Revisiting: A Conversation with Karen Green on Art and Forgiveness & the “Unimaginables”

The Forgiveness Machine

In 2009, artist Karen Green made “The Forgiveness Machine.” It was a strange seven-foot-long plastic apparatus that allowed people to write down whatever they wanted to forgive or be forgiven for. You put the piece of paper with your forgiveness wish in at one end and it was sucked through the machine and shredded at the other end. Voilà! Instant forgiveness. There were so many wishes submitted that the machine eventually broke down.

The machine was inspired by the mixed emotions Green felt about her late husband, the author David Foster Wallace, who had committed suicide in 2008. The machine helped her return to her art-making and channel her grief. It looked like a giant colorful children’s toy and was a central work in her first show, “Latent Learning Experiments.”

Since then she has continued her creative journey as a way to make herself whole again as an artist in the aftermath of a searing personal tragedy. As she told the Guardian on the occasion of the publication of Wallace’s unfinished novel, The Pale King, “I think I’m supposed to buck up and be the professional widow,” she says, with another quick laugh, “and I have found that very hard. Very hard. I mean one day you are a couple living in a little house and watching The Wire box-set for the third time, and letting the dogs do their antic stuff, and then suddenly you are supposed to be functioning as the great writer’s widow. That wasn’t how we lived when David was alive. I felt about him like I would if I had been married to a sweet schoolteacher. So I ignored everything for a long time. Until now, really.”

I go back to another show by Green, “Tiny Stampede,” that presented a view into widowhood that is both cleansing and illuminating without ignoring the finality of death. For this show, Green created nearly 60 mixed media miniature works that take the idea of the stamp collector’s album as well as the idea of something being stamped in one’s memory as a starting point to explore perennial questions such as identity, love, death, sorrow, and faith. Each miniature became a meditation, a journey into a world with its own language of color, texture, and emotion. There’s a tactile dream-like quality to the works mixed with a delicate subtext of nightmare and horror.

I asked Green why she chose to work in the miniature mode, “The primary reason for the size,” she says, “is that I feel small in the world. Some of it has to do with being shrunken by shrinks, and that’s humor and wordplay, but to feel small in the world is a reasonable and realistic response to trauma and loss, I think. To feel small is a reasonable way to feel in response to looking at the stars; never mind trauma and loss.”

Although there’s a serious edge to the show, Green’s humor comes through as it did with “The Forgiveness Machine.” The works are so tiny and dense with imagery and intimation that we peer into them, literally squinting in search of meaning. That recalls a scene from the film, Synecdoche, where the only way that viewers can see miniaturized oils (painted by Alex Kanevsky) is by wearing magnifying spectacles that make them look like mad characters in a Lewis Carroll story.

Max Benavidez: What is the relationship between colors and grief?

Karen Green: Before I lost my husband, I started making lists of what I called “unimaginables” and I organized them by color. In hindsight, it was a way of organizing fear and hoarding faith. It was not a preparation for his death; quite the opposite. Death is very black and white: After he died I felt like I couldn’t see anymore, I couldn’t find beauty, I couldn’t see in color.

All of the pieces are done on pages from a postage stamp collecting book from the 1800s, and they are color-coded so collectors know where to put the stamp. I love that they are so specific about the colors — vermillion and carmine, blue and red. The color prompt was built into the pages and guided me. Guidance is Good. The black birds have been showing up in my work for a few years. Sometimes they’re crows, sometimes Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, sometimes imagined, endangered species. The black bird in one of the images happens to be a turkey vulture. Poor, ugly creatures; the chambermaids of road kill.

MB: Talk about stamp collecting and the work in the show. I’m struck by your idea of using the fingerprints of widows.

KG: Stamp: to impress with some permanent and conspicuous mark, to crush, to stigmatize; to impress or fix permanently on the mind or memory. To imprint: “when first His active hand imprints the secret bypass of the soul” (Mark Akenside, 1744) or my favorite found sentence: “Tom had such a feeling of having lost his identity that he wanted to reassure himself by the sight of his little belongings.” (Garrett, 1885)

The point is: One thing led to another. Imprint led to fingerprint. Identity has roots in the word, “sameness” — absolute or essential sameness: oneness. Which led me to thinking about Absolute Identity vs. Accidental Identity, and the word “widow” and widowhood as a kind of club nobody chooses to join — and my own arrogance in thinking I am/was special in my resistance to the word or its imposed meaning.

My shuddering is every widow’s shuddering; it’s a collective shuddering.

MB: Something that really struck me is your use and choice of language, of memorable snippets. Some that stand out: “Bring me a song like Forgetting.” God said, “I made a man abruptly leave.” Are you trying, as Shakespeare said, “to give sorrow words” alongside the image.

KG:I’ve been making this “found poetry” for years. I thought I invented it, but found out later I most definitely did not. Some of these are taken from a poetry anthology—I cut out just the first lines and spent an afternoon or two rearranging them. Then I got into a trance and cut those up and rearranged those. Trances are hard to come by these days; I am happy for those hours. And yes, “to give sorrow words”, sneakily, using the words of others who tried to do the same.

MB: There is a line from the Bible that says “a crown of beauty for ashes.” That seems to resonate here in your work. Do you think or feel that beauty heals grief?

KG: I don’t think beauty heals grief, nor do I believe that love conquers all, but both of them help.

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Max Benavidez at KCET Studios

Max Benavidez took his Sotheby’s Institute of Art class to KCET studios on Nov. 26 to meet with Juan Devis, Chief Creative Officer, and learn about many of the new shows being offered by the station including “The Migrant Kitchen” and “City Rising.”

Photo by River Callaway

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A View of A Great City at Sunset — Los Angeles

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How To Create Diversity in Publishing

The publishing industry in the United States is huge and doing quite well. According to a new report by Research and Markets, the U.S. publishing industry has grown to more than 2,600 publishing houses and about $25 billion in annual revenue. Paperbacks are still the most popular format, and the areas of greatest growth are in children’s and young adult books.

Although this is a far rosier picture than we see in the newspaper industry, where digital disruption has completely decimated the industry, there is one area where the U.S. book publishing is still lagging behind. And that’s in the number of diverse books being published for children.

In 2015, the Cooperative Book Center examined 3,500 titles in children’s literature. What they found was revealing.

The characters in children’s books overwhelmingly reflect the dominant culture. In these 3,500 books, only 5.1% of the characters were African-American; 3.2% were Asian Pacific American; 1.9% were Latino American; and a paltry 1.1% were American Indian. When you add these numbers up, you get 11.3%. Yet, these groups comprise about 37% of the total U.S. population and even higher percentages when you look at the number of children of color attending K-12.

What can account for this disparity in children’s books and literature?

It’s basically a diversity perception gap in publishing. A survey taken in 2015 of the people who work in publishing found that nearly 80% self-identified as white. At the executive level, the percentage jumps to 86% and 82% in the editorial departments. No wonder the Cooperative Book Center found that, on average, of all the children’s books published annually, only about 10% can be classified as diverse. According to this survey, even the book reviewers are overwhelming white at 89%.

Books for diverse audiences, especially children, need to be culturally relevant. It can’t be business as usual where the vast majority of published books basically ignore large swaths of the population.

There is a silver lining here as there is some new blood and bona fide innovators emerging in the publishing industry.

The best way to start solving this problem is to have publishers who are diverse by practice and design. Lectura Books is one publishing house making its own unique dent in the market by carving out a specific niche in the industry. Their focus is to publish bilingual (English/Spanish) children’s books aimed at the rapidly growing Latino children’s market.

If we look specifically at Latino Americans, we can see the large gap between their numbers among the U.S. population and their representation in children’s literature. As a group, they make up over 25% of the overall population of U.S. children but are only 1.9% of the characters in children’s literature. However, if we look at the overall U.S. K-12 population, nearly 30% of the students are Hispanic. In the most populous state, California, the number of Hispanic children in K-12 is at 54%. These are today’s new readers and tomorrow’s adult consumers. Mainstream book publishers are behind the demographic curve.

All of Lectura Books’ titles feature Latino and Latina characters in culturally relevant stories. Whether it is a family setting up a business as in Flores Family Café, or a young boy living in Los Angeles in the 1930s as in the Teo series, or a young Texas girl corresponding with her grandfather in Veracruz, Mexico, as in Letters Forever, the stories are culturally relevant for their target audience. In one book, The Art of Memory, the house brought together 10 well-known Latino and Latina artists from across the country who shared their favorite childhood memories and then illustrated them. Critics have applauded the book and recommended it for use in schools.

The publishing house has received many awards for their books and been reviewed in various publications, including School Library Journal, but it’s only one small niche publisher swimming in a sea of big mainstream publishing houses.

“We are at an inflection point,” says Katherine Del Monte, the publisher of Lectura Books. “Given demographic trends and the reality that education is the key to economic development, it’s more important than ever to publish books that reflect the true and actual experiences of Latino families. Having young readers see themselves in books is a valuable outcome for me.”

In 2014, a spontaneous movement known by its hash tag—#WeNeedDiverseBooks—quickly developed on social media in response to the lack of diversity in the publishing industry. Today, We Need Diverse Books has evolved into a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing more diverse books into the hands of children.

The president and CEO of We Need Diverse Books, Ellen Oh, says, “I think a lot of eyes have been opened. And the industry as a whole cares about kids and cares about our future generation. They’re much more willing to embrace the idea that diverse books are actually good for all of us.”

We’ll have to see what happens in publishing as the U.S. grows more diverse. Time is of the essence. Every year, more and more young children from diverse backgrounds enter kindergarten, and it’s important for their personal growth and the future of this country that they see themselves in the books they read. Imagery and story matter.

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Manifest 1.0: A New Sonic and Sensory Immersion Experience

Kayoi Kusama’s “Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity”

Immersive experiences have become something of a rage. Recently, Darkfield produced Séance at the Edinburgh Fringe. Here in L.A., Big City Forum recently offered Electric Soundbath as part of an experience for the “mystically inclined.”

Museums have been offering various forms of immersive experiences for a few years now. In 2012, the Barbican Centre in London offered “Rain Room,” which later went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and then LACMA here in L.A. The Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery presented “Wonder,” and drew more audiences in a few weeks than it usually draws in a year.

Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrors” recently opened at The Broad here in L.A. to sold-out crowds. It explores Kusama’s famous Infinity Mirror Rooms. One of the most popular is “Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity” and for half a minute, the viewer “disappears.”

Right now, we want immersive and the deeper and more sensory it is, the better.

A new sonic and sensory immersive installation in East Williamsburg at Founders Lab launched this month. Called Manifest 1.0, it is a series of physical installations created to explore sonic and visual art through multi-sensory experiences. The project is a collaboration spearheaded by Executive Producer Jordan Caldwell with the multimedia collective The Family. Manifest 1.0 is set in a world envisioned by singer-songwriter Sunni Colón in conjunction with his design agency, Tetsu.

Manifest 1.0 Performance

According to Caldwell, “Artists create from a subconscious place that is difficult to express or manifest physically. Manifest collaborates with musicians and artists to provide them a medium in which they can actualize their innermost creative energy in a physical space and where audiences can join them in discovering what it feels like to enter that space for the first time.”

Surface magazine reports that the installation explores perception and reality in an ethereal design that exists beyond the constraints of space and time. Caldwell says that, “Manifest 1.0 aims to unite participants from different backgrounds and life experiences as they travel together through varying realms – realized through light, sound and texture – in one place.”

We are living in the era of the extreme experiential. It is the search for something new and interactive. Engaging the senses to the nth degree helps create unforgettable memories and inspires the imagination and, ultimately, action.

Manifest 1.0 Experiences

Manifest 1.0 is on to something in this time of virtual reality, augmented reality, and experience design. Immersive and interactive experiences are the next dimension for music, film, art, video gaming, and theater. As the artist Francis Bacon used to say, “the job of the artist is to deepen the mystery.” Manifest 1.0 and other similar endeavors are doing just that, deepening what we know and feel, making experience even more mysterious and, in the process, even more inspiring.

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Venice Beach California

The magic of Venice Beach, California, nothing like it in the whole world, a special experience, lived there once.

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The Voice of Beauty

“the voice of beauty speaks softly; it creeps only into the most fully awakened souls”

― Friedrich Nietzsche

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Interview with The Most Famous Artist

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The Taj

Max Benavidez at The Taj Mahal. Crown of the Palace on the south bank of the Yamuna River. It is really a tomb in memory of a great love. The marble dome is the central focus of this amazing structure. It is a wonder to behold.

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A Thousand Ways to Go Home Again

“Home—So Different, So Appealing,” a truly astonishing show at the L.A. County Museum of Art (LACMA), captures dislocation, exploitation, despair, and division in work after work, in installation after installation. This show doesn’t explode in your face but gradually builds momentum with searing and striking images about poverty, isolation, discrimination, and death, the very things most people avoid, deny, or ignore. It’s intellectually rich and truly emotional, a multimedia exhibition where the hallowed concept and fluid context of home is dissected, split, deconstructed, and even floated in the air. At almost every turn and angle we find a fresh insight and a new revelation.

There is a fierce war of ideas taking place in the world right now between those who want to go forward and those who want to go backward. We see the signs of this in our own political discourse here in the States as well as throughout the world. Authoritarian forces are fighting on every front to set a regressive course while those who believe in freedom and the right to self-expression are making their own case. By virtue of the times we are living in, this show is on the frontline of that war and the artists gathered here in one place for one moment in Los Angeles are making the case for freedom in every sense through their art.

The fact that the artists are all Latino and Latin American is simply a fact, not the focus. Yes, the curators brought together these artists—whose works span several decades and art movements as well as cultural and national origins—because they are Latino or Latin American. That’s true. Perhaps the curators are making the case that modern and post-modern art in its myriad forms has been made at the highest levels by Latinos and Latin Americans. Period. But the overriding aim is to showcase the art created by these artists not their race or ethnic identity. In this way, “Home” goes far beyond the usual ethnic shows that offer nostalgic or stereotypical images of what it means to be something different. This show boldly presents strong aesthetic statements by exemplary artists.

“The Ghost of Modernity (Lixiviados)” (2012) by the Argentinian artist Miguel Angel Ríos is perfectly titled and one of the show’s standout works. To fully appreciate this piece, it helps to know what the Spanish word lixiviados means. Lixiviados are leachates, which are contaminated liquid materials usually found in landfills or dumpsites that are environmentally harmful especially when released into the atmosphere. Thus, modernity and its ghost, which in Ríos’ video, is a transparent cube that floats above and around the wooden and metal shacks that have landed from above with a thud amid the trash and detritus produced by our contemporary disposable society. The cube represents the ghostliness of space and the presence of invisibility. The video’s sound effects are just as jarring as the visual scenes themselves, especially at the end when women sweep the ground with hand-made straw brooms with an incessant scratching sound as if they were conducting a ritual meant to wipe away modernity with its contaminating ensemble of normative thinking and behavior.

The show’s theme of home comes together particularly well in one room where deconstructed animal-like furry furniture by the Latino American artist Raphael Montañez Ortiz is juxtaposed with a delicate centerpiece by Leyla Cardenas, a Colombian artist, who carefully sliced away and preserved a 4-inch piece of a wall and room from a 19th century house in Bogotá. The preserved specimen is composed of remnants of wallpaper, a wooden chair, table, floor, and a fluttering strip of ceiling. The thin, torn series of sheets of wallpaper represent the generations of people who have lived in a house and remind us of where we came from and the fragility of mortal memory. Together the works by these two artists create a sense of the fiber and fabric of the inner life of home and soul. This is a view of home from the inside out. Quite brilliant.

Another exceptional piece is by the U.S. Latino artist Daniel Joseph Martinez. “The House America Built” is an exact replica of the infamous Unabomber’s Thoreau-inspired cabin in the Montana woods but split in half and brightly painted in the Martha Stewart Signature Paint 2017 color scheme down to a side panel in camouflage in a sweet and upbeat palette that mocks the militaristic nature of the Unabomber’s dirty work. Your eyes are drawn to the curiously unbalanced cabin in much the same way that a colorful children’s playground and its toys might draw your attention but once you realize what it is, the dwelling of a violent intellectual and madman, a feeling of disquiet may arise. The Unabomber’s Manifesto is nearby in case you want to understand the ideas that drove his murderous obsessions.

“Home” is the first exhibition of the Getty Foundation’s Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles/Latin America (PST: LA/LA) series of shows opening in Fall 2017. It sets such a high standard (no pun intended) that it will be interesting to see what the other exhibitions have to offer. While there are a few minor works and a couple of pieces in the show that while interesting do not rise to the occasion, this is still a major thematic exhibition of rare artistic quality not often seen gathered in one place.

The three co-curators of this show—Chon Noriega, Mari Carmen Ramirez, and Pilar Tompkins Rivas—have pulled off a major global artistic statement with “Home.”

The Sufi poet Rumi wrote that there are a thousand ways to go home again. This show lets you go home in so many profound and unexpected ways that the lingering impact makes it an unforgettable experience.

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