For the very first time since I left the museum three years ago (today is the anniversary), I am glad I’m not there anymore. The museum sector is going through some real come-to-Jesus moments. I am having a hard time watching from the sidelines and I can only imagine how frustrated I would be as a museum employee with little to no power to address the issues. Museums, by definition, are collections of things. Categorizing and defining objects and identifying the cultures from whence they came, as well as the notion of them as specimens for our study, has me feeling queasy. The whole enterprise has been rightly identified as a colonializing one. This idea isn’t new—I certainly didn’t come up with it—but at this moment, all these factors are colliding, and I am not sure I see a way for museums to come through it. What do you do when they are entirely based on the idea of studying the “other.” Is it possible to change courses to what necessarily has to be a wholly different model? Just what is the blueprint for this shift?
I loved working in museums. I did it for nearly thirty years. I’m an object person. I believe art can help us think through difficult concepts as well as give us pleasure. I never wanted to do anything else besides create ways to tell interesting stories through great art. I love works that sit at the intersection of new and old, of abstract representation and representational abstraction, of beauty and toughness.
Filed in the ones-that-got-away column is the work of Mike Waugh whose large-scale drawings demand attention. On the surface one sees an image that harkens back to traditional tropes of Americana: eagles, ducks, hounds, horses. One could write them off as illustrative and backward facing; but stay with it. Zoom in and notice each drawn line is really text. (This technique has a name: micrography.) These lines are not just random words selected because their shapes fit the bill, but words that together make up important political manifestos and bureaucratic documents.
In a drawing from earlier this year, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, Waugh has written out the text of the 2010 Supreme Court ruling. Hugely controversial, it reversed campaign finance restrictions and enabled corporations and other groups to spend unlimited funds on elections. Reversing the one-hundred-year-old law allows wealthy donors, corporations, and special interest groups to have dramatically expanded influence on campaigns with negative repercussions for American democracy and the fight against political corruption. In Waugh’s image, a pack of hunting dogs are waiting for guidance—the blind leading the blind—while a seagull seated on one hound’s back seems to be anticipating the other shoe dropping.
For Redacted, 2019, Waugh copied over 350 pages of The Mueller Report. It took months of meditative labor to accomplish the work (which is huge for a drawing at some 6 x 6 feet). A nest of baby birds with mouths agape are innocently stuck in the nest until they gain maturity. For the moment they are just waiting to be fed and hoping for the best. Wasps swarm above them menacingly. While the Mueller Report laid out definitive evidence of corruption and criminal activity within the 2016 Trump election campaign, the populace is unable to take really meaningful action (until November 3, that is).
Politically charged content and “traditional” imagery intersect here. The beauty and intricacy of the drawings engages us. Understanding what the text says and represents gives us pause. Artists are always interested in getting people to linger longer over their work, and Waugh’s delicate, massive, impactful drawings richly reward scrutiny.
Michael Waugh (American, born 1967)
Citizens United, 2020
Pen and black ink on Mylar
45 x 69 inches (114.3 x 175.3 cm)
Courtesy Von Lintel Gallery
Michael Waugh (American, born 1967)
Redacted (The Mueller Report, volume I & II), 2019
Diptych, pen and black ink on Mylar
Overall: 81 x 76 inches (206 x 193 cm.)
Courtesy Von Lintel Gallery
When the museum acquired Chitra Ganesh’s work, I already had the seed of a show growing in my mind. I had been asked to come up with an exhibition drawn from the collection featuring works by artists of color. This is problematic on many levels. I have always believed that separation is sometimes useful, but that integration must be the goal. In any case, the works available for a show of that sort lacked any thematic cohesion. At the same time, I’d had many MICA students inquire about seeing works from the storeroom that reflected a graffiti or comic book sensibility. The collection did not have much to offer. It took time and several acquisitions to bring together an exhibition that focused on the theme of alternate realities—artists looking at real-world problems through visual fantasies, comics, sci-fi. Ganesh’s gorgeous print fit the bill beautifully and was installed along with prints by Trenton Doyle Hancock, Wangechi Mutu, Toshio Sasaki, Enrique Chagoya, William Villalongo, iona rozeal brown, Raymond Pettibon, and Amy Cutler. On Paper: Alternate Realities was on view September 21, 2014–April 12, 2015. It was the most organically diverse show of my career and remains one about which I feel extremely proud.
I love a print that looks cool and asks more questions than it answers. Chitra Ganesh’s Away from the Watcher is a colorful combination of screenprint and woodcut that features an enigmatic figure at left (in a scuba or space suit—you decide) who seems to be exhaling an Indian goddess figure, while watching a city on a hill possibly being destroyed. Along the top left is a comic-strip-style thought bubble that reads: “She taught me precious little before she withered and died. Nothing of the little black holes I would dip into. Nothing of telepathy, nor the insides of my eyes. Nothing of…” This image raises many questions: Is somebody inside the scuba/space suit—isn’t it propped up? Is the Indian goddess figure being expelled or inhaled? Are we underwater or in outer space? What do the small winged creatures signify? What calamity has befallen the city at right? The somber melancholy of the text seems at odds with the dynamic depiction of the planet’s fissures, as well as the brilliant color and energetic comic-book style of representation. These alternate moods and narratives clash and connect in a newly constructed vision of the future.
Chitra Ganesh (American, born 1975)
Printed and published by Durham Press
Away from the Watcher, 2014
From the series Architects of the Future
Woodblock and screenprint
629 × 797 mm. (24 3/4 × 31 3/8 in.)
Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of an Anonymous Donor, BMA 2014.29
In my previous post I talked about Stanley William Hayter's 1959 open bite etching Cascade and promised to dig into its making. It takes many images to describe the process of simultaneous color printing, so I created a PDF slide deck to illustrate how Ben Levy, Tru Ludwig, and I made a group of test prints to figure it all out. You can find the PDF here:
Ann's art blog
A small corner of the interwebs to share thoughts on objects I acquired for the Baltimore Museum of Art's collection, research I've done on Stanley William Hayter and Atelier 17, experiments in intaglio printmaking, and the Baltimore Contemporary Print Fair.