After Vasari

writings on artists and artworks and where they exist

Tag: photography

(UN)THINKABLE

by Paul D'Agostino

B-52 panorama

(UN)THINKABLE: Photographs by Phillip Buehler

Decommissioned bombers stretching deep into the horizon like a sea of their own entombment. A column of deactivated missiles among so many more of the same. A NATO bunker abandoned, vacant, save for the bales of hay that now inhabit it. Dormant jets by the dozens, patterned out like herringbone or houndstooth. Weapons mothballed due to desuetude, or to be reused for parts.

An underground bunker in New York City, now void of its nuclear-tipped Nikes. Missile nosecones whose hefty payloads each once tallied nine megatons. Uncle Sam wielding a bomb as cartoonish nose art on a plane. Switches and gauges logically arrayed in an inactive cockpit. A quasi-collage of plane ruins in Tucson.

B-52s. Titan IIs. Delta Darts. F-4 Phantoms. Fighting Falcons. Nike missiles. Interceptors and Intruders. Boeings with Snoopy noses.

A silo dome like a bizarre lump in the Sonoran Desert. Relics of a space race in Cape Canaveral. A rocketless oculus gazing up at the sky. Rusted nuts and bolts. Bafflingly basic.

Full of unsettled awe and unsettling grandeur, of sincere curiosity and documentaristic candor, of objective interest in the visual mystique of historical objects and the places where they rest, Phillip Buehler’s photographs of the technological and metaphorical trappings of warfare, of primarily Cold War-era relevance, are as strangely familiar and readily legible as the fallout shelter signs that continue to warn, intrigue, remind or perhaps scare us — as signs of a time that are also signs of a sign. Buehler was fascinated by those yellow signs as a youth, and that fascination has never waned. Here, he and they seem to convey much the same sentiment:

Regard, recall. Behold, beware. And be wary of what you recall.

For that which was once thinkable never really becomes unthinkable.

As such, (UN)THINKABLE is the title Buehler chose for his solo exhibition at Front Room Gallery, as well as for the volume of photographs he published to accompany it. In the show and to greater depths in his book, Buehler guides his audience from New York to Arizona, from Germany to Florida, from bunkers to boneyards, from hangars to silos — all the while making visible and sometimes eerily, dark-comically approachable many remnants of warfare that are generally far beyond view. Matters of public safety, as it were, not public consumption.

Buehler began shaping the core of this project several decades ago. How timely it would all become in 2017 is as shocking and frightening to him as it is to all of us. To be sure, not thinking about what might’ve once seemed unthinkable is truly not, again today, an option.

fallout shelter sign.jpg

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This essay was composed as the preface for (UN)THINKABLE, a book of photographs Phillip Buehler published on occasion of his solo show at Front Room Gallery. The exhibit is on view from 8 September to 1 October, 2017. More information about the show can be found here. Images courtesy the artist.

Paul D’Agostino, Ph.D. is an artist, writer, translator, curator and professor living in Bushwick, Brooklyn. More information about him is available here, and you can find him as @postuccio on Instagram and Twitter.

Calling All Sorts: Gestures & Junctures, Questions & Quotes

by Paul D'Agostino

Gestures&Junctures-catalog-montage-pic

Calling All Sorts: Gestures & Junctures, Questions & Quotes

One artist’s operative modes, procedural preferences, concepts and contexts, and embedded or openly conveyed metaphors and meanings might be many and varied, and might change significantly over time or from one body of work to the next. Another artist’s perhaps less stratified or ranging approach to artmaking might appear to be far more focused, resolved or streamlined, its ultimate overall yields of ostensibly greater formal or material cohesion.

One artist, in other words, might seem to be all over the place, or to feel most inspired or challenged by working as such, while another might seem somewhat devoted to a specific creative locus, process or directional sense.

One artist’s creative output might look like an explosion. Another’s, hermetic and meticulous.

One’s work might seem nearly nonsensical. Another’s, resolutely rational.

One artist’s personality might be described as Type A, or whatever that’s called these days. Another’s might be described as Type B, or whatever that’s called these days. One artist is introverted, the other extroverted. One is left-brained, the other right-brained. One is instinctive, shoots from the gut. The other painstaking, pensive, cerebral.

And yet, such labels might serve little purpose. Personalities are far more nuanced than such descriptors generally allow, which is particularly true when it comes to discussions of artists—and when considering how and why they do what they do as agents of creative endeavors, as creators of cultural products.

Moreover, artists are rather contrary to being labeled. And rightly so. Who wants to be put in categorical boxes? Artists of all sorts, after all, are the people whose specialty is to think outside of them—much of which derives from posing good questions to answer, and finding good problems to solve.

In other words, to be an artist is to maintain an ever-inquisitive, problem-solving mind and creative disposition. For some artists, this is almost a passive act. For others, a firmly conscious, decisive one. Some artists pose questions and problems in a way that gives them rules to follow. Others throw rules out the window—perhaps even as a rule.

Some of the questions and problems leading eventually to artworks are veiled, implicit, unstated—so inherent to the creative process, even, as to be easily forsaken. For instance:

How would that field look if rendered in watercolors or graphite?

The other aspect of this particular idea about sexuality and art history has never been explored.

Can I carve a cloud with pink lining from a slab of marble?

The art world lacks and therefore needs my parodical video piece on the preemptive museumification of post-nuclear sound art.

Other questions and problems, meanwhile, are explicit, blatant, overt, perhaps even inscribed into the work itself so as to engage a viewer, if not society at large, directly. To be sure, such questions and problems can be of variable complexities, and they might well have no real answers or solutions.

What, then, of all this?

Most simply: It takes all sorts.

All sorts of artists, all sorts of artworks, all sorts of creative personalities, all sorts of approaches, all sorts of introversions and explosions, and of course, all sorts of questions and problems.

What has charmed me the most about working with the inspired and inspiring group of MFA students at Queens College is that they quite literally are, in a collective sense, all sorts. Some work in traditional media and processes, others in advanced technologies and social practice. Some dig into personal narratives and experiences to address complex issues of sexual, racial or national identity; others take creative cues from more directly visual sources, including urban environments, nature and folk traditions. Some seek to create active exchanges with their viewers, or to compel them to regard themselves as ‘other’ to foster understanding; others aim to inform or disarm their viewers by presenting themselves intimately, sincerely, provocatively.

Indeed, the wide range of inputs and pursuits relevant to this group of artists is readily conveyed by the terms they came up with themselves when asked, individually but within a group setting, to try to sum up their respective creative practices in just one word. Here’s what they offered:

chaos, exploration, pattern, connection, empathy, bound, experimental, digestive, emotional, nostalgia, descriptive, poetic, schizophrenic, narrative, weird, understanding, stillness, scientific, cliché, quiet, dignity, hungry

It was from the content of that initial discussion, and from a great many deeply enjoyable and reciprocally enriching studio visits, that I developed the ideas for Gestures & Junctures, Questions & Quotes, an exhibition that I hope does as much to showcase the breadth and quality of the artworks produced by this talented MFA class, as it does to incorporate its viewers into its intermittently audience-inclusive fold. To that end, what you’ll find in the show and in these pages is an array of variably mediated, often interdisciplinarily informed artworks that I have dared to describe loosely as ‘gestural’ and ‘junctural’—created with painstaking care or palpable explosiveness by one of the most driven, creatively variegated groups of art students I’ve ever encountered.

What you’ll also find in these pages are questions these students would like to pose—to themselves and to you—and quotes they’ve selected—for themselves and for you.

And now, for you, a note of advice with which I’ll conclude:

Don’t keep an eye out for these artists. Keep your eyes on them.

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The above text is my catalog essay for Gestures & Junctures, Questions & Quotes, an exhibition I curated for the CUNY Queens College MFA Program, on view at Sideshow Gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, from April 7th-30th, 2017. Featured artists: Arbër Dabaj, Alejandro Salgado Cendales, Alix Camacho, Amy Cheng, Edward Majkowski, Effi Ibok, Eliesha Grant, Erin Turner, Floor Grootenhuis, Jeff Kasper, Jenna Makuh, Julian Phillips, Len Antinori, Maria K. Karlberg-Levin, Michael Ferris Jr., Nancy Bruno, Paula Frisch, Pedro Ventimilla, Tara Homasi, Uno Nam, Zaid Islam.

Paul D’Agostino, Ph.D. is an artist, writer, translator, curator and professor living in Bushwick, Brooklyn. More information about him is available here, and you can find him as @postuccio on Instagram and Twitter.

On the Profaning of Imagery and Passings Along

by Paul D'Agostino

The first and shortest iteration of this brief essay was composed for “One Image, One Minute,” an event organized by Austin Thomas and hosted by Hyperallergic in the summer of 2010. An extended version, more or less identical to the version below, was published in Juncture: A Writerly Newspaper in February 2011.

Boulevard du Temple, Louis Daguerre, 1838 or 1839.

My first encounter with the writings of Giorgio Agamben, a contemporary Italian philosopher, took place in the spring of 2004, as I was putting certain final touches on my doctoral dissertation. It was one of those beautiful accidental finds in the library as I chanced across his book Man Without Content, whose title alone I found enthralling, devastating, defining. That text became of crucial importance to me as I completed my arguably unimportant work. I have been a devotee of Agamben ever since.

In one of his more recent books, Profanations,* in a chapter titled “Judgment Day,” Agamben discusses Boulevard du Temple, a daguerreotype from late 1838 or early 1839. From the point of view of his studio, Louis Daguerre, still very much in the wondrous throes of experimentation with this new medium, forged a glimpse of the eponymous and generally very busy Parisian boulevard during the bustling midst of a day. The result is considered, though not without some contention, the first photographic image to feature – for it is there, it is present, a sublime and haunting figuration, a well-delineated wraith in an otherwise nearly deserted streetscape – a human figure.**

Unidentified, unidentifiable. Absolutely anonymous, quotidian. This figure, this person, is momentous. He should not, by all accounts, be there. He should not be documented. Save for a few other phantom forms one might intuit, though surely with lesser certitude, as human, all the other persons and carriages and variable traffickings of life that also passed by during that long exposure – during the realization of that seemingly alchemical conjuring through interactivities between a treated copper plate and light – have disappeared into the blur of the past.

And yet, this person, this figure.

Having paused long enough, supposedly, to have his shoes shined.

There he stands.

Agamben calls this a consummate representation of the Last Judgment: a single person “captured” in the vanishing of all else, “immortalized,” “charged with the weight of an entire life,” an instant of insignificance configured as “the meaning of an entire existence.”

Far more than the one I spoke of before, this capturing might also be called a most beautiful accident.

And enthralling, and devastating, and defining.

And if somehow representative of Last Judgment, this immortalized image, in short writ, is rapture.

Or in large writ, and properly so-called, Rapture.

Or in terms less metaphysical though perhaps equally, by way of etymology, dramatic, this first photographic figuration of man is eternally rapt, everlastingly raptured.

In these past participles from Latin rapere, this figure is caught, taken up, seized, captured.

Past participles, passed judgments.

Passings along.

And how.

_______________________

* Giorgio Agamben, Profanations, trans. Jeff Fort, New York, Zone Books, 2007. “Judgment Day,” pp. 23-28.

** Look for him, in the image above, in the lower-left register near the curve of the curb.

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