Artful Quantification: Environmental Graphiti

In an age where data seems to dictate many aspects of our culture, it is nice to see the artful interpretations of Alisa Singer, who transforms quantitative scientific analysis on climate change into colorful and expressive works of art.

Previously, I discussed the work of Nancy Graves, who blurred the line between abstract and representational paintings with her series of works that commented on satellite imagery and mapping technology. Graves’ imagery showed the ways that maps can be a form of both objective and subjective information.

Like Graves, Alisa Singer utilizes the evocative nature of art in order to bring awareness to the way civilizations rely heavily on data and infographics, while not always forming a personal and meaningful relationship to the information. Big data is daunting, and unless you have a background studying it, charts and graphs feel largely removed from the lived experience. In her series of digital paintings called Environmental Graphiti, Singer analyzes charts and graphs from world climate reports, in order to re-present them in a way that stirs emotional responses and aims to get viewers to make deeper connections to climate change. The title of the series incorporates a playful rewording of the art style graffiti to describe the fusion of quantitative data and emotive art. It is an apt name for Singer’s contemporary and hip artworks that resemble the aesthetic and conceptual nature of painterly public art, while spreading scientific awareness.

The elements of art such as color, line and shape have symbolic properties that communicate and make associations to mood, memory and archetypal signifiers. In Singer’s work, these elements are incorporated along with principals of design such as balance, unity and contrast, in order to create compositions that effectively symbolize causes, effects and actions related to addressing climate change.

5c. Emissions Levels Determine Temperature Rise lo res

Alisa Singer, Emissions Levels Determine Temperature Rise, Digital Art on Metal 30″ W X 40″ H. Courtesy of the artist.

 

The Environmental Graphiti paintings are categorized into three identifying topics:

  • WHY is our climate changing? → Gallery A
  • HOW is climate change affecting our world? → Gallery B
  • WHO is at risk? → Gallery C
  • WHAT can we do to address climate change? → Gallery

One example of the ‘WHY’ is Emissions Levels Determine Temperature Rise, a semi-abstract digital painting inspired by a graph from the Third National Climate Assessment, Climate Change Impacts in the United States, USGCRP (2014). Singer uses warm and cool colors in a manner that symbolizes the temperature changes due to greenhouse gas emissions. In ‘HOW,’ paintings like Wildfires expressively portray how climate change is affecting natural disasters by changing the conditions of soil and moisture. The result is an increase in drier conditions that provide ample kindling for devastating wildfires.

 

‘WHO’ is at risk? Every living being on the planet is affected due to a myriad of factors such as disease, caused by rising temperatures, displacement of water sources caused by agriculture and industry. The painting Vector-Borne Diseases resembles the form of a mosquito filled in with a palette of vibrant colors, gesturally blended together. The mosquito is actually composed of text (see sketch above) related to vector-borne diseases such as Dengue Fever, Malaria and Zika. The enduring question of ‘WHAT’ we can do to address climate change, is presented through works such as Climate Change Mitigation and U.N. Sustainability Goals. In this digital artwork, Singer illuminates the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which was adopted in 2015. The original chart that the painting was based on, shows the correlation between sustainable development that protects the environment, and social development such as poverty eradication and reducing inequalities. The painting translates the U.N.’s graph into  glittering bands of color, as if to symbolize the hope and perseverance for reversing negative cultural and environmental trends.

75c. Climate Change and UN Sustainability Goals

Alisa Singer, Climate Change Mitigation and U.N. Sustainability Goals, Digital Art on Metal 30″ W X 35.4″ H. Courtesy of the artist.

Singer’s combination of art and science helps make data more appealing and compelling because it transforms big data into a visual narrative that can be described, analyzed, and valued using both concrete and abstract thought. We are able to assign feelings to the quantitative information due to the elements of art and design at play in these compositions. This adds a component of compassion and enables us to make connections between statistics and our daily life experiences.

While data is a great way for scientists and policy makers to organize and keep track of their research and facts, it isn’t always the best determiner for learning. Not everyone in the populace thinks along analytical mindsets (see: Differentiation and Multiple Intelligences). Learning is experiential; based on a combination of observation, socialization and the connections we make between ourselves and the world around us. These elements cannot often be neatly charted or mapped out. The work of artists like Singer and Graves, eloquently express how a painting can be worth ‘a thousand words,’ or in the case of the Environmental Graphiti series, sets of raw climate data.

 

 

 

 

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Artfully Failing

In our society, we associate negative opinions and emotions with failure. In truth, failure is a significant ‘teachable moment’ that allows us to become more critical and creative in dealing with a variety of life’s issues.

Failure in the arts can equate to a piece of art being destroyed or distorted during the artistic process, or getting a rejection notice from a museum or gallery. In the examples to follow, artists learned to turn rejection and the physical manipulation of work into new and empowering ideas.

Contemporary art editor and writer Casey Lesser, recently published an article for Artsy about how working with ceramics teaches us to utilize failure as a tool for being flexible and overcoming challenges. Because ceramics is a labor intensive medium, there are a lot of physical things that can go awry, such as a clay breaking in the kiln or being dropped in the floor right after it was fired. There is even an Instagram account devoted to ‘ceramic casualties’.

It is almost inevitable that ceramic artists will experience physical mishaps during their engagement with clay. Ceramic artists become aware of clay’s affordances and the potential for physical accidents, and learn techniques and skills to minimize these effects. However, working to ensure that everything goes smoothly all the time can become stale and monotonous. Taking risks, albeit opening oneself up for failure, is what excites many of the artists mentioned in the article and enables them to grow artistically. For example, artist Matt Wedel says that “it felt so good not to know the outcome again; everything was new and exciting. My work now is a constant unraveling of what I know and how I make. It is about a constant evolution, and failure is a good indicator of whether or not I am moving forward” (Lesser, 2018).

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Arlene Rush, Silver Lining, 2018, linen paper, museum board, Linen paper, digital print, resin, silver leaf, wax, acrylic and wood. 26 x 26 in. (dimensions variable). Courtesy of the artist.

Arlene Rush‘s series Silver Lining (2018) focuses on transforming the social and emotional aspects of failure by turning rejection letters into new material for art making. The works of art began as a way of archiving her career and investigating the trials of being a professional artist in an increasingly commercialized, competitive and niche art world. Each individual artwork takes its title from the institution that sent her a letter of rejection. Rush embellished the letters with silver leaf, symbolizing the idea of finding a ‘silver lining’ to the difficulties of rejection. She states “in considering my own evolution, I began to see the things as more than an accumulation of objects. I found they raised questions about the nature and importance of being an artist.”

Silver Lining is part of a larger series of work titled Evidence Of Being, which explores and offers insightful responses to the fraught and political nature of the art world. Issues such as the difficulty women artists or artists without an MFA face getting their work shown are expounded upon in a symbolic manner through artworks and installations such as Sorry to inform you… (2015-16).

Rejections from galleries became critical assessments for Rush, who is confident in embracing the ambiguous and problematic elements of her artistic practice. She utilized surplus materials that signified failure, and transformed them into contemplative works of art that realize rejection is an element within the cycle for self development. It is inspiring to see how Rush doesn’t allow defeat to define her. She uses both subtle and bold aesthetic expressions to communicate that there’s always a silver lining, such as self discovery, personal growth and resilience to try new things in the face of failure. Overall, Rush has been successful in Turning Lemons into Lemonade (2016).

Learning to turn mistakes or unsuccessful results into works of creativity is the crux of art education. If you have ever watched Bob Ross’ The Joy of Painting, you will know that his philosophical mantra is ‘happy accidents’ make for new discoveries and insights. Perhaps something didn’t go as planned, however in the process of ‘failure,’ something completely revelatory arose that opened up new avenues and perspectives that were even more desirable than the initial plan. The pedagogy of failure is a highly practical methodology for the advancement of social, emotional and cognitive development.

In the classroom, it is best to set open-ended, inquiry-based ‘aims’ rather than goals when introducing a unit or project. Aims are more flexible than goals because the focus is on the learning and doing that leads an individual or collective towards the goal. Since goals are often set prior to the activity, it can stifle the process because it makes you think about the end result without a sense of the actual steps needed to get there. Aims allow for experiential learning because they can shift as needed throughout the process in order to achieve the goal.

Additionally, asking questions at the beginning of a project instead of making overarching statements, helps to facilitate the procedure for learning and doing, because students will come up with responses that make learning personal and give them agency to direct the acquisition of knowledge.

Most importantly, student and teacher responses to failure should be re-presented as moments for deep reflection and new collaborative learning moments. Failure helps us to scaffold important steps, procedures and reflections, which enable our minds to be flexible in dealing with uncertainty and frustration.

Failure should not be a quantitative data set that measures whether we pass or fail, but rather a qualitative assessment of why something didn’t work out and how we can work through it to achieve a more effective outcome. Persistence through failure often attributes to success if the reasons for undesired results are assessed, and the new knowledge gained from this reflection leads to innovative and alternative approaches to the initial problem/objective.

The hands-on and experiential nature of art is a great avenue for working through failure and creating deeply symbolic and innovative perspectives in the process. So embrace those happy accidents and remember that artists turn mistakes into art.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Lesser, Casey. “Why Ceramic Artists Are so Good at Dealing With Failure.” Artsy. 9 Jan. 2018. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-ceramic-artists-good-dealing-failure

 

 

The Kids Are Alright

TR-KOS Portrait LMG 2016 01 hr (large)

Tim Rollins and K.O.S. at Lehmann Maupin, June 2016. Courtesy of Studio K.O.S., Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul. From left to right: Logan Swedick, Rick Savinon, Robert Branch, Tim Rollins, Angel Abreu and Jorge Abreu. Photo by Aileen Painter

Throughout this blog, I have frequently written about and cited the work of Tim Rollins as a valuable contributor to the fields of both art and education. Rollins’ dedication and passion as a visual artist and educator is testimony that the two disciplines are intrinsic to each other, and that learning through the arts has unique lifelong benefits for all individuals.

Rollins’ mentees and collaborators, who call themselves Kids of Survival (K.O.S.), were initially middle school and high school students in Rollins’ after school art program in the South Bronx. They met in Rollins’ studio and developed a decades long partnership, which led to international acclaim within the fine art community. Their work is in the collection of major museums throughout the world. For these young kids, Rollins’ classroom and studio was the pathway to the cultural landscapes of Manhattan, Venice, London, and beyond.

Original K.O.S. member Angel Abreu first encountered Rollins in the 7th grade when he walked into the art room at I.S. 52 in the South Bronx. He recalled a captivating man in a red three piece suit who immediately caught the attention and enthusiasm of his students. On the first day of class, Rollins placed a large multiple choice test in front of each student. Sophisticated art history questions appeared on the test such as: “the following is not example of Cubism” or “what is the ‘Surrealist Manifesto?” These questions would be confounding for anyone with no prior background in art education. Nevertheless, Rollins encouraged his students to try and answer the questions. At the end of the class, he mentioned that this test was an exact facsimile of the final exam and that by the end of the term each student would have a deep understanding of the concepts, terms, and theories. He guaranteed that everyone would get an ‘A’ if they devoted themselves to participating in class (Abreu, 2019).

Abreu recalls that he was immediately hooked. When Rollins invited him to be a part of his atelier, he knew that it was a big deal. It was his entry into the world of fine art, something that he never thought was possible until that pivotal moment. Thirty years later, Angel Abreu is mentoring students and future artists in the School of Visual Arts’ BFA and MFA programs.

Early members of K.O.S. including Angel’s brother Jorge, Robert Branch and Rick Savinon, came to Rollins’ studio with varying degrees of skills, interests and knowledge. The unlikely artistic partnership between Rollins and his students broke all the constraints of typical art education and art studio practices. Rollins and the members of K.O.S. built a mutual relationship where the agency of planning, developing and executing work was a democratic process. They weren’t just filling a blank slate, or more aptly, a blank canvas; they brought themselves into every work of art. Through working with Tim and each other, they developed a cohesive style that is also highly personal. Each individuals’s contribution to the work is indicative of their enduring understanding for the subject matter in relationship to their life experiences.

They learned to embrace ambiguity and failure. As they all agreed during a panel discussion on Friday, May 3rd at the Lehmann Maupin gallery, some of the best pieces of inspiration and artistic wherewithal were obtained via the studio’s garbage can. In other words, it was an experiential process where assessment, reflection and flexible purposing were necessary elements of the creative and critical praxis. Sometimes an idea worked and other times it was necessary to put something aside, revise it or start again completely. The ability to see art in everything and everyone was something that Tim Rollins practiced and preached. Another important lesson that Rollins imparted onto his mentees was how to carefully examine sources such as literature and music, in order to make meaningful connections between works of art and the world around them.

TR-LM25241 Amerika–For karl 01 hr

Tim Rollins and K.O.S. Amerika – For Karl, 1989, watercolor on paper mounted on canvas. 97 x 132 inches. Courtesy Studio K.O.S., Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul. Photo: Matthew Herrmann

Rollins would typically select a text and ask his collaborators motivating questions such as:

“…you all have your own taste and you have different voices. If you could be a golden instrument, if you could play a song of your freedom and dignity and your future and everything you feel about Amerika and this country, what would your horn look like?”

Often during studio time, Rollins and K.O.S. members would engage in what they dubbed ‘jammin’, meaning that they would take turns reading from texts while others would create visual responses to the literary content.

Each flower (A Midsummer Night’s Dream (after Shakespeare and Mendelssohn), 2014), each golden horn (Amerika – For Karl, 1989), each wound (The Red Badge of Courage, 1988) motif is distinct, just like every individual. Rollins understood this, and that is why he coached a great group of individuals who have all gone on to create positive change inside and outside of the art world.

TR-LM25019 By any means necessary - Trapped Caught 02 hr

Tim Rollins and K.O.S. By any means necessary – Trapped/Caught, 1985-1987, black gesso on book pages mounted on linen, 21 x 28 x 1.375 inches. Courtesy of Studio K.O.S., Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul.

A concise selection of the collective’s seminal paintings, works on paper and sculptures are on view at Lehmann Maupin‘s 22nd street gallery in Manhattan. The exhibition titled Workshop features over thirty years worth of work, meticulously curated by Ian Berry, Director of The Tang Teaching Museum. The title for the show is an homage to the Art & Knowledge Workshop (the precursor to Tim Rollins and K.O.S.’ partnership), as well as the collective’s methodology of utilizing intensive group discussion and experiential processes to explore potential aesthetic themes and issues.  The exhibition also marks a monumental change for the collective because it is the first exhibition organized without Rollins’ formidable physical presence.

After Tim Rollins passed away on December 22, 2017, several longtime members of K.O.S. restructured themselves as Studio K.O.S. This second iteration of the original collective is led by seminal K.O.S. members Angel and Jorge Abreu, Branch and Savinon. The collective continues to produce critical works of art that touch upon topics such as race, identity, history, education and politics. Additionally, many of Rollins’ K.O.S. associates are teachers themselves. Pedagogy is a major element of Studio K.O.S’ philosophy, and they provide arts education and youth mentorship for a diverse range of individuals within the urban environment. During the course of the exhibition at Lehmann Maupin, Studio K.O.S. is leading workshops for public school students and making sure that students of all demographics have unbridled access to the arts and art education.


Workshop, curated by Ian Berry, Director of The Tang Teaching Museum, is currently on view at Lehmann Maupin’s 22nd street gallery (536 W 22nd Street) through June 15, 2019.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Abreu, Angel; Abreu, Jorge; Berry, Ian; Branch, Robert;  Savinon, Rick; and Stothart, Anna. “Past, Present, and Future of Tim Rollins and Studio K.O.S.” Panel discussion. Lehmann Maupin, New York, 3 May 2019.