Circus americanus

Circus Americanus is a curious, insightful collection of essays by American art critic Ralph Rugoff. The bulk of the essays, written between 1990 and 1995, first appeared on the arts pages of the LA Weekly where Rugoff is a featured writer. The essays are predominantly about the social trends and visual culture in Southern California, with a few excursions into the rest of the United States and Canada. The collection’s title refers to a growing spectator culture that finds its locus in Los Angeles, megalopolis of a near-future America.

The topics Rugoff covers range from photographs of nudists to tours of waste treatment plants, but he is at his best when writing about museums and theme parks. Rugoff is fascinated with the proliferation of museums in and around Los Angeles. He argues that the museum vitrine has had a more profound effect than the automobile or the mass media in deciding the visual landscape of Southern California. Circus Americanus includes descriptions of visits to the Beit Hashoah Museum of Tolerance, the L. Ron Hubbard Life Exhibition Hall, and many other institutions — including a strange, wonderful place called the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Although Rugoff is quick to point out the shortcomings of museums, he can recognize the quirky, magical properties that some do possess, like the grotesquely beautiful exhibits of pathological anatomy at Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum. Rugoff’s keen, ironic prose is complemented with fitting illustrations by photographers Mark Lipson and Debra DiPaolo.

In the introduction, Rugoff cautions us about reaching a point where our environment is so mediated that reality can no longer be experienced. Consequently, Los Angeles’ “culture of distraction” may well be the shape of things to come in North America and Circus Americanus provides a thoughtful look at this trend, with the humour and wisdom necessary to cope with these transformations.

en elliptical traverse of 20th century art

M. Catherine de Zegher, ed., Inside the Visible, An Elliptical Traverse of 20th Century Art: In, Of, and From the Feminine, Boston, Flanders, Cambridge and London: Institute of Contemporary Art, Kanaal Art Foundation, MIT Press, 1996, 496 pp., ill. b. & w. & col.

Accompanying a major exhibition at The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, Inside the Visible presents forty-two illustrated essays responding to a collection of twentieth-century artworks by thirty-seven women of diverse backgrounds and experiences, such as Louise Bourgeois, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Lygia Clark, Yayoi Kusama, Agnes Martin, Ana Mendieta and Charlotte Salomon. This carefully structured catalogue reveals a consistent history of artistic practices by women whose works deal with the loss of historical memory, discrimination based on differences of ethnicity, sexuality and class, and the traumas associated with various forms of displacement.

The catalogue opens with essays by M. Catherine de Zegher, Jean Fisher, Paul De Vylder, Griselda Pollock and Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger, situating the artworks in the context of a feminist critique of modernism, while calling attention to methods used to question the patriarchal presumptions housed within the institutional framework of art. By focusing on the symbolic and semiotic aspects of language as they relate to phallocentrism and feminine corporeality, these writers propose new cognitive and social options based on theories of sexual difference.

The main body of the catalogue consists of individual essays on each artist by writers such as Benjamin Buchloh, bell hooks and Rosalind Krauss, along with others by non-Western writers. Together these essays create a multi-layered text which explores some of the most debated issues of contemporary art, drawing on disciplines of phenomenology and psychoanalysis to art history and Marxist-influenced social criticism. This multiplicity of voices disrupts unified and coherent forms of meaning, initiating an open-ended process in which “difference” becomes a vital source of dialogue and debate.

Inside the Visible is a complex feminist historiography of art by women of the twentieth century. It presents a cross-cultural look at feminist art in which acknowledging the historical and geographical differences between artists becomes a necessary starting point for personal reflection and action. J. S.