artist of the day #30: Mona Hatoum

Sometimes the placement or presentation of an artwork really catches my attention. In one of my recent/many visits to the Brooklyn art museum I came across a piece that was not on display in the way most of the work in the building was. In fact, at first glance, I thought it was just a sign for the museum, that was telling me where the nearest bathroom was, or not to bring drinks into the museum, or something like that. But upon closer inspection, I realized it was a piece of art. It only really caught my attention because half the sign was in Hebrew. It said very plainly that “Waiting is Forbidden” on a small piece of metal, placed high on the wall like a sign, instead of eye level, like a piece of art. This was my introduction to the artist Mona Hatoum.

Upon further research when I got home, I learned that Mona is much more than a clever sign maker, she is a very accomplished performance and installation artist. She is a Palestinian born in Lebanon, who has since been exiled due to civil war breaking out while she was visiting London in 1975. She first attended school as a graphic artist to meet some compromise with her father, who was very against her becoming an artist at all, but was willing to accept graphic art as at least an attempt at a real career.

Her earlier work is marked mostly as being performance. She gravitated toward using her own body as a tool to invoke questions about sexuality, politics, and freedom away from normal domestic life. Later she on she began to focus more on installations, quoting that her performances were “politically too direct” and thought art should be more about interactivity and planting an idea for viewers to develop their own conclusions. And that through installations, people could be influenced by her ideas without her presence being necessary. Both her performances and installations have had many common themes such as her own ethnic background, human freedoms and injustices, as well as the female body. She tends to work with contrasting ideas such as in the piece Mexican Cage where she makes a prison the represent the type of lifestyle many Mexicans are forced to endure, while painting it colorful to represent Mexican culture’s ability to celebrate life.

“I’m often asked the same question: What in your work comes from your own culture? As if I have a recipe and I can actually isolate the Arab ingredient, the woman ingredient, the Palestinian ingredient. People often expect tidy definitions of otherness, as if identity is something fixed and easily definable.” –Mona Hatoum


artist of the day #29: Nick Cave

Sometimes I look at a piece of art, and that is all I see. It is not to say specifically that there is something wrong with the piece, but it just kind of stops right there. Then there are times when I see a piece of art and I can envision a whole new universe erupt, it is inspiring. That is what happens when I see the various “soundsuits” of artist Nick Cave. I imagine new cultures and customs, filled with tribal dances and new life. His work is so perfectly on that line of what is recognizable and what is completely alien that you both recognize it and are left utterly confused. These soundsuits create a vehicle in which a human can obviously have a relation to, yet everything else about it is completely surreal. They are often just displayed as still sculptures, but they take on a whole new meaning when Cave gets to showcase them in one of his choreographed dances.

Trained in both fashion and in dance, Cave marries the two in some remarkable public performances. He comes from a large family and attributes his fascination with using found objects to coming from a family with modest means. So lets be thankful for poor people and take note how someone can turn a negative into a positive. He strives to make his work include others and in some special way change the world. He works as the director of the graduate fashion program at the Chicago Institute of Art where he not only finds students, but he finds teams of people to collaborate with for his performances.

Cave is represented by the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, but does the majority of his performing in the Chicago area. He has exhibited all over the place as he continues to create other worlds. Check out some of these videos to hear both his take on his work and to get a glimpse of what his performances are like:

artist of the day #28: Rick Wright

The human figure, complex and wonderful it inspires our greatest artists. It is the most common subject matter of art throughout all of history. Every artist studies it and a small handful master it. It is the fingerprint of almost anyone who has ever picked up a brush or pencil. Even when it is executed in imitation, it reveals something unique and special about the artist.

Any decent example of figurative art tells you something about both the artist and the subject and how they relate to each other. At times the work can have a very voyeuristic feel to it where it seems like the subject doesn’t even know they are being looked upon. Other times the subject takes on such a presence, that it is as if they summoned the artist to recreate them on paper.

So much can be told with the right use of line or color, on their own that it is a special talent when an artist can use both masterfully. Kansas based artist, Rick Wright has created a portfolio of work that is both exploratory and fluid. He has developed his own approach, but it does not feel forced or over stylized as I have seen with too many other figurative artists. Looking at his work over time it seems he is beginning to explore more with exaggerated proportions and abstraction, but still keeping a very similar color scheme and sense of arrangement in his figures. I feel like he is trying to capture the beauty and sensuality in women and the oddness and peculiarity of men. His works on women, that make up the bulk of his collection, are all very suggestive and intriguing in their pose, while the men are more cavalier and often times the more distorted of his works.

Wright is trained as an illustrator and has spent a good amount of time teaching in several different capacities. He is a good ole traveling artist, doing the bulk of his exhibiting at various festivals and events. He can mostly be found somewhere in the middle of the states, so if you find yourself out there, consider taking a worthwhile detour.

artist of the day #27: Kara Walker

I am not sure where to start with this next artist, she is controversial, clever, and powerful. Kara Walker is the youngest person ever to receive the MacArthur “genius” grant at age 27. She has received both criticism and acclaim for her bold confrontation with big issues like racism, sexuality, slavery, and rape. Working almost exclusively with silhouettes, Walker has managed to tell complex and often terrifying stories. Often inspired by unfinished folklore she expresses scenes that need to be explored and picked apart. It is not work that can be understood easily. One needs to spend some time with it and really analyze what is going on.

Fact, fiction, and fantasy are often intertwined in her work and one must really evaluate what truths are being stretched and try to understand why. The setting for much of her work is often a pre-Civil War south where she comments on the crimes of slavery and the unbalance of hierarchy. She plays with the lines drawn between white and black by illustrating all of her characters in a stark black silhouette. Viewers have to sit and try to pick apart who is who and calls us to question our own assumptions. Why do we assume the man with the whip is white and the man being whipped is black when both are portrayed in the same color?

Typically we are used to silhouettes and shadow puppets telling us very playful and harmless tales. So amongst other things, Walker is calling us to question the vehicles in which we share our stories. She has worked in slightly similar mediums, but the shadows and silhouettes are what she has come to be known for. She continues to be active as an artist and also assists with much of the goals and programming at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

artist of the day #26: John Chamberlain

In the arts and entertainment world we are all too familiar with those that die young, well thankfully, it doesn’t happen to all of them. Recently the art world lost sculptor John Chamberlain who was actively still creating works up until his death at the ripe old age of 84. Chamberlain was best known for his sculptures using old mangled car parts in what is more closely related to the painting movement of abstract expressionism than any movement in the sculptural world. He himself has been known to state that he has been more influenced by painters and poets than any sculptor he has ever met.

Throughout his career, Chamberlain has dealt with a lot of people kind of misinterpreting his work. Critics and viewers of all types often thought he was trying to make some comment on the automobile industry and often put more analysis into what kind of car the parts came from, rather than what shapes and colors he was using. Chamberlain almost worked more as a 3-dimensional collage artist than a sculptor. He rarely did much manipulation to each piece of metal he worked with, and tried more so to see how different pieces should fit together as they were. “I think of my art materials not as junk but as garbage. Manure, actually; it goes from being the waste material of one being to the life-source of another.”

Chamberlain works mostly from instinct and says he feels done with a piece when he feels happy that the sculpture exists, regardless of who made it. He has shown work all over the world and the Guggenheim will be doing a second retrospective of his work early in 2012 to commemorate his death. He even has work on the moon (

Back Stage Access

Last week, ArtsLehigh’s director, Silagh White shed her public identity as a Lehigh University arts administrator and became a dance mom for a local production of the Nutcracker Ballet. Experiencing the Zoellner Arts Center from a different perspective brought a whole new appreciation for the building and staff who handle all the details of every performance enjoyed in the building. Here is her story:

As the director of an arts engagement program at Lehigh University, I attend many performances and exhibit openings both on campus and off. It’s a busy schedule as there are so many wonderful experiences to soak in. Luckily, I can share these experiences with students, faculty, staff, and from time to time, my own family. I love watching the audience react to the experience as much as having my own. It amazes me to see audience reactions to quality talent and artistic expressions. Each gasp of breath, eye of wonder, and chuckle inspires me to keep trying new ways to entice people to experience the art available to them. Live music, theatre, dance, and original art works are special experiences that often cannot be replicated. When I’m a member of the audience, somehow the music always sounds sweeter in the full acoustics of Baker hall. The laughs are always fuller in the comedy in Diamond theatre. The shock of physical endurance more deeply felt when muscles are highlighted by the stage light angle. It is a truly magical moment that occurs between artist and audience.

Last week, I shed all of that to go back stage and become a stage mom. I was a little frightened of what I was about to experience. The Ballet Guild of the Lehigh Valley was presenting their 43rd Nutcracker production. The cast is a mix of community and pre-professional students, adults and hired professionals from New York City. They rent the space at Zoellner for a solid week, perhaps with a few extra days. I didn’t want my fellow dance moms to think I had any insight or special privileges, so I didn’t tell them I worked at Lehigh.

I was bracing myself for an experience similar to the television program, “Toddlers and Tiaras.” I knew I was about to enter a world of glitter, tulle, and frosty blue eye shadow. I had seen enough of it from my days as an orchestral musician; but then I had the protection of the orchestra pit, separating me from the back stage drama. But this time, from the dress rehearsal through the four school performances and two public performances, I saw something different.

All of the dressing rooms gave the dancers (especially the kids) a sense of being a professional. These rooms have real make-up lights. Some of the dressing rooms even have showers. The floors were clean enough for even the littlest dancers to stretch out in their warm-ups and color while they were waiting to get their costumes before they hit the stage. The kids’ dressing rooms were close by, but still separate from the professionals from New York City. They got to be really close to them; seeing them stretch, focus, and sweat. Since they’ve been just starting to practice their splits, they could admire the physical abilities from a tangible sense. They often made room for the artists to pass in the hallways – in a sign of respect, if not awe. The professional artists would smile at the kids, often wishing them “good luck” in their own numbers.

As the minutes to the performance time waned, we waiting in the dressing room. Over the house intercom system, we would hear the stage manager call a count down to curtain; “Ladies and Gentlemen, the house is now open. Curtain will rise in 30 minutes. 30 Minutes to curtain.” The first time the girls heard that, there was a group squeal. I think some of the dance moms may have contributed. Maybe I did, too.

Our group of girls were the youngest; the little angels that started the second act. At some point during the last number of the first act, we were to escort the girls to the back stage area (a place I knew as the workshop – and had lots of table saws and tools in it) to dress the girls in the large hoop skirts, angle wings and halos. We had to fit their costumes over hairspray and eyeliner that was a little uncomfortably thick for an 8 year old. We would wait then for the stage manager to call, “Dancers please take your places for the beginning of Act 2.” The stage manager would set the girls in formation while other Stage Moms distributed the battery operated candles. We then stood in the wings to watch the dance, and quickly escort the girls off and back to the dressing rooms to make room for the next number. It all moved so quickly, it was over before I realized I stopped breathing. (I was worried the girls would forget a placement, or crash into another dancer – those side stage lights can be pretty blinding.)

After I became more comfortable with my responsibilities, I started to notice the activity happening all around the production; in the other dressing rooms, the green room, back stage right and left. Moms were constantly touching up hair, steaming costumes or shepherding the youngest dancers into their next costume change. I saw the flurried activity of the artistic director and the other dance instructors making sure that all dancers got their notes from the previous run, and to keep all dancers focused. I got to listen to the stage manager call the house lights down, cue music, cue curtain, etc. realizing that she not only had to keep an eye on a huge list of simultaneously occurring events, but to navigate the chaos that would potentially become disastrous at any moment.

In all of that frenzied atmosphere, each member of the Zoellner Arts Center staff remained calm, professional and incredibly graceful. I was particularly moved by the poise of the stage manager when I heard yesterday that she was terribly sick during the last performance. I couldn’t remember her even giving the smallest hint that she wasn’t feeling 100% when I saw her at that performance. For the record, the stage manager is none other than Zoellner’s own R. Elizabeth Miller. It was herself, and the other staff on duty that made everything run smoothly from backstage to front of house (that means ticket services, ushers and the nice folks directing traffic in the lobby)

It was a new kind of magic I saw last week. Another reason why I’m so grateful for the facility we have at Lehigh University, the opportunity for members of our community to access it, and for the moments we all share inside that beautiful building.

It’s often said that any university is not complete without an arts center. A great arts center is made so because of the people who run it and take care of it, as much as it is the quality of talent it presents.

artist of the day #25: Maurizio Cattelan

Throughout my tour of the Guggenheim’s latest exhibit I was flooded with ideas about suicide, children’s stories, idolization, religion, symbolism, sarcasm, anger, and pride amongst other things. To say the least, Maurizio Cattelan covers a lot of different subject matter.

He started off as a furniture designer in Italy and over the years transformed himself into the contemporary art world’s class clown. His work has been drenched in satire and he is an expert at poking fun at anything that is taken too seriously. Beyond his physical work he has done some interesting things as a curator, writer, and performer. He even likes to include his patrons in his work such as getting them to dress in elaborate costumes or simply duct-taping them to a gallery wall.

For years, museum and galleries alike have been trying to get Cattelan to show a retrospective of his work so that the world might analyze the method to his madness. He resisted doing anything along those lines because he wanted viewers to appreciate his work in isolation. He felt each piece should stand on its own. Well eventually he found a solution that could satisfy both desires. Cattelan decided the best way to get people to appreciate all of his works individually was to show them all together in a massive bunch, and oddly, he was exactly right. The latest exhibit at the Guggenheim entitled All just could not exist anywhere else. Here, each one of Maurizio Cattelan’s physical creations hangs from the ceiling without any type of method or organization. It is not organized according to date or theme, it is as if they put every piece into a big box, mixed it up, dumped it out, and then froze it before each piece hit the ground.

This causes the viewer to be forced to look at each piece more individually, because it typically has nothing in common with the other pieces around it. As the viewer climbs the spiral ramp of the Guggenheim, one is constantly discovering something they could not see from any other angle. You could see pieces that definitely seemed have related themes to other works, but with the arrangement, one could not follow a specific line of thought based on a time line like in most other retrospectives.

At the opening of this exhibit, Cattelan announced his retirement from the Art world. Whether this is a stunt or a reality is yet to be seen. But in the meantime, I suggest checking out this exhibit if you are in town. And don’t forget to pick up a special activity/ coloring book sold in the gift shop that goes along with the exhibit. This was possibly my favorite museum souvenir of all time.

artist of the day #24: George Segal

I’m going to throw back the clock a bit today. I want to talk about the work of George Segal. He is one of many artists whose work I have seen a hundred times, but never sat down to really contemplate and pick apart. Segal was active in the Pop-Art movement and pioneered the use of plaster bandages, previously only used for making medical casts and such. His works were often shown in public places like parks and street corners rather than museums and galleries. He would do the casting in pieces and then reassemble to make the whole. He would typically leave the rough surface of the casting, and for the first part of his career he left all of his sculptures white.

His work was about documenting an event in a new kind of way. Whether it was telling the story of the holocaust, or about two gay lovers sitting on a park bench, he froze those moments in time for us to contemplate. The rough and ghostly finish of his pieces gave them a very haunting sense of a spirit still intact.

Further into his career he began to become more experimental. Shying away from his white only sculptures he began to paint them bold monochromatic colors and even finished some in bronze. He also began to play with form, not just taking a full body cast, but playing with partial molds and having them interact with their environment like in Girl on a Chair. And he would begin to tell stories of imaginary events like Superman at a party with Cleopatra in his most unusual piece, Costume Party.

Segal Worked right up until his death in 2000. He was apart of the famous John Cage “happenings” and his work can be found all over the world. Click this link to hear him talk about his Costume Party and his perception of color:

artist of the day #23: Lan Tuazon

It is unquestionable that much of today’s art is about art. Regardless of what the artists efforts might be, what they are expressing in their art is going to tell us something about the way they feel about other art. Brooklyn based artist Lan Tuazon is not just doing that, she is commenting on the way we are viewing art. In her latest effort at the Brooklyn Museum, she is trying to redefine the way we view things at today’s museums.

There are three parts to her involvement here. First she has studied the various exhibits in the museum and selected specific pieces based on themes and function. She then created 3 prints suggesting how the museum should be rearranged. She questions the norm in which works are always arranged based on country and time or origin rather than their formal similarities. In the piece Gatekeepers she takes iconic “gatekeepers” from every culture represented in the museum and shows how she would like to see them arranged. In addition to the prints, she has created some very interesting sculptures. She created three pieces inspired by other pieces in the Egyptian wing. And even more interesting, is she was able to have these pieces on display next to the original Egyptian that inspired them. And lastly, she takes different display cases used in the museum and makes a sculpture out of them. This is very similar to other works I have seen on her website ( Perhaps Tuazon is predicting that one day there will be a museum about museums, and in it we will look at how museums all over the world “display” their work.

I find it very fitting that Tuazon found a home here in the Brooklyn museum. Not just because she works in Brooklyn, but because I think the Brooklyn museum has already shown some non-traditional approaches to exhibiting their work. It is the first museum I have ever been to that had access to see the works that are not on display. Visitors can see everything they have in storage in their visible storage room. Works are not given lengthy descriptions, nor are they arranged spaced out or very thoughtfully. They are just given a number that visitors can plug in to look up on the museum’s computers.

And furthermore, why listen to my take on her recent work in the museum, check out this quick video of Tauzon herself talking about the project:

artist of the day #22: The Great Quentini

What do you get when you mix a giant chicken, a cyborg, and a piñata, then sprinkle in a little DNA from David Bowie and Weird Al? You get something somewhat equivalent to the Great Quentini. I say somewhat equivalent because I don’t think the recipe to make him could ever be made twice. He is a performance artist, musician, and sculptor all wrapped into one funny shaped specimen. I got to know him first as the performance artist. Sometimes he is doing a puppet show, others, an interesting mix of found object musicals and story telling.

The Philadelphia based artist likes to work with found objects. I have seen him construct beautiful and interesting costumes that are both alien and tribal at the same time. I have also seen him use these random objects as musical instruments. He is a trained percussionist, so expect to see him bang object A with object B in interesting and profound ways. Most often his performances feel like a blast of chaos, but I have seen him enough times to know there are underlying ideas. Whether he is telling his story about trying to dismantle the McDonald’s arch that blocks his view of nature, or acting out a space alien looking for his mother, you can compile it all together and get the sense that he is striving for a quest back to basics. I would describe his as tribal by nature, alien by nurture.

The only issue I have isn’t quite an issue with him as an artist, it simply has to do with my own greed. Quentin used to spoil Philadelphians with free shows about once a month. But in recent years he has taken a bigger focus on his sculptures. He has been commissioned to do projects at Burning Man, Playa del Fuego, and other events where the creation gets burned to the ground. These projects are fascinating, but usually out of my reach. Perhaps one day I will make it to one of them, until then, I’ll have to get by with these video clips: