When I was halfway through the Vija Celmins retrospective at the SFMOMA, a group of high school students breezed in and approached a vitrine displaying pairs of real rocks and Celmins’s own reproductions (cast bronze and painted). “Oh,” one student said, unimpressed, “rocks.” It was in that snarky Emperor-Wears-No-Clothes sort of way teenagers use when they think they’ve outsmarted modern art (actually, adults have that too, just with more umbrage). As with all of Celmins’s work, you have to look really hard — and read the museum plaque — to understand you’re looking at the work of a master copier of the universe writ large and small.
Early in the Vija Celmins retrospective, we see her large, adeptly painted canvases depicting objects: a fan, a space heater, a desk lamp that resembles a pair of eyes. There are also three sculptures: rubber erasers, a pencil, a comb — all oversized as if they’re props from The Incredible Shrinking Woman. While they fit with the new objectivism and the nouveaux realism that followed ab-ex and resulted in the work of Johns and Oldenberg (amongst others), there’s something else going on, something personal. Celmins has rendered monumental the small, mundane elements of the meager artist’s studio. And there’s a certain irony one realizes about halfway through the show, when, twenty years later, she’s doing the exact opposite: Taking the grandness of the sky and waves and reducing it through her small, painstakingly executed graphite renderings drawn from photographs.
Celmins is a bad-ass. She can draw circles around anyone. But Celmins draws in order to confuse us, to confuse the drawn image with the thing it represents. On view are several trompe l’œil pencil drawings showing meticulously rendered photos of objects tacked or pinned to a board. But everything — the rips, the folds, the shadows, the pins themselves — are drawn by Celmins’s own hand. Much of this early work draws on images of war and destruction: an atomic blast over the Bikini Atol, a Lugar pistol. She also painted war planes in dense grays that reduce their power and majesty, turning them into bloated, still things. A painting of a television set showing a WWII bomber going down in flames links the earlier object paintings to this war period. There are also two sculptures of houses that variously recall Rene Magritte and Meret Oppenheim. They’re beautiful and would almost be precious were it not for her unsettling treatments, including more war paintings.
Her drawing on themes of war make sense both in terms of the US war in Vietnam and her own childhood: She and her family survived both the Soviet occupation in Latvia and the Nazi regime in Germany. War was very personal.
The remaining 60% of the drawings and paintings focus largely on waves, the starry sky, and the desert floor. And the show can be fatiguing. One’s eyes are drawn from a dark and dense starscape to a bright desert floor. But also, let’s be honest, the images are repetitive. Whenever I was tempted to think, “just another wave, I’ll skip it,” I reminded myself of the sheer effort it took her to do these pieces. When she draws a dark sky on a white piece of paper she’s essentially rendering the void, drawing out the stars. I owed it to her to look at each one and see what differentiated it from the last. But, yes, your eyes may hurt.
Later in her career she worked with slates and chalk boards. She would acquire the kind of slate that a turn-of-the-century school child would use for copying exercises and do her own copying exercise: namely reproducing the slate down to the tiniest detail. Every crack, nail, scratch, and ghostly chalky palimpsest is reproduced. It’s incredible. You’ll find yourself scrutinizing each pairing, looking for the fake.
One of the biggest tropes in art writing is “so-and-so makes us question the relationship between the object and the thing that represents it.” It’s almost cringe-worthy in its repetition on wall plaques, and I don’t want to repeat it here. Anyway, I’m not sure that’s what she was doing. Celmins was focused on execution, on duplicating every single artifact of the photographic source. While she certainly played games with the viewer, I don’t think she was grandly conceptual. As much as she was playing with the universal, her work always came from the personal.
Years back, I bought a small book on pop art to pass the time between baseball innings as I watched a San Francisco Giant’s game at a local bar. It’s something I do. The book is by Simon Wilson and it’s a notable book on pop art because Warhol is not featured on the cover. Nor is Lichtenstein or Wasselman. Instead there’s a piece by Mel Ramos called “Tobacco Rhoda.” The book now sits on my window sill and every day I see the cover and I think of Eve Babitz.
Eve Babitz is a writer and artist. Back in the ‘60s she was also all those things and a bit of a “bad girl,” in that she determined her identity. She had high-profile art and music boyfriends like Jim Morrisson, Ed Ruscha, and Walter Hopps. In 1963, she was photographed by Julian Wasselman playing chess with Marcel Duchamp at the Pasadena Art Museum. She was naked. She did it to piss off Hopps, her married paramour, who shunned her at a party because his wife was in attendance. Hopps walked in on the shoot and, apparently, dropped his gum. I know this because of a book, “The Contact Sheet,” which features 36 exposures of Wasselman’s shoot with Babitz. The photo below is the most commonly reproduced.
Which is all a lot of readily available art history gossip. The point is: Babitz. Tobacco Rhoda. They’re the same woman: The body position, the drape of the breasts, the head position, the hair. It’s no coincidence. Babitz’s face is entirely different; you can see that in the other versions of this photo. Ramos puts a cup in her hands and replaces her table and chair with cigarette cartons. He also trims her stomach and has her facing the viewer. All standard fair for the voyueristic pin-up style that Ramos utilized.
Ramos was a descendant of Duchamp. Duchamp himself referenced the works of artists that came before (Renoir, Michaelangelo) and was a practitioner of appropriation par excellence. Duchamp’s work engaged with sex, voyeurism, and popular culture. He muddled them. Coffee grinders and sex (The Large Glass lurks in the background) vs cigarettes and sex. So it’s not at all strange that Ramos would reference Duchamp here.
The quirk is that, in Ramos’s “Tobacco Rhoda,” Duchamp is referenced obliquely but is not actually present. Because “Tobacco Rhoda” is based not on a Duchamp work but on Wasser’s photograph — Wasser’s construct, of which Duchamp is but a part. In effect, Ramos is referencing a reference to the godfather of reference. Or so it seems to me. It’s also possible Ramos just needed a body and he opened a magazine and there she was. But Babitz wasn’t just any body. She was playing chess, naked, against Duchamp. Looking away. Your move. Ramos took it and she was looking at him — not Duchamp (or Hopps).
Of course we’re all looking at Babitz.
Is this a novel set of scattered observations I’ve made? Probably not. I’m familiar with Ramos, but not as well-versed as I should be. But a reasonably capable Internet search returns nothing of the sort (which is fine for a blog post). The point is, for me, that my curiosity stems from books that are on opposite sides of my studio. And they were calling me, in their magnetic pull, until I sat down in a chair, in between them, and put the images side by side. And there they were. The same woman. One with chess, and the other with cigarettes.
Last week I was procrastinating, going through a box of vintage postcards at Owl and Company, a used bookstore in Oakland. And in the pile of paper, this little beauty caught my eye. I couldn’t leave it there — and at fifty cents, why would I? I have an apartment to decorate.
I’ve always had the ability to become utterly obsessed with old postcards. It’s a weakness. One of many. Like when I come across a western shirt in my size. I buy. One thing I like about vintage postcards is that they are sent, not just across space, but through time. They traverse in four dimensions.
But why did this particular one catch my eye? Because I am who I am, I can’t just collect. I have to analyze why I love a thing:
There’s no grand revelation. After buying the postcard, I went out and bought a frame and a rust-colored backing for it. It hangs by my fireplace where it will continue to obsess me. It’s a moment trapped in amber.
If you look through my Instagram feed you'll likely see a lot of signs and walls. You'll see stuff influenced clearly by Walker Evans, Aaron Siskind, and Harry Callahan, amongst others. You'll see pop-inspired Polaroids and lots of geometry. Abstracts galore. There are instax grids of depopulated neighborhoods. But you won't see a lot of people. When there are people, they're usually looking away from the camera.
Well, until recently. About a month ago I made a couple of changes. First, I started shooting more with my Pentax ME Super, my dad's old camera that I've used on and off over the years, and less with my Olympus XA. Second, I started developing my own film at home.
I was scrolling through Instagram yesterday when I came upon an altered version of Norman Rockwell's humorous and meta Triple Self-Portrait, and it made cringe—but not for the intended reason.
Rockwell is replaced by a man in a KKK hood—or rather cloaked in it. He is painting not his own hooded likeness but an image of Marvel comics hero Captain America. There are other alterations too: Rockwell's studies of himself are replaced by an image of Hitler. A Rembrandt self-portrait is replaced by the confederate flag. The Roman helmet is inexplicably missing.
It's a skillfully drafted layering of symbols executed by the artist, one Mr. Fish. The message is that when racist America looks at itself, it sees a hero. Which is all rather true. But the pastiche is convoluted, and it all starts with using Norman Rockwell as KKK stand-in.
It's hard to write a review of the Polaroid Originals instant film without being tempted to recount the birth of Polaroid's instant film, its demise, its rebirth as the Impossible Project, and the purchase of the Polaroid brand by Impossible's biggest shareholder. But I assume if you're here reading this, you know all that. If not, read Instant: The Story of Polaroid by Christopher Bonanos, and then read the endless threads on Flickr about the various Impossible Project film formulations.
My favorite Impossible film was made in 2014—it was just beautiful, if a little slow to develop. I haven't been thrilled with batches produced starting in 2016. A dodgy opacity layer meant white streaks (even if you covered the film as it ejected) and the color seemed lifeless. I couldn't rely on it unless I was shooting inside. And the packs leaked blue goo frequently. Beta film that I tested earlier this year gave me hope, however.
Today I shot my first pack marketed under Polaroid Originals—so now when people ask if Polaroid still makes film you can say "yes" and just leave it at that. Fortunately that's not all that happened.
When a man who has photographed Andy Warhol asks if he can photograph you and your rabbit, you're going to say yes (even if photographing Warhol is the least of his accomplishments). And that's how it happened, nine months ago. My friend, Arthur Tress, brough his Hasselblad over. He had some ideas about photographing me with my fourteen-year-old rabbit, Celeste—a rabbit of incredible spirit who had been fighting seizures and a brain tumor. I didn't know how much time she had left.
The best light was in the apartment stairwell, down half a flight, where a skylight acts as a soft box. Arthur tried a lot of different shots, following his trademark surrealist approach. There were props from my apartment. He would ask me to "look" a certain way, hold the rabbit while holding a book about magicians. In between these I would clutch Celeste close, kiss her head. I was stubborn. These were the shots I wanted. He would relent.
Every Tuesday, I take MUNI to the Tenderloin and climb three flights of stairs to a small room with a light table, boxes of slides, archival pens, loupes, numerical stamps, and plastic sleeves. This is my volunteer archiving gig while I’m unemployed. I join the other archivists, grab a stack of negatives, take off the rubber band, spray canned air on the negatives, and transfer the information from the enclosed roll marker to the plastic sleeves. I then order the slides by frame number, rewriting the number on the slide holder so it’s easier to see. Often the frame numbers are marred by other information stamped on the holder, or simply mis-stamped. Once the sleeve is full, it goes into a binder. Rinse and repeat.
Sometimes, though, there are no frame numbers so it’s a more investigative process. I have to look at the lighting, the background, the camera axis, the state of of the model’s undress, and then reconstruct the sequence.
I don’t have a steady job right now, but that doesn’t stop me from spending a couple hours of every week shopping for art I can’t afford. I go through the work of artists I like (Rauschenberg, Warhol, Dienes, Rosenquist, Leeson, Smithson…). I discover new artists, like Derek Fordjour and Nancy Holt. It’s not the worst way to spend my time, but I’m also not getting any exercise. I’m not walking into any galleries. I’m doing it on my iPad.
The companies that enable my LCD-window-shopping habit are Artsy and Artspace. They don’t house the art itself, but they aggregate the catalogs of well-known galleries across the world. Each offers a clean, uncluttered interface where you can engage in activities we’re all familiar with by now: follow, favorite, and—if you have a couple thousands of dollars—buy or bid.* Sometimes my credit-card finger gets itchy, but so far I’ve resisted. I like looking at my own virtual gallery when I open up the app. It's like Pinterest, but classy. **
My first thought during the opening seconds of Hollis Frampton’s (nostalgia) was that the audio wasn’t synched correctly. On screen I was seeing a negative of a photographer’s darkroom, but the audio track was describing a different photograph all together, a portrait with a frame and a metronome. As I was preparing to get up and reload my web browser something was happening: the negative was melting, the emulsion was rippling; it was turning dark from the inside out. This drama of slow destruction had distracted me from the problem at hand. By the time the photo was a crinkled, chard mass on a hot plate, we were on to another photo: A frame and a metronome. The audio, however, was describing a different photo altogether.
Such is Frampton’s game, and it continues for another thirty minutes: a succession of photos out of synch with their narratives. In (nostalgia) we are neither living in the present or the past. The narrative disrupts our visual interpretations of the photo, just as much as the photo disrupts our memory of the narrative—on top of it all, the photos are resigned to oblivion, one hotplate session at a time. This was Frampton’s way of dealing with an archive he found somewhat unnecessary (and occasionally embarrassing) as he moved from photography to its sequential progeny of motion picture film.