25 November 2014

But I'm So Close...


I am knee-deep in finals, but the above clip from Me and You and Everyone We Know pretty much sums up what I am exploring in two of my projects. I'm really fascinated by the Institutional Critique movement, artists who seek to unveil what it is about museum institutions that's problematic. Problematic is a loose term to describe ideologies that might have been better-suited in early museum history, but just don't have a place in contemporary society. Issues like sexism, racism, and exclusionary practices that bar so many different artists and audiences from entering the museum space. I'll be back with some of my revelations, but for now, a wonderful clip of my lady-love, Miranda July.

02 November 2014

Interview with Herb Nolan

Herb Nolan is a photographer residing and working in Chicago. For five decades he has photographed a wide range of subject matter in Chicago and internationally. Most known for his photographs of jazz and blues musicians, his work has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Daily News, and Downbeat Magazine. For the last eight months, I have been archiving his collection of 1,600 photographs and countless negatives. In a recent interview we discussed some of his protest photography from the 1960’s.
Tom Waits
Tom Waits at the Victoria Restaurant,  silver gelatin print by Herb Nolan, 1976


Sandy Guttman:
Tell me a little about yourself.

Herb Nolan: I was born in Evanston, IL, My family lived in Winnetka and Riverside. I went to high school in Riverside, and I studied at Bradley University where I graduated in… a long time ago (chuckles). While at school I studied journalism; there were 16 people in our little graduating class. I worked for a bunch of newspapers and magazines and now I work in a hardware store.

SG: Which magazines and newspapers did you work for?

HN: I started out at a little newspaper called the Wheaton Daily Journal. Those were 60-hour weeks, at $85 a week. I also worked as a copyboy at the Peoria Journal Star. Then I was drafted and went to Vietnam.

SG: When were you drafted?

HN: 1965.

SG: And how long were you there for?

HN: 1966 through 1967.

SG: What was that experience like for you?

HN: Guilt.

SG: Just guilt?

HN: Guilt, but interesting research on what war looks like.

SG: Did you have your camera with you when you were in Vietnam?

HN: Yes, everybody took pictures. I have a lot of color slides from then. We’re not going to archive those.

SG: When you got back from Vietnam what did you do next?

HN: I wandered around the neighborhood (chuckles), and I cleared my head. But then I went back to working as a newspaper reporter.

SG: What were you reporting on?

HN: Everything. Police, city council, school boards, boards of trustees - in the suburbs through this whole chain of community newspapers.

SG: And you took photographs when you were reporting?

HN: Yeah, often with small newspapers you took your own pictures, back then it was all film.

Biograph
The Biograph Theater, Herb Nolan
SG: When did you start taking photographs?

HN: When I was in college there was a woman that was doing black and white photography as part of her art. I saw what she was doing and said, “Shit, I like that.” So I bought a cheap camera and started doing it. It clicked. Photography was part of the journalism thing. And the Tribune used to hire me to go along as a photographer with their freelance writers. I also used to write features for the Tribune.

SG: Did you have formal training in photography?

HN: I’m self-taught. There was a class in the journalism curriculum, and those days we used 4 by 5 speed graphic cameras.

SG: What were some of your favorite things to photograph?

HN: Things you would see, people, city stuff, it depends where I was. Just images I saw and wanted to capture. Not landscapes, I’m not Ansel Adams. And here’s the philosophy, you and I could be looking out of the same window or looking at the same thing on the street, and it’s boring to you, you don’t see anything. I do.

SG: After looking at your whole collection, the photographs of the 1960’s Daley Plaza protests stuck with me. How did you end up taking those photographs? I’d read that some of those protests turned violent; did you experience any of that?

HN: No, I never got beaten up. But when I came back from Vietnam, I was extremely opposed to the war. Before I was drafted, nobody else was paying attention. I wasn’t in that group of people who was going to run off to Canada or burn their draft card because in those days nobody was doing that. The war was fought by draftees. I ended up in Vietnam, which in a way was kind of interesting. I was well schooled in the history of Vietnam. And friends of mine who had said that the war was a good thing, by the time I came back, were in all of these antiwar movements and were saying they were wrong. I went to the demonstrations. And this was after the ’68 Convention, where there was a lot of violence. I was extremely angry, because the city lied, the newspapers lied.

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Photo collage of protest photograph from 1968-1969, Herb Nolan
SG: Were you at the protests to report or because you were protesting?

HN: Both.

SG: How active were you?

HN: We went to a few, the big ones. There was one in Daley Plaza where I left just before the police came in and beat everybody up. That was probably late ’68 or ’69. And then there was a big march down State Street. Did you ever see the movie Battle for Algiers?

SG: Yeah.

HN: Well you know where they’d all whistle? Demonstrators in Chicago picked up on that whole thing. And then there was a gathering, when the Chicago Seven were being transferred to Cook County Jail. Phil Ochs and all the big time players were there. The march went from Daley Plaza, where the demonstration was, down to Cook County Jail to demonstrate down there.

SG: That’s kind of a far march!

HN: Well you took the train (chuckles).

SG: Oh, it’s not a literal march!

HN: No, no. But people were angry. Not everybody felt the way I did, I saw so much abuse of information and power – we still see that today. It’s all the same thing. I almost threw up when Bush decided to invade Iraq, because I knew exactly. Just channel Vietnam, my friends. Utilizing information that turned out not to be correct. I mean Vietnam and Gulf of Tonkin, you know that fake thing.

SG: If you look at what’s happening right now with police brutality in the United States, I didn’t live through your era, but it was pretty terrible.

HN: Well, it was. You know in the ‘60s you had the Freedom Riders risking their lives in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Georgia. Studs Terkel had this great quote, where he said that in those days that’s when kids had issues other than themselves. But I don’t know how it is now. There were those sit-ins for Wall Street, and people were doing that in Berkeley and got doused with pepper spray. Police in the ‘60s clubbed people, threw them in jail. It was a little more violent. Fortunately I didn’t get caught up. I left before that happened. I was just capturing the images from that. How do I capture this, so when I’m gone, it won’t be gone?

SG: Which is powerful.

HN: Certainly a lot of people took those pictures in ’68.

Cataloging
Mid-cataloguing Herb Nolan's photography collection. His work is organized into three categories: Music, Travel, and Chicago/Family & Friends.
SG: We’ve spoken at length about your photographs of musicians, how you have photographed intimate moments with Muddy Waters, Tom Waits, and Elvin Jones. And then you stopped for a period of time. HN: Yeah I quit taking pictures of musicians, because it becomes the same thing. It’s like writing about music. I figured, what kind of a career is that? And there are so few jobs. You do an intense period writing about this stuff, you really work at it. Chasing musicians around, and I’d get on the bus with them, like Almost Famous – I did that. But, in the end, the adventure is kind of over. Taking photographs is an adventure, I’m pretty shy about it, so sometimes I didn’t take pictures and I wish I had. I think about some of those images.

SG: What’s something you wish you’d photographed?

HN: I was in New York. Columbia Records had put me up in the Plaza Hotel, those were the days, man. I had a limousine at my disposal, it was picking me up to take me back to LaGuardia. And I looked out – there was Keith Jarrett, the great jazz pianist sitting on a bunch of luggage all by himself. He’s a private person, I didn’t want to disturb him, so I said I’m not going to take his picture. But then I kept thinking, why not? And as a freelancer, I’d photograph parties. One party was with Martin Scorsese and Liza Minnelli – the paparazzi crashed through. And one event was the topping off of the Apparel Center with the Kennedys and the Daleys. I got this shot of them all in a big line marching through the building. So that was an adventure.

SG: What was it like being at events like that?

HN: You claw your way through the crowd to get the picture, you want to figure out what the picture’s going to be, and not get the same thing everyone else is getting.

SG: How were you able to get the photo?

HN: I don’t know…

SG: Is that the magic of it?

HN: It’s just what I see.
Frank Zappa
Frank Zappa backstage in Milwaukee, WI,  Herb Nolan

31 October 2014

Ghosts of Halloweens Past

In the spirit of Halloween, and in part because I didn't have time to generate a new costume this year, I thought it best to share some of my past Halloween costumes. I'm feeling all sorts of guilt about dropping the ball on crafting something spooktacular, but to prove I'm not always a complete slacker, here are some of the gems from my career as a staple and scissors DIY seamstress.

Not pictured: The year I went as Hurricane Sandy (just no), the year I dressed as a French person while studying abroad in Italy, and the year I dressed as my favorite waitress from Ed Debevic's.
In high school I thought it was a great idea to dress as Janine, the porn star adorning the cover of Blink-182's Enema of the State album cover. I wore this in school the entire day. This photo was taken in the locker room after gym class. Shoutout to my pal Tim Stedman who's creative genius had me dressing like a sexy nurse all the way back in high school.
I made a really cute princess, Mari made a really handsome ladybug, my mom was very good at costume making (thanks mom!!). Also, I'm pretty sure we were standing on a changing table. Ew.
The year I went as Bjork in the Swan dress. I made the entire skirt out of repurposed plastic bags. And I drew Bjork's tattoo on my arm in Sharpee. Despite my best efforts, almost nobody at my very liberal arts college got it.
I think I was a bride, I'm not even sure. And Mari was Rapunzel. That yarn braid had a wire in it that made it stand at a weird angle, I don't even know.
So this wasn't Halloween, but it should have been. Ben Scott threw a French themed party in college and I thought it best to show up dressed as Napoleon. Duh.
I'm the weirdo on the bottom right, with the blonde bangs outside of the giant afro. I think I was a disco hippie? Like I wore a tie dyed shirt with an afro and bellbottoms. This was deep into my obsession with 1960's culture and disco. I was a very eccentric 9 year old, I swear.
Last year Andrew and I dressed as Gallagher and his very adorable very smashed watermelon. I spent a week making his sledgehammer out of paper mache (so many layers of wet paper). And my dress was a whole other conundrum, but we were definitely hilarious, spot on conceptual, and probably definitely the cutest couple at the party.
And last, but certainly not least, is the year I dressed up as a Tamagotchi and won an online Halloween costume contest. Yeah, that was a thing in 2007. 

28 October 2014

So how's grad school??!!

Just over a year ago, I made the decision to apply to UIC's MUSE (Museum and Exhibition Studies) program. I'm just over halfway done with my first semester, and the question that friends and family have been asking me at a near constant is how am I liking school? It's kind of a strange thing to answer, especially since I'm still very much figuring things out - but I do have some thoughts.

Grad school is hard. Not in the way that undergrad was hard, there's something markedly different about the way things in my life are moving as a graduate student. I'm in class three days a week, for nine hours total. I  know it must sound like I have oceans of free time, but I'm also working at the gallery fifteen hours a week, and interning with an archival collection an additional three hours. I'm just a shift short of full-time job status in terms of my hours - but then we factor in commuting, attending openings and museum / networking events, and this little thing called homework. I'm busy at all hours of the day, and if I have a moment to stand still, I'm probably discreetly thinking about all of the reading and writing I should be doing.

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The most boring picture of the copious amounts of homework I do
But to a certain extent, the stress and time management (those words!) are the extent of why this shift from worker bee to student bee has been so strangely difficult. I think I'm almost in a rhythm with my schedule, and have finally factored in the time I need to cook meals for myself and space for quiet time to read. Lately I've been making basic meals, though some days I long for a work schedule in which I leave the office to go on endless dates with way less cares in the world. I also know the reality of missing my "non-student life" - I was fairly miserable at my last job. I never fully came out and said it to my blog or my acquaintances but my closest friends and family knew how difficult it was for me at my previous job. While I might have had my evenings open, I was in a negative work environment 40+ hours a week, and on my free time, I was also stressed about work things. Notice a pattern? I stress always.

So where am I going with this? Grad school was the change I needed. It was a drastic break from a cycle of working a job on a career path (fundraising for the arts) that I wasn't even sure I'd wanted to be on. Working so close to the art, research, and curators at the Art Institute was painful because I wasn't an active participant in the kind of museum work I so desperately wanted to be a part of. This program is giving me the tools to be a critical, thoughtful, and above all, prepared art/museum worker capable of employment in a much different department than development - I am elated. 

Untitled
Visiting the Leather Archives & Museum, a space I'd never been to but have been thinking about greatly after my visit
And when I stress or whine about my homework, it's not as bad as I make it sound. It's a half-hearted whine, because the truth is, all I read and write about is museums. All we discuss in class is museum work. I'm learning to be a better writer and thinker, and my professors and advisor are pushing me harder than I've been pushed in years. I needed this, and I'm grateful everyday for it. 

So friends, when you ask me know grad school is, just know that it's going well, that I am hyperinvolved in what's happening in the Chicago museum/gallery world, that I've made friends, and that as I'm telling you how wonderful it is, I'm secretly thinking about an exhibition review I should be writing or a wall label that needs editing.

With love,
S

27 October 2014

On writing more

Lexie recently posted about wanting to write more, to utilize blogging as a platform for maintaining a writing practice. But also wanting to write about everything. Not wanting to compartmentalize her relationship, her job, her bits of consumption ;). And I find myself thinking the same exact thing. I want a blog that's full of me gushing about grad school things, the museum world, the weird things Andrew and I do on a regular basis (we are weirdos pretty much all of the time).

It such a strange thing to want a space where I can talk/type and get my thoughts and memories out. I've taken to saving my best writing for my Writing for Exhibitions class, go figure. And one thing I've really taken from that class is that writing must be a practice. Being a good writer is like working out, it involves exercising a muscle.

Lori Waxman (on the left), performing 60 WRD/MIN
On a recent visit to our class, Lori Waxman of the Chicago Tribune and SAIC spoke to us about an ongoing projected titled 60 words per minute, in which she wrote criticism for artists as a performance piece. At Documenta (13), she set up a booth with a computer (connected to a projector), and she wrote. Artists visited her with their selected portfolios, and in the span of 30 minutes, she analyzed their work, and wrote a critical review of their practice and oeuvre. While she wrote, the projector placed her words and process into a public domain, giving you a peek into her writing style and practice. Over the course of three months, she wrote some 250 reviews, all of which were published in the local paper. But what Lori told us was that this practice was no small feat. She wrote and wrote and wrote, working her muscle until it was strong and almost a little robotic. She gave back to the community she was temporarily a part of, serving up reviews and criticism for artists who simply wanted their work to be looked at.

I think of Lori's 60 words per minute project and I am both overwhelmed and inspired. Writing is hard. Writing takes time and energy. Finding the time and energy to write for myself, for my blog, for my classes, for my hobbies, for my internship - well, it's a lot. But never once do I finish writing something and feel as though it wasn't worth it. Writing is taxing but it's a way for me to express myself that has somehow become my predominant mode of expression. So often friends and family ask me if I'm still painting, if I'm still taking photos, and sometimes I just want to shout NO! For now writing is how I want to work things out. Writing is how I want to process my life and work through what's happening to me. It feels so good to have reached a point in my mid-life-era where I am confident in so many of my skills and abilities, but making the time for the big ones is the next challenge I want to embark upon. Emma is trying her darndest to keep painting and keep blogging, and I'm hoping to make some space for my words over here. Girl, you continue to inspire me!

Signing off with love and admiration for all of you writers and makers out there, Sandy.

24 October 2014

Roger Brown Study Collection

In truth, I'd never heard of the Roger Brown Study Collection until I started the museum studies program. I'd walked by the nondescript building before, even stopping to pose outside of it this summer not knowing that an eclectic collection of art, tchotchkes, and familial memorabilia were hidden within the brick structure.

Untitled
Oh you know, just hanging out next to a secret museum
Having visited the museum on Tuesday, my mind keeps wandering back to the collection as well as the intention of the space itself. Roger Brown collected and displayed objects, ones that carried an aura that surpassed the convention of the hierarchical nature of the art world. Handmade Girl Scout projects are displayed on an equal plane next to Ray Yoshida, Richard Hull, and family keepsakes. Lumpy ceramic pots by sculptural novices are given the same spotlight as handcrafted Alabama baskets and a large collection of arts & crafts architectural models of churches.

Untitled
Erasing the hierarchy of the art museum, the aura of the objects carry the weight of importance.
Like any museum, there were rules. Don't sit on the furniture and don't touch the objects. But if you wanted to take a peek inside of his medicine cabinet or a closer look at his genealogy case, just ask a glove-wearing museum worker and they'd be happy to open things up for you. Walk out to the garage, and take a seat in his Mustang, they don't mind. Because the house museum is still a home. It breathes and creaks as any other home does, despite that fact that it's not inhabited in the typical way a house is lived in.

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Nothing is off limits. And for good reason! Notice the little illustration on the second shelf next to the magnifying glass?
While it might strike a museumgoer as being a bit odd, this different approach to museum practice is at the core of Roger Brown's intention for the space. Inspired by the Artist's Museum he'd seen on a road trip in South Dakota in 1972, Brown wanted to create a space for his collection  grounding the Chicago Artist's Museum in his home and studio at 1926 N. Halsted. He curated the space creating unexpected dialogues between objects. Moments in his home/museum are evocative of the work he created, prone to whimsy, color, pattern, and a mish mosh of inspiration. 

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In addition to the Roger Brown Study Collection being the site of an eclectic gatherings of objects, it's also a space for artistic practice and educational inquiry. Having donated the home to the School of the Art Institute in the late 1990's, the school has utilized the space in a variety of ways. Staging performance art inspired by the home, doing architectural historic preservation on various aspects of the building's structure, and recontextualizing pieces of the collection into meaningful ongoing exhibition practices are just a fraction of the ways the space continues to inspire engaging work across media and explorative practices.

Though Roger Brown passed away in 1997, his artful spirit and prolific mind continue to live on, through the life brought into the house on visits and in the artistic practices he continues to inspire and engage.

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21 October 2014

Mickalene Thomas: I was born to do great things

Mickalene Thomas’ I was born to do great things is an unconventional portrait of Sandra Bush, the artist’s late mother and muse. The presentation at Kavi Gupta is split into two spaces. A traditional, white cube gallery containing vitrines and art-adorned walls is contrasted with a gallery space evocative of a 1970’s living room, with mismatched furniture, wood paneling, and linoleum tile. The show’s title is a quote from Thomas’ mother-muse. “I was born to do great things” speaks to Bush’s views of herself and brings to the forefront identity, a major theme of the exhibition. Though the sculptures and paintings are a visual reminder of her mother, a short documentary in the den gallery delves into Bush’s melancholic feelings of regret for not succeeding at a career in modeling, which is countered with pride in acting as her daughter’s muse.

Image c/o Kavi Gupta Gallery
In the main gallery, Thomas intersperses her mother’s artifacts – a tube of lipstick, Chinese dolls, jewelry – with works made by the artist that were inspired by her mother’s larger-than-life personality. These artifacts were collected from her mother’s home following her death in 2012, and act as a proxy for her maternal presence. Having been used by Bush to shape her identity, they come to exemplify her exquisite style and grace.
Image c/o Kavi Gupta Gallery
The most provocative works in the show were sculptures cast in bronze: a jacket, loose hanging sweater, a pair of jeans, a bra, and Crocs. In removing these items from her mother’s home and transforming them into bronze sculptures, Thomas is memorializing her mother in a format reserved for historical greats – a fitting tribute to a woman who continues to inspire an entire artistic practice.
Image c/o Kavi Gupta Gallery
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