From the initial mark placed on a blank page, the artist is laid bare. As Philip Guston said, that first mark is necessarily destructive. The pristine blank page is perfect and once marked is ruined and only saved when the artist finds a way, through magic, to transform it into something better than before. The artist leads the way into the unknown, owning the details of each choice. To mark a blank page becomes a tremendous proposition and responsibility, to set out without direction and asking the viewer to follow.Read More
We recently had the honor of guest curating an exhibition at The Good Luck Gallery, an important, new space in Los Angeles. Founded and directed by former Artillery publisher Paige Wery, The Good Luck Gallery is the only space in LA dedicated to showing the work of self-taught artists. Wery fosters the burgeoning careers of artists such as Helen Rae and Deveron Richard, who maintain studio practices in progressive art studios, as well as artists like Willard Hill, who fall into the Outsider, Visionary, or Vernacular categories. Mapping Fictions, curated by Andreana Donahue and Tim Ortiz, opened on July 9th and will be on view through August 27th.Read More
Joe Zaldivar’s work documents and reimagines disposable or forgotten media with permanence and idealism; his vast and varied oeuvre includes massive, detailed hand-drawn maps, intricate interiors and landscapes drawn from Google Street View imagery, and drawings referencing local business mailers, logos, advertisements, and tv stills. He has also compiled an enormous, ever-expanding archive of home-recorded video ephemera which is uploaded to a YouTube channel (including cold opens, sign-ons/sign-offs, and advertisement segments from obscure tv broadcasts dating back many years), all citing sources, dates, and times.
To parse the intent or underlying conceptual framework of Zaldivar’s intensely elaborate creative endeavor, his Street View landscapes and interiors provide an important entry point. As a whole, they feel like the collected documents of a digital explorer searching for and preserving scenes from around the world, often capturing iconic landmarks: sports stadiums, restaurants, famous storefronts, etc. Aesthetically, each of these drawings isolates a moment (a necessary quality of any still image), a tendency that’s especially engaged in his drawings, as in Cindy Sherman’s film stills. This sense of candid immediacy and stillness could be attributed to the automated eye of the google maps camera car; Joe's interpretations of these moments, however, are more nuanced and often altered.
The Coffee Roaster, for example, remains faithful to its source material except for a few deviations; the billboard has been replaced with one lifted from another image, and one of the patrons (whose face is blurred in the street view image), is replaced with a man loosely resembling Homer Simpson, both of which are references to a 1995 episode of the Simpsons (Treehouse of Horror VI). In this episode, Homer Simpson ends up at “Erotic Cakes”, a bakery in the real world via interdimensional travel, the actual filming location being the storefront of The Coffee Roasters. This drawing exemplifies the manner in which Zaldivar’s work traverses multiple layers of meaning - navigating the world, drawing connections between reality and fiction, and isolating or describing fully a specific moment.
In this context, recording moments digitally and creating intuitive, thought-provoking connections across various media, Zaldivar’s YouTube channel is a compelling enigma. Zaldivar's channel isn’t the only one of its kind, this curious practice has a surprising cult following. He’s among the most popular, however, with almost 2000 subscribers and nearly 4 million total views of well over 1000 videos. Sometimes he records directly from recent broadcast television, while other segments are culled from VHS tapes found at yard sales. Whereas other channels featuring this kind of content are direct digital transfers from other media, Joe records his television screen by hand with a tablet computer - the filter of his gaze is always present. Much like his Street View drawings, these recordings are slightly unsteady, but intensely diligent. As extensive as his archive is though, the moments he chooses to document are just a few waypoints into the realm of ephemeral television media. There’s a distinct ambition across all of his works to address and highlight moments not originally intended to be the focus of the media that they reference (as evidenced particularly in this early work).
Given the map-like quality of Zaldivar’s process, it’s intuitive that his body of work would include actual maps. Zaldivar creates large-scale maps in 18” x 24” sections (usually divided into a grid of 8 or 10); he diligently works on one section at a time while referring to an iPad, with the completed sections stacked neatly beneath the one in progress. These hand-drawn cities reclaim selections from that endless modern world of digital maps, generated by swarms of satellites and computer systems, as a personal and human experience. Through this lens, his smaller drawings that incorporate both road maps and disposable ad imagery (logos, slogans, place names) can be understood as signifiers for a specific time and place.
Joe Zaldivar (b. 1990) attends First Street Gallery Art Center in Claremont, California (the same studio that supports the great Helen Rae). He has shown previously in Wunderkammer, an invitational group exhibition at Pitzer College's Nichols Gallery and Street Views, a solo exhibition at First Street Gallery Art Center. Zaldivar was the initial inspiration for the upcoming group exhibition Mapping Fictions: Daniel Green, William Scott, Roger Swike, and Joe Zaldivar at The Good Luck Gallery in LA, curated by Disparate Minds writers Tim Ortiz and Andreana Donahue, which will be on view July 9 - August 27, 2016.
Over the past several years, as work created by artists working in progressive art studios (as well as those historically categorized as outsider or visionary) has entered the mainstream, questions have emerged about how to appreciate and discuss these artists. What does it mean to contextualize this work as fine art? What really defines this categorization? What role should the artist's disability or dispositional narrative play in understanding the work? Responding to these questions often seems to result in skirting or avoiding the consideration of an artist's biography.
Fear of overstating biography is rooted in a fair desire to understand these artists on a level playing field with their contemporaries, trying to avoid both an especially generous consideration and a disparaging framing of “other” (necessarily lesser) - seemingly opposite ideas that are in effect the same, a phenomenon which we refer to as the “sympathetic eye”. This dismissive perspective suggests that this work is compelling and valuable only relative to biography; “this is a great achievement...for a person with a disability” is the most destructive and unfortunate possible understanding. This problem emerges in two distinct and passive ways: as an expression of a commonly held, inherent bias or an escape from the pressure of formulating a critical, thoughtful response. There tends to be a discomfort (even fear) that disability or mental illness elicits because the true nature of their difference is unknown - it remains a great and beautiful mystery. This mystery provides an unsure footing for the viewer, unable to feel (with either praise or criticism), if they understand and are receiving what's being communicated or that they’ll be exposed with their response. And so, the sympathetic eye is easily provoked and often may occur without provocation, or despite active attempts to dispel it in the nature of presentation.
In Nathaniel Rich’s recent piece about Creative Growth in The New York Times (A Training Ground for Untrained Artists), he quotes a 1993 article by Rosemary Dinnage in order to describe the appeal of outsider art: “The fantasy that over there, on the other side of the insanity barrier, is a freedom and passion and color that were renounced in childhood … the longing for a return to something direct and strong and primitive.” Dinnage, and Rich by reference, articulate a sympathetic bifurcation that is false; it’s implicated that mainstream contemporary art (we’ll refer to it as insider art) is inherently more structured and sophisticated (less primitive, less free). If this is understood in terms of biography, the real misconception becomes clear. It’s presumed that biography is important in outsider art and not insider art because the latter has a sophisticated, conceptual structure devised by the artist in the course of intentionally creating works of art (intended to be presented and marketed in the contemporary mainstream), a structure that references western art history and culture. In outsider art, a sympathetic viewer assumes that this sophistication is absent, so biography or a captivating narrative is necessary to take the place of a conceptual structure that provides its context. Thus, the perception is that an artist isn’t being intentional, but instead their disposition is what causes the work to be interesting.
In the presentation of Judith Scott’s Bound and Unbound at the Brooklyn Art Museum, curator Catherine Morris sought to avoid this characterization stating:
We have tried to resist viewing Scott’s lack of speech as a void in need of filling and instead have chosen to focus on what Scott does communicate through her work. Readings that draw on biography to construct narrative interpretations for artists who do not communicate through traditional means have historically taken precedence over other ways of understanding. This exhibition is, in part, an attempt to forefront readings of the work that ask questions without expecting definitive answers or metaphorical readings.
Despite this earnest attempt to challenge the viewer to accept mystery, Cynthia Cruz, writing for Hyperallergic, responded “I question the importance of biography as it is emphasized in the wall texts. This results in silencing the work, turning it into the strange artifacts of a strange, not-understood person,” (Words Fall Away) suggesting that the mere presence of the artist's biography in the exhibition is sufficient to “silence” the artist's voice. Cruz makes a comparison to A Cosmos, at the New Museum, where Scott's work was exhibited without biographical information among insiders of similar sensibility. Certainly integrating works by artists with disabilities covertly into group shows with mainstream artists will effectively evade the sympathetic eye, but possibly at the cost of putting a ceiling on their careers and ultimately perpetuating the stigma that disability should remain hidden.
Beyond the problematic implications of both relying on biography too much or avoiding it altogether, often, actively excluding biography is a disservice to the work. David Pagel, in an excellent review of Helen Rae’s exhibition at The Good Luck Gallery (Exhibition Review: Helen Rae), creates an ideal balance of formal, conceptual, and biographical discussion. His criticism focuses primarily on the experience of viewing the work, with keen observations of her routine, artistic process, and unique way of seeing as they are relevant to her drawings, which ultimately assist in recognizing and appreciating their power.
Rejecting the presumption that outsider or visionary art is to be filtered solely through a biographical understanding, whereas contemporary art always speaks for itself, means accepting the fact that some elements of biography are important to all works of art. A heavy focus on biography is, of course, common in outsider art writing. Discussing his recent book about Martín Ramírez with Edward Gómez for Hyperallergic, Víctor M. Espinosa makes an important distinction between a sociological perspective and a formal one:
It is written from the point of view of someone who is practicing the sociology of art, not from that of a conventional art historian … Sociologists believe that no work of art stands alone like that. It’s not that simple. Various factors play roles in how a work of art is produced and, ultimately, in what it might mean at any given time — social, cultural, historical, economic and other factors.
Traditionally, a sociological perspective (or even anthropological one) is permissible in the discussion of outsider art, but it’s not only to fill a void where the artist's own explanation is absent. Espinosa points out that absent any “sociological perspective” (ie. biography) the evaluation is incomplete. These factors are an unavoidable element of any work; certainly our knowledge of Kara Walker’s race or Jeff Koons’ marriage to Cicciolina, for example, informs our understanding of their work. As Matthew Higgs points out:
I think that that question of the artist’s biography is something that a lot of people have issue with in relation to outsider art. I was wondering why we don’t know more about the lives of contemporary artists, why it’s only when they suddenly get a 10-page profile in the New Yorker that we find out what their parents do. Unless an artist gets to a certain level of visibility, we know nothing really about a contemporary artist’s life. We don’t know about their home life, about their kids, what their kids do, what their parents did, or what their partner does. All of this is regarded as extraneous to the work, which of course it isn’t. It’s central to the work.
This begs the question, though, of what’s really occurring and why it's happening now, if outsiders and insiders are so similar in this regard. The real concern is not the presence of these ideas, but who controls them. Andrew Edlin Gallery’s Phillip March Jones explains the additional roles of an outsider art gallery director with Karen Rosenberg for Artspace:
Someone like Judith Scott … there’s a lot of reasons she wouldn’t be able to [market herself]. And other people are just so involved in the works they’re creating that it’s not really part of their reflective process. A lot of the art we show is created for very personal reasons, usually in private. Often, the artists create worlds they wish to inhabit. Maybe sometimes they don’t know that they aren’t inhabiting them—maybe they live within that work, or maybe the relationship to the work is more important, or real, than the relationships they have in our real world. I think someone like Henry Darger very clearly lived more in his work, his drawings, than in Chicago.
…As dealers in this field we have a greater responsibility to the artist, because frequently you are the one who is making a lot of the decisions that the artist would make. When I work with a contemporary artist, they’re present for the installation—they’re doing all these things that for the most part the outsider artist is not engaged in.
What Jones is describing, in effect, is a process of translation. The trajectory of American art history over the past 100-150 years has been driven by a search for new concepts and divergent ways of thinking. This has always been most notably achieved by including ideas previously considered to reside in the margins - Picasso’s appropriation of the ideas and aesthetics of African art, the inclusion of women in the 60s and 70s, the appropriation of commercial and design aesthetics by Pop artists, current artists investigating race and LGBTQ issues, etc. This process has lead to a situation in which the boundaries of the creative culture are so thoroughly broken down that contemporary artists are expected to invent art for themselves and, in effect, become new outsiders. What remains of our consensus culture is only in the periphery - pristine white spaces, white cotton gloves, and expensive crates. Insider artists create for this context, but it’s social power has become equally available to objects like the quilts of Gees Bend, which once had a context and purpose of their own, if a curator such as Phillip March Jones is able to provide it.
Tom Sachs’ 2007 Space Program took place in the blue chip heart of the contemporary mainstream, Gagosian in Chelsea, but it’s only this context that makes it an insider work. Had he created the same body of work, but instead performed the landing in a midwestern backyard then he would be an outsider - and we may give greater credence to his stated goal of creating as a means of attaining the unattainable in a mystical sense, yet his social commentary most likely be dismissed and pathologized as an expression of some strange paranoid thought process. Those distinctions, however, are less important than the fact that it would still be a remarkable and highly sophisticated work. It is an important revelation that the difference between outsiders and insiders is actually just a few delicate details of circumstance. It’s not a desire to escape the superior sophistication of the mainstream that has lead to the inclusion of outsider work, but that the line between the two is increasingly blurred. From our perspective, these designattions have become obsolete and are more appropriately used in only a historical context.
Unfortunately, the sympathetic eye is almost inevitable and shouldn’t be the responsibility of galleries, curators, or art writers to actively target and discourage this tendency. It is their responsibility, however, to confidently lead by example in a full and fair engagement with the work of these artists as they would with any other, including uninhibited discussion of biography, disability, and the various relevant aspects of lifestyle and disposition that inform the work - a respectful practice of appreciating these works by approaching the unknown with wonder instead of fear. This may mean being comfortable experiencing a work as fiction when it was intended as non-fiction or recognizing that compelling, conceptual contrivances of a neurotypical artist may be just as compelling (or more compelling) as intuitive expressions from an artist with an intellectual disability. Because, by definition, neurodiversity will require communication across profound intellectual differences, including vast disparity in the fundamental nature of our experience - the work must become a point of connection without having to result in a consensus.
A Joe Zaldivar drawing was selected for the High Desert Test Sites 2015-2016 Limited Edition Postcard Series. Zaldivar, a prolific artist who maintains a studio practice at First Street Gallery Art Center in Claremont, California, has created an extensive body of work using Google Maps Street View images as reference material; this particular piece depicts the Sky Village Swap Meet in Joshua Tree, where the HDTS headquarters is located. Proceeds from postcard sales support future HDTS programming, projects, and events. A few highlights of their compelling and diverse programming include Andrea Zittel's A-Z West, Noah Purifoy's Outdoor Desert Art Museum, and the Sky Village Swap Meet. Notable contemporary artists who have exhibited with HDTS include Allan McCollum, Lisi Raskin, Cayetano Ferrer, and Siebren Versteeg, among many others.
You can purchase one of Zaldivar's postcards here.
From High Desert Test Sites:
High Desert Test Sites is a non-profit organization that supports intimate and immersive experiences and exchanges between artists, critical thinkers, and general audiences – challenging all to expand their definition of art to take on new areas of relevancy.
As a conceptual entity we are dedicated to "learning from what we are not." We believe there are many ways to live, and that learning from others can offer new insight and perspectives on ourselves, and the everyday environments we may think we already know well. Our mission is inspired by those visionary individuals who have made their work their life practice – who create intellectually rigorous and culturally relevant work regardless of the market or other outside factors.
HDTS programs include guides to the high desert’s cultural test sites, immersive excursions, solo projects, workshops, publications, and residencies.
From intricate maps to extensive interiors, Zaldivar's colored pencil and marker works on paper are a spectacle of diligent truth to their various subjects - street/public transit maps, LA area landmarks, disposable local business mailers, and pop culture references. Self-taught and prolific, he has been making art since early childhood; presently he's a studio artist at First Street Gallery Art Center (part of the Tierra del Sol Foundation).
Zaldivar recently exhibited work in Wunderkammer, an invitational group show at Pitzer College's Nichols Gallery and previously at First Street Gallery. He currently has work in Own It, a First Street Gallery benefit show at the Ginger Eliot Exhibition Center. He has also acquired several commissions from local businesses including Claremont’s Some Crust Bakery and Folk Music Center, Spaggi’s restaurant in Upland, Nate & Al’s Delicatessen in Beverly Hills, Western Rentals in Fontana, and Hamer Toyota in Mission Hills.