Monday, April 20, 2015

James Howell, A Celebration

The painter James Howell passed away in October 2014.

On April 17th, his wife Joy hosted a Celebration of his Life in his New York studio and home. Artists, collectors, family members and friends gathered to pay tribute to his work and life.

What is it about his paintings that makes them so compelling, that obliges people to keep returning to see them, again and again?

Standing at a distance from one of his canvases we perceive an even gradation from a lighter to a darker hue. The eye glides effortlessly across its surface. A gentle, controlled descent … a measured glissando. 

Standing closer, the rungs of the ladder that facilitated our movement come into view. We see the gradations of the grey as horizontal bands. These are the notes that make up the scale, and, as when an accomplished musician plays, they are evenly and crisply delineated, not over-accentuated.

When two shades abut one another it is just about possible to acknowledge the shift. We can see the difference. 

But that task is made considerably harder when we try to compare one grey -- or range of greys -- to those of another painting. Holding a hue, a tone, in the mind's eye is hard. It takes training.

Yet undergoing the training is, in itself, a deeply rewarding experience. Who could deny that learning to see more acutely is a good thing? The capacity to discern variation and diversity within a given field -- any field -- is always life enhancing.

James Howell knew well that our eyes and our minds are endlessly nuanced resources, and he gifted us the stimuli to keep us exercising our facilities repeatedly. Like lifting the blinds each morning as we rise from our slumbers, these are paintings that renew and reinvigorate.

Susan Morris, Sun Dial: Night Watch

Since 2010, the British artist Susan Morris has been wearing an Actiwatch -- a medical device that collects data on the wearer's sleeping and waking patterns.

When connected to a computer, this information can be displayed as a graph that exhibits the subject's periods of activity and rest over a twenty-four hour period. Separate days are recorded along the horizontal axis, and each vertical line reflects wakefulness over one day and a night. Black signifies 'sleep', while red is a register of 'activity'. Colours in-between convey the relative proportion of activity to non-activity.

Morris has converted her sleep pattern Actigraphs into large-scale tapestries. To do this she uses a weaving company in the Low Countries who operate computer-guided Jacquard looms. Each horizontal thread represents one minute of her days, and a tapestry shows one year of her life.

Susan Morris, Sun-Dial: NightWatch_Sleep/Wake_2010 (2011)

Several of her tapestries are now permanently installed in the John Radcliff Hospital in Oxford, UK.

Having persisted with the project for five years, Morris plans to conclude the work later this year.


Roman Opalka voice recording

Roman Opalka, taken from the LP published by Galerie Rene Block, Berlin, in 1977.

The artist issued four sound recordings over the course of his career, and this one documents his counting progression past the number two million.

The recording attests to his extraordinary productivity during the 1970s. It had taken him eight years to paint the numbers from one to a million. He had started in 1965, and reached one million in September 1973. Now, just four years later, he was moving into the two millions. Essentially, he had doubled his pace of working.

At the Guggenheim: On Kawara - Silence

Photo: David Heald, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

The current exhibition at the Guggenheim New York, On Kawara - Silence, which runs until May 3rd, is particularly strong in its emphasis on the wide range of the artist's long term practices. 

The 'Today' series is afforded pride of place. But the postcards, the journals, the faxes, the maps and the calendars are also accorded considerable attention.


The outcome is an exhibition that accentuates the diaristic nature of On Kawara's art. Interested viewers can move from vitrine to vitrine and find out a fair amount of information about what the artist was doing on any particular day. We can learn when he woke up, what he read, where he went and where he was staying, who he met, and whether or not he chose to work on a painting that day.

As Jeffrey Weiss writes in his excellent catalogue essay, the record-keeping produces something that might remind us of a diary. But it has a different status to standard diaries, because it is more than mere documentation of events and actions that have happened. Instead, the activities that the documents tell us about were initiated so that Kawara could generate the documents. 

Diarists don't usually decide to do things so that they can write about them in their diaries.

Unless, of course, they are interested in the literary and fictional status of their writings. Weiss' approach to Kawara is to encourage us to think harder about his 'narrative voice', and the performative ways in which he chooses to narrate his life for posterity.


Filming for life

"In one of his interviews for the press Andrzej Wajda admitted that it was his secret desire to record one real human life on film, the 'complete' life of a chosen person, within the dimensions of moments and years of the time that has passed, so that the film would accompany him throughout. The film director declared that time and again similar formulations have been made by artists of our time -- not only those of films but also of literature and pure art."

Urszula Czartoryska, 'Grafika antyprofesjonalna, Anti-professional graphic art', Projekt 94,3 (1973), p. 41