Archive for the ‘Words’ Category

Review: Chipaumire & Mapfumo at the MCA

Whitehot Magazine, October 2009

Nora Chipaumire with Thomas Mapfumo and The Blacks Unlimited @ MCA Chicago

“Welcome to Zimbabwe.”

Where the rains fall in computer-generated light projections?  Where Wolfgang Puck desserts are sold in the hallways?  Where Chimurenga music plays, and the only dancing is choreographed?

No, this statement stakes a claim.  Nora Chipaumire, her legs rooted downstage, upper limbs slapping, unfurling, proclaims through her teeth today’s interest rate: one million percent.  Then, she issues a dare.  “Life is good!”  Desperation, conviction, and joy fight silenty in her posture.  Her vocal outbursts claim the prerogative of perspective.  This is a catharsis, not a travelogue.

Behind her, the legendary Zimbabwean band, Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited, sit among their tiny amplifiers and pluck at their instruments.  Around them glow unfrosted lightbulbs, the naked filaments dancing and sputtering.  The band could be sitting on their suitcases, near an airport tarmac or playing impromptu at some kind of depot.  The towering, flat brick backdrop of the MCA Stage is any brick wall, and it renders to the musicians a human scale.  They wind their lattice melodies out through the space and retract them with expert dynamic control.

The dancers, Chipaumire and her partner, Mallory Starling, appear and immediately begin taunting with their cleverly designed torn jackets and dyed dresses.  Flip up some cloth and hide my face.  Flip up some cloth and show you my ass.  They are teasing dance traditions and identity art from within, but not in the winking, self-aware way – there is too much ground here.  Starling and Chipaumire show off strength and poise, but their movements, choreographed by Chipaumire, express a freedom that is belied by rare and rewarding moments of unision.  In one piece, Chipaumire spends almost the entire song framed in a block of white light against the brick, gazing down, while Starling contorts plaintively in the foreground.  This is high identity, saying at once: let me expose for you the brutality of my cliche, and by the way, isn’t life good?

Unlike so much political art, there is no manufactured, small-batch emotion.  These are real revolutionaires; Mapfumo was the musical voice of the revolt that birthed Zimbabwe in 1979, and also the musical voice who exposed the corruption of his once-hero Robert Mugabe, leading to the singer’s self-exile.  Mapfumo, The Blacks Unlimited, and Chipaumire all seem caught in the same expatriot glare.

Chipaumire steps forward out of her own silhouette and lifts her companion from the ground.  Digital rain falls against the brick.  She tries to elevate Starling but cannot.  They perform a limping, grasping waltz, while Mapfumo and The Blacks Unlimited unravel melancholy protest rhythms.  Everyone is leaning on everyone else, dancers and musicians alike.

The performance, a world premiere collaboration, features a melodramatic profusion of fog machine and some digital projections that, while proficient and occasionally engrossing, dangle off the edge of the rock concert ethos.  This is a modern dance and musical performance, but it is definitely not a rock concert, not with Chipaumire’s energy dominating the intimate space.  Still, the technology that hums through every aspect of the performance is fitting, thematically: Mapfumo was the first to render traditional Shona music in electric instruments such as the Les Paul guitar that sits in his lap all evening.

For the polyrhythmic complexity of their music, Mapfumo and company are overwhelmingly still, physically, almost hunched.  They give off not the proud air and studied quietude of classical musicians, but the bared conspiracy of an opened plant bud.  They are sitting in a straight line but playing in a circle.  The dancers contort at their flanks.  Chipaumire has one leg planted, the other extended at a perfect angle.  Her torso winds and dips.  The music turns through its self-iterative loops.  She turns to stomp at the ground, an exultant smile on her face.  Gems of sweat drop from her head, through the light, and splash the stage.

In fairness, it must be asked, is this just another well-performed curiosity, exoticism playing with modern lenses?  But then it must also be asked, in fairness to whom?  The genuine has a lovely habit of adopting any mantle it chooses.  In their first collaboration, Mapfumo, The Blacks Unlimited, and Chipaumire have established the vanguard as their baseline.  In bringing their art to the world, they face off in a common future, for better or worse.

Published in Whitehot Magazine

Review: Temple Exercises

Whitehot Magazine, February 2009

Theaster Gates at the Museum of Contemporary Art

What happens when an endurance piece fails to endure?  When minimalist music halts itself and bargains with the audience?  When race politics steals from other cultures?  Theaster Gates and his friends, the Black Monks of Mississippi, bravely stepped up to these questions in their MCA installation/performance, Temple Exercises, and just as bravely backed away.  Gates is not afraid to leave questions unanswered, but this is not the same thing as presenting the viewer with engaging, entangling conundrums.

Instead, Gates et al. erect a house of opaque mirrors, and that in itself has a certain resonance with the piece’s overtly zen-magical-religious aspects.  A koan: what is the sound of scores of art geeks refusing to murmur?  We nearly had an answer.  The performance itself featured Gates, seated at a microphone in his wood-palette temple, joined by an uncredited (in the program, anyway) Leroy Bach on guitar and Jayve Montgomery on saxophone.  Gates played the part of guru-MC, gamely cajoling the audience to join him in his meditative Oms.  The response was meek and timid.  Another question introduced and then abandoned by this piece: when the line between witness and participant disappears, what replaces it?  The performance ended before seriously trying to find out, with Gates acceding to his audience’s request to be more or less left alone beyond the fourth wall of the minimally but intensely decorated space.

Underlying the discomfort were some sucesses: the shuffling together of Black American history and Zen religion produced some smart steps and rich harmonies.  Particularly sharp, and deserving of its own series or gallery space, was the arrangement of two black iron shoeshine steps back-to-back, forming a striking totem that conjured for itself a dual identity as some symmetrical character of Eastern language.  Adding warmth to the vibrations of the performance were wood tiles that covered every inch of wall and surrounded a tower of architecturally stacked palettes, creating the temple space for the performance.

All of this was waiting to resonate, and it fell to Gates to stir up a sound that would suffuse the space and draw together its disparate entities.  As Bach and Montgomery wove noodling mantras with their instruments, Gates played gospel preacher to his chorus of reluctant disciples.  “Real big breath, y’all!”  A few self-conscious voices rose from the floor, and Gates, sitting above us on his chair, saw comedy.  Perhaps a performance is a happening not coming into being.  Gates himself merged a churchy vocal tenor with shades of throat-singing; the interplay of his vocals with the other instruments generated a truly satisfying resonance with the wood facades.  Yet, even Gates admitted to his audience, a bit wryly, that at this show, he didn’t “convert nobody”.

None of this can be fairly considered without acknowledging that Temple Exercises is part of a larger, longer, ongoing collaboration between Gates and the Black Monks.  But why bring this series from the dance club and the shoeshine store into the museum?  Surely, this performance was evidence of an art gallery’s tendency to suck the life out of music, and thanks to the wood application on the walls, we can say that this is not purely an acoustic phenomenon.  If it was Gates’ intention to turn this phenomenon on its head, he let his audience get the better of him.

Visually, the spare installation merged well with the various pieces of audio gear, gongs, and sadly under-represented spontaneous ink-paintings that were part of the performance.  As a visual-sonic installation that could be explored by wandering patrons, the space may have had more power.  As it was, the personality of Gates competed a bit too much for attention.  This posed and left unanswered yet another question: can identity art work as diffused individualism?  Would this piece have been shown if not for the growing renown of its practioners?

And yet, the empty ethos of zen saves Gates, in a way.  If he is leaning on it as a crutch, he is leaning on an absence.  If he is wielding it to dab extra colors onto his cultural tapestry, he is using invisible ink.  This is a powerful yet inscrutable wall to hide behind.  Simply contemplating the blues howl verging into the effacing zen pedal-tone chant could lead one into a deep historical, cultural, and artistic meditation.  But Gates wants to shake your hand while you’re meditating.

As a musical performance, “Temple Exercises” looks better than it sounds.  As a piece of gallery art, it sounds better than it looks.  As a multicultural monk who deals in questions and meets investigation with mere smiles, Gates is the perfect part.

Published in Whitehot Magazine.

Review: Chris Ware at Carl Hammer

Whitehot Magazine, May 2008

Chris Ware at Carl Hammer Gallery

Chris Ware, Rusty Brown — Chalky White; Life so Far. 28″ x 20″ 2002. Detail.

Chris Ware has developed a following for his cartoons that seems based on his ability to take the Beat-comics angst of Art Spiegelman and the endearingly vacuous expressions of Little Orphan Annie and recast them into spare, if vividly coloured, geometrical drawings that appeal to contemporary ennui. His current show at Carl Hammer Gallery strips the pixel applique off this work and reduces it to fairly architectural blue-pencil and ink structures on bristol (and under glass). In such a display, the blue-line underpinnings vibrate and breathe, the inked sections reveal the strength of Ware’s hand, and, in the in-betweens, the artist bares himself.

The show is cashing in on Ware’s artwork as such, turning production drawings into gallery pieces. It begs the buying community to place its trust in Ware’s continued rise or enduring cache. Notably, Bill Watterson’s collection of pencil-and-ink drawings, together with their coloured-in counterparts, made up Calvin and Hobbes: Sunday Pages 1985–1995, published as the catalogue for an exhibition at the Ohio State University’s Cartoon Research Library. Ware’s exhibit, his tenth solo show and second at Hammer, continues to position him within the borders of the art world, if not necessarily the annals of cartoon history. Only time will tell whether his drawings will take a place along with Disney or Chuck Jones cels, and whether they are to be properly regarded as works of art or as collectors’ items. In the meantime, there is a lot to be gleaned from these comic-strip skeletons on display.

Chris Ware, Building Stories — Room 2. (McSweeney’s.) 29″ x 20″ 2003. Detail.

Chris Ware, Building Stories — Room 1. (McSweeney’s.) 29″ x 20″ 2003. Detail.

Ware colours his ink drawings digitally, imparting a precision of colour and tone. Without these visual and thematic enticements to the work, we are left with the story of an emotionally undulating draftsman possessed of a steady hand and amiable cartoon style. The stories are pomo-emo graphic novel bread and butter: characters bravely assert their individualities in the face of crushing anomie, often making the struggle plain only in their own imaginations. They mull the ironic taste of seasoning deep depression with grains of hope. They bare all this in long, journal-style narrative text blocks, or suffering silently in time-lapse panel arrangements.

But enough on content. The real story in this exhibition are the blue lines humming along under the threads and masses of black ink. There is a particular emotional content to the extreme care and visible revisions revealed by the penciling. Lines run through panels unexpectedly, phantom objects linger close to the bristol, angles are drawn and redrawn. Given the emotional density of the narrative, evidence of such attention animates the drawings in a way that polished digital cannot. It is easy to imagine Ware hovering at his drafting board, lavishing over his drawings as an obsessive child paws a worn stuffed animal for comfort.

Chris Ware, Building Stories — Abortion 2. 29″ x 20″ 2007. Detail.

And then, he turns and winks at you. A judicious application of white ink would easily have erased the litany of scrawled blue notes in the margins of these works. Instead, Ware has left them; tantalizingly, it is often unclear whether they are bits of cartoon character thought or jots to himself. Some of the scribbles are obviously simple notes, as many of them are actual phone numbers. I tried calling almost all of them, standing right there in the gallery. In a way, it was heartening to know that Chris Ware had called Earthlink Tech Support at some time while working on a particular board. Or that he at one point had a connection with a Chicago’s Prosser Academy high school, room 203.

It is hard to believe that an artist would leave such details on a work-in-progress installed for display. Perhaps this is a digital-age response to the unceasing flow of produced images; you want authentic? Read right here about how my cat suffered a stroke after I finished this panel and was put to sleep. This could be the visual analog to the trend of including studio demo tracks as bonus material on record album releases.

Chris Ware, Building Stories — Day (Dinner.) 20″ x 25″ 2007. Detail.

Chris Ware, Building Stories – Rich part 2 (original drawing)
Ink and blue pencil on bristol board,
20 x 29 inches, 2004, Detail

In his blue-pencil closed-circuit conversation with himself, Chris Ware notes in the margins: “SYMPATHY! Avoid being histrionic with gestures.” “I can’t believe I [himself? a character? both?] ever had any pretensions of being a writer.” And the enigmatic “the power of”.

In the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you can view, framed in glass, the first page of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’s manuscript from Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, complete with his own blue-pencil revisions. Ware’s exhibit at Carl Hammer Gallery reads like a non-linear version of this, with the artist’s life pressed in a collapsed scaffold of blue and black. As a biographical document, it is stunning.

Published in Whitehot Magazine.