Conversation “Crits” and Found Humor

Visiting artist Janine Antoni (right) with GW student and artist Rachel Schechtman. Photo: Meg Clark

Visiting artist Janine Antoni (right) with GW student and artist Rachel Schechtman. Photo: Meg Clark

Students of The George Washington University’s (GW) Fine Arts program have an exceptional opportunity to meet one-on-one with leading and emerging contemporary visual artists that participate in our Conversations with Artists series. The morning after their public program, artists lead critiques (“crits”) of students’ work. They spend about 30 minutes each with four to five students and then conclude the morning with a communal lunch with students and faculty. A mutually inspiring process, the crits are a welcome challenge that proves equal parts exhausting and exhilarating. This semester, I accompanied visiting artists Janine Antoni and William Pope.L to GW and listened in on the crits, fascinated to witness the exchange of ideas between veteran and student.

While I was there, I had the opportunity to observe the evolution of graduate student Wesley Clark’s master thesis work, Constructs (pictured below). Clark’s installation is on view through April 24 in Gallery Classroom 102 at GW’s Smith Hall of Art.

    Visiting artist William Pope.L (left) with GW student and artist Wesley Clark. Photo: Dean Kessmann

Visiting artist William Pope.L (left) with GW student and artist Wesley Clark. Photo: Dean Kessmann

I also found humor in the studios and work spaces in the department:

"Guide for Consumption and Placement" Photo: Meg Clark

“Guide for Consumption and Placement” Photo: Meg Clark

"Flammable Objects" Photo: Meg Clark

“Flammable Objects” Photo: Meg Clark

Megan Clark, Manager of Center Initiatives

Moving with Me

Photo of artist Janine Antoni dancing the 5Rhythms by Meg Calrk

Janine Antoni dances the 5Rhythms. Photo: Meg Clark

After giving a brief overview of her work last Wednesday evening as part of the ongoing series Conversations with Artists, Janine Antoni calmly stepped away from her podium, took off her shoes, and walked to the center of the floor. Slowly she began to sway, moving her arms limply from side to side, gingerly tilting her head back, and lifting her feet. But she also continued to address everyone in the room, orally and physically guiding us through her movements of the dance, the 5Rhythms. “Our feet are on the same ground,” she told us, “you’re moving with me.” And as I leaned in closer, I noticed everyone around me was too.

Up until this point, I had only encountered Antoni’s work through research. I knew about her various pieces: rubbing one rock against another for a span of days in And (1996-99), tightrope walking over the ocean in Touch (2002), harnessing herself to a dollhouse replica of her home in Inhabit (2009)—and I understood that in all this, the artist was seeking connection between herself and other people. But I never felt connected. These works seemed too narrowly based in personal relationships of motherhood, womanhood, and love to include me. The nature of their subject matters and their intimacy seemed to belong exclusively to the artist.

But in sharing Antoni’s experience of dancing the 5Rhythms with both her and the audience, I began to feel connected.

Photo of Curator at Large Klaus Ottmann and Janine Antoni as they sit down for a conversation after her dance. Photo: Meg Clark

Curator at Large Klaus Ottmann and Janine Antoni sit down for a conversation after her dance. Photo: Meg Clark

Toward the end of the evening, Antoni sat down for a conversation with Curator Klaus Ottmann. He spoke about the expression of love, relationships, and gentleness in Antoni’s work, asking, “Where does that come from?” In reply, the artist revealed her work stems from “a deep loneliness.”

Immediately, I harkened back to Antoni’s dance . . . “you’re moving with me,” she had said. Before this Conversation, I saw Antoni’s work as a private and personal journey into the bodies, thoughts, and feelings of others. I didn’t understand the role of the audience, the part I could play in Antoni’s work. I didn’t understand that my role was necessary to her art’s meaning. But when I felt Antoni’s feet pounding the floor, and when I heard her voice calling out to the audience, and me, I felt connected . . . I was moving with her. Suddenly, I didn’t feel alone that evening, and I don’t think Antoni did either.

I’ve found that Janine Antoni and every participant in the Conversations with Artists series has enhanced my understanding of their art, not only as ideas that must be talked about, but also as entities that must be experienced. To explore this season’s theme–Art as Experience–we began with Wolfgang Laib in October and continued with The Otolith Group, Jill Downen, Anthony McCall, and, of course, Janine Antoni. Tonight, the experience draws to a close at the season’s final Conversation with William Pope. L. It will be another packed program, but standing room may become available for those willing to come a bit early and wait in line. Hope to see you there!

Madeline Bouton, Center for the Study of Modern Art Intern

Blissing Out

Anthony McCall, You and I, 2007; Horizontal (III) Installation view at Sean Kelly Gallery, New York, 2007. © Anthony McCall; Photography: Steven Harris; Courtesy: Sean Kelly Gallery, New York

During his appearance at our series Conversations with Artists on February 15, Anthony McCall elaborated on the experiential character of his “solid light” installations. At one point he said:

You are incorporated into [the installations], and they’re absorbing . . . people always reach out and touch these membranes because they’re very paradoxical . . . I don’t like the blissing out . . . it doesn’t need you to think, it just needs you to be there.

When I heard McCall say this, I couldn’t help feeling confused—disillusioned even. What did he mean by “blissing out”? Why didn’t he like it? Did this mean viewers like me couldn’t like it either?

Interaction with light is an experience necessary to fully understanding McCall’s enormous ‘solid-light’ installations. Often featuring huge three-dimensional cones, waves, and lines of light projected in darkened lofts or galleries, these installations transcend projectors and screens, playing with the dimensionality of light and blurring the distinctions between cinema, form, and space. It’s easy to lose yourself in such an atmosphere. At times it seems the installations are almost begging you to bliss out. So why must McCall tell us to control ourselves when it is so tempting to abandon our thoughts in his art?

Further into the conversation I found my answer. McCall explained that he avoids creating wholly immersive environments where the viewer is prone to unconscious pleasure. Meaning, he doesn’t believe art should overwhelm or sedate the mind.

“Blissing out” is not the wrong way to experience his art, but it is not a fulfilling way. It allows viewers to detach themselves from active aesthetic experience and understanding. If I’m in a position to lose myself in a McCall installation, I don’t need to think or be present; I wouldn’t need the art, and the art wouldn’t need me.

With this renewed perspective, I’m looking forward to March 28, when I’ll have the chance to hear from Janine Antoni, the second of three Conversations this spring. In her work, Antoni forces herself and the viewer to be physically engaged in art; there’s absolutely no opportunity for blissing out when Antoni’s around. Her performance-based pieces are more aggressive than Anthony McCall’s subtle, ethereal sculptures, and it will be interesting to weed out the similarities between these artists’ radically different approaches to engaging the viewer.

Madeline Bouton, Center for the Study of Modern Art Intern