Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Human Condition

The following essay appeared in the catalog for the exhibition entitled The Human Condition: Figure Sculpture of Mary Kaye and Geoffrey Koetsch, installed at the ArtSpace Gallery in Maynard MA from February 27 to March 26, 2010.

We strut, we fume, we signify nothing; our sound and fury smothered by folly and tedium. We have the brains of Ardi and Lucy and fingers that launch nuclear bombs. we are spun from a helical lottery; our patchwork of genes is dumped randomly in time and space. We paint over the profound mystery of existence with the simple mystery of a god who erratically smites and caresses, who composes absurd riddles but answers no questions, but who has the power to generate exquisite spiritual sensations and acts of social goodness in equal measure with doctrinal bickering, social divisiveness and holy war. [If there are any miracles they would be a modern science that has soothed much of what is brutal and painful in life, capitalism, which has freed millions from material need, and the enlightenment, with its brilliant system of laws and the rights of man. Flawed of course, they are man-made miracles, all].

And so Mary Kaye and I are moved to tell our stories: with a penetrating eye, Kaye's Angel gazes in horror at a failed creation. Eve, her mouth burned black by by the apple, sinks into the primeval clay from which she was formed. Adam, in a noble but futile act, swallows the serpent in an attempt to save his partner. Kaye creates characters who are stricken (The Blind King) or burst with brutal rage (Lilith). In Koetsch's The Dance, bodies sway to a libidinous rhythm while a cosmic moon looks on in wry amusement. In Journey to the End of Night, a man–detached and resigned–contemplates the fact of war. He cradles a bowl of oil (material causes of war) and an exploding ball of GI Joes. In Soul Burning at 98 Degrees F another man inhales the fuel that ignites the soul and consumes the body. Our tableau of the human condition tells also of struggles with the phantom unconscious and of bruises sustained in over six decades of life.

But take heart: within this bleak tableau there is power in Singer's saga
: there is the self–sacrifice of Adam, the sensual joy of the dance, the spiritual fire of Soul Burning at 98 Degrees F and the thrill of poetry in The Language Instinct.

I am 68, Mary is 73. Out art is that of an old man and an old woman; it is the song of our experience. It is aggressively backward looking. Brancusi said "whatever is new in my art comes from something very old." we are beyond the thrall of technology, bored with gestural virtuosity, formalist gamesmanship and naive visual social science. We spend what time we have left telling our stories.

Geoffrey Koetsch, February, 2010

Friday, June 12, 2009

Bill Cohn and Erik Hansen, Industrial/Organic at ArtSpace, Maynard, June 3-27
     The total effect of this two person exhibit is greater than the sum of its parts. The show is more a collaboration than an exhibition of two individuals. The work of each artist amplifies and enhances that of the other. Hansen's "timescapes" call for organisms. Cohn's organisms want an environment. The general mood of the exhibit is post-apocalyptic. It is a vision of the earth after the extinction of the human race. Ceramic sculptor Bill Cohn  creates mutant organisms that seem to have evolved from soil fertilized by by industrial waste. They spring from the genetic mutation of nature and the city dump: twisting tubers are tattooed  with patterns of industrial waste--floor mats mesh bags, bubble wrap, etc.  A weird new botanical species has sprung up;  industrial "nutrients" have been absorbed into the DNA. Isolated on pedestals in a gallery, Cohn's works remain discreet ceramic sculptures. Enter Hansen. His photographs provide valuable context for Cohn's work. Using studio setups and lighting, Hansen plants Cohn's visionary organisms in his bleak photographic "imaginary timescapes". But the collaborative aspect of the show arises not only from the inclusion of Cohn's work in Hansen's photographs, but also from the fact that Hansen's photographs surround  Cohn's work and become an environmental backdrop. The signature work of Industrial/Organic is Hansen's piece titled  It is the Past that Makes Demands (see illustration to right). The photograph is dominated by one of Cohn's more architectural pieces: a  monumental arch is strangled by a snake-like coil. It is reminiscent of pictures of the temples at Borobodur choked by tropical tree roots. In the distant background, vague ruins evoke Stonehenge. The Neolithic/post-apocalyptic vision is  out of time, void of human life and shrouded in the mystery of a vanished race. 
Cohn and Hansen's work would have fit perfectly into an exhibition mounted last winter at the New Museum In New York titled After Nature. Like the ArtSpace show, the theme was post-apocalyptic. The exhibition was dominated by one work, Werner Herzog's film Lessons of Darkness, a film of the burning of the oil fields in Kuwait. The title and theme of theNew Museum show, After Nature, was taken from a free verse poem by the German author W.G. Sebald. The excerpts from Sebald's poem posted below complement Cohn and Hanson's installation:
To him, [the artist], this is creation, 
image of our insane presence 
on the surface of the earth,
 the regeneration proceeding 
in downward orbits whose 
parasitical shapes intertwine, and, growing into 
and out of one another, surge 
as a demonic swarm... " 
[We experience] "the extreme response of our bodies 
to the absence of balance in nature
 which blindly makes one experiment after another
 and like a senseless botcher
 undoes the thing it has only just achieved. 
To try out how far it can go is the sole aim of this sprouting, 
perpetuation and proliferation
 inside us also and through us and through
 the machines sprung from our heads,
 all in a single jumble,
 while behind us already the green 
trees are leaving their leaves and...
loom up into the sky,
the dead branches overlaid
with a moss-like glutinous substance
loom up in the sky."
W.G. Sebald, After Nature, Michael Hamburger, trans., New York/Modern Library, 2002

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Could There Be a "Unitarian Art," (And If So, What would It Look Like)?

Below is the text of a talk delivered at the Harvard Unitarian Universalist Church in Harvard Massachusetts on May 24, 2009. The talk was given in conjunction with the installation in the church of a collaborative artwork titled "KOETSCH AND CHU: IN/BETWEEN" (see photos right and below).

From time to time I have asked myself "could there be such a thing as 'Unitarian Art?'" After all there is a Christian Art, a Buddhist Art, Islamic Art, and so on.  And if there were a Unitarian Art, what would it look like?" I looked to my own art for a clue. In the 1960's the New York artist Bruce Nauman made work that was so unconventional that many observers questioned whether it could be called art at all. To which Nauman famously replied: "I'm an artist, and I'm in my studio, so whatever I do must be art." Following this logic I mused: "If I'm an artist, and I'm a Unitarian, whatever I do must be Unitarian Art.

The work on view here today, titled KOETSCH AND CHU: IN/BETWEEN, was a collaborative project between myself and Jeremy chu, a Singaporean artist and photograper of Chinese descent. Jeremy and I engaged in what we called a "visual dialog" with the goal of deepening our interpersonal understanding and bridging our gap in age, race, and nationality. Jeremy Chu is Singaporean of Mandarin Chinese descent--I am an American of Anglo-Saxon descent. He was 30--I was 65. Yet on an artistic and intellectual level we were "connected." And we were friends.

Jeremy and I met about 20 times over the course of this project. To each meeting we brought a specific theme to explore together verbally, and then we would go to our studios to create a visual response to the discussion. We talked about such things as childhood memories, "universal" archetypes such as the maze and the labyrinth, and various other symbols and metaphors.

In 'IN/BETWEEN" the two seated figures are identical, symbolizing our common humanity. They sit in the lotus position, a symbol of mental concentration, and they hold objects representing childhood memories. 

One figure holds a net made of red rubber bands rolled on a spindle.  It was created by Jeremy and represents the web of his Chinese ancestry. Enmeshed in the net are photograps of his Chinese grandmother, the matriarch of the family. the net was made of a particular kind of red rubber band sent from Singaore that Jeremy had played with as a child. The smell and red color evoked fond memories. Our collaboration was, for Jeremy, part of a larger inquiry into personal identity. The net was originally created for Jeremy's performance titled "The Fisherman's Net: A Journey Towards Reconciliation" (Boston, 2003).  The second figure holds a ball of my favorite childhood toy: G.I. Joes. I  played "shoot 'em up" until I was 13, well past the gunplay age for most boys. But as an adult, since putting aside toy soldiers, I advocate for peace and international understanding.

In one of our conversations, we focused on the maze, one of Jung's "universal" archetypes.  For us,the mazes represent the attempt of two people to "find their way to one another." "Koetsch's Maze" came from the collision of a decorative Chinese dragon motif and a 1920's era European modernist architectural design. It shows the strong affinity I have always had for Asian culture, Asian art, and Asian spiritual systems (I have at various times and with varying levels of intensity practiced Buddhism and Vedanta. I don't have any idea where this affinity came from, but the very first time I taveled to Japan I felt very much at home. "Chu's Maze" was developed from the lattice pattern of a traditional Chinese window frame. It reflects Jeremy's  search for patterns and structures connected to his Chinese ancestry.

So where is the "Unitarian" in all this? First, there is a Unitarian covenant to "seek the truth in love" and the key requirement for love is understanding.  Second, Unitarianism teaches tolerance for those who are different from us. And finally, Unitarian-Universalism is Humanistic, built on the desire of people to connect in meaningful ways. That is the underlying principle of this piece of  "Unitarian Art."


Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Talk delivered at the Harvard Unitarian-Universalist Church, May 25, 2009


Sunday, May 31, 2009

Geoffrey Koetsch, Art In America letter published June/July 2008

 Geoffrey Koetsch: Letter to Nancy Princenthal published in Art in America, June, 2008, in conjunction withe the MIND/matters exhibition, Laconia Gallery [May/June 2008, curated by Koetsch a Ellen Schon] and the publication in AiA  in April of 2008 of several articles on the impact of recent research in neuroscience on the visual arts.
To the Editors:
Thanks to Nancy Princenthal for her brilliant and thoroughly researched article  on art and the mind [A.i.A., Apr, '08].  In early 2007,  co-curator Ellen Schon and I surveyed the Boston area for artists who focus on mental processes as a subject ["MIND/matters," Laconia Gallery, Boston, 2008]. Ms. Princenthals' article and the "Brainwaves" exhibition at Exit Art in New York confirmed many of the trends we uncovered. We found that much recent artwork on the mind centers on brain mapping and healing. There is a cool detachment in the work even though many  of the artists had close experience with brain surgery, dementia or bipolar disorder. Some of these artists were puzzling out the phenomena consuming the mind of a loved one and looked to neuroscience for clarity. Others were working on other topics mentioned in Princenthal's article, such as the "boundary" and the "binding" problems and the "increasing porosity of the body." 
I am curious to know what "groves of academe" Ms. Princenthal frequents, since she says  the "big trees" there are Freud and Lacan. In Boston we found no evidence of interest in Freud, dreams, Eros or violence. This may be because Boston is also a center of scientific activity. From here, it seems that postmodern academia has reduced Freud to the role of a shaman with a quaint personal mythology.
Historically, one could argue that the Expressionists were concerned with the behavioral manifestations of consciousness, the Surrealists with making visible its contents, and the artists of the '70's and 80's with enhancing the power of mind (via psychotropic  visions, paranormal experience and spiritual disciplines). In our survey at the Laconia Gallery we found lingering traces of this latter category layered in with the symbols of the new mind science.
Ms. Princenthal chides the scientists at a Columbia symposium  for not appreciating that art may be driven by ideas. It may be that the scientists are simply not interested in the play of ideas as a kind of mental gymnastics. Perhaps scientific thinking is instrumental, entailing the belief that ideas may lead to cures. The scientists may have it right by insisting that artists stick to their ability to inspire and to reconnect us to our affective selves.
Geoffrey Koetsch, Boston

Nancy Princenthal replies:
Thank you for your very generous and insightful response, and for bringing attention to the exhibition you organized in Boston. With respect to the persistence of traditional psychoanalytic theory in academia, the New York Times summarized the evidence in an article of Nov. 25, 2007, titled "Freud is Widely Taught at Universities, Except in the psychology Department." It reports the frequency with which readings in psychoanalysis are required of students in "literature, film, history, and just about every other subject in the humanities," while "psychology departments and textbooks treat it as 'desiccated and dead.'" The long shelf life of Freud and Lacan in art theorizing is particularly evident in texts pertaining to gender and its visual expression--and anything descended form Surrealism, including dream imagery. Of course what happens in the halls of higher learning, and in artists' studios, are two different things. In any case it seems we agree that the growing interest, among artists, in the ways that working scientists are exploring psychology is well worth consideration.   

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

IN/BETWEEN installation on display

IN/BETWEEN, a work created by Geoffrey Koetsch in collaboration with 
Singaporean photographer Jeremy Chu, will be installed at the Unitarian-Universalist Church in Harvard MA on Sunday, May 24, 2009. The work was begun in 2004 and developed over the following five years. IN/BETWEEN is a visual dialog between Koetsch and Chu with the goal of deepening interpersonal understanding that bridges differences of race, nationality, and age. In a series dialogs, the two artists explored universal archetypes (the maze and labyrinth), substances, and childhood memories. For one work, Grass and Orchid, Koetsch and Chu selected plants to serve as personal metaphors. The Installation combines sculpture, photography and found objects. 

See photos posted below.