn’t have a chance to find out, as the museum was about to close when I arrived.

Time to cut to the chase. The gorgeous Ms. Miller stole the show, as well as my heart. Wow. What a presence. And through the exhibition, it was clear that my name is only last on a very long list of the infatuated that included Man Ray, Picasso, and probably every man she met in Europe before World War II.

She was tall and blonde, with striking blue eyes. Ms. Miller was beautiful the way Grace Kelly was beautiful. Just the perfect, Upper Class-looking WASP goddess. Normally not my type.

She exuded a kind of wounded, cold, intelligent reserve. Bottled up, statuesque. In fact, early in the exhibition, there are a couple of photographs of her playing a statue in a Cocteau film. The verisimilitude was off-the-chains.

Her photographs begin in the second room, alongside of Man Ray’s. It seems as if the show has been designed to show her off, as she is better represented than he. And subsequent rooms show only her work, and the work of others who were inspired by her.

Man Ray’s photographs of Lee Miller amp up the sexuality. He fetishizes her, and when you see the portraits of him, you can understand his excitement that he got to have sex with her at all. In her self-portraits, though, she is subdued and classical, her intellect beaming out. Two completely different visions of the same woman.

I’m still weirded out that I had powerful urges towards someone I knew to be dead. The whole notion of freezing time, of encoding moments from the rush of history, was foremost in my thoughts. In the bowels of this old museum, on a misty late afternoon, it was almost as if there were ghosts about. (Let’s hope she’s young and hot as a ghost. I’ve no interest in the 70 year old Lee Miller haunting my dreams.)

OK, the photographs are what this 2nd Annual column is supposed to be about. Ms. Miller had one image of breasts that had been lopped off in a mastectomy. Just sitting there. Right below a photo of dead rats hanging in a shop window. Of their moment, as surrealism, they screamed of the dark soul looming within the model’s body.

And she was also tough enough to go into the Concentration Camps after the end of the War. Her photos of German officer’s bodies, after suicide, reeked of that same Surrealist training. She knew from absurd, which was a fine a response as any to the atrocities, the death and destruction. Crazy photographs. Crazy. Together, they were definitely the best photographs I saw this year that I haven’t already written about yet.

Man Ray and Lee Miller eventually broke up. She married an Englishman. I have her biography on the shelf, given to me by a friend, but I haven’t opened yet. (I’ll get there.) This friend, in the know, told me that Lee Miller had been sexually abused as a child. Common knowledge, apparently.

Upon hearing that morsel, it all fit. I’d known something was wrong with her all along. That’s why I was so smitten. In those years that she and Man Ray documented, she had it all. The looks. The brains. The creativity. And the soul scars that seared her humanity into celluloid.

Richard Misrach’s lecture at the Center for Creative Photography

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

The weather in Tucson is brutally hot most of the time. 115 degrees Fahrenheit for almost 7 months a year, so they tell me. But the other five months are beautiful, when much of North America is freezing its collective ass off. Not being a lunatic, I’ve visited in October and February, and, as a result, love the place.

I was overdue for a visit to hang out with my good friend Ken, his wife Lisa, and their lovely daughter. Ken and I were chatting on the phone one day, and I made that all-too-familiar, non-specific promise to come “as soon as I can make it work.” Generic meaninglessness.

Ken then mentioned that the great Richard Misrach was due to lecture at the Center for Creative Photography, on the campus of the U of A. “Misrach, dude. Misrach,” was the final refrain of his argument. I stammered. No obvious excuse came to mind. “Uh, uh, Misrach, dude. You’re right. I’ll buy a plane ticket today.”

And so I found myself, earlier this Fall, fresh off the airplane, handing Ken a breakfast burrito from an Indian Casino outside Albuquerque. Before you say yuck, I got it only a couple of hours before, and it’s designed to keep in long-haul trucks on the Interstate. Delicious.

It couldn’t have been seven minutes from the time I stepped off the airplane to the time we were driving away in Ken’s Prius. The hybrid car is not as out-of-place as you might imagine in Super-Red-State Arizona. Tucson is actually a liberal island in a sea of anti-immigrant hostility. (Though these folks do have to live on the fringe of the Mexican Drug War, with a strong Mexican Mafia presence in town as well.)

I’ll spare you any more details on what he and I did in the handful of hours we had before the lecture. But cruising on the Prius-driving-tour gave me a bit of perspective on where the town is situated. The city is actually surrounded by mountains, and pretty ones at that. I’d rank it highly on the natural beauty scale. But that probably doesn’t matter if you’re sitting inside with your underwear pressed up against the air conditioning unit.

We turned up at the CCP about an hour before kickoff, to get some good seats reserved. And to catch up with the other artists that drove into town from California and Phoenix. People pay attention when a big dog pops his head out in public.

The lecture began soon enough, and the audience was both packed and silent. Seriously, I don’t think I’ve been in a quieter crowded lecture hall since taking final exams at Duke all those years ago. But this was fun instead of hysterically stressful.

Mr. Misrach structured the lecture as a linear narrative of the projects he’d done throughout his career. I was familiar with all of the earlier work, the Desert Cantos photos upon which he built his career. The Salton Sea. The fires. The Bravo 20 Bombing range pictures. The salt flats.

The projection was excellent, and the pictures looked amazing at 15′x15′, or whatever it was. It made me want to create super-giant prints, or do projection installations. Anything to achieve that powerful sense of scale. He claimed inspiration for the Cantos series, in which the projects interlock to inform each other and the whole, from Dante and Ezra Pound.

Mr. Misrach continued on through pretty pictures, like “Golden Gate” and “On the Beach,” and also showed newer things I’d not seen. Images from Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, Iphone images, (of course,) and a return to working in Cancer Alley, Louisiana. The project, which began in the late nineties, originated as a commission from the High Museum in Atlanta.

I’d first seen one of the large scale color images at the now-defunct Friends of Photography in San Francisco many years ago. He showed dozens of these photos, each more compelling than the next. Factories, chemical plants, plantations, riverscapes, old shacks, all in that famously perfect light. I felt the work certainly on par with Edward Burtynsky’s photographs of corporate-sponsored environmental degradation.

I heard the first seat creaks from the crowd at the one hour mark, just as he was discussing his new Aperture book “Petrochemical America,” with design work by Kate Orff. Then, things took a strange turn. (And then stranger still, but I’ll get there.) Mr. Misrach wrapped up the lecture with a segment on the private salon he has at his studio with a handful of younger Bay Area Artists. He went on to show slides of their work, including Doug Rickard, Paul Schiek, Jason Fulford, and my previously-mentioned-friend McNair.

That the San Francisco collaborative scene made such a prominent appearance here in Tucson, just a couple of weeks after I was in SF, was totally surreal for me. I’m not sure people knew what to think. Was he promoting his younger buddies, blatantly, or showing off work that inspired and intrigued him? This was quickly followed by an excellent Q&A, in which Mr. Misrach seemed to enjoy responding directly, rather than sticking to the script.

Here are a few quotes I thought you’d find interesting. On the political impact of his work: “Whether they can change public policy? I don’t think that’s real.” On how he stayed safe in the dangerous situations in which he often found himself: “I was young and stupid.” On how he deals with delving into bleakness of eco-misery: “It’s a job.”

He also said, of art making, “the process is metaphysical.” Let me be the first to agree. Finally, speaking about switching from large format film photography to medium format digital, he said, “I’m making better pictures now than I could possibly do with an 8″x10″ negative.” Hard to believe, but I suppose he’s earned our suspension of disbelief.

Seconds after he finished speaking, Lisa waved to a friend, and her diamond engagement ring flew off her hand, in full view of dozens of people, and disappeared into thin air. I’m always telling my son that things don’t vanish, but it happened before my eyes. Fortunately, the ring was discovered a month later, in the bowels of the pocket book of the lady sitting next to her.

Then, we headed back to their place for a Taco Truck dinner, and a little impromptu, photo-geek-salon/taco fiesta. We had five photographers with five MFA’s between them: a Guggenheim Fellow, two artists showing at Klompching in Brooklyn, a photographer who went to school with Gregory Crewdson, and me.

The consensus on the lecture was that Mr. Misrach was too literal and linear, and didn’t provide inspiration for my colleagues. His target audience was clearly the many young college students in attendance, who were likely less familiar with his canon than we. Alec Soth was suggested as a model of the inspirational lecturer, as several of the photographers had recently seen him speak at the Medium Festival in San Diego.

Personally, I hung on Mr. Misrach’s every word. Beyond the countless incredible photographs, and the consistently relevant issues, seeing that many years of production inspired me. Just do the work, he implied. Keep doing the work. It was kind of Zen.

Back at our round-table, I mentioned the Cindy Sherman show at SFMOMA, and we kicked around comparisons of major artists who’ve lost it and got it back again. Robert Mapplethorpe came up in the photo world, but most comps were to music. Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen.

Finally, someone asked the following question, with which I will leave you. (Feel free to discuss it amongst yourselves.) Over time, what costs more, having a child, or an art career?

The San Francisco Fall Season: “About Face” at Pier 24

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

In the last exhibition review, I told you how to see some excellent art, in San Francisco, for free. Just go to SFMOMA on the first Tuesday of the month. With your savings, you can buy a couple of mouthfuls of seafood at the Ferry Building down the street. Or four pears. Seriously, I paid four bucks for an asian pear that was nearly as big as a large guinea pig.

From there, it’s a short walk along the water to Pier 24. I’ll say this now, prominently, so that it doesn’t get misunderstood. Pier 24 is always free. That’s more great art without spending a dime. But, and here’s the catch, you must book ahead via their website. They have several “viewings” a day, limited to 20 people per session.

The pier, which actually sits below the bay bridge, sat vacant for 30 years, I was told, before it was renovated to its current very chic status. You’d never know from the anonymous wharfside locale, but the innards are stuffed with more photography goodies than a pelican’s belly.

Once buzzed in, you’re offered a catalog, to borrow or buy, which shows you the names and relevant info for each work. (There is no wall text, which some might not like.) I met up with Pacarrick, and he knew a docent named Mark, so I made those guys hold the catalog, and we embarked straight away. We could go one of two ways, and chose to go with the natural flow, into a room filled with Hiroshi Sugimoto’s wax figurine photographs.

I’d seen them at Fraenkel Gallery, when they were exhibited many years ago. Then, I was dismissive of the work. “He just photographed someone else’s sculptures. Big deal.” Here, though, my opinion spun. These large scale black and white portraits have gravitas. And they’re spooky too.

It’s probably a good time to mention that much of the work on the wall was procured by the same Fraenkel gallery, either to sell to the Pilara Foundation, which runs the place, or to arrange the borrowing of work to be shown. As I wrote in the intro article, much of San Francisco is working with itself, and this partnership has created something terrific here. (Along with shipping crates full of hedge fund dollars.)

So there’s a touch of backstory. Where were we? Past Sugimoto, we see a room with work by Jim Goldberg and Larry Sultan. Two more Bay Area luminaries. And then, a few feet away, there’s a wall installation of photography baseball cards by Mike Mandel, who collaborated with the late Mr. Sultan. (Definitely a conversation starter.)

They were obviously taken in the 70′s, and were thoroughly tongue-in-cheek. I was standing with a Peruvian dude, and an Asian guy who’s exact heritage I don’t know, and didn’t bother to ask. I looked at them, giggled, and looked back at the wall of photographers. All were white. And at least 75% had moustaches. For real. We counted. Then we counted the women, and there were a few, but not many.

I’m not being critical. Times change, and thank god there is more diversity in photography than there used to be. The grid of photo heroes and big wigs was clever and fun. Who uses the baseball card motif to talk about war? It was a great artifact of the photo community back in the mutton chop days. (Like I said, there is visual evidence of my mullet/braces phase. Not that you’ll find it.)

The exhibition space slowly unfolds, and is absolutely huge. Museum size, with genius stuff wherever you look. I recommend that you actually use your entire 2 hour window. (I didn’t.) Go in, see half, go out, grab a coffee. Look at the water. Listen to the sea gulls. Then go back.

Back to the moment, I walked through to see a huge wall of Lee Friedlanders. That guy is one brave dude. He consistently turned the camera on himself, willing to depict his “image” in unflattering ways. The honesty, combined with his consistently off-putting compositional style, is the secret to his creative staying power. (IMHO)

Next, Avedon. Big portraits from “In The American West.” (I neglected to mention an earlier four-image-panel of John, Paul, George and Ringo that was orphaned in a corner.) I risk the wrath of many of you, but I don’t dig the Western portraits one bit. Slick and stylish, yes. But no soul. The dirt on their faces might have well have been pancake makeup.

Not to bag on Mr. Avedon exclusively. The Beatles pics were suave, and then just a bit further on, he has an entire room to himself, with smaller studio portraits of major honchos. Bush Sr., Rumsfeld, and on and on. (Regan was hanging next to Caesar Chavez. Nicely done.) A ton of portraits to see there. My brain was starting to slow down.

But not before I reached the Richard Learoyd section. I profiled his book, “Presences,” in my very first book review column, last year. So I was familiar with the representations. But as large scale prints, the camera-obsura-created photos were the showstoppers for me. Radiant, and beyond sharp. Wicked light and color. One pairing stood out, a man and woman’s naked bodies. Backs arching slightly forward, faces unseen. Identical poses, subtle differences. Magnetic.

If I have any criticism of Pier 24, it’s that it’s a bit like a photo exhibition on steroids. Don’t forget, Barry Bonds hit all those homeruns ten minutes up the water. Really, really close. But the stands were always packed, and here, it’s so much great work that I don’t want to nitpick. (It is pretty lame of me to criticize them for being “too good.”)

It’s just that my brain is getting tired remembering all these photographs, and you’re going to want to stop reading soon. From there, Diane Arbus had a room. An African-themed gallery had work by Pieter Hugo, and the combination of Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse. Great. Then a Japanese room, and a Chinese room. This being San Fransisco in 2012, diversity will be respected. Oh yes.

Then, we doubled back to the main entrance, to go see the final wing. The first room had a group exhibition featuring work by many, many famous names. I could list them, but what’s the point? The one photo you couldn’t not look at was by Vanessa Beecroft, of all people. It was the biggest, so that explains a lot. But it jumped off the wall. Ms. Beecroft seems best known for staging naked modeling shows in the Guggenheim, so to see an image of this quality made Pacarrik and I wonder how much she spent on a DoP.

Then, a room of mug shots, and the Paul Schiek photographs I already wrote about in the book review for “Dead Men Don’t Look Like Me.” As I learned in SF, those images, which work brilliantly as a little soft-cover-book of found photos, (and which were originally shot by an anonymous, talented jail-house photographer,) are a really big deal in San Franscisco right now. They just showed at Stephen Wirtz, and were here in a prominent spot at Pier 24. The prints are big of course; presented as high-end appropriation art. In that context, I’m a bit skeptical.

But the last room in the house, (if you take the wrong path,) is the best room in the house. August Sander. Vintage prints. In a very large grid. I was too tired to count the photos. And I was too tired to enjoy them.

We’re all fans of the master German portraitist. I’ll spare you the mushy love talk. It’s a brilliant room of photographs, and I was way, way too brain fried to enjoy it. I’m still pissed off.
So, I’m saying this clearly, when you go visit Pier 24, which you should do, go see the August Sander photographs as soon as you get there. Or, at least, don’t see them last.

The San Francisco Fall Season: Cindy Sherman at SFMOMA

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

It was sweating hot on the first Tuesday of October. If you’re planning a trip to San Francisco, keep that phrase in mind. First Tuesday. Because it’s free at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). If you’re the type to get off on saving $18, go then. If you are, however, the type to hate the hordes, then avoid it.

I can understand both perspectives, so when I dropped in on SFMOMA see the blockbuster Cindy Sherman exhibition, I was glad to save the money, yet noticeably cranky because of the crowds. (Karma got me back the following day. At the de Young museum, an older gentleman actually gave me an ironic bow/apology combo, with a smirk on his face, when I asked him not to stand quite so up in my grill.)

SFMOMA is one of my very favorite museums in the US. Amazing place, with consistently interesting shows. I was excited to see Cindy Sherman’s show here, having missed it on earlier incarnations. (It’s now at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.)

I’ve always been a fan of her early work, the “Untitled Film Stills.” It’s important, for the obvious reasons. (Feminism, Post-Modernism, Hollywoodism.) I’d never seen more than a handful at once, but they’re lovely. Together, those images pounce in a large 3 wall grid installation early on in the show. (It’s preceded by the earliest self-portraits, from 1975, which are electric and indicative of her continued style.)

Seeing the whole grid together, it’s clear that she’s genuinely acting. That’s what brings the vision through. She’s energetically invested in each photo, through varied landscapes. Ms. Sherman works the drama, and has the charisma of an of-that-moment-Suzanne Somers. (Yes, I just made that comparison.)
One photograph, taken at a train station in Flagstaff, gives off the Western vibe. In another, she has a crucifix in her cleavage. Classy.

The next room has color versions of the Film Stills, larger, mostly from the 80′s. Still strong. Upon closer examination, some of them, with more ornate, luxe costumes, are actually from 2007 and ’11. Despite the more expensive production values, the new ones are definitely not better than the old.

The “Centerfold” images are next, and still compelling. She’s working it, trying to squeeze the last of the “Film Still” style. From there, we walk along, and hit a big skidmark. (No future pun intended.)

The large scale color images adorning the walls of the subsequent room are offensive on every level. (Among those levels are quality and good taste.) The photos depict grotesqerie that makes Joel Peter-Witkin look slightly less alone in his crazy. A cut-off, limbless torso with a tampon in a vagina, and, also, a cock with a cock ring. There’s a photo of putrid rotting entrails, “Untitled #190″, that reminded me of the stomach contents of that fat guy who exploded in “The Meaning of Life.” (I couldn’t eat anover bite.)

So, so, so bad. What’s the point? I’m so rich and successful that I can get collectors to buy photos of rotting shit? Or was it, first, I gave them the surface version of femininity in America, so now I’ll follow with the extreme opposite: what it feels like to be objectified and relegated to second class status? Probably neither. But the pictures suck.

Then, the clowns. I had the privilege, or bad fortune to see these when they debuted at Metro Pictures. At the time, I thought they were horrifying, and the epitome of mailing it in. Once you’re famous enough, people will buy anything to get a piece of the investment action.

Here, they were creepier than in my memory. Again, bad. Bad, bad. Are they interesting for evoking revulsion? I suppose we’ll have to give her that.

At that point, I’d decided that Ms. Sherman was just one more major talent who got soft and rich and lost her edge. She’ll always have Flagstaff. And then, walking into the final rooms of the exhibition, I was surprised. (You know I like to be surprised.)

Those last few galleries were redemptive. Praise Jesus. And to what do we owe this renaissance? I’m going with The Great Recession as my hypothesis. “Untitled #463,” from 2007-8, is a large scale color photo that shows two versions of Ms. Sherman. Both are brown-haired, middle-aged, city party ladies after work. We see a red plastic cup filled with what? Probably not keg beer. She plays each broad to the hilt. Not exactly flattering.

Then, “Untitled, #466,” from 2008, shows a gray haired, grand dame in a beautiful blue silk caftan coat, floor length. She’s standing in an archway of a regal-type Spanish or California Mansion. It’s not a nasty image, but establishes the rich, powerful, older-lady-type vibe. A demographic which Ms. Sherman herself joined. It also references, no doubt, her collector base.

Grand dames buy a lot of expensive art. There are several pictures in the grouping, and they are subtly critical in their depiction of said dames. Her performances are nuanced, but powerful. No mailing it in here. The production design is as good as the acting. Great, great photos, I thought. She’s back.

Why then? Why at all, given how few artists ever pull out of the money-coma-induced nosedive. Well, though it was not so long ago, it’s easy to forget that the American and European economies fell off a cliff in 2007-008. People lost half their wealth within the span of less than a year. Fear was everywhere. Even, presumably, among the super-rich.

So I’d speculate that Ms Sherman felt the pinch, like the rest of us. Wherever her wealth is, she would have gotten hit, and then people would have stopped buying her pictures, for a little while. That kind of freaked-out energy feeds creativity. It’s primal.

Does it matter why she got it back? Or, for that matter, will we ever know? Of course not. It just makes for fun chatter. I loved all of the pictures in the last group, and was happy to see that “IT” could be re-captured, once lost. Inspiring.

In fact, it kicked off a long, round table, two hour conversation about who still has it, who lost it, blah, blah when I was in Tucson the following week to see Richard Misrach lecture at the Center for Creative Photography. Has he lost it? What is his new work like? Stay tuned.

The San Francisco Fall Season: Binh Danh and Ai Weiwei at Haines Gallery

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Artists communicate with symbols. We use them to construct a visual language that can, at its best, transcend the need for verbal translation. As viewers, therefore, we expect to look at a photograph and evaluate the subject as itself, and as a set of ideas we believe it to represent.

In the Chinese Northern Song Dynasty, just after the turn of the first Millennium, huge cliff mountains were rendered, on screen paintings, to represent god. The power of the Universe. Fan Kuan’s “Travelers Among Rivers and Streams” is one of the best examples of this tradition. (Almost 7 ft tall.) Imposing.

This symbol set, plucked from the tradition of perhaps the world’s oldest culture, was at the front of my brain as I walked around Binh Danh’s exhibition of daguerreotypes at Haines Gallery in San Francisco. The photographs were made in Yosemite, that “Most Famous California Landmark,” shot in 2012. Old school new school make sense, in a dematerialized world.

We all know this particular set of rock cliffs, as the place has been shot to death. (Which doomed the show in my companion Kevin’s opinion.) These image/objects, though, shimmered silverly against the gray walls. Blue skies were evident in several, but not all of the pictures. The ghostly, non-realistic way of depicting the mountains brought me straight through time back to those aforementioned, thousand year old screen paintings. Excellent.

Stepping through the Danh exhibition, into the rear of the gallery, I confronted a low, dense, wide pyramid of sunflower seeds, by Ai Weiwei. Quiet. Heavy. Powerful. Beautiful. Zen.

I knew of the project, from which this installation was a small part. Reputedly, the artist commissioned 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds to be made and hand painted in the factories of China. That’s a big enough number to suitably represent 1.3 Billion Chinese people, all individuals, but having to adhere to the same operating code to avoid the gulag.

It also celebrates China. The current manufacturing base has lifted tens or hundreds of millions of citizens out of abject poverty, engendered by an overwhelming collective work ethic. The entirety of the sunflower seed installation was shown at the Tate Modern in 2011. (And they subsequently purchased 8 million of them.)

Here, I faced 500 lbs of the mini-sculptures. A quarter ton. (Or so I was told. Try to to count or weigh them, and security will be on you faster than my jaw dropped when I saw Clint Eastwood kill Seinfeld’s Uncle Leo in “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” So Postmodern I still have a headache.) That’s one of the pleasurable absurdities of work like this. We trust, but implicitly know the arithmetic could be off. Who would know?

In this gallery, fortunately, the version on display was worth Mr. Ai’s considerable hype. Massively beautiful, the perfect art stand-in for the experience of sitting beside a tree next to a cliff, listening to a waterfall behind you. (And I should know.)

The San Francisco Fall Season: A Series

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

I used to have a friend named Adam. He’s kind of a dick, so we no longer speak. Such a shame. Despite, or perhaps because of his cranky narcissism, he had a huge impact upon the course of my life.

We met when I was 20, and were roommates in Albuquerque for a year. I followed him to UNM, where I studied photography, and to Pratt, where I got my MFA. (No, I’m not a stalker. Yes, I know what you’re thinking.)

Adam’s last great contribution to my education came during a visit to Brooklyn, back in 2000. Along with some friends, we were smoking cigarettes outside a historic pizza joint in Dumbo, and the guys were busting my balls. (That all-time NYC über-skill.) Jessie and I were living in San Francisco at the time, and very happy.

“San Francisco?” Adam yelled. “San Francisco’s not a city. New York is a city. It’s like living in Rome at the height of the Empire. San Francisco? It’s not a city, JB. It’s a country club. A f-cking country club.”

“Screw you, dude,” I drawled. (Proud of my Now-West-Coast-Style chillness.) “It is too a city. I live there. I should know.”

“No. You’re wrong,” he said. “It’s a country club. You’ll see.”

Prophetic words. Jessie and I moved to Brooklyn soon after. New York bitch-slapped us upside the head so swiftly, ferociously, and consistently that I wince even now. They were, fortunately, the most helpful, life-affirming, educational bitch-slaps I’ve received before or since. (Belatedly, I thank you, New York. It’s easy to see why you inspire genius on a daily basis.)

San Francisco, while clearly a city, elicits derogatory daggers from NYC-based writers all the time. Seriously, could they use the word “earnest” more often, while describing the famous San Francisco niceness? (Or chillness. Groundedness. Down-to-Earthness. Take your pick.)

What’s the secret? San Franciscans know they’re living in the prettiest city in the world. Yes, Amsterdam, Rome, London, Paris; are all exquisite. (And no, I haven’t been to Istanbul.) But SF has the architecture to match; thousands and thousands of Victorian and Edwardian gems.

No, the difference is the Nature. The peninsula boasts miles of extraordinary beaches along the Pacific Ocean, with rocky cliffs that overlook the Golden Gate Bridge. There are the views of Alcatraz in the middle of the bay, with sailboats glinting, and the golden/green landscape of Marin County and Oakland looming behind the shining Bay Bridge. (Gold in summer, green in winter.) Plus, the absurdist giant hills, crawling with cable cars, and the Eucalyptus-laden mini-mountains in the city’s heart. It might as well be a fantasy camp for Outward-bound junkies.

Always somewhere on the boom and bust continuum, boom-times are back in 2012. Twitter, LinkedIn, Salesforce.com, all have major presences downtown now. Oracle was hosting a 50,000 person geek-fest-convention while I was there too. (Why didn’t Larry Ellison just rent the city, like he bought that Hawaiian Island?)

The Mission still has a Latino population, and Chinatown and the Outer neighborhoods contain a sizable Chinese contingent, but I was shocked at how white and wealthy the downtown section of the city had become. Safe and clean are attributes that draw a certain demographic.

The Bay Area also has access to a bottomless vat of cash-money that practically rivals the Chinese government for liquidity. (Apple and Google are just up the road.) The lifestyle is the big draw. Living in such a beautiful place, where it never snows, is good for your brain chemistry. As is the obvious access to healthy, locally-grown produce, the amazing restaurants and cafes, wine country across the red bridge, and all those nice, chilled out, progressive people as your neighbors.

Open-mindedness blossoms. So much tolerance is addictive. And many folks stay forever, given rent controls, another side-affect of progressive politics. Not surprisingly, co-operative spirit prevails in a place like this.

When I got to town in early October, I found an excited, successful, productive, collaborative, energized photography community. (Whether people were based in the City, or elsewhere around the Bay.) Everyone I spoke to seemed to be connected to one another and supportive of each other’s success. Artists, gallerists, curators, and publishers were working together in different combinations and permutations. (At Gallery Carte Blanche, in the Mission, there was even a mashup exhibition of books from the Indie Photobook Library and framed prints shown together.)

My local contacts, whom I’d met at Review Santa Fe, were so generous with their time. Pointing me in the direction of places to see photos. Sharing the principles that have engendered their success. Inspiring me to break my karaoke cherry. (Yes, I serenaded someone, by request, with Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” Does video evidence exist? I don’t know. Would I be ashamed? I suppose we’ll find out.)

The photographers I spoke with, Kevin, Pacarrik, McNair and Sarah were all involved in different critiquing groups. Each was also shooting multiple personal projects at once. They were affiliated with similar publishers, (Owl and Tiger, Daylight) and either worked, printed or hung around Rayko, the gallery/everything space just up the street from SFMOMA, under a highway overpass. When I visited Rayko, Lydia Panas’ “The Mark of Abel” was on view, looking gorgeous, and Kevin’s show, “Los Restos de la Revolucion,” was due to open the following week.

Ann Jastrab, the gallery director, gave me the guided tour. Rayko offers full, wraparound services for every possible photographer’s need. (No, I’m not exaggerating.) I saw a shooting studio with lights, gang and private black & white darkrooms, a color processor and darkroom facility, plus a full digital setup with computers, a rental Imacon, a drum scanner, and large format printers.

In addition, they have the aforementioned gallery, a full slate of classes, a glass case selling used cameras, a working vintage 1940′s photo booth, and an artist residency program too. Amazing. It’s like Rayko decided that the 21st Century Hustle was here to stay, and built a business model to satisfy its cravings.

Believe it or not, I told Rob that this San Francisco Series would be more condensed than normal. Not the Introduction, apparently. Henceforth, I’ll do a few specific exhibition reviews, as I saw so many stellar shows. (And one klunker I might just write about.)

Before I go, though, I’d like to deliver a message to my San Francisco peeps, meant with love. It is so gratifying to see your scene thriving. Especially as it’s obviously built upon mutual respect and communal positivity. Kudos.

It can be a challenge, when you’re all connected, to always share your truest thoughts in a critique. When people need to stay on good terms, in order to succeed, there can be a disincentive to probe and offend, which is often necessary to reach that next level of creative excellence. So stay vigilant while you stay classy, San Francisco. It’s a small concern, relative to all the things you seem to have figured out at the moment.

New York Summer Visit 2012 – Part 2

by Jonathan Blaustein

It’s both easy, and impossible to get lost in the Met. Easy, because the building is both rambling and enormous; impossible, because you’re never really lost. There’s always something fascinating to look at, and the off-the-beaten path stuff is often the best. (I once found a little room, recreated as Frank Lloyd Wright designed it. Haven’t seen it since.)

That said, after we left the Islamic galleries, we traipsed across the entire Museum to forage for food. Fifteen minutes later, standing in a line, waiting to pay a lot of money for not-very-interesting-sounding grub, we had a change of heart. Back, through the halls we trudged, back the way we came, back to the second floor to see some photographs. (As promised.)

The first photo exhibition, culled from the permanent collection, was called “Spies in the House of Art.” The series of images and videos was meant to offer inside access to the inner workings of the exhibition industry. The show was replete with big names, like Francesca Woodman, Candida Hofer, Louise Lawler, Thomas Struth, Diane Arbus, and Sophie Calle. Impressive lineup.

Alas, it was mostly boring. Some of the images were really good, to be sure, but ultimately, I was convinced that what happens in the front of the house is much preferred to the offices and vaults. There’s a reason they keep that stuff hidden: it’s not that interesting.

Up the hall we walked, towards another photo-only exhibit: “Naked Before The Camera.” Did that grab my attention? You bet it did. Finally, a show worthy of my snark and curiosity. I’ve been on a bit lately, in the book reviews, about the incessant use of boobs to sell photo books. Yes, they’re nice to look at. But when inserted by men, as so often happens, the repetitive pattern tends to leave a sour taste in my mouth. Exploitation needs a better reason, IMHO.

This exhibit was probably the most provocative I’ve seen at the Met. The two rooms of photographs, almost all Black and White, were engaging. Swarms of photo heroes and heroines were on display. There was a run by Larry Clark, Garry Winogrand, and Diane Arbus that got my attention. Some brilliant images by Bill Brandt, Irving Penn, Man Ray and Brassai that were all vibrating on the wall, packed with latent energy.

Lots of amazing photographs. True. And enough variation in style and history to make one look harder at the human shape. But that was not what left me shaking my head.

Iván and I stood before a photograph by an artist of whom neither of us had heard: Jim Jager. The photo was called “Sharkey, 1980.” Within the rectangle stood an African-American man, against a studio backdrop, naked, holding a long wooden staff in one hand. His manhood was large, befitting the stereotypes we’ve all heard before. The implied reference was Africa, though the wall text insisted the image was made in Chicago, one among many.

Apparently, the photographer made soft-core porn images on a regular basis. They were not deemed “Art” at the time, any more than the series of harlot photos by the now famous EJ Bellocq. They were just meant to get people off.

The photograph was shockingly racist. So racist that Ivan and I kept looking at each other, then the back to the photo, then to each other, raising eyebrows and blowing air slowly through our mouths. Wow. So. Very. Racist.

I turned to my friend, “Should this be here?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “I don’t know.”

“Is the picture really that racist, or are we racist for assuming it’s racist?”

“I don’t know.”

“I mean, if it was a white guy, or if the penis wasn’t so huge, would we be offended?”

“I don’t know. I’m really not sure,” replied the massively opinionated, incredibly intelligent man to my right. “I just don’t know.”

I still don’t know. The layers of meaning, the depth of the references to Slavery and all things unholy, were inescapable. Should that be on the wall, among the masters of photography? Should an institution shy away from such provocations? Should it be censored, in a world in which lynching photos are hung, and vestiges of death and destruction? (Yes, no, no.) But still, I was terribly uncomfortable.

The rest of the show was tamer, until I headed for the door. There was an image of some naked Zulu girls from 1892-93. Pure trappings of colonialism. “Hey, look a the naked savages. They’re someone’s property now, so you don’t have to feel shameful.”

Together with the earlier image, they re-enforced a slimy feeling within me, one that was surprisingly lacking when I looked at all those breasts, penises, and vaginas. That was easy. Racism is hard. By including the sub-theme in the exhibit, however, the curators took a brave stand. Racism is a part of humanity, they decreed/implied, and it’s best to look at it directly. Too often, it’s left for the shadows.

One more mention, before I move on. The final image, or at least the last I noticed, was by Nadar. It was a full-on hermaphrodite photograph. The genetalia were front and center, the rest of the body faded into a shallow depth of field. The year: 1860. The effect: timeless. I shuddered, and then walked out the door. Like I said, this show ought to be controversial. If it’s still up, go see for yourself.

From there, we hiked back across Central Park, as I promised Iván some great pizza on Amsterdam Avenue. We waited out the rain, hoped the temperature would drop, watched some of a Euro Cup match, and munched on great food. (Ceasar’s Palace Pizza, Amsterdam between 83rd and 84th St.) It was a short walk to the subway from there, and we were downtown bound, to hit up a few shows in Chelsea.

Henceforth, I won’t do it that way again. The Uptown museums are about history, risk-taking and brilliance. Visions from the past, and visions that confound our expectations of the present. Clearly, not all the work on the wall is brilliant. Not possible. But the ambitions are always grand. Dream big, and you might make it.

In Chelsea, though, it’s a marketplace. Nothing more, nothing less. Yes, the salesmen are dignified, though they won’t pay you any mind. They’re worried about the big fish that drop mad cash via email. Fair enough.

I don’t begrudge them anything, despite some of my past criticism. Capitalism marches on, and the businesses are there to sell Art. If they didn’t have to be open to the public, perhaps the doors would lock forever. But they do. And we go.

There’s often, if not always, great work to be seen. But it’s lost in the noise of mediocrity. My brain morphed from idealistic and humanistic to jaded and angry, and all it took was a train ride South. So much work was so seemingly tied to who knows who, or who’s profile is big enough to demand a solo show. Or at least that’s how I felt in the moment. Like I said, jaded.

In fairness, it was Summer, which we all know is not the time to see the showstopper exhibitions. And, having spent the better part of an hour sweating in Central Park, I didn’t have enough time to hit up 20 or 30 galleries, which would have increased my chances of seeing something transcendent. Alas.

As it was, we met my friend Jaime at Matthew Marks, to see the new Thomas Demand exhibit. Arriving early, we checked into a few spaces right there on 22nd St, and both were shaking our heads as we opened the door to the cavernous space. (One of several that Marks has in the neighborhood. He’s one of a handful of “Super-dealers” that drive the scene.)

I’ll say straight out, Mr. Demand is one of my favorite artists. I’ve long been enamored of his super-intricate, hand-made, illusionistic creations. They look “real” but are not. What is “real” anyway? Is paper real? Surely it is. But when people think they’re seeing a composite desk, or a ceramic bathtub, then paper and cardboard are relegated to “fake.”

There were three photographs on the wall, and a video in the larger back room. (They reconfigure the space for each show, I believe.) As much as I love the artist, I’d say the show was workmanlike, at best. When there are only three images to behold, they best be brilliant.

The money shot was called “Control Room.” It depicted what looked like the bridge of some Space Ship, or the nerve center of a Government bunker, deep underground. Hidden under Colorado Springs, no doubt.

The panels of the ceiling hung down, however, and there were no humans to be seen. It was empty. Haunted. One could not escape the feeling that the image was meant to represent a dim view of the future, when we were gone, but our organized infrastructure remained. Empty, yes, but don’t forget the organized part. (The artist is German, after all.)

The other two images were far less dramatic. One, a storeroom filled with art, the other, a room service cart in a generic hotel room. Often, there are stories associated with Mr. Demand’s scenes, stories not accessible by the title or image. The background floats along by word of mouth. Which is to say, if there were reasons for these photos, they escaped me.

Jaime was entranced with the lighting techniques in the food cart photo. He deconstructed the way the light enhanced certain shapes, and softened others. It was not something I would have noticed. Another great reminder how subjective was our venture, judging and deciding. One man’s love of implied narrative is another man’s fascination with light.

Speaking of implied narrative, as there was no image-history at our fingertips, I guessed, “Maybe it was one of Osama Bin Laden’s bodyguard’s last meals? Before he was put down for his failure to protect the big boss?” Quickly, Jaime retorted, “No, they don’t eat pork.” I looked again, and there, among the fake paper food, was a piece of fake proscuitto. Well seen, Jaime.

The video returned to the Space Ship theme, as a room swayed above, on the screen. The commissary of some lost Enterprise, sloshing back and forth, back and forth. All the furniture would slide one way across the room, and then back again. Jaime noted that nothing was ever damaged, though. Odd, yes, cool, sure, but I wondered if it pushed the artist’s ideas any further along?

And that was why I ultimately left disappointed. Mr. Demand has been making work in this style for a very, very long time. Will he shift? Will it end? I don’t know. Should he? Can an artist mine the same territory, over and over and over again, and never get bored? Will the work improve forever, or get stale, like that hunk of ciabatta you forgot about, that guards the back of your refrigerator?

Of course, I don’t know. When I shot my current project in my studio, I knew some would say it looked a lot like “The Value of a Dollar,” as they share the same locale. But I wanted to build on my ideas, and thought it was silly to change my studio around just because some would have me do so. A table is a table, after all.

But, never would I ever shoot only that way, forever. It would not cross my mind, to never, ever change. Yes, making a new way in the world can be scary, and failure is more than possible. So I suppose that means that, in my opinion, it’s time for Mr. Demand to move on. Freshen things up.

Will he? Who knows? I can tell you one thing though. If he does, it won’t be because of anything I’ve said. When we make Art, we’re ultimately our own boss. If we choose to slave to the market, so be it. He can laugh all the way to his secret bank account in the Caymans. Who am I to criticize?

New York Summer Visit 2012 – Part 1

by Jonathan Blaustein

“Wait a second,” I said. “I know that building.”

“Yes, it does look familiar,” Iván replied.

“Right. From Central Park West.”

“Central Park West?” His eyebrows shot up, quickly. “Ah, I see.”

The humidity clung to our damp shirts, formerly respectable. Our moods tumbled. Quickly. We just realized we’d gotten lost in Central Park, and had walked South for fifteen minutes, rather than East. Which meant thirty more minutes of schlepping in the heat over rocks and towers and ponds and asphalt.

I suppose it was understandable. We hadn’t seen each other in four years. We were excited. Gregarious. Gesticulating.
And we’d chosen to walk from the bus stop on 86th St, rather than take the bus that awaited. (A mistake I ought never have made. You always take the air-conditioned route in Sweat Season.)

I was raring to chat, because I’d seen something shocking, yet ordinary the night before, and couldn’t wait to hear what Iván thought about it. My uncle had showed me some videos on the computer. A distant relative’s girlfriend, a self-styled vocalist, had made a series of singing videos.

I admit, she’s very attractive, in a conventional way. Using her webcam, in low-cut underwear, she’d sway as she sang, staring right into the camera in her bedroom. Unfortunately, she was really bad at singing. (And not the good kind of bad.) Off key, pitchy, call it what you will. I laughed so hard I fell off the couch. For real. All the while, I felt very bad about myself. Ashamed.

In one song, I can’t remember which, she even similated sex, hopping up and down on an imaginary lover. My first thought was, this has to be a joke, right? But my Uncle swore no. Second thought: poor thing. She has no idea.

It was all just so…personal. Stuff like that should be for your friends. No cameras. Just messing around while you’re hanging out. Having a laugh. It’s not meant for strangers. How have we all gotten so mixed up about reality?

The whole thing just seemed so perfectly symbolic of these difficult-to-quantify times. There she was, using the web to overshare, horribly, all the while thinking it was the ticket to stardom. Not ironically. (Too bad. That might have caught on. Though I suppose nobody remembers William Hung.)

We hear that the unemployment numbers for Generation Y, (or the Millenials,) are off the charts. 50% higher the the national average. And how many of these 20-somethings have moved back in with their parents? An astonishing amount, by any reasonable measure. To top it off, these kids now owe so much money for their student loans, that they’ll be working it off until they’re 50. But there are no jobs to work off the debt. It’s criminal.

They think that Flickr or Youtube or Twitter or Instagram will make them wealthy and famous, so they can continue to live in the lifestyle to which their parents have made them accustomed. (Formerly known as the American Dream.) Which is to say, this is likely to be the first generation of Americans who have a “lesser” lifestyle than the one before. (Or did Generation X beat them to that distinction, as my wife pointed out?) Furthermore, is that such a bad thing? The concept of infinite wealth is seriously outmoded.

And that’s where I left off, when I realized we were going the wrong way.

It took forever to traverse the park to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but eventually we succeeded. After swiping the plastic in the lobby, (you can pay what you choose,) we darted to the bathroom, where I had to use three paper towels to get the sweat off, and then still dunked my whole head in the sink. Classy. (Sir, we’ll have to ask you to leave now.)

Thank goodness we had to use the bathroom. Had we not, I’d never have seen the oldest painted portraits I’ve encountered. They were encaustic, wax on limewood, from Egypt. Mummy portraits, from 130-150AD. Men peaked out under coal ringlets of hair, with big haunting eyes, and razor cut cheekbones. Wow. So Old. So beautiful. (As we photographers know, it’s always about the expression in the eyes.)

Iván and I were there for a reason, though: to visit the newly redone Islamic Galleries. I’d read that they were brilliant, (Peter Schjeldahl claimed himself a different person upon departure,) and wanted to see for myself.

Tucked through the Mesopotamian wing, we walked in, thinking at the outset that it lacked bombast. No book store, no lady offering you headsets. And so far in the back. But nothing in this Museum is ordinary, so my expectations were high. (Alas, I was not. Work is work.)

It’s built like one long, rectangular loop. We entered to the right, which I’d recommend, but only if you want to have the experience thusly. There were many beautiful objects to be seen, carved wood and sculpted clay jumping out, and color as well. Beautiful blues.

I was drawn, immediately, to a wine glass. So ordinary a concept. Here, it was a 1200 year old, blue-green piece of glory from Syria or Iraq. I had a daydream. I was a bearded, black-haired merchant. It was warm out. I munched dates, and slurped cool wine from this beautiful, blue-green waterglass. Sounds nice.

We continued through, and of course I had my favorites. But soon I found myself saying, “What’s with the hype? It’s nice and all, but not worth dying over.” Then, not 10 seconds later, we walked into a room to our right, the Koç Gallery. Boom.

The ceiling was wood, sculpted and dominant. I wrote in my notes that it was “somewhat indescribable.” (And yet I try.) Spanish, from the 16th Century. (They don’t scrimp at the Met.) Under its eye, the walls were covered with huge carpets. 20, 30 feet high. One seemed to be 40 feet for sure.

We sat. And stared. And, as much as we both like to talk, we were quiet. It felt like five minutes. Who’s to say?

There were other treasures, yes, but this was the room to see. We passed some Chinese-Style porcelain plates, blue on white. Lovely. But not from China. They were Persian, from the 16th Century.

That’s when it hit me. Globalization is not new. Idea transmission, global commerce, interconnectedness, these are not new happenings, and their attendant problems not new either. Empires rise and Fall, but power endures. Our predilection to violence remains, as does our desire to trade things we have too much of for things we crave. Or, as Iván put it, “What we call Globalization is really when Globalization was completed. Nothing left to Globalize anymore.”

And looking at the Art, one could never believe the Iranians as savage as our Talking Heads might have us believe. Not slightly. They laugh at Chumps like Saddam Hussein and George W. (Though nobody messed with Saddam as badly as the South Park guys. Beyond twisted.)

And that’s why I go to museums. And why I love to write about it afterwards. (Remembering memories make the memories stronger, I recently read.) I go, because I never know what new thoughts I’ll have, what colors I’ll see, what gods will be there to worship. I go, because I want to improve as an artist, and the only way to get better is to see new things, made by better artists than I am.

Tune in tomorrow for Part 2, in which I go look at some actual photographs.

London Art Visit – Part 2

by Jonathan Blaustein

Where were we? Right. London. I loved it. How’s that for succinct? Now you don’t have to read any further. (Just kidding.) It’s a fantastic city, one of the great spots on Earth. And of course, England and the United States have a “special relationship”, (as if I could make such a thing up) so there was lots to talk about.

My good friend Hugo, the deviser of the Art tour we began yesterday, moved from New York to London in 2007. He endured the Bush years, but missed all of Obama’s term. So he was incredulous when I told him that nobody talks about George W. Bush anymore. (From omnipotent to irrelevant in 4 short years.) Can you imagine? In Hugo’s mind, all that passion about W. was locked in time, and delivering the news of his obsolescence brought calcified shock to Hugo’s eyes. But I digress.

We left off on Friday, after visits to the British Museum and National Gallery of Art. My brain was tired, but we soldiered on. Our tea spot of the day was a cafe and bakery on the top floor of the Comme des Garçon store near Saville Row. The green tea and bacon-egg-tart were equally smashing. Our waitress was American, and dropped the word “bangin’” on us as if it drew gasps of pleasure from a more typically British crowd.

Then, on to some galleries up the street, right next to that famous fashion spot for bespoke suits. The first, Hauser & Wirth, had two separate galleries. One was lacking, and the other had some super-large, super-subtle paintings by the Dutch artist Michael Raedecker. They were panels, striated in pale pink, gray-silver, and green: Houses on a hill, chandeliers, and window curtains the symbolic motifs. Nice houses. Serene. Like on a hilltop outside LA. Easy living. (Sounds nice.)

The paintings were really, really beautiful. In the gallery, with its huge ceilings, white walls, concrete floors, insanely large square footage, nice ladies behind the counter…Pretty special.

Around the corner and up a short elevator ride, we went to see a Sarah Lucas exhibit at Sadie Coles. The woman working there, again friendly, was wearing this wicked Victorian-collar-meets-well fitting-short-dress, in black. It was seemingly on trend, as one of the ladies at MACK wore something similar that morning, in blue. (Not that we’re here to talk about fashion.)

The show was insane for three reasons. One, there was a video by the artist’s boyfriend (of course), in which he was playing with himself dramatically, while wearing fake boobs. And homeboy was selling it. It was so offensive it was hard to look away, so I didn’t. I watched for a solid two minutes, and make of that what you will.

Two, the artist, Sarah Lucas, had a piece in another room of a raw chicken hanging off of a hanger with cooked eggs. (The chicken has to be changed when it starts to smell.) Three, was a large-mural photograph, printed right on the wall, of a giant T-shirt, with just the middle of the nipples worn out on each side. I asked if it was editioned, and I was told yes. Ed. of 5. “Made to measure.” And I’m not making that up. That’s exactly what she said. Right next to Saville Row.

That night, I had dinner with a motley crew of global photographers at a Turkish restaurant in North London. We set the whole thing up in an online Facebook chat, if you can believe it, and I walked from Hugo’s place down the road. En route, I saw a road called Ennis, and some clever bloke had painted on a P at the front. Then, he claimed his credit: “Cletus wuz ‘ere, ’12.” Nicely done, Cletus. Nicely done.

Sitting down at Petek, ravenous, I started scarfing olives until I could catch my breath. And with whom was I to dine? Ben was British, Hin an Australian of Chinese descent, Dana from Romania, Liz another Brit, and Maja from Sweden. They all loved living in London, were working on totally disparate projects, (Romanian youth identity, Occupy St. Pauls, following the entirety of the Rio Grande River…), and seemed fulfilled in their careers. Wait, that’s so boring. No controversy? Sorry, not that night.

Saturday took us to the Burough Market, near the London Bridge tube stop, where we shopped for some of the most fantastic products I’ve seen. There was a dinner planned for that night, and we wandered the stands looking for inspiration. We ended up going the Italian route, as these were things that don’t exist in New Mexico. Mozzarella di Bufala, Grana Fiorentina, bresaola, rocket (arugula), fragrant lemon, tortolloni di cingale (wild boar,) and fresh garlic shoots to top it off. Our dessert of hazelnut, chocolate and coconut gelato was purchased the night before. Like I said, Hugo doesn’t mess around.

Art wise, we went to the Hayward Gallery, another public space, right up the way. (Though we did scarf down a Syrian Schwarma at the outdoor food market just below the entrance. Delicious.) This gallery does cost money to enter, and it’s a part of the massive, partly-Brutalist Southbank Centre on the edge of the Thames. Very beautiful spot. (Have I said that already? Are you sensing a theme?)

Two British artists, like Sarah Lucas a part of the famed YBAs, were paired together, Jeremy Deller and David Shrigley. Each, on its own, would have been a brilliant experience. Together, they were good enough that I deemed myself (incorrectly) done viewing Art for the rest of the trip.

We went into the Deller exhibit first, as it was on the ground floor. Both men work in multiple media, including a fair dash of photography, and utilize humor, wit and pathos. Straight off, we entered a room filled with Music posters and random photos, cramped and not exactly special. Next, a fake bathroom with a real toilet, as an installation, with people queued up to enter. OK, now we’re getting somewhere. Next, a huge wall mural, painted in dark gray, that said I Heart Melancholy. But the heart was an emoticon. Which I don’t know how to type properly.

Then, a photo print on mirrored stainless steel, a hanging video of dancing weirdos, a functioning restaurant in the middle of the gallery space, a couple of super-well-done photo series, a newspaper and reading lounge, an exhibit of professional wrestling capes, a whole section called “My Failures,” where he shows projects that never happened, and finally, miraculously, a 3D video, in a dark room filled with strangers, of 10 million bats emerging from a cave in Texas. Try reading that sentence again ten times, and you might understand how I felt coming out of the bat cave. I normally get headaches from 3D glasses, and this was no exception. But it was worth it.

I soldiered upstairs to see David Shrigley’s exhibition, from whence my memories are more fuzzy. Mr. Shrigley’s work was even funnier and odder, or perhaps just equally so. The first thing you see is a melted foam fisherman in hip boots. No, sorry, before that was of course the headless fabric ostrich. Then, a photo of a red sign on green grass that said “Imagine this green red.” A grocery list on an actual tombstone. A series of line drawings, animated, as black on white music videos. And, of course, a stuffed Jack Russell terrier in a vitrine holding a picket sign that said “I’m dead.” Just one more? On a wall pedestal, a 1 ft tall brass bell, next to it a sign saying “Not to be rung again until Jesus returns.”

That was one dense paragraph. And I didn’t even cover 1/4 of the show. You get the point. Clever stuff. Witty, smart, creative, and powerful in person too. Together, this was one of the best exhibitions I’ve seen in a long time, alongside “September 11″, which was a Bizarro version. (Tragic/Comic)

Spent, I said I was done. I told Hugo, “No more. No more. Have mercy.” Even one more espresso/lemon tart pit-stop, and a walk along the Thames, didn’t clear my head enough. (Sample surreality: a three-piece Gypsy jam band, an African guy playing the saxaphone, and an Afghan man selling fake peacock feathers: all within 90 seconds on the Thames.) But then we found ourselves, mere steps from the tube stop, standing right outside the beautiful, Gothic, Southwark Chapel.

I. Could. Not. Help. Myself. So we went in.

Huge, vaulted ceilings, dark and imposing, it was irresistible. We slowly walked towards the crucifix ahead, and it glimmered. What? We got closer, and it was clearly metal. Just as I spied a route to get us closer, the deepest, darkest, scariest-sounding,two-story-high organ began to play, directly above my head. So, so, so frightening. Hugo said, “Remember, these were the guys who invented Halloween.”

I shook off the sound, and walked around that corner and up to the statue. A metal screaming Jesus, pierced by countless spears. That’s right, screaming. “Die Harder,” by David Mach of the Royal Academy. Recent, contemporary Art, displayed in a Gothic Cathedral. Not a merciful god, this.

Next, the very next minute, no lie, with the organ thumping in the background, and the scary Jesus sculpture shimmering behind me, Hugo tapped me on the shoulder, and there, a cat padded down the hall towards us. Then he skulked by, and disappeared. (This is not a work of fiction.) Have you had enough?

That night was a beautiful dinner party for my birthday, so the next day required a late start. (Especially as it featured the only real rain I saw all trip.) Hugo’s loft has got a partly glass roof, so we squirmed off much of the ensuing hangover by drinking crazy-special tea from China, and watching the gray clouds move across the sky. I said, “No more art. I can’t do it. Please, don’t make me.”

Eventually hunger, if nothing else, drove us across London, in the Porsche, in the rain. On to the Victoria and Albert Museum, one of the other Crown Jewels of London. (Really, it was straight to the coffee shop.) We sat in the Victoria Room, which was suitably decorated, and ate currant scones with jam and clotted cream. We drank Lapsang Souchong tea, which is smoked. I’d heard of it before, but did not believe such things existed in actual realty. (Ever the economist, I assumed it was like a widget, a fictional product that doesn’t exist.)

What did I see, that you’d want to know about, that you could even possibly remember, after reading both of these articles? How about a golden kimono made of cannibal spider silk? One million spiders, to be exact. Or a stone tiger urinal from 6th Century China? Or, crazier still, a plaster replica of Trajan’s column from Rome, to scale, at 38 meters high and 3.8 meters wide. For you Americans, that’s 125 feet tall. (Imagine the roof on this place.)

Then, cruel twist of fate, the last gallery we visited housed the permanent photography collection. (The second to last show was the Cecil Beaton portraits of the Queen, which is not free, and totally, I repeat, totally, worth skipping.) As for the final act, let’s just list the names, shall we? Amazing examples all: Roger Fenton, Julia Margaret Cameron, Muybridge, EJ Bellocq, Atget, Stieglitz, Cartier-Bresson, Man Ray, Walker Evans, Ansel Adams, Bill Brandt, Harry Callahan, Diane Arbus, Frank, Friedlander, Ed Rushca, and El Lissitzky. Just. One. Room.

At that point, the Museum was about to close, so they chased us out. Hugo and I stopped for sea urchin at a secret-sushi spot, and then drove home, exhausted. I caught a plane the next morning.

What else is there to say? London is fantastic. You should go there. That is all.

London Art Visit – Part 1

by Jonathan Blaustein

I first met Hugo in graduate school. Day one, I believe. It took me a few months to discern that he was well born. The type that neither brags nor name drops. From London originally, he was raised in Upper Manhattan, and attended the right sort of schools. (We used to laugh at the visual of a little 5 year old in short pants, tossing his British accent amidst the swarms of rabid New Yorkers.)

We stayed close in school, taking the same photography classes, and graduated together. Other than the random visit to the Soho House, lounging in the roof-top pool, high above the Meatpacking District, he acted no differently than any other graduate student. When I moved back to Taos, he came and visited twice, tearing up the slopes with his Swiss-style-skiing. (All hips. Pretty to look at, but you wouldn’t really want to take it into bumpy trees.)

And then, nothing. Our relationship devolved into monthly two sentence emails, as he made it plain that the next visit was on me. He moved back to London, the economy fell apart, and the chances of me scrounging up the cash for an Intercontinental plane ticket were only slightly larger than Rick Santorum becoming President.

Relationships, like plants, need water. Email, Facebook, Twitter, they all work for basic relationship maintenance, but friends need to see each other from time to time. Or things die. So when I finally got to visit London last month (to report on the Art scene for our faithful APE readers,) I had an extra-special-double-secret reason to go.

Emerging from the plane, my first time in the UK, I thought it no different from any other jetway. It calmed my nerves after the long trip. As soon as I set foot in passport control, it was clear that I wasn’t in America anymore. The line snaked along under purple lighting and exposed silver duct-work, and my fellow travelers hailed, rather obviously, from Afghanistan, Mongolia & Southeast Asia. I waited my turn, passed through the booth, and was off.

As a resident of America’s car culture, there are few things as pleasurable as emerging from a foreign airport and hopping on a train in the basement. The type that whisks (or crawls) you into the heart of town, for little cost. (As opposed to the $35 taxi ride I recently took on the way back to Houston Hobby.) Luckily, Hugo lived just a few blocks off the Picadilly Line, the very same train I grabbed at Heathrow.

Just over an hour later, I knocked at Hugo’s door, in the shadow of the gorgeous Emirates Stadium in North London. (Yes, I follow Arsenal. Predictable, no?) Hugo answered the call, dressed impeccably in the kind of gentleman’s pajamas that only make sense in certain circumstances. (Very sharp, but I don’t think I could pull them off on the farm.) He said, “Great to see you again, Old Chap.” Game on.

It couldn’t have been more than two minutes before I had a perfect Lavazza espresso in my hands, chased by some beautiful Italian mineral water. I barely exaggerate when I say that for the next 96 hours, while awake, there was always some brain-chemistry-enhancing-substance in my hands: coffee, tea, water, wine, gin, champagne, or a hand-rolled cigarette. I normally don’t smoke, but to properly battle jet-lag, that mashup of adrenaline, caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and H20 works very well. (Until the crash, of course. But you don’t want to hear about that.)

Why all the fuss about Hugo, and his regal understanding of hospitality? Because I was there to see Art, and he was my guide. For the first time since I wandered the streets of Rome, trailing my freshly-taught younger brother, I let someone else do the planning. Hugo knows me very well, and understands my taste in Art, among other things. So I allowed him to pick our spots, as well as the order in which we saw them. Perhaps he was an over-qualified tour guide, but you are the beneficiaries, so I thought a bit of backstory was appropriate.

All this was on a Thursday morning. The tour started that afternoon, after we visited with a curator friend of his. She was lovely, but I’ll respect everyone’s privacy for once, and not drop her name. (I didn’t know she was important at the time anyway.) The three of us hopped into Hugo’s 1983 black Porsche, replete with whale-tail and silly cherry-colored-checkered seats. It was a flashback to the 80′s, yes, but served like a better version of an ironic mustache. So cheesy it was cool. So nerdish it was smooth.

We ate lunch in the East End, apparently trendy, and then hit a few galleries so that I could earn my keep. We saw 150 year old paper negatives at Daniel Blau, which only served to highlight the importance of talent and vision. Several pieces, by Gustave de Beaucorps, jumped off the wall, and the rest didn’t. Even the power of age didn’t lift a pedestrian image above its merit. Though I did feel that in a digital age, it was far more difficult to connect to the passage of time. As everything can now be faked, it sometimes disempowers the real thing.

Another highlight was Yayoi Kusama at Victoria Miro. Countless huge paintings hung on the wall, the Pop palette mixed up with an interesting, Eastern-tinged symbol set. Hard to believe so much work was available to view, as the artist was having a concurrent show at Tate Modern. (Which I then felt less of a need to see.) We also went to a public gallery called Parasol Unit, where there were some terrific Richard Long pieces on the wall. White China clay hand prints on black paper, marching from one corner of the composition to another. Beautiful and elegant. (Like London?)

Whipping through the streets, shortly thereafter, Hugo pulled to the side of the road by a tube station, and ejected me out with little notice. I was already trending late for my aforementioned meeting with Aron Mörel, and there was no time to waste. I was tardy, in the end, but only because I couldn’t sort which direction was which back on street level. And my fellow pedestrians were no help at all. (Not surprisingly, the only times I felt lost and out of place in this brilliant city were when I was alone, and trying to find my way.)

When it happened Friday morning, not 300 yards from the MACK headquarters, I got a great piece of advice from a local. Staring helplessly at a map, certain that Denmark St was practically within reach, I asked a nice man which way was North. That was all the help I needed to orient myself. He laughed. “There’s no such thing as North, South, East and West in London,” he said. “My wife’s American, so I can see why you’d make that mistake. She was the same.” Then he directed me the wrong way. (By accident, of course.)

It wasn’t until that afternoon, deep into Hugo’s perfect Friday Art tour, that I understood what the gent meant. We ambled from one plaza to another, or one alleyway, or one narrow lane. Here in Taos, I can see for 100 miles, no lie. But in London, “Here” was never more than a couple hundred yards in any direction. We’d not yet made it to the Thames, so every turn we took just landed us back into a serpentine block of beautiful buildings, not so different than the last. It made mid-town New York’s grid look positively German. What it lacked in perspective, though, it more than made up for in charm. (Seriously, though. How do they keep London so clean?)

The first stop on our tour was the British Museum, to see the King’s Gallery. I haven’t googled it to fact-check, but Hugo said it was the world’s first public Art museum. And by public, I mean free. None of the public museum and galleries in town charge a fee, unless you’re seeing a special exhibition. We sauntered in, without even a bag check, and the place was teeming with people. Think about it. In NYC, at $25 a ticket, a family of four has to shell out $100 to experience the best art. And that’s per museum. Here: Free. Brilliant.

The King’s Gallery looked like a huge library in a castle somewhere in the country, with an open second story covered with books. There was far too much to see to take it all in, so as a viewer, one gravitates to whatever pulls you. Like shopping in the Mega-mart. You might not need any laundry detergent, but of course you have to have some pickles. I was delighted there, and all trip for that matter, to see things I’d never seen before.

What did I love? Some greenish-patina colored Centurion helmets. Amazing. I guessed Roman, and was not too far off. They were Etruscan, so I was 500 years too late. There were also some glazed relief tiles from Buckinghamshire, made in the 13th or 14th Century. A crucifixion piece looked like a mashup of Tim Burton and Monty Python, gruesome and yet witty. And, of course, very old.

I saw 13th Century French enamel cups that looked like Hobbit houses from the Shire, or Trullo homes from Basilicata. The colors, blue yellow red and gold seduced me, all these years later. (Which was a theme of the day, ancient color alive and vibrant. Makes me rethink the idea of archival pigment inks.) Then, an Ice-Age-Hand-Axe found inside a Roman elephant in 43 AD. Yes, you read that right. It’s since been dated to 400,000 years ago. (I suppose it’s better not to ask how it was found inside an elephant. Perhaps Donald Trump Jr. was responsible.)

Next, a colossal foot, on a pedestal, from Ancient Greece. It reeked of totemic power, like it was crushing down on your throat. Then, a gravestone, in Arabic, from 1032 AD. (Rest in peace, Ali, son of Ahmad.) On to Persian glazed tiles, a Marble Dog Vishnu from Rajasthan, and the most beautiful Chinese porcelain Bodhisattvas I’ve ever seen. Yes, this was all in one gallery in one museum. And, to be clear, I only saw 5% of what was on display in the King’s Gallery. So much human genius, so little time.

Out we went, into another gallery, and I found myself facing icons from the Aztec Empire. Back on familiar terrain, or so I thought, we walked up to a double-headed turquoise snake sculpture, with sharp, dangerous teeth. (Real? Maybe.) Named Nahautl, it was as powerful and scary an object as I’ve seen. I could almost smell the blood in the air, singed as the hearts burned in vats on top of the temples.

On through the Americas, we ended up back where I began. Bending down, I saw a beautiful piece of pottery, from Diego Romero. (Born 1969.) It was from the Cochiti Pueblo, in-between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Can you believe it? I couldn’t, so I yelled out “Big Ups to Cochiti Pueblo,” and then exclaimed that I might be the only person in London at the time who knew exactly where it was. (Big dam, little lake.) Was I ridiculous? I don’t know, as my fellow museum-goers were too polite to mock me.

Back into the street, we needed a coffee. (Remember, always have some narcotic substance in your bloodstream at all times.) Write this one down. 1.5 blocks from the entrance to the British Museum, there’s a great little spot called the Camera Cafe. Lenses, cameras, espresso, and Chicken Chow Mein, all in one spot. The man making coffee even gave us a free cookie, as we’d only bought one for the two of us, and he thought we’d made a mistake. A must for visiting photographers and Londoners alike.

On to the National Gallery of Art, also free. Hugo led us straight to the Florentine Renaissance paintings, to see Paolo Uccello, in particular, with whom I wasn’t familiar. A huge piece, “The Battle of San Romano,” was a revelation of color and early perspective, which was still working itself out. As such, the background battlers, in the upper corner, looked like something out of a contemporary video game: rendered to keep the eye moving along, but far from the important bits. Uccello also had a dragon painting, from 1470, which made me feel like I was really in England. (Despite its Florentine origins.) It was beautiful, and tame compared to what I saw next. (After some brilliant Fra Angelico pieces, that is.)

We headed for the Dutch galleries, as I always love to see some new Rembrandts when possible. They were there, but less special than what I’ve seen before. So, as I spun, unimpressed, I was shocked by what I faced. Cornelius van Haarlem, in 1588, painted an image of a dragon eating some dude’s face. Mid-chew. Grotesque, gory, and gifted, it stopped me cold.

I looked until I couldn’t look anymore. How have I never seen such a thing before? Nearby, El Greco’s “Christ driving the Traders from the Temple,” stood up to it, though, and wiped the face blood from my RAM.

Yes, it’s time to compare our brains to a computer. We only have so much buffer space, before things don’t stick. They just push each out of the way, and hope to be good enough, or lucky enough, to write to the hard drive of our deep consciousness. That’s why I’m typing this article a full month after I arrived home.

Travel, and art, make our brain work so hard that it’s impossible to know what’s important in the moment. I can’t even remember what most of the buildings looked like, as each new nook of the city pushed out my memory of the one before. So on that note, having already dropped 2300 words on your head, let’s pause for a respite. This London tale will be continued tomorrow.

Roadtrip to Marfa – Part 2

- - From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

There’s nothing quite so sad as a bunch of fancy coffee addicts, also hungry, twitching down the highway 80 miles for a fix. But when your alternative is the gas station in Van Horn, Texas, you do what you must. That being said, the drive towards salvation was most definitely precarious. First, it was David complaining that there’s no room for Credence on a Texas road trip. (“Have You Ever Seen the Rain”) Sacrilege.

Then, I made the (apparently) equally egregious mistake of calling dibs on some photographic subject matter I found, thereby guaranteeing that my buddies would come out, shutters blazing. (It was a forlorn piece of a frozen Santa suit by the side of the road, across from a pecan farm.) According to my friends, there’s no such thing as dibs on a photo safari. My mistake.

Eventually, we made it to Marfa. Out came the Iphones, desperate for a recommendation. Of course, this not being the most meticulously planned trip, most of the restaurants in town were closed. Seems Marfa’s business class has figured out that their jet-set-clientele all leave town sometimes, together, off to better weather, so in response, the shops in town just close, without warning, whenever they like. Seems fair.

But enough about that. We found a nice little cafe run by a sweet Swiss woman, and collapsed into our seats. (She also sold small batch, $14 chocolate bars. Telling detail.) Yes, the coffee was good. Yes, the fruit smoothie made me feel better. Yes, I did feel pangs of guilt for having become so dreadfully bougie at some point in the last ten years.

The four of us choked down the last few bites of our identical baguette sandwiches, as we had a 10 am appointment at the Chinati Foundation for a tour of the facilities. Perhaps this might be the right moment to explain what a “Chinati Foundation” is, and why it was important enough for us to drive straight into the mouth of hell to see it. (For those of you who know the backstory, feel free to skip down a paragraph.)

Without me reciting details like a well-informed, unpaid docent, (Thanks, Mike Bianco) I’ll cut to the chase. At some point in his youth, the soon-to-be-famous Minimalist sculptor Donald Judd passed through Marfa. There was a small military base there, just some barracks really, and he was smitten. Later, the base would be used as a lightly guarded holding facility for German Officer POW’s captured in WWII. Still later, Judd would return, buy up most of the town, and begin installing his work as he saw fit. Then, institutional money came in to support his vision. (Hence the Judd and Chinati Foundations.) Finally, as you might expect, hordes of moneyed followers descended, thereby making Marfa, officially, the strangest place I’ve been in the United States. (Take that, Scottsdale.)

So now you’re caught up. I suppose it’s also worth mentioning that I heard the Director of the Chinati Foundation speak in Reno last Fall, and he said there would be a special exhibition of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s new photo sculptures on display. I figured that seeing what an acclaimed photo master had cooked up in his lab was enough of a reason to schedule the trip. After all, we all love ourselves some Sugimoto, don’t we?

We arrived a few minutes late, as it was difficult to find the place through the barrage of broken down little shotgun houses. I can’t stress enough how “rustic” are the outskirts of this little town. When you know how many billions of dollars are driving down the street at any given moment, it’s just impossible to connect those two realities. In fact, now that I’m home and have thought about it a bit, perhaps our nightmare of a visit to Van Horn was a blessing. It enabled the four of us to stay grounded, remembering vividly how the other half lives. It’s hard to get freaked out by a few art world snobs when you’ve still got the stench of human desperation in your nostrils.

Ah, the Art you say? How is it possible that I’ve made it this deep into my ramblings without discussing it yet? Shameful. The work on display at the CF was world class. We began our tour in a hangar building, where some Judd furniture was on display. Rows of concrete on the floor were interspersed with rows of perfectly raked gravel. Without thinking, I started walking on the gravel, messing it up with each step, and then turned to watch everyone else walking gingerly on the concrete lines. (Does that tell you everything you need to know about me?) Watching the light forms falling through the windows on the concrete, listening to the creaks of the old building, it was a terrific twenty minutes.

From there, we walked on, past a Richard Long spiral sculpture of volcanic rock from Iceland. The artificial nature of said nature was not super-powerful, set against the tall grass and waving trees of the sunny South Texas morning. On we walked, and soon enough we’d reached one of two humungous hangar-type-buildings. Together, they housed one of Judd’s most famous works: 100 aluminum cubes, each mostly identical but slightly different than the others. The buildings were brick, with still more concrete and glass. (None of the tour allowed photography, unfortunately, but I did sneak one image later on.)

At first, I was surprisingly disappointed. I was expecting to feel exalted, like the best Museum experiences, where you can feel your cells re-arranging in real time. When our emotions are engaged, along with our minds, the best viewing experiences fill us with an almost spiritual joy at encountering the best that humanity can muster. That didn’t happen here. Instead, I found myself pressing my face against the window, looking out at the rectangular concrete sculptures in the golden Winter grass. Yes, I felt like the kid trapped in detention, staring at all his friends having fun outside at recess. So strange.

Then, I accepted that this was not an installation that spoke to my soul, but perhaps it might seriously engage my mind. Whenever I hear people describe Art as having left them cold, it bugs me a bit. As much as I love warmth, there’s definitely a place in the world for it’s opposite. Cold ought not to be, automatically, a pejorative term.

But it’s an appropriate term here. Cold, clinical, precise, mechanical, repetitive, exact, mathematic. Rows and rows of shiny boxes, standing at attention. Ever so similar, just slightly different. Almost like soldiers. Or more specifically, German Soldiers. In World War II. Gleaming officers, stepping out of gleaming Panzer tanks, the finest German engineering could produce. Yes, that’s when the lightbulb went off. It all made sense.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ll never know if this is what Judd was thinking. But those POW’s used to be in these hangars, and now they’ve been replaced by the sculptures. Not only that, but they even kept some painted instructions on the wall, in German, that said “Better to use your head than lose your head.” So lets not assume it’s that big of a stretch. Once that idea popped into my head, my appreciation for the work flowered. Call me crazy, if you like, but when I mentioned my theory to the guys, they all nodded and agreed that it made sense.

From there, we hit one more installation, which was my favorite of the day. Created by the Russian Artist, Ilya Kabakov, one of the barracks had been transformed into a faux, abandoned, Russian primary school. Yes, it was a bit precious, (you had to avoid stepping on some of the perfectly arranged dirt) but the vibe and attention to detail were astonishing. It felt so real, with little odds and ends everywhere, here a school book, there a photograph, here a chemistry beaker, there a set of boxing gloves. My most enjoyable impression, again requiring a bit of imagination, was that we were actually in a parallel Universe, one in which the Soviets had won the cold war back in the 50′s. They colonized the US, and then abandoned the more useless parts, like this stretch of nowhere Texas.

We soon headed back to town for lunch, and a visit to a warehouse that featured John Chamberlin sculptures. (Fantastic.) As we were leaving, I couldn’t resist the urge to scribble “JB wuz here, bitches” on the side of a beige-colored power box. I’ve never done graffiti before, yet the compulsion was overwhelming. I think I’m sharing it here, not to present myself as a rapscallion, but rather to point out that among a certain class or caste, (here, Art world snobs) the crush of formality can create a counter-reaction. You think I’m an outsider? Here, I’ll show you. I’ll leave a mark on your special art place. So there.

As I said, the Chamberlin car sculptures were amazing, and a must if you do make your way to Marfa. After lunch, we returned for the second part of the tour. The Dan Flavin light sculptures were cool, but seemed out of place outside of Manhattan. One barracks had remnants of Art made by soldiers past, and was pretty cool. Finally, brain-dead, we begged off the tour and snuck into the Sugimoto installation. (We joined a private tour, at $300 a pop, given by the COO, who was terrifically nice and gracious.)

As much as I like Sugimoto’s work, these things were not worth driving 600 miles to see. Two rooms had two rows of 12 sculptures, each identical to the naked eye. Basically, they’re pyramids of optical glass, with a photo embedded in the orb part of the sculpture. Each image is strikingly similar, one of Sugimoto’s ocean horizon photos, printed on film, to be see-through. Carefully examining one, I loved the way the light and image itself changed depending on where I stood, or moved my head. Two inches to the left, and the image would disappear. Clever, and Zen to be sure. But we all seemed to question why there were some many, as 24 didn’t really improve upon on one, or perhaps two or three.

Finally, we went into town to find some beer, and grab a quick look at Marfa Ballroom, a famous local gallery. When I try to talk about how much this version of the art world revolves around money, power, and private planes, it’s helpful to share this anecdote. I noticed the sign with the staff list, and noted one of the founder’s names. Later that night, at dinner, someone mentioned that said person had just inherited a half a billion dollars. It was said casually. That is all.

In fairness to Marfa Ballroom, they did have some pretty cool work on display in the group exhibition “AutoBody”. Two cars sat outside, locked in a super-slow motion crash that had been pre-ordained. The photographer/artist Liz Cohen was showing a car sculpture that she’d created, which was awesome, and some photographs, which were not. (You decide: In the photos, she was dressed up as a Latina pin-up girl, like you’d see in Lowrider magazine. They were so dry, it was not an engaging spoof. But given her physical attributes, it’s certain that the work will sell. Craven or brilliant?) The gallery was also showing a four channel video installation, “North of South West of East,” by Meredith Danluck, which was so good that all four of us sat and watched for 5 or 10 minutes.

We drove back to the Chinati Foundation, one more time, for a late afternoon stroll out into the prairie, to see the army of concrete sculptures that I’d been ogling all day. Once again, my quest for the transcendent fell short, mostly because I was talking to my friends the whole time. But, if you’re a fan of Minimalism, this work is tough to top. Exquisitely beautiful, seemingly permanent, they mesh so well with the blue sky and the yellow ground. They’re grouped into mini-installations, in a line a Kilometer long. So it’s experiential. You walk, you think, you avoid the snake-holes. Magnificent. Perfect, really. And then you think, how long will these things last? 500 years? A thousand? Regardless, they’ll be here, watching over a slice of Texas, when we’re all gone.

The boys and I had dinner, went to bed, and left the next morning. The drive North was fun, as work, (at least my work,) was done. We passed back through Van Horn, which was much less scary in the light of day, but still as depressing. At a quick pee stop, at the Wendys/Truck Stop/Only-Store-In-Town, we were completely surprised. Walking in, the place was overrun by teenagers. Dozens and dozens. Barely room to move. One student stood out, a flamingly gay little blonde kid, wearing a Swiss-style ski hat on the top of his head. It was so obvious, he was so out there, that my heart broke a little.

The four of us shook our heads, amazed at how hard life must be for the boy, stuck in a backwater like Van Horn, surrounded by a sea of desert and homophobia. And in that moment, I remembered why I love road trips so much. You get out of your life, you reconnect with the enormity of this country, and you never, truly never, know what you’ll see next.

Roadtrip to Marfa – Part 1

- - From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Much later in the day, David and I stopped off at a tiny little rest stop off I-25, just South of Socorro. A brown sign, made for tourists, announced we were on the famed Camino Real, also known as the Jornada del Muerto. The journey of death. Finally, it all made sense.

I knew it would be a dangerous day hours earlier. Descending out of Taos and into the canyon, where the highway hugs the Rio Grande for twenty miles or so, I pulled out to pass a line of cars. It’s something I do all the time. As I finally got a clear look down the hill, a horse-trailer was backing up traffic ten cars ahead. I tried to merge back, but there was nowhere to go. (In the exact spot where a family died a few years ago.)

Desperately, I jammed the gas and barely wedged myself in just beyond the nose of a semi-truck hauling pressurized chemicals. Releasing a pent up breath, seconds later, I looked in my rear-view mirror to see the truck swerving, barely keeping it together. Not 30 minutes into my trip, and I almost ignited a firestorm of misery. Classy.

Twenty minutes later, traffic came to a stand still. Lights were flashing, sirens screaming. Not good. As I inched along, off to my right, another semi-truck had launched off the road into the rocks along the river. Hard to see how the driver could have survived. Never seen that before. Bad omen.

From there, I herky-jerked my way down past Santa Fe. Cops were everywhere, brainless drivers the norm. It was so odd, so disconcerting, that I mentioned it to the Native American woman behind the counter as I paid for my breakfast burrito at the Casino/Gas Station/Rest Stop just north of Albuquerque. (Casino Hollywood on the San Felipe Reservation, BTW.) She nodded, implacably, and said, “Yeah, one of those days. You never can tell.”

So by the time the brown sign reminded me that the Camino Real is not for the faint of heart, I was practically relieved. At least I wasn’t imagining things. One needs to keep one’s wits when heading down to the borderlands, a world populated with smugglers, junkies, truckers and dropouts. (Now that I think about it, I suppose it’s not that different from where I live.)

Why a road trip? Well, that’s an easy answer. David and I were headed South to Las Cruces, where we intended to meet up with our friends Ken and Scott. After a pit stop of a studio visit with photographer David Taylor, (the king of La Frontera) we ditched one car, piled into Ken’s Prius, and continued on towards Marfa, Texas, Art Mecca. So there’s the why. I rallied a few buddies to take a big Texas road trip, to go see some great art and write about it for you, the APE audience. Nobody died, nobody even got hurt, so in the end, it was worth it. But drama-free? Not likely.

My three friends are all photographers, and also accomplished in other aspects of the field. (An editor/publisher, a professor, & and a museum executive.) Each of us drowns daily in a sea of email, commitments, and plans. So for once, we relished the opportunity to wing it. No hotels were booked. No Yelp reviews were solicited. No idea where we were going to spend the night. Romantic? Not exactly.

When you’re 21, you don’t mind sleeping anywhere. Road Trips are just an excuse to drink way too much Mountain Dew (which lacks any other purpose), smoke too much weed, and take pictures of absolutely everything. Think about it. When you’re out in the middle of nowhere, every single fence-post seems profound. “Look man, it’s a cactus, just oozing cactus-ness. Just one more shot, OK?”

On this trip, however, I was the youngest at 37. Creaky backs and coffee-snobbery are the norm in this demo, and the idea of just stopping “wherever” for the night doesn’t work as well as it did a decade or two ago. (Though Ken did bring along some coffee-crack in a creamer cup called Stok. Look into it…)

David Taylor, desert expert, mentioned there was a town a ways North of Marfa called Van Horn. He assured us there was nothing else around for miles, so we default set that as a destination for the night. Hopped up on shitty burgers and vitamin water, the four of us drove. And drove. Mountains in the reflected moonlight are a sight to behold, but very difficult to photograph from a moving car. So they’ll exist in my memory only. (Close your eyes, and maybe you can imagine it. Charcoal gray, texture, jagged lines pushing up from the ground, no other light around.)

By the time we got to Van Horn, it was almost 11 at night. (Damn you, time change.) The decent-looking motels were the first into town, and surprise, were all booked. So there we were, sitting in the the car at a gas station, doors opened for fresh air, and that’s when the Iphones came out. Seriously? If you don’t want to TripAdvisor that crap three weeks ahead of time, what’s the point of doing it near midnight, thirty yards from the nearest hotel? We pounded the pavement for a bit, checking in at the certainly haunted Hotel El Capitan, before finally settling on a Days Inn adjacent to the off-ramp. I was confident, which was a mistake.

In these long articles, I try to keep it breezy, keep it funny, and keep moving along. But we’re what, ten paragraphs in and I haven’t even gotten to the Art yet? It’s not like this is the New Yorker, and I’m aware that you don’t have unlimited time to stare at your screen. This time, though, I have to slow down. We’ll get to the art, and the insane mashup of billionares slumming with South Texas poor folk. We’ll get there. But what my friends and I witnessed that night, in Van Horn, is worth conjuring for a couple more minutes.

We walked into the Days Inn lobby, David and I, ready to book a room. Immediately to our right, recumbent on a sofa with a TV behind it, we saw a young woman. At first glance, she looked 25, and attractive. Dark hair, nice figure. As she swooped around us to the front counter, though, we got a better look. Not a day over 20, and more likely less than that.

She would have been beautiful, and probably was until a few years before. But now? With the discoloration under her eyes, she was like a cancer-ridden raccoon, and the expression peering out was dead. Not defiant dead, like the junkies in a Mikhailov photograph, but dead in a soul-sucking, depressive way that makes you touch your wallet and lock the car door. Meth, most likely, though I suppose it could have been crack. Whatever the culprit, this girl was gone.

She handed over the key cards, and ushered us on our way. I wanted to cry. We got to the rooms, and David rushed right to the bed to see just how crappy this place was. He found…blood stains on the bed. For real. That’s the kind of detail that a better writer than I would make up, but there it was. Real blood. Perfect. As my room’s door was broken, we had to re-engage our meth-head princess, which was one more encounter than I ever wanted in my life. Her reaction, if you can believe it, was to throw the new bedding at a co-worker, and scream, “Blood stains? I don’t get paid enough for that shit.” She stormed off, never to be seen again.

Her colleague, a nice enough guy, was from India, and rocked a thick accent. At that point, you reach the “I’ll believe anything phase,” so I only grinned. Scott, who’d been to India a few times in the last couple of years, was fascinated, and chatted with the guy for a few minutes. I was shocked that he was shocked. It is America after all.

We drove around the town a bit, stopping here and there to take photographs. Once we returned to the motel, we stalked around the parking lot like quivering hunters, never straying out of eyesight of each other. Lest you think we were scaredy-cats, I’ll state that between the four of us, we’ve traveled the world, and lived in many a metropolitan city. This place was just that disturbing. Why?

Because we’d entered that part of America not often seen by Coastal Elites, or fancy-boy artists such as ourselves. The kind of place where, behind each Motel door, someone’s shooting up. Someone else is getting smacked around. And door number three has 32 Mexicans huddled together, chained, while their minder watches “Dancing With the Stars.” Tomorrow, they’ll climb back in the van for the trip to Chicago, or Raleigh, if they’re lucky.

We woke, the next morning, very glad to see the daylight. (And the Prius, for that matter. At least we had four walls to protect us, but the Prius was a sitting duck.) I surmised that there was probably not a plate of vegetables in the entire town, and my comrades concurred. So we piled back into our little Japanese rolling box, found the highway, and drove South to Marfa, where fancy coffee and fresh fruit, doubtless, awaited us.

The Best Photographs I saw in 2011 that I Haven’t Already written about yet

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Time is like an apathetic teenager. We see it as linear, because it’s easier for our brains that way. But many of us know it’s relative. That information does us little good, though, when we’re late to work, and Grandma in the car in front of us is savoring every last second. At twenty miles an hour.

The only thing to match the monotony of the march of time is the certainty of change. The second law of thermodynamics and all. We like to think we stay the same, remain true to ourselves, but it’s just an illusion, no more real than a flogborgibbit. Change is the normal state of things, far more natural than a charge of flip-flopping, but the very epithet tells you all you need to know about most people’s view of the inevitable.

I’ve come to accept and even relish change, myself. I enjoy the opportunity to work on my faults, to modify my behavior, whether it be evolution or revolution. I’ve had it both ways, massive epiphanies that alter my soul in a day, or a slow, daily slide into sloth and misery. (Freshman year at Duke, it took only months for a skinny, mostly well-adjusted goody-goody to metamorphose into a fat, drunken ball of insecurities who…well, we’ll save that one for another time.)

Change is a function of time, and time is the bedrock of our chosen medium, photography. Light is the more popular sibling, as time is far more challenging to manipulate. It’s difficult for photography to match video when it comes to processing duration, but difficult, as we’ve often seen, does not mean impossible.

It’s probably not surprising that I’d bloviate on this subject, what with the end of the year upon us. I’m either the most philosophical blogger in the world, or it’s biggest jackass, and I suppose we’ll each have our own opinion on the subject. But I have seen a lot of photographs this year, and written about most of what I’ve seen. New York, twice, LA, Washington DC; not a bad lineup. Ironically, for two years running, I haven’t been able to shoehorn some of my favorite work into an article. Despite the thousands of words, there just wasn’t room in the narrative thread for great photographs, by the same photographer, in both 2010 and 2011: Rineke Dijkstra.

So here at APE, we’ll now christen a new feature, “The Best Photographs I saw in 2011 that I Haven’t Already written about yet.” Rolls off the tongue nicely. Here we go.

Last year, it was at the Met, in a fantastic curated show that included a copy of Ed Ruscha’s “Every Building on the Sunset Strip.” Somehow, I ended up writing only about John Baldessari, and Ms. Dijkstra’s incredible series about a young refugee girl got left on the cutting room floor.

This year, I saw her work at the Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA), on a sunny summer San Diego sojourn. (I was always a sucker for alliteration in school. Easy way to score points with the teacher.) Back in July, I snuck down from my beach abode in North County to visit an exhibition of the Bank of America permanent collection, curated by MOPA’s Executive Director, Debra Klochko. (And in case you were wondering, B of A did not cover the admission cost, thereby missing out on a relatively inexpensive way to burnish their horrible public image.)

On a very big wall, right behind the admission desk, was a seven image photo series, installed sequentially, by the aforementioned famous Dutch artist. Each featured a handsome young Frenchman named Olivier Silva, who was about to embark on a stint in the French Foreign Legion. (Insert random French joke here.) The framed prints, all largish, were exhibited in a temporal sequence that transpired between 2000-3, during Mr. Silva’s military service.

In the first image, we see a skinny, innocent looking 17 year old, (give or take) with a full head of hair. Unquestionably, his eyes say, “Oh shit. I’m not so sure about this.” In the next, from the same day in 2000, he’s just had his head shaved, and has got the camo outfit on. His look says, “True, I’m not sure about this, but I suppose I’ll give it a shot.”

Number 3 is from a few months later, still in France. Now he’s got the face paint, is rocking the shaved head thing, and he’s trying to be tough. Definitely seems sad. And on to the next. Here, Olivier is in pristine dress, but still looks like he misses his Maman. By now, his face has filled out a bit. Same month, about to ship out.

The fifth photograph, almost a year and a half later, and now we’re in Corsica. (Chasing Mafiosi?) Homeboy is wearing the most ridiculous Foreign Legion cap, like something out of a Peter Sellers movie. Squinting into the sun, his shoulders are fuller, and he has the vibe that he could have killed someone by now, but probably hasn’t. The burgundy epaulettes are just too much. Finally, a bit of humor.

Next to last, and the guy looks like an action hero. You start to wonder, did Ms. Dijkstra know it all along, that the skinny kid had the movie star looks right beneath the surface? It’s the first time you think about her, as the first five were so natural, and the expressions so believable. By the way, he’s in Djibouti. (Between Ethiopia and Eritrea, two countries that don’t like each other very much.) And that last bit of farm-boy is still there. Barely.

For the last photo, Olivier Silva is looking directly into the camera, his drab marine colored T-shirt offering more about his character than his dead, militarized eyes. Inscrutable. He’s been thoroughly socialized through the system, they’ve made a good soldier out of the boy. Ready to kill, if necessary. It’s July of 2003, three years after the process began.

And then it’s over. And you begin to think, those expressions, the clues I read to deduce Silva’s character, they’re something the photographer has created. They’re a window into a linear, stop-motion jaunt into some random guy’s history, sure. It happened. But the series toys with the notion of the document, and with my immediate faith that what I was seeing was real, beyond the interpersonal connection between the young Frenchman and the artist, Ms. Dijkstra. Tremendous stuff.

I didn’t end up writing about it this Summer, because I skipped San Diego for the bustle of the Megalopolis up the coast. So there you have it. “The Best Photographs I saw in 2011 that I Haven’t Already written about yet.” Happy New Year.

Remembering at MOMA PS1

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

I awoke to the bleating ring of the landline, ruining a perfectly good dream. Lacking coordination, I smacked at the phone, glancing at the clock as I pulled the handset to my ear. It was 6:30 in the morning, Pacific Standard Time. Too early for good news. On the other end of the line, my mother started yelling at me. She was crazed, like a fanatic speaking in tongues. “We’re under attack. We’re under attack. The towers are gone. The towers are gone.”

“Mom,” I replied, “calm the fuck down. I can’t understand what you’re saying. There are no aliens. We’re not under attack. And it’s really not funny.”

“Oh, Jonathan, it’s so horrible. We’re under attack by terrorists. They flew airplanes into the twin towers, and they’re not there anymore. They’re just gone. The Pentagon too,” She finished. “Turn on the television. You’ll see.” So I did.

I would have been there, like so many people reading this, but I almost chopped my thumb off while opening a can of tomatoes. (Lots of blood.) The incident, or accident, occurred just after I was accepted into Pratt, in early 2001. The recovery was such that I deferred a year, planning to move to New York in July of 2002 instead. So if not for the jagged edge of a Muir Glen tomato can, I would have been living in Brooklyn during the tragedy. But I wasn’t. My girlfriend and I were living in San Francisco instead, 3000 miles away, and only heard about the thing after the fact. Kind of the opposite of having been there.

It’s ten years later, and if there’s anything I’ve learned in my life, it’s that people like round numbers. (This from the dollar guy.) The memorial services are done. The names of the victims were read. Candles were lit; Tears absorbed into shoulders and hair. And of course, the anniversary exhibitions are up on the wall. It so happened that I was in New York in the end of October, and had the chance to see the September 11 show at MoMAPS1 in Long Island City, Queens, just across the river.

I might have neglected to mention that the particular New Jersey suburb in which I was raised was just a few miles down the road from Atlantic Highlands, the tallest point on the East Coast (At a meager 300 feet or so.) We had hills in my town as well, and were close enough to the bay to see the Twin Towers presiding over the city across the water.

My family rarely went into New York, it being the dicey late 70′s and early 80′s, and I was a bit of a wimp about the whole thing, truth be told. But those towers… I saw them at least three times a week. Two big, phallic, shiny symbols of the wealth and power of Wall Street, New York City, and by extension, the United States. They dominated. And now they’re not there.

The skyline has seemed imbalanced to me ever since, the midtown skyscrapers taunting Wall Street, perhaps enticing a Napoleon complex that begat the Great Recession. And, really, what has changed? We take our shoes off at the airport. We color code our fear like stripes on a lollipop. Fanatical loonies tried to blow up airplanes with bombs in their shoes, underpants, and even a printer cartridge. But so far we’ve been lucky.

We have a bi-racial President now. That’s big news. And geeks run much of the known world. (Seriously. Mark Zuckerberg gets laid on a regular basis. Enough said.) We went to war, twice, and are thoroughly in hock to the Chinese. All because we had to have those two wars, and some tax breaks to boot. Not a lot of value out of those purchases, if you ask me.

Now it’s nearly 2012, and so we might ask, with all the 9/11 hullaballoo, “Why an art show?” Why go to the trouble to collect items from around the world, paint the walls, pack and unpack the shipping boxes, spend a fortune on Fedex, re-write press releases until your carpal tunnel gives you a migraine, just to invite some people in once the lights are on, to look at some photographs, videos, paintings, sculptures, and drawings?

Why indeed? I suppose, as I describe the work I saw that day, the answer will become evident. One would hope.

Lets’ be honest: these articles always seem to run long. I’m aware of that. Perhaps I have a hard time expressing myself in few words. Who knows? In case you don’t feel like reading to the end, let me break it down succinctly. If you live anywhere near New York, you ought to go see this show. How’s that for brevity? Just go. Swipe your Metrocard, drop the $10 at the front entrance, and go inside.

The exhibition begins on the second floor of the former school building, and the wall card announces that almost none of the work was made in response to the September 11 attacks. Much of it was even made before the event. I was curious, and a tad dubious, to tell the truth. If the work was decontextualized, then clearly the curator’s POV would dominate the show. The entire exhibition would be one giant installation by Peter Eleey, the curator in charge. Pretty ambitious.

Normally, in these reviews, this would be the point where I meticulously detail each and every thing I saw. But I don’t want to do that. It seems forced, as I sit here at my kitchen table, 2000 miles and six weeks removed from the actual experience. There was a surreal poetry and magic to my time in the September 11 exhibition, and I’d rather try to recreate a fragment of it. I can conjure the best of that day in my mind, easily, so let’s start there.

One of the first pieces to slam me in the belly was a pair of framed, 4 foot square bulletin boards affixed to the wall, replete with pin holes, staples and paper scraps. (“Nothing prevents anything,” -07-09, by Harold Mendez.) Each sat on the wall on opposite sides of an entry way, like lions guarding the gate. Bulletin boards? If I saw them in a gallery in Chelsea, I’d probably giggle, and shake my head at how far people will go to be the first to call something art. But here, in this context, they felt empty, vacant, purposeless, forgotten, as if they were hanging in an Elementary School during Summer session. I thought about the kids who started that Summer, in 2001, with Dads and Moms, and then, shortly after Labor Day, they were gone.

Normally, we see work like this in quiet. People in galleries and museums are more silent than a tennis audience. Here, though, in this very room, there was music piped in. A grand, emotional, film score, by the great John Williams. (Yeah, the guy who did Star Wars.) A wall card explained that the music was the theme from the forgettable Mel Gibson crap-fest, “The Patriot.” (Which was apparently then appropriated by Barrack Obama during his 2008 victory speech.) So. Ironic. That. My. Head. Almost. Exploded. All the same, the emotional music definitely made the viewing experience more poignant.

What else? In the middle of the room, there was a nearly 20 foot long sculpture on the floor, made of ash. Long and narrow, the material was configured into the undulating form of a lunar-scape, with faux mountains and valleys seen from above. Astonishing. It looked a little like a 3D, gray-scale version of one of Motherwell’s Spanish Elegy Paintings. But it gets better. A look at the wall text explained that the ash sculpture, by Roger Hiorns, “Untitled 2008,” was actually an atomized passenger aircraft engine. Ash, the dominant symbol of that horrible day, here literally made out of a plane engine. That’s about as good as it gets.

Except that it was just a part of a larger whole, the gestalt of the entire gallery. The ash led the viewer, like a psychedelic arrow, straight up to a George Segal sculpture called “Woman on a Park Bench.” A lady sits, eternally, white patina over bronze, on a black bench. Waiting. The sculpture has been placed before a vaulted archway, and is backlit, like a knave in a Gothic Cathedral. It’s not hard to see her as a symbol of a grieving widow, immobilized by sorrow. Forever.

And in case you weren’t paying perfect attention, all of the above is simply one gallery in a much larger exhibition. I can’t think of a more touching tribute, and yet it was the work of the curator, as much as the aggregate artists. If you don’t believe me, just look up George Segal on Wikipedia. He died in 2000.

I enjoyed seeing a painting by Maureen Gallace, a drawing by Mark Lombardi, and a photograph by Thomas Demand. All good, for sure. But the next great thing was a worn, black suitcase on the floor, sitting in the corner of another gallery. It reminded me of the room of shoes at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Israel. Those little, human details that bring Geo-Political horror down to the human level. Seeing the suitcase, we can imagine it belonging to some random guy who never made it back to Penn Station with his claim ticket. Or sitting on a sidewalk somewhere, after having been blown out an open window.

It was a piece of found sculpture by Lara Favaretto. The object was part of an ongoing, obtuse project where she buys one suitcase a year at a flea market, locks it, and then never opens it. Just the sort of boring conceptual project that gets far too much attention, but in this context, it was brilliant.

Diane Arbus, perennially popular, was represented on the wall with “Blowing Newspaper at a Crossroads, NYC, 1956.” The photo was dark, fuzzy, abstracted and a bit menacing. One I’d not seen before. Here, it spoke of the itinerant trash roaming the empty streets in the aftermath, hours after everyone still standing had gone home.

In a similar vein, a room otherwise full of black and white images and objects contained a dash of color, courtesy of William Eggleston: “Untitled (Glass in Airplane, 1965-74). A single plastic cup of Coke sits on a lowered tray table, backlit by gleaming light streaming in through the window. Anywhere else, it reminds of a stained glass window. Pretty. Contextualized, it puts you in the first person position of someone sitting on one of the planes, quaking at the thought of the crazy dudes holding box-cutters in the cockpit. What a horrible fucking way to die.

Elsewhere in that gallery, the walls were covered by a collection of B&W photos by John Pilson, from the series “Interregna” from 1998-2000. Mr. Pilson apparently worked for an investment bank in Lower Manhattan, across the street from the WTC, and made documents of the office experience in the late evening and early morning hours when no one was around. They were literal, and well-made, but in the show, one thought immediately of the empty offices, abandoned while people streamed screaming down the stairwells in the moments after impact.

To finish it off, a white pedestal sits in the middle of the room, with a glass vitrine on top. Inside, “Snapshots from Baghdad,” from 2007, by Roman Ondak: A matte black disposable camera with undeveloped, exposed film. All black, it looked a bit like a gun, just another way to shoot. Undeveloped, it spoke of unfulfilled potential. Baghdad, it reminded of the War rounded up like a posse in the victims’ names. And that was not the only Iraq reference in the house.

From there, I wandered upstairs, towards an abandoned looking section of the Museum. I ran across a man, coming in the opposite direction, who snickered, “It’s nothing but empty rooms. You might like it more than some of the art.” Classy. I pushed on anyway, and found that he was right. Empty rooms only. Early stage installation in progress. The galleries were the same as the ones below, but they lacked the life, the light, and the energy of a finished exhibition. A small moment, I gained even more appreciation for how much work it takes to make the trains run on time.

From there, I descended a few flights of stairs into the basement. As this was once a functioning school, the basement contains the innards of the structure. It’s cold, and feels like the opposite of every gleaming Art Museum you’ve ever visited. It also contains, for now, one of the single most powerful art installations I’ve ever experienced. No. Exaggeration. Necessary.

The boiler room is where it’s at. Down a few short rickety stairs, you enter the physical-plant-nerve-center of the former public school. It’s dirty, cold, and cave-like. Creepy doesn’t quite do it justice. In the far corner, I saw some speakers, a chain hanging from the ceiling, and a place to sit down. So I did.

The speakers were blasting some random, ambient sounds; unfamiliar and disturbing. I sat there, waiting, thinking, and then all of a sudden, I saw the flash of a shadow. My neck swiveled, and my liver almost imploded. No lie. Frightening. But I stayed. A minute or so later, there was a clanking, crashing sound, and another shadow flash. Bang. The hanging chain started to sway, so I knew that I hadn’t imagined it. Slowly, I realized that I was sitting in a simulacrum of a dungeon. Abu Ghraib? Some nameless CIA black-site hole-in-the-ground in Afghanistan? Does it matter?

The experience was real, and confusing. Then, I looked up at the ceiling and saw skylights onto the street level. The room sits below the sidewalk, and whenever a Queens resident or visiting passerby walked over me, I heard the crash. When they walked only near the skylight, shadow no sound. Are. You. Kidding. Me.

After a few minutes of simulated torture, I walked back up the stairs, and looked for the wall text explaining the music. (If you could call it that.) Stephen Vitiello, the artist, once had a studio given to him through a residency program. In the World Trade Center. 91st Floor. He recorded the sound of the building swaying in the wind during Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

I’m running out of exclamations here to describe my overtaxed brain, upon reading that information. The swaying, creaking, buildings, no longer in existence, providing the backdrop for a simulated torture chamber, representing a major war that was launched because the buildings were destroyed by terrorists from another country. Well played, Peter Eleey. Well played.

After that, emotionally drained, I spent the better part of a half an hour trying to get permission to take the one photo I’m including here. They’re beyond strict about prohibiting photography, so you really will have to go see this for yourself. Then I walked through the freezing Queens rain, and dropped down underground again to grab the subway. The train’s recording, with each stop, reminded me that it was a World Trade Center-bound E train. As if I could forget.