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Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary @ArtInstituteChi

The exhibit Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary at the Art Institute of Chicago ends October 13.

I’m going to miss the Unthink posters that have been up around the city all summer. Like his paintings, the posters take you out of the everyday by presenting ordinary objects in strange situations or with unexpected text, causing you to pause and think—to unthink.

The exhibit takes you through dozens of his works. It’s put on in the dark—even the walls are painted black—with only the works themselves lit. You wonder around the halls seeing people made of clouds, birds made of stone, and countless other oddities. A train rushes out of a fireplace in Time Transfixed as a clock sits on the mantle ticking away, anything but transfixed, in fact. There is an effective use of framing—2-object and 4-object configurations with repeating motifs—not totally unlike Warhol’s work some decades down the road. And while the works seem flat when seen digitally, they are impressive up close—he’s a much better painter than you think.

Magritte, who was born in Belgium but worked in Paris, is a well-known icon of Surrealism, a movement started by Andre Brenton that grew out of literature and spread to painting and photography. In addition to Magritte, the movement includes painters like Miro and Dali, and its influence can be traced through Situationalism and to street art like the work done by Banksy today. One tenet of Surrealism to perceive or create a spectacle of the everyday so that you stop and think—again, or unthink.

One of my favorite paintings is his The Treachery of Images. It seems simple and silly at first—just a pipe with the words “ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“this is not a pipe”) transcribed below. You think, well, of course it’s a pipe. It’s right there—a pipe. Ah, but it is not a pipe. It’s a representation of a pipe made of paint on canvas. It’s not a pipe at all, therefore. For that matter, “pipe” is a word, a sound, a description of the object, not the object itself. The only thing that is really a pipe is a pipe. In the work, the pipe (or its image) is arbitrary; the point is that things aren’t what they seem, that we attribute meaning to and make assumptions about even everyday, ordinary objects.

If you haven’t been already, it’s worth checking out, and while the show ends on Monday…ce n’est pas la fin (or is it?).

Hiroshi Sugimoto — Le Monde est Mort @palaistokyo

Hiroshi Sugimoto is best known for his photography, which consists of beautiful yet often haunting images of water horizons, wax figures, buildings, abandoned theaters, and dioramas. Le Monde est Mort, his latest exhibit now showing at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, is something different. Not merely a photography exhibit (though photos from Sugimoto’s own collection do make several appearances), it tells the story of the end of the world from various perspectives. The exhibit actually consists of several small scenes, each presenting the perspective of a particular person (a biologist, an artist, a politician, etc.), and each scene contains several elements, most significantly, a letter from the person in question describing how the world ended and a few of the person’s possessions. Sometimes the room where the scene is staged is actually a part of the exhibit as well, with architectural elements showing the damage borne in the progress of the planet’s demise.

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You start with the letter, each beginning, “Today the world died. Or maybe yesterday,” a reference to Camus’s opening line from  The Stranger: “Today, mother is dead. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.” Then you move on to the objects to see the effects of the end in three dimensions. The exhibit feels like an archaeological excursion — bits of a lost civilization — with corrugated steel roofing, old fossils, soup cans, collections of old circuit boards, etc. In one scene, you come across a large photo of a wax museum’s rendition of the Last Supper; per the exhibit, it was damaged while the world ended, but in reality, it was damaged during hurricane Sandy. Sugimoto thus hints at the correlation of climate volatility and global catastrophe.

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The exhibit is integrated with the space — in one of the end-of-the-world scenes, the author of the letter explains that an asteroid crashed through his roof and through the floor. And there it is: a broken skylight above and a hole in the concrete floor before us, bent rebar and all, all the way to the level below (now that’s dedication on the part of the Palais). If you come to see the exhibit at night, you’re in the dark (no electricity at the end of the world, after all). They give you a flashlight to make your way around. In this way, the staging of the exhibit, the very objects and ambience, feels like a giant Readymade or a Combine.

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The exhibit is one of the best that I’ve ever seen, and yet I can’t exactly say why. It’s beautiful, but it’s also complicated and melancholy and full of references that are fun to parse out. And the way it progresses is different than a typical exhibit — the stories unfold. You walk up to a glass case, you read the letter, you examine the objects, you notice a reference to Warhol’s soup cans or to Duchamp’s Etant donnes (for example), and you think and wonder and piece things together. It’s part detective story, part commentary, part Readymade, and part traditional photography. It’s depressing but at the same time beautiful. It’s Stoic — the depressing end-of-the-world scenarios make you appreciate the world, imperfect as it certainly is, as it exists today.

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Sugimoto’s work is often available in the secondary market with smaller photos in editions of 25 selling for tens of thousands of dollars, while the large smaller-edition pieces often sell for hundreds of thousands. He is represented by Pace gallery.

We Shall Not Cease from Exploration — Science, Engineering, Design, and Art

Romantics love problems; scientists discover and analyze problems; engineers solve problems. —Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Discipline

Science defines the rules of the world — it’s our textbook of life. It tells us what happens when we add X to Y or when we heat a liquid to Z degrees. Science is the sum of all knowledge of the natural world, formed by thought and confirmed by observation. It consists of asking questions — often big questions — and forming and testing hypotheses. It’s pure in the sense that it is governed by facts — it must be observed to be true. And while we’re surrounded by its properties at all times, science seems to largely exist on paper and in labs, making it seem perhaps complicated, esoteric, or unapproachable. Research is out of the purview of the average person as it is performed inside labs in large companies and universities and is often incredibly expensive — the Hadron collider cost $4.75 billion. It has no initial economic utility other than the acquisition of knowledge, which may be the most important pursuit. But science does connect ideas and even people. Indeed, scientific facts can be viewed as a growing web — a series of findings linking to each other, building on previous work, constantly peer reviewed. It gives us “links” quite literally — for example, the physics community created the original World Wide Web to connect people and research papers.

Engineering is the application of science to solve problems and, in the process, to invent technology. Engineering makes science practical — it gives us toilets that flush, light bulbs, cars, and computers. Simply put, engineers build things — sometimes very big things, like power plants or the Burj Dubai; sometimes very small things like an integrated circuit or an iPhone. As technology scales, it creates commerce and industry. Industries — whether the energy, software, or agricultural industries — are thus scaled versions of engineering. Engineers are governed by science, by rules, and are deeply practical, often maximizing utility at the expense of beauty. One utility of engineering is the creation of wealth, sometimes massive wealth, as in the case of Bill Gates and Microsoft, the quintessential engineering firm. And while engineering is usually conducted by private companies, we interact with it each day as we drive over bridges, type on our keyboards, and talk on the phone. In this way, engineering is accessible to all of us through experience, much more so than the more amorphous concept of “science.”

Now let’s cross the boundary from science to the humanities. At the University of Illinois, the engineers were all “north of Green Street” — that was their world. Now we’re heading “south of Green Street” into something different, into the world of design. Design is the application of technology to humanity, and in this process, designers invents products — often beautiful products — for our use. The iPhone, through design, transforms technology, produced by engineers that were governed by science, into something different — a product. To get to us, these products move through identifiable stages: from the lab (science) to clunky technology (engineering) to beautiful products (design). The designer plans and creates, whether it be user interfaces (graphic design that users interact with), everyday products like tea kettles (little banalities raised, through design, some would say to the level of art, but we’ll come back to that later), and buildings and homes (architects, after all, are designers as well, albeit on a grand scale). If engineers build, designers create — they apply art, they seek beauty, and they say things like “good fit” or that a product “has strong lines.” Design is the elegant and original use of engineering to create beautiful products, and in this sense, Apple is a design firm. Consumers identify with Apple products; many believe they are beautiful.

And now we’ve introduced the concept of beauty, moving closer to art and away from cold fact. The introduction of beauty often (but not always) leads to less utility — there can be a trade-off. While beautiful, Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses were not that practical — they notoriously leaked. And while scientific research is performed in the lab, and engineering is often performed in typical office spaces, design is performed in boutiques or studios by the creative class. Even if it looks like an office, it’s a studio (style matters, especially to designers). And if design is the injection of art into engineering, then the studio element is even more appropriate. So is the art metaphor a step too far? I would argue it is not. The iPod (a beautiful piece of design) is in MoMA, after all — Windows 95 (a feat of software engineering) is not.

So now we finally get to art. Asking “what is art” is in itself a loaded question. Art is often beautiful, but it’s more than that. Art in itself is a question, as Duchamp taught us. It can be beautiful, but it also encompasses a thought and provokes a question. The best art, in my opinion, does both — it is a beautiful thought. Art is pure in the sense that it (unlike science, which encompasses a different kind of purity) does not rely on facts — it’s emotional, it wants to make you feel. We use words like imagination, beauty, and originality to describe art and how it expresses ideas and feelings, and in this way, art is subjective, it cannot be “proven.” But like science, there is an element of peer review to art — the auctions, the owners, the provenance, the museums, all linking to each other. Also a form of linking, artists build upon each other’s work, sometimes approaching what some may deem as copying or theft. But in the art world, it is called “appropriation,” though perhaps it’s merely a matter of semantics; after all, as Picasso said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” In any event, like science, art thus exists as a web, created by individuals in coffee shops and studios, linking and relinking across geography and time.

Art is not a product — it has no utility in our everyday world — it stands on its own without a “use.” In fact, many artists claim that making functional or commercial products is in fact selling out. Yet it has value, both aesthetically and monetarily. Indeed, the best art sells for far more than any individually designed product or any piece of technology. Most months, hundreds of millions of dollars of art exchange hands through auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

And while it may seem that we’ve traveled far from science to get to art, we’ve ended up back at the beginning. We’ve traveled a circle, not a line, converging at both scientist and artist. The best science is beautiful (not in appearance but in meaning, in purpose, in its very exploration), and the best art tells us something about the world around us. They ask the same question — what makes us human — they just use different tools. The scientist’s approach is quite literal — atoms, molecules, and the big bang — while the artist invokes in us wonder and curiosity and gives us a sense of our commonality. While these may at first seem fundamentally different, we’re learning that much of art, in seeking to answer the question of what makes us human, can be explained by evolution.

We live each day surrounded by engineering and design, by products and buildings that we can see and touch, but we don’t contemplate or explore science or art nearly enough. We may visit museums occasionally but not often; we rarely encounter/recognize hard science in our daily lives. This, to me, is unfortunate, because the big, interesting questions are at the beginning and the end; the incremental is in the middle:

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. —T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding

Christopher Wool @ArtInstituteChi 2014

Christopher Wool (b. 1955) is a contemporary painter who lives and works in New York. He is most famous for a series of works, created in the 1980s, consisting of black text on white canvas or aluminum. During a retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York last fall, one of these works, Apocalypse Now, sold for over $26 million. His work is currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago through May 11th, 2014.

I’ve seen Wool’s work online and in art catalogues before, but in person the experience is significantly different. The paintings are layered and nuanced. In them you find an amalgamation of references — pop, abstract expressionism, conceptual, street art — and yet they are entirely original.

The references to pop art are strong. The perfect rows of word paintings, each framed, consisting of nine-letter words, reminds me of Warhol’s soup cans displayed in MoMA. Look closely and you start to see Lichtenstein’s dots on some works. There is a series of images done with decorative paint rollers, creating a wallpaper effect, and a canvas with drip marks running both up and down — you can imagine Wool turning the canvas to add another layer, creating the drips in opposite directions. All these deliberate imperfections — tape edges, drips, screenprints, and stenciled letters — act to reveal the means of production, something that at one time was frowned upon in art because artistic works were supposed to be the product of pure inspiration and the artist merely an instrument, and preferably an invisible one, at that. Anything else would leave the realm of art and border on craft. But to see the machination at work adds yet another layer of interpretation.

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In Wool’s work, there also is an element of abstract expressionism, a movement of artists active in New York in the 1940s. The paintings are tactile, and the paint itself has medium added to it, giving it a physical presence like encaustics. Many are on aluminum instead of traditional canvas, which gives them a rigid materialism not unlike Jasper John’s flags, which were often mounted on plywood. Paint runs, splatters, and drops remind you of Pollock in places. The black and white text paintings, similar in some ways to works by Franz Kline, stand on their own as abstract paintings beyond the import of their linguistic meaning.

Conceptual art of the 70s and 80s often used text, and Wool’s text paintings certainly share aspects of Glenn Ligon’s paintings, Barbara Kruger’s mock advertising, On Kawara’s dates, and Richard Prince’s jokes, but what’s interesting with Wool’s paintings is how the text is abstracted. You start with complete abstraction as the words are often indecipherable upon first viewing due to Wool’s line breaks and spacing. You sound them out in your head, your brain switching from visual to linguistic processing. The next time you look at the painting, you read the text — you’ve deciphered the painting…well, at least one layer of it. After that, it’s interesting to go back to pure visuals without seeing the words. You can run this loop over and over in your head — visual to linguistic to visual.

Wool was painting in the East Village in the 1980s, and there is an element of punk or street art in many of his works. Some paintings have been spray painted and appear defaced by tagging (for example, there are a few works of somewhat treacly flowers with lines and swirls spray painted over them), and many of the larger works have grid-like markings (made from the stamps Wool fashioned, the edges of which would hold paint and leave rectilinear marks), creating a paste-up look like you’d find on large street-art displays.

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The use of black and white makes the images stronger, and the little color in the exhibit really pops. There is a beautiful painting with canary yellow over black and white in the back corner. There is a red painting, done in 2001, with a section of smeared paint that hints at Richter with it’s scraping marks. At the end of a long aisle of photos is TRBL, painted in a dark maroon (or perhaps more appropriately, blood red), the only text painting with color — an obviously intentional choice that itself adds meaning to the piece.

The works are physically and conceptually layered. Look up close, and you appreciate the nuance, sometimes even the history, of the paintings — letters painted over other letters and screenprints upon screenprints. And while there are elements of many artistic movements throughout Wool’s work, and many of his paintings do not include text, it is in fact the text paintings that often take you the furthest. For example, Apocalypse Now reads “Sell the House Sell the Car Sell the Kids,” a line taken from a letter briefly visible in the film Apocalypse Now by Francis Ford Coppola, a film which is itself an adaptation of the book Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. We’ve gone from written Conrad, to visual Coppola, to an abstraction by Wool that we eventually decode back to the written word. (And this is before even trying to understand the meaning of the words, why Wool chose them, or the importance of their placement.) Most recently, Wool has taken this a step further, reusing previous images of his own — importing them into Photoshop, manipulating them, and then rescreening them onto new works — another journey now from analog to digital to analog.

There is a series of photographs from New York and some of Wool’s travels that hang in the center aisle of the exhibit. Here again we see the means of production as an element of the art: the photos are actually photocopies of photographs. The images are mostly taken at night with a flash, giving them a dark yet overexposed (both in terms of photographic process and vulnerability) feel. These are lonely and depressing images — an abandoned hotel, its sign reading ironically, “Eden”; many stray dogs; a telephone on a bed; a parked car in a trash-strewn alley; water pooled in dark streets; a solitary string of lights. Like the paintings, these felt like an amalgamation to me — some feel similar to Frank’s The Americans (though distinctly different in their lack of people), others like the phone on the bed and the stray dogs reminded me of Eggleston. The photos would be easy to miss, but the series is good, and the photos, shown together, are effective.

All in all, I enjoyed the Wool exhibit even more than I expected to. I was struck by the dimensionality of his work — something that looked flat on a projector or even from afar, up close showed texture and nuance and layers. I appreciated the links between his work and other artists and movements. I also enjoyed getting a glimpse at the means of production and being taken on a journey through media — from the written word to image and back, from analog to digital and back — by works seemingly so simple as, for example, nine words on a canvas or copies of personal photos. If you have the chance, I recommend stopping by the Art Institute to check out the exhibit.

How to Solve Complicated Problems — The Art of Deconstruction

The thing about the flag structure is I didn’t have to invent composition.  —Jasper Johns

Imagine that you have a string of 100 interchangeable lights: they have a plug on each end, and you can plug each individual light into any other light. Each time you plug in a light that is off to another light that is off, there is a 50/50 chance it turns on. Your job is to turn off the entire strip.

It’s a problem with 100 variables with two outcomes each. The chance of finding the answer is thus:

2 ^ 100 = 1.267 x 10^30 choices (that’s 1.267 with 30 zeros after it)

Now what if you could break the problem down into 10 sets of 10, and you knew that each set of 10 could be plugged into each other without a problem. You’d have 10 sets of problems each with two variables:

10 x 2 ^ 10 = 10 x 1,024 = 10,240 choices (reduced from an outcome set with 30 zeros)

Maybe we can go one more step; maybe we can actually break it down to 20 sets of 5, or we can break each set of 10 in half. We’d end up with 20 sets of 5 two-variable problems:

20 x 2 ^ 5 = 20 x 32 = 640 choices (reduced from 10,240)

In narrowing the problem into congruent sets, we’ve reduced the possible outcomes from a hopeless number with 30 zeros to a manageable set of 640 choices. This example is from Notes on the Synthesis of Form by Christopher Alexander, an architecture book that defined the language and approach of much of architecture and design since the 1960s. Alexander sets out a process by which we first understand the requirements (the program), we chunk the requirements into sets that are solvable and congruent, and then we work through each set, eliminating the “misfits,” in search of “fit,” which is the unification of form and function. It’s through this process that seemingly complex design problems, like building a house, are solved.

In my art, I deconstruct, and then I reconstruct.   —Chuck Close

The trick is knowing how to deconstruct the problem and how to form the sets — and also knowing that the sets are congruent with each other when you assemble them. When you stand back from a Chuck Close painting and realize all those little squares perfectly form a face, you see that the real design trick — the art — is in the deconstruction.

I don’t work with inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs. I just get to work.  —Chuck Close

This process is very different from the idea of starting with a blank slate, that art and design are somehow completely intuitive and spontaneous. The reality is that design is a process, and it’s the deconstruction of that process that allows us to take perceivably inconceivable problems and reduce them to a manageable problem set. That’s not to say that it’s easy, of course. Deconstructing complex problems is hard and often requires synthesizing knowledge on a variety of subjects. But it is certainly manageable and demystifies that which is often perceived as pure genius or ineffable art, and thus unattainable by most of us. And this ability — the ability to synthesize and deconstruct — is more important than ever in an increasingly specialized yet more complex world.

Further Reading

Notes on the Synthesis of Form, Christopher Alexander, 1964
Chuck Close: Work, by Christopher Finch, 2010