Art you should know: Robert Frank’s The Americans

Capturing America’s inconsistencies and contrasts is practically a pastime now for the average artist. We owe a tip of our baseball hats, emblazoned in racist symbology, to those who developed this aesthetic with such originality that their historical influence is practically cliché. I’m thinking the hard-nosed, coked in empathy narratives of Dorothea Lange; the searingly lonely dream-scaping of Edward Hopper (#1 all-time fave). An artist who deserves to be part of this lineup of artists that the gen pop rattles off when considering Great American Artists Who America-ed America is Robert Frank.

Actually, Frank, a photographer, was Swiss-American, and his new-citizen status gave his work a non-sentimentality surrounding American Life. In the 1950s, this translated to an incredibly unique source of truth for what was happening behind the technicolor and catchy slogans of the post-war pop culture.

I am always looking outside, trying to say something that is true. But maybe nothing is really true. Except what’s out there. And what’s out there is constantly changing.

Robert Frank

In 1955, Frank got a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation. For the assignment, he spent two years traveling the States with his family and taking photographs of everyday life in places like Detroit, Savannah, Miami Beach, LA, Salt Lake City, Butte (Montana), and (of course) Chicago. In those two years he took more than 25,000 photographs and 83 of them became The Americans, a book of images that “changed the nature of photography. What it could say and how it could say it,” wrote art critic Sean O’Hagan nearly six decades after the book’s publication in 1958. The Americans, he says, “remains perhaps the most influential photography book of the 20th century.”

Selections from The Americans was recently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibition “Out of the Retina, Into the Brain: The Art Library of Aaron and Barbara Levine.”

Frank’s imagery was subtle but impactful because grandiosity took a backseat to themes of boredom, toil, and blind patriotism. These are everyday Americans who live under the spell of American lore with a sort of dumbfounded despair. (It feels achingly familiar to our social media age—ie. if I’m supposed to be happy here, why am I so sad/mad?)

Frank’s compositions depicting race in America are particularly powerful. Prescient, even, considering hindsight of social photography and the incredible civil and human rights upheavals on the country’s horizon. This theme is, again, where Frank’s individual experiences and characteristics gave him a honed eye for making these observations about our country’s racial cruelty. As a Jewish man, he experienced profiling while photographing in the South. He was put in jail in Arkansas. Told he had an hour to leave town by a deep-South sheriff. This racism indelibly shaped his view of the country, which indelibly shaped everyone else’s view of it too. Moreover, he gave brutalized communities a chance to show their strengths, despite all they faced in 1950s America.

There are too many images, too many cameras now. We’re all being watched. It gets sillier and sillier. As if all action is meaningful. Nothing is really all that special. It’s just life. If all moments are recorded, then nothing is beautiful and maybe photography isn’t an art anymore. Maybe it never was.

Robert Frank (in 2008)

Suggested reading:

Published: Art and writing in Crowded zine

I’m jazzed (jazz-handed?) to have embroidery artwork and creative writing in the newest issue of CROWDED zine, a quarterly multimedia zine affiliated with The Crowd Theater, featuring written and visual work of Chicago artists.

The Issue #3 release party is tonight, May 11, at 8 p.m. in The Crowd Theater near Lakeview! Admission for tonight’s show is free, and you can purchase a zine there for $6. They’ll be taking cash, card, or Venmo exchanges @CrowdedZine. If you can’t make the show but would like a copy, Venmo $8 to @CrowdedZine with your address in the description and they’ll mail you your copy!

“Connect” opening reception is Saturday!

Slate Arts + Performance proudly presents CONNECT, a new-media group exhibition featuring works by the following artists:

Joshua Eby
Robert Fowler
Erica Gressman
Joo Young Lee
X. A. Li
Sarah Leuchtner
Jackie Mantey
Sara Alexandra Pelaez
Christopher Riggs
Christopher Marc Ford
Andrew C. S.
Rui Sha

The opening reception is from 8 to 11 p.m. Saturday, April 20, at Slate Arts in Chicago’s Avondale neighborhood.

Dropping off my artwork!

Gallery statement

“Connecting requires at least two points in which a link or attachment of sorts can activate. As human beings, our livelihoods depend on how well we build and maintain connections. Relationships. Neural networks. Sound waves. Internet speed. Fibers of one’s clothing.”

Artist’s statement

I have three individual pieces in the show, a triptych entitled “Good Things And Death Come In Threes.” (Three embroidery and thread on historical imagery in 14″ x 17″ wooden and pink frames, one inch between each frame: “Red Line,” “Yellow Line,” and “Blue Line.”)

The images in “Good Things And Death Come In Threes” were sourced from the public domain of the New York Public Library’s digital archives and selected for their visual representation of tools Americans have used to send a message, themselves, or others from one place to another; interestingly, these are also tools we use to disconnect ourselves from wherever we’ve come.

The title is a nod to the folkloric connections we often make as we search for answers and try to connect our existence to something bigger than our individual selves. The finished embroidered work reminds the viewer of photography’s ability to connect us to people not of our time or place, as well as the working class inheritance of thread as a means to weave historical narrative into making a modern point. That each embroidery has similarities is a representation of how we are all connected, whether we are together or alone.

Art you should know: Genieve Figgis’ haunting paintings

The past few months I’ve been grooving to a morning routine that’s 100% helped me get 85% focused for each day. It involves some variation of tea (I’m that person now… tea drinkers are to blogging about being a tea drinker as marathon runners are to 26.2 bumper stickers), journaling, reading, and watching a meditation or an affirmation video. I know, affirmations seem so corny, but I swear to 20-something granola Jesus, they have helped me out of many a morning funk.

While I try to watch the meditation or affirmation videos ~mindfully~, I sometimes—almost all the time—end up getting distracted and, instead, mindlessly scroll through Pinterest (I figure my subconscious is picking up on whatever’s audibly streaming at me in the moment, so all is not lost). Pinterest is one of the few (two) social media platforms that don’t make my blood pressure rise (the other being Instagram). I end up pinning artwork the most. It’s such a visual platform and has helped me discover many artists whose work I really enjoy or feel inspired by. Or, the best, feel rapturously in awe of.

Genieve Figgis on being a mother, the challenges of being an artist, what she loves about painting, the darkness in her experimental work, and who she finds inspirational.

Genieve Figgis was one such morning scroll find.  

The Ireland-born and -based painter creates murky, dramatic scenes that are at once recognizable but elusive. They continuously capture my attention and then do something with said attention that’s increasingly impossible in an oversaturated visual culture—hold it.

“Not doing what was told would be my future, avoiding that, was just so fantastic”

Painter Genieve Figgis

Her work makes me feel like I’ve been in it before. Not just seen it; known it intimately. Like when you see, for a split second, a face on the street and you do a double-take because it kind of looks like a kid you used to know in high school. And that kid definitely died three years ago.

“The Swing After Fragonard,” by Genieve Figgis (A la, “The Happy Accidents of The Swing,” the 1767 oil painting Jean-Honore Fragonard.

The familiarity I feel toward her acrylic paintings is partly easy to explain: We’ve all seen some crisper version of it, as she often uses 18th century paintings of aristocratic life as her starting point. But her work also feels familiar because of its ability to evoke the kind of primal dread that is exciting and addictive. The kind of dread you can’t turn away from. The kind of dread where you don’t understand you’ve sauntered into something deadly until the teeth around you have already closed… you were just stunned by the beauty and sipping your Earl grey and then BOOM, you’re falling down the throat of the beast.

The dramatic danger, the warning, her paintings seem to emanate is made fully clear after you spend more than a scroll-click-Pin with it. In fact, the more I look at her paintings, the more they seem to melt before my very eyes. I find that darkly exciting too.

“If you’re really enjoying something you don’t need to see the end of the road, the finishing line. That’s not always going to be the ultimate triumph, you know? If you’re not enjoying the journey, the end result will be no good.

Painter Genieve Figgis

Suggested reading:

Published: Photography in Honey & Lime Lit

I’m excited to announce that two of my photographs were selected for publication in issue two of Honey & Lime Lit magazine, entitled “dancing into oblivion.” I love this publication’s dreamy visual aesthetic and am honored to be included (they had over 300 submissions for this issue!).

Check out both of my photographs here, and then read through the issue here. I’ll let you decide which of my images caught my eye because standing in it made feel like Audrey Horne in Twin Peaks. A girl can, ahem, dream.

Published: Photos in Barren Magazine

Hooray! I’m so honored that some of my photography was chosen to be in Issue No. 6 of Barren Magazine, “Distance Lines.”

“Barren Magazine is a literary publication that features fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and photography for hard truths, long stares, and gritty lenses. We revel in the shadow-spaces that make up the human condition, and aim to find antitheses to that which defines us: light in darkness; beauty in ugliness; peace in disarray. We invite you to explore it with us.”

Pretty sweet.
I really love the piece (“My Mother Speaks to Me From The Grave, Again” by Jill Khoury) paired with my image of snow Buddha.

I make the Barren Magazine reading rounds on my CTA commutes. Wanna read it? Check out Issue No. 6 and others here.

Roundup: Five Saul Leiter photos to make you feel snow romantic

Saul Leiter was a pioneer of American color photography. His painterly images of 1950s and 1960s city life are so wistful. His work makes me see bad weather, stinky streets, and the humans who inhabit it all — differently. Better. More lovingly.

“A window covered with raindrops interests me more than a photograph of a famous person.” 

Saul Leiter

^ Same.

Here are five of his most lovely snow-filled images that might make this seemingly never-ending winter snow a lot more bearable. At least more beautiful.

Read more about the artist’s life here. Also this: “Saul Leiter, the quiet genius who made the mundane beautiful.”

Art you should know: Dawoud Bey’s Underground Railroad photographs

Dawoud Bey is a MacAurthur Genius Award-winning portrait artist whose most moving photographs are black and white images in urban settings; however, his exhibition currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago happens across a different landscape.

Titled, in a nod to Langston Hughes, “Night Coming Tenderly, Black” is a compilation of 25 photographs taken of places in Hudson and Cleveland, Ohio, that marked the end of the Underground Railroad.

The large-scale images are darkened to mimic the blackness of night, a time of day when it was “safest” to run. The darkness makes it hard to see what you’re looking at, inducing a sinister terror that must, when you think about it, only be .01% (if that) of the sinister terror runaway slaves felt when approaching these final stops toward freedom—a term that feels especially meaningless when faced with the final resting stop, Lake Erie and sky. Canada’s freedom on the horizon, but at what cost? How did these people ever feel free or safe or whole? It seems as impossible as swimming in the dangerous choppy waves of the photograph.

Their reflective nature is particularly Bey-brilliant. With this effect, the viewer sees themselves in the image, in this situation, both long ago and in the modern world. At first, I thought about how alone these images made me feel, no human to be found, just the potential for danger that had to freeze you in your tracks. Seeing a shadow of myself in each image, I also thought about the ways white supremacy has shaped my own understanding of the world. How its effects linger today. I thought of Flint. Of Chicago police brutality. Of my own willful blindness that contributes to modern racism.

I was moved by the titles of his images, too. A forest. A marsh. These seem idyllic to me—because they can. But in light of the darkness of these settings and the truth behind them, I understand how these words and places represented a challenge, a cover, an enemy to the people who had to escape through them without the cover of peace… or even hope… or even, sometimes, other people.

Outside the gallery is a wall of framed photographs Bey curated from the AIC’s private collection. In addition to harrowing images of the murder that racism has justified on American soil are images of people who fought back and found strength in the darkness. Their courage is breathtaking.

The landscape portraiture Bey picked to include in the roundup is also meaningful. A particular Ansel Adams image of a tree, which, in a different context, I would have mused on romantically or in a rosy awe of nature, gave me chills instead. The photograph’s juxtaposition to a lynched murder victim evoked the trauma of a tree, how everything has been affected exploited in the name of “natural order.” It’s a devastating exhibit. It’s an important one. It’s on view through April 14.

Art you should know: Sally Nixon’s 365 Insta challenge

Little Rock-based illustrator Sally Nixon illustrates colorful scenes from everyday life. Their bright colors pull you in, their keen observations of human movement make you stay a while, and their dynamic characters keep you coming back.

One of my first-favorite Sally Nixon illustrations (I now have too many to call it my favorite-favorite) was an illustration of a girl taking a shower and absentmindedly making shapes out of the strands of hair on her shower wall. I totally do that, too! I imagine a lot of us with long hair do. But it was the first time I had seen that private moment shown to me by someone else.

Observation and relentlessly relatable documentation is Sally’s art super power.

She draws all kinds of people but mostly women. Women eating. Peeing. Hanging out. Thinking. Not smiling, but not not-smiling. Women just being ordinarily ordinary people—which is exactly what makes her work so extraordinarily compelling.

Well, that and all the bright details in her backgrounds. I wish there was an Airbnb with rentals composed entirely of Sally Nixon apartments and rooms.

"Bri" by Sally Nixon
I’m also endlessly attracted to Bri, fab pizza-getting undercover spy queen. She’s got secrets and pepperoni up her sleeve! My kind of girl.

Check out Sally’s Etsy, her book “Houseplants and Hot Sauce: A Seek-and-Find Book for Grown-Ups,” or her Instagram, where it appears she’s doing the 365 day creative challenge and posting a new work every day. I can’t wait to see what mundane moment she makes feel like magic next.

Featured: Creativity + The Unruffled Podcast

2018 has been my favorite one yet! And one of its biggest moments was my gallery exhibition in September.

I finally started making the embroideries for “Gone, Country” (after, like, a year of talking about it as if I had already started…ha!…) the same month I quit drinking in 2016. I didn’t/ couldn’t allow myself to realize it at the time, but that embroidery work became a physical representation of what I was trying to make happen in my life.

It required humility and fearlessness to just make something, the same way it required humility and fearlessness to make such a huge change. I punched designs into paper one needle-hole at a time, the same way I didn’t drink one day at a time. I made those small incremental holes in the darkness of an image, the same way I slowly began bringing light to parts of myself I had long been avoiding.

Taking time to make an embroidery gave me something to do with my hands while I simultaneously took on the terrifying business of learning to talk to myself in a new way; it took the pressure off. It also proved to myself that I wasn’t just someone who talked about her dreams. I had the courage to try. And, in the meantime, I made some cool shit.

Creativity was means/space/outlet for healing. I recently spoke about this process to the awesome women of The Unruffled Podcast. It’s such an honor to be included in their interviews, and I am thankful for their efforts to create a community for women to talk about these experiences of making art while making a more compassionate way of life. (If you’re interested in creativity and overcoming the nonsense we put in between ourselves and our greatest potential, I highly recommend adding Unruffled Podcast to your pod roll!)

Here’s my episode! I love that it’s the last one for the year. I hope to embrace 2019. To keep getting better, braver, kinder, stiller.

Sending you all so much love into the new year. Thank you for being part of my story. I hope you have THE FUCKING GREATEST 2019 EVERRRR!

P.S. / FYI: I am co-launching Zero Proof Book Club in February with my good friend Shelley Mann. We read and discuss books about sobriety, self-growth, or surviving—and then thriving—in spaces that profit when we numb ourselves, from ourselves. You can go LIKE the page now and stay tuned for more in the future. xoxo

Ready for you, bb. #2019