“Martyrdom is not a practical life strategy,” painter Mike Cloud said at a talk about living as a contemporary artist.
On display now in the Logan Center Gallery, The Myth of Education is a multimedia collection by the Brooklyn-based painter and pedagogue. On Thursday, March 2, Cloud joined artist Oscar Murillo in a conversation about the concepts of stardom and heroism in the contemporary art world, as well as their own experiences within it. The discussion was moderated by Logan Center Exhibitions Curator Yesomi Umolu, and took place in the Gray Center Lab.
Among the works on display are giant, unusually shaped canvases caked with thick paints, displayed side-by-side with collages of Annie Leibovitz photographs and newspaper cut-outs. Some canvases are shaped like six-pointed stars while others resemble arrowheads or computer screen cursors. Even before examining the various abstract patterns, text, and symbols populating the canvases, viewers are welcomed into a field of ambiguous semiotics by Cloud’s distinctive canvas shapes. A rainbow flag, hands, feet, and genitalia drawn as mazes, and oppositional phrases such as “Brown VS White Rice” are signs already rife with connotations. Cloud takes advantage of that to build new associations for viewers to explore, much like they would explore the organ-shaped labyrinths Cloud includes in the work. Marked with clear starting and ending points, the mazes add a temporal and interactive dimension to his work.
The exhibition opened on January 26 with a tour given by the artist. Following the reception, Umolu coordinated a series of programs, complementary to the exhibition, that addressed motley issues in the contemporary art world. The first was a February 15 panel involving Cloud, Taylor Renee Aldridge, assistant curator at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Alexander Provan, editor of Triple Canopy. The three prodded “the notions of offense and aesthetic judgement” in the 21st century painter’s life. On February 16, Cloud’s interlocutor was arts education specialist Peter Stover, who shifted the conversation towards pedagogy, a field Cloud himself is immersed in as an assistant professor at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. His discussion with Murillo was the last of these exhibition-related programs.
Like its antecedents, this particular event was only tangentially tethered to Cloud’s exhibition. While his recent oeuvre stretches the contemporary practice of abstract painting, the talk was concerned more with an artist’s relationship to society than with Cloud’s work in particular. Examining this relationship, Cloud borrowed a binary opposition highlighted in Hito Steyerl’s essay, “A Thing Like You and Me”: that between subject and object, art hero and art star. The former is iconic and actively resists society and tradition, while the latter is a commodity and a celebrity, desired and exploited by the world. The hero is martyred while the star is celebrated. While Cloud and Umolu discussed his own classification, Murillo was more cynical about the distinction and expressed his frustrations with the intoxicating myth of the starving artist and the romantic need for creative self-fulfillment. For him, the question is not whether to sacrifice everything for art in the name of cultural rebellion or to indulge in fame and recognition, but rather, how to be both “selfish and responsible.”
Murillo’s own art is often described as complex and chaotic; his installations, paintings, and video art often involve the utilization of various, and sometimes unusual, materials to create different communal narratives. His focus on community can be attributed to his international exhibition and studio network: Born in Colombia, Murillo currently works in London and has been exhibited in places like Azerbaijan, Spain, and the United States. As such, geography has an impact on Murillo’s work on a conceptual level as well as a logistical one. Considerations like shipping costs and the speed of a piece's delivery are essential aspects of any artistic career, even though such practicalities are often shirked in stereotypical and romanticized representations of an artist’s life.
In one of Cloud’s teaching exercises, he offers his students vaguely descriptive statements extracted from artist biographies and obituaries. In what he describes as “Build-A-Bear” fashion, they attempt to piece these together to create the perfect hypothetical artist. The game is a chance to observe the contradictions between different people’s conceptions of ‘success’ in the contemporary art world. Thursday’s program acted as an investigation into those same contradistinctions, as seen through a framework of artistic martyrdom, celebrity, and the gray areas in between.
The Myth of Education will run until March 11 at the Logan Center Gallery.