Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Reflections on Omi (July 7, 2010) by Robert C. Morgan

Art Omi International Artists Workshop had its initial summer residency eighteen years ago. Since then, its popularity has grown beyond the wildest dreams and expectations of its instigator, New York entrepreneur and art aficionado, Francis Greenburger. At this moment, more than thirty artists – chosen from literally hundreds of applicants – arrive in upstate New York from six continents representing a wide range of aesthetic interests and approaches. The duration of the workshop is three weeks wherein some extraordinary work is made and exhibited on the final Open Day. (This year that day will be July 18th). In addition to the vital presence of the Program Director, Claudia Cannizzaro, each year a critic in resident is elected by members of the Board as the aesthetic overseer of an impressive community of artists. This year’s choice was New York critic Sandra Skuvida, who in addition to her energetic optimism and inspired criticism is an important scholar of late modern and contemporary transglobal art.

As one of the early board members of Art Omi, and its first critic in residence (1992), I was asked to participate this past weekend in a series of critiques with a selection of the new artist residents. Nisrine Boukhari is from Syria and is abstract figurative sculptor who works both with singular forms and within an installation context. Being an artist from the Middle East often involves political as well as aesthetic issues. Ms. Boukhari is working from a woman’s perspective on life in Syria as her three-dimensional figures make clear. There is an expressionist aspect to the work that is both intimate and universal. In her case, the two are not contradictory but exist as complements of one another. In either case, the expressionist force of these figures is undeniable.

Nisrine Boukhari, Them-Me, 2006, video still

Jang Bo-yun is a South Korean artist who works with fictional narratives derived from older found photographs in which she researches people she never knew by going to the exact locations in which the photographs were taken. Ms. Jang’s specific interest is in memories she believes are instilled within these photographs. She will blow-up the original images and alter the correspondence between memory and reality as associated with the photographs. The question is in how Ms. Jang communicates her intention with viewers who encounter her work for the first time. While artists may often be concerned with details and specific points not visible in the work, viewers are more interested in grasping the general idea of the artist and then gradually working into the details once the initial direction of the work becomes clear.

Jang Bo-yun, Unipaired World, 2009. Ink-jet print

In addition I had lengthy and important discussions with Peruvian-born sculptor Ishmael Randall Weeks, who works with the material realities of the underclass based on recent experiences in Lima through a series of brilliantly constructed metaphorical vehicles; Chicago-born artist, Dread Scott, who investigates the significance and history of revolutionary movements from the outset of Modernism through the use of news images and provocative, often beautiful collages; and finally, the large drawings of Mongolian artist, Tuguldur Yondonjamts, whose enormous, actual-size shark with severed fins is transformed into a talisman of man’s tragic relationship to nature. There are other artists, of course, some further along than others, whose commitment is clearly there and, with a few exceptions, avoid conforming to the exterior signs of art market proliferation. In conclusion, one of the striking presences at Omi 2010 is the burgeoning large ink drawings of Takako Azami – focused, controlled, interior, and resonating with intense clarity and energy of mind.

Takako Azami, Trees 0903, 2009. Ink, pigment on hemp paper, 45" x 59"

The Founder Speaks to the Critic

Photo by caraballo-farman

There was nothing to blog about the 4th of July party, but the music. Rather than wax her ears, OhMI decided to consolidate her media monopoly, and asked for an afterparty interview with the host and Omi founder Francis Greenburger. The exclusive and unrestricted interview was graciously granted on the spot, and scheduled for the next day, 5th July.

We met after lunch under the tents. Francis arrived dressed in his usual attire, trim beard, khaki shorts, powder blue polo, and red Mass MoCA basecap (he is on the board there too); his legs are bitten by insects like everybody’s else. First, he sat down for a business meeting with Ruth, while OhMI pretended to be invisible at the nearby table, so she could snoop while furiously typing up her questions:

1. How did OMI come about?

Francis Greenburger had been involved in another artists’ residency first, entitled Triangle Workshop and Residency, which was founded by the British sculptor (Sir) Anthony Caro and a London-based collector and businessman Robert Loder in 1982. Its mission appears to be quite similar to that of Art Omi — to provide artists with studios and community; and yet, despite OhMI’s great worldliness, she did not know about the Triangle, now located in Dumbo, Brooklyn, and therefore she deems it unimportant. Over time, Francis grew uncomfortable with the Triangle’s direction. Coincidentally, he had heard about the barns up for sale, cheap, near his house. He bought the barns, called his loyal friend from the Triangle, the painter Sandy Slone (she was visiting Omi on the day of the interview), and said, let’s start our own artists’ residency.

Francis maintains that it is very important for a non-profit organization to own property, in order to ensure continuity. He implements this real-estate based planning at Omi, which expanded to about 400 acres of surrounding land, as well as at other non-profit organizations where he is on the board of directors, including the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, located in an office condo tower 125 Maiden Lane, developed by Time Equities, from which LMCC purchased its office space with grant money from the September 11 Fund. Among its other programs, LMCC runs a studio program in vacant spaces donated for periods of time by owners, including Francis. Next application deadline is spring 2011; some Omis participated in this studio program — ask Anna; OhMI, too, knows it well and deems it important. (Disclaimer: OhMI does not imply a special access between the two residencies, and does not publicly subscribe to conspiracy theories.)

2. What is your personal relationship to art?

It appears to be personal — Francis’s father was a literary agent, his mother painted, and he purchased his first painting at the age fourteen from his girlfriend’s brother-in-law. The painting now hangs in his NYC office, and he still likes it very much. (OhMI will do her very best to get an image of it for you.) The most recent artwork in the personal collection has been acquired in Paris, from a woman painter who lost her legs and an arm on the subway rails after an attempted suicide caused by post-partum depression. There are also more famous names in the collection, of course (OhMI had heard Franz West is one).

The personal collection is separate from the Art Omi collection, which is comprised of works donated by artists following their residencies. These works are displayed at the Company’s offices at 55 Fifth Avenue, as well as the 125 Maiden Lane lobby. Some increased in value tremendously, and can be sold to raise funds for Omi programs, also to lower storage and insurance costs, but in practice, not much has been sold. From OhMI point of view, this strategy is similar to the excellent concept by the late founder of The New Museum, Marcia Tucker, who devised the Changing Collection for her museum — works by emerging artists bought at low prices to be sold when the artists emerge, to buy more works by emerging artists. This way, a collection becomes an income generator for artists rather than a dead asset.

3. Wouldn’t it be beneficial to have more than one critic/curator in residence, along with the artists?

(This question is very h.o.t. for OhMI; as you may remember, she conceived of this interview in order to consolidate her media monopoly and to gain more power.) OhMI can now follow DJ mama’s advise and relax, there seems to be no competition. However, this idea has been put into practice a few years ago, and it did not work — the two critics united, and the artists suffered even more. There got to be only one C.

btw, Francis says that the Critic in Residence is encouraged to do her own work, since everyone comes here on an equal basis. That’s in theory; in practice, great power comes with great responsibility. Yes, Irfan, I am here for you (to worship).

4. What are the aspects of the program that you find successful, and what, in your view, needs improvement or change?

Francis really likes the directors of all Omi programs, staff, and family (so do we); he doesn’t like how the visitor center is working. Everybody else thinks that the smell of tap water and the Internet speed could use some improvement or change. Everybody likes the food!

5. What is in the future of Art Omi?

The land, which is vast, will be turned into earthworks. Organic farming by artists from Brooklyn?

As you see, OhMI turned a bit self-reflective towards the end, since her laptop run out of power, so she thanked Francis and returned to the pool.