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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Culture Map Houston Features Mel Chin

MEL CHIN speaking at the Contemporary Art Museum of Houston

Houston's own walking chill encyclopedia: Native son artist takes on guns, poisioning, Melrose Place & more

Houston-born conceptual artist Mel Chin was leveling when I met him at University of Houston’s Blaffer Art Museum. While he would spend the next half hour leveling with me about his lifetime of art making, when we were introduced, he was actually wielding a level while lining up pieces of Revival Field Diorama hanging on a wall.

Less than 24 hours before the opening of Rematch, a monumental Mel Chin retrospective spread across four Houston art institutions: The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, the Blaffer, Asia Society Texas Center and the Station Museum of Contemporary Art, with some non-Rematch works thrown in at the Art League for good measure, Chin was pitching in to help. During our interview, as Chin and I moved through the galleries discussing soil remediation, lead contamination, the history of the Glock handgun, television soap operas, why he left Houston and why he always comes back, Chin would occasionally offer a suggestion to the Blaffer installers, followed by a “I hear you. It’s cool,” if said suggestion couldn’t be addressed at that moment.

Talking to Chin was a little bit like conversing with a very chill encyclopedia. His knowledge about a subject, especially a concept he has created art around, feels both microscopic and infinite. He uses variations on the word “transformation” when describing his art, and part of his process to transform an object or idea seems to be to learn everything about what it is and was before he pushes it into becoming something else.

“Everything is an opportunity to be engaged,” Chin explains when I asked him about his need to intensely understand a thing. “If I walk down the street, I’m a part of something. It obligates me to know as much as I can,” he says, but insisted that this is not an obligation for the artist in general, but is instead part of his “psychological makeup.”

During our conversation, it was easy to jump with him through the microscope’s looking glass into a world which is our world, just transformed through the Chin psychological. Here are some of the stops along our journey.

Transforming the Earth
One gallery in the Blaffer’s portion of the retrospective focuses on Chin’s perhaps most famous art project, Revival Field, which is also an ongoing work of science experimentation, to see if certain plants, hyperaccumulators, could be used to clean contaminated soil. Chin spent years becoming an expert on not only ecology, but also on politics and public policy.

Democratizing Art
Another gallery is devoted entirely to Operation Paydirt and the Fundred Dollar Bill Project, Chin’s work to (literally) draw attention to childhood lead poisoning. The public is asked to bring their own creativity to individual Fundred dollar bills, thereby adding another piece of art to the pallet and another voice to the public chorus demanding from our leaders healthy communities free from lead. 

The project began in New Orleans and has spread across the country. The Operation Paydirt team will be coming to Houston to talk to people perhaps in the schools or even in their homes. They hope to link with health care professional and lead poisoning prevention specialists.

Nighttime Soap Opera Is a Virus and That's a Good Thing
From 1995-97, a clandestine, yet very public art project took place on millions of television screens across America as the beautiful crazy-people of Melrose Place stood in front of, and even stabbed with, pieces of contemporary art. Chin began the GALA Committee project for a group of artists who would work “covertly with the writers and producers so we could say what they could not say,” and now thanks to border-crossing reruns those covert messages continue to spread throughout the world.

A Tale of Two Guns
Chin pairs the words "transform" and "covert" often, as he believes we are being negatively transformed in ways we are not aware of, as is the case of lead contamination, when a child’s very blood is infected. So some healing must also be done covertly.

“Sometimes the transformations we take as individuals can’t be on the surface or on your sleeve.” Chin says. “You have to get there yourself first and those are the profound transformations of change. Because your peer group is too strong or your support systems intense and you’re sensitive to not betraying them.”

Perhaps one of the most intense examples of that covert becoming is Chin’s rupturing that aura of power guns possess by transforming the inside of a Glock 9mm handgun into HOME y SEW 9, a fully functional gunshot trauma kit. There are only two of these works in existence one at the CAM’s portion of Rematch, but the other is at the Menil, until March, for the Experiments with Truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence exhibition.

A Landscape Exclusively Houstonian
One of my favorite pieces in Rematch might have been one of most traditional, a large painting, untitled, but referred to as Terra Infirma. This early work is owned by the Museum of Fine Arts, is seldom seen and was not included in the earlier New Orleans or St. Louis Rematch exhibitions. Chin painted this darkly beautiful landscape of native plants and an ominous black pool during the early 1980s when there was a lot going on in his life. This was also coincidentally, or not, around the time of the oil bust.

“Maybe I was getting too comfortable in Houston when I was working on this,” he ponders as we stare up. “At the same time there was tragedy within our family, murder, homicides, lots of things contributed to my departure, lot of things were happening,” and while he wouldn’t go into detail about those personal “happenings,” he does call the work “almost a going away” piece.

Chin has, of course, been back to his native soil many times, sometimes for very long periods, so now that he’s retrospecting what does he think of Houston today?

“I’m so grateful that it’s turned into a real city," he says. "What I mean by real city is one of the most diverse cities in America now. To walk down the street and hear the different languages is a joy to me because our existence is going to be dependent on how we communicate.

"To have that is a rare gift. To be in a rare gift is to be in a city that has transformed.”

Skylar Fein and Dan Tague in the Whitney Museum of American Art Collection

The New York Times Features Mel Chin for Smack Mellon Group Exhibition 'Respond'

MEL CHIN, Night Rap, 1994, polycarbide plastic, steel, wireless transmitter, microphone element, batteries, Edition of 5

Raging at Racism, From Streets to Galleries
Smack Mellon and Grey Art Display Art Sparked by Politics

On Dec. 3, a grand jury declined to indict a white New York City police officer for the chokehold death of an unarmed black Staten Island resident, Eric Garner. Anger at the verdict, particularly on the part of African-Americans, already stung by the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., was intense. Street protests flared across the country in perhaps the largest public display of resistance since the 1960s.

The same day the Garner judgment came down, one of the biggest contemporary art fairs, Art Basel Miami, opened in Florida. As accounts of demonstrations flooded social media, Art Basel posted breathless reports of strong early sales. For the next five days, dealers stuck to their booths; artists, curators and collectors schmoozed at pools and bars. The only protest came from outraged V.I.P.’s left off the guest list for a Miley Cyrus gig.

In some ways, it’s kind of nuts to compare a real world of life-or-death crises with cash-machine art fairs. Yet there are things to be learned by placing them side by side. Our culture still encourages us to view art as a conveyor of higher values. The commercial art world has built a lucrative power base on that very myth of specialness, while shaping itself into a mini-version of American elitism: dominantly white; sealed off by privilege.

That, of course, is far from the entire art world story. On Dec. 3, Smack Mellon, a nonprofit alternative space in Brooklyn, heard the grand jury news and swung into action. The gallery’s directors, Kathleen Gilrain and Suzanne Kim, rearranged their exhibition schedule, pooled mailing lists compiled by six artists in residence — Esteban del Valle, Molly Dilworth, Oasa DuVerney, Ira Eduardovna, Steffani Jemison and Dread Scott — and sent out an open Internet call for art that directly addressed issues of racism, police violence and social justice. More than 600 proposals or finished pieces soon arrived (more are still coming in), some 200 of which make up a knockout group show with a commanding title: “Respond.”

Much of the work is installed salon-style, six pieces deep, in the gallery’s two-story-high front space. And it ranges across generations, from a 1985 painting of a salivating police dog in South Africa by Jerry Kearns, and a 1993 Mel Chin sculpture that turns a nightstick into a rapper’s microphone, to entries by young artists like Faith Briggs, Elliott Brown and Maya Mackrandilal, who are showing in New York for the first time. The large quantity of painting and drawing gives lie to complaints about the underdog status of these forms, while the predominance of figurative work is a welcome departure from the current craze for abstraction.

Needless to say, much of what’s here is topically on point. (One of the few abstract paintings, by Anthea Behm, is done with pepper spray.) Several artists — Albert Areizaga, Mensa Kondo, Ashleigh Sampson, Rudy Shepherd — contribute portraits of Mr. Brown. Mr. Garner’s recorded last words, “I can’t breathe,” and variations on them, circulate like a mantra. They appear as a headline in a newspaper tossed on a chair in an oil painting by Sandra Koponen; as written phrases layered to the point of obliteration in a digital print by Jessica Goehring; and in dialogue boxes in a fine multipart narrative drawing by Rashid Johnson, who sent the piece from a Texas prison where he’s an inmate. Mr. Johnson’s work, which goes back in time, opens the show to histories. Trayvon Martin’s hooded face looms like a giant rose in a 2013 collage of Arizona bottle labels and Skittles wrappers by Amanda Barragry. And in a 2004 film still by Tami Gold the mothers of three victims of police assault — Anthony Baez, Amadou Diallo and Gary Busch — stand side by side with pictures of their children.

Politicized portraiture is also the focus of exhibitions elsewhere in New York. In paintings of male faces by Titus Kaphar at the Studio Museum in Harlem all the subjects are named Jerome but the images are of different people. When searching the Internet a few years back for his father’s prison records, the artist came across a mug-shot site with pictures of recently arrested black men, all of whom had his father’s name. He painted the faces against a gold ground, like Byzantine icons, then dipped them in tar just far enough to cover the mouth, obscuring the features, but also suggesting the crippling political silence imposed by the consignment of a high percentage of black men to prison.
Among the people who saw “The Jerome Project” at the Studio Museum was a picture editor for Time magazine, which then commissioned the artist to illustrate its 2014 “Person of the Year” cover. The “person” honored in that artwork, which eventually ran inside, was a collective one: the protesters who took to the streets in Ferguson. (One of them, the artist Damien Davis, is in the Smack Mellon show.) Mr. Kaphar rendered the figures as ghostly presences, hands in the air, faces swiped with white paint as if bandaged. He titled the painting, which is in a show at the Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea, “Yet Another Fight for Remembrance,” as if acknowledging in advance the likelihood that awareness of civil rights causes will soon be lost to the news cycle.

The figures in Mr. Kaphar’s Time spread are anonymous. The people in Bradley McCallum’s “Portraits of Justice” series at Kinz & Tillou Fine Art are not. The dozen men seen close-up are, or have been, on trial for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. They include Kang Kek Iew, former leader of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, who oversaw prisons notorious for the torture there. He is now in prison for life. And there’s Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, leader of lethal armies of child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who was sentenced to a mere 14 years. Trials of other defendants are still underway.

Mr. McCallum, of Brooklyn, has supplemented — you could say softened — these subtly monstrous portrait paintings with photographs in a small group show, “Post Conflict,” which he has organized at the gallery. Most of these pictures — by Pieter Hugo, Alfredo Jaar and Lana Mesic — are of two people standing side by side or embracing. These are survivors of the 1980s civil war in Rwanda, though from different sides of the conflict — one member was the victim of violent assault; the other was the perpetrator. Through a long, intensive process of contrition and forgiveness, they have, impossible though it seems, learned to live with a horrific shared past.

Reconciliation is a tone seldom struck in “Respond,” where a sense of anger and grievance feels fresh, even when projected back into history. A deftly brushed painting by Nicky Enright evokes an example of quietly and persistently furious protest art from the past: the black banner emblazoned with the words “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday” that the N.A.A.C.P. used to fly from the window of its Fifth Avenue headquarters between 1920 and 1938, whenever reports of racially based murders came in.

Mr. Enright’s picture, a reminder of how far we are now from such public gestures of accountability, would fit right in to “The Left Front: Radical Art in the ‘Red Decade,’ 1929-1940” at Grey Art Gallery, New York University, a carefully researched traveling show of political art assembled by the Mary and Leigh Block Museum at Northwestern University, with the scholars John Murphy and Jill Bugajski as curators.

The works were made during the Depression, by artists, many of them European émigrés, dismayed 
by racism and poverty and confident of left-wing solutions to these wrongs. Maybe because so much of what they did was by-the-book ideology driven — as most of what’s in “Respond” is not — a certain consistency of style and tone prevails: realism and indignation. These features are often cited as political art’s inherent limitation, the reason it’s doomed to look dated, flat-footed and aesthetically second-tier.

As a genre, it does have problems. It easily can be too obviously on-message, seeking agreement followed by action. Even a fair amount of the work in “Response” is of this sort. It isn’t in the business of giving you sigh-over beauty, though there are some surprising delicacies here. (Look, for example, for an ethereal text piece by Colin Chase; Ann Johnson’s portrait of a singer, Michele Thibeaux, hand-printed on a feather; and SOL’SAX’s shimmery transformation of protesters in Detroit into African dancers.) In the end, it’s the show as a whole, its massed voice, that is so impressive, and heartening.

The take-away message from seeing it and the Grey Gallery show together is how little has changed: Economic inequity, class division and racism are as potent and intransigent as ever. A 1932 print by Prentiss Taylor protesting the trial, on false charges, of nine black teenagers in Scottsboro, Ala., and Shani Jamila’s 2014 photo of a “No Justice!! No Peace!!” placard in Ferguson tell the same basic story. Maybe the big variable lies in attitude. For the art world of the 1930s, social progress hadn’t happened yet; the mainstream art world of 2015 doesn’t believe in progress. It only believes in recycling cycles and tweaking them.

“Respond” doesn’t come from that world, and it takes a fundamentally different position on the subject of what is and can be. It is asserting, in a very old way, that there’s a proactive link between images and ethics, between art and life, studio and street. That link isn’t the be all and end all of art, but it’s real and may, as Mr. Kaphar hopes, sustain a now-aroused hunger for change. If nothing else, it has produced a soundtrack of shouts, cries, chants and whispers to set against the wall of insulating white noise that enwraps the art world at large.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Pelican Bomb Reviews Dan Tague's 'Chapel of the Almighty Dollar'

The Chapel of the Almighty Dollar, exterior installation view

The Chapel of the Almighty Dollar 
OCTOBER 25, 2014 - JANUARY 25, 2015

Pernicious Root: Dan Tague's Chapel
by Rachel Gorman

Dan Tague’s The Chapel of the Almighty Dollar is best seen on a clear, sunny day when its pyramidal edges are sharpest against New Orleans’ cerulean sky and its four golden sides glint in the sun. Depending on your interpretation, Tague’s Chapel is either a fairly predictable extension of or a radical departure from his ubiquitous dollar bill photographs that distort the language of currency to highlight the disastrous consequences of unchecked capitalism. The Chapel’s size and, more significantly, its overtly religious themes expand Tague’s usual critique, positioning viewers as literal “money-worshipers” as they interact with the strange structure. To drive home the evangelism, Tague has created handouts for visitors—small, photocopied black-and-white booklets that include a hymn entitled Money is All the World to Me and advertisements for Tague’s noontime “weekly sermons” on Saturdays.

Willing participants can walk through a small square door to enter the pyramid’s dark but roomy interior. A plush rug and floor pillows invite meditation under a hanging chandelier’s low light. Chanting plays on a loop and photos from Tague’s folded bills series stretch the length of each wall bearing phrases like PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS, THE END IS NEAR, THE ROOT OF ALL EVIL, and THE ALMIGHTY DOLLAR. Tague’s artworks are so large and prominent that they dwarf participants sitting inside of the pyramid and introduce the unsettling idea that the artist has not only invited people to worship their most insidious cultural priority, but him as well.

As with many participatory artworks of the last five years, Chapel feels conveniently social-media friendly— tailor-made to be incorporated into ultra-likeable, bite-sized snapshots on Instagram. A cursory hashtag search reveals that the work hasn’t exactly gone viral; nevertheless to attend during peak weekend hours is to risk having one’s experience marred by camera phones. Go at a slower time of day and the golden structure pulsates in the quiet; a glittering, magnetic, and surreal monument to money on a little plot of grass in New Orleans’ most rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.

Mel Chin Featured in Group Exhibition 'UNLOADED' at SPACE in Pittsburg, PA

MEL CHIN, Cross of the Unforgiven, 2012, AK-47 assault rifles (cut and welded), 69 x 59 x 1.5 inches

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust announces the opening of UNLOADED, a multimedia group show that explores historical and social issues surrounding the availability, use, and impact of guns in our culture. The exhibition opens at SPACE in the Cultural District, Friday, February 13, 2015, and it is on view through April 26, 2015, with a closing reception during the April 24, 2015, Gallery Crawl.

The works in UNLOADED consider age, gender, race, mental health, political affiliations, and philosophical stances as factors surrounding our attitudes and uses of guns. They reflect a number of perspectives, though none endorse the gun as a means to an end. UNLOADED is organized by Susanne Slavick, who is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Art at Carnegie Mellon University.

"For over a decade, my work as an artist, and more recently as a curator, has dealt with violence, primarily the violence of war and its aftermath," Slavick says. "UNLOADED shifts the focus to violence on the home front where guns play an enormous role in wounding the well-being of society, whether through the tragedies of domestic violence, suicide, or homicide."

UNLOADED includes the sculpture Cross for the Unforgiven by Mel Chin that configures eight AK-47s as a Maltese cross. Frozen in perpetual opposition, they are rendered dysfunctional, unable to exact a drop of blood. With ironic sentimentality, the assemblage Baby's First Gun by Renee Stout commemorates a developmental milestone, while James Duesing's Dog-a projected video of a hot dog holding a gun-offers a wry rendition of machismo. For the Homeland series, Nina Berman travelled the country photographing military weapons displays, SWAT team training, and drills designed to prepare for hypothetical terrorist attacks, in order to portray the evolution of the "American security state." Resistance to the power of guns is embodied in Vanessa German's sculptures, signs, and spoken word performances and in Jessica Fenlon's ungun, a video composed of degrading glitched images of instruments of violence.

The exhibition features work by local and national artists, as well as artists working in China and Germany. Artists include Lauren Adams, Nina Berman, Joshua Bienko, Casey Li Brander, Anthony Cervino, Mel Chin, Cathy Colman, Dadpranks, James Duesing, Jessica Fenlon, Vanessa German, Jinshan, Andrew Ellis Johnson, Jennifer Nagle Myers, Adrian Piper, Don Porcella, Susanne Slavick, Renee Stout, and Stephanie Syjuco.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Youth Empowerment Project & Guns in the Hands of Artists ||| Panel Discussion #4

JOHN BARNES - YEP Gallery Talk


DAN TAGUE - YEP Gallery Talk


CLUB S+S - YEP Gallery Talk

RON BECHET - YEP Gallery Talk

DAN TAGUE - YEP Gallery Talk

SKYLAR FEIN - YEP Gallery Talk