Merritt Johnson Performance this Friday at Evergreen

Merritt Johnson, Clouds Live Where, 2010

Artist Merritt Johnson is performing Clouds Live Where in the main entry area of the Library Building at The Evergreen State College (Olympia, WA) Friday November 12th at 5:30 – 6:00 pm. . Johnson’s paintings and mixed media work are on display down the hall in the college’s gallery as part of the exhibition It’s Complicated – Art about Home. There will be a brief curator’s talk in the gallery beforehand…starting at 5pm. Johnson’s performance this Friday takes the ideas present in her paintings: observations about boundaries created by humans, patterns of movement of wind, water, animal migrations – and moves those ideas into action in a physical space.

For more information on Merritt Johnson’s work and it’s relationship to the theme of home, you can click on the file below. It will open in a goofy tiny little window and will play the enhanced podcast (audio with still images). Better yet, download the file and play it through iTunes or your iPod-like device. This podcast was created by Evergreen students in the program Visions and Voices. They did their research, made a storyboard, and learned multiple software programs in a five week period!


Please try clicking the link above… this is new technology/file format for me. I am lookinig for a better way of including m4a files on my blog.

Kade Twist – Our Land, Your Imagination

Installation view of Kade Twist's two-chanel video "Our Land, Your Imagination"

A number of the artists I follow have made versions of their video installation work available on YouTube or other video-enabled websites. I find it helpful in terms of analyzing content and theme, but I find that the online versions  don’t help me consider the aesthetics of the work. I also have to admit to sometimes finding these kinds of pieces make boring viewing when I’m online. Maybe it’s the cluttered YouTube screen and the thumbnails of other videos that promise to be the “cutest puppy video ever.” I was reminded once again that seeing video work in person is vastly different than viewing it on a computer screen when I was at the opening for the exhibition It’s Complicated – Art about Home. The exhibition features work by 9 Native American/First Nations artists on the theme of “home.” The artist I’m writing about here is Kade Twist (Cherokee). I’ve previously written about work he has done as part of the artists’ collective Postcommodity.

 Kade Twist’s two-channel video installation piece renewed my appreciation of seeing video works in person. Twist’s piece in the exhibition projects onto two walls set at 90 degrees, with the projected images meeting up in the corner. The full title of the work is Our Land, Your Imagination: The Judeo-Christian Western Scientific World View. The lefthand screen has a series of videos of women singing Carpenter’s songs (We’ve Only Just Begun, Close to You, I Need to be in Love, I Won’t Last a Day Without You, Every Sha La La La),  mostly in karaoke bars. The right hand screen has video clips of traffic, a hot air balloon making a messy landing in a suburban tract-home neighborhood, a sandstorm approaching a similar neighborhood, a walk-through of an empty, foreclosed-upon house, and a long shot of palm trees against a clear sky. It’s hard to watch the videos of the singers because they are so large and the camera is sometimes uncomfortably close. I noticed that I focused more closely on the landscape-type shots on the righthand wall. The songs are about a search for fullfillment, love, belonging. The videos featuring identical homes give an impression of loneliness and emptiness, particularly the walk-through shots inside the foreclosed house. The piece stands well on its own, but knowing a bit more about the origins of the clips adds additional layers.

Essentially, the artist curated video clips shared by YouTube posters who identified their location as Phoenix, Arizona (where the artist also lives and works). The idea is that looking at video clips posted by people who live in the same town might give us an idea about that particular community. Twist hand-picked these video clips. They aren’t random, so there is a kind of postmodern narrative about place and yearning that comes from watching the piece in its entirety. Ultimately, it is a sad story of longing, emptiness, the search for connection/community, and the loss of identity in the face of assembly-line suburban living, where everything is a translplant and nothing belongs. I think what bothers me most about the piece – in a good way – is wondering why on earth some of these clips were posted on YouTube to begin with. Why several minutes of palm trees against a clear sky? Nothing happens! The camera doesn’t move! It’s boring… and puzzling. Why, oh why, was this clip shared with the world via YouTube? Most of the karaoke singers seem so desperately sad, too, that I wonder why they really posted these songs on YouTube. Trying to get famous? Trying to send a pointed message to an ex-lover? Or did some friend post the video with the intention of really only sharing it in a small circle of people. Do any of the originators of these videos know that their postings have been incorporated into an artwork over a thousand miles away? Does that even matter?

You can see Kade Twist’s video installation Our Land, Your Imagination at The Evergreen Gallery on the Olympia, WA campus of The Evergreen State College. The Gallery is on the main floor of the Library Building and is open Mon-Thurs 11:00 a.m. – 4:00 pm. You can view Twist’s work below or on Kade Twist’s website … but it’s definitely not the same as seeing it in person.

P.S. I have a class of undergraduate students with assignments related to this exhibition. It has really affected what I feel free to say about the work here on the blog out of fear that I’ll get them quoting me instead of thinking for themselves! Some of them are working on a podcast about this piece. I will post a link to their podcast when it’s finished in two weeks!

How does art-writing happen?


Newspaper reviews, journal articles, exhibition catalogues, gallery guides…art criticism blogs? How does art-writing happen? Who pays for it? How does anyone make a living doing it? For the most part, we don’t make a living writing about art. For example, I make my living teaching. When I help my students with guidance about doing research on artists and artworks, I guide them to journal articles and give them a caution about the beautiful picture books on the library shelves. Most of the exhibition catalogues take a very conservative approach – controversies are usually glossed over. Exhibition catalogues exist to improve the reputation and value of a museum’s collection. If you want dirt, try for journal articles from academic journals. Drawback to journal articles: it can take a while for work to get published… maybe a couple years. And nobody really gets paid for publishing in academic journals. Good art-writing is hard to find… and especially hard to find if you are interested in Native American art (historic period, traditional, or contemporary – there’s a lot of rubbish, and then there are gems mixed in with it).  I bring all this up because I just read an interesting post on the blog wittily called Bloggy

Here is the text of the post:

“Given my lack of time for blogging, and knowing more people would see it and discuss it there, I shared my notes from my rant on the last night of #class with Art Fag City. Don’t miss the comments.

Part of the point of #class was to propose solutions, not just whine, so here are my thoughts. As the number of culture critics and writers decline in the printed media, the online world is replacing them, but getting paid enough to write is a big problem, even for relatively well-known writers such as Paddy Johnson of Art Fag City. As the co-founder of Culture Pundits and Idiom, it’s something I worry about quite often, and both were founded to find some support for good writing.

My proposal: arts organizations such as The Art Dealers Association of America and the New Art Dealers Alliance should use a portion of their membership dues to fund arts writing. I’m sure similar groups exist for theater and dance as well, but the area I know best is the visual arts. In the long run, they need people to write about art, including their artists and exhibitions, and if people are too broke or busy freelancing to do so, no one wins. For a fraction of the cost of attending even a single art fair, the pooled resources could make a big difference in the quality and quantity of art criticism. Heck, perhaps some of this money could even fund some good editors to work with bloggers and other writers who would like that assistance!

Implementation details, such as an advisory committee for handing out the money, can be discussed. I would strongly recommend against a big proposal process, as I think that takes away from the time writers could use for better purposes. Writers who are interested in being considered could fill out a simple web form with a link to some samples of their writing for a committee to consider. In the interest of smoothing cash flow for all parties involved, the awards could even be monthly payments rather than lump sums. PayPal works very nicely for that.”

The Comments that follow the Bloggy post were also interesting. You should check them out.

The main objection to Bloggy’s proposal is that if those organizations are paying the writers, then the authenticity of the writing is corrupted…we turn into a bunch of gagged yes-men(and women), because what funder is going to risk having us give them BAD reviews about the artists and exhibitions they have an interest in? This argument overlooks one important fact: any press is good press. Randy Gragg, an art critic in Oregon, once told me that when he gives a show a bad review, MORE people go see the exhibition. For some reason, we are fascinated to go see what BAD art looks like. It’s not like going to a movie that you read a bad review about. Going to a gallery is usually free. Going to an art museum can be free or cheap depending on when you go. You’re also not held captive for 1.5 hours. You can leave anytime you like. Mr. Gragg said that he got thank you letters from artists, even for a bad review, because at least it was free advertising, and the artist knew more people came to see the work for themselves.

But back to Bloggy’s idea of trade organizations pooling funds to support art writing… I think it’s an interesting idea and I have been thinking about it for the last month or so, independently, but in regard to art-writing specifically about contemporary Native American art. We in the US have been operating under a handicap in comparison to the kind of support our counterparts in Canada have.  When a Native art institution in the US is looking for Native writers about Native art, they run out of writers if they are looking for more than 10 or so, and have to turn to Canadian First Nations writers. This is because we don’t have institutional support to make a living, develop our careers, or even hang on by tooth and nail here in the US (see my picture above). If IAIA,  MoCNA, the Denver Art Museum, NMAI, the Heard Museum, the Southwest Museum, SWAIA, and other institutions with a stake in Native American art pooled their funds, they could support a number of independent arts-writers, without having to start their own publishing houses. I’m just planting a seed here… someone with a better head for business could figure it out. Me, I’m here for the art, and the blogging.

Methodology – Art as a Mode of Inquiry

Bow watch in a storm onboard the Schooner Zodiac.

I just returned from a 4-day sailing trip through the San Juan Islands on the schooner Zodiac. It was a work trip (The Evergreen State College), which meant about 6 hours a day of very productive seminar sessions, usually discussing poems that have at least a tangential relationship to the sea. We also had sessions on two days that dealt with drawing as a mode of inquiry to be used in conjunction with scientific disciplines. Faculty member Lucia Harrison provided everyone with a handy notebook that provided detailed examples and instructions for creating a field notebook that includes drawing from observation…even for people who don’t ordinarily draw. She led some excercises on the deck with gestural drawing and blind contour drawing. Gestural drawings are very quick, energetic drawings that just aim at getting down the mass distribution of whatever you are drawing – capturing the gesture, without getting caught up on details. Blind contour drawing is all about the details, except you are NOT LOOKING at the paper as you draw. Imagine your eye and your hand are attached. You move your eye slowly over whatever you aim to draw, following the outlines, the interior lines, any edge that your eye can perceive. If your line runs out, you back your eye and your hand back over that perceived edge until you can meet up with a line your eyes haven’t yet followed.

Contour drawings by the author.

Blind contour drawings always come out looking strange… proportion flies out the window (so to speak). An excercise like this makes you look very closely and in an organized fashion at an object, causing you to notice features you wouldn’t otherwise see. After these exercises on board ship, we went to shore and picked objects on shore to draw using the same techniques. The following day, we spent 3 hours on shore with a much bigger assignment, including drawing a map of the area as well as studies of a creature or a feature (plants, geological features, animals, etc.)

Field Journal page by the author.

Field journal page combining gesture, contour, and shaded drawings.

Sometimes, art history and art criticism seem to be about defining “good” art and “bad” art. Writings through the lenses of art history or art criticism at any given time are a pretty good window on what the issues are at the time the piece is written – and may have nothing to do with what was going on when the art was actually made. In the Western World, art has been somewhat removed from daily domestic life – art belongs in churches, museums, state buldings, the homes and offices of the wealthy. With the increase in public art programs and community arts initiatives, are we moving toward a greater inclusion of art in our daily lives? What would our culture look like if art were a part of most people’s lives? Not just as viewers or consumers of art, but as practioners? What if drawing were for everyone, not just children and professional artists? What if drawing were a valuable and intellectual/physical mode of inquiry in our society?

In Lucia Harrison’s workbook “Strategies for Keeping a Field Journal,” She identifies six elements of the intellectual work of drawing (my additions/comments are in parenthesis):

– Develops observational skills. Close study helps you explore how something is structured, how it works, or what it is doing. This is especially true of field studies – the objects being drawn are not dead – they are alive and engaged in being themselves – eroding, budding, nesting — they are active and careful observation can help you explore what they are doing.

– Requires active learning, engagement in studying the subject (this is not television).

– Enhances awareness of relationships among parts and whole. Helps you identify the key structures that make up an organism (even if you don’t yet know names for those structures)

– Helps synthesize ideas, connecting outer (text or lecture-based) and inner(physical/emotional) experiences.

– Communicates understanding, theoretical possibilities, insights, and feelings (all at the same time, without devaluing some aspects and prioritizing others).

– Builds a relationship with the subject to foster responsibility and caring (both of which are necessary in order for policy decisions to be made that could prevent further destruction of habitat, damage to biological diversty, etc.).

Beyond the assignments for these sessions, I made some additional drawings, including a gesture drawing done in color and a study of the ship’s rigging during a storm.

Gesture Drawing done in color. Algae bloom in a high salinity lagoon.

I drew this quick study of a small lagoon on a sand spit on Lopez Island. The very highest tides let saltwater into this small lagoon. Water evaporates, leaving salt behind. The water is so salty that only very specialized organisms can live in it. This type of algae is one of them. The lagoon smells absolutely horrible, but that very smell is a sign of the rich biological environment of the lagoon. The lagoon is edged with pickleweed, which I didn’t get to move close enough to see. The edges of the lagoon are a very sensitive ecosystem and walking through it damages the plants, so we stayed away from making a close examination of the pickle weed.

Another drawing that I did on the trip is a study of the rigging on the main mast of the schooner during a storm. It was too stormy to actually sail that morning. All the sails were down, but it was so windy that the ropes belled out from the mast. I loved the pattern against the sky so I decided to draw it, first in pencil, and then I did a version in color with chalk pastels. I’m not presenting this drawing simply as a work of art, but as a means of getting to know the rigging. As I was drawing, I realized that I actually knew the function of each of the ropes, even if I didn’t know the specialized vocabulary to name each one. The day previously, I had been assigned a sailing post: mainsail, topsail, starboard side. The sheet (rope) that I hauled on raised the throat end of the top of the mainsail. It was massive, and it was hard work, and I was just one person of the 30 people involved, each with their own task – and we all had to work together in order to get the ship moving under the power of the wind. It was awesome technology, and amazing teamwork. Drawing helped me think about the technology, the individual tasks, and the harnessing of the wind for a shared goal – plus the vulnerability of the endeavor. Experiencing the technology of the past first-hand is a luxury and a rare experience.

Lara Evans, too stormy to raise the sails, 2010

Home Fires – The Creative Energy of Native Women Artists.

Saturday August 14th  –  School for Advanced Research, Santa Fe

Home Fires Aug 14th Event at School for Advanced research, Santa Fe

I attended a special evening event in celebration of a new book: Art in Our Lives: Native Women Artists in Dialogue. I was part of the book project, along with Sherry Farrell Racette, Cynthia Chavez Lamar, Felice Lucero, Eliza Naranjo-Morse, Dyani Reynolds-White Hawk, TahNibaa Naataanii, Gloria Emerson, Heidi Brandow, Shannon Letandre, Diane Reyna, and Erica Lord. The School for Advanced Research brought the group together for a series of meetings where we spoke about our lives, our art-making, our cultures, families, and educational/career paths.

Toward the end of our last meeting, we spoke about how important this experience of sharing with other Native women artists had been to us and how it put things into a new perspective us. We wished we had this experience years before. We decided (with SAR support) that we should put together a book based on our conversations and research. The last substantial book about Native Women artists was Women of Sweetgrass, Cedar, and Sage, by Harmony Hammond and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, in 1985. That means that the youngest artists in our group were in preschool through the first grade! We wanted a book that would be a resource for the next generation of artists as well as those interested in Native art and culture.

Dinner at SAR

After two years, the book is finished and we have our advance copies. More will be available in two weeks. You can find it on the SAR Press website and on, where you can view significant portions of the book online.

The launch of the book at SAR on the 14th was a beautiful event with introductions and brief remarks about the book from Cynthia Chavez Lamar and Gloria Emerson, followed by a lovely dinner under the old oak tree on the campus. We had after-dinner conversations and signed books. It was a lovely evening!


Narrative Strings, thanks to Marcia Crosby

Concept Drawing by the author: Narrative Strings in Belmore's performance art as described by scholar Marcia Crosby

The earliest stage of my writing/research/thinking process starts along two main paths: either looking at an artwork or , or thinking about an interesting passage from somebody else’s writing. Those two things are like a diving board – they let me jump in with enthusiasm. I often make little drawings as I go, working out ideas visually. I just got a new book in the mail yesterday and decided to share a passage that got me thinking and doodling. Here it is:


“In relationship to performances that reference specific historical events, it’s important to bear in mind that the ephemeral nature of performance art (in general) does not lend itself to ‘telling’ specific historical narratives or producing meanings or explanations; having said that, performance can disentangle histories in very particular ways. That is, an artist at one level may refer to personal, local, cultural, or national narratives of prolonged abuse or trauma (as fiction or empirical fact); and the body, its gestures (and other media) may expose the imbalance of power relations of a personal trauma. In an aboriginal performance that is focused on trauma or violence, performer or spectator may gather any number of the narrative strings of colonialization: lateral violence in the home or community, the dissolution of family, residential schooling, decimating diseases, diaspora, the emergence of fluid or unstable aboriginal communities – any events that make up the complexity of colonialism historical and ongoing woundings. That said, such narratives are a referent or perhaps only ‘one arrangement’ of an oscillating constellation of other possible elements to the performance, which raises questions about power itself. The performance ‘breaks up at the very levels of comprehensibility and acceptance… The situation of oscillation becomes even more problematic when it is a question of being there, in action, in front of a certain number of witnesses, of presences.’[1]

Given the contingencies of performance art, Belmore does not use the form as an attempt to make meaning or create closure in relation to the specific historic events she references. She is well aware that in its capacity to elicit both a somatic response and to call up specific memories, the language of performance art is transient, it is gesture, trace remains of anecdotal evidence; it cannot be objectified and can hardly be explained, and it is viscous in its contradictions. The duration of a work draws a momentary horizon line, pointing both to what is known and that which is emergent and thus yet incoherent.”

– Marcia Crosby, “The Multimedia Work of Rebecca Belmore: a Disturbing Uncertainty,” from the book Action and Agency: Advancing the Dialogue on Native Performance Art, (Denver, CO: Denver Art Museum, 2010) pp. 22-23.


As I was reading that passage above, I pictured first the linear historical narrative, represented by a book. Then Marcia Crosby’s choice of words made me think instead of history not as a narrative, but as a jumble of threads, like a pile of spaghetti, that Belmore’s performance pulls individual narrative strings and briefly arranges them in a way that gives a momentary physical experience of what is known, emergent, and/or incoherent. If you have any experience with yarn, wires, the physics of strings, you know that they can be separated out only briefly. Unless spooled, they will retangle again with the slightest movement. Tangling is reduced if you keep them in the smallest possible container that will hold them. To continue the metaphor even further (at the risk of being ridiculous, I know) we might say that performance takes the tangle out of the tiny “historical” box that we attempt to store trauma at a remove from ourselves, and moves that tangle into a public eye to tangle even more, have strands pulled out that give us glimpses of order and potential. And when the performance is over, the tangle goes back into its metaphorical storage box. Perhaps the pile is less tangled, or the strands have become color coded. Perhaps the box is a different size, creating more tangle or keeping it under better control. And perhaps each factor is different for each person experiencing the performance artwork.

[1] Richard Martel, “The Tissues of the Performative,” in Art Action: 1958-1998 (Quebec: Editions Intervention, 2001) 32.

Friend or Foe, Part II

Terrance Houle, Friend or Foe, video installation, 2010 (Photo by Lara Evans)

My first entry on the exhibition “Friend or Foe” focused on a series of photographs by Terrance Houle in the exhibition. Part II focuses on his video installation work Friends and Foes at Or Gallery in Vancouver, BC.[1] The video is projected floor-to-ceiling on the wall of the gallery. It is a series of scenes with the artist standing in the middle or foreground, using hand gestures to sign meaning. Each scene ends with a black screen with a text translation of the hand signs.

Curator Darrin J. Martens had this to say about the piece:

“Houle directly addresses his audience through his gaze and signing. Once confronted, the artist sets out to relay a narrative documenting a series of personal relationships – the first being with the audience, whom he terms ‘friend’, the second, a self-identifying term in relationship to his heritage, the third identifies his affiliation with a white man, the fourth with the white man’s infant and lastly Houle’s location. The choice to utilize and portray seemingly ubiquitous terms such as friend, Blackfoot and Paleface as subjects of his video performance demonstrates a position that Houle has taken in relation to human classification systems. By categorizing the audience and terming them ‘friend’ Houle establishes a non-confrontational familiarity that establishes how the remainder of the performance will be executed. Self-identifying as Blackfoot, the artist locates his aboriginality visually, through the sign for Blackfoot and his apparel – loincloth, headdresses and moccasins. The following two series of signings position Houle in relation to his subjects – his white friend and infant. By utilizing terms such as Paleface and Paleface’s Baby, Houle confronts his audience with stereotypes of his friends, denying their individual identity. The presentation of the performance and the signs the artist presents demonstrates nonverbally, the power and influence that naming has when the classifying human social relationships and challenges the audience to consider the significance of racially motivated classifications of Native and non-Native persons.”[2]

What this description does not convey is the irony and humor involved in the piece. A normal-looking Indian guy (not a chiseled Hollywood Indian) stands on sidewalk in front of a movie theater with a marquee reading Machotaildrop (a skateboarder movie), Eddies (a documentary about an amateur beer commercial contest), and Surf Across Canada (yes, about surfing). He is scantily clad in the loincloth mentioned above. People walk through the shot. Some stare at Houle. Others ignore him. He gestures in silence. The screen goes to black, and then we find out what he said with his gestures. There is definitely absurdity and irony present. There is no sound attached to the video piece. That plus the use of black screens with text between shots reminds the viewer of old silent films from the first days of moving pictures. There are competing tensions between the genre as carrying historic weight and significance, and the melodramatic gestural acting that is so different from our contemporary notions of acting. Houle confronts us with references to several different historical moments: the contemporary (suburban, urban, and public park settings), the early 20th century (borrowing the conventions of silent films, such as intertitles), and the 18th-19th century (wearing loincloth from red trade cloth). Different historical moments overlay one another, as different methods of communication overlay one another. Houle uses traditional hand signs he learned from within his family. The terminology that he uses in his translation fits in with the early Hollywood Indian fantasies and stereotypes. The medium in which the work is executed is important. It would not work simply as a live performance or as still photographs. The development of narrative techniques in film between the 1880s and 1930s coincide with the development of popular stereotypes about Indians that were central to the new “American” literature that had developed in the 19th century. I see a subtle link between the stereotypical representations of Indians speaking in broken English, frozen in time at the moment of “contact,” and the power of the genre of film. Large numbers of silent “western” films were made – most of which have not survived. But the genre continued into the era of “talkies,” and moved into television as well. Houle references this past, makes use of it, but subverts it by taking center stage (so to speak), and claiming his identity as “Friend to Paleface” and “Friend to Paleface Baby.” There are no foes here.

The clip above shows a section of the projected video.

An interesting observation about the installation:

As I noted above, there is no sound to the video. However, it was installed in the same room as Rebecca Belmore’s video installation piece. Belmore’s piece incorporates the video documentation of two performances, Victorious and Against Glass. The sound from this installation occasionally intrudes upon Houle’s piece, with the triumphal music of God Save the Queen the most intrusive section of audio. As both pieces play on a loop and are different lengths, God Save the Queen cuts in at a different moment during each replay of Houle’s work. I don’t think it detracts from Houle’s work though. I might actually miss it if I were to see his piece installed without Belmore’s piece in such close proximity.

[1] The exhibition is no longer on display. It closed in July 2010.

[2] Darrin J. Martins, Friend or Foe (Exhibition Catalogue), Vancouver, BC: Or Gallery, 2010, p. 2.