Briefiew of Thor: Ragnarok (with the kids)

There are no plot spoilers in this review! Only a sprinkling of lines/character development appreciations…

The whole family went to see Thor:  Ragnarok on Sunday morning, and it was super fun! Jack and Nonie and I were all always excited for this one, but Kitty mostly only wanted to go because Idris Elba was in it (with a decent sized role, for a change; oh, and Cate Blanchett, too!); and she was very pleasantly surprised (even going so far as to say she now, finally, wants to see the other ensemble cast Marvel films, like The Avengers, with me). It was laugh out loud funny, and there were many “YES! KICK BUTT!” moments to boot.

What was so great about it? Let’s ask our team…

Nonie (11 year old geek girl) says she really appreciated Hulk’s character development. “He was his own character this time, with his own thoughts and feelings, separate from Bruce Banner’s.” Ruffalo’s Hulk, especially when bantering (possibly via improv) with Hemsworth’s Thor, really got a lot across, with minimal words. I always thought that the Banner/Hulk storyline was the best part of the first Avengers film, and this film continues that story, along with others, showing how Banner and Hulk begin to appreciate each other’s complementary parts. And that Wisconsin-born Ruffalo is a fine actor.

Jack (9-year-old boy wolf) says his favorite part is when Blanchett’s character, Hela, challenges Thor to the core (“What are you the god of again?”), and the latter thinks back on his upbringing, his father, his goals and aspirations, what make him Thor (hint: it’s actually not his hammer), and calls up thunder so the good guys (god guys?) win. It’s a nice story, and done well.

From my side (middle-aged art nerd), it was the easy sense of the relationships, the improv, the further development of a lot of already fairly developed characters (22 films or something like that now?). Thor: Ragnarok’s stories and jokes refer to earlier in the film itself (classic improv), but also to the comics, to previous films, to pop culture… but you don’t need to know all the references (or any of them) to enjoy it.

I looked it up, and apparently Hemsworth felt like Thor 2: Dark World tried too hard to be serious, and lost sight of some of what he wanted from the character. He spoke it over with the director, with Marvel, and others, and… they totally went for his ideas, scrapping and re-booting on some level. We used to think of Thor as this long-haired, cape-wearing, hammer-wielding hero, who takes himself pretty seriously. Now? We think of Hemsworth. So… Hemsworth had at him! He tore his cape and tossed it, cut his hair off (hilarious scene, with Stan Lee), lost his hammer, and very often took the piss out of himself. The chemistry between him and Hulk (and separately, Banner), him and Tom Hiddleston’s AMAZINGLY AWESOME (as always) and even more developed Loki, him and Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, etc, etc. … It’s just obvious they had so much FUN making this film. And I admit: I was even surprised at the end!

Kitty (most beautiful woman in the universe – inside and out) really appreciated… Loki. We love to hate him, hate to love him. He often does good, but we can never trust him.  Also? Idris Elba. Also? Now she likes Chris Hemsworth (I am going to watch the new Ghostbusters with her). Also? We don’t want to give any (more) of the jokes away, but… after you see it, say to yourself…. “we’re not doing get help.” Overall what Kitty really liked was that in addition to this fun and funny super hero film, she was able to engage with her own childhood passions surrounding Norse mythology, which is so rich and complex. Also? The sound track. So eighties!

Thor: Ragnarok’s plot is fun and interesting, there are a lot of awesome tangents and cool-but-throwaway “catch up with the Marvel story” lines – and it all holds together, both from beginning to end, and in relation to MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe).

All four of us recommend this film!

Review: Greg Martens’s Out From the Darkness at Grove Gallery

Greg Martens holds a very special place in my heart.

He was a traveling salesman who dropped out of college and married the love of his life with whom he raised three children, eventually becoming a cobbler out in Wauwatosa, WI – where his whole family helped fix shoes in their busy little shop. At the age of 46, Martens was diagnosed with very aggressive bone marrow cancer, and given two years to live. He shut down his store, proclaimed the love his family certainly already felt, said his goodbyes, and prepared for what he was told would surely come. At the 11th hour, he was offered an extremely experimental surgery that “may or may not work,” and figured, “It can’t get any worse.” After several surgeries, transplants, being in and out of the hospital all the time, financial ruin to the point of bankruptcy, and foreclosure… Greg went into remission. He was given, he has told me many times, a new lease on life. Literally.

And then? He went back to school to study visual art.

ink on paper self-portrait by Greg Martens

This is when I met Gregory Martens: as a non-traditional, working class, undergraduate printmaker in his fifties, happy, and making, and chatting almost all the time – dedicated to telling the stories of machinists, cobblers, and his blue collar peers, all performing their livelihood, and finding their place in the New American System. I watched and participated as he finished that degree, and then a Masters, exploring everything from celebratory woodcut portraits of his fellow Milwaukutians (I am told that this is not a word, but I am going to use it because I like it better than Milwaukeean) to photography and storytelling around his own journey with illness. He now teaches printmaking part-time in the Peck School of Arts at UW-Milwaukee, and works in his own Hip Joint Press studio.

“Out From the Darkness,” Greg’s solo exhibition, recently premiered at Grove Gallery – run by current UWM grad student and entrepreneur, Adam Beadel of Team Nerd Press. According to the artist, the “darkness” he is coming out of (and I’ll admit I have some mixed feelings about this) “refers to letting go of the influences and pressures of academic training” (ha!), as he is “just trying to channel the teenaged kid back in the 1970’s who loved drawing for endless hours while listening to rock and roll on the 8-track.”

update! The artist emailed me, re:above

Regarding the theme of my show, “Out from the darkness” using “darkness” to describe academic training and influence does seem a bit counter-intuitive, but ever since I entered the art world as a maker, the brass ring has been the New York market, Art Basel, and Documenta. Global, intellectual, heady ideas shaped into visual brilliance. Work worthy of the attention of Artforum, Art in America, and Hal Foster. Work that demonstrates a fully realized appreciation, mastery, and relevant commentary of art history, art theory, and art criticism. But aspiring (and failing) to reach these heights left me in a dark place. The heart of it all for me is drawing, and upon reflection, my purest experience drawing was as a long-haired “freak” in high school in the mid 1970’s. So, I have tried to recreate that experience in my studio and the results are the work in this exhibition. No strategy, no expectations, no pressure.

In Distractions, above, we see the artist on an accordion, behind a drum set and guitar, a baby (his grandkid?), monsters, and skeletons, and more. He is in front of a library, and beside a poster for a production (his studio, maybe?)… but that studio is on the move, transporting good(s) via truck. Honestly, his distractions and work both sound a lot more fun than my own bureaucratic, academic emailing and paperwork; heck, I’m having more fun writing about his distractions, and I suppose blogging is one of mine.

As is his usual, odd and graphic style, there is a combination of homage and darkness in all the drawings, paintings, prints, and sketchbooks-as-anthologies on show, which depict, he says, “demons, comics, snakes, skeletons, monsters, crying babies, bad boys, and cool cars,” with a sense of often political humor.

Sadly, I only made it out to Martens’ exhibition today, the last day – and there was some confusion about gallery hours… so the above shot is the utterly glorious window, and I was able to view only this and what I could see beyond, as well as what is on the two sites linked to above. But it, along with what I already know, is enough to recommend curators and galleries consider his work, and artists and art appreciators visit his site, or any other upcoming exhibitions (he’s also got a few pieces on permanent view on the ground floor of the Engineering building at UWM – where I helped to arrange some purchases!). And… definitely speak with him (or Adam about his gallery and print shop!) if you get the chance. Greg is an inspirational person and artist!

Sketching: The World After Us, speculative media sculptures

This blog post is a sketch – something I will occasionally do about my own work, or with others. It will always be a thinking-with of new materials and ideas, with this one coming out of the writing of my forthcoming second book (Ecological Aesthetics: artful tactics for humans, nature, and politics), chats with colleagues and peers and specialists, playing with media objects, proposing a fellowship (I didn’t get), and more. I welcome feedback! I imagine this particular proposal being a years- and perhaps decades-long project, with this first exhibition being produced over the next two or so years… The images are very recent experiments!

THE WORLD AFTER: US SPECULATIVE MEDIA SCULPTURE

What will Digital Media do, after us?

Galaxy (yes, the phone)

The World After Us will be a new series of media sculptures that materially speculate on what our devices – phones and tablets, batteries and displays, etc – might become, over thousands or millions of years. Through research, experimentation, and craft, I will try (and likely fail) to turn phones into crude oil, coal, or other fossil fuels – and put the results on exhibit, in beakers and tubes. I will attempt to mimic geological time, as pressure and heat – through chemical interactions or specialized machinery – on laptops and tablets, then display where that potential lies, as petrified-like LCDs or mangled post-exploded batteries, on pedestals in a gallery. I hope to turn “dead media” computers into efficient planters for edible goods, food for mold, or seeds of their own growth – and show both those experiments, and their results, as videos and sculptural forms. I will also turn ground phones into usable supplies, for example ink and paper, and put them to use in these new forms. The final outcome will be an internationally exhibited body of work, and catalog. It is impossible for humans to truly fathom our planet on an Earth scale, or conversely from the perspective of bacteria. But we can feel such things, through art and storytelling – making our aesthetic encounters both conceptually and ethically vital toward new futures. At stake, whether in our everyday interactions or on a larger scale, are the (digital) relationships between humans and the natural world on the one hand, between politics and commerce on the other.

The World After Us will be a traveling exhibition and catalog, beginning in Milwaukee, and shown in several other spaces internationally. It asks:

What will digital media be and do, after us?
What will my laptop, or phone, look like in a million years?
How will our devices weather over time?
Can we artificially weather our devices, to sense and feel this?

Torch phone (yes, literally)

These are not rhetorical questions. But they are more speculative than they are able to be answered directly and correctly. And with this research project, I will speculate and experiment, wonder and wander, with our materials. I will (safely) mix phones in blenders, press laptops under steamrollers, break down tablets with borax. I will soak iPads in chlorine and sludge, cook iPhones like cakes, inject the Apple Watch with spores and mold. Torch, grind, freeze, flower. Highlight, amplify, ironize, intervene. Resiutate, speculate, wonder, and propose.

Can we use biofuel processes or hydrothermal liquefaction to turn a phone into fuel?
How might a laptop make the most efficient planter, or bed for life?
What would a tablet made of carbon, instead of plastic, be and do?
What does a joule feel like?

Geological time and Earth size, decomposition and regrowth: these are concepts we can comprehend rationally, but they are impossible to truly fathom. I propose that we can feel such things, aesthetically and thus ethically, if we substantiate future potential, artfully, in objects and installations. My experimental project will do precisely this. It will take the form of between eight and 15 objects or installations that might be: beakers of coal- or oil-like matter labelled with the device they once were (ie iPhone 7); laptops growing spores and mold, propagating life in new and different ways; participatory machines that take our energy and convert it into media; new designs for carbon-based phones, which will more easily decompose over time; prints made entirely of media devices: image, ink, paper, etc… These objects will be accompanied by the stories and experiments that produced them (text, image, video), as well as an essay which mediates the research as a whole.

Some relevant reading (not including my not-yet-released book!):

Artist feature: Shane Walsh, Milwaukee-based painter (UPDATED!)

ROCOCO BEATBOX, Shane Walsh

Shane Walsh is a friend and colleague I used to share an office with, and we’ve even shared a beverage once or twice (OK, twice. Once hot, once cold). He is a teacher and artist I respect greatly as a peer at UWM – he is in Painting and Drawing, while I mostly teach in Digital Studio Practice – and so I feel like this post has been a long time coming (er… well, I only restarted my blog recently, but you know what I mean).

That said, Shane’s work is kind of amazing.

Something often coveted but almost never fully realized in contemporary art – and especially painting – is a balance between abstraction and representation, a way to play out affective tones and modulations, or gestures and resonances on the one hand (think Rothko, Pollock, or Twombly), while still engaging with perfect mimetic copies of the real world on the other. Where and when do you play between easy recognition and subjective internalization? And Walsh’s attempts at this question are smart, funny, and overall, extremely effective.

Shane Walsh, recent work (2017)

What looks like photocopies, or smeared ink, or a photoshop “find edges” filter, or cut outs, or watercolor, or dozens of other media… is always paint. In other words, Walsh is producing what appear to be abstract images in pen and pencil, frivolous gestures with machinery, and / or coded or other media forms; but each is actually painstakingly and perfectly representational: of one medium (actually, several of the aforementioned) by another (paint). The results accomplish a strong and strange duality, where I am moved, first, by the compositions and what they feel like, and then again by their histories: the craftsmanship and irony, the detail with which Shane paints faux frivolity, the performance that is both the painting and Shane’s practice, and overall the core history of Painting’s (yes, it’s a capital “P”) continuous forms, all at once.

Walsh’s newer work is all in black and white, calling even more attention to the early 20th century’s obsession with photographic influence on painting (as material and practice), as well as to early video art, lithography, and “the office,” but his earlier works in the trajectory, too, show a similar old/new, abstract/real, celebration/critique tension that is humorous and charming, while never losing site of how painting is and always will be at the center of every discussion of critical art, contemporary or otherwise. So when Shane paints sculptures, or digital art, or what look like geometric paper landscapes, they are always with a self-reflection on who he is, how he works, and what is at stake in “representation,” or the lack thereof, when working with his medium/discipline.


His newest black and white work, above, feels even more like “traditional” abstract expressionism in its gestures and forms, without some of the grids from his last few shows. But on closer inspection (left), we see what seems like it must be the photoshop line/paint tool, what should be a dry brush, a scraper, paint drippings, ink, watercolor… but all of them are, we learn, laboriously crafted by Walsh – representationally rather than gesturally. These are not performative – e.g. created by an embodied performance – but performances themselves: masks, pretense, a “playing at” of gestures, with paint.

I visited Shane’s studio today, and got to see some of his newest, in-process work (right, and below). Walsh has – after some feedback and constructive critique from several peers – decided to venture back into color, and, with his kind of work, this is much harder than it at first sounds. While the artist wants to continue his exploration of media forms and how they think-and-feel-with-paint, the style he works in, once colorized, could easily be misread as decorative arts, or Pop art, or Typography and graphic design. There is, of course, nothing “wrong” with these genres and movements, but they are not part of Walsh’s inquiry into form, performance, and information, and so… I’ll admit I had a bit of a blast brainstorming around new possibilities of where he might go instead! Could Walsh continue his black and whites, then layer them with construction-paper-like color? Make photocopy-ish paintings, as before, then paint on top like a coloring book, or make them look like splatters and drips? Reference printmaking, like woodcut, litho, or lino “key” blocks, and etched or screened “color” blocks around them? Shane has a lot of work, and far more potential, in front of him. It’s going to be so cool.

What happens in that space between affection and reflection, between what we sense, and how we make sense? How do our media and materials impact meaning-making in our everyday, and overall? Where do we per-form, where is there already form, and how do we in-form each other across these spaces? If what we feel and see is always already a part of who we are and what actions we take (and why), then when do aesthetics become ethics, and what are the implications in that question?

These questions are not idle ones, and Walsh invites us into them with skill, intelligence, beauty, and a bit of fun.

Shane Walsh shows with The Alice Wilds in Milwaukee, and has studio space in Walker’s Point, Milwaukee, and Brooklyn, New York.

UPDATE: here’s the completed work from above!

Artist Feature: Bryan Cera and Critical Machining

Bryan Cera is a former student of mine (he did both his BFA and MFA with me at UW-Milwaukee), and I couldn’t be prouder. Not that I can honestly take any responsibility for the person and artist Bryan has become – one who far surpassed his teacher long ago; but rather, I am proud to call him a friend and colleague, proud of the hard work he has done, and what he has achieved with it.

Cera was the featured artist at Maker Faire Milwaukee last weekend – the largest Maker Faire in the country – showing off his custom-designed 3D/ceramic printer, and some Daft Punk cosplay, among other things. The former’s main innovations are a vertical shaft worm gear box in order to seriously increase torque, so as to work with standard clay (rather than the over-watery liquid that often doesn’t hold form in most models), and real-time, manual  controls to similarly adjust speed and viscosity as needed. The latter (which gets heaps of Interweb hits), he happily told us, uses an Arduino Nano and addressable RGB LEDs.

But it is not Bryan’s technical innovation nor his open source attitude alone that make me proud. He was always this way, generous and smart, able to figure things out and willing to help others understand them. (See some of Cera’s best tutorial shares here.)

What continues to intrigue and impress me is Cera’s ability to smoothly move between cool pop culture fun, and important questions about how we perform and understand technology, ourselves, and the worlds they together make and change. For him, and for anyone who spends any time with him, art and craft, technology and culture, philosophy and fun, are never far apart – and the stakes in that distance – or the lack thereof – always have consequences.

When I met him, Bryan was making traditional art and going through school on the one hand, playing with technology and his sense of humor on the other. He didn’t see these two lives as connected until he was pushed to explore his fun and geeky side in his (home) work. What initially came out was various versions of Supercontroller – a full-body, interactive interface for Super Mario Brothers. Delightfully fun, we grab coins and jump over (or on top of) turtles to rack up points; this piece’s various iterations also begin to show how digital realms do not enhance our behaviors: they actually limit them in how we must face the screen and interact. Pung – the title a cross between the 80s game Pong and the word sung (like singing) – sees us control the up/down paddles of the classic table tennis arcade game with our voices. Here microphones stick out like robot arms from the screen, and gallery-goers sing and scream into their controllers in order to make it go. It’s a hilarious amplification (literally!) of the weird things we do to make our technologies function (watch the video!), between play, performance, and habit.

These two works embarked Cera on a journey around precisely the tensions between such things. One breakthrough open-source piece that got a lot of attention was Glove One: a fully functional phone you wear on your hand. Though a lot of folks really loved it – you dial on your fingers, do the classic “call me” gesture to speak and listen with your thumb and pinky, hang up by slamming your fist – there was a much funnier, and more critical, joke to the entire gesture. You see, there’s this great hand-phone you can use with natural movements and that looks super cool… and all you have to do is give up all other uses of your hand. You can’t do anything else. Pick things up, hold hands with your partner, wipe – none of it is a go. And Cera’s argument is that we often give up just so much when we adopt our new tech toys. Even when our phones are not there, for example, when we try to shut down and shut off, we feel the phantoms ringing in our pockets, pulling away our attention and our time…

ARAI: Arm For Artistic Inquiry (pronounced array) goes in another direction, but explores similar concepts. We constantly hear how robots are going to outperform us, steal our jobs, become more human. One core argument for this future is so that we humans can spend more time doing important things… What if, Cera asks, we made a robot more human, by having it do the things that humans would actually do in that free time? So… he made a robot that procrastinates. I kid you not. ARAI constantly opens the fridge, peers in, then closes it. It surfs Facebook for pictures of cats. It stares at magazines but does not read them. Ironically, says Cera, the more human the robot becomes, the more useless it is to us. Scary, funny, something to think with… He talks about it brilliantly in the TEDx talk above.

I’m super excited to see what’s next from Bryan Cera. Now an Assistant Professor of Craft and Emerging Media in the Media Arts Department at the Alberta College of Art and Design (that’s a mouthful of awesome right there), he seems to be playing out how more general materials think and act, and how they may change our media, alongside and within them. His beautiful Video Crystals, for example, shape moving images into moving sculptures, and he is in the process of imagining ceramic robots.

Good job, Bryan. Thank you for your work.

Exhibition Review of ‘This is Bliss’: Jon Horvath at The Alice Wilds, Milwaukee (updated!)

Jon Horvath at The Alice Wilds

Milwaukee artist and teacher Jon Horvath opened a moving and complex exhibition last night, his first with The Alice Wilds – one of the newest galleries in town, whose roster of artists and well-curated shows have already made it a destination.

Horvath’s story goes something like this: about four years ago the artist found himself driving through Idaho, and could not help but exit when an interstate highway sign read “Bliss.” What he found is a town with a rich and complex history – part of the Oregon Trail and first railroad system in the continental US, an inspirational space for Ansel Adams, Evel Knievel, and J.D. Salinger – now mostly abandoned and forgotten. All that is left, Horvath explains, is “one school, one church, two bars and two gas stations” serving about 300 residents.

Jon Horvath at The Alice Wilds

On first entering the exhibition, we encounter the hand-written-esque sign pictured above (top), setting up a tension between celebration and critique: for what once was, for what currently is, for the potential of what is yet to come. Bliss’ story, we understand almost immediately, is the story of America: its promise and its loss, our nostalgia for possibilities which are still possible but further away, our regret for the halt – nay, backwards movement – in progress.

The first room, then (second picture, above – click for large view), is a portrait of portraits, moments and places, people and objects, caught over four visits Horvath paid to the town of Bliss in the months that followed. He learned much of Bliss’ lore in conversation with a resident who was watering a patch of corn in his garden, on his first trip, and consequently collaborated with other Bliss-dwellers on follow-up narratives and images.

This room is by far the strongest on the exhibition. Horvath’s eye is refined and subtle, where he cares for and is generous with his subjects, conveying both pride and humility, hope and not-yet defeat. Each image, and their installation together, moves and is moving, invites us not to look on as voyeurs, but rather see ourselves in the photos, as part of them and that life, here and now.

In transition from this room to the back (a much more intimate space, which I will write about in a moment) is a series of painterly or graphic boards with inspirational quotes from the likes of Albert Einstein and Helen Keller. I’ll admit, I wonder what their significance was, specifically in relation to Bliss and its story. I found them to be interesting and inspirational, yes, but also a bit overdetermined in relation to the rest of the exhibition, which was more subtle and thoughtful. Perhaps that was Horvath’s point? Maybe they were ironic? He is too smart of an artist to dismiss this series as simply “off-topic,” or “failed,” so I welcome feedback in the comments, if anyone has them. They make me think, and ask questions… is that enough? I’m going to reach out to Horvath, and will follow-up if and when I hear back. (His response now below!)

From Jon Horvath, via email to me:

Happy to address your questions about the paintings, as I fully acknowledge how they may appear like an unusual departure from many of the other works in the project.

The paintings are given the broader title of “Senior Class Quotes.”  On the second day of my first visit to Bliss in 2014 I was invited to attend the high school’s graduation (I was quickly and warmly introduced to the town by the local residents).  That year, Bliss graduated a total of seven students and at the graduation ceremony was a digital slide show that contain[ed] inspirational quotes selected by each of the graduates.  As you touched on in the article, themes of idealism and the failed/unexpected outcomes that are often close behind are very present in the larger Bliss project.  So, for me, I wanted to take the occasion to honor the hopefulness of these graduates at a critical transition point in their lives by turning the digital slides into something more concrete in the form of the paintings.  The background imagery of each painting is a close recreation of the graphic imagery that each student used within the video editing software.

So while the paintings do possess the possibility of some irony, I’m less interested in concentrating my efforts on that and more so attempting to honor this moment of sincere thoughtfulness on the part of the graduates.

The last room felt like it was more about Horvath’s personal relationship with Bliss, and is for this reason my favorite on exhibition. Look at that relationship between hair and water, above. Just look at it. Better yet, go to the exhibition and spend time with. I stared at it for quite a while, with wonder.

An artist book (which I purchased), a photo catalog, receipts from his diner visits, some bottles and trees… This was where I briefly chatted pleasantries with the artist while my daughter ate cookies. But I was admittedly distracted by the imagery around me, and eventually told Horvath I had to spend time with it.

You should, too. Both ‘This is Bliss’ and The Alice Wilds are very much worth your time.

This is Bliss is on view at The Alice Wilds in Walker’s Point from September 15 through October 21, 2017.