Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Invisible Americans

Figure 1. Jeff Wall
Figure 2. Industrial Prison Complex Google Images

"Artists feel that anyone who doesn’t enjoy their work does not really experience it. So we are insulated, we have this happy space of ours. But we cannot shape very much and so we do not have much direct effect on the affairs of the world. From within our space, our me´tier, we can contemplate and reflect on the difficulty, the burden, the obligation accepted by those who take on practical tasks". — Jeff Wall(1)

During the last 20 years in America there has been a significant shift in the allocation of public funding and one that I would think most people living in the US are probably not completely aware of. There has been an extreme reversal in the money designated for education and prisons. In California education was receiving seventeen percent of the state budget and prisons received three percent. Now education receives seven and prisons nine percent.

A year ago I became one of the founding members of a grass roots civic organization called, Save Rural Yolo County. This came about because a friend informed to me that less than a mile from her house, the County was offering a piece of land to the State of California to build a prison. She asked me to attend a public hearing on the issue. Little did I know that for the next year this would become a significant part of my life. In the beginning there might have been a hint of selfishness – not in my back yard. However that changed very quickly. With multiple environmentally unwise facts weighing against prisons - i.e. a huge carbon footprint, large water polluters and consumers along with the evidence that prisons don’t have to follow many environmental impact regulations, it became obvious that this was not in anyone’s best interest. Our organization in the end did prevent the construction a full - level four – maximum security state prison from being built and in the process I became more educated about prisons then I ever dreamed possible. Having this experience made me want to investigate further and find out what happened to make this shift occur - prisons receiving more funding than educational institutions.

I am also interested in how artists address and contextualize community issues in their practice. When I was going to college I knew that art, philosophy and religion were the areas that I was most drawn to. At the time my work as a painter was labeled decorative, which it was. It was the mid 70s; there was so much happening in the country in the aftermath of the Vietnam War along with many significant social issues on individual rights - i.e. racial, gender equality and gay rights. I distinctly remember feeling overwhelmed and that I felt incapable of addressing specific events that were happening in the world with regard to my work as a painter. I felt like I just didn’t know what my concerns were or how to express them. For me working on the prison issue, alongside friends, family and new acquaintances for so many reasons, was empowering and has given me much to contemplate.

The work of Ed Ruscha, Jeff Wall, Bernd and Hilla Becher all resonant with me and begin to construct an internal dialogue that engages my curiosity. I wonder if any of them would do a series of works based on prisons. It seems like they might. Shields Library at the University of California, Davis, has in their special collections several of Ed Ruscha’s hand-made books. Recently I went there to really look at them, and one of the books was Twenty Six Gasoline Stations. The librarian carefully brought the books to me on a tray along with a pair of white gloves. I have to say holding the books, examining them as if they were dinosaur bones was a thrill and I wished for a moment that I was wearing a white lab coat. My experience was similar when I went to see the Jeff Walls exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Fine Art. I took my time to digest them, marveling at the presentation and looking around at the side of the frame to see if I could figure out just how he constructed the light boxes. Once again the presentation, like Ruscha’s hand-made books, was complete perfection. However they didn’t feel real to me - the work felt removed from the commonness of Wall’s subject. Another experience akin to this was on a visit to the Centre Pompidou during the Paris Photo, at an exhibition of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s. Once again the presentation was perfection, repetitive images in pristine clean white frames laid out in a precise grid. I felt like I did looking at Ruscha’s books and Wall’s light boxes - that the subject was removed and perhaps distanced and free from personalization by the presentation. I felt, in a way, like I was in a scientific laboratory. It is interesting that Rushca, Wall and the Bechers are working with everyday, common places images that in our busy lives we don’t even notice. The sad fact is that we tune them out - the subject or work simply is invisible.

That’s what I discovered while I was working on the fight to stop the proposed prison it simply was more pleasant for most of us to tune out this issue, to see it as invisible. When one looks back at the year 1980, Reagan was elected President and this is when the dramatic shift occurred, a point of delineation. There were major cuts in funding for mental health programs and the cuts in education began. In addition to the cuts, and happening concurrently, the “Three Strikes Law” contributed to the dramatic climb in the prison population. The statistics clearly show that most incarcerated inmates in prison are there because of drug related issues.

"Over the past twenty years the State of California has built twenty-one new prisons, added thousands of cells to existing facilities, and increased its inmate population eightfold. Nonviolent offenders have been responsible for most of that increase. The number of drug offenders imprisoned in the state today is more than twice the number of inmates who were imprisoned for all crimes in 1978. California now has the biggest prison system in the Western industrialized world, a system 40 percent bigger than the Federal Bureau of Prisons."(2)

A significant problem that exists is that many prisons have been sold to private companies and are being leased back to the states. “In the State of New York the prisons are owned by the Urban Development Corporation and leased to the Department of Corrections. Governor Cuomo "sold" Attica prison to the corporation for $200 million and used the money to fill gaps in the state budget. In order to buy the prison, the corporation had to issue more bonds. The entire transaction could eventually cost New York State about $700 million."(3) I wonder just how many people are aware that prisons are privately owned and are run for profit with an annual cost of $50,000.00 to keep an individual in prison for one-year.(4)

In a talk about the Prison Industrial Complex, Angela Davis, graduate studies professor emeritus at the University of California, suggests we teach about prisons in our schools and that we make prisons visible.(5) She also raises an interesting concept that slavery was abolished to those living in the free world, but not for those in prison. They are held as hostages to the corporate owners of the prison. When you combine this information with the statistic that one-third of all young black men in the US are in prison, it raises many questions. When one looks at the pristine works of Ruscha, Wall and the Becher’s one sees the facts, straight on, in a scientific manner. Perhaps, this is what needs to be done with prisons - look at them head-on and make the industrial prison complex completely visible.

1 Stimson, Blake. “The Artiste”, Oxford Art Journal 30, 1 2007 109

2 Schlosser, Eric. “The Prison-Industrial Complex”, The Atlantic, 1998

3 Schlosser, Eric. “The Prison-Industrial Complex, Atlantic, December 1998 http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/199812/prisons

4 Huling, Tracy, Building a Prison Economy in Rural America, From Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment Marc Mauer and Meda Chesney-Lind, Editors. The New Press. 2002

5 Davis, Angela. “Angela Davis discusses Prison Industrial Complex”, YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yh8ZrGhzJIM

Friday, October 16, 2009

Was Henri Matisse to Richard Deibenkorn as Robert Frank is to Wayne Theibaud?

Empathy allows both the artist and spectator to enter and vicariously live in an imagined, painted world. —Wayne Thiebaud

Figure 1. Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park No. 114, 1979, Oil on canvas, 81 x 81
Figure 2. Henri Matisse, Goldfish and Sculpture (Le Poissons), 1911

Richard Diebenkorn emerged out of the Bay Area Figurative movement during the 1950s and 1960s. Bay Area Figuration was in many ways a response to what was happening with the New York School of painting in the work of artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and the like. Not unlike New York, Paris and London there was an on-going collaboration among artists in the Bay Area. They showed their work in exhibitions together and they also helped one another find teaching jobs, galleries, and museum exhibitions. This collaboration provided a rich foundation from which Bay Area Figuration grew and gained momentum. It was out of this synergy the acclaimed magazine Artforum began in San Francisco in the early 1960s only later did it move to New York. The initial goal of the publication was to bring acclaim to artists on the West Coast. The additional element that existed in the Bay Area was that the museums showed works from significant European collections.

In addition to the influential exhibitions of modern and contemporary painting mounted by the San Francisco Museum often in advance of the artists’ showing in New York museums, there were important local collections of Impressionism (the Palace of the Legion of Honor and the de Young Museum), Cubism, School of Paris (the Stein collection), and the Blue Four (Galka Scheyer). 2

Diebenkorn had the opportunity to look at the works of Matisse up close in the museum and was profoundly influenced by his work. The influence is evident not only in the figurative works but in the non objective works of the Ocean Park series and the landscapes as well. He drew from Matisse’s distinctive palette, bold graphic references, and reductive abstraction; in addition he borrowed from Matisse’s distinctive brush work. There are several works to draw a direct comparison.
One such comparison is Goldfish and Sculpture (Le Poissons), 1911 and Ocean Park No. 114, 1979. Although Matisse’s painting makes reference to the human form and objects in a three dimensional space, Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park No. 114 uses line and reduced color pallet and brush work, to in many ways communicate a similar feeling as Le Poissons.

Photographer Robert Frank, a Guggenheim recipient, had a research project which was to create a body of work while traveling across America in 1955 and 1956. His task was fundamentally a documentary one, capturing an image of America from the perspective of an outsider.

Frank was a “documentary-style” photographer, as Walker Evans once termed it, looking onto the world, rather than an art photographer in the Romantic mold who looks out only to see a reflection of himself. Frank was a photographer of social form who opened his audience’s eyes to “what was everywhere visible” in American society but “seldom noticed.” 3

Frank faced significant criticism, and for many reasons. He was “condemned for his self-absorption in the face of the American social landscape.”4 It is through his work that a distinctive portrait of America and American consumerism was painted and one that strongly influenced US artists in the late 1950s and early 1960s. When one looks at the work of Frank, the many references in Thiebaud’s paintings that directly relate to the visual essay created by Franks work can be seen - America in the cabinet and behind the scene. The direct conservatism of Thiebaud’s paintings speaks of a limited view or selective view of that “American Feeling”; with flags, cup cakes, candies and the like.

My own artistic work has been influenced by Diebenkorn, Thiebaud and Frank. I have looked to them for answers to questions about the 1950s and 1960s. In many ways the work of Diebenkorn and Thiebaud is easier for me to digest, in that they seem to me to be more optimistic. The candy confections and beautiful yet sublime abstractions of Diebenkorn are more about what I believe was the mindset of the American founding fathers. The separation from England represented a new “freedom”, freedom of religion, speech, the ability to follow one’s own path, etc. - i.e. birth the term, “The American Dream”. Robert Franks through his photography shows us the underside - the bitterness and unfairness that exists in discrimination of race, social class, ethnic origin and gender.

Growing up my mother told me, Melissa you can’t judge a book by its cover. I have been attracted to the work of Matisse, Diebenkorn and Thebaud. I studied with Thiebaud for five years; he has influenced my work in many ways. For me, it is easier to live with the work of the three; Diebenkorn, Thiebaud and Matisse, and it is much more difficult to absorb Frank’s work as in the exhibition, “The Americans”. Last spring the exhibition was showing at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and I spent a lot of time digesting the exhibition, repulsed by the social unfairness and class distinction portrayed by Frank.

When one looks at the historical time sequence of the Deibenkorn, Thiebaud and Frank, all working artist in the 1950s and 1960s, it is evident they were at the same time, addressing different yet similar social issues. The New York Times in 1959 had a full page ad for Volkswagen. The ad read “Think Small”. This ad and concept was running concurrently with the construction of gaudy, oversized American cars.

So, in the end what is this all about? We all have personal choice and for me personally I have resonated with the “Think Small” concept. For many reasons this feels like it’s the right thing to do both in my youth and now as we face many political issues from tightening support for higher public education to healthcare and a changing planet due to global warming. My final question is: do we need opposing visual presentations from artists such as Frank and Thiebaud in order to educate and assist us in understanding our own personal taste and choices?

1. Thiebaud, Paul. “Wayne Thiebaud Riverscapes”, (2002). Exhibition catalogue, page 35.
2. Jones, Caroline A. “Conclusion Chapter Six” Bay Area Figurative Art 1950 - 1965”. University of California Press, Ltd. Oxford, England. 1990, page 157
3. Stimson, Blake. “The Pivot of the World, Photography and Its Nation”. Mit Press. 2006. Page 105
4. Stimson, Blake. “The Pivot of the World, Photography and Its Nation”. Mit Press. 2006. Page 105