Blogging about CAA, Volume 2
Friday February 24 -- L.A. Convention Center
Admitting it makes me angry, but the Westin Bonaventure wins. I can park anywhere cheaply in this city. I have a dark corner or hidden meter or backhanded unchecked loading zone from the beach to the San Gabriels. I’ve never paid for parking at MOCA, I weave in and out of the sunset strip using canyon driveways, and I know you won’t believe me, but I even have a secret for the Getty. Yes, I’ve beat the Getty.
However, the Bonaventure’s five towers have my routing number, and as much as I’d like to jump out of a Ferrari and burst through its doors like Lionel Ritchie in the Dancing on the Ceiling video (watch it, you know you want to), I end up on 8 dollar meters and in 15 dollar early bird specials. In the face of $3.50 every ten minutes, sometimes I just go home. On Saturdays, I have an all day spot at the library with validation, but during CAA, I am out of luck. Meetings at the Bonaventure cost money. $22 breakfast buffets of ham and eggs.
Once you get past the parking, the old Westin is quite a scene. How odd it is to see the Westin populated by black framed glasses, all with name tags swinging around their necks. Tense gripping of papers. Furious typing on laptops. Nervous interviewees. Tired Interviewers. Occasional bursts of pink hair on top of all-black art history uniforms. A geeky army of Spinal Tap groupies. Yes, This is Spinal Tap was filmed at the Westin too, but I don’t stay long. After the meetings, I’m out. Tap into America, my friends.
I’ll tell you what I don’t think about the Westin -- Believe it or not, the hotel as "a concentrated representation of the restructured spatiality of the late capitalist city: fragmented and fragmenting, homogeneous and homogenizing, divertingly packaged yet curiously incomprehensible, seemingly open in presenting itself to view but constantly pressing to enclose, to compartmentalize, to circumscribe, to incarcerate,” barely even comes to my mind at all, though Edward W. Soja put just that way in Postmodern Geographies: the reassertion of space in critical social theory (1989).* I prefer Andreas Gursky’s images of other John Portman hotels to give me a bead on the pulse of the Westin. The quote, however, we can all agree, might get us warmed up for many of these CAA panels.
Not this morning, I am happy to report. Instead of a blizzard of theory, a veritable pousse-café of ill tasting jargon, I was instead dazzled by The National Gallery’s Faya Causey’s talk on Sigmar Polke.
I looked forward to this panel, because I know far too little about Polke other than he makes outstanding paintings, real face melters that keep you going in the gallery and renew your spirit. I remember encountering a Stephan Balkenhol sculpture of a man once, and being drawn in close, the Balkenhol eyes led me across the gallery until there it was, a burst of Polke, Clouds (Wolken), 1989. This shimmer of yellow, purple, and crimson was all the sky I need that day.
Polke is a superhero, whether you know it yet or not. Without him, you don’t have Martin Kippenberger or Albert Oehlen or any of the other zany kitchen sink throwers that make up a sliver the German contemporary art community. You also don’t have a smart, big ticket rebuke of Andy Warhol, which I for one need.
Causey talked about one of Polke’s last shows, Bernstein Amber at Michael Werner in 2006, a number of resin works. Painted on both sides of the canvas, the paintings trap moments and images and incidentals in a glowing surface like the pre-historic fly in the knob of an old man’s cane. To Polke, we discover in Causey’s talk, the paintings were natural extensions of the history of resin that extended from the primordial into the classical and ends its long chain into today. They are contemporary fossils.
Polke didn’t want an art writer to approach this work. He actually didn’t want someone to discuss the works at all or him or any of the typical fare for a gallery catalogue. He instead wanted the most boring, studied, and labored account of amber possible, a window into the weird science of the materials. Causey, who has studied resin for many years, was tapped for the job.
What’s great about this and what made my day was that Causey’s encounter with Polke and his reclusive nature is a window into what he wanted from these amber paintings and why they matter. They are not political, they have nothing to say of the cold war, they are made neither for the market or academics -- they are made for history, for poets, for earth dwellers.
Polke wanted us to understand what he understood about amber, its properties, its mysterious and not fully grasped power of preservation. If you don’t start here, he seems to be saying, you’ll never get to his paintings. This was fresh stuff for CAA.
I got back to work and tore Causey’s catalogue off the shelf. It’s deep historical thinking. Causey maps the origin of word Amber through the Greek elektron (root for electricity), and tells us that Homer used the term to mean “the beaming sun.” The Germans also noted this beaming with word glaes or glese for amber, but really get to Polke in the medieval period with the term Bernstein.
So what’s Bernstein? Well, you can guess it’s lively because it’s Polke, it must enchant like clouds across a flat Balkenhol face. You can guess its alchemical -- it must be ancient and pagan. Why of course Bernstein means, simply, “Burning Stone.”
*Don’t be too impressed, the quote comes from Wikipedia.