John K. Grande, Dialogues in Diversity

This book gathers John K. Grande’s interviews with 16 artists from a great many countries, including Hungary, Iran, Mexico, Norway, and Senegal, who have lived and exhibited all over the globe. Canadian-born Grande has himself lived for extended periods in Germany, Austria, Sri Lanka, and South Africa. The subtitle of the slim volume is “Art from Marginal to Mainstream,” but it would appear that, just as there is no longer a single art center, there is no longer a mainstream, ergo, no margin. Many of the selected artists, however, are closely tied to their ancestral cultures, as well as to the specific ecology of the land. Whereas in the past, many artists felt that their visual statement should speak for itself and that verbosity was verboten, these men and women are highly articulate about their work and its meaning. And Grande is a fine interviewer: he clearly likes to talk to people, asks pertinent questions, and knows how to prompt thoughtful answers. He also has a good deal to say himself, so that we are dealing with discussions, not merely interviews.

Most of the dialogues are with artists who “work with nature as an equal partner,” in thewords of Francisco Gazitúa, one of Chile’s foremost artists. He is represented by a photograph of himself at work on an ice floe in Antarctica. Yolanda Gutiérrez deals with the duality of life and death, so central to Mexican culture. Her installation Umbral (1992), for instance, consisted of 28 cattle jaw bones that she installed to resemble a flock of birds in flight, representing the transition from one life stage to another. Santuario (1995), made of cane baskets set in water, also serves as a nesting place for birds. Also choosing water as his site, American artist Roy Staab makes use of locally available materials for his sculptures. For him, however, “art is a product of man.” Following Bauhaus principles of structure, he reinforces his pieces with metal and places his reeds and saplings in geometric formations. Peter Randall-Page also tends to work with geometric forms that he finds in the patterns of nature. New Zealand sculptor Chris Booth engages geomorphology as well as social history; his works often serve as metaphors for the history of a site, be it in New Zealand, Australia, Italy, Germany, or Holland. Booth studied with indigenous Maori teachers as well as with Barbara Hepworth. Ousmane Sow makes realistic pieces out of mud, clay, sand, and pigment, such as Custer’s Last Stand (1998) in which he equates the oppression of Africans with the similar fate of Amerindians.

In contrast to an artist making art by using the earth itself, Bill Woodrow makes large assemblages from the discards of civilization, using washing machines and shopping carts for his narrative post-Minimalist sculptures. Working at the interface of art, science, and biology, Brandon Ballengée examines ocean biodiversity. She collects specimens from the sea and finds that we are reshaping and annihilating many species; she demonstrates the results of her research in installations at fish markets. In contrast to Ballengée’s ecological work, Grande offers a dialogue with the Hungarian fiber artist Anna Torma, a biologist turned artist who embroiders cloth following the traditions of her mother and grandmother. She relates the difficulties of moving from a socialist country to Canada, where craftspeople are not supported by the state and have to establish themselves in the market economy.

The collection also includes artists who are drawn primarily to events, such as Cai Guo-Qiang and Christo and Jeanne-Claude. The latter told Grande, “Our aim is to create works of art of joy and beauty and to create in total freedom.” Yes, but the often exasperatingly long process to gain permissions—sometimes decades—is clearly political, and the work in the landscape, which after drawing everyone’s attention to the natural environment is removed after a brief time, makes viewers aware of the irreplaceable wonder of the landscape.

The Guerilla Girls might at first seem an odd inclusion. This anonymous group, seen in public only in gorilla masks and using pseudonyms of dead female artists, was organized in 1985 to promote the careers of women artists. Among other strategies, they installed posters on New York City buses, such as a picture of a famous odalisque with the caption: “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?” They have found that their crusade against art world misogyny has been partially successful, but must go on. The feminist slogan, “the personal is the political,” applies not only to the Guerilla Girls; it may well be the link connecting all of the artists in this omnium gatherum.

—Peter Selz

Book Information:
John K. Grande, Dialogues in Diversity
Grosso, Italy, Pari Publishing, 2007.
Paperback; 176 pp. (31 color plates).
£17.99/$26.50.
ISBN: 978-88-901960-7-2.

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