Thursday, May 31, 2012

Artist Talk: Elijah Burgher

4/29/12 (for Lane's class)

Art history is important to Elijah Burgher. So are music, myth, and humor. In an artist talk delivered in Kresge earlier this week, Burgher explained how these influences come together to effectuate his intricate colored pencil drawings of young men and occult abstractions.

Near the beginning of his talk, Burgher explained his interest in Renaissance and Baroque illustrations, as well as his interest in early photography—in particular, its engagement with the supernatural.  Although vastly disparate, these art historical influences marry in his drawings to communicate a pursuit of enlightenment. Like early modern illustrations, Burgher executes small-scale, brightly-colored drawings that focus strongly on the details of his subject matter. His goal, similarly, is a type of comprehension—not comprehension of nature or science, but comprehension of desire and spirituality. Describing his engagement with 19th century photography, Burgher specifically cited “guys vomiting ectoplasm.” These photographs, which are obvious to the modern viewer as hoaxes, indicate a period when photography was a tool used to understand mortality, death, and the supernatural. Like the influence of Baroque illustrations, Burgher’s interest in ectoplasm photography underscores his pre-occupation with the pursuit of knowledge, but this time emphasizing an unearthly, spiritual knowledge.

Burgher’s remarks on ectoplasm photography additionally revealed his reliance on humor in his practice. His amusement over the use of cheesecloth in lieu of spiritual energy demonstrated an absurdist influence that marks the point of departure for creating work. (Ghost Vomit, a handle Burgher works behind, is both a reference to ectoplasm and Coil, a musical influence that is discussed later on.) Indeed, much of Burgher’s work finds its genesis in irony and dry humor. His notorious “anal swastika,” which has become a repeated motif and sigil (a symbol used in magic), was a result of doodling superimposed swastikas and observing the ensuing symbol’s resemblance to a puckered asshole. Yet, Burgher’s work moves beyond humor to an obsessive exploration of myth, power, and magic through illustration. Through repeated drawings and scrutiny, the anal swastika mutates from rudimentary doodle to potent occult symbol and sigil.


The queer, occult ritual in Burgher’s work also indicates his engrossment with subculture, a pursuit that is further reinforced by the immense influence of music in his work. Burgher explains that in his early teenage years, he found comfort in listening to Bikini Kill, a pioneering female-fronted punk band that advocated sexual liberation and feminism. As he framed the parameters of his practice, Burgher would draw inspiration from avant-garde group Throbbing Gristle, and more significantly, Coil, an industrial band engaged with magick subculture. What Burgher aspires to, is to create the “visual equivalent of the music.”

Ultimately, Burgher’s work is about intimacy, abjectness, and the social outcast. The use of colored pencil in his works suggests a primitive, childish obsession, and highlights the expressive quality of vibrant colors. The small scale of the drawings further imbues them with an inward, intimate quality that is comparable to viewing personal photographs or pictorial vignettes of a person’s life. To probe into this psycho-territory and internal space, Burgher carefully interacts with the history of art, queer culture, counterculture, and other socially deviant arenas.  What struck me the most about Burgher’s talk, though, was his brief comment that “art might have some sort of magical efficacy.” The volume of Burgher’s impassioned, repetitive work, with its multifaceted influences, indubitably affirms his overarching quest for this efficacy.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Brief Thoughts on Occupy's Citizen Production (for NAR)

My Occupy Wall Street post for NAR, based on my senior thesis.

As numerous journalists have pointed out, Occupy Wall Street (OWS), a movement that continues to morph and unfold today, operates under a brand. This “brand” was created by Adbusters, a Canadian culture jamming publication that purchased the domain name and created the Twitter hashtag #OCCUPYWALLST months in advance of the physical occupation.

Although critics are veracious in aligning the movement’s strategies with social media and corporate advertising, the fundamental objective of marketing—profit—is absent from Occupy. Without a commercial product or service, Occupy’s brand has been able to flourish in a variety of ways. Most notably, it has sanctioned a viral enterprise of citizen production.

At the end of March, I had the opportunity to visit New York and witness the ongoing movement firsthand. The occupation had moved to Union Square the weekend I arrived, a new locale through which a diverse array of people pass, allowing for a wider breadth of passersby than what Zuccotti Park offered. Each day, the square buzzed with liveliness and excitement, unhindered by the perimeter of baton-equipped NYPD officers surrounding the park. Food prepared by former Sheraton chef Eric Smith was served each evening, with the NYC General Assembly scheduled to meet shortly thereafter.

What struck me the most, however, was the myriad ephemera that circulated within and around the park. Tables around the park featured handbills, zines, buttons, and more. The Occupied Wall Street Journal, a citizen-run newspaper that appropriates and reconfigures the financial district’s iconic Wall Street Journal, was also available for people to take. When I asked how Occupy printed such a substantial supply of distributive material, an occupier explained to me that a group called Occupress handled most of the print production. Occupress, which is run by everyday citizens, is only one of a throng of “affinity groups” that have emerged under the Occupy umbrella. Other affinity groups include Occupy Design, Occupy Together, How To Occupy, and many more. Each of these unofficial groups has formed under the helm of citizens and now command crucial space within the movement, operating under separate domain names and hashtags, but ultimately referring back to one another, as well as the overarching Occupy movement. The aesthetic language produced by this exchange is one of community and conversation, as well as instability, for the nature of social media and digital encoding is inherently mutable.

Composite screenshot of the,, and affinity group websites. The text highlighted in purple demonstrates the association between affinity groups

Screenshot of a small section of’s graphics gallery, as of April 21, 2012.

The latitude of Occupy’s spread is well-visualized in the online archive of affinity group Occupy Design ( Its hundreds of graphics, which are continually multiplying and thus regularly altering the contents of each page, reflects the unfeasibility of assigning a single image or aspiration to the movement. The visual capacity of Occupy exists in such a proliferating manner that it is nearly impossible to characterize beyond the shared production of citizenry. It is an aesthetic dialogue that relies on grassroots participation to thrive—and thrive it has.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Rashid Johnson Exhibition Review

Rashid Johnson: Message to Our Folks, currently on view at the MCA Chicago, is Chicago-born, New York-based artist Rashid Johnson’s first major solo exhibition. The title of the exhibition, which references jazz group Art Ensemble Chicago’s 1969 album of the same name, inaugurates two themes that permeate the exhibition: conversation and identity. By establishing the conceit of “our folks,” Johnson raises the question of collective identity and underlines the very notion that a type of shared personhood exists. “Message,” of course, implies communication. The entire exhibition, which surveys the past decade of Johnson’s work, revolves around this discourse of black identity. Through photographs, paintings, sculptures, and video, Johnson explores his own past and position within this framework. Through his own, personal exploration, Johnson’s work more broadly encourages viewer self-reflection and awareness.

The themes of the exhibition are immediately apparent upon entering the exhibition space. On the floor of the first gallery, the wooden planks are branded with black cultural iconography, from the Public Enemy crosshairs to black fraternity emblems and diamonds/bling. Although the symbols refer to cultural entities—from hip-hop to the larger practice of graffiti and mark-making—they inauspiciously recall the historical branding of African slaves. As the viewer moves through the gallery space, they are visually reminded with each step, of the loaded history that Johnson navigates as he progresses with his practice.

In one corner of the first gallery, a video entitled Sweet Sweet Runner plays. In the video, Johnson references Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which portrays a black man on the run from white authorities.[1] In Johnson’s rendition, however, the protagonist simply jogs around Central Park. By running for himself and his fitness, the man in Johnson’s video subverts a stereotype and replaces it with a sense of individual agency that appears again and again throughout the exhibition.
Confronting the viewer most conspicuously in the first gallery is Johnson’s The Promoter, a towering mirror divided into jarring geometric fragments and splashed with melted black wax. The scale of the mirror circumvents viewer avoidance, and in order to proceed onward to the next gallery, museum-goers cannot bypass glancing into the mirror. When they do, it is impossible to synthesize a clear image of themselves; rather, they see their bodies splintered into discontinuous pieces, an overt allusion to fragmentation and the construction of selfhood.

Mirrors continue to make appearances throughout the exhibition. The next gallery features the piece Run, in which the word “RUN” is spraypainted across a mirror. In a video presented on the MCA’s website, Johnson speaks about his interest in a history of black escapism, citing examples of Marcus Garvey, who says “let’s go back to Africa” and Sun Ra who “says let’s go to Saturn.”[2] Run, which itself denotes escape, highlights Johnson’s investment in this practice. Its placement within the gallery further emphasizes Johnson’s position in relation to a canon of black historical figures. When the viewer peers into the mirror, not only is their reflection obscured by RUN, but also by the reflected salon-style display of photographs on the opposing wall. These photographs, which recall James Van Der Zee’s portraits from the Harlem Renaissance, depict various black intellectuals and cultural figures. The photographs come from a body of work entitled The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club, a humorous title that references the Harlem Renaissance ambition to break black stereotypes.[3] Johnson’s beautifully crafted portraits not only point to this rich history, but also instill each individual with a drama that emphasizes their uniqueness and gives them idiosyncratic agency, much like the agency that Johnson grants to the runner in Sweet Sweet Runner from the previous gallery.

The most interesting part of the exhibition, to me, was the evocation of domestic space within the galleries. Most notably, Johnson creates shelves with mirror pieces, black wax, and wood. Johnson explains that he was influenced by conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner’s book Something To Put Something On, wherein the words used for simple objects are questioned; a table is described as “something to put something on.”[4] Armed with this idea, Johnson too began to create "something to put something on." The objects that would occupy the spaces on the shelves came from Johnson’s personal world—the things that were around him in his day-to-day life—from books and records to soap and shea butter. In describing his [influential] upbringing, Johnson reveals that his parents, once daishiki-clad and afro-sporting, suddenly became middle-class soccer moms.[5] This transition away from afrocentrism was apparent to Johnson through the use (and discontinued use) of objects. It is thus evident why Johnson chooses to engage with mundane objects. He examines the way in which objects become embedded with meaning and how they function in one’s life. By placing them strategically on his constructed shelves (which recall altars and ritual), Johnson removes them from a functional context and into one of contemplation and engagement. The undoing of the objects’ use value is further augmented by repetition of the objects. Many shelves are host to multiple copies of one book, stacked in neat columns. By creating such a non-functional, yet undeniably domestic environment, Johnson conceives a space where one does not really know oneself. The viewer must engage, read, cogitate, and ritualize in order to come to terms with the space and his/her position within it. This unhinged sense of belonging is well-visualized in Johnson’s Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos, a sculpture of the Public Enemy crosshairs. The positioning of the sculpture allows viewers to walk entirely around it, so that one does not know which side of the scope he or she is standing on. The entire exhibition is about orienting oneself, or the impossibility of doing so.

Like Wiener, Johnson explores the limitations of language and meaning. For Johnson, however, the words that are questioned center around blackness and identity. Just as Wiener demonstrates the many linguistic ways to define a table, Johnson reveals the multifaceted nature of blackness, and the impracticality of a monolithic definition of black identity. More comprehensively, his pieces, which communicate balance and orientation (shelves, domestic contraptions, furniture, mirrors, floorboards), work together to form a meditative space for viewers to contemplate their own standing, selfhood, and agency.

[1] Didactic wall text
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.