habitat for artists


On the Possibility of Something More


My name is Faheem Haider, though I prefer to be called Antik. I'm an artist, and a writer, and a member/collaborator of/with Habitat for Artists.

I'd like to offer an unbidden testimonial about why I joined up with HFA. That reason is unitary and utterly complete.

I joined up with HFA because it offers one the opportunity to do something different, the possibility that one might do something more than the norm.

The thing is, the possibility for that something more was, is, and will always be there in whatever ones practice consists in, studio-based or otherwise.

HFA just manifests that possibility in a weird looking shed left out in the world.

The rest is up to you, and me.


HFA at the Philadelphia Flower Show (AGAIN!!!)

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Habitat for Artists is proud to announce that we'll be collaborating again, for the second time, with the Hudson Valley Seed Library, at the Philadelphia Flower Show starting this Saturday February 28, 2015.

HFA will have artists in residence in our studio, now refashioned into a stop motion animation studio, from February 28th to March 8th 2015.

Hudson Valley artist, Keiko Sono, from Flick Book Studio, has been helping us with the camera set up, and so we thank everyone involved for what we are certain will be a fantastic time.

We'll have the following artists in residence on the following days:

Virginia Walsh, in collaboration with Faheem Haider:  February 28

Sara Schenke: Sunday, March 1

Ilana Friedman: Monday, March 2

Carol Phillips: Tuesday, March 3

Ellie Brown: Wednesday, March 4

Jacinta Bunnell: Thursday, March 5

Carol Philips: Friday, March 6

Margaret Kearney: Saturday, March 7

Misty Sol: Sunday, March 8

Come join us. It'll be a fun time.


Resilient Criticism: Evolution or Revolution?

Lucy Lippard at Creative Time, November 2013

Lucy Lippard at Creative Time in

This year the College Art Association awarded the Frank Jewett Mather award for art criticism to Lucy Lippard, the venerable feminist, curator, and writer who has been an astute observer of the art world for fifty years. In her acceptance speech she said, “I’m … pleased that the award is for art writing and not art criticism, a term I’ve always kind of disliked, since most of what I know about art I learned from artists, and artists from pretty diverse backgrounds, and ‘critic’ sounds awfully antagonistic.”[i]

I think it is fair to frame Lippard as an art writer not a critic, even though the original intent of the CAA award was designate important work in art criticism. That aside, Lippard has always written with the social contract in mind, not the value or lack thereof of art. It is fair then, to avoid the use of the term ‘critic’ and more appropriately frame her in the light of art and politics. Lippard’s contribution to our understanding of art in a social context, particularly as it applies to women is incontrovertible. I do not however, agree with her assumption that criticism is to be avoided because of its antagonism. The implication in her statement is that criticism for her, undermines the potential for interaction with artists and therefore diminishes their contribution. This may be particularly true given her embrace of the conceptual, especially when it relates to ‘space’ over more traditional forms of art, especially painting. She wrote, “A painting, no matter how wonderful, is an object in itself separate from the place it depicts. It frames and distances through the eyes of the artists…like tourism, painting formalizes place into landscape.” Lippard’s view avoids formalism and in fact is bound as an escape from the confines of traditional roles and expectations, which is why it is often so vibrant and prescient. Does this then mean art criticism no longer serves a role in society? Perhaps it is better to begin with a different question—does art any longer serve a role in society?

My colleague at Habitat for Artists and art critic Faheem Haider and I have an ongoing conversation about the virtues of art production and criticism. I think that art at its best supplies a special knowledge to the world, one that cannot be assessed easily or in any other manner than the visual, because language ultimately destroys its own veracity. In other words, art can be a kind of truth that provides insights otherwise unseen, if not always acted upon. Faheem, on the other hand, much like Lippard, favors art as more of social intervention with no real importance unto itself. He does not believe that art transfers any special kind of knowledge, but rather simply layers an imposition onto the already ongoing social conversation.

“The artist’s role is to start a conversation. Another way to think about the artist– if that were ever important– is to think the artist shows up to intervene in a world that may not have needed any intervention, and that through those interventions an artist builds an audience. An audience never exists outside of, before, interventions, and thus, the artist always has a privileged position. But, the artist’s intervention should help along a chain of actions and conversations that might not have happened otherwise, though, of course, that’s no guarantee of the need for that intervention, and therefore of its value. This implies that the artist best have a view on offer that induces and conduces to some public good, where the good is measured in terms of well-being.”

So, does art offer some, dare I say, truth or is it merely another form of human expression that simply intervenes in an ongoing conversation?

I’ve written here before about resilience and one interesting concept of resilience is the resilient mind. Over the last couple of decades we've encountered new ideas about our cognitive processes and uncovered a genetic latency in some people toward greater resiliency. It seems that some people when hit with trauma bounce back quickly and have no long term impacts from the trauma. It is my contention—although there not yet data to back this—that artists may have more of this genetic propensity than the average person. It would be miserably self-destructive if artists intervened in the world by pushing society with new ideas, a kind of trauma to social constructs without having a personal resiliency. If this were true, it would provide an unconscious connection between art production and evolutionary progress. Disruption whether conceptual or conversant as Faheem suggests, is on its face counter productive to natural selection. Darwin said, “Natural Selection, as we shall hereafter see, is a power incessantly ready for action, and is immeasurably superior to man's feeble efforts, as the works of Nature are to those of Art.”

Let's pause for a moment and turn Darwin’s statement on its head. What if art were the driving force behind man’s distinct expression of natural selection? What if those handprints and charcoal drawings in neolithic caves 40,000 odd years ago were a way of modifying our behavior with the natural world and overcoming overwhelming odds that might have otherwise rendered us obsolete as a species? Isn’t it possible that art informed our natural sense of resilience and imbued us with a seat of consciousness which Darwin called “Divergence of Character”?

It may be easy to dismiss this conjecture as hubris or at least the hubris of an artist/critic seeking to justify his own practice but given the current state of the art world and our own society, it seems the missing piece of our divergent character is this divergence. Yes, we’re becoming more interconnected through virtual media and there is an opportunity, as Lippard proposed, to create an updated regionalism within art practices, but what really seems to be missing in my opinion is a true critical approach.

Armory_Show_1Fear is so pervasive in our society that pinhole cameras can shut down an entire city for nearly a day. It would seem social conversation and stimulation cannot overcome a state action that impugns art production for its mimicry of state surveillance, intentional or otherwise. These are the unintended consequences of an art world free from true criticality. True art criticism is indeed antagonistic because it questions the veracity of what is being introduced to the conversation in order to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff. It pushes historical context and pushes back on artists to do better, ask better questions, and indeed truly change the collective conversation. It’s not a practice for everyone because it requires a keen aesthetic eye balanced with historicity. A critic must be a hardened lot willing to speak her mind even when it’s uncomfortable or involves someone she knows. But a critic can also be a champion of the otherwise derided or misunderstood. Great art is never understood by the public when it emerges and cultural critics are necessary to pointing out the virtues as well as the shortcomings. True art criticism must therefore be embraced in order to avoid complacency. As Joyce Carol Oates has said, “When in 1913, the Armory Show of European Modernist art came to the United States, there was an opportunity for American art and cultural critics to assess the new, innovative art that had swept Europe by storm. Instead, professional critics, like the general public, from Teddy Roosevelt on down, received the work of Gauguin, van Gogh, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Braque, and Duchamp with cheerful derision… Criticism is itself an art form, and like all art forms it must evolve, or atrophy and die.”

Jerry Saltz, the Action Figure

Jerry Saltz, the Action Figure

When Jerry Saltz (another former winner of the CAA Mather award) joins a reality TV show art criticism is under duress. I point to Saltz because he writes for more populist publications than his counterparts Peter Schjeldahl (The New Yorker) or his wife Roberta Smith (The New York Times) or John Yau (Hyperallergic). New York magazine has a decidedly more mainstream and younger audience than its other cultural counterparts, so the impact that Saltz has is potentially much greater. Remember: Robert Hughes used to write for Time magazine, that bastion of mainstream America.

A new language must emerge, and criticism is vital for the nurturing of such a language in art. How else will we escape the trappings of regurgitative ironic gestures borne out of laziness and fear? The great bulwarks against cultural erosion have either died or gone soft in their aging and, frankly, one should not be expected to maintain the kind of powerful critical rigor found in the late Clement Greenberg or that of Robert Hughes throughout a lifetime--it would be exhausting as proven out by Dave Hickey’s current writing. Fresh blood is always necessary to keep the dialogue moving. Unfortunately, today we find ourselves with few young voices willing to exert the precise combination of intellectual rigor and productive critical questioning vital to the enrichment and health of society. As Maurice Berger so eloquently stated in his introduction to his collection The Crisis of Criticism:

 “Art is neither value-free nor an independent source of values; to one extent or another, it always reflects the needs, politics, intellectual, and aesthetic priorities, and tastes of the artist, the institutions that support and disseminate his or her work, and the social and cultural universe of which both are a part. By connecting the artifact and its institutions to the bigger picture of culture and society, the critic can, in effect, help readers better to understand the process and implications of art, the importance and problems of its institutions, and their relevance to their lives.”[iv]

There is a natural tendency in our so-called advanced technological state to forego all things unrelated to comfort. Why have we come so far if not for our own comfort. We have reached an apex in America where there is a distinct separation between the marginalized and the haves. Even the middle class who find themselves at increasing disadvantage look downward in disgust at an imagined poverty and reinforce their fear by embracing comfort in the form of mindless capital expenditure. Who will call out society on its mindless parade toward extinction if not the artists? Who will ensure artists remain focused on truly disrupting the conversation, and adding to the accumulated knowledge of millennia if not the critic? Although I disagree with Faheem’s value-free assertion regarding art production, we are in total agreement as to the importance of art criticism. A disruption is a kind of trauma and most will react to that trauma by recoiling or attacking. Disruption is an affront to comfort and the current status quo, therefore easily misunderstood. The reactive mind as opposed to the resilient one is blind to opportunity as well as imminent danger. Our cultural of fear is breading a generation of meek, unquestioning souls which can only lead us to implosion. More than ever we need fearless critics willing to “help readers better to understand the process and implications of art.” This is how we will find resilience, through the resilient minds of the artist and their critics.


Erik Odin Cathcart is a member of Habitat for Artists. He is an artist, writer, and a thinker committed to green construction and development, and green resilience.



Engagements With the World: On Paintings Constant Renaissance

This week's Engagements is a simple one, but deadly. The great writer and art critic John Yau edits Hyperallergic's weekend edition, and this weekend's review is a beauty.

Ann Gale's show of portraits at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects gets reviewed up in the way everyone should write reviews. I encourage you all to read them the way Yau intends them to be read: slowly, and over and over again.

Here's a bit to savor:

Gale’s ostensible subject is the record of an encounter between her and someone else, whether it is a model or her own face, which she presumably uses a mirror to scrutinize. However, unlike Philip Pearlstein, who is also a studio artist, Gale resists photo-like resemblance, overt signs of virtuosity, and the theatrical. But where observers have connected Gale to Freud and Pearlstein, as well as Alberto Giacometti, I think that the differences between her work and theirs, which elevates it into a category all its own, lie in her unlikely affinities with the Abstract Expressionists and the Minimalists.

Virtuosity, which Pearlstein and Freud find many ways to demonstrate, is something many of the artists associated with Abstract Expressionism either tried to subvert or flat-out scorned. Mark Rothko was interested in making a painting that was naked, a work pared down to its essentials. Gale is also committed to stripping down her paintings, to getting rid of everything that she considers inessential. Gale wants to depict a figure in a real space, but refuses to rely on a viewpoint or schematic lines. It is a direct one-on-one encounter. This is what connects her to Giacometti, while her preoccupation with the phenomenology of seeing connects her to Paul Cezanne. For all the modesty of her marks and means, Gale is an incredibly ambitious painter devoted to a meticulous inquiry of the act of looking at another human being, to registering the optics of her inquisitiveness.

What a piece of work!


Engagements With the World: Art and Progress


This week's Engagements is a bit long-form'ish. Happily so!

We at HFA are trying to deal with the concept of progress, in art, in society. When so much in the news is going wrong--or what we, here in much of the Industrialized West think is wrong--out in the world, it's hard to think that beyond a measure of material and technological change in some account of public welfare over the last 150-odd years, we haven't covered very much ground. Put another way, we've come very far, but for what?

So, this week, among other works, we've been working through an excellent article in Orion magazine from a few years back by the environmental activist and writer Paul Kingsnorth, entitled Dark Ecology.

On the moribund state of the Green Movement, now taken to neo-liberal views on activity, including progress, and whether that works with an ethic of community-grounded engagement, Kingsnorth's view:

These are the things that make sense to me right now when I think about what is coming and what I can do, still, with some joy and determination. If you don’t feel despair, in times like these, you are not fully alive. But there has to be something beyond despair too; or rather, something that accompanies it, like a companion on the road. This is my approach, right now. It is, I suppose, the development of a personal philosophy for a dark time: a dark ecology. None of it is going to save the world—but then there is no saving the world, and the ones who say there is are the ones you need to save it from.


There is always change, as a neo-environmentalist would happily tell you; but there are different qualities of change. There is human-scale change, and there is industrial-scale change; there is change led by the needs of complex systems, and change led by the needs of individual humans. There is a manageable rate of evolution, and there is a chaotic, excitable rush toward shiny things perched on the edge of a great ravine, flashing and scrolling like sirens in the gathering dusk.

We've been working through a similar account in Leon Wieseltier's majestic essay in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, an account not so much about the state of environmentalism, but about culture, and about whether technological disruption is somehow fundamental to the progress in, and of culture. It's a really lovely, and fantastically curmudgeonly account. We should all be so stylishly, so morally curmudgeonly that all a reader remembers from the engagement is that there is a lot at stake here, and the Barbarians at the Gate might well be those who peddle the newest toys out in the market. On that:


It's not at all obvious how we'd go about setting the world aright, in whatever way. It is, however, important that we look hard at the problems that beset us, and examine critically the solutions that are being offered. Only then should we pull at our shirt-sleeves, roll 'em up and get to work.


Engagements with the World: The Living Wage in the Artisphere


This week the artisphere was all-a-blogging about how artists today either can't make a living through their work or can't make their art work in New York. Same old, same old? Perhaps. But there was a particular urgency to the conversation, and it was partly triggered by art writer Scott Timberg's new book Culture Clash, reviewed here in Slate. Writer and editor Evan Kindley's take:

As a precariously perched culture worker myself—and one just five years shy of 40—I don’t want to pretend that there’s nothing at stake here, or that Timberg’s concerns are completely overblown. He argues sensibly for more “middle-class protections” for the creative class (though the policy details of this are left sketchy—one suspects he just means protections for the middle class generally), and worries that the “only people who will be able to work in culture will be those who don’t need to be compensated—celebrities, the very rich, and tenured academics.” This is a reasonable thing to worry about. But it’s not a new thing to worry about, and despite the dewy nostalgia on almost every page of Culture Crash I’m not convinced that we have ever had a society that did very much better on this score. If you want a world where creativity is a viable life pursuit, the way is forward, not back. The dream of the ’90s is not enough..

The Guardian recently published an illuminating piece about artists and their income across different countries, including countries where governments arrange subsidies or fees for artists to live/work. The piece delivers a strong endorsement for more government action to support artists and their work. That bit isn't particularly noteworthy. What is noteworthy is the different ways different governments support artists and the ways helping that along might help artists and art along too,.

Is fair and proper payment for artists an ambition for governments to action? Or should it be left in the hands of arts agencies? Perhaps it’s best championed by advocacy bodies such as a-n (a U.K. based art organization). Of course, it is the responsibility of all of these, but if good practices in the arts are to be sustained over the long-term, the responsibility for placing a value on artists’ contribution to society should be shared more widely still.

Debate and action needs to be taking place as a matter of urgency among current and future audiences for artists’ work – in and among rural and urban communities and with children in schools. It’s these children who need access to viable role models on which to base their own careers, and to be able to see for themselves that professional artists can come from any walk of life, not just the middle classes.

The last is up first, Ben Davis' piece in artnet, "Why I Believe New York's Art Scene is Doomed""

Somewhere, some new set of artists is inventing a new, very different way of being that will also look to have been inevitable in 50 years. In a very speculative way, I would say that Carlo McCormick's ArtNewsarticle last year on the rise of the “hickster"—about artists leaving the city altogether—is a better hint of the future in a generation or so than Galapagos's move to Detroit, which seems just a stop on the way.

Leave aside the bit about the "hickster", Davis' piece is a flip on the whole real-estate, costs and income grounded piece that assert that you'd best "hipsterize the Hudson River Valley", or "the Hudson Valley art scene is dead/alive".

Also, maybe because school is starting out soon, but everyone's talking about how art picks out real value in education and therapy. Just a selection, from an NPR sister site, here,  and National Geographic, here.


Image courtesy: Faheem Haider