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Catching up with art critic Chris Kraus in Portland



Chris Kraus is a prolific Los Angeles-based writer, art critic, and editor, but her latest collection of writing published by Semiotext(e) in 2018, Social Practices, has an origin story linking it to Portland, Oregon.

The seed of the book was a piece called “Kelly Lake Store and Other Stories” composed when Stephanie Snyder, the curator of Reed College’s Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery, asked Kraus to contribute a monograph to the gallery’s Companion Editions series. “Kelly Lake Store” includes a rejected application for a Guggenheim Fellowship requesting funds to operate a general store staffed by art students in a remote small town. Kraus was earnest in her desire to provide the town with such a store, but the application was also satirical, in that she does not really view such an undertaking as “social practice art.”

The title of Social Practices is similarly tongue in cheek. Kraus is skeptical of what is called social practice art, wondering why students would go to art school to pursue what might otherwise be considered hobbies or trades such as gardening or cooking. She is critical of the industry that has grown up around MFA programs and their centrality in the LA-art scene. She contends that not every occupation needs an art degree to grant it legitimacy.

Chris Kraus, Social Practices, Semiotext(e), 2018
ISBN: 9781635900392

However, I am not sure if this thesis truly comes through in the book, or if it has been imposed retroactively as a talking point in order to provide a through line for this eclectic mix of writings, mostly composed of catalogue essays and other short works of Kraus’s art criticism commissioned over the past 13 years. Some of the artworks and events she responds to took place even earlier, and she did not make editorial revisions to the pieces since their original publication, except in cases where they had been altered from her original intent.

Art critic Chris Kraus gave a public talk at PNCA earlier this month/Photograph by Matthew Bowers

Although “Kelly Lake Store and Other Stories” contains her personal joke about opening a rural general store on Guggenheim’s dime in the name of parodying social practice art, the book also contains many examples of socially-engaged and community-based art she finds profoundly meaningful. One example is the artist and “debt resistor” Thomas Gokey’s “Rolling Jubilee” established in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, which purchased defaulted debt on the secondary market and forgave it as a liberatory political act.

This is where Kraus’s art writing shines, in her intellectual excitement and enjoyment of subversive, politically engaged art and creative work. Kraus excels, not just at satirizing works she finds pretentious and self-important, but at writing about things she takes pleasure in, including work by her own friends, produced in communities she is a part of, proving a critic does not only need to “critique” but can also channel and communicate the spirit of the work using her own formidable literary talent.

Kraus returns to one such example in several essays included in the book, an exhibition she co-organized titled Radical Localism: Art, Video and Culture from Pueblo Nuevo’s Mexicali Rose. Radical Localism was inspired by the town of Mexicali in Baja California, and she glowingly describes artists addressing issues of identity and community near the United States border. One of these artists is documentary filmmaker Ruben Marrufo, who went on to receive his MFA in Visual Studies at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in 2018, and currently operates the Chingada Gallery, which showcases artists of color in Portland (located at 328 NW Broadway). His short documentary Aqui Seguimos (“Here We Stand,” 2012) exemplifies the alternative ethos of radical localism, “No community, no community art” (Kraus 188). In this sense, Kraus demonstrates how all art is social practice when one takes into consideration the context and circumstances surrounding its creation and consumption.

In January of 2019, Kraus visited Portland after a period of 11 years (the time since she participated in the 2008 tour of the Sex Worker’s Art Show which she described as “the hardest thing” she has ever done) to read from the book and meet with students at PNCA. Kraus chose to read the story “Face” in which a young artist created an exhibition solely for her viewing. She interviewed the woman about the show and copied down her words verbatim. The woman was later angered by her portrayal in the piece, despite seeking Kraus out as a scribe. She questions, “How could something so literal be this far from accurate?” (Kraus 186). The story problematizes distinctions between artist and viewer, creator and critic, expectation and reality, intention and reception, and breaks down the authorial fourth wall in transgressive ways that are characteristic of Kraus’s prose.

During her visit to PNCA Kraus discussed her method of art criticism, which incorporates traditional elements such as descriptions of art, biographical information about the artist, and historical context, as well as more unorthodox personal details about her own life circumstances at the time of engaging with the work. For example, in “Face” Kraus describes going through a divorce and dividing up financial assets.

In a broad sweeping conversation on art writing techniques, the students of the MA in Critical Studies program rushed to take notes as Kraus rattled off authors and texts from Montaigne, to Gary Indiana, Portland novelist and Dangerous Writing instructor Tom Spanbauer, and The Normal School magazine. Kraus cited Jill Johnston (the longtime cultural critic for The Village Voice and author of Lesbian Nation whose prose style was poetic and avant-garde, inspired by Dadaism and Gertrude Stein) as one of her most significant influences. Johnston chronicled her counter-cultural life in the ‘60s and ‘70s as much as she focused on critiquing works of art.

Kraus takes up this approach in her own criticism, breaking down the rarefied experience of viewing art and making it more embodied and subjective. Be it descriptions of stripping to make ends meet in New York hustle bars in the 1970’s and early ‘80s, or seeking BDSM sex partners through personal ads after leaving a long-term monogamous relationship, and other seeming non sequiturs, the author trusts her instincts and everything is fair game when it comes to formulating her signature discursive style.

Although her tastes and interests can be heady and intellectual, seeing Kraus read brings out the humor in her work. Local author Sophia Shalmiyev observed during the Q+A after the reading, “Your work is so funny, I think you know you are hilarious.” Shalmiyev (whose memoir Mother Winter was published this month by Simon & Schuster) and Kraus will be speaking on a panel together at the upcoming Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference in Portland in March. The topic is “The Trouble with Writing About Real People,” directly engaging with the pushback writers receive when using real-life subjects in their artwork, and how this tends to disproportionately impact people from marginalized communities such as women, queers, and people of color who are seen as mere diarists, instead of lofty, objective, fiction writers, or (capital A) Authors.

Overall, Kraus’s recent visit to Portland helped tease out the connections to our Pacific Northwest city in a book that otherwise focuses on the insular LA art world, and let us in on some of her inside jokes.

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Shawna Lipton is Chair of the MA in Critical Studies Program at the Pacific Northwest College of Art.  She received her Ph.D. in Literature and Cultural Theory from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is an interdisciplinary gender and sexuality studies scholar, and a cultural critic. http://www.shawnalipton.com/
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