22 January 2015

Vivian Maier: An Historical Conundrum

Tonight I attended a talk on the extensive work of the photographer Vivian Maier led by the independent scholar Richard Cahan, and after hearing him speak casually about his work on Maier's collection, I left full of questions and maybe a little bit miffed. To preface my critique of his work, and the handling of Maier's photographs, I will say that I walked into his talk excited to hear what insights he could share, having recently viewed the Vivian Maier's Chicago exhibition he co-curated at the Chicago History Museum. But also, I entered the discussion having just left my course on Public Engagement in Museums, eager to hear how a woman so private, who has been posthumously catapulted into a very public light, might be spoken about by one of the people who brought her to the public, and stands to benefit from her legacy of cultural production.

My interest in Maier began as it did with many others - through John Maloof's 2014 documentary Finding Vivian Maier. It was midway through his film that I recalled having seen an exhibition of this never-before-seen street photographer at the Chicago Cultural Center in 2012, thinking why have I never heard of her before? And what amazing photos! I scratch my head at the thought of passively enjoying her photographs, both in color and black and white, but that she remained an enigma, a passing fancy, just another photographer I enjoyed. It wasn't until Maloof's documentary shed light on how her photographs came to the public, that her work caught the attention of the masses - at least that was my take on the way the events unfolded.

Via Charlotte Film Lab
Tonight's talk led me to other avenues of critical inquiry.

I began to understand the timeline of her collection leaving her possession and entering the hands of complete strangers. In 2007, Maier had three storage lockers, which were subsequently auctioned off through the Norwood Park based auction agency RPN. Maier passed away in 2009. She was still alive, and was still the rightful owner of these lockers and the items inside of them. But she had missed a payment. Her possessions were disseminated between three or four people who bid on her lockers.

From my understanding, the people who bid on her items were all white men, who all had the ability to bid on her collection. Whether that be through having the leisure time to peruse auctions of this nature, or the spare funds to purchase said collections. There's something both entitled and predatory about the fact that her collection of hats, clothes, writings, negatives, photographs, and other items fell into the hands of complete strangers. Strangers, some of whom threw away her letters and writings, who auctioned off her hats, who began to sell her negatives on Ebay. These acts effectively whittled away the integrity of her unified collection, as well as problematically took away from a person who might not have been in a state to financially support her storage locker fees. I can't help but wonder if she even knew her lockers were sold off, or how her life might have been if she had seen any of the financial benefits that resulted from the unveiling of her "treasure trove" of photographs.

Via the New York Times
I am critical of the purchasing and disseminating of her "things," for lack of a better word, because she was alive when this happened. Yet for reasons unbeknownst to me or those who purchased her items, she was unable to maintain the keeping of the storage spaces. Maloof's documentary touches on the issue of Maier's financial strains, and for that inclusion, I applaud him. His documentary also focused deeply on her profession as a nanny - a domestic worker who, when we piece together the timeline, lived in 18 different homes in the span of 20 years.

Hearing Cahan speak about Maier's life as a nanny, using stereotypical descriptors likening her to Mary Poppins left me considering the conditions of a solitary, domestic worker, supporting herself and her art solely on the dime of the families who employed (and disemployed) her. I considered my own interest in issues of domestic labor today, of domestic workers' lack of representation in unions, and their lack of rights, often working without clear contracts or boundaries which enable them to move autonomously, take vacation, and enjoy the benefits that many of us take for granted. I think about how she shuffled from family to family, continually having to adapt to their whims and rules, potentially working as a nanny because it meant she would always have a roof over her head and food on the table.

And then I think about what happened to Maier when the employment dried up. How isolated and alone she was. Without a family of her own or a support network to fortify her in a time of need. I think about the words used to describe her, and I shudder.

Eccentric, unusual, birdlady, odd, substantial, isolated, loner, strange.

Via Kottke.org
My issues with the talk tonight are extensive, but at the heart of my frustration was the fact that Cahan didn't attempt to incorporate her gender or poverty into the conversation of who she was and how being a woman of a certain socioeconomic status had an impact on her work. Or at the very least, what happened to her work after it left those lockers and fell into the hands of strangers. It seems a bit ironic that her work, work she chose to keep so private, work that depicts a world of strangers, should become entrusted to strangers. Strangers who, from what I can tell, were not museum workers, domestic workers, conservators, or art historians.

I grapple with the intentions of those who gambled and purchased the immense collection of objects from her lockers. I wonder what it was that put them in the auction-house to begin with. What were their motivators? Curiosity? Treasure hunting? Hoping to stumble upon the next "big thing?" It's the questioning of the underlying motivators of those who have given us this great gift of Maier's work, but who are also benefiting and profiting from her labor. Why did she have to die alone, unrecognized, and misunderstood? Why was she impoverished? What failings of our society and lack of community left her cast off as an outsider, barely scraping by? In terms of her work, who's duty is it to share her photographs with the world? And are those who are recreating her history, applying their own narratives to her story doing her justice? Should there be a feminist perspective placed on her work? Should we even be looking at her work, or was it meant to be kept private? And finally, is there a fiscal responsibility upon those who are profiting from her work?

Via the New York Times
While I don't have the answers to these questions, I'm bowled over by her work.  There is something that leaves me breathless as I stand before her photographs. Knowing that there are well over 100,000 images to be seen, many of which were taken in and around Chicago, it's hard not to want to see all of them. As a Chicagoan, these images are a reflection of my city. It's impossible not to hope to stumble upon a photo that might be me, or my parents, or a friend, or a landmark that I relate to. I spent much of my childhood in Rogers Park, could I have seen her? Could she have seen me?

One of the great and perplexing tropes in art is the presence of the mirror, and Maier to a certain extent was a mirror. She mirrored reality, or at least a reality that she constructed through her photography. Reflections and mirrors appear throughout her work. Psychologically, when we see a mirror in art, we look for ourselves. It could be in Las Meninas, a Jeff Wall photograph, or in one of Joan Jonas' performances. The desire to see oneself in art is almost a primal urge. And reflections play deeply into our fascination with Maier's work.  For Chicagoans, reflected in her work is the city we see ourselves in every day. When we look at her photographs we see ourselves both in the reflective nature of the glass frame, and in the millisecond of the moment she captured, kept, protected, and honed. We attend her shows, grasping if anything for a glimsp of ourselves, reflected in the quiet mystery of her prolific yet completely private career.

10 January 2015

Sometimes Being Alone Is the Best

I can't recall the last time I went to a museum alone. The last time I aimlessly wandered, lingering when I wanted to, sitting and contemplating when I didn't feel like standing and looking. I can't remember the last time I walked through a museum with my headphones in, listening to the soundtrack of my life, taking time reading each and every didactic plate, savoring my newfound knowledge. Some experiences beg to be experienced alone while others make the most sense in groups. Attending performing arts: best in a group. Reading a book in a cafe: best alone. But there are those experiences that toe the line of best alone and best in company that I tend to relish the most. Wandering museums, taking long walks, dining.

It's the new year, a time when we resolve to be our "best selves," a time pregnant with possibility. I really will read more, we say. I'm going to try that new diet, we say. No more Netflix, we say. In these sub-zero temperatures it's immensely easy to catch a case of the we says, and hit next on our queue. Much easier than putting on the three layers of socks, the two pairs of gloves, the hat, the coat, and the mentality that going outside isn't the worst possible thing.

On Tuesday, I was called off from work at the gallery. With that unexpected extra time, I focused on one of my goals: to attend more exhibitions, be mindful of what I see and what I experience, and to turn those thoughts into something tangible - writing. I remember Lori Waxman visiting my writing class last semester, and how she said with clear conviction that when she is visiting an exhibition for a piece she is writing, she goes alone, she takes her time, she takes notes, and she writes down all of her initial reactions. A word, a moment, a memory, a visceral reaction felt in her gut, her head, her heart. She goes it alone, much like her writing practice, but the results invite, entice, and excite. Her career with its prospects and interests is something I admire, maybe aspire to. So I too must go it alone every now and then. To experience something without the usual distractions of keeping an eye out for my companion, of wondering if they like or dislike it too, of being wary of how much time "the royal we" wants to spend in an exhibit, an experience, a moment before wondering what's next to eat, to drink, to do.

I made a list of all of the exhibits I want to see in Chicago in the next few months, and some I will attend alone. Armed with my little yellow Moleskine, a pen (or maybe a pencil), curious, inquisitive, with rapt attention to my own reactions, memories, and moments.

Shiraga Kazuo, Chikatsusei Manukinski (Golden Wings Brushing the Clouds Incarnated from Earthly Wide Star), 1960
This painting is a recent acquisition to the Art Institute of Chicago. It is in the Ab/Ex room, sharing its air with Pollock, Krasner, Calder, and Twombly - as far as I can tell, this is one of the only non-Western painters in the room, which strikes me as oddly unfortunate. This painting moved me to tears, reminding me that sometimes there are feelings that can be expressed and felt without words. This painting is thick, I imagine big and generous sticky brush strokes, marred by slightly violent paint splashes and splatters. The red droplets on the lower left reminiscent of bloodshed and spatter patterns on par with gunshot wounds. That rich blue, dare I say Universal Blue, is my saving grace. I wanted to touch this canvas. I was excited to learn that Kazuo painted entirely with his feet.

Christina Ramberg, Loose Beauty, 1973
After viewing the Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists film last month, I have a newfound appreciation of work I often would have glided past. I took this picture initially because it reminded me of the constant T&A (of the female persuasion) lining the walls and pedestals of fine art museums. Upon reflection, there's something wonderfully off-putting about Ramberg's portrayal of the female form. The curves are imperfect, there's a grit to it, only made more noticeable by the sheen on the underside of the brazier and on the side of the undergarments. The angles are sharp and puncturing, the lace is soft but barely present. While this woman might have no face, she is big and bold, like a raven or a shining gun, a force to be reckoned with.

It would appear that I just missed one of my favorite paintings, Alex Katz's Vincent and Tony. Is it strange that I really enjoy stumbling upon these institutional slips hanging on the walls? A reminder that a museum is a living breathing organism, one that has many layers of employees and worker bees with various tasks and duties. 

A snapshot from James Welling: A Diary of Elizabeth and James Dixon, 1840-1841 / Connecticut Landscapes, 1977-86
I began my solo exploration in the basement of the museum, a space that photography has unfortunately been relegated to. I didn't quite know what I was looking for, and in my moment of grasping for something familiar, I stumbled upon this snapshot of the Sex Pistols' album God Save the Queen.

And last but not least, a mesmerizing, dare I say fun, installation of Jesús Rafael Soto's Pénétrable de Chicago. This work has been in storage since 1986, longer than I've been alive. A round of applause for its welcome introduction to the world of 2014.

07 January 2015

04 January 2015

On 2014 Pt. 2

The second half of 2014 was tinted with changes. Slow at first, then following in rapid succession. I remember remarking with humor the year before that I had "chopped off all of my hair, quit my job, and found a new place to live" all in the span of two months with some sort of strange pride. In reality, I was completely freaked out by this stranger I'd let myself become while also being oddly comfortable in my own skin. What can I say? I' a complex and enigmatic creature.

In the latter half of 2014, I turned in a much anticipated letter of resignation (I had a countdown for this day on my phone for over six months). I spent a month "funemployed," a term I both love and hate. I bought a new swimsuit, but then realized my old one was much better. I read and binge watched The Leftovers and felt like I was missing something. I went on a lot of walks around Logan Square. I ate an immense amount of Italian ice from Mario's and Miko's, and made plenty of homemade popsicles. I packed my entire life onto a moving truck only to move less than a mile away from where I was currently living.

I started graduate school. I read a lot of articles. I set a rhythm with my writing practice. I made a handful of amazing new friends who love museums as much as I do, and I spent countless hours visiting museums all across Chicago. I traveled to New York, Michigan, and Florida. I stopped working out. I discovered The Carrie Diaries and American Horror Story and wowed my new friends and colleagues with my baking skills (challah back, y'all). I started interning at Gallery 400, and helped to curate an exhibition.

I accomplished most but not all of my 2014 goals.

+ This was the month I discovered Fly London shoes (I'm addicted).

+ I also made my first galette. The crust was the scary part. I think of this as baby-steps to learning how to make pie crust from scratch. 

+ Andrew and I traveled to NYC for a long weekend. I went on the Highline for the first time. We ate pizza only once. He had his first bagel at Murray's. We visited Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, where the security crew pulled me aside because they thought my inhaler looked like a small weapon in the x-ray machine. We visited the 9/11 Memorial and Museum (I have a lot of thoughts). We ate dumplings in Chinatown and saw OWLS at the Bowery Ballroom. I spent an afternoon reading in Central Park and stumbled upon the Rosemary's Baby apartment complex. We didn't squeeze in the Met or MoMA but I went to the Museum of Natural History for the first time and left utterly exhausted and disappointed. The squid and the whale is NOT what I thought it would be.

Ghostbuster's Fire Station

Ellis Island was damaged by Hurricane Sandy and doesn't have much by way
of displays, but it's a breathtaking space.
Spencer Finch installation at the 9/11 Memorial Museum 
Museum of Natural History
If I lived in NYC, this would be my jam. Note: A family got into a huge fight
after sitting down on the bench next to me. The wife was yelling at the husband
and sobbing. I felt awful.
+ I went to Pitchfork Music Festival for the 8th or 9th consecutive year. This year I made the goal of listening to every single band and making a spreadsheet of who I wanted to see and how I wanted to spend my time. This was probably my favorite Pitchfork ever because I went in with intention. I also managed to spend very little money. Not drinking at a music fest might be one of my best discoveries this year. I also ate free Chipotle, free Twinkies, free KIND bars, and free coconut frozen yogurt popsicles. FREE.

+ I attended a number of events at my sister Mari's law firm. We took a cooking class at the Chopping Block, I heard Tina Tchen speak about what the White House is doing to even the playing field for the black and latino communities, and for women in general. It was a very excellent time to be a fuzzy armpitted feminist in a sleeveless dress at a law firm event. 

Note: Tina was also my commencement speaker, so I was able to shake her hand again and let her know how awesome I think she is (again). 

We also went to a Beyonce concert... so that happened. #FEMINIST

My sister has it figured out. And she looks damn good too. 
Donald Judd was 100% the inspiration for this part of the light show.
+ I met my long-time e-pal Marie. She did not disappoint. We ate cheese, drank wine, talked about feminism, and art. I want to go to the east coast to visit her some day.

+ I worked my last day at "the office." Andrew and I ate hot dogs for lunch and I said goodbye to a beautiful view.

Bye Felicia!
+ We celebrated Andrew's 29th birthday. I made a Devo cake, and we went for ramen at Yusho.

+ I attended the UIC Free Art School and went on a graffiti walking tour with the writer Kevin Coval.

+ I only attended one Millennium Park concert, but it was the most epic picnic. And we got rained out. It was a lot of fun.

+ Michigan vacation happened.
Making gazpacho 
Cotton candy ice cream at Oink's. 

+ I became a student again!!! I might've been called "sir" when they were taking my ID photo, but whatever. I use my ID to get into museums and movies at a discount, and to read all of the free library books and articles I want, so it was worth it.

+ I ate freshly baked pies on the Jane Addams Hull House Museum porch.

+ I ate fried smelts, fried oysters, and smoked shrimp at Calumet Fisheries for the first time!

+ I said my final farewell to Hot Doug's.

+ I started working at Gallery 400, and worked my first exhibition opening for My Barbarian Collective. Here I am vacuuming their stage!

+ I made the difficult adult decision to sell my Riot Fest ticket so I could stay in to work on my first grad school presentation on Olafur Eliasson.

+ I packed up my old apartment. Here's some of the "vintage charm" I left behind:

Note: This was "after" they fixed the wall. Yes that is mold...
+ Andrew introduced me to Syl Johnson. Why am I just discovering soul music now?

+ I attended a bunch of really excellent art openings and exhibitions. Mickalene Thomas' I was born to do great things was one of the exhibitions this fall that has completely stuck with me. I also visited INTUIT for the first time and lost myself in the Henry Darger Collection.

Mickalene Thomas is amazing.
Samantha Bittman at Andrew Rafacz was mesmerizing and dizzying.
Henry Darger Room at INTUIT.
+ Nick and I moved into a beautiful two-flat that I love in Logan Square!

+ I visited the Leather Archives & Museum in Rogers Park. Jakob, the archivist of LA&M, generously walked us through the climate controlled archive. It was a visceral, emotional, and eye-opening experience to say the least. I will not soon forget visiting this space. This was one of the first community-driven museums I visited that began to change the way I think about the definition of "museum." Who are museums for? Why do they exist? Do they need collections to be museums? What are artifacts? Who determines history? Who keeps history? 

I learned a quote that I often repeat to myself and my peers at the LA&M: "History was written by the victors." 

But why not write your own history? The leather community is a subculture who was greatly impacted by the AIDS epidemic in the late '80s and early '90s. Rather than see their life and culture dwindle and disappear, they found a home for it. Preservation and conservation were the driving factors for the creation of this space. I absolutely love that this museum exists, and am grateful for what this experience continues to teach me.

+ I worked Cheryl Pope's program on ending gun violence in Chicago. Another visceral and eye opening experience.

+ Andrew and I saw Tim Kinsella perform a rendition of the David Bowie album Hunky Dory at the MCA, then went for ribs and martinis at the Silver Palm.

+ I visited the Roger Brown Study Collection, another house museum on Halsted that absolutely blew my mind. A space created to inspire artists, a space full of kitsch and personality. A house museum that contains Brown's Pepto Bismol alongside some of the works by the Chicago Imagists. A museum that invites artists to touch (with care), explore, and be inspired by what is contained within its walls. I love love love this place.

+ The exhibition Here, There, Everywhere opened at Gallery 400. I may or may not have suggested a film by Guy Ben Ner that ended up in the exhibition...

+ I got to know and hold the cutest baby in the universe.

+ I visited the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago. Yet another small off-the-beaten-path community driven museum space. Unlike the previous museums mentioned, this one has a collection but does not possess the tools to care for or display the objects they inherited. I'm hoping to volunteer some of my time and energy (maybe my archival skills even) to help them problem solve this museum space and get this collection - the only one of its kind - ready for viewing.

Notice we are wearing coats inside. This space does not have proper heating or
climate control. The objects, especially textiles and works on paper, are at risk for
further damage if we don't act fast!!
+ We saw Disappears play David Bowie's Low at the MCA, then went for dinner at TGI Friday's and drinks at the 95th. Yes, this really happened.

+ Thanksgiving happened with a handful of full-on meltdowns. I cried,  I cried a lot. The holidays bring out the best and the worst in me, this year was the latter. But I came to my senses and was able to enjoy a wonderful meal with family and friends!

And then it was finals...

+ I spent the first two weeks of December pretty much holed up in my apartment researching, writing, and creating presentations for finals. I survived, and received very good marks! Also, after all of my anxiety melted away, it was really exciting to present my project on archiving Herb's collection and hear what everyone else had been working on all semester!!

I did a lot of my best writing in my bed.
+ I bought a new sweater that I am currently living in.

+ To celebrate surviving finals, Andie and I visited Vodou: Sacred Powers of Haiti at the Field Museum. Only museum nerds studying museums would celebrate all of their hard museum-based research by going to a museum. Amiright?

+ Andie, Alice, Andrew, and I also attended the Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists screening at Intuit. I only hang out with people whose names start with the letter "A" now. Barbara Rossi, Philip Hanson, and Lisa Stone led a conversation afterward that I delighted in!

+ To celebrate (again) being done with finals, Tori, Alice, Andie, and I went to art openings in the West Loop then got the royal treatment at Wildfire. The royal treatment involves creamed spinach and ALL of the desserts menu.

+ Then I was off to Florida to see my brother walk across the stage, turn his tassel, and wave goodbye to Florida. I ate an ungodly amount of fast food, read by a pool, ordered room service for the FIRST time, bonded with my siblings, and drank a lot of frozen cocktails. Bye Florida!
I was reading the chapter on sex in Amy Poehler's memoir,
my dad kept leaning over asking me what I was reading. It
was a wonderful airplane ride. It was sponsored by bloody
Sandy's first room service. It tasted better than it looks, I swear.
It never snows in Florida. - New Found Glory
Told you I loved my sweater and my Fly London sandals.
Decided to have a vodka and caviar themed 27th birthday
party while reading pool-side.
Frozen drink infused fun. 
He really wanted a photo of his cap in the air. I get it, I
completely get it, Ben
Only in Daytona Beach would there be a waterslide in the background of a
graduation photo.
Sweet family photo!
+ Andrew and I took an epic staycation. We went for drinks at the Whistler, brunch at Lula, visited David Bowie Is at the MCA, ate at Shake Shack, went to the Bulls game (thanks Dad!), went to Maude's for a late night treat, and fell asleep watching Sex and the City in a hotel room. I'm not making this up. We might have watched Law & Order SVU while eating hot wings and fried pickles (room service) for breakfast.
Try the pozole at Lula. It is the bomb.
At the "selfie wall" hamming it up. 
We do this thing where we see art, then we eat at Shake Shack. We did it in
NYC last year.
Me wishing Santa Clause a Happy Hanukkah. He was popping out of the
emergency hatchet in the Christmas bus.
Basketball bros.
"Sandy take my picture!" - Andrew
+ The beautiful juice-nymph Rose celebrated a birthday. It was a good reason to get me dancing and into a place I might not otherwise wait in line for, Slippery Slope.
Dancing while attempting to blow stolen bubbles.
+ And then it was Christmas. The time Andrew and I come up with "new traditions," visit Michigan breweries, catch up on podcasts and TV, and hang out by a fire with dogs. Lots and lots of wonderful furry dogs. This year we added Calumet Fisheries to our list of Christmas traditions.
1/2 an order of fried smelts and 1/2 a pound of smoked shrimp to hold us over
for the drive to Muskegon, MI.
In the bathroom at Oddside Ales. We both got accidentally drunk on one dark
beer each and had to go antiquing until the buzz wore off. Told you I liked that
I stumbled upon this in my post-beer stupor. No, I didn't put the monkey's tail
like that. It was there for my enjoyment. #destiny
Michigan skies, you're alright.
And then it was 2015. Now off to do 2015 things!!