PHOTO: Jaime Alvarez

Installation Summer Above
Wallace Whitney:

Optimistic Opposition

Posted: 6/10/11

Earlier this year artist and curator Wallace Whitney had concurrent exhibitions with Galerie Bernard Ceysson in Paris and Luxembourg. He returned from his European adventure a bit weary from the four-hour dinners, but also remarking upon a surprising shared interest he felt with some of the work coming out of France in the late 1960s and 1970s. Summer Above, on view from June 3 - 26, an exhibition Whitney curated for Tiger Strikes Asteroid in Philadelphia, provided a timely opportunity to ask Whitney to speak more about this historical connection, his painting and curatorial practices in general.

An interview conducted over e-mail lends itself well to Whitney’s compelling writing style and provides a natural way to go back and forth on the subject. It is natural, in a hemp garment kind of way, and maybe next time I’ll get a bottle of wine, a Dictaphone and shell out for the bus ticket to New York.  What is natural, though, in the unaffected sense of the word, is the way Whitney discusses the work he loves and why.

Hi Ashlee,

I seem to have misplaced your questions, so I'll do what I usually do: extrapolate.  The show looks nice at TSA, I realized at the opening it was the third show I have created since September (besides my normal CANADA co-curation duties) and that I have also done two solo shows of my own work since October.  So that, plus a room full of Philly's hip-wa-zee, plus a really nice low-pressure system, and several beers I was feeling great!  As far as the show there, I felt like I couldn't really describe it until I actually saw it installed.  It featured 4 artists, 2 Canada vets, Joanna Malinowska and Matt Connors, both of whom I have known for years now in New York and Lauren Luloff who I met maybe a year ago and who is my new go-to artist/excellent person and Roger Van Voorhees who I barely know at all.  So it was a way of extending myself comfortably, reaching for a brass ring while lying in a comfy bed. 

In the drive down to Philly car chatter I was having with one of the artists, I mentioned that when I was putting the show together I picked people who had things going on in their practices that I was looking for in my own work.

So Lauren was this wonderful lightness that is what Lyrical abstraction is all about for me, plus this bodily thing, where the bulges and tears are like orifices, pustules, boobs, bellies, and also allude to forces: invisible/magic forces sort of influencing the pieces, which is "juiciness" in painting.... the unplanned happy accident...

Matt is so pithy and too the point.  Those pieces look so effortless yet they seem to have presence.  And Joanna M. is just special as hell!  She made a video of the solar system collapsing using this gang of Polish (mostly) hopeless alcoholics who basically live in Mccarren Park.  I love the ambition in the piece "on the revolution of the heavenly spheres” I think it is called, after Copernicus's essay of 1492 or whenever it was, actually I think Columbus discovered Puerto Rico that year.  Doesn't matter, the point is that it is the highest minded stuff, that polish guy described to solar system!!! Using a toilet paper tube for a telescope...amazing.  It is that homage to people going all the way with their minds.  It is Very Romantic, too.

And Roger Van Voorhees, too. An amazing young poet who I met more less by accident through this magical painter man named Robert Janitz, a French German guy living in Bushwick, making these muted monochrome paintings, who in a previous life was a Sanskrit scholar and then the personal breakfast chef for Chogyam Trungpa, the Buddhist monk and founder of Naropa university, with Ginsburg and Kerouac, and was seen as the embodiment of the "crazy wisdom".   His first meal of the day was a glass of wild turkey and two poached eggs, served in bed of course, generally with young female special friends in sack with him.  I'm not sure what the girls ate.  Anyway, Robert and me are pals, it's fun to drink wine with him and talk about painting and stuff, and I included his work in the Material Issue show at Canada in September. And he and Roger are also friends, and well, Roger is poet who makes things, a language guy gluing shit onto ceiling tiles. They are like embodiments of poems.  He had made these poetry journals and he cuts them and slips them into architecture and thought..."that is fucking RAD!!!"  I wish I thought of that, as I care about language and sometimes when in the correct mood, I am verbal and I have a killer vocubarily [sic].  On intelligence tests, the only things I do well on are vocabulary and spatial relationships, especially spatial relationships.  But writing and self-expression with words escapes me and I have a body and I mostly love looking at clouds and people on the subway. So there you go.  AND Robert started to tell me one day about this group of artists in France called Supports/Surfaces. And, in fact, made an introduction to Bernard Ceysson, a man of little English but great art soul.

Nicely brought home. Note: in my initial questions, the “lost” questions, I had prompted Whitney to discuss the interests of the Supports/Surfaces artists to his own concerns and those of the artists he promotes at CANADA Gallery in New York, which he co-owns. The Supports/Surfaces was a name given in the late ‘60s to a group of French artists working mostly in the south of France, artists shown by Bernard Ceysson, both then and now.

About a year ago, and Bernard is the great theorist/curator of Supports/Surfaces group whose more famous members are Claude Viallat, Patrick Saytour, Daniel Dezeuze.  These guys were at war with Daniel Buren, say, who prolly thought they were romantic jack-offs who still cared about paint.  He was a Marxist, and they, jokingly (?) declared themselves Maoists. You get the drift.  Anyway, Bernard had great stories about Daniel Buren and his crew writing nasty shit about Bernard calling him a tool of the military industrial complex and then later meeting up with him at the club and dancing, drinking, and having fun.  It was the sixties,  Algeria, the Gendarme entering the Sorbonne, there was a popular uprising of students in Paris in 1968, events that mirrored the civil rights movement and anti-war protests in the USA.  There were differences, of courses, the riots in Paris forced the closing of the Sorbonne for only the second time in history--once in the eleventh century, and then when the Nazis occupied Paris.  Entering the Sorbonne campus for the first time.  The protesters were deeply influenced by the neo-absurdist, Situationist artists.  So it was crazy to see that there was this harmonic thing between what they were doing and what I was kind of doing and more importantly, what was going on at CANADA.  After all we are talking about a time before I was born, but something my parents remember.  I mean, Daniel Dezeuze made a piece called Chassis from 1967, which was an empty stretcher leaning against a wall.  It would look current today, that gesture could easily come out of an artist like Joe Bradley.  The reading might be a little different but there is a pretty punk rock stance to do something like that in art gallery.  Funny too. 

The Supports/Surfaces artists, active with differences and arguments, were highly influenced by the political events of Paris and the open intellectual atmosphere those events provided. There is a strong relevance or zeitgeist between these artists and the work you promote at CANADA and your other curatorial efforts; they are linked by common theoretical questions and practical strategies to challenge what constitutes painting- and like you said, “funny”- I think that is important. It is like these guys are responding to the ‘high canon’ reductive logic of minimalism but they are making jokes, pretending to be Maoists and dancing in nightclubs, allegedly.  I don’t know enough about this to propose that Supports/Surfaces was an alternative to the issues addressed by Minimalism, but the contrast of approaches from these French artists to their contemporaries in the States is clear, as is their relevance to painting right now.

Yes, really good point Ashlee.  I am wading out into art historical waters that may make a someone with a fresh MFA degree, like yourself, cringe, but you are on to something that I almost never think about but is always there in my studio and in the project of running an artist-run gallery, this sense of optimistic opposition in art. 

Only cringing at the mention of my fresh MFA degree. Buyer’s remorse? Optimistic opposition, go on.

The same way that the Supports/Surfaces guys were reacting to the purity and maybe “theatricality” as Michael Fried put it in Minimalism.  In other words, a way to reinvest in their work with the hand.  The same way the artists of the Arte Povera movement in Italy were so into materiality, seeking an almost postmodern alternative to machine culture.  It was sort of critique that went hand-in-hand with the times.  What does that have to do with the shows I curated in Paris and Philadelphia?  Well, there is an attempt to respond to brute force in art, to celebrate the marginal without descending into self-pity or self-marginalization.  That is something those Supports/Surfaces guys did so well, I mean, there was a historical piece I saw in the office at Ceysson’s by Viallat where he painted his signature lozengy-thing-style on the reverse side of a Pepsi umbrella that you see in so many cheesy, French concessions. 

That makes me think of Yves Klein signing the sky in comparison to Viallat’s claim stake.

It was heart breaking.  It was so bold, yet humble and just like you get one to, one of my marks, you maligned piece of crap. So much better than some glitzy, polystyrene, injection-molded ten studio assistants and four accountants pieces that were the only way one seemingly could make art when I was young and in New York trying to find a way to be an artist 15 years ago.

Yes. To go back 15 years. Just kidding, to go back to what you said about Joanna and Matt, about the presence of big ideas, maybe the biggest ideas, expressed through simple materials or directness— the alcoholics are talking about deep sky physics, nothing says more than something, and the most beautiful things are accidental. The humble gesture seems to allow for the interest in truth and beauty. It is like the failure is built-in, allowing ourselves to be sincere and sold at the same time. 

I like to think that Whitney would agree with me here. Followed by making a connecting statement to the previously mentioned show he curated for Galerie Bernard Ceysson in Paris.

The show in Paris was Michael Mahalchick, Sadie Laska, Sarah Braman and Michael Williams; at the same time, I was having a show in their space in Luxembourg.   It was interesting to be there, even meeting some of the old guys.  Looking at art and seeing how basically lame art in France has become. 

What about lameness here?  

I mean, as my friend Kate put it, who moved from New York to Paris, “ the work is glitzy and bad.” This "movement" was this little glimmer.

A moment where responding to big ideas, interested in materiality and the object without loosing it, (losing it to theory or commercialism or boredom).

Yes. Also, I was sort of learning about it as I went along, gathering a little here and a little there, like a squirrel.  So the funk was in the show, the rough and ready, fully de-skilled.  Democratic, open, allowing the viewer some agency.  I really dug that show, plus it was in Paris.  So that sort of looped me back to "Summer Above" (which rhymes with summer of love) at TSA.  It was also sort of an answer show to the show down the street at Jolie Laide. 

What did you know about that show, aside from familiarity with the curator and participating artists?

I felt the show was in a similar territory: abstraction, rough and ready, but maybe like the feuds of Paris, I felt like there was maybe a better show to be had in subtle understatement and humility.  Not to dis Bill Saylor, who curated it, and I really like a lot of the Art in the show, a capitalization, in no doubt meant to express respect for the work in the show. In fact, two of the artists in the Jolie Laide show were in the Paris show in March, Michael Williams and Sadie Laska.  So obviously, there is a lot of sympathy there, but I wanted to do something different and in some way, showcase the depth of CANADA’s program, while also undercutting, in the best possible sense, what was happening down the street.  Obviously, Tiger Strikes Asteroid is a small space run more sparely, but there is a way that it worked just perfect for the effect I was after.

Anyway, that is a start my hands are starting to hurt from all the typing let's keep going on this though.

Best, WW.

Thanks Wallace,



Summer Above
Curated by Wallace Whitney
Tiger Stirkes Asteriod
319A North 11th Street, Suite 2H
Philadelphia, PA 19107
On view through June 26, 2011


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