Rough Trade – Vision: Color, Light & Space

Freed from the necessity of having to make narrow choices (as painters did) about what images were worth contemplating, because of the rapidity with which cameras recorded anything, photographers made seeing into a new kind of project: as if seeing itself, pursued with sufficient avidity and single-mindedness, could indeed reconcile the claims of truth and the need to find the world beautiful. Once an object of wonder because of its capacity to render reality faithfully as well as despised at first for its base accuracy, the camera has ended by effecting a tremendous promotion of the value of appearances. Appearances as the camera records them. Photographs do not simply render reality – realistically. It is reality which is scrutinized, and evaluated, for its fidelity to photographs. “In my view,” the foremost ideologue of literary realism, Zola, declared in 1901 after fifteen years of amateur picture-taking, “you cannot claim to have really seen something until you have photographed it.” Instead of just recording reality, photographs have become the norm for the way things appear to us, thereby changing the very idea of reality, and of realism.
Susan Sontag The Heroism of Vision

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In our 21st Century Postmodern world EVERYTHING is seen and understood through lenses. This experience has narrowed our visual focus so that we find truth and reality in those things and only those things that pass through that electronic shutter and appear on those electronic extensions. News, information, entertainment, scholarship, you name it, we all have to show up in the same place in order to obtain it, to “see it,” to participate in it. Never has so much “reality” been concentrated in one “center” in the history of mankind, and participation in any of the social, economic and cultural industries must be based on our access to that center. But there is another more subtle experience to this online electronic world. Participation in it requires that we exist in a different, inhuman, kind of way. Lens based programming is not physical, it is designed to remake fleshy memory into something else, something infinitely malleable. We can not grasp it, understand it or participate in it without extending our consciousness, without turning our insides out as McLuhan used to say. The nature of our participation and understanding of this reality has taken on a kind of religiousity, a kind of communion with an invisible, omnipresent Kingdom of Heaven, and like seers, priests, astrologers and clairvoyants, we sift through this electronic ether looking for answers. From all walks of life we can experience a sort of hyperactivated Neo-Medievalism as our populace is constantly communing with the unseen, unheard and untouched. Our extensions – cell phones, computers, Blackberrys, and iphones – allow us to communicate with this invisible world, receive answers and perceive solutions from an omnipresent source, a contrived reality. As we have come to exist in this world we locate more and more of our lives online. We replicate – uploading photos, videos, music, recordings, diaries, thoughts and feelings – we make copies of ourselves. We dematerialize our physical lives, we capture and immortalize our past with the lens and the program, and we seek to live forever in this immaterial world, just as we once did for the Book of Life. This electronic world is our new religion, and it is has brought with it a new age of supplication and transformative experience. It has become the greatest and most powerful religion ever. In another time we would have called ourselves Ecstatics, but in this electronic age we think of ourselves in a more grandiose way, we are more god-like, we are Avatars.

“We thought we saw the 20th Century on the news, film, and elsewhere, better than any previous century, although we could say we didn’t see it all – the camera did.” David Hockney Secret Knowledge

IN this Rough Trade – Vision post we will be discussing a different type of Light, Color & Space and how it adds to the solutions we’ve discussed in Form & Structure. Again I will say that these are my solutions to the Postmodern conundrum, and they may not resonate with you. When I first began I was looking for a different process in my work, a different way to paint, one that would allow me to make something of my own, something outside of Postmodern practice. Understand that I am not saying that my solutions are the only solutions. But I do not think we painters have done enough. We have not been thinking heretically, and if anything, I am hoping that these works and these posts may start to crack the Postmodern edifice. Let’s begin…

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A Brief History

From Impressionism through to Abstract Expressionism Color was systematically unfettered, unmoored, and ultimately, freed from the visual concepts of Form and Structure. And as color became more central to Modernist theoretics, the thought about what color could do, the type of experience it could relate, sort of splintered into two camps. The Southern School saw color as a vehicle of emotional expression. (“The chief function of color should be to serve expression.” Henri Matisse) The Northern School saw color as a spiritual encounter. (“Color provokes a psychic vibration. Color hides a power still unknown but real, which acts on every part of the human body.” Wassily Kandinsky) These dual theoretical applications carried on until color itself, the materiality of it, fused with the surface of Modernist physicality giving us the Monochrome, the Shaped Canvas, and the finality, the “thingness,” of an object installed on a wall. (Think of Stella’s extra hefty stretchers, Marden’s waxy surfaces or Judd’s wall-mounted Boxes.) Modernism at that moment had taken the history of Western Visual Culture to an endpoint. (“My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there. It really is an object… What you see is what you see.” Frank Stella.)

Postmodernism, beginning in 19 Sixty, used color in a different way. Color for the Postmodernist is neither emotional, spiritual, or even a thing in itself. Its value is found in its application. It is a decorative and descriptive type of color. But that’s not quite the whole story either. Postmodern color is used as the electronic media uses color, to entice, to create a desire FOR something. It is neither emotional nor spiritual in the Modernist sense. It isn’t used to create an experience of life within a viewer. Color is most often used as a sign rather than as a vehicle, as a way to elicit a type of behavior rather than as a means of expression. In Modernism color is designed to elicit meaning – in Postmodernism the application is designed to elicit a response. Color is simply part of the larger context, a way to extend the field, an optical inference – think of the way Steven Speilberg’s DOP Janusz Kaminski faded color out of many of the movies they worked on, or the way Jeff Koons saturates his collages of magazine photos, or the way marketers package and present consumer goods in advertisements. The program always sets up contexts outside of the thing in itself designed to elicit a kind of nostalgia, a type of insatiability, or an unconscious thematic desire for something more. You might think of the differences in this way – Modernist color is personal, idiosyncratic, intuitive. POMO color is public, psychological, manipulative. Modernism’s color is interior, expressive. POMO is exterior, surreptitious. You get the idea…

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Light & Space

I often ask myself – why are artists still bandying about outdated concepts like light and space, especially at this time, in this electronic age of projected light and electric hue? Light and Space are anachronisms of another time, of vision and painting – they no longer EXIST as a concern, they no longer define meaning as they once did for our culture. We’ll talk about this more in moment, but let’s backtrack a bit to the mid 19th Century when light and space did matter to painters, especially to the early Modernists. One might say that Light & Space were the first and only concern of early Modernism starting with the Impressionists’ zeal for the “effect” of light on color inplein air painting. By the turn of the century light & space had been supplanted by other concerns when flatness and surface turned Modernism away from visual perception. This path concluded with the repudiation of the visual when painters achieved physical flatness and a type of purity found in optical color. Part of the early liberation of painting in this fashion was technological – squeezable tubes of paint became available for the first time allowing painters to travel, to work in the light. The other part was theoretical – photography, suddenly, changed the nature of the game for painters. Color, Light & Space took on a new importance, seemingly overnight, for a group of experimental painters obsessed with those effects. And in describing this new light & space the idea of process took on a new importance as well. How one painted, how one defined the light & space in the illusion took on a greater importance. This idea of process along with flatness soon took the imaginations of artists into new directions. Volumetric illusion, atmospheric inference, the stuff of light and space in determining color modulations slowly diminished in their practice. Flatness became preeminent when light and space were completely excised from vision, from painting and especially from color itself. The flatter the surface became the more optical the color. It “pushed and pulled” instead of forming and structuring, it was definitive rather than defining. But even as Painters struggled to the surface they retained the old speech. The old school shop-talk of the transformative nature of light and space still hung in the air while Modernists proclaimed the new realities of flatness and purity on their canvases. I believe that this more than any other thing was the start of bad faith in Modernist painting.

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Postmodernism’s break from and reworking of the Modernists’ elimination of Light & Space starts with its relationship to media, to the lens. The collaged billboard doesn’t define space nor does it define light either – this is the endpoint of Modernist color. In Postmodern practice space and light are determined FOR the reproduction, the image – this sets it apart from the history of visual painting and puts us into the reality of the lens. In the replication we are meant to look at a thing, a product, a hyper-realized ideal of some banal reality. We look at it as we would a flat ground. We gather information as we would from a photograph, a movie or TV program. We see it as a product of a mediated reality, a thing on a flat surface. The images of light and space are constantly submerged by the ground, the screen, the lens. They are not meant to convey an experience of reality, they ARE the reality, the media IS the reality and the reality is the flatness, the SuperFlat world, the constant ground. Postmodern light and space are not linked to a representation of something, they do not absorb our vision – they are clones of a mediated event. To make this a bit clearer – Greenberg used to talk of paintings being pictures – and by that he meant pictures of experience, physical documents of higher, altered artistic involvement. Today there are no pictures – there are images, one after another, that rise to the surface of the ground and then fall away again. They are not seen, the do not illuminate, their meaning is connected to the ground itself. Light and space do not define the visual experience – they are used to replicate a kind of optical patterning. There are overlaid images, photos, drawings and colors – photoshopped, cropped, cut and pasted. Space and Light are never used to define this type of interaction, they are used to construct optical references, points of entry, or like a GPS, they map where you are. (Think of Warhol’s Portraits and how those images are patterned over abstracted color grounds or the way television news replicates an event endlessly through a broadcast cycle.) Color, Light and Space do not define what is seen, the program “lights up” what should be confirmed – you don’t see anything.

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“So far abstraction has struggled to get by without the associative spatial dynamics of figuration. It has been hardpressed to give us anything resembling what Picasso did in the Bather with a Beach Ball. But abstraction has not been without resources; it has gone so far as to give us painting whose pictorial drama is provided by what is not there. Malevich has given us two shades of white for figure and ground, and Mondrian has stretched landscape so taut across the painting surface that only pigmented traces of its structure remain. But brilliant as these manueverings have been, we feel that there is something lacking; flatness and materiality (that is, pigmentation for its own sake) still close up pictorial space. Volume and mass – things that seem so real, and things, not so incidentally, that seem so natural to sculpture, need to be rediscovered, reinvented or perhaps even reborn for abstract figuration. This is what Picasso said when he became a Post-Cubist painter.” Frank Stella Picasso – Working Space

To move away from the Cunundrum posed at the beginning of this century it is imperative to react and redefine what Light, Space and Color can do for abstraction. This has been a part of the difficult and complex issues that I was facing in my studio and the Masters of the late 20th Century were asking painters to understand. As time has gone on I have experienced a deep dissatisfaction with the way Postmodernism enveloped Modernism, with the way abstraction was reformatted as a critique rather than as a primary experience. I have come to see this Postmodern failure as an opportunity for painting. How one sees, how one experiences vision and color, light & space is an extremely personal thing. When confronted with the Postmodern I always felt that this connection to personal experience was not visible, at least not in the work or the things that I was encountering. Color always looked as if one were choosing, as one chooses things in a store or on a menu or on a program – the best examples of this sort of consumerist color are Richter’s giant abstract paintings that always wind up looking tasteful and beautiful in very nondescript and uninvolved ways – they are designed, deliberate and empty. I wanted color to be something a bit deeper, thicker and more personal. I am not a spiritual person and the Northern School of the Modernists never captured my imagination, but the Southern School with its emphasis on emotion has always been closer to my temperament. But in my affinity for the Southern School I also realized that it would be impossible to “go back” and reuse Modernism in their way, that my idea of color had to be mine, had to be connected to vision, to form & structure, and ultimately, to something personal and experienced. But here is the rub, I live, breathe and exist in the Postmodern color saturated world – a place so rich in optical color that none of it approaches being personal, none of it is mine and all of it is designed to constantly rev my engines and stoke my desire. Color in other words is not about passion which demands a physical involvement, but it is about context which demands only my passing interest. The best example of this kind techno-immersive opticality is to stand in Times Square and watch the screens and reflections of pure electrically enhanced hue being pumped into the atmosphere. This hyperactivated color, rich as it is in optical pleasure and economic desire, does not, can not speak with real personal emotion. It NEVER speaks for my interests, never for my small world. Ultimately this sort of color plays the Postmodern endgame of “push and pull” – flashing planes of desire, overlays of interest, immersing one in the thin electronic sheets of commercial optical surfaces. WE are seduced but never loved, teased but never satisfied and always left wanting something more, something real, something thicker.

A Solution

Now I don’t know how to do this any other way so I will write about my color in the way that I’ve relayed it to my friends. You may find this tedious, but it is the only true way I can discuss it. SO consider that you’ve been warned…

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When I understood that color was no longer mine, no longer a part of a kind of truth or singular experience, I began looking to create a different way, a different involvement in color. Here in the US we get smatterings of Western painting, usually second or third string paintings sold to rich collectors in back rooms. We don’t get the full experience of what History painting does or means because so many of the masterworks we’ve learned about do not leave the churches and museums where they are hung. We learn of these things through bad reproductions in slides, books, magazines and now through jpegs and video. In 1995 I was lucky enough to find myself in Venice for the first time – no money, really cheap hotel with a bathroom down the hall and 7 days to wander the alleyways and plazas as I saw fit. I sought out the Venetians with purpose in order to see color in a new light, so to speak. For years I had been reading about the Venetians and their color and this was my first real experience of it. Michelangelo lamented their drawing abilities while he praised their color to the heavens. Titian and Giorgioni were lauded for their subtle hues and values that made their visual world feel real and alive. Veronese and Tintoretto used color to transform the banal everyday gatherings of Venetians into grand soliloquies of powerful expression and rich association. Their color has a vibrancy and thickness modulated by the eye and enhanced by their history, their memory. It is everyday color seen and experienced in the flesh, so to speak, and it is rich with the heat of life. It is a color of memory, of touch and of pure passion transforming painting into something visually real and physically palpable.

What I was unprepared for was the space and the light. White and black, complimentary, secondary and tertiary colors are mixed into the hue modulating the tones with value. Space, particularly the tight interior space of figuration, is electrified when it is warmed or cooled and then molded by light. In fact the depiction of light effects plays an important role in how color is used to define form and structure in Venetian painting. It sets the scene, it opens the door for our entry into a real visual encounter. As I sat in the Scuola di San Rocco I began to understand the power of earthy color, light & space in a new way. Particularly in the way Tintoretto played with this idea in his compositions and figurations. In one painting he could move you in close, pull you back out, wrap you in light and swamp you in flesh. It is visually astounding. I felt that if I could combine this sort of Venetian visual richness of modulated, volumetric color with the expressive possibilities inherent in 20th Century color I might be able to enliven painted abstraction in a different way – in a way that Postmodernism’s color does not, can not do. It seems simple, but it isn’t, because as you know, the lens has changed HOW we see and UNDERSTAND these things. Everything is mediated through that goddamned lens, and as a painter, I had to come to terms with this idea and this reality. Simply put, ONE CAN NOT GO BACK – though one might be able to steal something and find a new use for it. And that’s where I thought I’d start.

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For me it boiled down to the Venetian primaries – yellow, red & blue. These are the colors that begin nearly every statement of fact in Venetian painting, but in today’s world they are also the colors of commerce, these are the simple tools of any marketing promotion. How one modulates them, how one “values” (and I mean this in both ways) color is how one hones them into a personal vision. Whenever I began with bright secondaries – greens, purples and oranges – suddenly I found myself in a Richter situation or worse a Paschke situation. Unmodulated tertiaries followed, and at one point I was using fluorescent backgrounds and high keyed complimentaries to create an optical jump in figure and ground. The Postmodern was extremely hard to push back against while trying to remain pictorially viable. The problem was always the space and the light, the modulated form and the volumetric spaces. Flatness, physicality, materiality and opticality have been the norm for so long we have forgotten that we might be able to SEE in a different way. Abstraction, my abstraction, would have to be thicker, more real in its way, and mostly, it would have to risk being misunderstood. And that misunderstanding is connected to HOW we see and the power that the lens has on our vision. With the lens we push in close and tight, we tend to feel our vision rather than see it. When we push in close without the lens we change our relationship to color, we make it physical. By using this idea and engaging the color, feeling the light and space we change the POMO game. We feel our spaces, we no longer have the distance of the Renaissance window or the interior depth of the camera obscura – we are in the scene, we are a part of the painting. At a distance, through the lens it remains flat, it remains on the surface and out of our reach. We can not participate in the visual, we can not involve our eyes in what we are feeling. It boils down to the fact that with a program driven lens based culture we know before we see, and we confirm what we know with our eyes. We are no longer visual individuals, but part of a larger optical collective. The ground rather than the rising subject is our focus. But when we refocus on our own experience, on our own color, light & space in the optical world we can find difference, we make a difference. We can develop a different sort of visual experience.

Which brings us to this last point about abstraction. So many painters equate space and the depiction of that space with landscape painting. This may be so, but the simple truth for me is I am not a landscape painter – I don’t have a feel for it, it’s not an interest. I prefer the spaces of human involvement – the interstitial spaces of touch. When I go into a museum I admire the color or the light in landscape paintings and I move on – quickly – to the history painting, the portraits and the mythologies. Modernism and Postmodernism seemed in one way or another to have embraced the idea of landscape for its spatial experimentation – things in a field, things on a field, or finally, the field (ground) itself. Picasso and Matisse were the last figurative experimenters, but their most influential work on the 20th Century was through their still lifes and their landscapes. In the history of Western Painting there was a strong visual involvement with the individual, the human encounter and the life before us. Figuration, the rising subject, the portrait – all that had been waylaid or set aside or had remained the province of the photographic, the reactionary or the rear guard. When I examine this idea of landscape I can understand the visual confrontation with Nature, the encounter with the sublime, but as an artist I value the relationship, the look of the other, the physical human encounter – I find those things just as sublime and just as powerful. I felt that this history had become an ignored practice of painters, especially abstract painters. And Stella’s Working Space raised this very specter of human visual involvement when I was beginning to question painting. This was my start, this is what led me to color, light & space. These things have guided my fascination and formulation for a different kind of abstraction. I’ve raised a lot of points in these two posts about the basics of abstraction after Postmodernism. I believe there are many painters who are equally unsatisfied with the direction and aims of current abstract painting. So it’s up to us to change it, to make ourselves known and to challenge the academy at every turn. Live, Think, Paint!

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Rough Trade – Vision: Form & Structure

“The traditional fine arts rely on the distinction between authentic and fake, between original and copy, between good taste and bad taste; the media blur, if they do not abolish outright, these distinctions. The fine arts assume that certain experiences or subjects have a meaning. The media are essentially contentless (this is the truth behind Marshall McLuhan’s celebrated remark about the message being the medium itself); their characteristic tone is ironic, or dead-pan, or parodistic. It is inevitable that more and more art will be designed to end as photographs.” Susan Sontag Photographic Evangels

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These last two Rough Trade posts will be about some of the solutions to the problems posed by Postmodernism that I have applied to my painting. I’m very specific about what my work is doing and the way I put it together. I will say straight out that my solutions may not resonate with you, and that is OK. I won’t be discussing the works’ meaning directly, but I will be discussing my style and how I intend that to create meaning in the work. Like all artists I prefer you come to your own conclusions, but make no mistake, the work will lead you to meaning through visual engagement. I intend the meaning to be IN the painting rather than through a contextual engagement with an extended field. These paintings are meant as a direct visual confrontation. So with that caveat let us begin…

For this first part of Rough Trade – Vision let’s start with the basics – the Form and Structure of a painting. You might call this the entry level to painting. And with these basics we’ll begin to unravel the contemporary Conundrum – how to get beyond Postmodern sensibilities. The not-so-simple truth is that when one starts to tackle Form and Structure one either sets oneself on the path to understanding or one sets oneself up for compositional disaster. How many times do painters find themselves stuck when the foundation no longer holds the Form? Foundations will always determine how the Form will unfold no matter what bullshit about improvisation and extended field we’ve all been told. So in the spirit of function I have done this particular series of Black & White paintings in order to focus our visual engagement, to attack the Form & Structure head on. What I want to convey first is that these paintings involve a Post-Postmodern theoretical visual engagement rather than the usual Postmodern critical optical engagement. I have also set these works apart from 20th century Modernism, from flatness, materiality and pure abstraction. First, I’ve accessed the process of Modernist abstraction indirectly, using classic studio techniques to integrate and synthesize Postmodern lens replication into vision. And secondly, I’ve applied a thicker, more complex visual interplay into the work, a kind of primary process. For this post let’s sidestep the issues of color.

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Briefly, in Modernism everything tended to move to flatness and to surface, which brought us, finally, to the materiality of the thing in itself. In Postmodernism we moved from the material to the immaterial, from the physicality of process, to the mapping of those processes through lenses and programs. During these two major movements of the 20th Century the way we understand what we see changed significantly. We began to rely on the lens to provide the context and complete the visual process for whatever we encountered in the world around us. We began to expect that our vision adhere to the limitations of the lens, until finally, it framed every visual experience, fleshy memory and cultural encounter. This optical hegemony has been further compounded by the fact that computers and programs rely almost exclusively on the lens to upload and manipulate that optical data. This alliance of program and lens has forever changed how we accept and interpret visual information. For example the program Photoshop is used both as an abstraction machine and an image manipulator providing the collaged surface patterning we have come to regard as “abstract” and also the enhanced optical photo imaging used to describe “reality.” We have defined EVERYTHING as Art creating a culture of the hyper-real. With this sort of lens based programming ideas of reproduction, representation and appropriation have come to dominate our views of late 20th and early 21st Century art making. The process of fetishized optical replication is now the ONLY art and art’s programmed dematerialization is the outcome of that process. Painters, especially, have been trapped in the endgame of this tautological mechanization of vision.

From 19 Sixty through the end of the 20th Century there have been furtive suggestions and not-so-quiet speculations about painting’s current predicament from some of our Modern Masters. Picasso’s late work which for many years was overlooked and ignored, we’ve discussed at length in other posts. Frank Stella’s Working Space tried to propose a different approach to abstraction as he speculated that Baroque illusionistic space could infuse painting with a new visual viability. However, this approach contradicts his work’s overt OTT POMO mannerism and his insistence on Modernism’s flatness and physicality. David Hockney’s tremendous and ground breaking theory of the history of lenses in Western painting in Secret Knowledge opened up a different argument about how we can understand vision. Hockney has found renewed ambition for his work, but he remains happily tied to a kind of Pre-Modern Pop Naturalism exemplified by his use of multiple “lens” viewpoints a process he calls “wonky.” He looks backward rather than forward. What I found in these Masters’ work and in their thoughts were hints of an alternative solution to the Postmodern conundrum, to the limitations of the flat, billboard-like, contextual appropriation that has slowly squeezed the life out of painterly visual engagement. But unlike them, I find it imperative that I use the visual tools of both the Modern and Postmodern world to form a different sort of abstract painting based on a more expansive visual engagement.

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“But the truths that can be rendered in a dissociated moment, however significant or decisive, have a very narrow relation to the needs of understanding. Contrary to what is suggested by the humanist claims made for photography, the camera’s ability to transform reality into something beautiful derives from its relative weakness as a means of conveying truth.” Susan Sontag The Heroism of Vision

I want to discuss painting Structure in relation to our lens infused culture. I believe that we should approach this Structure from a different perspective, a different “view” from both Modernist painting which relies on a traditional figure ground relationship, and Postmodernism which relies on a collage billboard approach. These types of structures were both formed through lenses, reproduction and replication. Modernism supposedly freed painting to become what it was – material and surface. It found liberation in painting purity. Postmodernism repudiated the Modern by embracing lens replication programming fragmenting and dematerializing Modernism. The pure became the invisible, the pretexts of Modernism became the contexts of Postmodernism, and the lens, once the liberator of painting, became the fascination of painting. In both movements we have to understand HOW a lens works as it composes both the figure/field and the collage/ground. In both movements we must understand how these compositional devices are perceived as a kind of reality or a patterning that involves an optical reality rather than a visual one.

First the lens flattens. Whether we are looking at a landscape or a portrait, the lens pushes everything straight to the surface and across that surface from side to side. Artists understood this effect from the beginning of photography’s inception. Even so-called “primitive” cultures understood this “flattening” of experiential vision, likening it to capturing someone’s essence or holding on to their time. By removing the physical experiential part of vision – the thickening of perception through time – the rising subject is submerged and subordinated to the process of optical mechanization – it is submerged by the ground, the focus becomes the process. In other words we create a sign or an avatar through lens imaging. (Think of a passport photo, an imaged likeness that becomes a blank ground or Jasper Johns’ flayed self portraits.)

The second part is the “likeness” that the imaged replication produces. We have come to regard this “likeness” as a form of documentation, a type of reality on which we base our understanding and expectations of how culture works. But it is the machine that captures this reality, it is the program that catalogues and manipulates it, and it is the programmed process that keeps replicating the data and submerging it back into the ground. Likeness becomes data and is separated from meaning. (Think of the ubiquity of the Che Guevara T-Shirt or the image of Albert Einstein with his tongue hanging out.)

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Painting requires both eye and hand, one translates vision through the physical manifestation of sight. This practice demands that one develop a skill underwritten by one’s consciousness and memory. When we rely on the lens we become dependent on the machine, on the program and on the process of that appropriation – we are not required to become involved. Our hands remain “clean.” In relying on the lens we have to seek expression through the materiality or the process of the imaging, and this takes precedence over the thing seen in itself, we remain distanced and removed. In other words there is no longer the need to engage a rising subject, the ground is the outcome of optically focused attention. We are empty handed.

Many traditional painters (both abstract and figurative) still want to hold on to the academic ideal of “slow painting” hoping that the visual connection to an older process provides a visual weight or viability to their work. But because something is hand made doesn’t necessarily make it visually stronger, especially when relying on traditional historic precedential Structures to create the composition. A “thing in a field” or the “field as the thing” can not carry us further, can not create something seen in our dematerialized age. Instead what we experience when looking at this sort of work is the appropriated image, the submerged likeness. So artists have fetishized the idea of touch, that their moment of expression was the key to a type of humanity. There has been a great deal of abstract work in the last 30 years that encapsulated that touch. But this fetishization of the handmade is not enough to provide a rich visual encounter, especially as it recontextualizes Modernist practice. What we get in that case is Mannerism without the vision, something that employs a known and “pre-existing” condition. Instead, our focus must be direct, and we must abstract through all of our messy humanity without a reliance on an historical Expressionism.

But to achieve this we can not do it in the old ways. Postmodernism has cleared away that past, and it is the Postmodern that we must push against. The lens image is instantaneous, quick, and impersonal and our vision must accomodate this. We must isolate and define the world just as the lens does. But we must also refine this, take this back into our physical selves, reclaim the process of seeing. For me the delineation and composition of Structure is close to the idea of a lens-captured image, but as a PAINTER, the process must become more personal, more physically direct. Traditionally, painters defined this visual encounter of thickness through mass and volume. I wanted to accomplish this same effect, but in a quicker, direct way using both traditional chiarscuro (light and dark) and cross hatching (a process delineating light and dark) one re-defining the other, one creating a visual tension with the other. I double the process of volumizing, of creating thickness while playing the game of Modernism, the game of flatness. The lens is far too quick at localizing effects, so as a painter, I felt I must counter that effect with delineation, using drawing to reconfigure the speed of lens sight. Delineation allows for instantaneous focus, but it also allows for memory in a way the lens does not. I felt that Captured Structure rather than Appropriated Structure would be made visual in this way without the use of a program, of Postmodern extended fields, and this technique relied directly on the eye, on vision to provide engaged meaning. I felt this was a different way to use drawing and painting. It is both lens and flesh and it creates a thicker visual experience. For the early Modernist drawing was essential to the realization of form and it was through drawing that process and flatness became ascendant. Drawing wasn’t determined by photo-chemicals or later by the electronic program, rather it was a directly experienced event extending in time through the artist, through memory. It is why Matisse and Picasso were both so insistent on drawing and bringing that drawing into painting. With this sort of Structure we attack lens programming with painting’s strengths.

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What we have come to expect from POMO work is a preoccupation with the idea of reproduction, or more precisely, replication. Replication in itself is threefold, first it captures, second it simplifies optical processing, and finally, it does away with the concept of the original. The idea of a simplified process was an interesting solution to the problem of Form, and if I could slip through the process, both the capture and the replication would become redundant to the outcome. I thought it boiled down to the fact that I would have to use simplified reproductive processes in a handmade way. Crosshatching, block shading and line reduction all could link me back to the immediacy of drawing by using the accepted tools of Postmodern reproduction and replication to get me there. So I created a complicated process of using illusionistic painting techniques structured through academic drawing techniques and finally pulled those through a lens based reproductive process. (Think of Picasso’s etchings and Lichtenstein’s paintings as a model.) I used this to emphasize and explicate the Form itself. This would move me beyond the Postmodern program by subverting its subservience to the replicating process. Drawing and Painting at the same time put the rising subject back into my hands, so to speak, without resorting to a reactionary contextual historicism. I wanted to create a new painting hybrid. In this way my abstraction retained process, but process connected to actual visual practice rather than one allied to optical signifiers. Additionally, by subverting the Postmodern tendency to create signifiers rather than bodies I could complete the VISUAL work without the lens. The work is contained, the visual idea is implicit, and the rising subject takes precedence in the abstracted vision. The work is neither part of the traditional figure/ground or part of the electronic billboard, but something else, visual and thorough.

For me abstraction must comprise a radical visual engagement. This new active seeing should not be aligned to flatness or surface, context or appropriation but to Form and Structure. Abstraction, and especially, abstract painting, must adapt itself to a deeper visual understanding of meaning rather than remain content to follow our current practice of “optical” recognition so that we may push away from the Postmodern. In these paintings the Form is abstract, must be abstract, but it is abstracted from a visual encounter, an engaged memory with (in this case) a figurative element, something that I have experienced directly. It is figuration up close, Form and Structure as directly encountered. This is something I call Close Vision – this is vision of touch. We see a similar thing happen in lens work when we watch a movie. The lens creates an intimacy for the viewer when the camera moves in close to the subjects, cutting and focusing on aspects of what is being touched. We use our eyes in a similar manner when we become intimate with a rising subject. When we’re in close we “feel” with our eyes. We’re not sure of what we see, but we visualize texture, structure, shape, temperature etc., to come to understand what we think we see. Our eyes become dominant as they are extended through the “touch” of our other senses. By emphasizing the Form and Structure in such a way we create a sort of visual physical intimacy while honing a connection to an enhanced understanding of the visual subject. We achieve a Thickness that remains unfulfilled in Postmodern lens appropriation, and we form a visual presence, a rising subject unmet by Modernist physicality. By asserting Structure and Form in this way we move beyond the extended Postmodern ground and focus again on visual presence, movement and Thickness. The immaterial no longer dominates.

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In the next part of this post we will discuss Light, Space and Color and expand on the ideas we’ve been discussing so far.

Coming up Vision Part II…

Rough Trade – Vision

“I know what I was told a long time ago. The rainbow is the bridge between heaven and earth. It will shatter at the end of the world, once the devil has crossed it on horseback.” The Club Dumas Arturo Perez-Reverte

The problem is with thought. How we think. The problem begins in 19 Sixty and continues right up until now. Postmodernism started as critique, as a way to poke holes into the dark black edifice of Modernist thought. But by the mid-seventies something about the way this critique was formed had hardened rendering this type of rhetoric brittle and predictable. Maybe it was the cultural fallout after May 1968, maybe it was the Vietnam war and the total collapse of the United States’ government in Nixon’s years, or maybe it was the final economic triumph of corporatist power over democratic institutions. But a new type of power took hold and has been hard at work ever since. Postmodernism, once the locus of theoretical discontent and a tool to affect change, became the comfortable language of power – political, economic and cultural power. We saw this most prominently in the US conservative party’s embrace and promotion of Fukuyama’s POMO rhetorical tract “The End of History.” This love letter to “liberal democratic” society shows how deeply ingrained Postmodernist thought had become in our “new” media culture. It’s still quite a stunning piece of theoretical reversal, contextual argument and revisionist thought – an argument directed from the top down – a tract that maintains and legitimizes the global corporate institution as the true manifestation and final flowering of liberal democratic freedom.

“…I believe that both economics and politics presuppose an autonomous prior state of consciousness that makes them possible. But that state of consciousness that permits the growth of liberalism seems to stabilize in the way one would expect at the end of history if it is underwritten by the abundance of a modern free market economy. We might summarize the content of the universal homogenous state as liberal democracy in the political sphere combined with easy access to VCRs and stereos in the economic.”

This sort of contextual solipsistic thinking inhabits our little world of art as well, and it has been used as a stick to keep us in line. It has shaped how Art is made, how it is discussed and how it is sold. Art and markets go hand in hand – indistinguishable from one another. If it sells it is good and right, and in many cases “advanced,” if not, well, it can hardly be worthwhile. We have had years and years of it – through my entire art life. I’ve watched art become an entertainment industry. We’ve discussed it at length in other posts and other critiques if you care to look. But for now I begin a general discussion of vision and in the 2 upcoming Rough Trade posts I will be very specific.

Let’s start with Jerry Saltz’s recent admissions in his post about the Venice Biennale. I am using Jerry’s work once again because he was/is the preeminent critical voice extolling the virtues of this type of endgame Postmodern art. – “The show… looks pretty much the way these sorts of big international group shows and cattle calls now look; it includes the artists that these sorts of shows now include. It’s full of the reflexive conceptualism that artists everywhere now produce because other artists everywhere produce it (and because curators curate it). Almost all of this art comments on art, institutions, or modernism. Basically, curators seem to love video, text, explanations, things that are “about” something, art that references Warhol or Prince, or that makes sense; they seem to hate painting, things that don’t make sense, or that involve overt materiality, physicality, color, or strangeness… Any critic who says this, of course, is accused of conservatism, of wishing for a return to painting… (That said, it’s hard to imagine anything more conservative today than an institutional critique. That sort of work is the establishment.) It’s just another aesthetically familiar feedback cycle: impersonal, administratively adept, highly professionalized, formally generic, mildly gregarious, aesthetically familiar, totally knowing, cookie-cutter. It is time we broke out of that enervated loop.”

These are all same critiques we at Henri have been making for a long time. I cut and pasted these segments from his review to make 2 points. One in agreement with Jerry – that if one questions the status quo one is derided as a “conservative” or worse a reactionary. The critique of the critique is not allowed. For the cogniscenti it is their means of maintaining the false assumption that those who are popular with curators, galleries and art fairs are indeed the “avant garde.” It is a way to maintain control while diffusing the question – one never has to reflect if one deflects. On the contrary when we critique the “critique” what we are looking for is a way forward, beyond Postmodernism and Postmodernism’s continuous need to create a Modernist bogeyman. (I think this is a kind of “Cold War” strategy used by the POMOs.) When we question the viability of Postmodernism we are not positing a “return” to anything. We simply want to move forward and out of this visual cul de sac. Postmodernism is moribund, reactionary, a now failed “ism” like any other “ism” of the 20th Century.

The second point I am adamant about is that painting, based on new visual ideas, is the way forward. Jerry’s right – it never did go away, but it hasn’t advanced very far over the last 40 or 50 years either. As we have shown in other posts so-called advanced painting remains in thrall to visual precepts developed in 19 Sixty, generally to Pop and specifically to Warhol – From A to B and Back Again. Painting can not keep repeating itself if it expects to survive. We must first understand that Postmodernism is not going away. Media Culture is not going away. The changes to the way we see and think are not going away. McLuhan and Baudrillard were both correct. What we have to do, must do, is find a way to incorporate an older and deeper way of thinking into the tools we’ve inherited. We must use Pop and Warhol in ways they have not been used. We can not ignore them or skip over them, they are far too powerful. We must find a way to paint that demands visual thinking, critical visual thinking not tied exclusively to reproduction or mediated sensibilities. Painting must be in the first person. What we must attack is the way painters put their works together. The way they compose their works. The way they use materials. The way they use color. The way they remain tied to materialism and physicality. The way they demand nothing of the viewer aside from complicity. We must find links to older, masterful visual work, but we must use that only as a guide and inspiration for what we do now. We must guard against the reactionary. And finally, we must demand that our art, our painting be bigger than the lens based programming world. That our painting be as insistent and engaging as the electronic world.

I realize that this is a tall order. In the next 2 posts I will discuss in detail what I’ve been doing in my studio. I want to show how these goals should be the persistent part of a critique, and a way to liberate one from too many of the doctrines of Postmodern practice.
The devil has crossed and the rainbow shattered.

Stay Tuned…

Rough Trade – Reality

“The misery of man is to be balked of the sight of essence, and to be stuffed with conjecture: but the supreme good is reality; the supreme beauty is reality; and all virtue and all felicity depend on this science of the real: for courage is nothing else than knowledge: the fairest fortune that can befall man, is to be guided by his daemon to that which is truly his own.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson “Representative Men

Do we even have a clue what “reality” looks like these days? Here in the United States our electronic media determines how our lives look and how our lives are defined. And if, at any time, the lens wanders and a thing falls out of the frame or is replaced in that frame by something new, that previous thing no longer exists in our consciousness. So connected are we to our electronic extensions that our fleshy memories fade quicker than the light on our widescreen. We upload or download streams of information to become part of the free flow of programs, enabling us to be located among that data, allowing us to be “known.” And with new media programs like blogs, facebook and twitter, we have found that we can attain “reality” when we broadcast our passing thoughts and non-sequitur philosophies into the electronic universe. Our “reality” has become the Media we inhabit rather than a philosophy we might fashion. American Idol is not the most watched television show because of the diversity of its programming or the artistic integrity of its “stars.” No, it is insanely popular because it reinforces our perceptions of who we are, what we want and that our lives look correct, that our perceptions are aligned with the program, that we can indeed be classified and located within the “real.” Americans were thought to live lives of quiet desperation but today we live lives of compulsive amplification. We pump up, we get online and we live at light speeds. We tune in because we crave something – a nostalgia, a sentiment, but mostly a mirror for our narcissism. But what of our physical lives here in the 21st Century? What is it that we might actually believe about our fleshy selves? What does reality look like when we unplug, when we slow down.

Matisse

Matisse all through his career would fill his studio with life – models, children, flowers, music. There were exotic costumes, patterned fabrics, and flesh. He needed to look at and live with a physical presence in order to find the abstraction in the form. Picasso, on the other hand, would lock himself away and with his prodigious visual memory, he would fill canvas after canvas with visions of his life. He had already assimilated the lived vision through his very being, not through a frame or a screen. For both artists Art was found in the physical world, the THICK world, as they experienced it – life drove the meaning of their art and it drove their innovations. It was as simple as looking to oneself or through oneself to find meaning in the things that one had seen, touched and experienced.

Today, we approach Art in a different way. For all the POMO critics’ endless hyping of specific “meaning” or “narrative” in the art that they promote, the truth is, Postmodernism engages in a more generalized sort of expression – one specifically made for the lens and the program. We apply these predetermined theoretical devices to create specific institutional friendly outcomes. In this fascinating article entitled “The Case for Working With Your Hands” the author, Matthew Crawford, explains the Postmodern imperative as it impacted him:

“My job was structured on the supposition that in writing an abstract of an article there is a method that merely needs to be applied, and that this can be done without understanding the text. I was actually told this by the trainer, Monica, as she stood before a whiteboard, diagramming an abstract. Monica seemed a perfectly sensible person and gave no outward signs of suffering delusions. She didn’t insist too much on what she was telling us, and it became clear she was in a position similar to that of a veteran Soviet bureaucrat who must work on two levels at once: reality and official ideology. The official ideology was a bit like the factory service manuals I mentioned before, the ones that offer procedures that mechanics often have to ignore in order to do their jobs.”

It is the abstract rather than the abstraction that we concentrate on. By that I mean we expect the process to provide us with meaning rather than the thing in itself. In order to operate, in order to be a part and create a part for this system we must design our thought to NOT understand anything outside of that system. Since 19 Sixty this idea of process has been the norm in the art world. Intellectual Visual understanding has been replaced with a codified system of recontextualization, appropriation and reproduction. And with it the career path has been structured and enforced.

On the Job
In the practical part of a career we have learned to approach our artistic lives as if we are interviewing for a job, as if fame and noteriety are something to be applied for rather than something that might have to be earned (Andy Warhol’s magazine of Superstars isn’t called Interview for nothing.) When we look at old masters like Matisse or Picasso what we see are careerists coming up with a schtick, a clever signature style, a BRANDED product that made them instantly recognizable to the public. We look to their histories as if they marketed their personalities for personal gain like reality show contestants. We run down their bios like facebook profiles while throwing their names about creating synergies and precedents for our own work. We see it all as publicity, a great fiction created to maximize participation in our media reality. This is because everything in our culture, everything in this new world of immaterial commerce, is about connectivity to potential customers, potential sales. We can’t imagine any other narrative because these commercial programs determine our perceptions. What’s real for us has become what’s broadcasted and downloaded.

Jeff Koons: It’s basically the medium that defines people’s perceptions of the world, of life itself, how to interact with others. The media defines reality. Just yesterday we met some friends. We were celebrating and I said to them: “Here’s to good friends!” It was like living in an ad. It was wonderful, a wonderful moment. We were right there living in the reality of our media.

Economics

OK, I understand that this isn’t going to change, and I’m certainly not about to entertain the thought that things were better in the “good ole days,” because that my friends, is just a bunch of unmitigated bullshit. But at the moment we are experiencing a devastating economic struggle, and those who fashioned this system are struggling to maintain control of it. So as I said in the last post – let’s shake a few trees and see what falls to the ground. I’ll start with the obvious – I don’t like the top down nature of Postmodern Art. What was it that Mr. Hughes said? “Art… has become a kind of cruddy game for the self aggrandizement of the rich and the ignorant.” And indeed it has. From the academies to the studios conforming to Postmodernist aesthetic conventions has become our expectation and our artistic norm. We have no one left to blame for the way our art world looks, for the ideas that we have found “acceptable.” Part of it can be chalked up to the fact that with the expansion of the academies a huge business, an economy has formed around the production, distribution and proliferation of this sort of contemporary Art. And like all economies it is serviced by a vast army of professionals, clerics, workers and bureaucrats. We have come to believe that Art is just another middle class occupation, a profession, a trade. We have formed our aesthetic reality around these ideas, and we expect that system to provide for us.

PicassoLook it’s no fun to struggle. It’s no fun scrambling to feed your family while your work sits in the studio unseen and unsold. It’s no fun laboring at a day job because your art career is non-existent. And in these times, it’s no fun to lose that day job with no prospects of selling your work or even getting another job because the larger economic system has collapsed. It’s those sorts of experiences that change one’s relationship with one’s “integrity.” But what most of us are experiencing in this “new” way is an old reality – one that we have read about in the histories of Art and were not expecting to encounter on our way to sold out shows and dinner with monied collectors. Van Gogh’s failure, Cezanne’s struggle, Monet’s money problems, Carravaggio’s murder conviction – these are the stories we read like they are some form of fairy tale. But what of the thousands of faceless stories of artists just like them that vanished without the happy ending – how many of them went poor, toothless and unrecognized into that long good night. Alternatively, I’m sure that the Artists who’ve become the playthings of the rich and ignorant also must pay their price. They may read withering critiques from nobodies writing on blogs. Or they may censor their best works, hoping to regain the buying public’s favor, moving from porn to puppies. Or they wind up having to build box after box after fucking glass box filling each one of them one after another with preserved dead things. There have always been the success stories – those who were fashionable, those adored by the rich and powerful in their day, that later, disappeared into footnotes and White Paper asides. But you have to ask yourself – was their success what they thought Art was about? Did they believe that success made them great or were they just content to be wage earning professionals? Who knows? One economic life is no better than the other – luck and timing, connections and hard work – nothing much is different in the economic grand scheme. But whatever economic reality each of us has to contend with there will always be a price to pay for our involvement in art and what it means to be an artist.

Guts

But beyond those day to day economic realities we also have to contend with a larger more pressing issue in our studios, the failure of our courage. We must understand that when we compromise our courage in the studio to further our careers we lose out, we lose our right and need to innovate. Without questioning our work, without pushing for answers, without asking hard questions we remain in stasis. We accept that nothing new might come from our own understanding, that nothing of value could be possible, that a “vision” could make a difference. We’ve accepted that we don’t have to struggle for the NEW, and when we acquiessed to this idea, we became advertising pitchmen for the marketplace of recontextualized ideas. Just like the New Tide detergent or the New Chevy Truck or the New Delta Airlines we became the New Andy Warhol, the New Jeff Koons and the New Next Thing. We wrapped up our art history in new packaging, loaded it with nostalgia and narcissism and sold it to the highest bidder. But as time has gone on our work has gotten a bit thinner. We have tried to ignore the fact that we’ve run out of things to recontextualize, the well of our history has run dry, the mine is tapped out, the forest has been cut down. Postmodernism, like our stock markets, has created aesthetic bubble after consuming bubble, and we are now left to come to terms with realities of the post-pop mess. What is apparent when one really looks at the Postmoderns’ critique is that it has always been “out there” – it has never been in here, with us.

Which brings us back to the ethical and moral conundrum that we are now facing in the studio. Where is our aesthetic fight? In other words – Is Modernism still the dominant theoretical bogey-man? Are we still in thrall to its premises and conclusions? Or is there something else that must be confronted? Postmodernism has absorbed all that Modernism had to dish out. Postmodernism through its use of appropriation and context has basically made Modernism a subset of itself. Now this bit of trickery was done very much like a corporate takeover, and it may be the first corporate takeover ever in the history of art theoretics. In a takeover one company takes over another by leveraging (borrowing – creating debt) the deal. Then once the company is bought it puts that debt onto the balance sheet of the company that was taken over. The acquiring company basically now owns the company without having paid a penny for it. At which point the acquired company is raided for its pension fund cash, split up and sold in pieces. This is EXACTLY what the Postmodernists did to Modern Art. They never offered us anything new, they took our legacy, repackaged our history and sold it back to us in a diminished form.

Reality

The reason for this series on Rough Trade is to push forward. I want us to be clear that it’s going to take more than just making Art. It’s going to have to take understanding. What we’ve been doing over the last decades, where we are now, and where we might go. We must find the truth that Reality is in your life, not in the program, no matter where it’s coming from. It’s what you encounter in the day. It’s how you feel in the morning when you get up. It’s that delicious meal you shared with friends. It’s the conversation you had with your parents. It’s the orgasm you experienced with your lover. What we need are those realities, those everyday things that we pass over and miss in our work when we repackage a history or try to “grab the energy” of Times Square. Reality is personal and in the end so is history. At the moment I’m reading Simone De Beauvoir‘s Letters to Sartre. What is amazing to me is how she writes of the day to day involvement in the small things in life. The friends, the lovers, the writing, the food, the ideas and mostly her deep affection that she unabashedly conveys in every letter. Even with censors reading these letters as they made their way to his prison camp – she bravely insists on involving him in her existence. It is a different kind of intimacy, a different kind of personal contact. It wasn’t meant for the public but in a way, meant for a larger history. It’s not done in the same way we reveal ourselves today, but contains a deeper intimacy connected to touch, life, love, reality, and what I call, thickness. That is the kind of bravery we must show in our studios at this time. We must risk, we must have courage and we must be smart about what we are doing.

Vision is next…

Rough Trade – Power

Who controls what we see? Is it the museums, the galleries, the academies or the artists? Lately, as we all know, there’s been a lot of talk about realignment in the art world. We’ve all been wondering if there will be something new to come out of all of this economic hardship and political retrenchment that our society has been experiencing. Institutions have been shrinking at alarming rates, the auction houses have been trimming their rosters and artists have been applying for straight work along with the rest of the country. But for now our problem remains at the top. Nothing of significance has changed for the power elite. We are still involved in a top down culture, we are still in thrall to the “official” theoretics of the academies and we are still watching the same old Postmodern mannerisms replicate into infinity. Those who determined what the art world looked like, what it acted like when the money was rolling in, have managed to maintain their tight grip on the wheel. Postmodernism is not going to go without a fight, and it’s going to have to get nasty. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure I ever wanted this fight. I don’t know if it’s possible to win. There is a huge economic culture at work in the art world that doesn’t want or need new ideas, though it does need new artists with new product. There are forty years of entrenched theoretics to contend with, and there is nothing, nothing contemporary, to stand on. The voices of progressive contention have been curiously silent during all these years of POMO hegemony. And I’m not talking about that reactionary crap about craft, beauty or “old masterism” or a return to “principles” – I’m talking about ideas that look ahead while building on some of the stronger elements of our past in order to stand in opposition to the orthodoxy. In the end we must come to terms with what works in POMO. We must understand and use its best principles but in a new way – just as Matisse and Picasso cribbed from Cezanne and Post-Impressionism or Caravaggio reworked Venetian painting in Roman Mannerism. This isn’t about following precedent, but it is about defining a new possiblity from that precedent. What we need is to pose a different question, one that doesn’t lead us back to the same tired solutions. So let’s see what questions we might find and what answers that might provide, and before long, we might find ourselves in a fracas.

BUY WHAT YOU SEE
This advertisement is one of the better examples of 21st century Postmodern Lens Based Art I have seen lately – the speed and violence of its poetics are breathtaking. It is a commercial for the Honda Fury motorcycle. But it’s more. It is an outright assault on your brain directed through your eyes. It is lens based narrative used in a way that fine artists haven’t yet begun to understand. If this were a projected loop on a wall in a gallery it would blow the mind, but the best part about it is it also works on your ipod, youtube, facebook and blackberry. It slides across every electronic platform available and works efficiently no matter which one you see it on. We have moved into a new immateriality of experience created by the speed of its images. This art can only be produced and manifested through electronic contact, and like all things electronically immaterial, it manifests as both concept and commerce. By this I mean that everything online leads to an exchange of money. That app for your iphone, that song on your itune, that digital movie on your ipod, that jpeg from the gallery, your connecting time on the internet – everything displayed is designed for a new type of immaterial commerce. Everything online, including being online has to be purchased. And this idea of immaterial commerce is what is behind so many “successful” POMO artists. This isn’t directly about pure capitalistic commercial art activity (which has been around forever,) but it is about producing art that becomes part of that immaterial commerce, making art with an eye on the workings of the markets for that art. In other words Art is being produced in order to facilitate larger commercial online acceptance and create broader markets for those products in galleries, institutions and auction houses. More and more handmade art, especially painting, actually looks BETER in a photo. Part of that lens appeal is due to the fact that many paintings being made today are made to be photographed, reproduced or processed – the work is finished only when the lens frames and packages it. An unfinished painting becomes a found object, an empty set becomes an installation, or a lens surveillance becomes an event projected and expanded to billboard sizes. It is the mechanisms of commercial immateriality that turn every object photographed and uploaded into a potential product for sale. In the end it reduces EVERYTHING to pay-per-view.

What is quickly apparent in the Fury advertisement is how fast the images are read as SIGNS rather than as things in themselves. Each one is charged with a “surface” definition, in this case, relating to “danger” – animals of all kinds snarling, growling, roaring (signs of warning) – followed by images of impact – fists punching, cars crashing, guitarist smashing his “axe” (signs of violence and power) – then a beating heart superimposed over the Machine itself. After the challenge, violence and speed are finally internalized the beating human heart powers the machine itself, both as concept and ideal, machine and love, one and the same, united. Then they tear away into a pure future of hyperaethetic bliss and commercial immateriality transformed – speeding into an unknown electronic universe. SIGNS. Not narrative in the typical surrealist dream mode, but a dislocated mass subjective experience pumped into our brains in speed packets – like information parsed over the internet – from hundreds of different processing hubs located in data centers all over the world. Here electronic light speed is the drug, and it is administered like a hypodermic, pumped into our veins, crashing into our unconscious. We didn’t see it, we’ve downloaded it into our databases. It arrives in our minds full-blown, already known, already understood. We enter it through a Point of Presence (POP.) I like that – a point of presence – a kind of ethereal being – like a ghost ( “I feel a presence…”) and we begin to transfer protocols, communicating with the “other” side, receiving visions….But again this is not like Surrealism or even the ecstatic drug culture of the Sixties. There is no unfolding of an image, no revealing of understanding. There is no “strangeness” or separateness, no personality, there is only the velocity, the RAM, the transfer, the loading until suddenly we are upgraded into something new. This is the optical POWER that we, as painters, have not confronted, but we must confront. The static painted image is no longer understood or even desired in our hyperaesthetic world, and to say any different is a BALD-FACED lie.

The Entrenched

Postmodernism began its reign using the mechanisms of POP culture as a tool to deconstruct the high art aspirations of Modernism, and it wound up becoming nothing more than an elevated commercial adjunct of that very same POP culture. But what we have to examine is what WORKS as art in this advertisement, and how can we as artists begin to SEE in this hyperaesthetic way without the layers of Postmodernist Process bullshit? The academies have been playing the sophist’s game for too long – saying one thing while doing another. You can not be a rebel while following the tenets of an institution. You can not be a free thinker while slavishly extending the ideas of an entrenched power. For painters this game has been going on for far too long. Jerry Saltz summed up this academy recently:

“In the last years of the boom, numerous artists came to the fore who have their aesthetic heads up the aesthetic asses of Gerhard Richter, Andy Warhol, Richard Prince, Cady Noland, and Christopher Wool. They make punkish black-and-white art and ad hoc arrangements of disheveled stuff, architectural fragments, and Xeroxed photos. This art deals in received ideas about appropriation, conceptualism, and institutional critique. It’s a cool school, admired by jargon-wielding academics who write barely readable rhetoric explaining why looking at next to nothing is good for you.”

There are others in this pantheon of process like Sigmar Polke, Robert Rauschenberg and Martin Kippenberger – Christ, the list could go on, but I’ll leave it there. In a recent Art in America column Raphael Rubinstein wrote a wonderful article that gives a rundown of the current players in this game of academic one-upsmanship. He calls this type of Postmodern painting “Provisional Painting.” Provisional because the academy has run out of visual ideas and has become nothing but purveyors of process. And even more disturbing is his contention that painting is now an impossible task.

“What makes painting “impossible”? What makes “great” painting impossible? Perhaps it is a sense of belatedness, a conviction that an earlier generation or artist has left only a few scraps to be cleaned up. Or maybe, at a particular moment, in a particular life and history, nothing could seem more presumptuous or inappropriate—maybe even obscene—than to set out to create a masterpiece. Impossibility can also be the result of the artist making excessive demands on the work, demands to which current practice has no reply. At a certain moment, in a certain studio, it appears that great painting may be impossible, that painting of any kind may be impossible. Nonetheless, for whatever reasons pertaining to a particular painter at a particular time, painting must be done, must go on.”

The heartbreaking part of this is the idea that this Provisional Painting is all that’s left, that there can be no greatness, that painting is impossible and we must settle for what we get – table scraps that we must make a meal of. For Rubenstein’s “Provisional Painters,” the purveyors of process, visual painting is an obscenity. The impossible visual conundrum is “presumptuous,” “inappropriate.” And even more winsome is the fact that we painters are belated, that we’ve missed the age of greatness. But for me, this is nothing more than an aggrandizement of the sophistry and cowardice of Postmodern theoretics – to say one thing and do another while telling me it’s all for my own good, that I must accept their pronouncements about Art and Painting. All right then, we’re in a fight now. I accept the impossible. I want greatness. I don’t believe it’s all used up. I don’t accept that truth can’t be seen and that truth can not be translated into something different and visual. I agree that painting must go on, but not by the rules as they stand. The deck is stacked, and in the Postmodern Casino of Art, the house always wins. So I’m moving to another game. If that makes my work a rough trade to ply then so be it. I accept the challenge. The fight is on. Let’s see if we can’t shake a few trees to see what falls to the ground….

Stay Tuned.

Rough Trade – Thick

We’ve discussed Style Vs. Brand, and the beginning of Postmodern culture at the turning point of 19 Sixty. We’ve seen how it started, where we were going and where we are. Now we’ll take a very detailed look at where we can go. But before I begin, I want to make it clear that I am a painter first and foremost and that is where my focus will be. I came to painting late, though I drew endlessly from the time I could pick up a pencil. When I finally found painting and realized that I could actually do it – suddenly everything made sense in my life. In other words I fell in love. And I still feel that passion. I realize that this sounds romantic and maybe a bit juvenile, but it is my truth. Now as I’ve said in other posts I began to realize that I didn’t fit in with the Postmodern world I had been taught to venerate. I tried, I really did. I wanted all the things I saw other artists achieving – both artistically and materially. But there was a moment when that all changed, and it was hard letting it go. I had to relearn everything and begin again with my own thoughts. All of which can be frightening. I found that I had worked myself out of the system. So where does one go? These posts will be about the things that I see and the solutions I believe address the problems that I face in the Art World of my studio. They may not resonate with you, but that’s OK. That’s what art is. If you like come along and I’ll try to be as open about this as I possibly can be, and I promise, that I shall tell and show only that truth. SO with that disclaimer I shall begin…

Caravaggio Detail Martyrdom of St. MatthewCaravaggio’s screaming boy was painted in the early days of the 17th Century. It is an apt metaphor for our current moment, and as we end the first decade of this century, this face looks extremely contemporary. In Caravaggio’s painting this boy is a witness to a vicious murder, and it is the visual idea of the inevitable outcome of that violence that twists his face. He sounds the alarm that this horror is happening, and he registers the fear and alarm at what is happening before his eyes. It is a silent scream lost in the thick black painted darkness that engulfs the entire painting, and yet we hear it ringing out in our minds. At the back of the painting you can see Caravaggio forcing himself in as if he’s heard the scream. He tilts into the scene to see what’s going on. It allows the context of the painting to exist in a deeper dimension. One that starts with sound and ends in vision. But in many ways we live in an opposite universe – we move from sight to sound bypassing vision, in fact we are overcome by the aural. But in these faces that Caravaggio painted so long ago are the beginnings of our thoughts for this moment. In the studio – what does it mean to paint as the world of vision collapses around us? What does it mean to witness, to see and to think with one’s eyes, when the world no longer cares about such concepts?

Now at this moment there is so much plurality in the Art World that at any time one can find contemporary artists making art from any era, some of it updated, some of it exactly as it would have looked in its day. This is because art is now a discipline like any other, a profession. There is something for everyone made by and for the institutional world. But we won’t be following that road. It is well traveled and filled with conservatism – old values that have nothing to do with our situation. So let’s start here – after we have left the road and say straight away that THERE IS NO GOING BACK. Yes, we can enjoy the history, we can indulge in its delights, we can build on its strengths and expand its wisdoms, but we MUST NOT expect it to carry us through THIS DAY. We also can not succumb to the joys and frivolities of Postmodern critique. It can not move us ahead because it is joined in a dance of aesthetic death with its own cleverness. We’ve watched it over the last few years, drunk with its own power, succumb to nostalgia and narcissism. And finally, we can not and must not expect that technology will deliver us from our Conundrum. It is just another tool to be used, a plaything that will whither in the light of a new upgrade or handheld. But if we do not question the ideas that created those tools we remain in thrall to them. I understand that electronic technology is wonderful and full of potential for delivering ideas and visions, but what we REALLY need to discuss are the IDEAS and VISIONS we display on those tools. And that’s true whether it’s on an ipod or an upload to the microchip in our heads. What we have to remember and practice as a mantra is this – NEO is NOT NEW.

Michelangelo Damned ManWhen I’m at work in my studio, whether I’m painting or thinking, there are a thousand voices and visions that bicker and converse. They pull me this way or that, they natter, they play or they lead. But at a certain point I have to tell them to shut it and let me get on with my work. I’m sure it’s the same for you as well. Making a painting is not so much about “painting,” but allowing the visual truth to emerge. And by truth I mean what is real FOR the artist. And I concede that Truth may be a subjective experience, but we experience it objectively, which sounds like a strange thing. For instance I see truth in Caravaggio, and I see it in Picasso – neither of them is from the same world and neither expressed it in the same way. Truth will out. But for us it’s time to realize that truth has nothing to do with using other visions. Even when one is conversing with a Master or one’s rival one must stand on one’s own feet rather than in someone else’s shoes. In the end it is about YOU. The vision you’ve created attests to your strength, your vision. And it is this strength which makes an original.

THICK

A while ago I gave a painting to a friend and he said to me, “The Greats always give it all away.” I didn’t understand at the time, but he was right. The thing that sneaks into the back of one’s mind in Michele’s Sistine is that the vision is his whole life, both sublime and venal. High and low converge in the scenes and figures blurring boundaries of taste and acceptance. Even at its most Mannered he’d throw in a moment of pure visual brilliance and malice – the flayed skin for one, and the look of resignation, horror and understanding in the face of the man on the left. Michele may have been the King Of Mannerism, but he didn’t always play by its rules. He gave it all away – and after he had – all that was left was that sorry, ridiculous bag of skin. He was emptied out with a vision of Heaven and Hell, and in turn, he leaves us emptied out. We walk into that vision and we’re alive in his world – the rippling muscles, the theatrical faces, the COLOUR, the drawing, the light, the dark and the idea that this man, this hellion, could leave this vision behind so that we might delight in its endless visual play. What came after were the schools, the copycats, the academics, the hangers-on and the occasional brilliant students – they were the ones that made Michele rich and famous. But then another Michele appeared with a new vision – darker, blacker, harder, more earth-bound. We don’t get the sack of skin, but instead, we get the moment of the flaying, we get the screaming face. We get the rawness in contrast to the refinement, and yet, those juicy surfaces, that wondrous reality, those smoothed strokes and that luminous colour – and again the flesh, the reality of life is there. A different idea, but the same truth. I’m not talking about other art here. I don’t particularly care for the endless referencing of the past that has created this plastic appearance of art. What I’m talking about is life – the real story of one’s truth. And the only way to get to that is by emptying oneself of everything.

But it has to start somewhere. For painters it begins with seeing. And we will be discussing this at length in another post. But for now, let’s just say that we need a new understanding of visual communication. It isn’t enough to stay on the surface of things, to determine one’s attitude to other art or to strike a critical stance when approaching paintings. As we’ve said earlier – “It is not the “fresh air…around the painting” that we need to be looking at. We’ve had fresh air around painting for FAR TOO LONG. We need fecund, thick air in the painting itself. We need to be panting, gasping for air, in front of the painting.” And it’s here that we get to the thickness of things. It’s like when one holds a thing in one’s hand – it has heft and weight, volume and form. It has temperature and texture, it asserts its existence. These are exactly the same things that happen when we look at things without the critical play, when we look at things straight away and it should happen when we look at art. We should see the Thickness of things and by seeing it, we should feel it. Picasso was famous for his belief that his eyes could possess whatever he was looking at, and apparently he convinced a whole lot of folks that this was true. But that idea of visual possession is something we should look at today. We should see our way to thickness, to visually holding on to our existence, because as we’ve seen, we’re becoming lighter and lighter in the glare of the POMO sun. Emptying out is not the same as disappearing. For painters and for artists of all stripe – Thick is what we need.

So we begin with Rough Trade.
Stay tuned…