Whether or not Tolstoy was right in suggesting that only art is capable of setting violence aside, artists have long been uniquely positioned to rouse, revolt, speculate, complicate, tell the truth, and offer protest and possibility in polarized and violent times.
In collaboration with Creative Capital, the nonprofit known for supporting provocative and progressive work, and which in 2019 celebrated its 20th year of funding and advising artists, LARB will publish 12 essays over 12 months on issues facing contemporary art in the United States. Each contributor focuses on a particular year of Creative Capital’s history and/or on a specific artist, beginning with Johanna Fateman’s introduction to the series, which reflected on the founding of Creative Capital (1999) in response to the subsequent decreases in federal funding for individual artists. In this essay, Andrew Russeth discusses the ways he has learned about artists through art itself, focusing especially on work made in 2015.
Together, the essays in this series reflect the current state of arts writing as a field, just as they reveal the myriad ways that art matters now as much as ever.
IT IS IMPOSSIBLE to give an exact number, but a very sizable percentage of the artists — and artworks — that I have come to love were first properly introduced to me by other artists. Sometimes, it was just a casual mention they made in an interview or during a studio visit; other times, their work delivered the recommendation. Florine Stettheimer’s dreamy portrait of Virgil Thomson finally got me to listen to Thomson’s music; Darren Bader incorporating a John Wesley painting into his own work led me to become an obsessive of the pop maestro.
There are few feelings quite as exhilarating as coming across an artwork that compellingly points the way to people and pieces that I have never known — or with which I just have not spent enough time. A rabbit hole opens up; there is usually no choice but to dive down.
Carrie Schneider’s quietly bewitching film Reading Women is exemplary of this ekphrastic genre. Over the course of more than four hours, Reading Women shows dozens of women — artists, writers, activists — sitting alone and reading a book by a female author. The subjects of Schneider’s project, which began with 100 photographic portraits, include the unrelenting photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier reading Isabel Wilkerson’s epic history of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns (2010), and the artist and filmmaker Cauleen Smith with Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetry volume Blacks (2008). The book titles are not always visible, but captions for the photographs supply them, as well as the sitter’s first name. As the audience, we voyeurs are just a bit outside. As Smith explains in an essay on the series, “Once the body is at rest and the mind takes flight, the image the camera records denies simple consumption.”
Reading Women shows, with welcoming candor, how a lot of great art is produced, and how important knowledge is disseminated: through communities. Even as they read alone, apart from one another, these women share disparate social and aesthetic connections, and they are communing with a constellation of forebears and contemporaries on the page — an example of what Lauren Berlant has called “the intimate public.” For a sequel of sorts funded by Creative Capital in 2015, Schneider approached living authors whose books were featured and asked them to read to her. The web of connections grows stronger.
Schneider began shooting her photos of readers in 2011. The next year, Facebook went public, reported more than one billon users, and snapped up a photo-sharing app called Instagram. Every new app seemed to have a social component at the time. Networks were becoming ever bigger business, with people’s buying preferences and movements (online and in real life) rigorously tracked.
By 2015, around 60 percent of Americans were using Facebook. Strikingly, many Creative Capital awardees that year addressed the operation of networks, though always obliquely or mischievously. They rejected the algorithms that viciously churn people as data points to be marketed to and opt instead to chart personal narratives and obscured histories.
Titus Kaphar began his multipronged Jerome Project after a search of an online database for his father’s prison records brought up scores of mug shots of Black men with his same name. “That didn’t just surprise me,” Kaphar has said. “It scared the shit out of me.” He began interviewing and painting portraits of some of these men, rejecting the cold logic of the database for interpersonal intimacy and biographical nuance.
Meanwhile, the venturesome sculptor Abigail DeVille (who also appears in Reading Women, as it happens) proposed creating a kind of sui generis cartography by erecting 100 site-specific installations throughout the Bronx — “the final frontier of gentrification in New York City,” in her words. Oral histories of community members consulted in constructing the pieces will be accessible online. One might see this as a potent rejoinder to initiatives like Google Maps and Google Street View, which catalog and photograph city streets to identify businesses and sell ads. In place of monetization, DeVille preserves memory.
Similarly, filmmaker Shawn Peters’s project The Art of Dying Young calls for the development of an augmented-reality app and film installation to explicate street-mural memorials of young men of color in Brooklyn, recording stories that regularly go unnoted by mainstream media outlets and that disappear as neighborhoods undergo brutal socioeconomic and racial change. Meanwhile, the artist and entrepreneur Andy Kropa seems to be pursuing a related goal in developing his Memory Lane software, which allows users to store remembrances via photos, text, and other media, and to share them with others. Such projects position the writing of history as a communal activity.
An especially impressive work from 2015 was Narcissister’s remarkable documentary, Narcissister Organ Player. It is an autobiography, but a highly unorthodox one. Instead of focusing on herself, the artist trains her attention at length on her Moroccan Jewish mother and African American father. A group memoir that looks back to earlier generations, it amounts to a portrait of an entire family network, with the artist just one node within it. That is a humble and heartening way to tell your own story — and a clear-sighted one.
Using her irresistible, polyvalent nom de guerre and always appearing in a mask (with no shortage of quick costume changes) as she performs wildly sexual acts, exuding freedom, Narcissister handily slips away from ever being pinned down, again and again and again. Discussing her live actions, she explains in the film, “I have no limits on my physical body, on my womanhood, on my identity that I will accept.” When the mask is on, she is a transfixing and anonymous figure. When it is off, she could be any woman passing us on the street — or appearing in Reading Women. She refuses, in short, to be subsumed by any totalizing profile conceived by a Facebook or a Google. Her work, and that of some of her invigorating peers, invites us to do the same. All the while, such art connects us — tenderly, ingeniously — with our surroundings, our histories, and each other.
Andrew Russeth is an art critic based in New York. His writing has appeared in W, New York, Bijutsu Techo, Blau, and Parkett. In 2019, he was awarded the Rabkin Prize for visual arts journalism.