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Monthly Archives: January 2009

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One of my favorite books of the past year, Sleeping Beauty by John Sparagana (1, 2) and Mieke Bal, is at the center of an enviable launch party in Chicago Saturday afternoon. Corbett vs. Dempsey Gallery is hosting the official release, which is set to feature a short concert by Glenn Kotche. Best known as the drummer for Wilco, Kotche also performs and records as a solo percussionist; at the Sleeping Beauty event, he’s scheduled to perform two pieces by Minimalist composer Steve Reich. Sparagana’s work will be on view, and he’ll be there to sign books, but the press release I have encourages early arrival at this free event.

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Sleeping Beauty is the first publication in the Project Tango series from University of Chicago Press. Project Tango is described as “a new series of experimental collaborations between artists and writers,” and if future titles sport the creative integrity of the Sparagana + Bal pairing, they’ll quickly become essential acquisitions. [Disclosure Alert: I have known John for nearly a decade, and although we’ve never been close friends, we keep in touch sporadically, and I’m a longtime fan of his work. This mildly embarrassing piece I wrote in 2002 includes a short review of a great show he created that year for FotoFest.]

Having collaged, altered, and otherwise obscured images from popular magazines since the late 1990s, Sparagana has spent the past several years “distressing” images of desire, glamour, and wealth, as he dubs his signature technique. At its most reductive, “distressing” is another word for “crumpling,” but to call it that would be a gross oversimplification. Sparagana rubs, wrinkles, and weathers his carefully-chosen images until they’re as frail as ancient texts, and one imagines that they could turn the whole work or art to dust by breathing on it too hard. In the artist’s hands, the paper’s inky coating cracks into a dense latticework of crystallized webs, draping the original images in blankets of crackled gauze. As Mieke Bal writes in Sleeping Beauty, “The act of destruction is reiterated, so much so that, at some point, the sheet of paper becomes soft, voluptuous to the touch, flexible like a fabric such as satin. The image loses its predictable aspect. It becomes enigmatic, hard to read as what it was, novel and unheard of.”

sleeping-beauty-12While it’s tempting to read this process as a simple, if violent, metaphor for media critique, this interpretation doesn’t account for the countless hours of tender attention Sparagana spends on each work, nor does it address the erotic allure of his primary imagery. These elements are made clearer in later works, where the artist collages distressed images with their pristine orginals, creating—as Bal rightly points out—”interventions” in the manufactured seduction of the fashion spreads. These disruptions jolt our attention, scattering our attention onto three simultaneous fields of meaning: the glamorous pull of the original image; the fragile tactility of the distressed areas; and the startled awareness of the original’s complex visual and cultural coding. It becomes a visual experience whose closest analogy is the short moment when, awakening from a dream, one tries to fall back asleep so that the rewards and riches of our slumbering fantasties might manifest themselves completely.

Corbett vs. Dempsey, 1120 N. Ashland Ave. 3, Chicago

Saturday, January 31, at 4pm

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10stru_ca1ready1Thomas Struth, “Hermitage 1, St. Petersburg,” 2005

Beginning on January 28, I will be teaching an 8-week course about art writing at PNCA, which I invite everyone to consider taking. Art Criticism + Journalism meets Wednesday nights (6:30-8 pm) through March 18, and is offered through the school’s Continuing Education department.

The class premiered last fall, and was more engaging and dynamic than I had even hoped for. PNCA has extended it from a 6-week course to 8 weeks this semester, which will allow for even more in-class development, feedback, and exploration. The course is open to all levels of experience, and the class of 2007 included a frighteningly bright high school senior, the former art director of a national culture magazine, and an investment banker who wanted to write about the opera in his retirement.

Focusing primarily on reviews of visual art shows (although students are encouraged to write about all art forms), classes are comprised of discussions, lectures, writing exercises, and readings. The craft of writing insightful, persuasive reviews is covered in depth (drawing largely from the texts of Terry Barrett, Sylvan Barnet, and Henry Sayre), but we also discuss many of the social/pragmatic issues that commonly face art critics. This includes topics ranging from the usefulness of negative reviews to practical issues like starting your own blog and writing effective pitches.

If anyone is interested in signing up for the class, I encourage you to do so, or to email me with questions (chasbowie @ gmail). Classes start in less than two weeks!