Monday, April 25, 2011

"The Moon of Tomorrow"

"2 + 2 = 5:  Collaborations" opens Friday (4/29/2011) at Thunder-Sky.  The centerpiece of the exhibit is a work that hasn't been exhibited in over two years, a collaboration Antonio Adams did with Brian Joiner back in 2008 titled "Those Who Want War Warring Against Those Who Don't." (on loan from Country Club Gallery).  This triptych is an incredible example of how collaboration can push two artists toward newer, fresher ideas and images.  The surface of the large three-panel painting has a luster and bustle to it:  superheroes and angels, the Twin Towers, minarets and missiles all combining into an elaborate dream/nightmare inspired by Picasso and updated by Adams and Joiner. 

Antonio also was given some of the art supplies Brian left behind after his death last year.  Circular slices of woods onto which Brian had glued an odd assortment of shapes were taken by Antonio and transformed into a 3-D cosmology.  The silver piece above Antonio titled "The Moon of Tomorrow," and that seems fitting.  From the sorrow of Brian's death, Antonio has been able to forge a new style inspired by Brian's legacy.  Collaboration indeed.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Italo Calvino + Courttney Cooper = What It Is

I was so looking forward to Matt Morris' take on Courttney Cooper's show at PAC Gallery (in Walnut Hills) that I was afraid maybe I was expecting too much.  I wasn't.  His review of "Cincinnati USA:  Before and After" is an amazing exercise in pulling two disparate worlds together in order to show that these worlds are interchangeable in ways we never  allow ourselves to consider.

Calvino, a canonized literary figure who passed away in 1985, wrote neo-Realist fiction, fables and meta-narratives that question the very necessity of literature while proving how important it is.  Morris quotes from Invisible Cities, a tall-tale, prose/poem novel featuring Marco Polo explaining his travels to Kublai Khan.  The book is beautifully pretentious and yet completely down-to-earth, and as you read it you become lost in Calvino's trickery and style while also understanding how trickery and style can become platforms for philosophy and morality.

Cooper, a local Cincinnati artist who is just beginning his career, draws intricate maps of Cincinnati on a large-scale with an ink pen, creating webs of streets and buildings and words with a high-intensity series of lines that mutate and vibrate like ghosts anxious to tell you secrets.  He is a master of both obscuring and clarifying:  his maps, as Morris points out in his review, resemble Calvino's sense of literary constructions in poignant and precise ways.  Specifically Morris writes:  "Like the world Calvino writes about, Cooper’s Cincinnati is one that is lost in time, where buildings, construction projects and festivals from different points in recent history are conflated into a single view."

Morris merges Calvino's fantastical depiction of a bustling dynasty with Cooper's fantastical depiction of a bustling Cincinnati, and the comparison allows you to conflate the works of Calvino and Cooper in a way no one would have done unless Morris wished the two together. 

The juxtaposition allows Cooper, who could be defined as an "outsider artist" or an "artist with a disability," to be defined only by his work, just as we usually allow with canonized figures like Calvino.  It doesn't necessarily "lift" Cooper up, as much as level the playing field -- as if Cooper, in his drawings, is not only drawing a city, but creating his own identity.

Matt Morris' "Midwestern Marco Polo" in Citybeat.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Ai Weiwei: Don't Let It Be

I write and think a lot about "outsider artists."  I ran across an essay about Ai Weiwei yesterday and I have been thinking about his status both as an artist and activist, and how his art/activism created for him an identity that he now can literally not escape.  Weiwei is an "outsider artist," even though he is pedigreed and championed, and is shown all over the world.  Weiwei has become one of China's most visible "disappeareds."  He was detained April 3 by Chinese officials, and has not been heard from since. 

His art is humorous, sneaky, and Duchampian.  The political has given Weiwei a reason to be pissed and allows his work a vicious, smart-assed strength and validity, but he uses an aesthetic approach to both question authority and poke fun at himself as an Artist.  (Witness the perfect "Coca Cola 'Han Dynsasty'" urn above, as well as the straightforward beauty of giving the finger to the White House, part of a series of photographs that include giving the finger to the Eiffel Tower and Tiananmen Square, among other landmarks.)  His work reminds me of Jeff Koons if Jeff Koons gave a shit.

Weiwei returned to China in 1993 after going to art school in the US.  In his own country he is a prisoner for pointing out that the emperor has no clothes.  His art won't let it be.  And even though he is well-known and one of China's most celebrated artists, he is an outcast.  

"Outsider art" in this case has something to do with what artists are expected to do and be.  Weiwei's bravery, I'm sure, has been duly noted, but what I find fascinating is his need to do the art he does in a country that would rather silence him than tolerate him.  This need seems to come from a very pure place.  Maybe that's a definition of "outsider art" I can deal with:  art that needs to come from a pure place.

Not Evidence of Identity But a Way to Create It

I'm working on an essay about Thornton Dial's retrospective at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and I keep coming back to what "outsider art" represents, and how the meanings it conjures can often be reductive.  Putting art and artists into an overarching, identity-based categorization system eliminates almost any other area of inquiry or interest.  Any other narratives and contexts become unnecessary because the story behind the art-making pigeonholes the artist and situates his/her art in another sphere, "outside" of Art, capital A. 

From its very beginnings, via Jean Dubuffet, "outsider art" was a reaction to "insider art," not a new way to see, but a way to criticize the hegemony of Western culture.  In philosophizing about "art brut" (the forebear of "outsider art"), Dubuffet writes, "Personally, I believe very much in the values of savagery. I mean: instinct, passion, mood, violence, madness." 

"Savagery, violence, madness" are of course wonderful things for artists to indulge in and play with, but they are also words that delegitimize and colonize artists who may not be art-schooled or have access to pedigree status.  Often "outsider artists" don't have the choice of how to construct their own narratives.  The identity of "outsider" fills in the blanks.  All the artists labeled "outsider" I've come across are not violent or mad, moody or savage:  they are just hard workers, trying to create their way out of being obscure or ignored. 

In positioning an artist (especially if she/he is labeled "developmentally disabled" or "African American working class") as "outsider," the art produced by this artist becomes evidence that he/she is human and capable and talented, even though they are "mad or moody" and outside of "our world."  We assume these characteristics in other artists who are not labeled "outsider."  An "insider," non-labeled artist's work is not seen as evidence of identity:  it is seen as the way they create it. 
What the exhibit of Thornton Dial's works does is allow us to envision an "outsider artist" creating his own identity, breaking free of the cliches and pigeonholes "outsiderness" creates.  Comparisons to Matisse and Rauschenberg are necessary because Dial is not "outside" of the Matisse/Rauschenberg radar.  He is participating in art history, whether he knows it or not,  His art demands that kind of attention.  When we juxtapose Dial's works with the works of more famous artists we start to understand that Dial is working towards clarity and his own aesthetic.  He is doing this not because he is "mad or savage, insider or outsider," but because he is "omni-sided," approaching his work as work, creating art because that's what artists do.

Monday, April 11, 2011

I Was Dreaming When I Wrote This

(We're publishing a book of poems/prose inspired by Dale Jackson's text-works (titled I Was Dreaming When I Wrote This), to debut at the opening of "2 + 2 = 5:  Collaborations" 4/29/2011.  This is my contribution -- a villanelle (sort of) made up of lines from Dale's pieces... [Keith Banner])

Nobody’s Nothing

How long does it take to find out?
Batman needs a new partner.
Nobody’s nothing.

It fits just right.
The driver starts turning the wheel.
How long does it take to find out?

Remember it comes back in the night.
(I say forget it.)
Nobody’s nothing.

This is American Idol
Flying out of the Batcave.
How long does it take to find out?

They out of luck.
Look at the price.
Nobody’s nothing.

Black SUV come flying down the road
90 miles per hour.
How long does it take to find out?
Nobody’s nothing.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Courttney Cooper

Courttney Cooper has a one-man show at PAC Gallery in Walnut Hills opening April 15, 2011.  I wrote this poem about Courttney's work in 2007.  He is an amazing artist and human being... (Keith Banner)

Courttney Cooper

A map of a city
Nobody else can see,
Lines drawn with ball-point pens
Bought at a drug-store on the way home.
The paper gets picked up off the ground.

His brain needs those buildings.

Every neighborhood is revealed,
Every piece of river,
Every street-corner
Like an eyelash trapped on a fingertip.

His architecture devours
All the words we use.  Every moment
Is a rafter, every window
A hymn.
All door knobs are
A reason to exist.

Grocery carts lined up in the rain
Are like numbers in a phonebook
Only shinier
And more useful.

The bones in his hand
create this

The one place
he must get to.

Saturday, April 9, 2011


Ten years ago this month downtown Cincinnati was in an uproar.  Police shot and killed an unarmed man named Timothy Thomas in Over the Rhine; frustrations and furies had been brewing for years, and suddenly the streets became the place where they were unleashed.  One of the first shows featuring "outsider artists" here in Cincinnati had just opened at Base Gallery a couple weeks before.  It was titled, "Art Thing," and featured Raymond Thunder-Sky, Paul Rowland and Antonio Adams (pictured standing in front of Base), as well as Richard Brown (not pictured).  Base was located in the middle of the riots, on Main Street in Over the Rhine.  During the overnight violence, cars in front of the gallery were destroyed.  Windows and doors beside the gallery were smashed.  But Base's large, plate-glass windows were left untouched; the art was not bothered.  It was like a version of passover.  I always remember that because it was a small glimmer of grace in an otherwise horrible and horrifying situation.  Another bit of grace came a little later, when 19-year-old Antonio, whose apartment was one block away from where Timothy Thomas was shot, did a series of drawings about the riots.  In one, he imagined Timothy Thomas' mother and the officer who shot Timothy falling in love while walking on side-by-side treadmills at a gym. 

Below is video from the opening night of "Art Thing."