Fundamentals 

From poor Kruger and lucky Number: to pricey Highstein and priceless Turner.

Sentenced To San Diego

"Funding? I get no funding," Barbara Kruger blurted to a troublesome inquisitor during the Q-and-A that followed her recent lecture at the University of Memphis. Kruger is an icon of the '80s art world known for her photomontages appropriating images from magazines and newspapers combined with socially conscious slogans like "Your body is a battleground." The artist's streetwise chic -- plain white sans serif type on proletariat red and black -- is a trademark of that era's feminist art and emphasis on text. Most of Kruger's work dwells in the arena of public art as billboards, buscards, posters, Newsweek covers, etc.

Kruger had just gotten past fielding a question from a student daunted by articles suggesting that her anticipated MFA in art is a waste of time -- "What should I do?" -- and now somebody wanted to engage her regarding corporate philanthropy and ethics. Despite the tenacious young man's best efforts to scrutinize her funding ethics, Kruger acerbically deflected every inquiry in an exchange that resembled a comedy routine: "When you're hired " he launched. "Hired? You mean like for a wedding?" Kruger croaked to audience giggles. She finally put the issue to rest by explaining that slim prospects had prompted her to assume a forthcoming professorship at balmy UC-San Diego.

Oh, to suffer the funding woes of '80s art stars.

Lucky Number

I can't get too excited about the latest overhaul of Number: or its renewed funding by the Memphis Arts Council. The journal has been on its last leg for, what, its entire existence? Number: has squeezed by, ensuring funding year after year until the arts council finally pulled the plug last June. In light of the fact that Number: only managed to meet its quarterly publication schedule twice in the last 12 years (!), one has to wonder why it took so long for the arts council to notice. Just a scant six months later and, yes, Virginia, the funding is back.

If the irregular publication of Number: has undermined its influence in the community, then the content has likewise diminished its relevance. The overarching editorial direction has favored feminist ideological battles and tracts that read like boring doctoral theses, which certainly have their place but not in the conspicuous absence of wider coverage of the visual arts in the region. An unfortunate development in recent issues has been the shameless PR puff pieces profiling art professionals. As long as Number: is receiving arts council funding, these resources should not be used to prop business interests and academic hobbyhorses.

The issue of Number:'s editorial direction reminds me of a recent article in the New Art Examiner by Mark Van Proyen titled "Art Criticism: Where's the Beef," which outlines this year's College Art Association forum on the question of unsavory art writing shackled to myopic agendas. One lecturer, Robert Hobbs, offers handy advice for art writers that Number: might wish to observe: to be "constrained neither by ghettoization within the academy, nor by journalistic servitude to the whims of the market."

The bylaws make it plain that Number:'s board defines the editorial policy, so it can be assumed that the diversity of the journal's content will be in direct correlation with the makeup of the board. The new board is composed of Leslie Luebbers, Carol Crown, Sheri Fleck-Reith, James Patterson, David Thompson, Cheryl Bader, Anthony Doyle, Mary Kay Van Geison, René Paul Barilleaux, and Hamlett Dobbins, all outstanding contributors to the visual arts but not a great improvement upon its editorial reach. Furthermore, this body replicates much of the old board and many of the same leaders of other organizations. The effect of this mind-numbing homogeneity -- blurring AMUM, Delta Axis, Number:, etc. -- is that it effectively limits the voices of dissent and the participation of the greater art community.

Jene "The Price Is Too" Highstein At AMUM

Long before the opening of "Two Rooms with 10 Doors," rumors circulated that Jene Highstein was not going to do an installation as first intended because the projected costs exceeded $60,000. Highstein has been creating site-specific, minimalist installations since the early '70s, and his most recent work consists of gargantuan columns, urns, and other simplified forms constructed from a wood-and-slat armature coated with stucco. Apparently, the price tag for Highstein's intended project wasn't discussed until so late in the game that it had to be scrapped completely in favor of a much humbler installation.

The consolation prize is an exhibit of mammoth drawings depicting the architectonic forms for which Highstein enjoys an international reputation. He is ever the sculptor, and the use of coal-black silhouetted forms on reams of snow-white paper reach to occupy the space. But in the context of the cavernous AMUM gallery, they don't really get off the wall. In an effort to break up the miles of space between the drawings, a long narrow bench runs the length of the gallery, an apparent invitation to sit and contemplate. The irony is that it is probably little-used, as the exhibit can be taken in on one's lunch break.

Hill-country Blues At AMUM

I was late getting to Barbara Kruger's lecture because of an unexpected surprise at the opening for the MFA thesis show at the University of Memphis. As part of her offering, Yancy Allison's Rhythms of the Land: A Photographic Journey through the Mississippi Hill Country, a video cycled still images of men, women, and children from Como, Mississippi, particularly a gathering of musicians and celebrants. There is one shot of Luther Dickinson laughing and playing guitar, another of a band playing African instruments including the kora, and another of Como resident Othar Turner playing the fife.

The soundtrack of Turner's drum-and-fife band got unusually loud -- only it was the genuine article marching through AMUM, past Highstein's installation and into the adjacent gallery that houses the MFA thesis show. It was a heartwarming spectacle, not just to see the legendary Turner and company but also Allison's beaming face.

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