Fred Wilson: Afro Kismet at Pace Gallery

Six framed prints from Fred Wilson's "Afro Kismet" show at Pace Gallery

Six framed prints from Fred Wilson’s “Afro Kismet” show at Pace Gallery

When we first moved to New Haven over 4 years ago, one of the recurring selling points was that it was “only an hour and a half from New York.” At the time, I didn’t think that was a very compelling reason to uproot my then 8-month old twin boys and our lives in San Diego, but over time, I’ve definitely seen it as a crucial benefit. The proximity of New York – New Haven has definitely made it possible for me to see shows at galleries and museum that I otherwise would not have been able to see. Some of my favorite memories of working at the Yale Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art have been the days out of the office with colleagues on day-trips to the NYC. Whether to network with new colleagues, check out British artists, hangout with our Yale-Smithsonian Bartels Intern at the NMAI, or present at conferences, I have had a ton of reasons to come to New York and great memories that I carry back with me on the Metro-North.

The summer is a great – though hot – time to come to NYC, and while most of the major exhibitions seem to have closed and galleries are on hiatus, there were two good reason to make the trek: Fred Wilson’s Afro Kismet at the Pace Gallery and John Akomfrah’s Signs of Empire at the New Museum. Am in between the two shows enjoying an Earl Grey and chocolate chip cookie at the New Museum, and haven’t had a chance to see the Akomfrah. The Fred Wilson show, however, was really, really cool. Fred Wilson has been a touchstone for me since I first learned about “Mining the Museum,” and his work has been a consistent reference point the way I think about art, institutional critique, and museums. When my boss, Linda, encouraged me to see the show, I took her up on the offer.

For me, there were two highlights:

(1) his juxtaposition between African objects and European oil paintings.This totally reminded me of both Pedro Lasch’s Black Mirror / Espejo Negro and Demian Flores’ Deconstruction of a Nation / Deconstruccion de una nacion, both of which I wrote about in a short e-misferica article, in which I actually mention Wilson. So I’m coming full circle here, 4 years later, in New York. I kept wondering why he chose to bring these specific African sculptures together with these European paintings – were they made at the same time? Did they have a similar visual register? Was there a geographic specificity to them? The exhibition text was sparse and I’m hoping the catalog will help me answer some of these questions.

(2) his overlay of parchment or wax paper so that the majority of the image was obscured except for the little ovals that highlighted the black figures in the image. I really enjoyed this subtle way of emphasizing the figure of African descent, as it emphasized the global reach and specifically Turkish context in which many Africans were visually registered. That said, they sometimes seemed very shadowy figures, and by not clearly viewing the context, it made it difficult to understand what role that figure had in the image. Were they always in a negative, downgraded position in servitude or in the shadows, or is there any counter-reading available that could see their very presence a form of acknowledgment and assertion. This is visible proof of their existence, and the very visual material that makes Wilson’s project possible.

This refocusing reminded me of Titus Kaphar’s Crumpled and Wrapped series, where he’s literally re-framing the canvas, often to emphasize the figure of African descent. As a New Haven-based artist, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him and teaching from his works of art at the Yale Art Gallery. His work is incredibly meaningful, and he couldn’t be a nicer person.

I’ve finished my tea and cookie, so I should sign-off and check out the Akomfrah show before I have to get back on the Metro-North. Trying to pace myself by only seeing a few shows during each trip to New York, and staying hydrated, caffeinated, and full has definitely become a priority. Have also learned the value of taking taxis instead of the subway and packing light. On to the next adventure!

P.S. If you’re ever in New York, come to New Haven! It’s only an hour and a half away!

A day in the life

Thumbnails for days

Thumbnails of potential objects for exhibition

During any given day, you will find me prepping to teach, cutting out thumbnails for an exhibition, speaking at a workshop on teaching at the Gallery, attending a History of Art Community meeting, editing my manuscript for the exhibition catalog, connecting to new colleagues on LinkedIn, or spinning at SHiFT cycling in New Haven. This week has been full of all sorts of challenges (intellectual, physical, logistical), and making it all work is a huge juggling act. Keeping all those balls in the air, thinking that they are each independent and autonomous of one another, while only I know that they are all interrelated. As one ball goes up, another goes down. The trick is keeping everything in motion, right? So just as my legs don’t stop spinning at my cycling class, I feel like my mind never stops moving (and that’s where yoga comes in).

The best thing is that I love every minute of it. I guess you could say I’m a born juggler. I thrive off the constant challenge and excitement of it all, and would be very poor at being bored or under-stimulated. I’m can definitely get overwhelmed by the work load and constantly switching gears, but I am not one to complain about it. I don’t think I could do it if I wasn’t genuinely passionate about academic affairs, teaching, curating, and the Gallery.

After all the craziness of the earlier part of the week, I have the next two days to slow down, return to editing my essay, and figuring out the objects for the show. I’m grateful for this next period of time to focus on keeping just a few balls in the air.

private collectors

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I really need to get started writing this article, but I just came back from a field trip to the private collection of Matthew and Iris Strauss (see also here) and I feel the need to process. To back up a bit, I’m a visiting scholar at UCSD’s Center for US-Mexican Studies this year — a huge honor — and to try and take advantage of my affiliation here I am auditing a class on curatorial practice taught by MCASD director Hugh Davies. The class is phenomenal and the final project is to design an exhibition based on MCASD’s permanent collection that, if chosen, might be selected to be actually put on exhibit. Is that not the coolest thing ever?

Anyway, the class is awesome because we’re learning both theoretical and practical skills of curating — something that I’m eager to learn more about. Today’s class was a visit to the Strauss collection and it was really breathtaking. My favorite piece is definitely Fred Wilson’s Picasso/Whose Rules, though I was also impressed by the amazing array of contemporary art, much of it newer artists that I was less familiar with. One thing that my visit put into relief is that writing a dissertation will definitely give you a more narrow view (“specialized” is the polite term) of art because you’re really focusing on a few artists (and even then, a few works from their oeuvre). Plus, you tend to forget about the business side of things and the importance of private collectors. I’ll have to ruminate on this a bit more, but I am really impressed by the eye of the Strauss’s and their commitment to art and especially local audiences in San Diego. Wealthy individuals have the ability to spend their money on anything, so it is quite admirable when they spend it on art collecting with an eye toward benefiting the larger good.

a decolonial approach to visual culture talk

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Last week, I gave a talk as part of the Visual Studies Research Initiative at USC. I was really nervous because I was sharing my ideas about decolonial approaches to visual culture with my colleagues and professors, and I had been preparing for months. I envisioned creating a different kind of space for knowledge exchange and production, so I came up with the idea of a dinner party — which was also timely considering it was the end of the year and a good moment for celebrating this year’s accomplishments. The talk turned out better than expected and people responded well to the Devil Wears Prada clip and the three artists who I presented on. I was worried that audience members might have negative reactions to decoloniality, but it was quite the opposite, as I found most of my colleagues genuinely wanted to learn more about the decolonial project. They offered some great comments and questions at the end and I received many congratulatory hugs. Now I just have to figure out how to spend the $250 gift certificate to the USC bookstore that I received as an honorarium!

late november

It’s that time of year when students & professors go into stress-mode. That special time between Thanksgiving and Christmas when you’re realizing that you only have a few weeks before the end of the semester. Which is great, but at the same time, extremely frightening. As an ABD student, I don’t often work along the same time frame, since I’m neither teaching nor in coursework. And I live about 100 miles from campus. But like some sort of persistent muscle memory, I still have the feeling like I’m supposed be busy and on deadline — and in some ways I am. I scheduled two talks late into the semester — one at the USC Fisher Museum of Art (above) and one next week on “A Decolonial Approach to Visual Culture.” These talks are not only a good way to disseminate my work to my fellow USC colleagues, but also function as built-in deadlines. Kind of like conference papers or fellowship deadlines.

The next major goal is to write Chapter 2 by the time I’m getting ready to leave for Vietnam. I have about 16 days to get this done, which seems kind of impossible. But I’m talking a draft — nothing perfect. The polishing can be done later. I just feel like if I don’t get all of my thoughts down before my trip, then I’ll forget them and lose some of the momentum that I’ve had over this last semester. Plus, my goal is to finish a draft of the entire dissertation by August 2013, so I have to stay on schedule. Let’s see how that goes!

getting it done

The trick to getting your dissertation done is writing or reading or doing some dissertation-related work EVERY DAY. Or almost every day — let’s say 6 days out of the week. Ideally in the morning, for at least two hours (if writing) or four hours (if reading or other stuff). Appropriate “other stuff” includes working on fellowship applications, writing abstracts for conference panels, organizing symposia in your field, meeting with professors or colleagues, etc. How people manage to finish their dissertations without working on it steadily every day is beyond me. I’ve never been the kind of person to wait to the last minute to complete a large assignment (small one, sure), and I refuse to pull all-nighters. That’s just me though.

This morning, I didn’t feel like working. I was inspired to work — actually, my encroaching deadline is what really inspired me — but nothing came out of my head & through my fingertips. There was some sort of malfunction and the only way to repair it was: just. start. writing. Taking the monthly challenges on 750words definitely helps. But so does just sitting in front of a blank screen and writing whatever comes to your mind. Even if it’s just, “I’m tired and I can’t seem to work.” Eventually you’ll exhaust yourself of writing that and something even somewhat interesting might come out. Kind of like unclogging a sink that’s full of gunk. My mind was stopped up and I had to just start writing something to start the water flowing again.

Listening to upbeat music also really helps, as well as relocating to a coffee shop. There you’re stuck in a room with other equally hard-working people, all striving to do something productive (even if it’s just completing a Sudoko). I don’t know where I’d be without my noise-canceling headphones & Nina Simone Pandora station.

Ok – back to free-writing and free-wheeling my way toward an article…

september

It’s been way too long since I’ve written on my website, but I’m happy to report that I’ve been doing a ton of writing in both 750words and in scrivener for my dissertation. So much writing, in fact, that I was able to show my advisor a shortened version of a chapter that I’ve been working on, and she liked it! That’s big news for me, since I haven’t really shown anyone my work since my summer research trips. Processing all of that information into a palpable format that is argument-driven has been quite a task and it’s really been an intellectually invigorating experience. That said, there is still a ton of work to do on the chapter — mostly integrating the relevant literature and framing the discussion on decolonial aesthetics — but I’m happy with the progress that I’ve made so far.

One thing that I definitely want to work on is the formal aspects of my writing and I’m going to read the book Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword to see if there are any helpful tips. Although it’s a bit premature to say that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, now at least I know I’m in the right tunnel and entering at the right speed to graduate in a timely fashion. Will keep you updated on the progress of the dissertation and the other tons of projects that I’m working on!

needle in a haystack

I’ve spent 2 1/2 days in the Bodleian Library Special Collections room trying to find any information related to the acquisition of the Codex Selden by John Selden and its path from Jaltepec to Oxford.  I’ve had a few leads, but mostly, just a lot of straw in the form of old letters and documents.  Doing archival research is like looking for that needle, but sometimes you don’t even know if there is a needle, or even what it will look like.  In fact, it can be a really frustrating experience, so hit or miss, and the first few days or so are just spent trying to figure out how to identify and locate the documents you want to see.  In the digital age, at least some of this information is going online (shout out to Bodleian’s digitized books!) but even then, finding aids and online databases don’t always have everything you’re looking for.  So you book your dates, pay your week registration fee, call up some documents and just pray that something will be useful.  Sometimes you get lucky.  Maybe this time, not so much.

The most important thing in surviving two consecutive months of research trips is to stay physically active.  I spend the majority of my day either sitting or sleeping, so that 30 minute jog in the morning, or the 2 hours I spent at the gym in Barcelona, made all the difference.  I’m also a fan of the 2-hour lunch breaks and a strong believer in delicious European coffee.  So, alas, as I return to this 17th century account of all the books in John Selden’s collection, I am trying to stay motivated for the last 1 1/2 days of this immense – exhausting – fulfilling – exciting research-heavy summer.