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.

how to write an artist statement, part 2

I wrote this post on how to write an artist statement back in June 2009, and it is still, to this day, in the top five of visited pages on my site every month. In short, I recommended any given statement for a work of art include three things: what the piece is, what we see or experience, and what is at stake in that experience, for us to practice beyond our initial artistic encounter. I expounded on this a bit more, then went on to offer seven additional guidelines for your text, which should, I recommended, be 300-500 words.

But that’s for individual works of art. What about your overarching artist statement, for a series, body of work, or, yet more difficult, your practice overall?

The answer is simpler than you think. Do a statement like this/the above for three or four pieces, individually, then look for overlaps in the stakes between them, in order to write around them. And edit this all down to fit it into one page, maybe 700 words or so.

Too often, artists begin writing an overall statement about their work in a vacuum, or rather, regarding their personal relationship to their art, instead of their viewers’. But “I’m interested in,” or “my work explores,” and “I research and relate….” are about your practice or what you want your work to do. Very often, such statements only describe the last piece you made, the work you wish you were making, or the processes you used to produce them. The experience of viewership of extant art is a very different thing. And writing a material and/or relational experience for us is precisely how you invite audiences in to material and/or relational art.

Your statement should rather start with something similar to the above. “I make x, which do y, and z is why that is important.”

Then… wait for it… …

For example, in [title of piece] … [summarize one artist statement you already wrote. What it is, what we experience, why that’s important. Refer back to this post when writing!].
Or with [do that again, for another piece].
And in [one more time, another piece].
Overall, the work… TA DA!!!

And so, write the immediately above first. Take your individual works for what they are, and do – even ask others what they are and do for them – before you write around them. And be as concise as you can in this.

But Nathaniel, you may say, your artist statement is SUPER long! That’s true. Yet it follows that same format; it just does so three times in a row, for lots of work, with transitions, so that those web surfers looking for specific pieces I am known for will be able to search for them and know they’ve come to the right place. Remember: I have a 20 year artistic research practice, across printmaking, writing, installation, interaction, networked art, sculpture, performance, and more – and some folks only know one or another of the media I work with, depending on their field. Most people who come to my site already know something about me, and are looking for a specific piece, and I make sure they can find it. I wouldn’t put that entire long statement on an exhibition, or send it to a residency. I would choose three pieces, and perhaps write around those, again. And I recommend said same for all my students and peers, in a given space.

Remember: writing, theory, philosophy and storytelling tell us the stakes of what we do and are, what we might be in the future. Art brings those stakes into the room, as material form, or experience. And so you must always include what your art is, and how we engage, so as to have us regard its import. And then write-with that story, think and share, again and again.

implicit art… restart (on Mo Gawdat’s Solve for Happy)

With the pending release of my new book (Ecological Aesthetics: artful tactics for humans, nature, and politics) in June or July of next year, and all the goings-on of the last couple of years in my life / the world, I’ve decided it might be time to reboot the blog I began back in Johannesburg circa 2002, and which teetered off and eventually died after two continental moves. Whereas that site began with my writings on art and politics, moved into regional discussions of aesthetics and culture and back again, here…. um, well… yeh, it will similarly be on whatever I feel like posting about, that I think is interesting.

For now, the new tagline is “art and ecology, fiction and geek stuff, culture and philosophy, parenting and life, etc”.

Forthcoming: a bit on my new book, some interesting tidbits from students in the classes I am teaching this semester (two Digital Studio courses, and one in Mechanical Engineering, plus some extra-curriculars), and thoughts on some great new art and books I’ve seen and read this Summer. You can expect to hear from me about once per week from now.

For now, a briefiew (yeh, I just made that up, a “brief review” portmanteau.  Tho I’m sure someone else has used it before, and it may not have gone down well. I decided against googling it, and ruining it for myself….) on Mo Gawdat’s Solve for Happy.

There are some lovely, and funny, and sad moments in this book, about a Google engineer’s quest for contentment, where he found and lost and found happiness before and after the death of his son. Gawdat hopes to share, simply, how to live with ourselves, and others, in the moment. He has an actual equation and formula, with numbers and lists and drawings (I’m actually listening to the audiobook, so I just imagine them, tho it comes with a PDF; his voice is very soothing). Honestly, Gawdat’s outlook mostly feels like a contemporary (and geeky) take on Eckhart Tolle’s Power of Now (which my mom likes way more than I do).

In the end, overall, it’s worth your time (even if, like me, there are few self-help books you are into – non-fiction is, of course, much broader than this!). The author is likable, his stories moving, his personality generous and relatable. And I’d like to share my favorite bit, which more or less goes as follows: the voice in your head is not you.

That person, who you think is you, who criticizes the way you eat, or move, or work out? The one who replays conversations in your head (or in my case, out loud), or wonders why that person at work is being that way towards you? That voice, which questions you, or the world, or the ones you care about? Overall, your inner monologue… That person is not you. That’s a construct of a person, the one who got praise or punishment from parents and teachers, and followed suit; he or she is the one who performs for others. That is not the real you. YOU are the one observing that criticizer. And you do not have to listen to the voice.

I’ve named the voice in my head Ferdinand. He is a bit of a dick, and I like to roll my eyes at, and make fun of, him. It has seriously changed things around here. So… thanks for that, Mo Gawdat’s Solve for Happy.

Why make it elusive?

He's our guy... entity... talking-thing... to do the job

A while back I listened to the audio version of Steve Martin’s biography of his time as a standup comic, Born Standing Up. In it, he talks about getting a whole new kind of reaction from the audience by passing on the stand-up’s standby: the punchline.

So I started kicking this idea around. Could Steve Martin’s idea of humor… that is, basically, of never letting the air out of the balloon, be adapted into comics? Maybe.

I decided to try it. So, allow me to introduce my comic: Eat the Babies. It’s about a walking talking TV. There is no continuity to it, other than the fact that the TV does have friends. The two most frequently recurring friends are Woody Guthrie and John Maynard Keynes. It veers into social and philosophical issues a lot, but mainly its concerned with using the TV’s confusion about humans to create a humor that is elusive.

It means to be elusive.

The idea is you’ll get to wanting to look for it and find it in your own places.

I don’t know if I’m quite getting there, but if the comics don’t make sense yet it is because that is what I am looking to do. To explain my thinking behind strips would be to defeat the purpose, but let me point you to a few favorites so far.

TV gets mugged.

TV talks to Woody Guthrie about songs.

Woody explains adulthood.

TV is a talking head on tv (my personal favorite so far).

If you’ve seen the Charles Schulz tribute site, 3eanuts, that’s the best example I can give of what I want to do so far, though it’s not quite there. Well, it is there. It is awesome at what it is. It’s just not quite what I want Eat the Babies to be. But it’s close!

For the hardcore arts crowd, there are genuinely avant-garde webcomics out there. You should check them out. I don’t think I’ll be going to any conferences with those guys, as much as I might like to. So, if you’re interested in seeing someone try something, that’s the trick I’m trying. Feel free to click any of those links above and, you know… come see.