Drawing artistic inspiration from growing up around McMansions

Artist Katherine Vetne builds upon a childhood spent around McMansions:

Vetne says her interests in exploring (and subverting) objects of status and consumerism started when she was growing up in Newburyport, Mass. She observed the differences between established “old money” and the newly affluent: A lot of the newer families built “McMansion” houses that looked like new versions of the town’s historic homes in an attempt to emulate that status.

Those experiences led to a unique form of art:

Vetne, 31, of San Francisco, has been building a reputation as a sculptor who works in an unusual medium: destruction. Vetne’s best-known work during the past three years has been a series of sculptures made from kiln-melted housewares crystal, which takes a distinctive, puddle-like shape when heated.

She then “mirrors” the melted crystal mass in a chemical process that turns the blobs into reflective objects. The pieces are presented individually or in big groups, like in her “Guilty Pleasures” installation that was part of the Catharine Clark Gallery’s summer show, “We tell ourselves stories … In order to live.” Ford and Vetne took the shopping trip at Clark’s invitation to find the raw material for a piece Ford recently commissioned from Vetne.

The idea of working with crystal, whether it’s fine Baccarat or more mass-market Avon, appeals to Vetne, who is interested in exploring issues of class, gender and materialism. “At the crux of my practice is the more middle-class people with some amount of resources trying to look ‘higher class’ than they are through the objects they acquire. I am interested in concepts of visual excess and how they’re supposed to communicate something. Usually, it’s ‘I have a lot of money.’”

Given the general reputation of McMansions, this is not surprising: take objects by which aspiring people try to build up their status and then destroy them to show what those objects are really about. Perhaps it would even be more shocking if an artist celebrated McMansions.

I’m also trying to imagine this destruction process applied to actual McMansions or parts of McMansions. Could a piece of performance art involve taking a wrecking ball to a McMansion? Or, imagine taking a two story foyer to a museum and showing it falling apart every so often, like the way “Concert for Anarchy” displays a piano in an unusual form. Or, take granite countertops and stainless steel appliances and destroy them.

We need more public art along highways

I recently embarked on the Troll Hunt at Morton Arboretum. The best troll I saw sat on a hill overlooking I-88. One week ago, I viewed this troll from the highway coming back from an early morning trip to O’Hare Airport. Here are two views of the troll looking toward the highway:

TrollOverHighway2

Joe the Guardian at Morton Arboretum. Created by Thomas Dambo.

 

TrollOverHighway1

Joe the Guardian at Morton Arboretum. Created by Thomas Dambo.

This is a busy stretch of road with over 160,000 cars passing by daily (as of 2014). As the pictures suggest, this is not a particularly scenic area. At this point, the highway is at a lower point with a hill to the east near the interchange with I-355 and to the west at the Naperville Road exit. The north side has hills at the edge of the Morton Arboretum and large power lines. The south side has various office buildings and residences. A driver here is in the middle of the western suburbs just over 26 miles from State and Madison in Chicago’s Loop.

Having art here is a great idea. The troll certainly catches your eye as you drive by. It adds whimsy to what is a fairly typical stretch of highway. It enhances the brief stretch of greenery provided by the Arboretum. Perhaps most importantly, it presents something unique and thought-provoking. It is not another billboard trying to catch your attention. It is not a building with a sign displaying its inhabitants. It is not something that your eye quickly passes over. It is there for you to enjoy, to ponder. I do not know if it would make the daily commute any shorter but it may make just a little bit more enjoyable.

Inserting a number of installations or figures along major highways would not take much. This would require the cooperation of private landowners – for example, the Arboretum has six more trolls to see that require admission while only this one is visible from the highway. I realize that this art may not generate much money. Just imagine if the land on which this troll stands could be converted into office space or luxury condos. Or, at the least, a billboard could sell advertisements. Instead, put public art on the sides and tops of buildings. Find spaces between structures. Highlight interesting topographic features. Use private land and structures to benefit many. Give drivers and visitors something to look forward to as they file away yet another highway mile.

 

Bringing art and renovation to outdoor basketball courts

Project Backboard seeks to both renovate and bring public art to urban basketball courts:

The transformation of mural-style courts across America has its roots in Memphis, where Daniel Peterson noticed the majority of courts had fallen into disrepair. It was then, in 2014, that Peterson founded Project Backboard, a nonprofit that has renovated public basketball courts in cities from Los Angeles to St. Louis. More renovations in Memphis, Maryland, and New Rochelle, New York, are underway, and Peterson has consulted on projects in Oregon, Virginia, and Belgium, and talked to several other urban parks departments.

In Memphis, where one in four residents lives beneath the poverty line, Peterson found in 2014 that around two-thirds of basketball courts across the city didn’t even have basic lines: foul, three-point, or out-of-bounds. Backboards were tagged with Coke logos or vinyl stickers. The courts just didn’t work. Today, mostly teen boys and young men play on more than 20 renovated courts, whose 30 public works of art include whimsical silhouettes on Lewis-Davis Park, bright profiles and symbols in Chickasaw Park, and geographic shapes in Pierotti Park.

All of this is in the context of making basketball courts more inviting spaces. This is not necessarily easy to do when some residents dislike outdoor courts:

Fear-driven efforts to shut down outdoor courts seem to disproportionately affect people of color. A so-called “kill-the-hoops movement” has spread across small towns and cities, including Chicago, Cleveland, and Los Angeles, as a maneuver against guns, noise, fights, and drugs. In 2016, a neighborhood group in Brooklyn proposed replacing basketball courts with tennis courts to curb crime, and was accused of racist motivations.

“Obviously, I don’t subscribe to the belief that inviting more people into an area is going to have a negative impact on your community,” Peterson said. “We think the more people you bring into the community, into public spaces, the more positive impact it’ll have in the community.”

See these earlier posts from 2011: Thinking about the lack of outdoor basketball courts – Part One and Thinking about the lack of basketball courts – Part Two. Compared to some other park options, basketball courts can be relatively low maintenance (concrete, poles and backgrounds, replace the nets fairly regularly) and they require participants to bring little more than a basketball (and you may only need one for a large group). Yet, basketball courts tend to attract young males and this may not be welcomed by nearby residents.

The idea of infusing public art with outdoor courts is a clever one but I am curious about the long-term effects. Do the courts help attract a broader range of nearby residents? Is the artwork maintained? Does the artwork change behaviors on and near the court or perceptions from insiders and outsiders about the neighborhood? I could see some interesting opportunities arise with artwork and competitions; NBA and college teams have similar gotten into some crazier court designs in recent years to create a home court advantage as well as attract attention.

Housing prices drive punk music to the suburbs

Punk music is associated with gritty urban life – until that urban life becomes too expensive:

Shows like that are increasingly common in Santa Rosa, and it has a lot to do with the prohibitive cost-of-living in nearby San Francisco. “I had every intention of moving down to the city,” said Ian O’Connor, 23, who organized the gig. “But when the time came, it was too expensive.” Instead, in the last three years, he has booked dozens of all-ages gigs in Santa Rosa, mostly at unofficial venues: detached garages, living rooms, lobbies of sympathetic businesses. The scene thrives on the participation of people like him, area natives in their early 20s who, not so many years ago, would’ve likely moved an hour south to Oakland or San Francisco…

One hallmark of punk’s inception in the Bay Area and throughout the Pacific north-west was the notion of cities as places of possibility, so hollowed out by eroding tax bases and selective civic neglect that they seemed “deserted and forgotten”, as music journalist Jon Savage wrote of his 1978 trip to report on San Francisco punk bands such as Crime and the Dead Kennedys. “It was there to be remapped.”

But with the same cities stricken by intensifying affordability crises – premiums on space that make somewhere to live, let alone rehearse and perform, available to a dwindling few – they don’t beckon young punks like they used to. And though reports of music scenes’ deaths tend to overstate, news of shuttering venues (see eulogies for The Smell, The Know, and LoBot) deters some of the intrepid transplants needed for invigoration. Dissipating metropolitan allure, however, helps account for the strength of scenes in outlying towns…

According to Samantha Gladu – bassist in the feminist, wrestling-themed hardcore band Macho Boys and chief advisor to state senator Chip Shields – recent revelations about what a state investigation found to be cripplingly over-burdensome nightclub regulations have done little to calm the Portland punk scene’s nerves: “Rising rents and recent reporting on the city government’s apparent selective regulation for venues leave punks with the impression that not only can they not afford Portland, they aren’t part of some officials’ vision for Portland.”

Given that more urban features – including denser housing, more non-white and less wealthy residents, and urban issues – have moved to the suburbs, it isn’t too surprising that artistic ventures could move there as well. Yet, I imagine this is not easy for many artists or others who dislike the suburbs and celebrate cities. Can places that are still criticized for conformity, whiteness, and materialism nourish new artistic ventures? Can suburban communities tolerate people who go against convention or who seek space to spread out and explore? If given the resources, I imagine that most bands would want to be in the big city where there is more energy, similar artists, and venues.

However, this represents an opportunity for suburbs to pursue a more creative vision. Many suburbs hold and promote festivals and fairs committed to the arts, both as a way to generate revenue as well as a way to signal openness and engagement. It is something different to have permanent venues devoted to some ventures; could a middle to upper-class suburb give its blessing to a punk music music site? Or a collaborative of experimental artists? In other words, if cities and/or certain neighborhoods are too expensive, numerous suburbs could join the competition to attract musicians and artists and possibly transform their own communities.

Cutting a suburban house in half for art

In 1974, artist Gordon Matta-Clark sought a suburban house to turn into art:

In the spring of 1974, Gordon Matta-Clark approached his dealers, Holly and Horace Solomon, and asked whether they knew of a house that he could cut in half. As it happened, they had recently purchased an empty, soon to be demolished house, 322 Humphrey Street in the suburb of Englewood, New Jersey – they were interested in the underlying lot rather than the building itself. As the house was going to be pulled down, the Solomons let Matta-Clark work on it for a few months prior to its destruction. [1] It was an ordinary balloon-framed, two-storey house, with a porch back and front and a base of cinder blocks. It was built during the 1930s when Englewood was expanding due to its proximity to New York City and its separation from the decay and lawlessness of the inner city. However, with the postwar economic downturn there had been a decrease in the number of households. [2] The house at 322 Humphrey Street would have been only one of a number of empty lots, and, like the apartment buildings that Matta-Clark had appropriated, was part of the larger system of profit and loss.

Having enlisted the knowledge and help of the German-born artist Manfred Hecht, Matta-Clark jacked up one end of the frame, including one of the porches, removed a layer of cinder blocks, and cut through the entire side of the building – inside and out – with a chainsaw. Gradually he lowered the back of the building onto the remaining blocks, leaving a gap in the cut of about two-thirds of a metre at the top that tapered to a slit at the base. [3] He called this work Splitting, and part of the filmed record features Matta-Clark stripped to the waist, at different times pulling hard on the jacks, up a ladder directing the saw and manipulating the cuts; he appears to be as engrossed in his work as Jackson Pollock in the films that show him dripping paint onto canvas, or indeed Trisha Brown in films of dance performances in which she scales buildings and creates improvised urban encounters. All show the artists’ physical and mental engagement with their work and are performances of a type. When writing about Splitting, Matta-Clark also gave the house its performative role, saying that having made the cut there was a real moment of suspense about how the house would react, but that it responded ‘like a perfect dance partner’. [4] Matta-Clark wrote that the production of the work was not illusionistic, but that it was ‘all about a direct physical activity, and not about making associations with anything outside it.’ [5]…

Matta-Clark felt, like the Situationists, that this dream had been used as a political tool by the ruling classes through the provision of convenience and dwellings, in order to contain and control the masses. [10] It was also integral to the return to family values in America after the war, which were promoted in television programmes, films and magazines. While the home was seen as private, the family was also encouraged to be part of a network of neighbourhood relationships, where conformity was important, but these relationships were ‘sold’ as intrinsic to the ‘good life’. [11] Matta-Clark questioned the interests involved in developing this dream and then providing for it:

The very nature of my work with buildings takes issues with the functionalist attitude to the extent that this kind of self-conscious vocational responsibility has failed to question or re-examine the quality of life being served. [12]

The Whitney Museum of American Art describes the meaning of the project: “This splitting implied both a rupturing of the fabric of domestic space and a liberation of the individual from suburban isolation.” This is one way to cut through the suburban facade…

Storing wealth in New York apartments, contemporary art

According to one asset manager, the wealthy are now storing their wealth in apartments and art:

“Historically gold was a great instrument for storing of wealth,” the chairman of BlackRock Inc. said at a conference in Singapore on Tuesday. “Gold has lost its luster and there’s other mechanisms in which you can store wealth that are inflation-adjusted.”…

“The two greatest stores of wealth internationally today is contemporary art….. and I don’t mean that as a joke, I mean that as a serious asset class,” said Fink. “And two, the other store of wealth today is apartments in Manhattan, apartments in Vancouver, in London.”…

The median sale price for existing condos in Manhattan jumped to a six-year high of $1.3 million in the first quarter, driven up by buyers seeking alternatives to out-of-reach new developments, according to Corcoran Group, a brokerage. In the U.K., asking prices for property climbed to a record in April as values in London rose 2.5 percent, Rightmove Plc said on Monday.

Three quick thoughts on this:

1. Good thing New York City has a boom in luxury building. Those underground expansions in wealthy London neighborhoods don’t hurt either.

2. What is the point where these apartments turn into a luxury housing bubble? There are only so many uber-desirable locations and only so many people who can afford these luxury places. If this part of the housing market collapses, what happens?

3. I recently read 33 Artists in 3 Acts by sociologist Sarah Thornton and this trend among the wealthy certainly has had an effect on the art world. There are some interesting discussions amongst artists involving money, commodities, and related topics.

Sociologist is the “Jane Goodall of the [insular] art world”

Sociologist Sarah Thornton provides a behind the scenes look at the elite art world:

It’s an exclusive, insular world, but Thornton’s first book about art, 2008’s “Seven Days in the Art World,” was pure populism, a dishy, behind-the-scenes read about heady auctions at Christie’s, the cutthroat atmosphere of art fairs, and much more. It became an unexpected bestseller and landed the writer in art’s inner circle…

Thornton has the ability to “seduce people to expose themselves,” the artist Andrea Fraser recently told an audience at New York’s New Museum.

The author’s two volumes on art read nothing like most art books, which are often academic tomes or picture-filled coffee-table books. But “33 Artists” has just one muddy black-and-white image for every chapter. Instead, Thornton fills in the blanks, writing so evocatively that the reader can easily imagine the immensity of a hundred million sunflower seeds rendered in porcelain by Ai…

Fraser and others opened their doors to Thornton as she traversed the globe to interview and observe artists in their own world. The author watches as Maurizio Cattelan prepares for what he called his retirement retrospective at New York’s Guggenheim in 2011. She is with eccentric Japanese pop artist Yayoi Kusama on the eve of her phenomenal 2012 comeback, when she landed a retrospective at the Whitney and a complementary Louis Vuitton line. And Thornton spends time in the studios of photographer Laurie Simmons and her husband, painter Carroll Dunham, just before their daughter, Lena, lands a deal with HBO.

This is one of Thornton’s greatest knacks: She tends to arrive on artists’ doorsteps just before some seismic shift in their public profiles. But her other talent is gaining access, penetrating artists’ private spheres as both an art-world insider and an academically minded outsider.

While the article is short on details about the art world, it does describe three unique features that help Thorton’s work stand out. First, she effectively uses the ethnographic method. One artist describes her as “like a ghost” and she clearly has the ability to build relationships and then use connections to explain the broader world of major artists. All of this takes time, sustained effort, and the ability to systematically gather information. Second, she is able to write in a way that appeals to a popular audience. How many sociologists write bestsellers or are said to write evocatively? Third, she gets access to an elite group. Artists whose works sell for millions have a particular social status and can be inaccessible to the average person. (I remember one of my art colleagues asking a group of other faculty about how many of the most famous artists alive today they could name. We did not do well.)

It all sounds interesting to me…