The Magnificent Corpulent Modernist Era

Ashley Bickerton – Fat Body on Vespa – 2015
“There are a lot of people now globally that are happy just to make art and not keep up with arguments about what kind of art. And the form most favoured is expressionism.” Matthew Collings twitter.


There are days when I’ll check instagram or twitter see once again all the same Modernist tropes working, doing nothing more than what they’re supposed to do. And I suppose there is some satisfaction in that. It’s nice to know that this kind of work is as accepted and expected as any other – like rock n roll, comic book movies and Milan Fashion Week. Abstraction is no longer a “foreign” art form or an unacceptable theoretical experience. In fact abstraction in all its forms has become the preferred decorative art of our day.  It’s the kind of art you’ll find displayed in corporate board rooms, in Starchitects’ lobbies, in the background of furniture store displays, and all over instagram. There are many names for it – provisional painting, zombie formalism, Neo this or Post that. It amounts to a lot of art being made that looks a lot like art that’s familiar, comforting and market approved.

It’s the Modern era’s economic imperative that has brought Art to this point. To see how NeoLiberal Capitalism works within Art we have only to follow the narratives spun for Damien Hirst’s new shows of dot/spot/splot paintings.

I’ve always loved Bonnard and his colour, i went to see a show at the Pompidou in Paris of de Kooning and Bonnard when I was a student and both artists blew me away. These paintings I’ve made, which i’m calling the Veil paintings, will be shown at Gagosian LA in March.
They’re like big abstract Bonnard paintings, I’ve been playing with the scale and the big ones feel perfect. how can you not love colour? Sunlight on flowers, fuck everything else. Damien Hirst Instagram


The paintings themselves are pure Ab Ex process which has been “mechanized” much as he did with the spin paintings or the spot paintings. And in this sense he follows Gerhard Richter’s process driven Post-historical mechanics; process leads to production. Damien’s understanding and use of art history, the documentary displays of his production and the marketing of a narrative spectacle define how we are to understand, appreciate and collect this kind of economic art. What Damien does is to provide comfort, familiarity, a map of understanding, and a context aimed at creating and upholding the works’ market value. Damien isn’t going against history, theoretics or technique, rather he’s updating and upgrading what’s always already available, what we’ve learned and what we’ve inherited. This has become a formula for success used over and over again by artists in the new Modernist Art World.

Right now on Netflix is another fascinating documentary on the Art World. Entitled “Blurred Lines,” the documentary critiques and lauds the market imperative in our Modernist Art World. What’s interesting is watching the artists and critics being interviewed. It’s apparent that artists are more than willing participants in this system – using it, benefitting from it and creating a specific kind of work to be sold through it. As Matthew says in his twitter post above –  there is no way to argue with this kind of art. That’s because it’s not made for “artists” in the historic sense. It is made for long tail markets and niche brand consumers.

Paul Corio – Seen in New York: January, 2015

To begin: A special thanks to Henri Art Magazine for providing a new home for “Seen in New York” after the untimely demise of Abstract Critical.  I’ve been genuinely enjoying chronicling the broad reemergence of abstract painting in New York, albeit in my own highly opinionated way, and it’s my goal to continue writing these round-ups in September and January when so many things open all at once.

The New Year got underway with a lot of hard-edged painting.  I’ve been trying to figure out if there was actually more than there has been in the past couple of years, or it’s simply a case of my own taste acting a filter – the latter can’t be dismissed, but I think that it’s actually the former.  Here are some of my favorite shows that opened in January:


Warren Isensee, Surface Noise, 2014.  Oil on canvas, 60” x 60.”

Warren Isensee opened a particularly strong solo exhibition at Danese Corey.  There were generally fewer of the labyrinthine compositions that I associate with Isensee’s work, in favor of more centralized compositions, many of which were stripped down to a confident and nervy simplicity.  It’s not minimalist by any stretch, but he’s using the field as a kind of frame and ground simultaneously.  This leaner approach with varied spatial readings was for me most effectively exemplified in Nine by Eleven from 2014, in which a flickering red grid floats in (or is surrounded by) a yellow field over a decidedly landscape-like brown bar at the bottom of the canvas.  As to the more maximalist canvases on view, I particularly enjoyed Surface Noise from 2014.  It was a rock solid, centrally composed grid, but the celebratory approach to color kept it from feeling static or rigid.


Julie Oppermann, TH1225, 2012.  Acrylic on canvas, 82” x 72.”  Photo by Etienne Frossard.

Mixed Greens started off the year with a group exhibition in which there were several painters I’ve admired for some time, plus some who were news to me.  Anyone who’s read this column in the past knows how enthusiastic I am about Vince Contarino’s work.  He had two small canvases in the show; Space Invaders form 2014 featured his signature blend of gestural and geometric – his greatest strength – and NT/NF/16, also 2014, was more of an uninterrupted field, something I haven’t seen from him before and that I would really like to see on a much larger scale.  Suzanne Song contributed two tromp l’oeil abstractions (Slitslip and Centerfold, both 2014) in which the surfaces were built up in a thick, sandy relief.  The painted shadows and the actual shadows cast by the impasto created a loopy confusion between the real and the illusionistic – these paintings were playful in the best possible sense.  Even further into the realm of the impasto party was Zander Blom, whose candy colors and toothpaste application really should have been an undergrad disaster, but were instead quite terrific.  He had four paintings in the show, and I tended to gravitate toward the more restrained compositions, even though lack of restraint was generally their key feature; Untitled (1.615) from 2014 was my favorite.  I’ve always wondered whether Julie Opperman chose her painting style based on her name, but whatever the case may be her TH1225 from 2012 was the largest picture in the show and was a real stunner.  Its flashing moiré patterns and paint smears together read like a gestural abstraction that had been run through a shredder and then reassembled.


Dan Walsh, Landing, 2010.  Acrylic on canvas, 55” x 90.”  © Dan Walsh.  Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Dan Walsh opened a museum-style 20-year retrospective at Paula Cooper, with paintings, drawings, and books made between 1994 and 2014.  I’m always interested in agglomerations of this kind, because they invariably show the strength and evolution or conversely the limitations of an artist’s vision over time.  The former was definitely on display here – Walsh started off with a quirky, personal take on geometric abstraction and has slowly pushed and pulled it into subtly different directions.  Without ever really changing course from a fairly limited set of motifs, he’s achieved a surprising amount of variety.  The two paintings from 2010 (at least one of which I remember seeing at the time) really stood out for me.  The orange grid over a slightly wider maroon grid in Landing glowed with the intensity of a computer screen.  Playing the fully saturated color against the more earthy underlying grid and the subtle warm grey ground activated the orange in a profound way.  The framing elements at the top and sides (but not the bottom) gave it structure without boxing it in.  Framing was also a key feature in Grotto, which conjured up Islamic architecture.  The transparency of the yellow grid over the dark ground in the center read like light or projection, which created a nice tension against the solidity of the architectural references.


Kellyann Burns, 8:29 PM 8/22/12, 2012.  Oil on alu-dibond, 30” x 24.”  Courtesy of the artist and McKenzie Fine Art, New York.

Kellyann Burns showed a convincing group of hard-edged abstractions at McKenzie Fine Art.  The blocks of color were applied in layers then patiently and methodically scraped, sanded and reapplied – even the more uniform, opaque areas of color betrayed some small evidence of this continual re-working, and at their best there were shades of Hans Hoffman.  There were essentially three ranges of scale, with the large paintings around 5’ high, and the small ones only 10.”  I tended to respond to the medium size pictures best – their scale situated the viewer close enough to the surface to really appreciate the subtle undulations of color, but still gave the artist enough surface area to create nuance and surprise.  I saw the show twice and both times was drawn straight to 8:29 PM 8/22/12 at 30” x 24.”  The central color was hard to name and the smeared transparency at the bottom felt like it was in motion.  The thin red bar at the top was a terrific way of completing the composition; it created a roof for the picture, but in a most understated way.


Cheyney Thompson, StochasticProcessPainting(84048 steps) = FunctionalPath(i)(840.48 meters, 2015.  Oil on canvas, 81 1/4” x 161 13/16.”  Image courtesy of the Artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York.

I’ve been very hesitant to wade in to the whole Zombie Formalism debate.  Its central conceit (although never stated in this way) is that the visual lacks profundity; that some culturally urgent subject is what gives art its importance.  The Cheyney Thompson show at Andrew Kreps seemed to me to unwittingly provide a great refutation of this position.  These paintings of grids over grids, with pale digitization and tantalizing suggestions of the photographic within the stubbornly abstract, were fantastic – one of my favorite shows of the new year.  I only later learned that the images were derived from “the random walk algorithm, a formalization of Brownian motion that is used in financial instruments to model market behavior” (quoted from the press release).  This information neither added nor detracted anything to these wonderful paintings – its only significance being that it created a starting point for compelling images.  It begins and ends with the visual for me and if that makes me a zombie, then so be it; I could spend a long time stiffly shambling back and forth in front of Thompson’s StochasticProcessPainting(84048 steps) = FunctionalPath(i)(840.48 meters). Being undead would render me blissfully ignorant of the information embedded in the picture’s title.


Clinton King, Almost Me, 2014.  Oil on linen, 64” x 50.”

Clinton King was featured in the inaugural exhibition at Transmitter in Ridgewood, Queens with a solo show entitled “Open Ended,” comprised of seven 20” x 16” paintings and four that were 64” x 50”.  The small ones were witty, but the large ones were terrific, and played with the gaps between the painterly illusion of depth and the literally two-dimensional in a variety of ways.  The grounds in each were composed of somewhat wavy stripes in muted and subtly modulated colors that were softened and blended at the edges, and which conjured landscapes, seascapes, and cloudscapes – the traditional space (both literally and metaphorically) of painting from Poussin through impressionism.  A loosely drawn faming element was added by what looked like a finger being smeared through the paint; the kind of drawing you might see someone make on a dirty or frosty car window.  Added to this were simple compositions of thin black stripes, which were given subtle drop shadows – they seemed to float about ¼” above the picture plane.  This index of spaces kept these deceptively simples paintings endlessly interesting.  My favorite was Almost Me; it was the most saturated of the bunch, and the placement of the finger-painted smears and the black stripes were the reverse of the above description.

This piece is getting long, and I don’t want to test the patience of my new host, or you, the reader.  So briefly:


Gary Petersen, Another Life, 2014.  Acrylic on Canvas, 20” x 16.”

Gary Petersen opened a strong solo at Theodore:Art.  The big draw was two large murals painted directly on the gallery walls, but I must say that the large assortment of small paintings really knocked me out.  In the last year Petersen has added a few new motifs to his usual selection of stripes and frames, and they’re working.  Look for Another Life from 2014, in which the planes, ellipses, and bands all posit different spatial vantage points.  Siri Berg showed color-driven work from the 70s through the 90s at Hionas Gallery.  The three lovely Kabballah paintings in the front were strongly influenced by minimalism yet still incredibly poetic.  Sarah Eichner hung a nice group of op-inspired canvases at Sears Peyton.  The obsessive, recessional space of Spectrum Flags and the layered perspective matrices of Spectrum Weave 3 were especially compelling.  “Working Knowledge” was a large, ambitious group show in a bootstrappy, artist-run space called Lorimoto in Ridgewood, Queens.  There was lots to like, but I was especially taken with contributions by Robert Otto Epstein, Ryan Dawalt, and Rob De Oude.  Another strong group exhibition was “Elements” at Minus Space.  There were solid paintings from Li Trincere, Cris Gianakos, Vincent Como, and the venerable Mark Dagley, but the real star was Rachel Beach – I generally don’t have much valuable insight into the discussion of sculpture, but her work is awfully hard to ignore.

Paul Corio

January, 2015

Gallery Links:
Danese Corey:
Mixed Greens:
Paula Cooper Gallery:
McKenzie Fine Art:
Andrew Kreps Gallery:
Hionas Gallery:
Sears Peyton Gallery:
Minus Space:

Dennis Bellone – Broken Field

“We can now modify Constable’s dictum and propose that art seeks the pure apprehension of natural fact wherever natural fact, as registered by the senses, is regarded as meaningful reality. Where it is not so interpreted we shall find some form of anti-humanist distortion, of hieratic stylization or abstraction. But—and this is crucial—such abstraction will continue to apprehend and to express reality. Though it rejects the intimations of mere sense perception, it does not thereby cease to be representational. Only the matter that now calls for representation is drawn from a new order of reality.” Leo Steinberg “The Eye Is a Part of the Mind”


I walked around an old firehouse in Williamsburg looking at a row of paintings. Each was spare, fast and loose. They were pushing at the edges of what painting could do, what one could leave out and still have the goddammed thing hold together. I had the feeling that they were composed of the last bits of painting, visual painting, that Postmodernism had long ago discarded and forgotten.

The works were lined up almost chronologically, and with each painting, you could feel the artist daring himself to leave off this or that, scrub out this or blanche out that. There were moments of absolute brilliance; a beautiful faded crimson soaking into the canvas, a bloom of forest washed in “light”, an ultramarine scrub bounded by a weak and ineffectual grayish line. The paintings were all about hard moments, those moments when we have to decide what to do with the impossible endgame that we’ve all inherited. In each painting, no matter the visual cost, there is a rage for vision, to see clearly again, one more time, and this feeling runs through Dennis’ compositions. It’s there in the placement of imagery and the play of incidence. These works recall half forgotten histories and the ignored visual past of great painting. Let’s face it, we over-educated POMOs sure can rattle off the big names, but we have real trouble accessing and understanding the visions created by them, let alone, entering into a cogent dialogue with them. We can reproduce or replicate style or subject, but we can’t seem to live through them, can’t SEE them anymore. As Dennis pared away at our contemporary dementia something older and more urgent began to take shape before my eyes.

Raphael Rubenstein in his now famous essay “Provisional Painting” describes a similar optical process of reduction favored by many Postmodernists. Theirs is a zero sum game brought on by the dictates of reproduction and replication, business and economy. They are masters of the ground, the dictates of production and the logistics of the commodity. There is no past, no history or memory because those connections are constantly being erased, refurbished; their work is “always already”, always accessible as something “new”. For the Provisionals there is no longer “juice” in visual power. Instead they give us optical entertainments. These painters remain mired in Postmodern affectlessness, confident that they know that painting, realized before Warhol, has nothing to offer us, here, in the 21st Century. But in Dennis Bellone’s work there are none of these provisional endgames. He is striving for something different.

Using the scraps of memory that are left outside the Provisional contexts, he moves away from their zero sum game into a dialogue with a grander painterly tradition. He is intent on understanding these connections and the ingrained visual instincts that they retrieve. These paintings are all about memory, or better, the loss and persistence of “genetic” artistic vision in great painting. There is something torrid and raging about the emptiness and spareness in his work. Dennis dares to unmoor our vision while giving us something to connect with – something to pull us across and through the surface into his fractured spaces. Beauty or ugliness plays out in a lost passage and a found line. Emotion is whipped up with the speed of the work as he slices through his images. Color and line fade in or out, washed or solid, scratched through or smeared in bits and pieces. It’s as if past and future have collided and Dennis has located the moment before they disappear into nothingness. These works DEMAND and DEMAND and DEMAND: look and look again and then look harder, fucker, until you see, really see. It’s Dennis’ unwavering insistence on memory, visual memory, that is challenging, thrilling and solid – suddenly you’ll catch a link to Lorrain, Courbet, Corot, Manet, Monet and others, right here, at the end of painted experience.

I was startled, as I turned the corner at the back of the long wall, to see two paintings blazing with pure color right in front of me – paintings solid, vibrant and alive. It was enervating because Dennis had found something definitively new in these paintings. They are still spare, economical, but there is something physically visual happening. The spaces are surely defined, the composition declarative and the colors are focused and deliberate. Sometimes we artists are selfish about the work that we connect with and like. We can’t help ourselves, and that’s the way it should be. I immediately felt connected to these paintings. The works had mutated, clarified what was tested in the others, become something else, something that I recognized as different and new. I understood that Dennis had moved beyond the endgame of Postmodern experience.


2010.a02. The title of the painting is like a library call number, a place for a stored memory, the cataloging of a lived/painted moment. It’s a sharp visual critique of itself and its making; a sly tribute to the onanism of painting. For contemporary painters, especially for the POMO Provisionals, this work is a direct challenge. Why paint, after all, and what does it say about you if you do? Dennis begins with the AbEx artists and then slides further back into Miro and Kandinsky without relying on their Modernist conventions. The composition is a blow up, inherited from the all-pervasive isolating lens that guides our understanding of space these days. This is not a thing in a field, but the subject up close. The image takes the entire surface, plowing and cracking the ground, breaking the glass of the “window”. The cartoon hand grasps the phallic shape right in the middle of the image. It’s a visual pun about the painter, “brush” in hand, ready to connect to the canvas. He’s daring us to stand in his place, to dig right into the fucking ground and open up our view. The quickness of the image remains Modern in feel, more like a loose Matisse or Pollock’s later brushy works. Those fast lines, truncated, paraphrased, hint at something both ridiculous and real, something rude being unveiled on the surface of the POMO billboard. But it’s the color that brings this sketch to life. The warmer hues on the right, the cooler on the left. The painter says the artist must remain at a distance, must remain grounded in nature to find the pictorial space. The green above and below, the sky blue between the fingers, hint at both tradition and nature. Their application reverses the academic irony of the “stroke”. Process isn’t meaningless nor is it an arch enterprise – it is imperative. The color is blown through with the brush, scrubbed in like the early Modernists used to. On the right the streaked pink and orange feel like solid architectures. They are armatures to structure the fragmenting image and sliding spaces. They hold the ground at bay. In between nature and abstraction, sliding through the smear and the stroke, is the thin, fast red movement of Dennis’ brush pooling at the bottom of the canvas. There is a price to be paid for this kind of painting, for the need to connect to something older, and there it is, one’s own blood. This painting works between natural occurrence and forced intention, a cool visual diatribe aimed squarely at the shallowness and inconsequence of the Postmodern optical auteur.

“No man can quite emancipate himself from his age and country, or produce a model in which the education, the religion, the politics, usages and arts of his times shall have no share. Though he were never so original, never so wilful and fantastic, he cannot wipe out of his work every trace of the thoughts amidst which it grew. The very avoidance betrays the usage he avoids. Above his will and out of his sight he is necessitated by the air he breathes and the idea on which he and his contemporaries live and toil, to share the manner of his times, without knowing what that manner is.” “The complete works of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays.” 1st series [Vol. 2]

On my way home after the afternoon at the firehouse I thought of that painting and the break it indicated. Emerson says that we are all products of our times and we must work with the tools we are given. That is where the individual must begin. Like many of us Dennis inherited the Postmodern tradition, and like many of us, he wants to paint something else – he is after a different visual outcome. And for me, at this time, this is a Romantic urge. These paintings, as tough and real as they are, push us to re-imagine our painterly past just as they move ahead out of the visual conundrum we find ourselves in.

For more about Dennis Bellone click here or the link in the sidebar.

Popular Culture – Academy of Paint II

In our first post on the Academy we showed a similar use of painting techniques and photo appropriation by three contemporary artists; Koons, Oehlen and Walker. All three were appropriating “public” imagery and then attacking that imagery with “paint” using brush strokes or hammy drawing to add levels of meaning to the appropriated image. This technique produces a kind of abstract figuration that attempts to layer social or political context over the “found” image ground. It’s fairly common in the painting world, the progenitors are Duchamp and Warhol. However, this academic technique is not limited to a random encounter of images and/or the meanings those images may imply. Appropriated layering has proliferated across all types of painting. Postmodernism rules painting’s theoretical roost, so to speak. In this post we’ll be discussing a POMO abstractionist that I admire to make and establish this point. Here abstract painting follows closely to the rules set by the POMO image appropriators, only more emphasis is placed on the layering of physical gesturing and the idea of painterly technique itself.

“I become more interested in ‘how to paint’ than ‘what to paint’.” The statement points to where he stands in his engagement with the history of images and the position of painting. For more than 25 years he has related to the changing state of reproduction: to the processes of picture making in all cultural realms, as well as to art’s recent and more distant histories. Revealed in Reproduction” Bettina Funcke

christopher_wool-_1Christopher Wool is one of the best POMO “abstract” painters working today. His work embodies all the principles of appropriation and contextual layering that POMO aspires too. His paintings are also exemplary of the current Academy of Paint. I am not a fan of Wool’s earlier word work which plays wholly into late 80s conceptual practices. Those word paintings look dated and stuck in time. However, his painting work beginning in the mid 90s consolidates and institutionalizes the Warholian painting practices we previously discussed in Overheads and Screenshots. Additionally, Wool’s work limits his critique to Abstract Expressionism through Pop, and as such he has maintained abstract painting’s unyielding connection to American Post-War painting in general and Greenbergian theoretics in the specific. He is the last strong Mannerist of importance in this line, and someone whose work we should all be reacting against.

“This body of work combines an array of painterly techniques, including spray paint, silkscreen, poured and rolled paint. Wool mixes these techniques into combinations that conflate printing and painting. In some works, painterly gestures upon closer inspection are actually silkscreened patterns, which Wool then exhibits paradoxically against paintings containing the original action. In others, Wool layers patterns on top of one another and then erases them with sign paint. Press Release 2001 Luhring Augustine”

Let’s have a look at how the process works. Wool begins his paintings with denial, erasing the image or the stroke. This denial is an emphatic first act, not one of vision, but tied to reproduction and opticality. Now I’m making this distinction because reproduction has become the academic starting point for ALL “progressive” art over the last 40 years. Reproduction is looking without seeing, it is a tacit acceptance of optical information, it is repetition. Wool’s first pass is either through the reproduction (the pattern, the photo silk screen) or the “found” stroke (usually in the form of a sprayed “graffiti” line). He stays within the monochrome, most likely black and white, in order to reduce visual excess, to stay on point so to speak. He then creates “layers of process” which suss out meaning through the act of painting. For Wool this meaning is exemplified in what is best described as a series of denials. First he denies the visual (which requires memory and dialog), then he denies color (which creates tension and complexity), then he denies imagery (scrubbing and/or covering the reproduction). You could almost look at this like it’s an aesthetic Ponzi scheme where the first tranche of investment is fed by the subsequent erasure of the latter investments, leaving nothing but a vast pool of vanished visual capital and endless denials of painterly culpability.

What is left on the surface of Wool’s paintings are the reworkings of that very surface and hence the meaning of the painting is tied to the actions on the surface. He doesn’t create an image, doesn’t create a space, doesn’t move color, nor does he discuss anything outside the very acts of reproduction and painterly process themselves. The solipsism of these works is stunning. The final work is not about looking or seeing, but about tracking the physical nature of his process, and then determining how that process continues to push the surface forward. He is a Savonarola of painting, his work an effective Postmodern critique of the late 50s surface stain abstractions so favored by Clement Greenberg. Those artists, like Motherwell and Frankenthaler, pushed the watery paint into the canvas, splashing or brushing to create painterly effects and advance a decadent aesthetic of flaccid beauty. They remained tied to Pollock’s idea of the natural, that nature flowed through the artist and wound up “expressed” on the surface of the canvas. For Wool, alive today in a world of reproduction and the post-human, the focus of painting is found in the anti-natural or in the process of determining one’s existence in the face of the power of reproduction. The graffiti that customizes that reproduction, or in turn, the graffiti that becomes the customized image determine the surface. His is a “hard man” posture, one that accepts the limits of his pointed two prong attack. As a good friend once said about Wool’s work, “It’s as if Andy Warhol took steroids and turned butch.”

It’s also interesting that the various articles on the Luhring website and the photos on his web site are – for the most part – in black and white. Even when presenting visions of his studio life he denies us access to the technicolor of Oz. The tornado has yet to touch down, and Wool remains in hard scrabble Kansas where there is nothing but black and white work and survival. And truth be told, these are paintings about survival, about denying “excess” in order to make it through this endless 21st century challenge to the legitimacy of both painting and abstraction. Like chemo-therapy these works destroy the host to kill the metastasis. Now there are many abstractionists working today that do emphasize color, but their theoretical approach to meaning is not far different from the approach taken by Christopher Wool or Richard Prince or Warhol for that matter. The abstract, especially American Abstraction, does not have the liability nor the history of imagery. It’s emphasis has always been on tools, process and materials. Which brings us up from the depths straight to the surface. The continual comfort of Greenberg’s surface and side, the destruction of “natural” imagery and the endless emphasis on process are all hard at work, desperate to keep abstraction afloat.

In Postmodern America some would argue that Wool’s work doesn’t fall into the category of Popular Culture simply because there are no images outside of the painting itself. But it is the mechanics of the painting, the “How” of it that puts Wool’s work squarely in the Postmodern Pop realm. Our continuing discussion on Pop Culture has it’s fun elements, things we like, things that mean something to us, but what we want to point out is “the man behind the curtain.” To understand how something works is to understand what it does, what it means and the limitations it has. Wool’s focus on the process of denial is no different in scope than American Idol’s audition process. I shall leave the intracacies of that discussion up to you. The truth is we have other ideas about abstraction and its future, and we’ve elucidated some of those ideas in our other series. We believe it’s time to do away with the Postmodern academy, along with the reactionaries of Modernism that keep us hemmed in to the previous century. In the meantime we have a few strong Mannerist painters, like Wool, to challenge us and to react against. For the POMOs stuck in Kansas – the tornado is about to touch down!


Just a quick mention of a couple of things.

The fabulous Jackie Saccoccio has put together an ongoing collaborative show for the Art Production Fund at 15 Wooster Street-

BlueBalls examines the transitory nature of the creative moment, the acquisitive character of the viewer and the curious longing that occurs between the two. 15 artists have been invited to self-install and work atop one anotherʼs pieces in staggered time frames. Poised behind a glass façade, this collaborative artist project will transform weekly as the next round of artists amplifies the collective. This accumulation can be viewed only from the street.

The show continues throughout November!

The irrepressible Michael Zahn is currently showing at PS1 in a show curated by Phong Bui entitled Minus Space. Minus Space is a collective of abstractionists, and there are a lot of interesting ideas being thrown about by the collective – they have one of the best sites for art and ideas on the net. For this show Michael has replicated the Macintosh Trash Can in 3D and installed it in the notorious PS1 Basement – computer programs come to life and the boundaries between avatars, icons and aesthetics gets a bit hazy! The show is chock full of recent reductive abstraction and interesting ideas. It runs through January 19th.

Figuring It Out – Part 1

Picasso Femme nue debout et homme à la pipe. 10-November 196Abstract figuration. There – the dirty, filthy words have been said. You can almost here the air rush from the room. No one, it seems, has any need for such a disreputable beast. I am exaggerating, hopefully, but after the debacle of Eighties NeoExpressionism, the failure of Postmodern abstraction and the continuous ABFIG hegemony displayed by the German painters one has to wonder why a bunch of ‘meriCanes would even be brash enough to bring it up in mixed company. But I feel the time is now, just as so much HOT air is beginning to escape from the pumped up economy andthe insular and equally pumped up Postmodern art world.

On the left is a late painting by Picasso. After Matisse’s death Picasso tore through paint as he never had before, and laid bare a body of work that we have, shamefully, all but ignored. The thing that I’ve found extremely intriguing and sophisticated in these paintings is how visually advanced the work really is. The work is about the materials, it is about painting, but it is also about seeing, about being present in vision. This is a concept hardly known to American painters any longer. The triumph of American painting, which was based on a different experience of seeing, came out of the final aesthetic equation proposed by Euorpean Modernist theoretics. Basically it went like this – cubism plus surrealism plus materialism equals Abstract Expressionism – and inherent in the answer was the Postmodern endgame strategies we have come to know. Not soon after Action Painting we got Minimalism and Conceptualism. It was the end of visual history and painting dynamics leaving us with materialism, touch and surface fetishism – or as Santayana described – “unity in multipicity through uniformity” which in my feeble misreading means that by bringing the similar “many” together the “One” is created.

The pocked and scarred surface of Richard Serra’s steel banners becomes a vast uniform billboard of beautiful colors and marks. Andre’s stacked rail road ties cut to exact proportions creates a hoary patterned surface of measured material. Judd’s manufactured boxes of exact sizes, placed at exact distances in a vast boxy warehouse become uniform linear objects defined by shiny machined surfaces. Or, let’s just bounce this concept further and higher. How about the endless “series” of works that artists have machined and outsourced – photos, prints, sculputures, paintings each in differing colors or limited editions? In a word reproduction – multiplicity through uniformity. This sort of visual experience is about looking rather than seeing, it’s about knowing rather than understanding – these works are physical illustrations of ideas rather than encounters with thought. The material thing one comes upon is but one of a multiplicity of similar material things. Sight isn’t important to understand these sort of encounters. What is important is the recognition of the concept and the familiarity of contextual uniformity in the object’s “thingness” – Allan McCollum comes to mind. Sight merely confirms the Platonic point. Truly, this was a moment when existential visual ideas collapsed under the unsupportable weight of mid-century material rapaciousness. It was a time when the gaze of the other became a blank stare, and the loaded play between seer and seen vanished. Barnett’s quip about sculpture (you bumped into it as you stood back to see the painting) suddenly reversed. Inexplicably, painting willingly climbed off the wall and sacrificed its support structures on the altar of mass produced manufactured objects. Picasso, didn’t acknowledge the materialists. He chose instead to continue to exist through the confrontation of vision. It is this distinction between vision and looking that is important and it’s our starting place.

Picasso Étreinte. 19-July 1971. 195 x 130 cm. Oil on canvas.In our post “Wacked Out” we discussed, a bit, the new vision of the 21st century – as we have all along – but here we want to relay a thought or two as it relates specifically to the figure. As computer programming gets more sophisticated we are beginning to understand that conciousness, once fettered to the chains of fleshy reality, is now free to roam. On that point – many of the world’s spiritual hustlers began with a lesser idea of attaining pure conciousness by leaving one’s earthly bonds through death. Here and now in the electronic ethernet your inner existence can inhabit programs and affect material life in places you’ve never actually been – without actually having to go tets up. It is like we are all angels dancing on the head of a pin. Unlike Columbus, Rasputin or Timothy Leary our vehicles to this other world aren’t ships, religion or drugs, but programs and light. We inhabit programs through light. What this actually means is that conciousness circumvents our very own senses in favor of coded existence. McLuhan said we turn ourselves inside out and become a vast nervous system unable to remain private beings. We have lost our autonomy in the process. So what has this all got to do with vision? Everything as it turns out.

As Postmodernism became more and more about the billboard, the consumer images and objects, historical precedent and economic power – Painting in Picasso’s studio was boiling over with the heat of physical space and movement and a constant, dynamic affirmation of Western visual history – including his own. Picasso using Matisse’s color and arabesques began to reformulate the great painting of the 17th, 18th and 19th Century. The mix of masterly touch and Picasso’s visual imperatives moved this “expressionism” away from materiality and into a new way of seeing. While the art world proclaimed flatness, surface and structure Picasso was daring to re-assert the primacy of visual thinking and form – how we see – through the haze of POMO theoretics. Make no mistake these are not neo-expressionist paintings – though the 80s POMOs sought to conflate these works with their own theoretics – these paintings are about sight, vision, confrontation and responsibility.

Picasso Mousquetaire à la pipe. 16-October 1968. 162 x 130 cPicasso in those last years was working alongside and in spite of the beginnings of Postmodernism. A huge surge of Neo-Surrealism mixed with American retail/media culture was transforming the larger art world into what it is today. Picasso realizing his irrelevance to this new culture began a furious studio adventure by radicalizing his primitivism and cubism in the midst of the early electronic age.

Look at the first painting. What initially seems like a messy Cubist work becomes more complicated. Picasso begins with the idea of artist and model – in this case conflating the artist with the Musketeer – Dumas’ defenders of the realm. He sits pipe in hand, the nude model both muse and provocation – the Musketeer and the model are caught in an intense gaze of complicity. Picasso plays with our understanding of form – first flattening and then pushing it into our space – the rounding of the woman’s body and face, the flattening of her legs and feet – the sculptural arm that weighs down on the hand of the Musketeer. The eroticism is explicit – her stare commands his attention. Unlike the nude Muse the Musketeer is not as fully formed – until you get to his feet. The leg crossed toward the woman and beneath her touch is becoming tumescent (you read that right), rich and full. The other leg is a caricature, a flat cypher. Matisse’s decoration is flourished against and through the Musketeer, and in comparison to the fullness of the Muse, his image is like wall paper. What is even more interesting is how Picasso has visually pushed us in closer to the figures. We are not across the room, but practically in their space, in their laps, and this idea of being in close, of using one’s eyes to feel is imperative to understanding vision and figuration in the 21st century. You can see these ideas in the other paintings presented here as well. The play between form and flatness, the warping of intimate spaces, the push beyond materiality to form and depth, and the cubist idea of omnipresent vision conspired to open a new intimacy and interiority in Picasso’s last paintings. These works are pure collaborative visual communication between human beings, poetic and real. What has become really important in these works is a type of painting where unfettered consciousness can inhabit complicated intimate spaces, figures and painterly thought.

We’ll discuss the importance of new abstraction to 21st Century figuration in part 2…

Interview: Charlie Clough

Charlie Clough has been quietly working behind the scenes for a few years. In the 1990’s his work took a deliberate turn away from the Postmodern discourse that was cementing itself into art institutions everywhere. In a 1991 Tema Celeste panel discussion on abstract painting that included Leonard Bullock, Richard Hennessey, Cora Cohen, Ron Gorchov & John Zinsser, among others, Charlie stated: “I want my work to have that kind of unity that could point to everything. Of course, that’s an abstraction that can never be. By having a very fragmentary sort of appearance but one that is unified by various things – the arabesque for example – I think that a sense of an all, of everything can be given.”

Charlie was ahead of his time. The concept of unity, or an abstract painting that would try to included everything, was not what Postmodernism was about. Postmodernism was busy breaking things into components, tearing ideas into fragments and cutting and pasting varied ideas and images together like Frankenstein in his laboratory. Charlie’s idea of unity was at odds with the theoretics of the age of Art World Corporatism. He worked to find a way through the conundrum of the failure of Abstract Expression revitalizing a painterly visual imperative. And as such, he pushed his painting into a grand Baroque style, in the same way that Rubens took Mannerism and pushed the academic boundaries of space and form creating a whole new visual “Working Space” for painters. Charlie’s work also connects to the French Romantics lead by Delacroix and the Venetian painters such as Tintoretto – who found not only a contemporary space and energy for a tired style, but also reinvigorated the visual theoretics of that style through new color and plastic form.

Charlie, let me congratulate you on your upcoming show in the GEISAI section of the PULSE Art Fair in Miami. I hope you get the chance to enjoy the experience and maybe sell a few of your beautiful works! But what I really wanted to do was ask you a few questions about abstraction and painting at this particular juncture.

Mark Stone: I know you moved yourself out of the NY area a couple of years ago to find a different approach to your work. When we put together the ABEXBox group show you had been rethinking and reexamining you’re painting practices. In the past you relied on using homemade tools to paint, and now you were reaching back to more ‘conservative’ or ‘traditional’ methods to create our work. What prompted the need to change your practices and how did that change your relationship to the works you were making?

Charlie Clough: My career had a fairly successful twenty-year arc until my last New York dealer shut down in 1998. It was clear to me that I faced “diminished circumstances” and while we have hung on to our NY apartment, it would be better to own a studio out of town than to continue to rent in town. To the extent that I fished for new representation, it seemed obvious that I would have a lot of time out of the public eye to re-examine and re-determine every element of my technique. I am just completing production of “Pepfog Clufff”, a book that details the 36-years of my career to this point. Pepfog refers to “the photographic epic of a painter as a film or a ghost”, which I determined in 1976 as my lifetime project. I think this book shows that in a general way my work progresses from more eccentric to more conventional–that I used the eccentricity to distinguish the work and as I gained whatever notoriety, such as I could, I was then able to engage or confront increasingly, the conventions of the form. So, in a way what I’m doing is more generic insofar as it extends, what I take, as the center of painting–a place between de Kooning and Hofmann, and competes with Marden, abstract Richter and maybe Cecily Brown. I guess that “informed consensus”, that entity which is the closest we have to objectivity in the art world, will be my judge.

MS: There was a definite lyricism to those works and it continues in the present ones. Like most great American painters you’ve maintained a connection to land and to landscape. You’re photowork is definitive about that connection. Are you finding the need to reestablish that connection in your newer paintings? Are you finding the move to a more rural setting provided you with a chance to reexamine historical precedent such as the American painters of the 40s and 50s, such as Pollock and DeKooning, or further back to the 19th Century painters, such as Homer or the Hudson River School?

Charlie Clough Pepfog 3CC: Besides art and sex, I’m interested in geology, psychoanalysis and food preparation, which all concern interior/exterior dialectics, the patterns of which I find fascinating. Landscape, of course, depends on geology, and yes, I enjoy most landscape painting. There is little in the tradition of painting that I don’t appreciate. I love the Hudson River painters, especially because their subjects are readily at hand for comparison and delectation. Burchfield, Dove, O’Keeffe and so many other artists of the mid-20th century make me really happy. While our garden is a delight, especially the boulders heaved up by the frost and the bows blown down in the storm, I never feel excluded from nature when I’m in the city.

MS: I see an allover approach to composition and this seems to be a new composition technique in your work. I keep connecting it to Pollock. Rather than a drip technique, you are using the brush stroke to define the movement. The color is ravishing as always, but you are using color in a different way. Rather than define space as you did in the past – the color now seems to define form. How has your vision changed? What is the importance of the painting arabesque as Matisse used to say?

CC: I’m trying to play all-over against “good” composition. The most significant technical modification in how I work now is painting multiple layers with grinding and polishing steps between painting sessions. I photograph the stages and details from each state to “remember” elements that are lost through the process. This seems to me to parallel the aging process, to put it briefly, from youthful “beauty” to elderly “character”. As in palimpsests, a sense of “seeing into” the panel co-exists with the sheerest of surfaces. Color-shape is a function of blotting, gesture and intuition and the arabesque pleases me whenever it occurs.

MS: You are very much involved in documenting the process of the works. The conceptual process becomes an adjunct to the action painting and you allow the viewer into the studio. It is almost like a reality television program, where we see episodes of the day to day work – a big brother in the studio. How does this play into the nature of your work process? Do you find that by photographing the paintings you wind up painting for the lens? How important is the lens documentation to finding the painterly inspiration in the work?

Charlie Clough Pepfog 4CC: The point of Pepfog is that I conceptualize my oeuvre as each image I have made–drawing, painting, photograph and sculpture–sequenced as a frame in one movie. In 1976, I mentioned ghost to refer to both something to replace my absence and to some technology of the future–which is what digital media has come to fulfill. The obsessive photography of my “new” technique reveals the compression and history of each painting. The lens serves my eye by framing all the “good” or compelling “moments” of the painting. I like to make many images, for example from 2001-2004 I made a few thousand watercolors, now I can deal with my aberration by arresting large quantities of images from a single painting, which I think turns the single work into something greater.

MS: Over the summer we saw a number of market driven shows bringing new abstract painting out for the public. The astonishing thing to me was that many of the works were still addressing the same postmodern issues that have been plaguing abstraction since the early 90s. You were featured amongst that crowd of “New Abstractionists” during that time, but clearly your work was not addressing the same issues of technique and context. Your work always seemed to be developing ABEX painting into a new Baroque art form. This stood out against the other artists who were delving into post structural thematics – isolation of technique or juxtaposition of imagery – the displacemnet of narative. Has Postmodernism affected your practices and ideas about painting? Does the proliferation of Postmodernist theoretics in computer programming and lens culture play a role in your creative process? How important is a narrative context to the formulation of your work?

Charlie Clough Pepfog 5CC: I have these ideas: “itness” and “ofity”–itness as self-reflexive identicality, the reified concentration of identity and character; ofity as remediation, the shuffling of media, hyper-consciousness, as in the simultaneous character states of: itself, representation, illustration, metaphor, symbol, suggestion and/or resemblance. Since the 1980s I have thought that Postmodernism should mean something that is counter to Modernism. Modernist reflexivity is something I subscribe to and so it is that for many years I have thought of my practice as Ultramodernist. Painterly painting as I understand it from Titian, Rubens, Delacroix, Turner, and so on, including the Baroque, Rococo, through Abex, is what matters to me in painting. As Delacroix wrote in his Journal: “What moves the genius, or rather, what inspires the work is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.” And Hegel lectured: “With painting we enter the sphere of the romantic. For, while in painting it is still external shape that must manifest the inner life of the spirit, what is manifested is indeed the particular subjectivity of mind returning into itself out of its corporeal existence.” The medium in painting, as we saw, ceased to be heavy matter treated as such; it became matter reduced to a coating of color which offers us only a pure appearance of material objectivity. When painting’s mastery of color is complete, objectivity vanishes into thin air, so to speak. “…it is color alone that brings to view the more ideal content that painting is capable of expressing.” “…it is the art of coloring that makes the painter a painter.” Digital opportunities wonderfully enhance our ability to create and communicate. The narrative functions in my work as the “epic”–a chain of images that represent the “events”–if not battle scenes– that mark my existence as a painter.

MS: Charlie as we move through this first decade in the 21st Century the art world has become quite a different place than it was even a few years ago. What are your thoughts about its structures and influences on art and art practices? How do you see the big picture? How does this affect what you’re doing? What are your thoughts about the future of abstract painting?

CC: My wife just told me that Oprah is giving away a refrigerator with a TV in it to every one of her guests on today’s show and I really don’t understand why she doesn’t give all of them a pickled shark, a nice ceramic statue of Michael Jackson and a nice picture of shit by Gilbert and George. We live in a fascinating world and I’m really pleased that I don’t have to stand in a long line to see the stuff I love!

For more information about Charlie Clough please go here.