Review: Attempts at a Unified Theory, Sheila Held at Green Gallery, Milwaukee

On The Ferry (from the Women and Water series) 2015. Wool, silk and metallic weft on cotton warp. 61 x 38 inches

I first met Sheila Held at a panel presentation I gave in 2014, and she invited me to her studio / home in Wauwatosa for dinner shortly thereafter. I bring this up precisely because of how inviting she and her work – the latter entirely comprised of narrative-alluding and large-scale tapestries – are, in their combination of art, artfulness, and (sometimes cutting political) philosophy on the one hand, an invitation of dialog, friendship, or even maternal kindness on the other. Her studio, too, is a kind of wondrous binary of new technologies and old world charm.

A mature but still emerging artist, Held’s process is fun and intriguing. She says she is not the best illustrator, but she spends evenings drawing with colored pencils anyhow, a mode of thought and generative production. Her images, however, begin from magazine spreads or photographs, where she scans them in and layers them as collage-forms that imply stories around water and people, science and magic, spirituality and the environment. She just… plays until she has something she likes, then enlarges the images to the size she wants (though at much lower resolution, so that the pixels become where she can work with yarn).

The space she does this in is almost the opposite of my own. Whereas I have computers and equipment everywhere, and a big open space for projection and interactivity, her computer is tucked in a corner, and a huge loom, uh… looms over you, wherever you go. It is a horizontal rather than upright loom, meaning the back of each tapestry she is working on is up, where Held cannot see the front, and she works on a lot of”faith” that her images will come out right – all the more scary, given that the pieces take months to produce.

And this, too, is a part of her work: time. Where so much of arts discussions these days are around relationality and participation, ephemerality and waste, Held points to signification and precision, monumentality and the sacred.

Eve and Lillith Do the Snake Dance (from the Origins series), 2017. Wool and silk weft on cotton warp.
61 x 39 inches

Attempts at a Unified Theory spans more than 20 years of work, from 1995 through to Eve and Lillith Do the Snake Dance, which was “fresh off the loom,” as Sheila told me. And they are, in a word, lush. John Riepenhoff, curator at the Green Gallery, says he really appreciates the painterly quality of Held’s work, that it has managed to rekindle his own interest in showing more contemporary art forms that are traditionally thought of as craft (he specifically names fibers and ceramics here).

In her latest work, Eve and Lilith (the latter Adam’s first wife) happily and sensuously dance together, in the center of the piece, surrounded by snakes and… are those prawns or grasshoppers? The “first two women” could be flapper girls, and they have not a care, nor a man, in their world. They brought their own snakes, after all… It feels celebratory of women’s rights and the ownership of their own bodies – in more ways than one – and playful around a personal politics that must take precedence over the country’s.

Sheila Held
Sacred Cow (from the Seductions series), 2006 Wool weft on cotton warp
38 x 48 inches

One of my favorites on the show, Sacred Cow, has almost nothing recognizable within it, and that is precisely its charm. To painstakingly spend so much time and energy producing a woven tapestry of abstract forms, alongside stories and histories from myth and legend and the bible, all a part of the rest of the exhibition, makes its affective appeal all the more potent.

And my partner’s favorite is at the top of this post: three women carrying pots on their heads across the water, trapped on their water boats, yet still implicitly moving across our visual field. It again has a sense of celebration and critique, and hails from Held’s Women and Water series. So, we should ask, what about women and water? Is this of interest because they are both fertile and life-giving? Dangerous yet inviting? Resonant, dispersing, self-propelling, and persistent? Fourteen works in all, there are so many stories to share and tell.

Sheila Held’s solo exhibition, Attempts at a Unified Theory, is at Green Gallery East until November 18th. The gallery is open Wednesday – Saturday, 2 – 6 pm.

After Gallery: a new kind of space between Riverwest, the East Side, Downtown, and Bronzeville

Vaughan Larsen at After Gallery

It is common for a teacher to learn things from his or her students, especially in the fields of contemporary and/or digital art, which are constantly shifting and changing how we think and act, between everyday culture and high- and low-, and those who make, break, and take that culture. Most recently, UWM photo student Vaughan Larsen – an Imagining America fellow, who has taken two participatory art courses with me, and is an all-around fascinating person – has taught me about some of the more interesting goings-on in my home city of Milwaukee (since 2008!). Specifically, he pointed me to After Gallery, where he was showing Peers, his series of public self-portraits exhibited as part of a group show, to celebrate the launch of After Magazine Vol. 4. Yes, that’s a mouthful; and it’s only a fraction of what the folks over at After have been doing since their launch, just five short months ago.

First, let’s talk space and vibe. With the tag line “Art, Community, Collaboration,” After Gallery is a breath of fresh air in terms of how diverse and welcoming of an environment it is. I got there just as things were getting started, 7pm on a Friday, and, although parking on Humboldt just below North isn’t the easiest, it felt neighborly – especially with several signs inviting folks in, and the Barbie cars out front (apparently from a kids’ race a few weeks before). As soon as I entered, Flow Johnson, the gallery owner and director, greeted me with a warm handshake, invited my son to watch movies in the basement, asked me to look around, enjoy the music, and make myself at home. I brought Jack downstairs, where there were kids both sleeping and playing, other artists chatting – the latter immediately introducing themselves to me as Nate and Natalie.

Back upstairs a few minutes later, there was already a crowd, Jack began playing with two dogs in the space, and I started a chat with Darius Smith about After Magazine (we were later joined by their female intern, a student at MIAD whose name escapes me at the moment – if you know it, put it in the comments and I’ll edit!). This is “a submission based artist magazine with a focus on music, art, fashion, lifestyle and social justice. [They] provide a platform for emerging artists, locally and nationwide, and ask them to share how their environment has helped shape their vision.” At $25 it is a bit pricey, but wow, it is beautiful. I bought it both to show support, and just to have it. Flow re-joined the conversation, and handed me some flowers from Flowers for Dreams, a Chicago-based company that donates 35% of its profits to charity. My partner loved them when I got home. Score.

Originally meant to be a group show, only Larsen and Johnson were on display, which was a bit disappointing. But the work was strong. Larsen is somewhat androgynous in his personal style – to the point where I had to ask his preferred pronoun early in our interactions – and takes self-portraits in public places. Rather than either hiding or flashing his identity, Larsen seems to take pride and revel in his and his surroundings’ awkwardness. The images are charming and fun, and make us laugh at ourselves in how we look and see, act and are.

Johnson’s work is a bit more diverse. Drawings and nudes, children making faces… I think he designed the After t-shirts, too. It matches the space: fun, interesting, inviting. His collaboration with Jenna Knapp is especially clever and intriguing, giving me warm fuzzies around how I interact with others, versus how I wish I did. I think on this as the music starts to blare,  a diverse group is having fun, and there’s so much more going on than I had expected when I ventured out earlier in the evening simply to support a student. Zines and chap books, fashion and mixers, games and play. Seriously, check out their web site. If anything, After Gallery may be trying to do too much. Not to say it can’t be all it wants to be – it already is, in how inviting of a space it feels like, in how a middle-aged man like me can arrive with his son early, and others can stay late and party. But rather, with so much programming, it’s a lot to manage, and a lot can go wrong this early on. Which is to say: be forgiving if things are late or imperfect (like… a group show that winds up being a duo!). New art spaces that last in Milwaukee are few and far between, especially run by young people of color, and they deserve our support. Like they say on their web site: it is our space as much as it is theirs.

After Gallery is at 2225 N. Humboldt in River West, and is open every day but Sunday, from noon-7 (later for openings).

Briefiew of General Ecology: The New Ecological Paradigm

I define an ecological approach as one that takes account of agents, processes, thoughts, and relations. Humans and non-humans, matter and concepts, things and not-yet things, politics, economics, and industry, for example, are all actively shaped in, and as, their interrelation. And there is, according to Erich Hörl in his great collection edited along with James Burton, General Ecology: The New Ecological Paradigm (2017), “hardly any area that cannot be considered the object of an ecology and thus open to ecological reformulation.” These range in the thousands, he asserts, including “ecologies of sensation, perception, cognition, desire, attention, power, values, information, participation, media, the mind, relations, practices, behavior, belonging, the social, [and] the political” to name a fraction of those already called into action (1).

The book brings together some of the most important thinkers of our time, across media and philosophy, feminism and communication, geology and literature, to have us reevaluate, in the words of Brian Massumi in his chapter on “Virtual ecology and the question of value,” our “orientational qualities of existence.” What do we value, and why? Can we shift our appetites and propensities, our stylistic approaches, so as to aim, together, with our environments, towards better futures?

Like most collections, this book is best digested slowly, rather than read all at once. I started with the introduction, jumped to Massumi’s chapter (among the authors, I am most familiar with his work), then back around to Stiegler, Parikka, Fuller and Goriunova, and more, and I’m still middling through several others. I’ll admit it is also surprising, and reassuring, to see so many media theorists and digital culture scholars asking us to think-with our everyday materials, what they do and are, and might become – and what we should do as part of our engagements, and life.

Simply, I love the framing of this book as a whole. It gives these wonderful thinkers the opportunity take different and new directions with their research, to push the boundaries of their own specificities, in order to show us how to approach ecology more generally. And, it’s under $30 (yes, I paid for mine; this is not a freeview). Recommended.

Brefiew: Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious by N Katherine Hayles

Welcome to another briefiew (brief review)!

N. Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics was hugely influential on my dissertation and thinking, and I still cite her regularly in my classes and texts. Here her ironically titled book re-members (that is, embodies again) how humans (and data) both “lost their materiality” in our minds, and then she shows us that this is dead wrong, and that there are major stakes in that misperception. Her 2017 Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious differentiates between a thinking that describes “thoughts and capabilities associated with higher consciousness such as rationality, the ability to formulate and manipulate abstract concepts, linguistic competencies, and so on,” and “cognition” (2), which is the nonconscious capacity for processing information, the latter gained through biological sensation or perception, or technological sensors, mechanical feedback, or data received from external sources, among other things. Cognition, in other words, is a “much broader faculty” extant on some level “in all biological life-forms and many technical systems” (14).

Hayles wants to have the humanities engage with and better understand “the specificities of human-technical cognitive assemblages and their power to transform life on the planet” through a more coherent “ethical inquiry” (3-4). She wants us to look more closely at what and how those systems act, cognize, and think, what we do with and as them, and why. Hers is an important premise and fascinating study of the “supporting environments” humans are “embedded and immersed in,” which “function as distributed cognitive systems” (2).

I found myself alternatively nodding and shaking my head while reading. I agree that we must pay more attention to the things that think and cognize, and the ethical questions at play; though I also believe the distinctions more blurred and subtle (and sometimes non-existent) than laid out by those Hayles cites (book forthcoming – though mine is entirely about art!). Still, this is precisely because it is such an interesting topic, with too much to debate. And Hayles’ her bringing these ideas into the humanities is unmistakably important, and her modes of storytelling around them are as funny and smart as ever. If you haven’t yet read  How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, I would start there – not because you need it to understand Unthought, but because the first is her strongest manuscript, by far.  If you enjoyed that, or have more interest in the later/recent book, I do recommend it. It’s not as easy of a read, but it is more than worthwhile, and may yet prove to be the game-changer the first was.

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.

Urban Fantasy geek out: the Kate Daniels Series by Ilona Andrews

Urban Fantasy is one of my guilty pleasures. (I’m lying; part of me thinks that as a doctor/professor/artist type, I’m not supposed to love it. But I have no guilt, really. Only pleasure.) That’s fantasy – vampires and werewolves, fairies and elves, things along these lines – but in the present moment. Rather than taking place on a different world (Middle Earth! Narnia!), or at some point in history (Outlander! Leviathan! – tho the latter is more YAF, Young Adult Fiction and steampunk), it’s now, or in the near future. Like, if we’re talking movies and television, True Blood or Lost, which are decidedly part of the genre, or Buffy or Teen Wolf, which were (obvs) way ahead of their time.  

My favorite is the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews. (It’s also pretty cute that the authors are a couple, Ilona and Andrew.) The whole background of the world puts the fantasy genre on its head, in so many ways; and the tech and culture geek in me gets a real thrill around it.

Whereas in traditional Tolkien-like fantasy, “magic is leaving the world,” as science, technology, and contemporary know-how take hold, in Kate Daniels‘ world, magic is coming back, and technology is leaving – the latter eaten away by the powers of magic.

Myth and religion, magic and fae, werewolves, gods, vampires, and witches, from every part of the world, and every part of history, are real – and they gain their power from stories and belief.

Fascinating as part of the series, which now has 9 books and some short stories appearing elsewhere (some for free online!) is its own mythology. Like in many other fictional worlds (another favorite being Jim Butcher’s Dresden series), magic and technology do not get along. But rather than technology chasing magic away, or tech consistently breaking in the face of wizards, magic and tech simply do not exist at the same time. So with Kate, either the “magic is up” or the “tech is up.” And you never know when one might fail, the other dominate.

All the stories of old are real. Merlin. Golems. Vampires. Werewolves. Berserkers. Babel. The Morrigan. Dragons. All of it. But humans got arrogant. We used too much magic, grew our power until finally, it toppled over and destroyed itself; magic mostly left the world… for a time.

In the near future, our arrogance catches up with us again – this time technology toppling down from its overuse. Planes fall out of the sky, hospital equipment fails, buildings crumble, and, all at once, the monsters and heroes exist again.

Think of technology and magic as a pendulum swing. When one is up, the other is not. When that gets too powerful, it comes crashing down, the other rising. Interesting, in post-tech/post-apocolyptic Atlanta (er, all over the Daniels world, actually, but I had to slip in where she lives), the pendulum is more or less in the middle. This does not mean, however, that magic and tech are each at half mast; rather, every now and again, maybe after a few hours, maybe after a few days, all the gods disappear, the banshees stop shouting, my magic stops working, and the lights come on (etc). And, at the same random interval, the inverse, again.

One of my favorite things in all this chaos is the role belief in magic (or tech) plays. For example, praying to a lesser-known deity may again grant him or her power, new abilities, and more. Or, on the flip, and this is super clever, since we all know the basics of a car – filling it with petrol, changing the oil, that it goes via combustion – it would never run when the magic is up. But… how many of us really understand how a mobile phone works? For many of us, it may as well be magic. And so… sometimes (if the magic is not in flare), and for some people (if they are not too, too magical), phones will work when the tech is down/magic is up. Magic and belief, technology and its understanding, all can and do play off of each other in such interesting ways.

It makes for great stories. And the science and fantasy nerd in me loves every aspect of this.

Shape-shifters are infected with magic, DNA-swapping viruses. Vampires are actually empty, blood-sucking vessels, where Masters of the Dead can “ride” them like avatars. And Kate? She’s not really a hero. She’s deeply flawed, sometimes mean, only rarely kind, a complete bad-ass, who begrudgingly really does care about her world and those around her (especially kids!), and is thus immanently relatable and likable as a first-person author. And the romance, which takes quite a few books to build up, is mostly rom-com relief, with the occasional twist of the heartfelt.

Alright, I just convinced myself to start from the beginning of the series, and read once again. (Maybe I’ll write an academic paper about it, so it’s “work.”) You should, too. The paperbacks are super affordable at the moment.

This should get you started.

late addition: Ah, and they just announced book 10 yesterday! Timely!