Thursday, September 8, 2011

Everything Is Everything

We got back from London Sunday. What a great trip... Went to Tate Modern, Saatchi Gallery, Tate Britain, saw Buckingham Palace, the Thames, etc.  And of course: The Museum of Everything.  Pictures below...

We went there the day Everything opened. It's in a high-end department store in Selfridge & Co. on Oxford Street near Soho.  The Selfridge is a huge glamorous place (white tile floors, chandeliers, etc.), and the Museum of Everything occupies a lounge area, as well as a store upfront in the perfume department. The store has posters, t-shirts, pencils, buttons, and other souvenirs featuring the work in the lounge. Also, outside on Oxford Street, the display windows contain set-ups dedicated to some of the artists inside the lounge display:  think big-scale collaged dioramas, including a beautiful architectural sculpture of a dream building by Stefan Hafner.

What I noticed first when I toured The Museum of Everything Exhibit 4 is the sheer magnitude of the project. It turns out the main objective of this Everything enterprise is to survey studio programs for artists with disabilities across the world, almost like a visual census. This is problematic for me because I think categorizing and grouping artists into diagnosis-driven programs often limits the way people might be able to access and use the art in their imaginations. Think about when you first are "introduced" to people with disabilities when you're young (when I use "you," I'm referring to everybody, including people with disabilities). They are often grouped into "special" classes, driven to those classes on "special" buses. They are often segregated from you even though the politically correct mantra is "inclusion." That vague term evaporates in practice, of course, and in fact a large amount of people with disabilities live their lives in group-homes, institutions and other isolated venues, despite "deinstitutionalization" and other advocacy stances that try to ameliorate and reinvent the relationship between people with and without disabilities.

Art for me should be a way for artists to break away from the cultural and social constraints of a preconditioned life. Art should help us decode and deconstruct all the ways we are different, while also glamorizing and particularizing what make us different. When you group people together under one programmatic tent you automatically limit the way the way they are perceived. That goes double for artists with disabilities, because the product of who they are -- their artwork -- becomes a casualty of that perception. Their art is "saving" them from their disability, or it's a way for them to "communicate," or because they have a disability they are artists. All of this may be partially true, but still the cliche eliminates news ways of seeing.

The day Exhibit # 4 opened, Andrew Searle wrote a lame, oblique and kind of morose review in The Guardian.  Here's a portion:

This fourth Museum of Everything show focuses on art made in studio workshops, some attached to hospitals, around the world, from Japan to Brazil, Germany to Australia. These places are part refuge, part studio, safe havens for the troubled individuals who use them. The show occupies a specially constructed warren of dimly-lit rooms in the basement of Selfridges department store in Oxford Street. Selfridges has allowed art through the door before, but it is an unlikely and discordant setting. Mostly produced by people who suffer a variety of psychological, neurological or physical problems, the art is often fascinating, winning, hugely talented (in a narrow kind of way), but falls outside the cultural and social mainstream, mostly because it is neither intended as art nor produced with other viewers in mind. There's no sense of development or critical distance.

Searle's critique has the creepy, arcane tone of a prickly nurse mad at the staff.  In it he shows no inclination toward even the possibility that art made by people not normally considered "artists" should ever be considered worthy of our attention -- outside of possibly being "fascinating" because it "falls outside the cultural and social mainstream."  I love the line "hugely talented (in a narrow kind of way)."  That is the crux of his understanding:  he wants to tiptoe around his own revulsion and compliment this group of people with "psychological, neurological or physical problems" and throw these guys and gals a bone ("hugely talented"), but he can't resist letting his own version of the truth parenthetically seep through:  "in a narrow kind of way" is the way he can relegate their efforts at art-making.  This narrowness is not defined by him, just assumed.

In the comment section Museum of Everything Curator James Brett writes:

We can assure you that the artists in the show are rarely troubled, certainly not when they are making art. There are films playing throughout our space which show them at work in the studios, doing what they love. One of them, Marianne Schipaanboord, was at our opening last night. Marianne is deaf, has cerebral palsy, a learning disorder and is confined to a wheelchair. We would suggest she is not in any way "troubled" and celebrates her life every day with diaries of delicate pen and watercolour drawings. Is this the "worrying" and "painful" work of which you speak? And if so, who is worried: Marianne, us, the people who visit the museum? You are welcome to ask her herself and she will tell you, by spelling out words in Dutch on a small laminated alphabet sheet.

In his response to Searle's cranky artistic bigotry, Brett allows disability to take up all the room, kind of like in the way "disability" and "programs" overcrowd Exhibit # 4.  Brett singles out one of the artists in order to show Searle the error of his ways, and yet in the exhibit itself Marianne Schipaanboord's work becomes a part of a program-crowded Super Display.  Hundreds of works, all of them wonderful, many of them sheer genius, are framed in Plexiglas and mounted on top of antique wallpaper, lit in some rooms only by battery-operated candles.  In fact, some of the rooms in the lounge are so dark you can barely see what you're looking at, and in others there's so much stuff to see you have to look away to make sense of it.  The strategy it seems was to overwhelm all of us with joy and mystery and strangeness and kindness, but after a while the show turns into overt branding.  The central focus, the "spine" of the exhibit, is the Museum of Everything's whimsical typography (red, white and black cardboard constructs placed all over the exhibit, and all over the store), as well as its shabby-chic aesthetic approach.  Broken, pretty/ugly pieces of furniture, peeling wall-paper, and other ephemera share the stage. 

In other words, when Brett needs to defend the show to a heathen like Searle, he singles out one of the artists, lets us into her world, and yet the show itself seems almost to provide obstacles to this kind of connection.  It becomes about "program" imperatives and heorics just as much as it is about "art."

Also while in London, we went to the Tate Modern.  And while there I came across some posters done by Guerrilla Girls, back in the day (1985 or so).  Guerrilla Girls were a punk tribunal and street-art force in the 80s dedicated to rectifying discrimination in art galleries in NYC.  Their posters (two of them pictured below) pointed a graphic, no-nonsense barrel of a gun at the windows and doors of elite galleries and museums that were excluding women and African Americans.  It's a reductive, kind of cute stance to take of course, and probably didn't do too much to sway any one's opinion, but I like the bite and char of their rhetoric, the simplicity of their plea.  What if we started making posters like this about artists with developmental disabilities?  What would they look like?  The Guerrilla Girl's rhetoric is group-centric, but their message is about single artists having shows -- it's about the right to be seen as a singular artist in a white-male-dominated world.  It's a form of identity politics that assumes every artist has the right to be seen as an equal to every other artist.  In the posters for artists with developmental disabilities, we might start with a slogan like:  "NO MORE PROGRAM SHOWS."  Or:  "I AM AN ARTIST.  NOT A DIAGNOSIS."  The critique would not only be about the artworld, but the world as a whole consigning people to places they don't need to be in order to be who they are.

Also at the Tate Modern is this piece by Matisse, titled "The Snail."  It is a huge collage that takes up a whole wall with a bench in front of it.  I sat there and stared at this incredibly simple object for close to a half-hour, overwhelmed by its directness and savvy streamlined beauty.  The wall-text next to it reads:

The Snail is one of the last and largest pieces in Matisse’s final series of works, known as cutouts. Confined to bed through illness, he had assistants paint sheets of paper in gouache which he then cut. The shell of a snail inspired the spiralling arrangement of roughly cut pieces of paper. Compared to his earlier paintings, Matisse believed that he had gained ‘greater completeness and abstraction’ in the cutouts. ‘I have attained a form filtered to its essentials’, he remarked.

Matisse was an artist with a disability when he made this work, and although he is the opposite of an "outsider artist" his work shares many qualities with much of the works in The Museum of Everything Exhibit # 4.  At the end of his life he needed help, but that help is not the way we perceive his work.  It's only incidental to the manufacturing of it.  

I could also sit and stare at many of the works in the Museum of Everything Exhibit # 4, but this one below, by Paulas de Groot, totally captured me while I was there -- in that same "Snail" way.  It seems to be a product of elimination, of working toward not needing a lot of artifice, but finding an aesthetic that matches the intensity of your quest for that essential simplicity.  I love the blank expression, the streamlined oddness of each shape, the orange and red and black, and those eerie iridescent fangs.  I'm sure de Groot has helpers too, but at the end of the day they are just part of the process, and the process is important for sure, but it should never get in the way of the finished product:  the destination is a work of art.  Pure and simple.  "I have attained a form filtered to its essentials," Matisse says.  Damn right.