Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Ocean Vuong - Ten Books

This post is a selection of quotes from Ocean Vuong's article, The 10 Books I Needed to Write My Novel. These quotes speak to me about how we each must find our own way to tell our own story and set that story in the larger society in which we live. Vuong emphasizes metaphor as a way to make the specific general and the general specific. He references kishōtenketsu, a Chinese (also Korean and Japanese) narrative form "without conflict", that further informed his work. His novel is not about a narrative arc, but about the qualities of experience and how experience shapes our lives.

Ocean Vuong - LitHub.com

Vietnamese refugees, for example, use metaphor as a coping mechanism; metaphor provides a way to talk about trauma without stating the experience outright.

The metaphor in the mouths of survivors became a way to innovate around pain. ... “papaya seeds scraped out of you” ... “the doorway of your body broken into” ... “get on the road” ... to render the horrific via an alternative speech act

write about American violence without it becoming vital to the novel’s arc ... violence becomes fact and not a vehicle towards a climax

Through Kishōtenketsu, violence becomes fact and not a vehicle towards a climax.

these people ... exist as they are, full of stories but not for a story

a writer’s growth is often a slog, the slow burn of reading and trying and failing when, finally, by some luck or mercy, the book you’re reading turns into a torch in your hands ... with it you make a sentence so new and exacting to your desire that it startles you into a new vision, a new life, one that exists through the presence of elders before you, both here and gone and some nearly forgotten but never lost

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee

a necessary, orchestrated sense of disorientation as a method of enacting displacement, trauma, and national and private grief

courage to stop seeing historical trauma as something that has to be refurbished in order to achieve “fine art,” and more so that fracture, even incomprehensibility, can be a powerful conscious mode of storytelling, one that interrogates colonialist gauges of successful art-making without forsaking its central thrust: to tend and hold close the bodies expelled by canonical narratives

documents and family albums ... as evidence of erased histories

Toni Morrison, Beloved

a refugee narrative ... survival as an act of creation

the power of protection through love—even if it means committing the ultimate act of rescue: death

nothing is “too much” or “indulgent” if it is true

refugees as survivors with agency ... who must now furnish a future within incomprehensible aftermaths ... worthy and exceedingly beautiful

Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red

contemporary vision of rural queer life, the isolation of art making and the brutal repercussions of favoring interiority in a patriarchal system

refusal to enact her protagonist’s development via a false and forced inhabitation of heteronormative ideal ... he bravely embodies his otherness, or “monstrosity”

insists on the necessity of alterity as agency instead of succumbing to the readily assimilative

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

employs the autobiographical gaze to suggest radical modes of queerness, polytheism as progressive self-knowledge, expansive meditations on whiteness, both in regards to ... purity and to race, ... forges the allegory of the hunt as a doomed American quest for self-knowledge

What would happen if all modes of voices, themes, threads, systems of knowledge and influence were potent in equal measure within the novel’s temporal investigation?

quick detours and returns, while still retaining the vital urgency and vulnerability of a direct address

James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain

the autobiographical novel ... serves as a map of one’s journey towards art. It says, essentially, that a writer of color does not arrive at the literary table, as is often believed, in spite their geographical and cultural roots, but because of them, that those origins, complex and rich with joy and challenges, were foundations within their praxis—not shackles that denied them an imagination.

a map of passage wherein a gay black writer garners self-knowledge through the careful, thorough, and luminous rendering of his elders, which includes their flaws, triumphs, and the near-obliterating effect of American racism on their minds and bodies

lê thị diễm thúy, The Gangster We Are All Looking For

oscillation and destabilization as a mode of inquiry and storytelling

multiple points of view, voices and non-linear time ... builds a narrative that feels, at times, more like landscape art than writing—all to a tremendous embodied effect

such rules can be consciously rejected because their rubrics were made without considering the bodies her book holds—even at this risk of rendering it, in the eyes of critics trained to recognize and celebrate hegemonic styles, as nonsensical or wrong

a bold and empowering refusal of conformity in search of other ways of speaking and being

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

privileging characters, people and ideas over “story”

insistence on the extended metaphor (near Homeric at times) as a means of destabilizing the temporal function of plot

What is real when the metaphor becomes just as felt, if not more so, than the narrated life, when it becomes a portal?

David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration

sentences are attempts at laying ground within a community disintegrating before his eyes and voice ...  a testament to queer innovation and survival—but also the residue of a boy’s coming of age in broken homes in New Jersey to an equally blighted yet life-savingly vibrant New York

Scott McClanahan, Crapalachia: A Biography of Place

Kafka’s credo that a book should be the axe that shatters the icy soul of our interior

a personal reclamation of falsehoods

commitment to wonder and awe. It looks at a region that is deemed blighted beyond repair by outsiders and insists that the sublime, under the writer’s honest and unflinching gaze, is made as true and palpable within the text as it is for those who live, dance, and die there.

Jenny Offill, Dept of Speculation

refreshed demand for the reader to participate in the novel’s arc, each gap, like stanza breaks in a poem, both asks and allows us to feel the emotional pressures made resonant through associative leaps ... it demands charged and complicated emotive renderings to carry into white space without thorough bridges and narrative connections

The Ten Books

The ten books with their original publication date and links to WorldCat. Find them in a library, on a friend's bookshelf, at your favorite bookseller. For some of books, WorldCat seems to have problems finding the primary work. In those cases, I've linked to Wikipedia. Where that was a problem, I've used the publisher's website or other public reference to the work.

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee (1982)

Toni Morrison, Beloved (1986)

Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red (1998)

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953)

lê thị diễm thúy, The Gangster We Are All Looking For (2003)

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927)

David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (1991)

Scott McClanahan, Crapalachia: A Biography of Place (2013)

Jenny Offill, Dept of Speculation (2014)

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Dawoud Bey on Photographing People and Communities

A Journey of Discovery and Relationship

Dawoud Bey on Photographing People and Communities
The Photography Workshop Series
Photographs and text by Dawoud Bey
Introduction by Brian Ulrich

Aperture Foundation
Dawoud Bey takes us through a journey that starts in Queens, NY, where he was raised, continues through Harlem with a handheld 35mm camera, a 4x5 on a tripod, a massive Polaroid (265 pounds, 20" x 24"), to color with the 4x5, to high schools and to Birmingham, AL. Along the way, he moves from New York to Chicago and Columbia College, where he has been teaching for twenty-two years. While the touchstones may be images and equipment, the real story is that of building community every step of the way, every day, working with his art, refining his skills, developing his message.

Take Time

He tells us, again and again, with grace and persistence, to take time. Time to know the place you want to work. Time to know the people and their stories. Take time to establish a relationship. Many relationships. To allow the work to unfold. And to be fully engaged that whole time.

Think Deeply

Think deeply about what you are doing. Look closely at all aspects of the image, at the entirety of the frame. What's in focus and what's not? How does that affect the viewer's experience? What can we see in the frame? What is suggested by how the subject presents themselves? How they are seen by the photographer?

Master the Medium

Dawoud Bey spent ten years with that massive Polaroid. He built on his early study of Rembrandt. He observed how the light illuminated his subjects and what the resulting images looked like. He worked with single individuals, with two or three people. Single images and multiple images. And then he took what he learned and used it in his further work, with different equipment, different projects.

Know Your Community

While Dawoud Bey is an African-American, he is from Queens, not Harlem, so making images on the streets of Harlem required that he get to know that community, those people. Early in the book there are images by others, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and James Van Der Zee. These photographs spoke to him as he began making pictures, they set the stage for his own work, and are a means for us to learn the importance of knowing our heritage as photographers, as humans with a past and present, living in a particular place and time.

Know Where Your Work Will Be Seen

Dawoud Bey learned the power of institutions early when he viewed Harlem on My Mind, an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1969). 

"Whether an image exists in an institutional space, or on a printed page, or social media, the context is an active and loaded site. Where the work is going to exist should always be part of the consideration in its making. What kind of conversation do you want the work to provoke?

"Thinking back to my early experience of witnessing the protests surrounding Harlem on My Mind at the Met, I knew the institutional space of the museum was not benign. It could be a site of protest and also play an important role within the community where it sits. This shaped my thinking about where I wanted my work to end up. I knew I wanted my photographs on the walls of a museum; it was never my intention for my work to be seen in magazines or newspapers.

"I knew that I wanted to present my Harlem USA work in Harlem. I wanted to break the tradition of making the photographs in one place and showing them somewhere else, which can convey varying degrees of otherness in regards to the subject. I didn't want there to be a separation between subject and audience. I also didn't want to preclude the work going out into the world, but I thought it was important that it be shown in Harlem first."
Dawoud Bey on Photographing People and Communities, page 43

Build Community

Along the way, he built a community of other artists, of curators, of teachers and students, of the people he photographed. Personal connections that were nurtured across time and space. The work connected him to others and brought others to him. 

on Photographing People and Communities is a masterful telling of how Dawoud Bey has worked over many years. The time spans are staggering in our era of instant response and instant gratification. The Birmingham series took six years before he felt ready to make the first image. There was then six months of daily work to create the 32 portraits of 16 pairs. 
Dawoud Bey, Mary Parker and Caela Cowan, 2012

Beyond This Book

Dawoud Bey ends with 18 books: Recommended Reading/Looking.

Friday, December 13, 2019

December Exhibits in Chicago

Current Exhibits

FXSLT Contemporary Gallery

Oli Rodriguez: A Familiar Panting (Dec 7, 2019 - Jan 19, 2020)

FXLST Contemporary Gallery, A Familiar Panting, Oli Rodriguez
I had the pleasure of talking with Jan Christian Bernabe, the gallery director. We discussed the importance of a narrative arc in an exhibit, one which takes the viewer on a journey through the images. In this case, there is a journey from exterior to interior spaces. This parallels the journey from outer experience to more personal emotions.

The work includes images of lush plantings and concrete and desert; exposed skin and bodies wrapped in plastic and rope; a disembodied arm and the tops of trees. The final works are lightboxes with blowups of gummy bears, a blast of bright color.

"The photographs explore the intersections of fetish culture and queerness within and outside the domestic sphere and the quotidian, using Los Angeles and images of domesticity as their backdrop."

"They are playful actions in color, form, and constructed sculptural and domestic compositions of sugar, palms, plastic wrap, and breath play, reveling in performance and references to childhood. Incorporating the iconic landscape of Los Angeles as well as indoor domestic spaces, these are visualizations and conceptions of contemporary relationships between consumption and pleasure while investigating the manifestations of mundane objects in fetish culture."


Lawrence and Clark Gallery

Andy Warhol: Silver Clouds (Nov 1, 2019 - Jan 4, 2020)

Jason Pickelman runs this gallery with quite a fun mix of work. Currently Warhol's Clouds are floating in the gallery. Living nearby, I get to see the clouds on a daily basis, as they drift in the gallery, sometimes all bunched together on the floor, other times floating at the ceiling, drifting in the space.

The gallery is open Saturdays (and Thursday evenings for the Clouds exhibit). Jason is there to talk about the art. He brings a lot of personal history from his years in Chicago.


“The clouds were Warhol’s attempt to bring the energy of his studio… into the world and make his environment public.”

“Lately they’ve been feeling like my children or my pets,” Pickleman says. “They all behave so differently.”
Jason Pickelman



Elliot Ross: American Backyard (Dec 6, 2019 – Jan 4, 2020)

Elliot Ross, American Backyard
I'm drawn into the abstract qualities of the landscapes and the narrative qualities of the portraits.

The landscapes have me looking at the graceful sweep of sand or confronting ragged canyons. Some show the slice through the land made by border enforcement. Others show us one earth without boundaries, or natural boundaries without explicit human imprint. In all of them, I stop and look, and question.

The portraits are of rugged individuals in context. This is where I work. This is where I live. These are the people in my life.

The image here, of the men with trucks and a fence running between them, a fence which is a very limited barrier. These men all look the same - brothers, cousins, clones - their clothes, their hair, their expressions, their stance. The trucks, backed up to each other, perhaps to exchange contents, of which we see bales of hay, the trucks are also the same but different.

Elliot Ross, American Backyard
What has brought these people together?

"Through an amalgam of portraiture and topographical studies of infrastructure imposed on the landscape, American Backyard looks at the reality of American lives on the border."
Elliot Ross

Museum of Contemporary Photography

Third Realm (Oct 10 — Dec 22, 2019)

Jompet Kuswidananto, Third Realm Venice Series and
Paola Pivi, Tulkus 1880 to 2018
"Capturing a crucial period of artistic production in Asia (2004-2019), Third Realm presents works by artists who use photography, film, installation, and performance to investigate liminal spaces. ... nonbinary spaces—between past

and present, local and global, secular and sacred."

The exhibit uses the word "ritual" to describe the works. They combine the rituals of daily life with more social or religious rituals.

FX Harsono, Writing in the Rain

Museum of Contemporary Photography, Third Realm

The Art Institute of Chicago

Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again (Oct 20, 2019 - Jan 26, 2020)

Andy is the big draw (but he's not the only artist with good work at AIC). I've been back to this exhibit several times. There is a lot here.

CBS Radio Network
The Nation's Nightmare, 1951/1952
The Nation's Nightmare: I was taken by the multiple parts of this project from CBS with first person interviews, "a Los Angeles mother whose 15-year-old son is a dope addict, a Youngstown Ohio policeman describing a gambling raid, a Jersey City newspaper reporter ... how mobsters took over a local [union]." Warhol did drawings for a full-page ad in the NYTimes and the album cover for the audio recording.

"Warhol combined multiple images to create the drawing of the young man injecting heroin, using sources such as a series of his own studio photographs featuring a different young man pantomiming drug use. He executed the final images using his signature blotted-line technique, blotting wet ink drawings with blank paper to produce copies."
Art Institute of Chicago, display label


These other exhibits also spoke to me.

Photography + Folk Art: Looking for America in the 1930s (Sep 21, 2019–Jan 20, 2020)

"In the 1930s, as the United States was struggling through the Great Depression, a rising interest in early American vernacular arts—collectively referred to as folk art—converged with major documentary photographic projects. As artists, curators, collectors, and government administrators sought to define American culture as distinct from Europe, they identified in these two burgeoning fields [, photography and folk art,] a national culture they considered egalitarian, unpretentious, and self-made."
Includes images from Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott and many others.

Karel Martens: Image and Icon 

Karel Martens, Dutch Clouds

"Inspired by the analog "dots" used to make fields of color in half-tone printing, Martens created a system of geometric icons that employs the traditional color palette to form bull's-eyes, starbursts, and cruciform shapes. When viewed from a distance, the field of digital icons reads as an image, yet it dissolves into an abstract grid when seen close, creating multiple experiences for the viewer."


Eleanor Antin: Time's Arrow (Aug 24, 2019–Jan 5, 2020)

Eleanor Antin, Time's Arrow

"Her landmark early feminist work, CARVING: A Traditional Sculpture (1972)—part of the Art Institute’s collection—comprises a grid of 148 photographs that sequentially capture the artist’s journey to lose 10 pounds over a 37-day period." 

"Time’s Arrow marks the first time CARVING: A Traditional Sculpture is shown with CARVING: 45 Years Later (2017), an expansive reprisal of the original work through 500 photographs over four months."

Antin commented. “I believe that my older body was in a valiant and existential struggle to prevent its transformation into the skeleton beneath the protecting flesh … death.”