Artist Toyin Odutola’s New Rendition

IYANU by Toyin Odutola, 2013. Pen ink and marker on paper. Courtesy of the Artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY.

IYANU by Toyin Odutola, 2013. Pen ink and marker on paper. Courtesy of the Artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY.

Toyin Odutola and I were planning her project for the museum’s Artists Drawing Club since last October, but we did not meet in person until the day before her event last week. Toyin graduated from the MFA program at California College of the Arts in May 2012 and moved to New York City this spring. All of our planning for this program took place over the phone, which might have been difficult if not for Toyin’s use of social media to document her art practice, an extremely helpful way to convey and understand her process. It almost felt like I was in her studio. This sensation of close connection through social media might seem like a novel and trendy idea, especially considering that she was featured in an ARTnews article, “What I Like About You: Artists to Follow on Instagram.” That type of documentation can provide practical, important information as well as reach a broad audience for her work.

During our initial talks, Toyin was really excited about a recent shift in the colors she uses in her drawings. Her new works featured a more subdued and restrained palette. We talked about how this change might be a great wayto view the museum’s collection through the formal lens of color. Ideas continued to develop after each talk and culminated in her project Rendition. While other projects in the Artists Drawing Club emphasized deliberate, face-to-face interaction between audience and artist, this project derived inspiration from Toyin’s social media practice to facilitate exchange. Using the hashtag #colormatch on Instagram and Twitter, she followed the stream of participant photos that were posted from the galleries when visitors matched the color of artworks to the swatches provided by Toyin. When she saw something of particular interest she included an element or motif from the object into the portrait she drew onsite. Along the way she shared progress online.

I interviewed Toyin right before her event.

Marc Mayer (MM): I learned that you use ballpoint pens in your drawings when I started to follow you on Instagram. You were on a flight and took pictures of a portrait in progress, which I loved seeing. Making work on an airplane made me very curious about the materials you use. What materials are you drawn to and why?

Toyin Odutola (TO): I am really drawn to ballpoint pens. The ballpoint pen is primarily seen as a writing tool, but the use of the ballpoint pen as an art material has existed since the 1950s, possibly earlier. I am drawn to pen ink for its duality, how blacks and whites are captured by the ink, how the pen is both a writing tool and an art material. It’s accessible and ubiquitous. The more layered the ink, especially if you cake it on, the more you can see the heavy dark and great light qualities of its materiality. It renders the concept of a black/white binary almost null. The ink embodies both qualities because of the nature of the viscous fluid. The ink also creates a sense of subtlety and immediacy, perfect for drawing. I’ve always been prone to drawing more than any other mode of creating. I sometimes paint, but it’s only been to support my drawing. I am attracted to materials that facilitate drawing and make its sense of immediacy. Pencils, pens, markers—these are my main tools. Sometimes I use acrylic ink and watercolors, but it all boils down to what helps the process of drawing move along smoothly and allows the ideas to flow.

Image of artwork in progress via the artist’s Instagram

Image of artwork in progress via the artist’s Instagram

MM: I am very interested in your presence on social media. How would you describe your use/practice of social media? How does it support and influence the way you work?

TO: The first introduction of my work to an audience came from interactions on social media. Concurrently, it was through the Internet and social media that I was first exposed to contemporary art and, in some way, the art world at large. I was inspired and heavily influenced by a number of burgeoning illustrators and comic-book artists who openly shared their work process. It was prior to the advent of official online tools like Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram, and it involved artists of all manner of mediums, varying fields and experience, taking process shots of their works and writing about their methodology in a very open way. Needless to say, it was a major part of my art education at the time. Through these various artists’ process blogs, I learned about materials, lighting, color—you name it, all from and the dialogues these posts generated.

I started my Tumblr blog around 2009, when I wasn’t sure if I still wanted to pursue art making. It became a space for me to explore artistic methods, theory and materials. I also used my blog as a catalog of how I felt while working. Initially, the blog was only viewed by me. I hardly had any followers and, honestly, that wasn’t my aim in the beginning. Soon, other artists, writers and designers began commenting on my posts. They would ask questions about what I was making, why I was making such work, and why I was using these materials –all questions I hadn’t really asked myself. The best interactions were getting recommendations to look at other artists I had not known, and artistic movements I had not yet studied. From that dialogue my work began to progress, and my independent art education blossomed. By the end of 2009 I was convinced I wanted to be an artist. It inspired me to apply for graduate school.

One could say I should thank the Internet for helping me get on the track I’m on today.

Today there are many more people viewing my work on social media. The response has really blown me away and often I am confronted with questions about why I share so much about my studio work online. In my mind, it is no different from the illustrator and comic-book artist blogs that inspired me. Maybe the difference is the art world, and that artists aren’t always comfortable or encouraged to share so much of their process, which is a shame. Maybe there is a flipside of sharing too much, where people give you direction on work instead of talking about ideas, which can be disconcerting. I am more interested in a constructive critique, friendly suggestions and, in some rare cases, collaboration.

Social media is a tool to connect to a different audience. I’m thinking of that kid, like myself not too long ago, who doesn’t have access to galleries or museums or studios; giving her/him a chance to see the day-to-day drudge of it all. To show people that, in the end, it’s all about the work. It’s not all glamorous, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important, meaningful and educational.

MM: I am curious if you think of your work as portraiture? Do any elements in your work challenge traditional portraiture? Does the concept of portraiture have any interest for you?

TO: I don’t mind being labeled as a portraitist; however, like everything that goes on in my studio, I’m not beholden to the practice. I admire portraiture and it is the main platform I use to create my works, but to limit my work to just creating portraits isn’t the case either. I admit, I am drawn to many artists who took more ownership of the term, such as John Singer Sargent, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Hans Holbein the Younger. But there are other artists who have used the parameters of portraiture beyond its initial purpose, such as Charles White, Kerry James Marshall, Alex Katz and Chuck Close.

I use portrait for conceptual means. I like some of the restrictions of portraiture. It’s a very basic premise. You are capturing the essence of a person at a certain time and place, but from there you can manipulate any of these elements and still constitute a portrait. I want to create spaces where things aren’t so concrete, spaces that aren’t so certain. The more you try to pin a feeling of a person down, it slips, no? I try my best to pin down that essence, which is crazy. How can you pin down something so abstract visually? You can try to capture it with color or various lines, but I know that part of a person is invention; part of what makes up an individual cannot be represented. That’s why I love portraiture.

We are living in a time when there is a plethora of ways and forms of portraiture. I like to carve out my own niche and create works that are distinctive, but also heavily entrenched in our contemporary moment. The fact that there are many ways of creating a portrait makes me more inclined to restrict the format: to decontenxualize the space surrounding a subject; to enhance the focus and emphasize a feature (skin, eyes, hair); to help the viewer to pay attention more intimately. I have been developing this focus of these portraits since 2009 and will continue to work on this a little longer. But what the future holds for me in portraiture is uncertain.

MM: You have mentioned that skin is really important in your work. What draws you to skin? Why do you find it so compelling?

TO: Skin is important because it is the singular feature where I can express the varying rhythms and lines that convey meaning or even poignancy. When it comes to how I draw skin, it may be the primary subject of the work, but what I hope is that skin becomes a gateway to how to read a person’s subjectivity. This has political implications related to the way people justify prejudice based on skin color. I want to invert this process and create a more positive and thoughtful outcome. I want to change people’s perception of skin, from seeing only the stereotype to seeing a fully formed, complex individual. Skin can be a vehicle to change ones perception, but that isn’t the end result of my work in and of itself.

MM: Do you listen to music while you work? What are three songs, artists or albums you are currently listening to?

TO: Yes, but it’s more of a tossup between music and movies. I love watching documentaries while working, which really means I love listening to them. Podcasts and audiobooks are great for my process. I get the visual experience through my drawing, so the experience of listening to great conversations and stories is ideal. Sometimes certain excerpts or random texts find their way into the titles of the drawings.

Right now, I’m obsessed with the band Inc., particularly their song “5 Days,” which has been on repeat in my studio. Also, two SOHN’s songs: “The Wheel” and “Bloodflows.” As for a third, I guess that would be the Spinners’ “I’ll Be Around.” It’s one of my all-time favorites. Generally, I listen to just about anything that comes on shuffle from my computer. Lately, it’s been electronic music for some reason.

MM: You mentioned that Asian art has influenced you and your work. What is your interest in the Asian Art Museum and Asian culture?

TO: I’ve visited the Asian Art Museum while living in San Francisco, and I enjoyed the collection and its diversity and saw some very interesting exhibitions. I like that you always find something new or different whenever you visit. I also love that James Jean is a part of the collection. I am a HUGE fan of his work. As for Asian cultural and aesthetic influences, I have been fascinated with Japanese art history, especially printmaking, and, I’ll admit it, manga and anime culture have interested me since I was a kid. As an undergraduate in Alabama I obsessed over Chinese literati works and posters from the 1950s and ’60s.

The irony is, whenever I get asked about my influences for art, I have to say manga. I wasn’t one of those kids who knew at the age of five that I wanted to be an artist. I didn’t have that sort of precocious insight. I was like any other kid, just going through the motions. I didn’t even think of myself as an artist until I was about to graduate high school and start university. I read comics voraciously when I was young. I loved that the illustrative platform allowed and inspired a variety of ways to express narrative. The graphic nature of the work is what fascinated me most. Artists such as Takehiko Inoue, for instance, really influenced how I looked at art and what I enjoyed: sumptuous detail and pattern language; various ways of enhancing thick, rich blacks, and the infinite ways in which one could express a moment in a face or individual features, such as the eyes. I guess you could say that’s where it all started for me. Manga and anime continue to influence me.

MM: What is the project you are working on for the Artists Drawing Club?

TO: The project is Rendition, a collaboration between you and me. We’ve been discussing it for about a year now, and it came from this idea of incorporating the Asian Art Museum’s collection into a project. I was excited about creating a work that had some connection to the works on view. I had begun working with a more polychromatic palette only recently, and it was interesting to think about this change. I also work in a very controlled manner, so the possibility of creating a work in a site-specific way intrigued me.

I like the notion of having the color palette influence the potential of a work. Normally, when I set out to create a drawing, I lay out which colors I wish to enhance and explore. For Rendition, we looked at features in the museum’s collection and narrowed the colors down to five. From there the project takes a sort of interactive turn. We wanted to include the audience, and although the idea of drawing on site is different from my studio method, you suggested taking the experience a step further: having the audience go through the collection and find the colors in the works, all while I draw the portrait on site, cataloging the colors found via social media. Of course, I would like to finish the work in the time slot of the same day, so I will be working on the piece a little ahead of the scheduled event, but I will be keeping track of the logs while I am working.

What excited me the most (and sort of terrified me) was the idea of having this entire thing documented with a live video projection. This gives the audience a chance to see my method in person, in real time, something which I tend to do mainly through social media platforms, i.e. my blog and Instagram. It gives the audience a chance to see the evolution of a work, and it bridges the gap between the studio and exhibition. I look forward to it all. I just hope I don’t make too much of a mess of it. Right now, I am still planning which portrait to draw. I have a few sketches laid out. I suppose it won’t be revealed until the event takes place.

3D printing for everyone

A few months ago I got an email from a young entrepreneur with a product to push.

As you can imagine, I get a lot of unsolicited emails trying to sell the museum products and services. I’ll be honest with you—most of them just get deleted. But this one stood out. Will Drevno had something we couldn’t ignore.

I replied right away.

Now we have the privilege of being one of the first users of the Dreambox. It’s a 3D printing vending machine. Cool doesn’t even begin to describe this.

The Dreambox team installing the 3D printing vending machine.

The Dreambox team installing the machine.

The team at Dreambox have taken a consumer-level 3D printer and modified it for use in a vending machine context. The printer sits in a plexiglass case, so you can see it working. Using a tablet interface, visitors can purchase the model that just printed. We’re offering models of objects from our collection; at the moment there are just two, but we’ll be adding more soon.

This is a trial for us and for Dreambox. They’ve had a machine on campus at Berkeley for a while, but this version is their first production model. That means they’re tweaking the interface and the models as they go along, making changes based on observation and visitor feedback. As you’d expect with a new piece of equipment, things don’t always go exactly to plan, but the Dreambox team is on call to sort out customer issues.

For us, we’re building on what we learned in our earlier Scanathon, where we had artists photograph objects from the collection to create 3D models. We’re interested in how our visitors might want to use these objects; taking them home is one option.

So next time you’re at the museum, stop by and check out the machine in South Court, near the store. Maybe buy yourself a little Nandi, or just watch it print for a while. And tell us what you think. We’re all learning from this one.

Changing Light

Visitor watching the effects of the changing light installation on a Japanese screen

On my first day as a Preparations Intern at the Asian Art Museum, I was assigned the task of touching up the walls and borders of the In the Moment exhibition. I went around the room with a brush and cup of paint and covered up spots and areas that were missed during the first pass of the painting process. During that moment of duty, I thought about the purpose of an exhibition presentation—to bring attention and focus to the works being displayed.

Normally, when I walk through an exhibition, my attention is focused solely on the artwork. My eyes do not wander to scuffs on the walls, dents on frames, and patches of misplaced colors, because in a presumptive sense, there should not be any scuffs, dents, or patches of misplaced colors. However, at times, these slight imperfections can diminish the effect of the exhibition as a whole. It’s much like the use of proper lighting. There are many ways that lights can distract a viewer from enjoying a piece of art. To preserve a light-sensitive piece, the lighting can be too dim to really see the piece. Or if there is a protective layer of glass covering the artwork, the glare from lights could obscure parts of the work.

In the Moment features some theatrical lighting that I believe is ingenious. Lee Gallery features a Japanese screen depicting waves and rocks in an environment of fluctuating lights to mimic the passing of time from morning to noon to dusk; we’ve called it Changing Light. It makes the viewer focus on the artwork as the lights complement and complete the work to represent the cyclical nature of a day. Interestingly, electricity is used to convey a time devoid of electricity, in attempt to emulate natural light. For as the pamphlet provided by the museum mentions, before the advent of electricity, people saw folding screens and hanging scrolls under changing natural light. Paintings, especially screens with gold leaf, look different under bright or dim lighting conditions, and artists in Japan painted with an awareness of variable lighting conditions and their effect of perception.

To provide more insight, I interviewed Evan Kierstead, Principal Preparator and Lighting Specialist at the Asian Art Museum.

Josh Lee: How did the idea for Changing Light come about?

Evan Kierstead: The idea first came up a few years ago by Melissa Rinne (Associate Curator of Japanese Art) for Tadeuchi, the second floor gallery. At one time there was supposed to be a show with the screen and she wanted to do that kind of passing in the daylight. So I kind of figured out at that time how to do it and got the cost information and all that but then it never happened. But then it happened for this exhibit. Actually, the teahouse upstairs has a similar thing. There isn’t a screen in there but there’s a window that’s supposed to be the east and there’s a window that’s supposed to be the west and there’s a light that travels across.

JL: What’s the process in setting up such a display?

EK: Well, we have to figure out how to do it. I already kind of figured it out through the original idea [in Tateuchi] and the teahouse. So basically it was finding all of the equipment and the equipment in the teahouse wasn’t quite right for what we were doing. I was dealing also with an electrician who did the wiring. He had some ideas because he does some residential stuff and he does nothing like what we’re doing. But he and I had some ideas to deal with the dimming system and timing system. So first of all then, we had to figure out how to do it and I had a program figure out how to design it. Then I had to figure out the zones, zone being each area of light and how long each zone is gonna happen. It went from being a little longer and ended up going to three minutes because the sound loop was going to be three minutes long.

JL: Were there any major difficulties along the way?

EK: The whole thing was difficult. Figuring out the technology was difficult. What exactly we were gonna use because there were different systems and it’s hard to deal with the main factors. We ended up actually rigging something, a couple of different things, together. So that took a while. We had to install it. We had to program it. We had to get a laptop and get two different programs that are doing different things. One’s controlling the time; one’s controlling the dimmer. So trying to sync it all up was the challenge.

In the Moment: Japanese Art from the Larry Ellison Collection will be up until September 22, 2013.

Copy Right/Copy Left with Artist Lordy Rodriguez

Untitled 809 (Murakami/Kors) by Lordy Rodriguez 2013. Ink and artificial gems on paper. Courtesy of the Artist and Hosfelt Gallery.

Untitled 809 (Murakami/Kors) by Lordy Rodriguez 2013. Ink and artificial gems on paper. Courtesy of the Artist and Hosfelt Gallery.

I vividly remember my studio visit with Lordy Rodriguez last fall. It was my first trip to Hayward since I had moved to San Francisco the previous year. The whole experience felt like an adventure. I have a very great appreciation for being invited into artists’ studios, and I felt the same way as I walked into Lordy’s studio. One can tell a lot about an artist’s practice from the way he or she arranges the space and organizes art supplies. One thing is certain: the precision of his drawings is matched by the precision of his organization of materials, from paper to markers.  This video should illustrate what I mean by the precision needed to make these drawings.

Lordy showed me a drawing in progress for his show Code Switch at Hosfelt Gallery, which closed last week. As I pored over the drawing, we talked everything: neighborhoods and cultural districts, brands, language, typography, and topography as they related to this new body of work. Between these ideas, layered with the intricacies of the artwork’s patterns, and combined with a unique system of mapping, there was something different happening with this work. During this visit I learned that Lordy and I share an affinity for reality television, and we are both pretty open about how it inspires each of our respective work. I interviewed Lordy about how his Artists Drawing Club project Copy Right/Copy Left might engage with some of these ideas.

Gangnam America Detail

Gangnam America (detail) by Lordy Rodriguez, 2013. Courtesy of the Artist and Hosfelt Gallery.

Marc Mayer: When we first started talking about your participation in the Artists Drawing Club, you were in the middle of working on your recent show at Hosfelt Gallery, called Code Switch. During a visit to your studio you showed me a work in progress, now titled Gangnam, America. I was really struck by the work and your use of words/text, but also a certain visual language. Can you describe this work, your original thinking behind it, and the show as it relates?

Lordy Rodriguez: I knew that I wouldn’t have many pieces with text in the show; actually this is the only one. It was just this one piece that helped set the course for the show. I wanted to treat text the same way I was treating the visual languages that I was using. The premise for this show was to experiment with the meaning and cultural context associated with visual languages by using cartography as a “grammatical” infrastructure.

The name Gangnam, America came from the popular YouTube music video Gangnam Style, a pop song by South Korean rapper and singer PSY in 2012. At the time I was working on this piece, this song was at the height of its long popularity. The music video takes tropes from western rap, hip hop, and pop videos that seem to concentrate on emphasizing personal style and identity. The name Gangnam itself is derived from the Gangnam District, which is a very affluent area in Seoul. It is similar in stature to Beverly Hills or Ginza in Tokyo. PSY uses the cache of Gangnam to represent an ideal identity. This kind of identity appropriation is seen a lot in American music videos, and PSY capitalizes on that so well with this video. By using the cache of a place and the visual languages that are used to support that kind of identity appropriation—it was this idea that really set the foundation for this piece.

All the names in this piece are the entertainment districts in the U.S. that I gathered from Wikipedia and Google searches to create a data set of sorts. The core of “mapping” is the data set. By using a source that is most commonly available, I’m getting the most accessed data set regardless of its accuracy. Accuracy has never been a focus of my work.

These neighborhoods run the range from corporate entertainment districts by developers like Omni in Miami, which centers around the Omni Mall—once culturally thriving, gay neighborhoods that have gentrified and became popular shopping districts like South Beach in Florida and North Beach in San Francisco—and old historic neighborhoods that are now hosts to clubs and bars like the Gaslamp District in San Diego. The neighborhood you live or where you go out can act as a signifier in the same way that the clothes you wear, the music you listen too, and the TV you watch do. All of these elements, the visual look of the text, the background water of the Burberry pattern (another visual signifier with cache), and the reference to the music video Gangnam Style are all concepts that set the foundation for the rest of the work in the show. It really serves as conceptual guide to the various ways I use visual languages in the other works in the exhibition.

MM: I find the title of show really interesting. Code Switch can be applied in so many ways. What significance does the title have for you?

LR: I am making a direct correlation between visual language and verbal/spoken language. Code switch is a linguistic term that refers to conversational switching between differing languages. That term has expanded to include other elements like accents, slang, and individual utterances. An example of this linguistic code switching is “Have a hotdawg, y’all.” The code switch is starting with the New York accent of hotdawg and switching tone with the southern vernacular term y’all. I like to think that I am doing the visual equivalent of code switching. By using popular and recognizable visual patterns that already have a meaning in the social dictionary, I can make “etymological” lineages or connections between those visual languages without changing the original meaning.

MM: How did your thinking for this project develop?

LR: My work using the concept of mapping is essentially a way to explore notions of identity. At first, I used it to figure out my own identity and how complex it can be. Now it is more an exploration of the things that can signify identity like how we consume entertainment and culture, from the ways we embody music or wear fashion to reflect or even influence identity. It is interesting to think that some of the most “successful” artists are the ones who seem able to create a “brand” for themselves and their work.

An art collection is also loaded with signifiers as well, things that might tell us something about the collector, whether it is their personality, interests, a certain perspective with which they view the world. I learned that Larry Ellison’s Japanese art collection was coming to the Asian Art Museum and I wanted to see how his collection might reflect some element about his sense of the world. To be transparent, my mother works for Oracle so the company “brand” has become of part of my family. This brand culture trickles down from the corporate identity, which impacts her experiences, and trickles down further when it influences my siblings and my interactions with her too. This is kind of where the project started.

MM: Can you describe your project Copy Right/Copy Left?

LR: For Copy Right/Copy Left I am appropriating a few of the most recognizable patterns from objects in the exhibition In the Moment: Japanese Art from the Larry Ellison Collection. I will create a template where people can play with these patterns (as I interpreted them), mixing and matching them to create land masses on a map, which might look similar to one of my drawings. It is a way to get people thinking about patterns and give them a focus to view the exhibition.

People will then go into the galleries and look for a pattern they find interesting. Through their eyes, they will draw a swatch of the pattern as they interpret it. There is a little flexibility in creating this swatch. This should not be an “amazing” drawing, but more a study or a diagram that shows how each person interprets a pattern. Once someone comes out of the exhibition with this study, I will then give them a postcard-size drawing, partially completed. The drawing will show a land mass filled partly with one of the patterns I created. But this is an unfinished drawing. I am going to ask each person to take his or her study as guide and draw a pattern to complete it. I am excited to see how other peoples’ patterns interact with the patterns I created. Will the patterns match, clash, line up or not register at all? It is going to be interesting to see how these different patterns relate and speak to each other. After the drawing is completed it will be documented. Participants will give me the study or diagram they did in the galleries in exchange for the drawing they completed.

In a sense, this project is a code switch between my own visual language and the code created by each participant’s visual interpretation of patterns in the exhibition. People will be able to leave with the drawing, and I will study and interpret their diagrams and patterns to interpret and try to incorporate it into some drawings done on site. But this project also might tell a bigger story of the connective transfer of visual language and meaning that I have through my mom, Oracle, Larry Ellison, and his art collection. It becomes signatory of the evolving meaning of visual tropes, giving one more way to create a workable structure in understanding visual languages. It is more than just copying.

Come to the museum on Thursday night, July 25 at 6:30 to be part of Lordy Rodriguez’s project Copy Right/Copy Left. RSVP here and share with your friends.

IDCA Awards: Silver!

You may recall that we were finalists for the IDCA awards for our Lost Warrior campaign and our website. Well, the results are in, and we received silver in both categories.

Congratulations to the winners: Paris 3D in the website category and Pablo Picasso vs Marcel Duchamp at Moderna Museet in the Exhibition Communication category. It was an honor to be up against such great projects.

Thanks again to our amazing team:  Carbon Five, who designed and built the website; JVST, who built the Lost Warrior site; Calvin Kai Ku, who made the lost warrior come to life; our senior management team, who supported both these projects; and of course our remarkable marketing department.


Stepping a Little to the East with Artist Binh Danh

Yosemite Falls, October 13, 2011, 2012, by Binh Danh. Daguerreotype. Private Collection.

Yosemite Falls, October 13, 2011, 2012, by Binh Danh. Daguerreotype. Private Collection.

On June 20 photographer Binh Danh takes over the museum for one night with his Artists Drawing Club project, Step a Little to the East. The project explores desires in the context of the museum and otherworldly desires as well. It is no coincidence that this project developed in close proximity to the Pride celebration in the Civic Center. I spoke to Danh to get a little more insight into his process, how this project developed, and the challenge of creating this event.

Marc Mayer: What were your first thoughts about participating in this program? I know we discussed the invitation over email and on the phone, but I am curious about your initial response.

Binh Danh: Well, my first thought was to say no because I often find these types of projects a challenge—the social practice part of it; it’s not really the way I work. But when you mentioned to me that I could use this opportunity to explore and challenge my studio practice, that itself sounded interesting. It took lots of brainstorming to get to the final conception.

As a photographer I often think the public is not interested in my process. I mean watching someone draw is quite an amazing experience, but watching me take a picture is pretty boring because there is really no art yet until the image is developed. And also everyone already knows how to snap a picture. Yet, as a photo educator, I often wonder does everyone really know how to photograph.

Keeping photography as part of the event was a must for me because it is the way I think as an artist. The other deterrent for me was the title itself, “The Artists Drawing Club.” I was thinking that I really don’t draw, but I do kind of draw with light and I guess that could work. It is interesting to see conceptual artists use photography in their production and how painting and sculpture departments at museums are acquiring artwork made out of photos. But I have gone off topic. Anyway, so I am interested in the practice and production of photography.

One way for me to start thinking about the project was to see if the Asian Art Museum has a photo collection, and surprisingly they do, and it’s accessible to view the images online. So I started there and arrived at this perhaps complex installation that would hopefully engage participants.

MM: Can you tell me a little bit about how Step a Little to the East developed as a project?

BD: Step a Little to the East was the title I came up with when I was thinking of making photographic backdrops with which viewers could interact. The backdrops are made from images in the museum collection. I imagine a commercial studio photographer would ask a client to move left or right to get a nice composition. But in this case with the photographic backdrop, I’m asking the viewer to consider a visit to the Asian Art Museum as a visit to the East, back in time. Especially for Asian Americans it’s a way for us to connect with our imagined past. So I had this idea for a possible event, but we spoke and realized that there had to be more here. What is it about photographing someone in front of this sort of backdrop? And you mentioned that the museum had a no-flash photo policy regarding their collections. I was thinking that we often see a lot of museum visitors photographing themselves with the artwork. I always thought that was fun to see, as if they are photographing themselves in front of a temple.

So the idea started to snowball, and all of a sudden I’m considering my own desire and sexuality for this project. So there is a lot here and a lot will be revealed on the night of the event. But in short, I hope to engage viewers about how the Asian Art Museum influences our imagination of Asia as a land and Asians as a people by looking, talking, and questioning objects of wonder from the East. I say “wonder” because the objects I used to make the backdrops were landscapes viewed through Western eyes (a painting by the American designer and artist Lockwood de Forest [1850­–1932] and an album of prints by photographers from the Collection of William K. Ehrenfeld, M.D., both currently on view).


One of the twenty-four ghats at Mathura, 1894, by Lockwood de Forest (American, 1850–1932). Oil on canvas. From the Collection of William K. Ehrenfeld, M.D., 2005.64.116

Considering all of this I am now thinking of the Asian Art Museum as a place for “desire.” Why do we visit the museum beyond intellectual curiosities? Are we looking for home? Are we trying to travel to the past? Do we wish to take an artwork/artifact home with us? Are we looking for a date or going on a date? Are we looking for some sort of arousal? What are we seeking by visiting this museum?

So I was thinking of these questions for myself about my own relationship to the museum. There’s a lot to discuss here but the turning point for me was when I considered one of my large-format cameras. This 1900s camera is from India. I have used it to photograph the American landscape as if I was seeing it for the first time; I objectified the land like 19-century photographers did in Asia and the Americas. I recall the day I unpacked this camera from its shipping box; there was this amazing musky smell that one could only identify as coming from Asia, the smell of maybe old wood that had rot in a way that is pleasant to the nose. This olfactory experience made me high and nostalgic for India, a place I have never visited before.

From this sense of smell, I made a leap into a sense of sexual intimacy. My own sexual awakening came at a very early age when I was a boy working in my parent’s movie rental shop. To pass the time, I would watch many movies, usually on VHS or laserdisc that the distributor sent us. As I recall, my parents never really selected any movies to display for rental; the movies usually came in bulk, although there was an X-rated section that I was not allowed to browse. One movie in particular had a big effect on me and perhaps informed my own sexual desires: My Beautiful Laundrette, a 1985 British comedy-drama written for the screen by Hanif Kureishi. It wasn’t until later in high school that I truly understood these feelings and came to the conclusion that I would never be straight. My Beautiful Laundrette was the first gay film I had ever seen. So for the Artists Drawing Club, I considered all of these elements and will be creating an installation to address some of these complexities and ask visitors to consider some of these questions for themselves.

MM: This event seems different from your other work. Is it a departure for you? How would you explain this project in the context of your art practice?

BD: Yes, in a way this project is a little different from my signature work, at least the way it looks, but conceptually it has issues and concepts I have been thinking about: what make us, us? What makes me, me? How does our experience shape our lives, both real and imagined—our hopes, fears, desires? I feel that all these “worries” do play out in my work, but this is the first time I am dealing with sexuality and in particular my own, because June is gay pride month. So, happy gay pride everyone; I hope you come to the event next Thursday, June 20.

MM: How do you want to interact with visitors/participants? What do you want people to get from this event?

BD: First and foremost, I want visitors to have fun. I’m going to suggest to them some “tasks” to perform during the night with objects in the collection. Many objects in the museum feel really serious because some of them are religious, but I imagine the stories they hold are much livelier than how they are displayed. Many of the items are functional objects like jewelry or ceramics. I think that, secretly, many of us would want to wear or use these items. “How would these beautiful earrings look on our girlfriends?” I’m sure men would want to imagine themselves wearing the samurai armor. I imagine how amazing a delicious Thai dinner served to us on Thai ceramics would taste. And those lingams, phallic Hindu sculptures—ok I’ll stop there. I’m going to have participants consider some of their own desires and seek it out in the museum.

IDCA Awards: We’re Finalists!

We’re very excited today because we are finalists in two categories of the International Design Communication Awards.

Our website made the finals in Best Website, and our Lost Warrior campaign is a finalist in the Best Exhibition Communication category.

Our Lost Warrior says goodbye at SFO

Our Lost Warrior says goodbye to our marketing team, Ami and Jenn, at SFO.

Both these projects were huge for the museum, so kudos to the team who made it all happen. Special thanks to our partner Carbon Five, who designed and built the website, to partner JVST who built the Lost Warrior site, and to the remarkable Calvin Kai Ku, who truly made the warrior come to life.

The winners will be announced in a cavern in Stockholm (yes, really, a cavern) on July 5. Wish us luck!

Goodbye, Terracotta Warriors


Jennifer with the truck that took the warriors away.

We’re all going to miss those wonderful Terracotta Warriors. But after their stay at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for several months, and then here at the Asian for 13 weeks, the warriors are finally on their way back to Xi’an, China.

Packing up the entire exhibition was a formidable job, as you can imagine, but we got it done in just four days — a minor miracle. We could never have accomplished this huge undertaking without the help of so many people working behind the scenes from the Preparation, Conservation and Registration departments.

We also had a team of three staff from Xi’an helping us pack the exhibition up–Messrs. Ma, Wang and Zhou–really nice guys who were very helpful in assisting us. Now that the warriors are in crates, registrars from Minneapolis Institute of Arts will travel on two separate flights with the crated exhibition objects. (Ship Art International, CASE Company and Exclusive Art Service have offered us excellent assistance as well.)


Packing objects into cases.

But now we’re getting the galleries ready for Larry Ellison’s wonderful Japanese collection. Of course, we’re looking forward to the shift into an entirely different exhibition. But I was the last to see the warriors as they drove away, and honestly, it was sad to see them go.


Sharon packing some of the treasures into a case.

Proximities in public

Proximities_25Proximities 1 is open to the public and it has been a thrill to see the first phase as an actual exhibition. It looks like it was intended to—lush, colorful, a little bit critical.

The gallery now seems a contemporary interjection between areas devoted to traditional galleries of Korean and Japanese objects, a spot within which to ponder notions of time and place.

As the show faces a public, this is also an opportunity for feedback. The week before the show opened, I began to hear, second hand, questions about who is included in the show—particularly why it is that there are mostly non-Asian artists in What Time Is It There?. The beauty of having the blog platform is that it allows for this issue to be acknowledged. Here are some curatorial notes:

One of the show’s goals is to create new connections between the museum and the local contemporary art public. As I began the process, I considered the idea that the museum was interested in broadening its audience and addressing a community of artists who live and work here.  I began with my own position: Why wasn’t I more connected to the venue? Partly it’s because I am not schooled in Asian art history, and partly because my interests are more focused on contemporary art, which is only sporadically presented at the Asian. I figured I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.  (It turned out that a surprising number of the artists in the shows had never actually been to the museum before, and in that regard, the show has begun to do its job of broadening the scope of visitors.) And of course there is always the question of identity as an entry point: Does an artist or viewer have to be Asian or Asian American to consider the subject? Spending time at the museum, it’s clear that the audience and staff are a diverse bunch.

With the first show, I wanted to create entry points for artists and viewers of all stripes. There was a directive from the museum to address “Asia” as a totality, which is a huge, unwieldy theme. I considered artists who had some connection to this vast idea; the more unlikely the connection seemed the most interesting to me. When I told colleagues about the show, they assumed that it would only include Asian artists, making the idea of thwarting expectation all the more appealing. James Gobel, for example, seems like the last person you’d expect to be showing in this particular museum, and yet his abstract painting reveals fitting connections to the themes (Manila being his subject). Hopefully his work suggests more entry points to the museum, and who has a connection to it, than we might initially consider. There are Asian and hyphenate artists in the trio of exhibitions; the artists selected are those who had not exhibited in an “Asian” context before (in upcoming shows you’ll see Barry McGee, Kota Ezawa, Imin Yeh, Michael Jang, and others).

The first show is purposefully about distance from place, about imagining the far away. I was initially inspired by Raymond Roussel’s 1910 surrealist novel, Impressions of Africa, which revels in the notion of the imagined place through a formalized lens. In Proximities, we are viewing the concept of “Asia” from California, in a museum that is very much a constructed presentation of culture and an institution beset with unavoidable cultural baggage. I think the first show offers its criticisms subtly. It’s a small show, but hopefully one that will generate some productive discussion along with its aesthetic pleasures.

Proximities, getting closer

The upcoming exhibition, Proximities, takes place in a single gallery over the next several months, but it’s rooted in a larger dialogue, and metaphorically in various spaces. The show is ostensibly about conceptions of an unwieldy, geographically and culturally vast idea termed “Asia,” but it’s also about engaging different communities and considering the Asian Art Museum’s connection to contemporary art—from Asia and beyond. The series emerged from conversations about institutions and audiences, and how the museum is connected to the large community of artists who live and work in the Bay Area. I’m honored to have been invited to curate this project.

I began by questioning my own relationship to the museum and to the idea of Asian art. In many ways, it’s a specialized field, and one that has aspects of identity embedded—do you have to be schooled or part of the family in order to fully appreciate what is on view in the museum? Sometimes it can seem that way. You could do an informal poll and find similar questions about any number of cultural institutions in San Francisco—the Contemporary Jewish Museum, Museum of the African Diaspora, Mission Cultural Center— that are there to address an invested constituency. Each, however, is very interested in sharing a specific culture, and the set of concerns and ideas that emerge from their perspectives.

Contemporary art also has its degree of insider-ness, its issues du jour, and its rising stars. But these aspects of art tend to get more complicated when the overlays of globalism appear. I’m certain I’m not the only Westerner who calls Cai Guo Qiang the fireworks guy because I’m never quite sure how to pronounce his name. He’s an artist who emerged during a heyday of contemporary Chinese art, yet currently lives in New York. Does that still make him an “Asian artist”? It’s a fascinating question—where we are we in relation to “home”?– which is just one of the subtexts of Proximities. Perhaps a more salient theme is bridging some boundaries between the museum and artists you might not expect to see in it. “Asia” covers a lot of territory. The intention is to use this blog forum to address ways in which the show enters into various locations and ideas. We’re getting closer. Proximities 1: What Time Is It There? opens on May 24.

—Glen Helfand, Curator