Artists to Watch: Highlights From The Creative Capital Retreat

The Elephant Room: Dennis Diamond, Louie Magic and Daryl Hannah. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Paddy Johnson’s final installment on the 2012 Artist Retreat, originally published on Art Fag City
You wouldn’t think that spending a weekend watching 71 seven-minute presentations by Creative Capital grantees would be any fun at all. That’s a lot of art to look at in a short period of time, and a few bad presentations can make for a really long night.
There was almost nothing I didn’t enjoy, though, so I had a great time. The presentation format also gives critics like me an opportunity to see a large number of artworks I might not see on the gallery scene, so by the end of the conference I felt like I had learned a lot.
Trends, insofar as anyone can identify them in the art world, mostly mirrored the state of contemporary art making. Artists are increasingly interdisciplinary, and that’s reflected not only at the Creative Capital retreat but also in art schools, institutional programming, and other granting organizations across the country. Only four of the 23 visual art grantees identified themselves as practitioners within a traditional medium: Lisa Sigal and Joan Walthemath as painters, and LaToya Ruby Frazier and Connie Samaras as photographers.
By and large, the grantees’ proposals were ambitious and expensive. I’m not entirely sure that a rise in costly projects reflects a broader trend amongst New York-based artists—junk assemblage and Cheeto art still has a larger life than it should—but we’re almost certainly seeing more collaboration across the board.
Collaboration requires good communication skills, so it probably shouldn’t be surprising that the artists here were all very good at talking about their work. Also, I’m told Creative Capital did some amount of coaching prior to the retreat, so it’s not exactly an accident that they made a series of 71 presentations manageable.
Fine fluency, though, has its pluses and minuses. On the one hand, the 71 presentations were a pleasure; on the other, I often wondered if I’d like the art as much without the artist presenting it to me. This point was driven home near the end of the presentations, when I tweeted about a book made from crushed toilets that was meant to prompt viewers to reflect on the mistakes we’ve made. I even went so far as to say that the project was better than I thought. I’m not sure I stand behind that now.
In any event, I’ve spent the last couple of days decompressing from the event, and whittling down the presenters into a manageable list of highlights. What follows is a list of artists I think every AFC reader is better off knowing about.

Jesse Sugarmann has built an entire practice around learning from Pontiac’s mistakes. According to the artist, the car maker’s failures demonstrate a large amount of risk and creativity, so he’s been busy building monuments in honor of those successes.
“For the last four years my primary medium has been the car accident,” Jesse Sugarmann told retreat attendees as he queued up a video in which he drove one Pontiac into another. Some are simpler than that; demolition experiments that leave Sugarmann entirely out of the process as the artist feared he might injure himself in the crashes.
In addition to this, the artist’s creating minimalist, performative sculptures, in which he aligns the lines of vehicles with fork lifts. He’s also founded a traveling Pontiac car dealership—that will end up in Pontiac, MI—and has been finding people on Craigslist who were in car accidents, so they can re-enact the movement of their bodies during the crash. These movements will be choreographed into an interpretive dance.
Taken in sum, I thought the work was ambitious and absurdly delightful, but many colleagues complained that work about car crashes was a little too “heterosexual male” for their tastes. I get that, but it feels like nitpicking to me, particularly when there are so many real offenders out there. Dirk Skreber’s art has arguably made the world worse for its existence; the machismo required to produce Sugarmann’s interpretive dance, I can handle.

Amy Yao is going to be making a film that explores themes of youth culture, chinglish, modernization, and mass migration as she travels through Shanghai and Tibet. Yao suggested that her Asian American background might cause some to think she’d be making a movie in the tradition of The Joy Luck Club, but assured us the film would be more like Harold and Kumar. Can. Not. Wait.

Many New Yorkers may remember Kerry Tribe for her much-lauded double projection installation at the 2010 Whitney Biennial. Her subject, H.M., was a patient who underwent experimental surgery in the 1950s hoping to be cured of epilepsy, and was instead saddled with a short-term memory that lasted only 20 seconds. Her piece threaded a single reel of film through two adjacent projectors with an interval of 20 seconds between them.
Her new work, The Language of Forgetting, continues this work, as she investigates the condition of aphasia, a mental condition that is characterized by an inability to remember words or name objects. The work is in its early stages of development, so it’s too early to offer a significant response, but I’ve noted the work here regardless. The quality of Tribe’s previous work makes me think this is a movie that will be worth getting excited about.

If natural history museums only document untouched plant and animal life, what do we do with specimens changed by humans? Richard Pell answered this question when he founded The Center for PostNatural History, an institution that houses, catalogues and interprets such oddities as ribless mice, “weird chickens”, and a variety of unique bugs. Each have been altered through processes such as selective breeding or genetic engineering.
I didn’t discuss this with Pell over the weekend, but I hope he’s documenting Driscoll raspberries and all those perfectly red tomatoes that land in grocery stores. Neither of those fruits taste like anything, and I’d like to make sure that’s documented.

I pressed a strip of sepia-toned film against my eye to view an 79-year-old Ken Jacobs video. He told us it takes the brain longer to process darker color, an interesting bit of trivia even if I missed what was supposed to be made of that knowledge. I simply watched the abstract forms and colors throb, sway, and flicker.  It was beautiful, and as FilmmakerMag pointed out on Twitter, a nice break from the more verbal presentations.

I keep forgetting that Eric Dyer is a filmmaker and that his 3-D sculptures are actually zoetropes. To the naked eye, they just look like spinning blurry things. When viewed through shutter glases or the lens of a fast-shutter video camera, though, these objects come to life, creating non-narrative animated shorts.
I have some reservations about this work—Dyer’s technical virtuosity may exceed what he actually has to say—but the artist certainly has ambition. He’s currently working on a 20-foot-long immersive zoetrope. He figures it’ll cost approximately $2 million to build, so he asked if anyone knew a couple corporate sponsors who might want to support this project. Bloomberg, this vessel could have your name on it!

Theaster Gates, Installation View of An Epitaph for Civil Rights and Other Domesticated Structures

Theaster Gates may well have delivered the most popular presentation of the weekend. 12 Ballads for Huguenot House is a multifaceted project involving a building slated for demolition in Chicago, a run-down hotel in Kassel, and the vision of a new meeting and performance space. Not only was this project realized, but nearly every stage of its execution exuded artfulness.
Gates began his presentation by singing eminent domain blues and moved on to discuss some of the logistics of rebuilding the Huguenot House in Kassel. Huguenot House is a cultural landmark and hotel once ravaged by the World War II that would become a performance space during Documenta. Gates hired and trained a team of unskilled laborers—his neighbor amongst them—to dismantle the interior of a Chicago building slated for demolition and reuse the salvaged materials in the Kassel construction project.
The project was costly to execute, so Creative Capital was one of many revenue sources required to execute it. Gates made art from the materials found in the buildings to cover some of the costs. “We were able to make $1.5 mil. selling fire hoses to really wealthy people,” Gates told the audience. The crowd erupted into applause.

Environmentalists are getting serious. Jae Rhim Lee wants an environmentally-friendly option to death, so she’s developing a kind of mushroom that will decompose her body when she dies, remediate accumulated industrial chemicals in the body that have accumulated, and deliver nutrients from the bodies to plant roots. The project is called The Infinity Burial Project, and while it mostly sounds like science to me, Lee delivered her recent TED talk in a star suit covered in roots. That’s good enough for me.

Generally speaking, I liked artists a little more when their presentations involved singing. My Barbarian is a singing collective of three—Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon, and Alexandro Segade—so I liked them three times more. Their project involves taking Post-Living Ante-Action Theater (PoLAAT) on the road from Israel to Egypt. As they tell it, their workshops draw upon Living Theatre and the Theater of the Oppressed and facilitate cultural exchange and political critique through reenactments. That all sounds a little dreary, though, relative to the performances, in which they’re singing about a “mandate to participate” and “inspirational critique”. I liked that the whole performance had a new age feel, without getting caught up in the worst of what that can mean.

Connie Samaras, Dome and Tunnels, V.A.L.I.S.

Connie Samaras’s new photographs will be shot at a lesbian RV retirement community and borrow from genres of sci-fi time travel and tourism. According to her project description, the planned video installation will include elements of “oral history, contemporary apocalyptic youth literature, lesbian feminist and radical economy manifestos for the 1970s and the utopic propositions of western expansion.” I like this list for the sheer volume of radical references alone.
Samaras tossed off an anecdote she claimed she typically didn’t share about her previous work; she’s interested in how ice resists colonization. That caught my attention. Buildings don’t weather well in the arctic, and she’s got the photographs to prove it.

Trey Lyford represented performance trio Steve Cuiffo, Trey Lyford and Geoff Sobelle‘s Elephant Room, marking a dramatic closing to the event.  Over the course of the presentation, Lyford slowly donned the persona of Daryl Hannah, a fictional magician transported here straight from Metallica’s fan club circa 1982. In terms of magic, we only saw Lyford turn on a light bulb; other tricks were stymied because he couldn’t insert the bulb into its plastic bag, a technical difficulty he attributed to cell phone interference in the first row. Still, it was my favorite performance of the weekend. His comedic timing was perfect. Elephant Room already had a viewing at St. Ann’s Warehouse in March and April, but we’re hoping they’ll return. This project is a riot, and I, for one, won’t be happy until I see the Elephant Room in its full form.

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