Arts and Crafts Utopia

How we live, and how we might live.

Category: Exhibitions

In Conversation with Regina Mamou

regina mamouI had the pleasure of talking recently with the talented and thoughtful artist Regina Mamou about her site-responsive installation, Electrum, at Chicago’s Mission Gallery (1431 W. Chicago Ave). CAN-TV was on hand to film our conversation, which ranged over the last five years or so of her work, including the 2012 photographic series that originally brought her to my attention, Unfortunately, It Was Paradise. Much of the conversation revolved around Regina’s abiding interest in blurring the boundaries between science and spirituality, the visible and the invisible, and the ways mechanical devices such as cameras or electropsychometers fail (poignantly, frustratingly) to capture the ineffable. In my review of Unfortunately, It Was Paradise (a series of photographs of defunct utopian communities) I wrote, “seeing the unseen, the mystery—this comes close to the heart of Mamou’s project, I think.”

Check out Regina’s website here.

My review of that series for Contemporaneity is available here.

Our gallery conversation is available via CAN-TV’s YouTube channel:

Guardian review of Morris exhibition at National Portrait Gallery

MacCarthy - Morris

Available from Amazon. Click here.

With all the Left Front hullabaloo dying down, I’m finally able to catch up on some overdue reading from the last couple of months. That includes reviews of shows I desperately wish I’d had the time and travel funds to see this past year. Particularly Anarchy and Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy, 1860-1960, a National Portrait Gallery exhibition curated by Morris biographer Fiona MacCarthy that closed earlier this year. The exhibition received predictably mixed reviews. I say “predictably” only because Morris remains a controversial and divisive figure — someone whose promethean energy (which found channels in poetry, design, publishing, and socialist politics) is impossible to adequately capture in a single exhibition.

264_Anarchy_Beauty

Available from Amazon

That said, a brief review of Anarchy and Beauty by Jonathan Jones at the Guardian manages to be condescending, confusing, and historically inaccurate all in a breathlessly meagre few paragraphs, rendering the author’s negative judgment on the exhibition suspect.

The review begins promisingly enough by protesting that the exhibition reduced Morris to liberal pieties (fair enough: turning firebrands like William Blake and Morris into homegrown heroes evinces the culture industry’s endless ingenuity at de-fanging radical criticism). But it turns out that Jones is impatient with the exhibition’s “nostalgic assumption that [Morris] must be cherished as a hero of the left,” an assumption that “invites the obvious – yet here never contemplated – response that his social vision failed.”

This is a bizarre argument. Morris remains a hero to the left precisely because (not only his) social vision failed (a vision that included environmental conservation, joyful labor, and beauty-infused everyday life) and global capitalism continues to dominate the world economy. Morris vehemently protested the environmental degradation, worker exploitation, and violent imperialism attendant to the “rise of the consumer society”; that is exactly why his social message is as vital and necessary today as in his own time. And in a sentence as condescending as it is ill-informed, Jones writes that Morris “never seems to have understood that his bids to set up alternative, small-scale workshops making things that were unquestionably luxuries would not threaten capitalism at all, but give ideas to entrepreneurs.” Morris never pretended his company threatened capitalism, and it was a source of acute anger that he spent his career (in his own words) “Ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich.”

Pevsner's Pioneers of Modern Design

Available from Amazon.

In a weird bit of non-logic, Jones objects to the way the exhibition so takes for granted “that Morris is an inspiring hero that it forgets to set out a coherent case for his creative achievement.” Well, isn’t making Morris the subject of an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery already a (not particularly tacit) case for creative achievement? And asking whether Morris was a great designer (as Jones says he wishes the exhibition had done) would be like asking whether Matisse was a great painter … in an exhibition about Matisse. What’s the point? And Jones seems to have forgotten his skepticism regarding Morris’s designs by the end of the review when he claims that Morris’s “creative brilliance” “helped to build modernism.” But Jones doesn’t even try to make his own case that “Morris was a true revolutionary, but his vision led not so much to the Red Flag as to Matisse’s Red Studio,” since there is simply no case to make. For an informed discussion of the link between Morris and modernism, see Nikolaus Pevsner’s Pioneers of Modern Design: From William Morris to Walter Gropius. When a review is as both negative and nonsensical as Jones’s, it has the opposite effect of making me even more eager to see the exhibition. Unfortunately I’ll have to settle for the exhibition catalog.

Collated reviews of Left Front

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 10.38.56 AMI’ve been posting individual reviews of The Left Front as they’ve come to my attention, but now that the exhibition has closed at the Grey Gallery, I thought it would be useful to have them all (at least the ones that I know of) collated in one place. One of the great pleasures of curating the exhibition has been the thoughtful, intelligent responses it inspired.

The New Yorker: “Left Turns: The Radical Art of the Nineteen Thirties” by Peter Schjeldahl (1/26/15). “A fascinating scholarly show…a show that I wish some museum would take as the seed for a major, broadly inclusive exhibition.”

Financial Times: “A look back at the political art of the 1930s highlights a lost moment of moral clarity” by Ariella Budick (2/2/15), “…the show as a whole evokes an era when a large cohort of artists woke up each morning fired with a sense of social purpose.”

New York Observer: “Seeing Red: NYU’s Grey Gallery Revisits America’s Socialist Moment in Full” by David Ebony (2/2/15). “Today, as union members make up less than 10 percent of the U.S. workforce, and economic disparity gets more extreme by the day, it might be the time for artists and the intelligentsia to take another look at America’s “socialist moment” that is so thoughtfully and skillfully illuminated in this show.”

Tablet: “Occupy Wall Street! The Jewish CP-Friendly 1930s Version” by J. Hoberman (2/5/15).

Guernica: “Re-Examining the radical art of the “Red Decade” by Roslyn Bernstein (2/25/15). “The timing for mounting an exhibit on the history of art in political activism was perfect.”

Artforum.com: “Critic’s Pick” by Jason Farago: A “large and important exhibition.”

Hyperallergic.com: “Picturing a Communist Revolution in the U.S.” by Becca Rothfeld (2/16/15): “Different artists disagree as to how communist convictions are best or most effectively visualized, and the best part of The Left Front is the methodological tension that underwrites the varied approaches on display.”

Bedford + Bowery: “This Exhibit of Radical Art Speaks to the Power of the Pen” by Robin Cembalest (1/12/15): “fascinating, thought-provoking show.”

Artefuse.com: “The Left Front at the Grey Gallery,” by Daniel Gauss (2/12/15): “…the predominant approach in this show is to document the social wrongs of the time, and there’s something really amazingly exciting and fun, even 70 years down the line, about seeing artists just laying the naked truth of the corruption, exploitation and abuses of their society out there for anyone to see.”

The Indypendent: “The Red Decade: Art with a Gritty Heart” by Gerald Meyer (3/10/15). “This show powerfully contradicts the canard that the Communist Party imposed social realism as the sole aesthetic style on artists.”

Cartoonbrew.com: “The Left Front” by Stephen Persing (2/20/14): “Co-curators (and Northwestern doctoral candidates) John Murphy and Jill Bugajski have done a fine job of scholarship and, I hope, started the ball rolling for future studies of the period.”

Tablet reviews “The Left Front”

Siporin - Workers FamilyI’ve been a longtime reader and fan of J. Hoberman’s movie reviews for Village Voice, so it’s very gratifying to see his thoughtful take on “The Left Front” for Tablet magazine. He’s correct to note that “many, if not most, of the artists in “The Left Front” are Jewish immigrants or their children. In an essay “On the ‘Jewishness’ of American Jewish Radical Artists,” included in the handsomely designed free broadsheet available at the show, historian Ezra Mendelsohn suggests that the most “Jewish” thing about these artists was “their commitment to universalism”—whether a revolt against parochial tradition or a prophetic vision of a new world.” This is a good point (by Hoberman via Mendelsohn), but would only add that this “commitment to universalism” and “prophetic vision of a new world” dovetailed with the artists’ utopian investments in Communism. “The Left Front” became (for me) an interesting case study in curatorial emphasis; the same artists who appear in the exhibition (Topchevsky, Todros Geller, Louis Lozowick, etc.) could appear in a show about Jewish artists, immigrant artists, or artists employed by the Works Progress Administration. One of the main goals of “The Left Front” was to reclaim a political identity for artists either neglected by art history generally, or else slotted neatly into Cold War narratives of American Abstract Expressionism triumphing over stodgy social realism. So I especially enjoyed Hoberman’s cheeky headline, “Occupy Wall Street! The Jewish CP-Friendly 1930s Version.” 

Anarchy & Beauty

Anarchy_Beauty. William Morris and His Legacy

Exciting news this month for all William Morris enthusiasts, disciples, aficionados, etc. A major exhibition devoted to Morris opened October 16th in London’s National Portrait Gallery: Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy, 1860-1960. It runs through January 11, 2015.

Fiona MacCarthy, author of William Morris: A Life for Our Time (1995) and The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones
burne jones - last pre-raphaeliteand the Victorian Imagination (2012), curated the exhibition, which features work by Morris acolytes such as Eric Gill (subject of a very good McCarthy biography), potter Bernard Leach (author of A Potter’s Book, advocating utilitarian function over “fine art pots”), and Mary Lowndes, the stained-glass designing suffragist.

In related programming, contemporary views on Morris will be offered by an interesting lineup including A.S. Byatt (author of Possession) and Ken Loach, the socialist filmmaker and director of the Palme d’Or-winning The Wind That Shakes the Barley, starring he-of-the-hypnotically-blue-peepers, Cillian Murphy.

MacCarthy - Morris, A Life for Our Time

I’m sorry to admit I’ve yet to read MacCarthy’s book on Morris, partly because I have a hard time imagining anyone could improve on E.P. Thompson’s magisterial William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. But I appreciate that the timeline of her exhibition tracks Morris’s influence well into the 20th century. And the subtitle of her Morris bio (“A Life for Our Time”) expresses one of my firmest convictions about Morris: that his ideas about art, society, labor, and the environment are more relevant and urgent than ever. It sounds like this is a theme of the exhibition as well.

Here’s a sort of trailer for the exhibit:

[youtube width=”580″ height=”400″]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8sbKcifk8YU[/youtube]