Dikeou Superstars: Paul Ramírez Jonas

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In 1861, during the early stages of the American Civil War, poet and social activist Julia Ward Howe wrote the powerful lyrics to one our nation’s most renowned folk songs, “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Using the melody of “John Brown’s Body,” a song about executed abolitionist John Brown, “Battle Hymn of the Republic” encapsulated the values of America during its most tumultuous era and its omnipotence has only grown with time. From small town parades down Main Street to performances at the Super Bowl, the song is expressed to its highest potential when sung by a large group, yet its origins come from the story of one single man and his sacrifice for the enslaved people of our country. Inspired by the song’s history, longevity, and relevance into the present day, artist Paul Ramírez Jonas created his sculpture His Truth Is Marching On to be an interactive artwork that articulates his interests in identity, performance, and micro/macro relationships. While usually on view at Dikeou Collection, His Truth Is Marching On is currently installed at the Contemporary Art Museum Houston for Ramírez Jonas’ survey exhibition Atlas, Plural, Monumental.

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His Truth Is Marching On consists of 80 glass bottles filled with different quantities of water (some are completely empty) hung on a wooden hoop suspended from the ceiling like a chandelier. In addition to the bottles, a wooden mallet hangs from the hoop, which anybody can use to strike the bottles to play the tune “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” An intriguing aspect to the installation is how the artist managed to arrange these 80 bottles, each with a different weight, in a perfectly balanced floating circle. I have yet to figure this out… His Truth… is a beautiful work of art to behold, but the actual art ‘object’ is the song itself and how no two people will ever perform it the exact same way. Some people drag the mallet across the bottles in one swoop, while others hit each bottle individually. Some start at the beginning, others in the middle, and some people play it backwards. Though a singular creation, its output is infinite.

“Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a song about one man that has come to represent a nation of people over 150 years, is an ideal anthem for Ramírez Jonas whose intent is creating art that requires an audience as part of the medium. His two other artworks at Dikeou Collection, 100 and Pause and Play both address the ideas of the dynamic between the group and the individual.

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In 100, black and white photographs of people ages 0 through 99 are joined together in a folding book format that wraps through three rooms in the collection. Viewers are invited to count the photographs sequentially starting at 0 until the land on the number/photograph that matches their age. At that moment, the viewer is introduced to someone that is meant to represent their place within the artwork, and investigate what other commonalities or differences they share. With all the images connected and standing upright, the work demonstrates how people are linked together in a generational spectrum, and if one part of it were to fall, all others would fall with it.

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Like His Truth Is Marching On, Pause and Play is a musical installation, but one that is activated by machines rather than a person. A digital clock counts down from random time increments, and when it reaches 0 the instruments on the floor start to play a non-melodic tune for about 2 minutes. It is the opposite of His Truth… in how it is activated and how it sounds, but it shares the idea of connectivity and how independent components come together to create a singular sound.

The title of Ramírez Jonas’ mid-career survey exhibition, Atlas, Plural, Monumental, is interesting because it does not include his name. As noted by Devon Britt-Darby for artsandculturetx.com, it is a title that seems more apt for a large group show than a single artist. But that is what makes so perfectly indicative of the artist’s practice, which is to blur the lines between broad and insular, many and few, and small and large. Atlas, Plural, Monumental is on view at CAMH through August 6 with studio workshops, tours, talks, and more scheduled throughout the summer. If you are in Houston, stop by and see, listen, and contribute.

-Hayley Richardson

Dikeou Superstars: Sebastiaan Bremer

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Schöner Götterfunken VII, ‘Joyful As His Suns Are Flying’ (Froh, Wie Seine Sonnen Fliegen), 2011

There is the Welsh word “hiraeth,” and the Portuguese “saudade”—terms that have no direct translation in English but carry deep meaning. They get at an intangible concept of wistful longing—or nostalgia—for one’s home, homeland, or a place, which exists in the past, that one has never been to, or cannot return to, or that never was, but one feels a homesickness for. While these enigmatic words have no equivalent in other languages, and are specific to a region and a distinct cultural identity, they encapsulate something that is ubiquitous in the human experience. The Dikeou Collection’s unique hand-painted c-print photographs by Dutch artist, Sebastiaan Bremer, Large Schoener Goetterfunken, 2010-11, feel like a universal, and visual, translation of that yearning.

Sun-soaked snapshots of a family in the Swiss Alps saturated with verdant greens and dappled with translucent and opaque spots of color, Bremer’s Schoener Goetterfunken images ‘Joyful As His Suns Are Flying’ (Froh, Wie Seine Sonnen Fliegen), and ‘At Nature’s Bosoms’ (An Den Bruesten Der Natur), capture a family vacation that he, himself, did not get to go on. The painted dots on the image surface are what Bremer calls a “poetic braille,” which he integrates into the c-print photographs. As they exist in the documented landscape, the splashes of paint evoke the white floating specks which momentarily mark one’s vision after directly staring at the sun, or the flash of a camera. That evocation imparts an instantaneity of experience. Cutting through the yellowing film of time, the viewer is brought into the atmosphere of a place of the past—which no longer exists, but feels at the same time so tangibly real.

The application of paint to pictures is multivalent in both its process and its meaning. Bremer applied the pigment to the found snapshots in multiple layers. The more lucent drops of paint were applied earlier in the process of image-making, and the final layer of stippled pigment, like braille, is opaque and three-dimensional. By tediously painting on the images in a series of layers, Bremer negotiates these landscapes of the past, inserting himself into memories that he does not have, but perhaps wants to possess. The paint, then, is his “hand” in the work, what he has added to the visual experience of images which were, in a sense, readymade.

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Schöner Götterfunken XIV, ‘At Nature’s Bosoms’ (An Den Bruesten Der Natur), 2010

The effect is two-fold, and deals with time. While the hand-painted photographic imagery gives one the almost impressionist sense of spontaneity—a fleeting moment captured—the spots on the images simultaneously resemble the aggregate coat of dust one encounters while thumbing through a box of old family photos. In the context of such a viewing experience, the dust becomes a part of the material fabric of the image, and adds to its meaning and significance. Bremer’s painted invocation of that dusty veneer implies the accumulation of time. In this way, the paint particles further distance one from the place and time of the snapshot. The viewer is at once drawn into an experience and pushed out by the acknowledgment of time, and, thus, suspended in an interior struggle of longing for a place they have never been to, and the feeling that they once were there.

Along with significant photographic works by Dan Asher, Rainer Ganahl, Lee Stoetzel, Janine Gordon, and Lisa Kereszi, Sebastiaan Bremer’s works are on permanent view at the Dikeou Collection.

-Rebecca Manning

Dikeou Superstars: Lisa Kereszi

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Everybody has secrets, and some people keep theirs hidden in plain sight. Happiness, confidence, creativity, intelligence – these are traits of a healthy and stable individual, but can also be defense mechanisms to mask feelings of pain, isolation, and confusion. In the presence of drugs and alcohol our masks either become more convincing or dissolve away, creating further strains in our relationships with others and with ourselves. Lisa Kereszi’s Facing Addiction: Looking at Drugs and Alcohol in People’s Lives is a series of black and white photographs taken in the mid-1990s that call attention to the secret realities of people’s lives that bubble to the surface after they’ve partaken in “things to bring them up or calm them down, to get them in gear or to loosen them up, to make them think, perhaps, or to not think at all” (Kereszi artist statement). Often when visitors see these works at Dikeou Collection they will say, “That person looks familiar,” or “Hey I think I know that guy,” illuminating the fact that we do all recognize the signs or know someone living with the [not so] secret struggle of addiction. 

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The eight photographs from Facing Addiction on view at Dikeou Collection depict people at parties, typically with a bottle of booze and cigarette in hand. Some folks appear festive, like the woman gleefully spouting the last drop of beer from the keg, but most appear downright miserable like “Jess at a Party, VT.” These are not the party photos we are accustomed to seeing on Facebook or Instagram of good times and happy faces – these are images of people doing what they can to put the day behind them and get through the night. Kereszi’s perspective is of that friend sitting with you at the bar, ready to either order another shot or call a cab home. She connects with the people she photographs, talks to them and takes their picture while they share their stories. Her approach in creating a dialog with people while photographing them results in intimate portraits with emotional vulnerability. In this series, the masks come off.

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Lisa Kereszi was born and raised in Philadelphia where her father ran the family auto junkyard and her mother who owned an antique shop. In 1995 she graduated from Bard College with a Bachelor of Arts. Kereszi examines what some may consider “fringe” lifestyles and forgotten and abandoned spaces, reminding viewers of the existence of people and places that society has forgotten or ignored. She now teaches photography and is the Director of Undergraduate Studies in Art at the Yale School of Art, where she received her MFA in 2000. Lisa’s work has been featured in four issues of zingmagazine, including current issue 24 with her project “The More I Know About Women.” On March 16, in honor of Denver’s Month of Photography, Lisa will give a free public talk at Dikeou Collection. Her husband Benjamin Donaldson, who also lectures at Yale University, will speak as well. Following their individual short lectures, Lisa and Ben will be accompanied by Denver Art Museum’s Curator of Photography, Eric Paddock, for an engaging group conversation. More information about this event can be found on our calendar.

-Hayley Richardson

Dikeou Superstars: Agathe Snow

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Occam’s razor is a philosophical principle which suggests that the simplest solution to a problem is often the best. As our world continues to change at an increasing rate, it in turn becomes more complicated, which can be threatening and even dangerous to all creatures existing on this planet. To get through these challenging times, we need to go back to basics, and the people most adept at this are artists. Artists are great problem-solvers because they are resourceful, even in the most unimaginable circumstances. For example, what would one do if Manhattan fell victim to a flood of apocalyptic proportions, decimating the city and filling the streets with the bodies of sea animals? The answer: live inside the sea animals, of course! At least that is what Agathe Snow would do. For Snow, a disaster such as this is best faced with instinctive action. Once the basic needs of safety and shelter are met, then the opportunity to regroup, rethink, and rebuild shall arise.

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Dikeou Collection is home to Sludgie the Whale, an immersive, performative installation Snow originally created for a show at James Fuentes Gallery called “No Need to Worry, the Apocalypse Has Already Happened… when it couldn’t get any worse, it just got a little better” in 2007. At the time the work was simply titled The Whale, and served as the focal point of a performance in which Snow had participants meet her under the Brooklyn Bridge after a hypothetical storm flooded the city, and from there guided them to the gallery to take refuge inside the belly of her constructed whale. Snow remained present within the whale for the duration of the exhibition where she continued to create artwork and engage with visitors/fellow survivors of the flood. The performative element of the work continues today as new visitors traverse the innards of the whale, contributing to its life story.

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The Whale earned the name Sludgie as the exhibition at Fuentes neared its end, when, by happenstance, a young minke whale became separated from its pod during a storm and got trapped in the Gowanus Canal. The shallow, polluted water of the canal made the whale, well, sludgy, hence the nickname. Despite great efforts to save him, Sludgie did not survive. At the end of the exhibition, Snow gathered guests to the gallery to pay homage to the whale that stole the city’s heart, and named her whale after him. Made of foam, painted tarp, wire, rope, and mesh, Snow installed Sludgie The Whale at Dikeou Collection so that he can continue to serve as a place of safety and comfort, with one special added material. Sewn into Sludgie’s guts is a red flannel shirt that once belonged to her late husband, Dash Snow – a loving tribute to him and emblem of her statement: “I would nurture the memory I would connect with the people left behind.”

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Apocalypse survivors

In mythic tales like Moby Dick, Jonah in the Bible, and Pinocchio, the whale is a beast to feared and conquered. Today we face much greater beasts. Ones that care not for creatures like Sludgie, nor the places they live or the ideals of harmony they symbolize. It is crucial to remember, though, to not be passive toward these destructive entities and gather strength from friends, family, and neighbors. Agathe reminds us that the key to survival is community action and utilizing local resources. With these two simple strategies, we can seamlessly collaborate and gain power in numbers to overcome the forces that try to keep us down.

- Hayley Richardson

Fine Art and Fashion: Claude Montana and Stephen Sprouse

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In the 1980s and 90s fashion found new media via the art museum, inciting blockbuster exhibitions celebrating the work of great designers at major institutions. These monumental and collaborative shows have prompted a discussion which frames fashion within the history of art. Consideration of clothing as cultural artifacts that belong to larger artistic trends, and which convey complex messages about social identity, dissolves the distinction between fashion and art. Since early this year, Dikeou Collection staff have been working to archive curator Devon Dikeou and her mother Lucy’s fashion collections. In line with Dikeou Collection’s larger archiving initiative, the project has been a vast undertaking involving shipping items from three different cities, photographing each individual garment, organizing them by rack, compiling a database, producing tags, and creating a permanent space to store the collection. Perhaps because of the recent revival of 1980’s and 90’s trends in fashion, a few dark horses among this assemblage, by Claude Montana and Stephen Sprouse, have stood out from the Gucci, Armani, and Chanel, as compelling and relevant objects of material culture—vestiges of once thriving 80’s designers who briefly became stars, failed financially, and struggled personally, but left a long-felt impact on the world of fashion design.

Like many of their contemporaries in France and America, both Claude Montana and Stephen Sprouse’s careers came about in the aftermath of a runway show that took place in 1973, known today as the “Battle of Versailles.” American designers Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows, Halston, Anne Klein, and Oscar de la Renta presented collections in opposition to Pierre Cardin, Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, and Emanuel Ungaro. The American shows were studded with celebrity appearances. Broadway darling Liza Minnelli opened and closed the program. Warhol Superstar, Jane Holzer, walked for Oscar de la Renta. With minimal stage props and an emphasis on human movement, the presentation was fresh and contemporary in contrast to the over-the-top vêtements and exhaustive spectacle presented by the French. The Americans left the victors, ushering in a new era in fashion.

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Claude Montana Black and Racing Car Green Wool Jacket

Just two years after the 1973 runway show at Versailles, Claude Montana, then twenty-eight, entered the scene among the ranks of Thierry Mugler, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Kenzo Takada. Together they responded to the need for something new in French fashion. In line with this revolutionary moment, Montana’s ready-to-wear looks were marked by the re-emergence of materials like wool and raw leather, and an insistence on geometric volume. The sturdy fabrics and distinct lines of his clothing presented a stark contrast to the frilly and feminine norm. One of many theatrical runway shows, Montana’s 1988 Bicentennial in Sydney demonstrated the extent of his innovation. Electric blue spotlights pressed down on the stage, pyramidal structures of light in otherwise complete darkness. Puncturing the stillness, loud and startling sounds of Australian birdcalls—an apparent inspiration for Claude’s collection—reverberated through the space as androgynous and lithe female figures jauntily cut across the catwalk, moving with the same sumptuous angularity as the structured jackets they wore. Breaking the blue-black reverie of parading pale-faced models, one commentator muttered, “these women are wearing sculptures.” The observation is quite precise. The geometric emphasis, and saturated hues in his runway and prêt-à-porter characterizes the gabardine jacket by Montana in Devon Dikeou’s collection. Racing-car-green, cropped short, and embroidered with a black zig-zagging pattern that extends from the collar, it looks like something that could appear on the pages of Vogue today.

While Montana was reviving French Fashion from the wreckage of the infamous 1973 Versailles show, afore-mentioned American designers Bill Blass and Halston were already working with the young innovator and artist Stephen Sprouse, who started his career in fashion at the age of fourteen. After his first trip to New York, Sprouse was deemed “boy genius” by influential fashion columnist Eugenia Sheppard, given a summer internship with Bill Blass, and then a position as Halston’s assistant in 1971. It was during his time at Halston that he met his artistic champion Andy Warhol, and started dressing his neighbor Debbie Harry. When Sprouse left Halston to work independently he created looks for Blondie, fraternized with artist Chuck Price, created large scale Xerox collage compositions depicting Edie Sedgwick, and painted chartreuse, violet, and vermillion portraits of deceased rock idol, Jim Morrison as Jesus. In 1983, Stephen presented a small collection at Kezia Keeble’s show of up-and-coming designers, in promotion of the launch of the new Polaroid SX-70 camera. The collection of bright Day-Glo clothing had 60’s-inspired shapes and featured the designer’s own hand printed across the fabric like graffiti.

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Stephen Sprouse Neon Warhol Cotton Skirt

By the time Sprouse released his third collection in 1984, Andy Warhol was trading him paintings for clothing. Sprouse later moved his studio to the location of the old Warhol Factory. The move is partly to blame for his company going bankrupt that same year. When Sprouse opened a new store on Wooster Street in 1987, his artistic idol Andy Warhol was dead. Sprouse apparently walked around the opening of his SoHo store clutching a self-portrait of Warhol that the artist had given him years before. At this time, Sprouse started producing clothing printed with Warhol’s paintings. As is exemplified by Devon Dikeou’s Andy Warhol skirt, these brightly colored pieces recalled Sprouse’s early Day-Glo aesthetic. The 1988 pieces that Sprouse produced are now some of the most coveted by collector’s; however, they did not receive immediate success. Again, Sprouse was forced to close his stores.

Montana and Sprouse had distinctly different styles, and stories, but both grappled with the same struggle: to succeed as a business. They failed financially almost as abruptly as they rose to stardom. While Claude Montana experienced unprecedented fame in the Parisian fashion world in the 1980’s and early 90’s, he is best known today for his personal and financial tragedies. Montana’s fashion house filed for bankruptcy in 1997, just one year after his wife and muse, Wallis Franken, committed suicide by jumping out of their kitchen window. Over the course of his career, Stephen Sprouse relaunched his company five times, and struggled to establish himself as a fine artist. These hardships seem to define the legacy of a young man who caught the eye of the New York fashion world as a fourteen-year-old, and earned the admiration of Andy Warhol. Because of his artistic influences, Sprouse brought the street styles of pop, punk, and grunge to the fashion houses. Montana’s shows blurred the boundary between runway and performance art, and his garments became sculptural expressions of the contemporary woman.

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2 of the 21 garment racks that occupied Devon Dikeou’s loft this summer during the archival initative, with one of Warhol’s Mick Jagger prints above

While placing items from Devon Dikeou’s collection by Montana and Sprouse on the same rack may at first seem like arbitrary categorization, based on the decade they belong too, consideration of both designers’ distinct styles and stories in juxtaposition prompts a broader discussion of the artistic context they came out of. It all started at Versailles, and even in France, it seems that Warhol’s influence was everywhere.

- Rebecca Manning
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