Culture and Starters: S.E. Nash’s Cultural Inquiry Through Fermentation

Etta Sandry takes a microscopic view of the concept of culture in the work of S. E. Nash

While listening to an interview with the artist S.E. Nash and other fermentation enthusiasts on an episode of KCUR’s program Central Standard, I was struck by the use of the word “culture.” Taken from the Merriam-Webster English Dictionary online, the definition of “culture” in a scientific context is the act or process of cultivating living material (such as bacteria or viruses) in prepared nutrient media; also: a product of such cultivation. In the terminology of fermentation, this is the “starter”: a portion of food or nutrient substrate—wheat in a sourdough starter, for example—that has been colonized by bacteria that will enact the fermentation process.

S.E. Nash Lactobacillus Amongus Exhibition Installation at Plug Projects

S.E. Nash
Lactobacillus Amongus Exhibition Installation at Plug Projects

“Culture” is more commonly thought of in a social context, where the meaning refers to the development of human knowledge and the resulting beliefs, behavior, and social practices that are enacted to share and preserve that knowledge within a group. Both uses of the “culture” originate in its Latin root, “colere” meaning to tend or cultivate. The original use of the word referred to a knowledge of the land. As human history developed, the contextual meaning expanded to include the cultivation of the mind.

S.E. Nash’s work investigates culture through all understandings of the word. Beginning in 2015 with a show titled They/Them/Their, at Black Ball Projects in New York, Nash began incorporating micro-organisms and fermented foods in their work. Amorphous sculptures made of paper maché, burlap, and paint housed glass vessels of fermenting foods including kimchi and kombucha. Each sculpture is created with the specific fermentation vessel in mind and the color, form, and shape are informed by Nash’s interpretation of the spirit of the microbes in the food fermenting. Wall works such as An Incomplete Index of Bacterial Morphology gave the viewer an enlarged visual abstraction of a look under a microscope. Members of New York’s fermentation community were invited to leave jars of their personal ferments on a shelf in the gallery for the duration of the exhibition and Nash hosted programming around the process of food fermentation from initiation to consumption.

 S.E. Nash The stability of sourdough ecosystem during time is debated 70 in. x 48 in. x 36 in. Wood, polyurethane foam, cardboard, sculptamold, burlap, acrylic paint, acrylic sheeting, glass jars, sourdough starters

S.E. Nash
The stability of sourdough ecosystem during time is debated
70 in. x 48 in. x 36 in.
Wood, polyurethane foam, cardboard, sculptamold, burlap, acrylic paint, acrylic sheeting, glass jars, sourdough starters

These workshops, meals, and demonstrations are now a regular part of Nash’s work. The artist’s recent solo show Lactobacillus Amongus about sourdough bread at Plug Projects in Kansas City culminated in a bread bake and community potluck. These events stage the gallery as a site for inquiry and knowledge sharing while inviting people from across disciplines to come together to cultivate a new community of artists, fermentors, and others.

 S.E. Nash Propagated under peculiar technological parameters (1) 48 in. x 36 in. x 7.5 in. Wood, burlap, sculptamold, acrylic paint, glass jars, sourdough starters

S.E. Nash
Propagated under peculiar technological parameters (1)
48 in. x 36 in. x 7.5 in.
Wood, burlap, sculptamold, acrylic paint, glass jars, sourdough starters

In this work, worlds of culture collide. Cultures of microbes are actively fostered and cultivated throughout the duration of Nash’s shows and new networks of exchange are formed through the outreach and events that take place within the exhibition. Through researching the history of fermentation and by interpreting microbial activity, Nash’s work also explores human culture and social behavior. As a non-scientist researching microbiology, there is a tendency for Nash to personify the micro-organisms, even referring to them as “collaborators” in the work. For the artist, understanding the microbes becomes a way to “unpack how we relate to the idea of life” and a meditation on aspects of human behavior such as relationships, gender expression, symbiosis, reproduction, social networks, and group dynamics. Nash’s fermentation-themed work and related events invite participation into this cultural inquiry.

This essay is part of a series commissioned, in collaboration with Informality Blog, for the exhibition YET, UNKNOWN at Paragraph Gallery (23 E 12th St, Kansas City, MO 64106) open from July 27 through August 26, 2017. These pieces, co-edited by Melaney Mitchell (Founder & Senior Editor of Informality Blog) and Lynnette Miranda (Curator-in-Residence at Charlotte Street Foundation) focus on a shared goal of bringing the eyes of national writers to the work of Kansas City-based artists. 

Zoe Chressanthis’ Utopian World

Kimi Hanauer explores the subtle familiarity in the sculptural worlds of Zoe Chressanthis.

Part I: A Place To Rest

"Excerpts from Swamp Island Cave with Albino Gator" 2017, Plasticine, Acrylic Paint 4 x 6 inches

“Excerpts from Swamp Island Cave with Albino Gator”
2017, Plasticine, Acrylic Paint
4 x 6 inches

The exhibition YET, UNKNOWN proposes that knowledge is dependent on an understanding of the unknown that is based on our own experience of the world. Humans are motivated to understand, and attempt to control, the contexts in which they inhabit. We use common sense to determine our own behavior, language, and understanding of our surroundings as we navigate different environments. In the text Outline of a Theory of Practice, Pierre Bourdieu, a French theorist, defines the term doxa as a commonsense knowledge that is tied to the specific cultural identity of a place and defines social norms that are often left unspoken, or taken for granted. Doxa is a kind of commonsense that certain ‘natural’ inhabitants of a place are indoctrinated into, and others, visitors for example, are not able to easily pick up on.

The idea of doxa came to mind while investigating Zoe Chressanthis’ body of work and wondering what type of logic or commonsense defines the creation and navigation of her constructed environments. Chressanthis’ style embraces a naivety while remaining assertive, building miniature worlds out of plasticine clay accompanied by dramatic colorful lighting that pushes each scene to appear as a dreamscape. Made up of seemingly ‘natural’ occurrences, organisms, plant life—generally uninterrupted by human behavior—these environments linger between known and unknown realities. Her spaces feel quiet and empty of human touch, with the lone animal-like presence of a small snake crawling up a rock, for example. In this tranquility, agency is held by the artist’s characters such as metallic palm trees, gravel, starfish, cactuses, and other plant-like organisms that are less recognizable. While typically presenting her work through films, animations, and images, in this exhibition Chressanthis moves her practice into the realm of sculpture, presenting the worlds themselves. For YET, UNKNOWN, she is creating a new ecosystem for our minds to find rest and ease within, a space we have probably unconsciously desired to escape to at one point in time.

"Still from Mers Springs: Shell Bed" 2017, Clay, Acrylic, Paper Mache, Plasticine (animation 1:08)

“Still from Mers Springs: Shell Bed”
2017, Clay, Acrylic, Paper Mache, Plasticine
(animation 1:08)

Chressanthis transports the viewer into an environment where the existing landscape and logic isn’t immediately identifiable, uniquely positioning them to experience a mismatch of internal and external doxa. This position, between the known and unknown, initiates our own subjectivity, thus allowing the acknowledgment that our understanding of the world is based on personal, emotional, and experiential factors. In other words, through these works, the artist asks us to identify the place from which our knowledge comes from—the subjective lens through which we see and understand the world around us. Through producing these utopian environments within a paradoxical frame, Chressanthis is asserting a type of authority over our society’s relationship to the natural world, reminding us of our emotional and physical ties to that which gives us life. These environments, seemingly thriving, subsequently ask us to reflect on exactly what it is we are escaping during a time where society is readily on its way to destroying our natural world.

Chressanthis’ ability to connect us with our place of ‘escape’ is a powerful questioning of the viewer. What makes the viewer feel free, safe, comfortable, and calm in these spaces? What are the conditions and variables the viewer is escaping from? What limits the conditions of safety and freedom the viewer experiences within the work from existing in reality? This questioning reinforces work being created by many other artists, cultural producers, and activists today, working to shift and expand our understandings of the world around us, in the hopes of transforming society. For cultural change to take form, we need artists who guide us to recognize our biases and prejudices, who ask us to acknowledge the experiences of others, and who are finding and facilitating moments of empathy. Chressanthis’ work and the experiences she creates is a necessary complement to other modes of cultural work happening today. This work is a call for empathy: when you accept your own subjectivity, you must also  accept the subjectivity of others. This positioning is a fundamental and powerful shift away from dominant dichotomies of ‘right and wrong’ or ‘truth and false,’ that often violently structure our co-existence.

"Still from Mers Springs: Sea Floor and Reef" 2017, Clay, Acrylic, Paper Mache, Plaster, Plasticine (animation 1:08)

“Still from Mers Springs: Sea Floor and Reef”
2017, Clay, Acrylic, Paper Mache, Plaster, Plasticine
(animation 1:08)

Part II: Speaking with Chressanthis

What motivates your work? Powerful and sometimes merciless parts of nature: the desert, the sea, mountains, volcanoes, and glaciers. Also forming a space in which people do not reside, or maybe they have been taken by the land itself.

How would you describe the relationship between the different, yet related, landscapes you are building? Destinations like, Dune Valley, Pink Desert Clouds, Lagoon Falls, Mers Springs and now Palm Lake appear to exist alone, but really they are different environments with varying climates that reside within the same world and universe. As of now, I do not know the name of this world, or planet but I intend to form an atlas of sorts that fully describes the terrain of each location and what falls in between.

You talk about your environments as being transformative for the viewer. Can you expand on what experience you hope to create? Until recently, my environments have been viewed through animation or in photographs and paintings. “View of Palm Lake,” is an immersive environment, and like my films, it is simply an observation of a habitat, currently vacant of any inhabitants. I intend for it to be a destination that you can place yourself in while experiencing not only its visual details but also its sounds, and scents. This full sensory experience may give the illusion this place is possible, when in our reality it is implausible. A fully imagined land, presented without a perspective through film or 2D format.


“Still from Dune Valley: Palms” 2015, Plasticine, Composite Images (animation 1:45)

This exhibition circulates around the idea of knowledge and the unknown. Do you feel like you’ve learned more about our reality through the creation of your environments? Yes definitely. This piece in particular is more tropical than others before, yet it lies in a cave, on an island, somehow still thriving. While my work often combines opposing vegetation and characteristics, it isn’t intended to be proven, I prefer it to remain mysterious. Much like certain aspects of our own reality, whether in nature or in society.

What is something that makes you feel free? Visiting my hometown, Topanga in Southern California. It is nestled in a canyon and if you drive only 15 minutes down a winding road you will find the ocean. Ironically I am afraid of water.

This essay is part of a series commissioned, in collaboration with Informality Blog, for the exhibition YET, UNKNOWN at Paragraph Gallery (23 E 12th St, Kansas City, MO 64106) open from July 27 through August 26, 2017. These pieces, co-edited by Melaney Mitchell (Founder & Senior Editor of Informality Blog) and Lynnette Miranda (Curator-in-Residence at Charlotte Street Foundation) focus on a shared goal of bringing the eyes of national writers to the work of Kansas City-based artists. 

Tactile Rituals and Feminine Power in The Work of Shelby Burchett

Anna Harsanyi reflects on Shelby Burchett’s use of magick and ritual as Goo-Witch.  


Thesis Exhibition install. Image Courtesy of the Artist

Being in touch means understanding the people and the ideas that surround us. By touching things we form a deeper connection with the physicality of our immediate world. Touch is an intimate part of Shelby Burchett’s work, simultaneously both ritual and experimentation. Through  a tactile experiments and ritualistic installations, the artist conveys a sense of desire and mystery that prompts the audience to interact playfully with the materials at hand.  

Burchett’s installations invite the viewer to engross themselves in her experiments with materials like goo, organic fabrics, and fur. These are assembled in immersive environments, often seeping through surfaces or oozing out of multiple structures, daring the audience to touch them. Embodying the persona of Goo-Witch, a maker who works with symbolic objects in order to conjure sacred qualities into a space, Burchett presents installations that change over time based in large part on how the audience participates in their evolutions. Tactile experiments draw attention to the importance of hands in the making of magic, with its array of crafted rituals. Spaces are restructured manually, organic materials are mixed together so as to cast spells that aim to alter both the physical and the spiritual realm.


Goo Witch performance as a part of Flesh Crisis 2017 at the Drugstore. Image Courtesy of the Artist

When experiencing Burchett’s installations, the viewer is called on to alter their own perception. In a recent performance, Cord Spinning, Burchett spun cord for 3 hours, inviting others to add herbs and organic materials to the circular space she created. The herbs and colors of the spun fabric held symbolic value and were part of a spell, though the audience was not necessarily aware of their direct participation in a ritual. The process of adding to and entering parts of the piece formed a point of collective access that allowed the participants to encounter moments of magic through touch and physical creation.

In Burchett’s work, magic is experienced in the form of mystery or the unknown, a collective wondering that brings the audience together through their shared desire to both participate in and further explore the tactile experiments they are engaging in. This experiential quality empowers the audience, who is given an agency in their desire to touch and to feel, and drawn into the creative process.

Goo Harvest from the exhibition Future Human at PLUG Projects. Image Courtesy of the Artist

Goo Harvest from the exhibition Future Human at PLUG Projects. Image Courtesy of the Artist

Using this approach to play and experience, Burchett further conceptualizes power and collectivity as inherently feminine qualities. In many magic practices, deities and spirits are female, holding symbolic and metaphysical importance as embodiments of power and wisdom. The spells that invoke them seek to produce empowerment in their execution. In Burchett’s work, the feminine is an essence, an object, a feeling, or an unnamed sensation—related to a concept that can be accessed by anyone, and is not necessarily gendered. Feminine in her practice signifies power, propelling this notion to a spiritual place where such qualities represent multiple aspects of our world, and are not tied to contemporary conventional social structures. This subverts the concept of femininity as female-oriented, rather allowing for it to be integrated into a universal sense of experience.

Through play, touch, and collective experience, the audience grows more “in touch” with their physical surroundings which allows for an agency in shifting and evolving the practical and the magical within a shared space or collective identity.

This essay is part of a series commissioned, in collaboration with Informality Blog, for the exhibition YET, UNKNOWN at Paragraph Gallery (23 E 12th St, Kansas City, MO 64106) open from July 27 through August 26, 2017. These pieces, co-edited by Melaney Mitchell (Founder & Senior Editor of Informality Blog) and Lynnette Miranda (Curator-in-Residence at Charlotte Street Foundation) focus on a shared goal of bringing the eyes of national writers to the work of Kansas City-based artists. 

Hidden Metaphors of the (Clay) Body in the work of Kimberly LaVonne

Kimberly LaVonne’s conversation with Gisela Morales centers around the metaphysical history and presumptions placed on the bodies of women and considered through clay.

Kimberly LaVonne Feast Your Eyes, 2017

Kimberly LaVonne
Feast Your Eyes, 2017

Kimberly LaVonne’s work is an examination of the unseen body through ceramic object. Employing organic bodies both in concept and medium produces work with flesh and organ-like qualities punctuated with Illustrations of saint-like female figures, which denote a need for self discovery and introspection. Fluctuating as specimens and relics, her sculptures deconstruct the human form into physical parts of divine abstraction, revealing what is not real into distorted and faintly familiar anatomy. In so doing, LaVonne awakens a new sense of wonder surrounding the investigation of the body. One that acknowledges the human body’s tension between scientific endeavor and religious belief, and underscores the use of women in building western anatomical knowledge.

Kimberly LaVonne_Sadness Is A Blessing, 2017

Kimberly LaVonne Sadness Is A Blessing, 2017

Motivated by the dichotomies present in the study of the body, LaVonne combines forms and shapes culled from anatomy books, medical collections, and gothic curiosities with illustrated references to the narratives of saints and holy women whose internal organs were mythologized as religious relics. Knowledge of the organs and their functions has been driven by myth, wonder, taboo and stigma. Human dissection throughout much of western history was considered sacrosanct. In this way, LaVonne is drawing a direct lineage to modern science and the taboos that placed limits on it. Human dissection was normalized as medical and scientific inquiry by the Greeks in the third century but then saw its decline with the introduction of Christianity. The advent of Roman law prohibited the dissection and autopsy of the human body in much of Europe. Instead, Christian culture, predominantly in its Catholic strain, has consolidated its anatomical understanding around the cult of saints. In their bodies, saints are thought to be present even after death,, making their corpses a source of protection and magical power. This created a fascination with saint relics and funerary practices involving the body’s  mutilation and disembowelment. It was not until the 14th century that the study of dissection remerged as a valid pursuit. This is the moment in history from which LaVonne’s iconography emerges. Much like the earliest folios of Fasciculus medicine or da Vinci’s studies on the human form, there is something inherently romantic in they way she molds form with illustration. Using a high fire clay body, her work yields rich terracotta forms that transform this history and iconography into intriguing tactile objects, resulting in a collection of fragmented parts made whole by the female bodies they represent.

LaVonne’s sculptures appear as perfectly sliced specimens whose flat surfaces provide the canvas on which organ forms are personified by women. The illustrated figures illuminate how the objectification of women has been a conduit to systems of knowledge regarding human physiology. During the time period LaVonne references, european women, and holy women in particular, appeared not as agents of knowledge, but rather as the objects of knowledge itself. This dispossession of knowledge has created persisting power structures in which women are relegated to role of vessels and unwitting participants. By working in ceramics, the vessel of the work itself is a metaphor for this societal predisposition While male bodies have become proxies for universality, the sole significance of female bodies has traditionally resided in the uterus. In the service men’s need to uncover the mystery of human generation, the uterus became the prefered object of Medieval dissection. As a result, internal anatomy became intrinsic to the the female body. Female corporal obsession combined with religious belief collided in the bodies of holy women. Accounts of holy women’s hearts being mummified, framed, and transformed into relics are the type of curiosities permeating through LaVonne’s imagination. Within this context, LaVonne’s figures express a certain level of self awareness, At times the physiological expressions are serene, self empowered and inviting, while at others they appear introspective, uneasy and distressed. The juxtaposition of these images onto three dimensional objects provides a holistic point of view into the forces that continue to shape self perceptions of the body that oscillate between the physical, functional, abstract, and spiritual.

Kimberly LaVonne We Together Make A Limb, 2017

Kimberly LaVonne
We Together Make A Limb, 2017

This essay is part of a series commissioned, in collaboration with Informality Blog, for the exhibition YET, UNKNOWN at Paragraph Gallery (23 E 12th St, Kansas City, MO 64106) open from July 27 through August 26, 2017. These pieces, co-edited by Melaney Mitchell (Founder & Senior Editor of Informality Blog) and Lynnette Miranda (Curator-in-Residence at Charlotte Street Foundation) focus on a shared goal of bringing the eyes of national writers to the work of Kansas City-based artists. 

Planning For A Future That We’ve Already Seen: Mark Raymer Constructs Dystopian D.I.Y. Narratives

Katie Hargraves discovers hopefully timeless cultural cues and science fiction as a potential site for renewed communication in her analysis of the work of Mark Raymer

In 1992, a report was commissioned by the Sandia National Laboratories and the Department of Energy (DOE) in the United States. This report has a particular challenge: the DOE was developing a Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), a location deep below the surface of the earth that would store the radioactive waste leftover from developing nuclear weapons for the cold war. Their challenge, and the reason for the report, was to highlight the danger of the site for 200,000 years into the future—the amount of time it would take the nuclear waste to become inert. They were planning for the fall of our civilization.

Mark Alister Raymer Hoopla, 2017 Textile, printmaking, drawing 7 ft x 5 ft

Mark Alister Raymer
Hoopla, 2017
Textile, printmaking, drawing
7 ft x 5 ft


Although less than 250 years old, the United States government constructed and continues to uphold a narrative that this country is an enduring institution. In commissioning this report, the DOE was acknowledging an inevitable fall. They brought together an impressive interdisciplinary team that included linguists, anthropologists, architects, geologists, and engineers to answer the question: How do we communicate meaning in a time when language cannot be deciphered, when the Rosetta Stone of our era has yet to be discovered? We are curious beings. Even the curse of the pharaohs inscribed on the entrance of a tomb was not enough to keep explorers from opening it thousands of years later. How then could the DOE develop an appropriate marker for WIPP that could be read 200,000 years from now?

I wonder often about the motives of science fiction. Why is it that people wanted to escape into a fictitious future when there is so much to work through in the present. While we must plan for reality rather than envision a dystopian future, sometimes that reality requires us to imagine beyond what we know.

Mark Alister Raymer Untitled, 2017 Textile, printmaking 8 ft x 7 ft

Mark Alister Raymer
Untitled, 2017
Textile, printmaking
8 ft x 7 ft

Mark Raymer’s artworks create a fantastical science-fiction future where “wildlings” (as the artist refers to them) scavenge the middens of a long gone society, one we might recognize as our own. These post-apocalyptic, intersexed humanoids have evolved as the children of men; their naked creativity is well suited to surviving in our wasteland, reusing satellites as indiscriminately as beer cans. His mountainscapes depicted in the pieced together fabric wall hangings are reminiscent of the concept art created for the WIPP report by architect Michael Brill: sharp stalagmite formations that protrude from the landscape with people wandering through them. The caption to one of Brill’s images: “We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture…. This place is not a place of honor…nothing is valued here.” What would these post-apocalyptic humanoids think of our world? With Raymer’s work, we get a glimpse into how they might react, what they might value, and the potential danger therein.

In exploring Raymer’s artworks, I begin to understand science fiction. Science fiction is a dark metaphor for our times, not escapism. His sculptural installations, prints, and fiber works explore the act of translation: both the translation from printmaker to fiber artist, and the translation of late-capitalist society to science-fiction future humanoids. Raymer’s work is ultimately about narrative, each piece building upon the next. The same fabrics and imagery are repeated, a detailed illustration of a beer can is used as a collage element in a wall hanging and developed into a larger than life soft sculpture made of cast off scraps of fabric.

Mark Alister Raymer Burlap Beer Can Landscape (group), 2017 Textile, printmaking 12 in x 5 in x 3 in (each)

Mark Alister Raymer
Burlap Beer Can Landscape (group), 2017
Textile, printmaking
12 in x 5 in x 3 in (each)

Raymer’s materiality performs the worldview of the narratives he has created, attempting to forget the meaning of found material he uses to construct the work. A burlap sack is used for its tactile qualities, but stripped of its class and labor material histories. Quilts are cut apart and collaged for their color palettes while attempting to ignore their gendered history. Detritus, and the cultural baggage that comes along with his chosen material, is decontextualized and expected to be experienced right alongside the preciousness of the printed image. The material construction of the works play out this desire: the prints are meticulous and detailed, where the fiber works are hacked together, appearing to be made with urgency. Yet, Raymer’s work misses a richness by not engaging with the cultural meaning of materials and their context. We only have to look to history to know there is risk in decontextualizing material—the risk of the pharaoh’s curse and the risk of WIPP.

This essay is part of a series commissioned, in collaboration with Informality Blog, for the exhibition YET, UNKNOWN at Paragraph Gallery (23 E 12th St, Kansas City, MO 64106) open from July 27 through August 26, 2017. These pieces, co-edited by Melaney Mitchell (Founder & Senior Editor of Informality Blog) and Lynnette Miranda (Curator-in-Residence at Charlotte Street Foundation) focus on a shared goal of bringing the eyes of national writers to the work of Kansas City-based artists. 

E S S A Y 2 / 6 : Who Should Play the Flute, or, Who Should Play the Flute?

I know you like to line dance
Everything so democratic and cool
But baby there’s no guidance
When the random rules

– The Silver Jews, from the American Water LP


Do you know the one about Aristotle and the flute? More or less, it goes like this:

Aristotle stands on a low flat rock, a horseshoe of students sit on the ground around him. The students wear holly wreaths on their heads and togas the color of their school, held closed by safety pins decorated with carved abalone rainbow trout. It is the first day of mild weather on the tail end of a long winter and the decision has been made to hold class outside on the banks of a bay. Aristotle holds a flute at his side and fingers it in a light breeze coming off the water. He clears his throat, calls attendance, everyone pledges allegiance, and class begins.



“Who should play the flute?” begins Aristotle. He holds the flute out for the students to examine. There is a pause. They narrow their eyes at the flute and turn inwards to consider their options as a group: The well-bred? The rich? A slave? A landowner? A soldier? No single option seems best. The students are a modern, forward thinking bunch. They are concerned with what is equitable and fair to their fellow citizens. There is much discussion among the wreaths. The  shadow of a rogue cloud meanders from the new Springtime grass to the sand and out in the water, where it is overtaken by the shadows of the waves in the bay, marching together in a crowded and never-diminishing harmony.






An answer finally comes back from the students, who speak sing-song and in unison; “Anyone who wants to play the flute should play the flute.” They cross their arms. “Sure, sure,” Aristotle says, “It is a sensible answer.”  The students smile and clap. Aristotle continues: “ Sure, sure — it’s even-steven. If anyone is allowed to play the flute then no one is left out. But your answer is an answer without a choice. It’s marshmallows in the mashed potatoes.” The students begin to frown, Aristotle continues. “This would be the same answer you would give if we were standing here talking about growing corn or fishing for trout. Your answer sidesteps the virtue of the flute itself. It does not consider the flute-ness of the flute: the thing that makes it it, the verso of the thing that makes not it not-it. Now, if the virtue of the flute is to just make noise, then the wind coming off this bay has just as much a stake in the playing of this flute as you or as me or as the most learned flautist, yes?”

There is another pause, longer this time. The students stand still, facing neither inward nor outward, each one alone in thought. Some finger their safety pins, some adjust their wreaths. The breeze whistles a bar of Morricone through Aristotle’s flute.





Aristotle gestures to the horizon above the bay.  “At the end of your appeal to democracy today is a world of coddled dilettantes playing flutes badly all day long. Are you happy with that?” Aristotle goes on to remind his class about the horse the committee voted on, and points out that tepid water is neither refreshing to drink nor serviceable for cooking. He speaks quickly, his drawl comes out. Finally he asks again: “This time for all the marbles kids, who should play the flute?”

Class ends in great confusion as a sudden gust of wind whips the wreaths from the heads of the students and carries them up, up, up and out over the water, where they join the shadows of waves in the bay, still marching together in a crowded and never-diminishing harmony.

The End.





What an argument. Linear, righteous, fascistic, elegant as a swung claw hammer. “Come on people, “ Aristotle says, “let’s take this seriously. Let’s think about the virtue of this thing, set a standard, adhere to it, and ask others to do the same.” It is an argument of resource distribution according to the virtue of the resource first, the happiness of the consumer second. However it is an argument which assumes a limited supply of the resource, and so it is ultimately it is an argument of politics; who gets what, when, and how much of it do they get. Thankfully art is limited only by a person’s ability to respond to stimuli and so considerations of politics need not apply.

If there is a reason to view the making of Art with judgement and skepticism–and there is reason enough–it is not to safeguard resources. It is to uphold respect for the human facilities of empathy, curiosity, imagination, and creation, of which Art is one of the fulminated exhausts. It is a record we will leave behind and a gesture of goodwill to our future. So, who should make Art? Who knows. Folks will keep on making what they make, for good reasons and bad. It is the case instead that adherents of Art should be muscular in the naming of things and in the practice of making things; to use both sides of the claw hammer and to walk while chewing gum; to sometimes call things Art, to sometimes call things hobby, to sometimes call things dissatisfaction with more popular forms of distraction like sports and shopping; to celebrate the hearty, open-ended nature of Art but to care for it as though it may get all used up and leave in the breeze.






NEXT TIME: Essay 3/6: The Distance and the Manicure.




E S S A Y 1 / 6 : Line in Muck.

Y’tulip, y’tulip, y’pea brained earwig
Y’punk, y’silver tongued snake
I’d rather make furniture than go to midnight mass

 – Wire, from the Snakedrill EP


The characteristics of good Art and bad Art are apparent to each of us when we are alone and don’t gain anything by our judgements. Good Art has something to do with truth and earnestness and satisfaction, and so bad Art that has something to do with the opposite of those things; to be disingenuous, to be callow, to submit to being unsatisfied. Surely there is enough of this floating around under the sun for everyone to have their fill and take leftovers to work tomorrow. What then is to account for all this bad Art? The qualities of Art, the focus of this essay and the five to follow, is a wild geometry. Readable in an instant, as fast as looking.



Good Art doesn’t make it rain more in dry weather. Bad Art doesn’t run over my foot or overcook my egg. A weak piece does not diminish a regionalism, or stunt a movement, or muddy the entire project of Art. So why all the hay-making about good-Art-bad-Art ? For the vast majority of Art’s adherents and practitioners, Art does not keep the lights on at home or pay the studio rent. This is beside the point though; Art is what makes the lights worth turning on, makes the rent worth paying.




Here is an image of Art; here is a busy bay on a warm holiday weekend. I have been at the bay all morning long, just dog paddling, and I hope to stay until after the sun goes down. I feel a blissful and deliberate joy in negotiating the water as it moves around me. I am wary of the fanciest strokes and the shiniest innertubes as they cut through the chop or float above it. Ease and habit sometimes share an inflatable raft shaped like an ear of corn. There is a quagmire down below — as wide and deep as consciousness, as dense as thought, and woven through with currents of judgement and veins of taste. The act of making Art is to plumb the muck of the quagmire, to locate a resonance, to pursue it, and to return with some piece of what is there. Whatever else we have in our pockets when we come back is probably just pocket lint.




Art looms large in my life and stands close to me, and I cannot see its edges on some days. However I am not a zealot or a Pollyanna about the importance of Art, and I do not maintain a standardless appreciation of it. Rather, I am proprietary of Art and offended to see it dealt with callously. Here, it’s like this: some Art is better than other Art, and most Art is not very good. So much of it is truly and deeply lazy in its execution and cynical in its conception. So much of it doesn’t attempt anything. So much of it is devised as social capital, or it is overly burdened with the prescriptions of the day, or else the relationship between artist and material is conservative and transactional where it ought to be curious and slutty, or else there is too much shame given and received in retreading old ground in the pursuit of finding new territory, or else the work takes itself too seriously, or else it is an execution of fashion without regard for the flow of time, or the work is too greedy for attention and space, or the work is only descriptive where it ought to be transformative, or it is a branding exercise, or it is too much given over to commerce, or it is too timid, or it is too blustery, or it is fetishized beyond vitality, or it is happy without being introspective, or it is joyless without being redemptive, or it condescends, or there is all this damned context, or the work conflates shiftlessness with pursuit, or it is just a game of inside baseball, or it is just a game of throwing pocket knives, or it is too much the opposite of any of these, or else it has been tailored to be the size and shape and weight and aura of Art which is called Fine.




Back in the bay, left hand right hand, a note about discussing Art before I go. Art calls for acts of intellectual and emotional exploration where literal and functional considerations are jettisoned in favor of timelessness and play and evasion. Discussion calls for a common, descriptive, restless tongue–a dumb muscle. This being the case, discussions of Art are slippery and too often reliant on the dry ground of precedent and terminology for footing. Precedent is difficult; to describe one thing by describing another is to sometimes describe neither. Terminology is difficult; to describe a thing with a five dollar word when plainspokenness would do is wasteful at least, cowardly maybe, and alienating. It is good to have standards, and to speak to them. It is good to be available to Art, to be available to each other to discuss Art, to give no cover to Art that is bad, and to recognize the qualities of Art that is good. Whatever else we have in our throats when we talk about Art is probably just pocket lint.




Next time — E S S A Y 2 / 6 : Who Should Play the Flute.

Inside iamuslima: An Interview with Baseera Khan

Baseera Khan just had her first solo show in New York City, iamuslima. Khan presented work that packages her social and personal identities with familiar spiritual objects and family archives. Her anxiety of deep rooted historical trauma matches her concerns with the politics of immigration in America. Khan’s method to create sculptural endurance performance works, all in relation to her body, attempt to manage and think through, “what’s next?”


iamuslima NikeID sneaker by Baseera Khan. Image Courtesy of the artist.

The first piece seen at the forefront of the exhibition was a pair of Nike Air Force One Mid-Top sneakers designed by Khan through the NIKEiD project. After hearing of a lawsuit against Nike for not allowing the word “Muslim” to be embroidered on these customized shoes, Khan sidestepped the blockade by altering the word. She calls this strategy “misspelling on purpose”, and had iamuslima inscribed onto the shoes instead, this manipulated word directly referencing Khan’s identity as both a Muslim and a woman. These shoes were also a document from her performance during the opening night of the exhibition where she walked around the space in the shoes, and then placed them atop the stack of acrylic boxes also seen at the forefront. These boxes were meant to function as an invitation for others to take their shoes off too.


Images courtesy of the artist.

She then proceeded to perform ablution with a bowl of black chalk nearby, readying herself to climb a synthetic rock wall installed at the opposite end of the gallery entitled Braidrage, leaving chalk dust footsteps behind. The rocks were made from resin molds of the corners of her body with chains and locks of hair embedded into them like DNA. Traversing vertically a white wall, via the corners,  Khan climbed as high as she could until utter fatigue, leaving yet another residue of black chalk against the wall. Traces of her presence remained throughout the entire run of the installation.

The Acoustic Sound Blankets placed in the exhibition were worn by Khan in several prior performances that speak about safe spaces and intimacy. Individuals were invited to come under the blankets with her, offering protection against assaulting sounds. There are Psychedelic Prayer Rugs — created collaboratively — colorfully designed by Khan and fabricated by people residing in Kashmir, India. After visiting the exhibition for an artist talk, I wanted to probe the artist further about the context of her practice.

Khan expresses the importance of community when making her work. I asked, with her work primarily exploring themes her own identity, being a Muslim queer woman of color, how then does she engage or build a community in the process of making work? How does this community then support the practice of understanding one’s own identity?

“There was a large group of people that came together to help me with this exhibition.” As a teacher at Parsons, many former students came together to help Khan with her exhibition. In return she would plug them into jobs or they were given school credit for their assistance. All of these students were also queer people of color,  which was important for Khan. “It gave me an opportunity to create an environment of people where, while we were making the work, we could have an ongoing conversation about our feelings and topics that extended beyond the classroom discourse.”


Psychedelic Prayer Rugs by Baseera Khan. Image Courtesy of the artist.

A longer arc of conversation took place when producing the Psychedelic Prayer Rugs. This idea, to travel to India and collaborate there, conjured when Khan’s father passed away and her mother came to live with her for some time. “I was trying to find a way for her to enter into my world,” continuing to practice engaging the community with her work. She took her mother to Parsons, toured the design classrooms together, and while Khan taught class her mother actually helped embroider designs for the Acoustic Sound Blankets. At some point they came to realize this task was not something they could do alone by hand. Thus, they traveled to India and were able to connect with artisans to help produce some of the embroidery in Khan’s show. This is when they discovered the ideas behind the Psychedelic Prayer Rugs.

Khan comes from a lineage of people that have always worked in pedagogy and textile construction. Teaching is what she wants to sustain her livelihood along side her studio practice. Her engagement in this way is most important, and if the work she continues to make sells, then she would be even more able to provide resources for the community she is surrounding herself with. “You start to learn about how to be a leader or how to truly be in a community, and how to form your own family.” Khan, as a teacher and a leader, is a strong example for students and artists to form more empathetic environments for people with religious differences, or differences at all, as she builds and engages her own community.


Acoustic Sound Blankets by Baseera Khan. Image by Maxim Ryazansky and courtesy of the artist.

Many of the materials used reference the body, and are re-used and employed in different ways. The Acoustic Sound Blankets, for example, have many iterations, engaging a community and creating safe spaces. I asked Khan, how do the materials evolve and continue to reference your body and other bodies?

Khan feels very assaulted by sound, admitting to having an astute sense of hearing which makes her sensitive to it. The acoustic blankets are a soft space that minimize the sound coming at you. They were “A micro geography you could slip underneath, to have reprieve from sound violations, from sound terror you hear everyday– you know, the city is crying and vibrating constantly.” Her interest in understanding military architecture led her away from the exploration of physical architecture of a space and instead brought her focus to how sound controls populations of people, like the call to prayer. “Sound is a way we are controlled; it is a cue to do certain things; it is very pavlovian. I wanted to repool myself and find my own affinity groups. Instinctually, the way to do that was to create a vacuum” for these sounds.

She would invite people underneath an Acoustic Sound Blanket in these performances, activating a space of intimacy. She would gauge interactions based on their comfortability, offering to sing to them, mostly. The acts would continue as well as the two people engage by looking at each other and hugging, turning the micro geography into an intimate environment. She even wore one of these during the women’s marches that occurred in New York around the time of the inauguration.


Images of Khan wearing an Acoustic Sound Blanket at the Women’s March in NYC. Images courtesy of the artist.

Along with these performances is an aspect of a “social construction of how we have expectations of each other, in regards to all the chaos happening in response to class and race.” Khan told me, “I wanted to do something and be present, but I didn’t want my body to be present. To mask myself in this kind of acoustic geography was a way for me to be present, you can hear my voice, but you cannot see my body.”


Braidrage by Baseera Khan. Image by Maxim Ryazansky and courtesy of the artist.

In regards to the rockwall, Braidrage, there was an idea formulated here about performance and endurance with exercise wielding a way to combat the anxiety from deep rooted historical trauma. I asked Khan, how is exercise a part of the your daily practice and your artistic practice?

Khan asked herself “How can I sustain myself making work that gives me something in return? I want to have fun, I want to be social, I want to be healthy.” This spawned from an unhealthy relationship she was having with her art practice. She was interviewed for the 2010 Whitney biennial, but she realized the work did not build a community and that the paintings she was making at the time left her hands, were misinterpreted and she felt had become instruments for neo-liberalism. She decided to go to graduate school at Cornell to study, and while she still made a lot of work, she did not engage like before, leaving the fourth wall up. “Exercise became the thing I learned was what I needed 2014 as I watched my father and brother and mother’s health devolve. Toxicity is not a normative narrative, I think it is linked to colonization and displacement and the patriarchy and I wanted to do something about that and control that narrative in my work. And if I wasn’t doing that I didn’t want to make work.” In this way, she explains in her bio, strategies for decolonial practices.

Khan attended the Skowhegan residency soon after this realization which played a large role in pushing this idea. The residency facilities had a sound booth which led her to the creating of the Acoustic Sound Blankets as well as other performances during the residency. The environment of the school in general promoted exercise. “I was so healthy…I started to employ exercise in artistic ways as a way to manage trauma…and I do projects based on exercise as a medium.” The gym became the studio, where Baseera could use running as a medium and then used climbing in Braidrage; the performances becoming about endurance. Presenting the artist’s body in two forms in Braidrage exemplifies a colored body traversing a vertical plane, pressed up against a white background. “I wanted to see what a woman of color looked like pushed up against a white wall, and see how far she could go.”


Baseera Khan in front of Braidrage. Image courtesy of the artist.

Exploring Cultural Memory in The Work of Lyndon Barrois Jr.


Of Color by Lyndon Barrois Jr. @ Contemporary Art Museum of St. Louis. Photo Courtesy of David Johnson

I first encountered Lyndon Barrois Jr.’s work at the CAMSTL where his installation Of Color was exhibited. In the gallery was half a basketball court: fresh, black asphalt with crisp white lines, a hoop, and a basketball. Complicating this construction were structures made of stacked toner boxes and adorned with fragmented halftone catalog photographs of shoes and clothing, each topped with a cardboard cutout of a hat or hair. These sculptures were both figurative, arranged like basketball players on a court, and architectural, like skyscrapers on a city skyline. As a physical space, the installation allowed viewers to move through the court and through the box towers. I interpreted this work as an assertion of legitimacy of the street court as a space for Black expression and culture.


Of Color by Lyndon Barrois Jr. @ Contemporary Art Museum of St. Louis. Photo Courtesy of David Johnson

Barrois’ new work, shown in the exhibition Sensible Disobedience, included a series of four collages, along with three small sculptural pieces. Unlike Of Color, these works didn’t command the entire gallery space, but shared walls with other artists’ pieces, thus creating new contexts. In fact, Oli Watt’s tiny traffic barriers interacted directly with the Barrois’ sculptures. The collages were each on brown chipboard, framed by dark wood: A National Geographic image of a small shirtless Black boy holding a monkey, paper marbled with blue, yellow, red, CMYK test prints, the well-known pangram “The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over the Lazy Dog”—the elements of each collage feel deliberately chosen and arranged. Much like the sculptures in Of Color, these new structures were made of toner boxes and spent toner cartridges. But they were far shorter, and lacked a sense of figurativeness; instead they seemed more formal, bringing to the forefront their materiality as waste products of the printing process. Viewed together with Watt’s traffic barriers, I began to think about printing as means of accessing an audience and having influence, and then who is barred from that by what may feel like hundreds a tiny barriers.

Installation ofLyndon Barrois Jr.'s work in Sensible Disobedience at La Esquina. Photo by E.G. Schempf

Installation of Lyndon Barrois Jr.’s work (also featuring Oli Watt’s barricades)  in Sensible Disobedience at La Esquina. Photo by E.G. Schempf

Barrois evokes cultural memory–that is both collectively and selectively remembered. He allows his viewers to shift their understanding of familiar images, to see them in new contexts. The magazine pictures of the boy and monkey, the tribal women, and the mother and child are immediately recognizable as being from National Geographic. In recognizing the image, I had a number of immediate connotations: I was struck first by a sense of nostalgia for film photography and childhood adventure, then by the voyeurism and exoticization of the subjects of the photos, then by a sense of appreciation of the photos as intimate portraits. Each element in the collage evoked a series of immediate impressions. They were hieroglyphs that contained layers of meaning for each person who views them. Combined, the images can take on different meanings than they do individually. But whatever new meaning they take on, there is still an understanding of each elements on its own.

This understanding of the image by Barrois, both in popular culture and the art historical canon, allows him to subvert the visual representations of each to create other meanings and narratives. Throughout his body of work, he has explored the various methods of manipulating the image—cropping, collage, curation, and juxtaposition. He draws his source material from films, history and art history, popular magazines, and photography. By re-contextualizing found sources, he takes control of existing images and their attached associations and is able to forge messages of his own.


Installation of Lyndon Barrois Jr.’s work (also featuring Oli Watt’s barricades) in Sensible Disobedience at La Esquina. Photo by E.G. Schempf

Our culture relies on the image to represent the abstract concepts and values that form our identities as individuals and as communities. We use images to define our version of history, to streamline events and perspectives too vast and inexact to capture. This makes the image a powerful tool. It designates within a culture, what is beautiful—and therefore what is ugly—, what is good—and therefore what is bad—, what is desirable—and therefore what is detestable. The image reinforces accepted aesthetic values until they are considered truth.

Barrois’ work reminds us that images, and our associations to them, are manufactured, not inherent, and the repeated use of the toner box and repeated reference to the CMYK process signifies that. It is possible to use the CMYK process to only ever create one color, but that singularity does not represent its ability to make many hues. In creating totems from the remnants of the process—the empty ink cartridges and packaging—he illustrates an ordinary origin of the images that our culture reveres. The printed words on the boxes, turned outward toward to viewer and that read “waste box”, describe warnings, and show illustrated instructions, invites us to question the ultimate authority of images, as they are created by people as fallible as ourselves.


Relocating Context and Comparison in Rashid Johnson: Hail We Now Sing Joy at the Kemper Museum

There is a noticeable recurrence in the art press comparing Rashid Johnson with Jean-Michel Basquiat. A 2015 Johnson review in Pahaidon, and again in late 2016, looks at the superficial markings of both artists, leaving out the cultural subtexts from each.

The latter’s ascendance as an art market heavyweight has added a competitive layer that holds him up before all else.  To be seen as an Artist and not a Black Artist.  A concept that is Basquiat’s most enduring quality. Comparing the two is a scrim that hides the idea of how much easier it is to lump Black artists under one umbrella. It insinuates there is a lack of individual ideologies; everything is about the same experience, traveled upon the same road.  There is no lack, what does exist is the failure to nuance the subtle differences that define, rather than align, these artists.

Johnson’s work in this exhibition at Kemper Museum, specifically Antoine’s Organ, appears to respond to the Art Press’ desire to pigeonhole Johnson and his work.  Within this piece I am imagining his intent; ideas and objects that state, ‘I am the artist, these are my materials, and if anyone is going to pigeonhole my work, it will be me.’  The implications of this work have only just begun to take root;  a colleague closer to Johnson’s work than myself provided analysis that it is art-making “about anxiety experienced by black people in Post Black America.” These ideas need time and space before they are fully understood. One message to glean is to stop offering superficial comparison and instead attempt to express some vulnerability that absorbs the message and doesn’t propagandize the messenger.


View of Rashid Johnson: Hail We Now Sing Joy, 2017, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Photo: E.G. Schempf

It would be wrong to ignore why these comparisons are made in the first place; to an extent, they’re valid. Both artists represents a cultural zeitgeist that underscores their eras so beautifully, with languages so different from one another. Basquiat delivers a eulogy of New York’s final decline; before the city’s gentrification a decade later that swept away the ethnic swell which made the city organically diverse and worthy of a shared growth that is no longer present. Johnson presents the sum totals of this “corporate rehabilitation”, not just in New York, but nationwide. A glacial movement of the historical countenance for Black lives and experiences that are the paradigm shift.

Rashid Johnson: Hail We Now Sing Joy does not necessarily elicit an indictment of  cultural stigmatization of people of color. Johnson is more subliminal than that; there are strong remarks everywhere, but as we cling to their surface value, that remain difficult to decipher.

This ideology may be better explained through the configuration as it is seen at the Kemper Museum, whose architecturally challenging space actually benefits the work. Ideas that might germinate new thought are in fact, shut down each time you depart one gallery space and enter the next. It becomes necessary to begin an emotional negotiation all over again. Profoundly exhausting, I cannot imagine what it means to be a person of color in a world where pursuit and retreat are an occurrence in forever mode.

Install 1

View of Rashid Johnson: Hail We Now Sing Joy, 2017, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Photo: E.G. Schempf

If you cease to experience these rooms as things or ‘what’ and instead see them as ‘why’ and ‘how’ you will come away with a better understanding of the ideas being delivered rather than objects on display. Johnson’s use of domestic materials  (shea butter, wood, ceramic tile, plants and, a thick mixture of what he terms, “cosmic slop”– black West African soap and wax), all have the ability to be wiped clean from the ceramic tile upon which they’re placed. Or removed from the table. Or the glass smashed. Or the shea butter melted. Or the paintings painted over. Or the plants taken away, one by one. Disappearing the object and rendering the subject as an unperson. It can all so easily slip into a memory hole. Therein lies Johnson’s biggest commentary; how the Black experience in America can be so easily erased. Should this idea be presented more loudly or is it at exactly the right volume?  This goes back to my thought that these questions should not be answered today, but instead await discussion by a generation still to come.

The human capacity for critical thinking is not a fixed quality and will atrophy if ignored. Our present administration, in so short a time, has shown itself to be a wellspring of ignorance and racism, flexing their finely honed powers of distraction. Johnson’s work requires that you separate yourself from those distractions- even momentarily. The spaces in the exhibition requires that you consider larger questions about such entrenched realities. The fact of living and making through this body requires sober and attuned comprehension.


View of Rashid Johnson: Hail We Now Sing Joy, 2017, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Photo: E.G. Schempf


Rashid Johnson: Hail We Now Sing Joy runs from February 9 –  May 21, 2017 at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art


Install 3

View of Rashid Johnson: Hail We Now Sing Joy, 2017, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Photo: E.G. Schempf