Things to Do in America

Mary Walling Blackburn

Leslie Hewitt
“New Photography 2009”
MOMA, New York
September 30, 2009 – January 11, 2010

At MOMA, Hewitt’s works are being called “photography,” but this creates a problem: they aren’t snapshots and they aren’t still. I call them drawings. They draw relationships between the failures of the black power movement and the structures, both architectural and institutional, that house its remains. On top of that, these works racially engage minimalism’s longstanding pursuit of the nature of the object. Hewitt deftly organizes the spatial properties of her works to illuminate the way in which things and ideas flicker in and out of objecthood. Last thing—Hewitt’s rough critique is hardly a funeral dirge for “the movement.” She is forcing the eye into new habits of looking, and complex histories are disinterred by these relentless optical maneuvers.

Casts of Lincoln's Hands, via Indiana State Museum Center for Science and Culture

Lincoln’s Hands
Indianapolis War Memorial and Museum
Indianapolis, Indiana
Permanent Collection

The nature of camp, a spasm that careens between horror and laughter, is to appear both rigorously controlled and out of control at the same time. It refuses to take sides, land, encamp. Abraham Lincoln’s bronzed hands, severed in a pink fabric-lined vitrine, operate within the rhythm of camp: who put a Jeff Koons in the Indianapolis War Memorial and Museum? Moreover, the Camp Spirit surfaces time and time again here: a bench and street lamp parked next to a wall-sized Eiffel tower say This is Paris; wounded soldier mannequins display delicate, feminine faces (whose lips are red with what—lipstick or blood?). This is a good thing: camp in a war museum de-territorializes that space, derailing its jingoistic mission.

Malcolm X's Hands, courtesy National Great Blacks in Wax Museum

Malcolm X’s Hands, Phyllis Wheatley’s Hands
National Great Blacks in Wax Museum
Baltimore, Maryland
Permanent Collection

Looking at my photos, I notice that I have primarily taken snapshots of hands. Here, amid life-sized depictions of branding, rape, and dismemberment, I am afraid of what is born of flash, wax, and face—I fear Accidental Camp in a museum whose aim is to accurately represent an American legacy of torture. Camera, do not make fun. Later, on the computer screen, I revisit Phyllis Wheatley’s dangling poet hand, Malcolm X’s graceful revolutionary hand. Then I recall Lincoln’s gold hand, swollen from 19th-century high-fives. We call that The Handshake.

"Screwed Anthologies" at labotanica

“Screwed Anthologies”
Houston, Texas
November 27, 2009 – December 31, 2009

The organizing principle of this exhibition of video, performance, and sound art is the Houston hip-hop phenomenon called “screwed and chopped.” DJ Screw, inventor of screw music, had a “screw shack” where any CD could be dropped off and “screwed.” Returned, it played dream-slow; each word and beat was a wonderfully retarded prelude to the vertiginous speed to come. Conventional wisdom assumed that the now-screwed CD – this sweet and sour slow and fast – was part and parcel of an air conditioned, traffic jammed club commute: the joy of a slow touch and the night to come. But the now-deceased DJ Screw delayed the internal workings of the song because he wanted the listener to comprehend the politics of certain lyrics. Slowness as literacy. Literacy as pleasure, again. Curator Ayanna Jolivet McCloud: please bring this show to Brooklyn.

Home-made Smuggler Boat, National Border Patrol Museum

Home-made Smuggler Boat
National Border Patrol Museum
El Paso, Texas
Permanent Collection

This institution, devoted to illustrating the range, material production, and prowess of US Border Patrol operations, is without windows. Banks of florescent fixtures shed equal light on all of its objects (handmade motorcycles, simulated tracks in the dirt, a painting of a lost girl found, an actual helicopter, a newspaper clipping about 1970’s border protests…) A rusted boat made of car hoods welded together, manages to glow within the dim, greenish light. It was once a blue car speeding down the road; it is now up-ended, on the half-shell, its interior exposed. The object is evidence: a metal fact that law-breakers were caught, collected, and dispatched.

The boat is too beautiful. It starts acting like an art object when it is supposed to function as a scalp. I realize I have forgotten why I am here because I want that boat. Possessiveness is eclipsing all the ethical battles that polarize the space. Ideologies, political and aesthetic, attempt to rule my reception of things, and even this small government museum doesn’t provide respite from these art world tensions.

Rozenta's Pool, Arden Modjeska Historic Home & Garden

Rozenta’s Pool
Arden Modjeska Home and Garden
Modjeska Canyon, California
Permanent Collection

A woman emigrates from the European interior. She becomes a star in the Silents and builds a mansion in the canyon where the last grizzly bear in Orange County will be shot in1903. Inside is what you would expect: still rooms with glass globe lamps, a piano, a chandelier illuminating the head of a buffalo – fine, fine things. Outside are extinct pools, dry and hollow. The floor of one, Rozenta’s Pool (c.1899), is tiled in an arrangement of squares at odds with the pool’s organic, uneven contour. It’s a quiet kind of struggle: one geometry against another. It pleases the loner, trips the skater, and disappoints the swimmer.

Kerry Tribe, Here & Elsewhere, 2002. Via

Kerry Tribe
“The Moving Image: Scan to Screen, Pixel to Projection II”
Orange County Museum of Art
October 3, 2009 – March 21, 2010

A long time ago, I watched Here & Elsewhere at the New Museum, and my memory of it persisted long after the fact. Tribe’s video generated the illusion that California was surfacing in New York. In the dual-channel video, one screen registers the flush palm trees of SoCal, while on its twin, a pale, red-headed girl enacts one half of a familial encounter. Her father (British film critic and theoretician Peter Wollen), questions his daughter from off-screen in a manner that echoes a college level oral examination. She does her best, and sometimes his voice registers that perhaps her best isn’t quite what he was looking for. She wants to please him, she rapidly adjusts her answers, and her falter fascinates: the child in thrall to the father. The film resurfaces in Orange County this year – so close to the site of its inception – because it’s worth repeating.

Darcy Lange, from "Study of Three Birmingham Schools," UK, 1976.  Darcy Lange Estate and Govett-Brewster Art Gallery

“Darcy Lange: Work Studies in School”
Cabinet, Brooklyn, New York
December 3, 2009 – January 16, 2010

On the subway, I carefully hide the cover of the paperback I am reading, and still, the man next to me gently inquires: “Excuse me, will you please tell me the title of your book?” “Uh, it isn’t a very nice title,” I respond, gingerly revealing Student as Nigger, a cult pedagogy classic first published in 1967 and reprinted 500 times. The book, written by civil rights activist and educator Jerry Farber, was intended to reveal the micro-processes of subjugation at work in the classroom.

In the 1970s, Lange, a New Zealander initially trained as a sculptor, entered working class schools in Great Britain to examine such processes. He shot footage of classes in session; he went on to record the teachers watching the initial footage, and then the students doing the same. Toward what end? I watch children squirm, shift, and drift as time rolls by. The teacher cajoles, and answers are given – sometimes dolefully, other times with pleasure. If we analyze Lange through Farber, do we believe that Lange is revealing the systemic control of the classroom? Does he provide a DIY method for the system to fix itself? Or does Lange’s work perform just enough social tinkering to avoid the pure disruption of actual change?

Cabinet offers a roving predecessor to the current crop pedagogical investigations within the art world. At the gallery, the visitor reengages this reflexive cycle of “watching learning.” Then and now, the fantasy of a secured audience is in play, the perennial boredom of the classroom sublimated.

Agnes Denes, Wheatfield - A Confrontation, 1982

Agnes Denes
“Philosophy and the Land II: Works from the 1960s to the Present”
Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York
October 29, 2009 – January 16, 2010

My infatuation with Agnes Denes’s Wheat Field (1982) lasted from 2000 to 2003. There was much to recommend it: site-as-palimpsest (the work grew on a landfill cluttered with debris from the construction of the World Trade Center, in what would later become Battery Park City); accidental audience (office workers noted the rippling wheat field beneath their windows); and an attention to the lifespan of its materials (the harvested wheat was distributed throughout the world – or, according to nay-sayers, fed to NYPD horses). But affection either deepens or it ends. The destruction of the World Trade Center changed the work in ways that pointed, for me, towards a disengagement: I avoid that hole, its associations, and its souvenirs.

It’s 2010, and I like her again – of course, it’s a bit circumstantial. Lately I’ve noticed a number of works made, in the 1970s, around or about Niagara Falls. In 1974, a family home in Niagara Falls was torn asunder by Gordon Matta-Clark (Bingo). In 1975, Bas Jan Ader, seated in a gallery in Amsterdam, read a short story called “The Boy who Fell Over Niagra Falls.” He drank from a glass of water as he read, his last swallow timed to align with the end of the narrative. A work of Denes’s from 1977 documents the view from a ledge near the landmark, where she camped out for seven days and nights. Why so much work at one boundary and not the other? Our fraught border has plummeted southward – what new works will gather at that edge?