Figuring It Out – Part 7

People are always blaming circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can’t find them, make them. George Bernard Shaw

Two paintings changed everything about how we portrayed ourselves in the 20th century. One was Matisse’s “Green Stripe.” The other was Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein. Along with a new way of seeing and painting these works evinced the shift to visual consciousness. For these painters it wasn’t enough to portray someone’s features, to get a good likeness. Nor was it enough to simply be an adept handler of paint. One had to dig deeper, infuse the work with not only original visual ideas, but with the emotions and feelings that those ideas and their effect on the rising subject untethered in the imagination of the artist. The hard visual innovation in these portraits reconciled the ideas of painterly history with the avant garde present and brought a new vision into being.

“Picasso had never had anybody pose for him since he was sixteen years old. He was then twenty-four and Gertrude had never thought of having her portrait painted, and they do not know either of them how it came about. Anyway, it did, and she posed for this portrait ninety times. There was a large broken armchair where Gertrude Stein posed. There was a couch where everybody sat and slept. There was a little kitchen chair where Picasso sat to paint. There was a large easel and there were many canvases. She took her pose, Picasso sat very tight in his chair and very close to his canvas and on a very small palette, which was of a brown gray color, mixed some brown gray and the painting began. All of a sudden one day Picasso painted out the whole head. I can’t see you anymore when I look, he said irritably, and so the picture was left like that.” The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1932)

I find it interesting that both of these artists worked from models, from actually looking at the rising subject. In Picasso’s work we see all of his brand new studio tricks at work – the mask, the “Iberian” style, the broken grounds of beginning cubism. He completed the picture without Gertrude in front of him not soon after a summer trip to Spain. I think this is significant. Picasso had to search inwardly for the memory of his vision. Both artists heightened the experience of what they had seen – they moved inward. 90 sittings and then time away brought Picasso to some form of visionary clarity. Gertrude solidifies before us – a boulder, a rock. Her face is mask-like, sardonic and squinty – that left eye is looking to pierce you through (we used to call this the stink eye.) Picasso wanted something more than her features, he wanted her physical effect and how it made him feel. What is of further interest is to compare his treatment of the ground with that of the Velazquez painting. There is a similarity of visual involvement, of involved flatness. The ground pushes against the figure, there is no space, a kind of flatness and painterliness. Why? What are these painters trying to get at? To understand more we must begin with Manet who was shameless about his use of Velazquez’s grounds in his paintings, and because of it, he broke with the academic ideas of space. The assertiveness of the ground became the foundation beneath the Modernist temple. Look further – both figures are three quarters, both squint out at us. Look at the right hand of each figure – there is a connection – an off-handedness to the gesture and its deliberate portrayal. Picasso is playing with the idea of painterly history and its relationship to power. Velazquez is playing with the idea of real-world power. Who knows if there’s a deliberate connection – what is important is the continuity and the memory that is being transformed for a new century. That easy hand in both paintings belies the truth about painting. There is no rest. As a good friend of mine once said “[A]…painter’s hands must never be at ease.”

Great portraits always have some element of the artist’s psychology, but even more, they should also have visual connection. Velazquez and his lenses found something visceral to portray through his techniques, but mostly, he found expression through his emotional relationship to the rising subject. In this portrait of Innocent the suspicious Pope winces and grimaces at us, the red ground cages him, flattens the room he sits in. The shine of his silk bib spreads across his chest like a tawdry flame. In his left hand a document of some kind waiting to be handed on to someone – the power of the church, the institution waiting to be put into force. The Pope at first wasn’t too happy with the finished painting – “troppo vero.” This portrayal of the Pope later inspired Francis Bacon in a most fearsome way – Innocent underwent a violent act leaving only a screaming mouth seen through torn and slashed paint. It makes you wonder what Bacon had read in that offhand document. Velazquez painted his short relationship with this Pope – Bacon painted his lifelong relationship with Velazquez. How we see ourselves, how we represent who we are is tied to one’s time, to what is happening in one’s world. We are, after all, human. Each and every generation rediscovers its unchanging humanity, but the constructs, the realities of each era change, and it is through those changes that our thoughts, our visions and our understanding, hopefully, expand.

As we’ve already discussed Surrealism and Expressionism became quick and easy ways to get to the painterly subjective in the last century. It continues in this one as well. Contemporary figuration has morphed into a ground for media signifiers tied to the codes of recent painting history. The rising subject becomes lost to this ground. There are few abstract figurative painters today that do not fall back on some form of institutional Surrealism or academic Expressionism. Rather than find new visual ideas, new metaphors or new styles the POMO position remains chained to appropriation and irony. For instance in Neo Rauch’s work we see a mixture of “realist” and media figurative techniques set in a Surrealist avalanche of visual innuendo. Narrative is expansive, mood is apparent and precedent is everywhere you look. John Currin provides a similar experience. Both of these painters traffic in the academic and tart it up with ironic distance, mannered techniques and cool self awareness. Both artists remain comfortably ensconced in the Surreal.

John CurrinLet’s have a look at John Currin’s portrait entitled “Heartless.” Now whether this is a real or made up portrait matters little. Currin isn’t worried about a direct encounter with the rising subject. Rather he is using a pastiche of style that submerges the rising subject in the ground of mediated history. It is an illustration designed to convey ironic art historical references rather than a visual involvement with the subject of the portrait. The mannerism inherent in this type of painting is a distancing device allowing the artist to remain unrevealed and unknown. We don’t know anything about how the artist feels about the subject – she is rendered as a realistic caricature. In this painting the refined subject reveals her absent “heart” in the cut of her fashionable dress. The artist stays at a respectable distance unaffected by her reveal. She is like a religious signifer, a Christ pointing to his bleeding heart. In other words what is being painted is a known iconography, symbology, cosmology – a ground for historical reference. The portrait never opens itself to a depth of visual reading or feeling – it remains tied to signs and signifiers rather than personality and encounter. It never breaks with the past nor opens up to the future. It is a cypher and a sign of our time – it’s an avatar.

The avatar is something we see all the time in our media saturated age. It is a sign and a product at the same time – something for consumption. For instance the portrait of the actor on the left serves a few functions. First and most obvious is the reference to popular culture from the 40s and 50s – the Vargas girl. A touch of irony is thrown in to give an updated wink and nod to America’s obsession with the louche and risque. Here the Vargas girl is innocently gardening…pot, mary jane, cheeba, chronic, weed….The program upgrades and appropriates with nostalgia and the glamour of bygone eras (the glitzy pin-up and 60s counter culture) in order to entice the viewer to tune in (and pay subscription fees.) All of which signify the tone of the program – what I call the Blue Velvet effect – a mixture of Surreal decadence, illusionary Americana and dysfunctional violence (she holds the garden hose sprayer like James Bond holds his Walther PPK.) Finally and most importantly, it is a portrait of the actress Mary Louise Parker portraying a fictional character. And this is the point where the avatar begins. There is no such person as the character, and the actor is not being herself. Both the portrait of the fictional character and the portrayal by the actor create an optical disjunctive experience that has no meaning outside the boundaries of the coded program itself. For instance can we say this is a faithful rendering of Mary Louise Parker? Or can we infer from the portrait that this is how the character actually appears to be in the program? If that is true would it be possible for another actor to assume that role and if so, does that change the nature of the program as the actor changes the character’s appearance? Can anyone assume the role of this character, and if that is so, will the character’s features, demeanor, movements, etc change or must the actor assuming the role change to look like Mary Louise Parker playing the role? Is this portrait supposed to be a picture of the actor or of the character? What separates the two (the program and the actor)? Part of the point of recent figuration has been the idea that identity and character are no longer separate, and therefore, no longer capable of being read as “real.” It is the unreality of our encounters that leaves us looking for signifiers in order for us to play along – to know what something means. We don’t encounter the rising subject so much as look for clues as to what the ground contains, what programs the ground is running. Picasso’s famous line that “painting is a lie that tells the truth” no longer applies. This presupposes a truth – a comparable reality. In Postmodernism there is no truth – there are only contexts and references – programs. Painting is simply a lie that tells us about itself.

Lost deep within this Postmodern moment, our brushes poised – what can we do? How do we get beyond the expressionism, the surrealism, the Postmodern. What’s it going to take? We’ll discuss that in part 8.

Figuring It Out – Part 6

The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result will follow. If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it. This group of craftsmen will by no means coincide with the Inner Ring or the Important People or the People in the Know. It will not shape that professional policy or work up that professional influence which fights for the profession as a whole against the public: nor will it lead to those periodic scandals and crises which the Inner Ring produces. But it will do those things which that profession exists to do and will in the long run be responsible for all the respect which that profession in fact enjoys and which the speeches and advertisements cannot maintain. CS Lewis The Inner Ring

Abstraction and figuration were the first two pillars that supported the Modernist doctrine. Picasso and Matisse opened the way to see in a new way in a new century. They had understood the idea of pure vision, of color and form that preceded them. And because they understood they were able to find new visual ideas and radical ways of seeing. I’m sure this wasn’t an easy thing to do. Matisse was called a lunatic even by those artists who were considered part of the avant garde. Picasso kept his “Demoiselles” turned to the wall for many years. We face different challenges. In our Postmodern world the academy tries to build an institutional avant garde. As Matisse and Picasso understood in their time – the institution perpetuates itself – nothing more. At this time that institution is Postmodernism. Artists no longer challenge the systems they’ve inherited. This is found in the nature of POMO itself. Postmodernism is simply a critique and it must remain nebulous, lost in contextual regurgitation, always already in order to remain a critique. It has no principles, ideals or aspirations. It is a tool of interpretation. There is no memory, no history, no flesh reality – there is only desire, appropriation and perpetual unyielding context. It’s as if we’ve all become like Benjy in the Sound and the Fury

“Benjy’s severe mental disability has left him with virtually no capacity for subjective thought. From his perspective, life is merely a string of images, sounds, and memories that he is unable to interpret, express, or organize in any meaningful way. Benjy does not understand any of the abstract concepts that underpin human existence, such as birth, death, love, family, virginity, intimacy, and marriage.
The greatest barrier to Benjy’s ability to narrate is the fact that he has no concept of time. Benjy lives in an endless present tense. He interprets all events and memories as taking place in the present—April Seventh, 1928—regardless of when they actually occur in his life. Visual and auditory cues from the present cause Benjy to remember events from the past, but he does not understand that these remembrances are memories—he regards them just as if they were experiences from the present.”

It is strange to me that as the new century has come upon us we continue to permutate the institutional post-structural abstraction and lens based reproduction that have dominated painting over the last 40 odd years. I will try to be very clear about what I am about to say. I will make some distinctions before I start. We can not return to Modernism, nor can we return to pure abstraction to find our way through. We can not return to history and dress it up in modern clothes. We can no longer be “post” or “neo” or an “ism.” It won’t do. What I am saying is that we must make a clean break and let the chips fall where they may. I am proposing a different idea. Now I realize some of you will roll your eyes and cluck your tongues and never return to Henri again…well what can I say…bonne chance mes amis! Otherwise keep reading…

Abstraction must become more than the endless play of sign and system. Unlike the work of say, Monique Prieto or Mark Grotjean who continue to rework old forms of abstraction to create a personalized style, we must ask for more. Subsets of Postmodern appropriation and customization particularly when seen as yet another generation of Johnsian theoretical gamesmanship leave little to the imagination. Prieto uses exquisitely balanced and wonderfully colored blobs, Grotjean reworks constructivist perspectival forms in beautiful color displays, both show wonderful craftsmanship and understanding of contextual play, but they remain wholly tied to POMO theoretics, a critique of form, technique, color, reproduction and history. They present a visual puzzle, a game or a Duchampian conundrum. Their visual presentation remains yoked to the language of historic abstraction firmly entrenched in the POMO meta-critique. They play checkers while Johns plays chess.

Figuration must move beyond the endless permutations of Expressionism and Surrealism that have colored it through the last century. We must find new visual imperatives and connect them to HOW we see in this century. I make no bones about the fact that vision has been irrevocably changed by our technologies. What I propose is that we understand those changes and apply them to how we paint what we see. The omnipresent lens guides our understanding of life in the post industrial world. So much of our life is being coded, uploaded, lived vicariously through the lens world that our encounters with the rising subjects around us have become almost painful. We constantly seek to submerge in the electronic ground, soothe our inside out nervous systems, cool our exposed subjective brows. As a painter of my own life, I want to paint as I live. I want it to be real, alive and visceral. I don’t want the endless endgame, the slide shows, the jpegs or the programs. I want flesh, the kind Dekooning referred to when he said “Flesh was the reason oil paint was invented.” But I want it out of this time and this place.

“There are two things in the painter, the eye and the mind: each of them should aid the other. It is necessary to work at their mutual development, in the eye by looking at nature, in the mind by the logic of organized sensations which provide the means of expression.” Georges Braque.

So let’s talk about a few ideas. First, let’s rethink the premise of POMO stasis in composition. The collaged surface acts like a bulletin board. It’s as if images, whatever they are, have been nailed down, shrink wrapped or blister packed. They don’t move – they are simply presented. For instance in the work of David Salle we see various images overlaid one on top of the other without creating a visible movement in space between the images. We are looking AT a painting of images which keeps us on the bulletin board surface and at an ironic distance. This is a magazine space, a web page space – something Warhol was adept at creating – like layout before the text is put in. Visual stasis is captured in time – it’s like something has been sealed under glass – for instance Damien Hirst’s shark preserved in a tank of formaldehyde or Lenin in his glass case. What we want is a more fluid space, an arena for visual dimensional movement, where time flows, where we can switch from open field to solid surface, line to form and drawing to painting all within the same work.

Second, POMO painting has no point of view and by that I mean we are meant to see it full on in just the same way we would see an advertisement in the subway. It requires no visual adjustment only recognition and perusal. We want a more all encompassing personal POV. Frank Stella in Working Space talked about Baroque space which he defined as a physical encompassing visual space. It feels as if you can walk into it, grab the form in front of you and understand the height, width and breadth of the rising subject. We want to go even further. We want that space to work all at once, inside out, upside down and up close. We want to visually do what the internet does on a flat screen, we want 4th dimensional space all at once. This is a very personal space that pushes our interior subjectivity into 3 dimensions. We can create a POV that moves, that flows through a work. This is a physical space. It is like feeling with sight – Sight/Touch.

Third, we want to do away with POMO’s incidental figuration. By this I mean we want to move beyond the media imagery, the borderless flow of imagery that infects every painting since Warhol – we want the death of the superstar and the eradication of the 15 minutes of fame. Think of how electronic media glamorizes everything it captures and projects. War, death, and pestilence, whatever – the lens levels it all into images for consumption, images to sell products, and images for fashion. In Warhol’s work Death, Art, Celebrity and Product all get the same treatment because the electronic lens media levels all vision into a vehicle for creating desire. What’s needed is a more specific figuration – this creates an opportunity to explore the specific visual language that exists in every individual. We get to see the fleshy visual physicality of the painter, the thinker, the lover or the fighter. Hockney in the above video saw that the lens elides over specifics and quirks leaving a smooth slick surface impenetrable to understanding. We want to indulge in those specifics and quirks of our visual personality and by extension expand the arena for our vision. We want to engage without the media lens prophylactic.

Fourth, we want to switch photographic transference for abstraction transference. Lens technology automatically abstracts an image for media consumption. The very nature of programming creates an ironic optical distance around any image. Cognitive truth is the first victim of all uploaded imagery – online there is only one way to see the image so we must rely totally on the contextual implications of where one sees that image. For instance if one sees an explicit sexual image on a Disney website what is determining the meaning one puts to it – the image, the site, or the brand? This concept of “whereness” – like Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness” – slides us back into the ethical ambiguity that lies at the theoretical base of Postmodern electronic media itself. Abstraction as thoughtful expression of lived experience can create the palpable physical visual world that Frank Stella described in Working Space. The painter’s vision as it contacts the world around him is responsible for that image, for the meaning that that image elicits. This sort of vision creates an ethical visual challenge to the viewer which contrasts to the contextual ambiguity engaged in by the practicing POMO. We are calling for an abstraction that has everything to lose and everything to gain by becoming thoroughly, physically, visually human.

We can no longer claim to be nature as Pollock did. And it is an anachronism to claim to be the same machine created by Warhol. We don’t want to be salesmen or CEOs any longer. We want the freedom that Matisse and Picasso had – the ability to pull abstraction through the figure and come out on the other side. We want that same passion to see and translate that sight into an image that resonates, forces its way into our space, makes us part of the vision before us. And we want to do it on our own terms, not dictated through the institutions or the market places or the media. It will be wonky, ungainly, unexpected maybe even ugly or silly, but it will be real. And that will be new.

part 7 to come…

Figuring It Out – Part 5

Expressionism fueled both of the aesthetic engines of abstraction and figuration all through the 20th Century. I guess we could quibble about the historical origins of it, but I want to concentrate on the break with the 19th Century made by Picasso and Matisse at the early years of the last century. Both artists used forms of “expressionism” as a means to get to a more direct depiction of emotional interaction.

Matisse was compelled to express a direct visual experience of emotion in his work. As with the 19th century artists his vision came directly out of his daily life and his life in the studio. The work feels its way into existence, an expression of a deep tactile sensuality. By this I mean Matisse’s line is hesitant he sculpts it into existence. It is as if he edges his way into the contours and planes of the subject he encounters, or in other cases, he draws from the peripheries of his vision, a kind of trance-like reverie looking at the subject without looking at the drawing. In a number of works, especially the drawings, he reworks the line over and over again – rubbing it out, pushing it forward like he is trying to grasp his subject, intellectually and emotionally. Once he understands the connection between himself and the rising subject the lines flow in quick bursts. As he paints he uses a similar process. A good example is Matisse’s Dance I in MOMA. The application of paint is scrubbed, quick and direct and it translates the idea of movement both in the subject and in the work. He is pushing the paint to display the simplicity of movement both in the figures and the way he has moved the paint around. I have always thought that this idea also played in the physical expression of Pollock’s work – I understand this is a fancy of mine but I like the idea of that continuity – Matisse’s brush dances just as Pollock himself would later dance.

For Picasso expressionism was tied to visual power. Unlike Matisse who was all about the odalisque and the harem, the luxury of flesh, Picasso was about pure visual manipulation of the world around him. His “expressionism” was never unsure – his vision was precise. Picasso’s line poured over the rising subject directly and without question. In the century’s first pure form of expressionism, Demoiselles d’Avignon, Picasso pulls together new forms of Primitivism, abstraction and paint handling to create a modern visual marvel. Drawing in paint he hatches and slices away at the figures sculpting them into the space of the ground – the subjects rise into consciousness. In this painting we see all the visual tricks and practical painting trophies that painters throughout the century would find useful over and over again. The idea of a force larger than human consciousness runs through the work – in this case the primitive sexual urge, the need to procreate and the underground and seedy, the rough area of life that demanded recognition in the lives of “civilized” man. What we see is a clear expression of Conrad’s heart of darkness. Death, passion, desire and procreation swirl together in this painting pushing our consciousness into another realm of visual experience. It’s not the outer world, not the reproduction of optical reality, but a direct experience of inner emotional disturbance – what it feels like to confront our passions, our sex and our unfulfilled needs. Picasso seems to understand that deeply lived life will always come raging into view, into vision. We are helpless before it. His lines are sharp: the figures angular and fleshy, meaty. Paint is scumbled, accumulated, clotted and scrubbed. Color is earthy and fecund. Picasso understood that paint is a force to be reckoned with.

Expressionism took a different path in Germany between the wars. We have a mix of the primitive and the surreal. For the German expressionists the primitive urges have been brutalized by mechanized trench warfare, famine, depression and death. The spectre of the primeval force fires the 20th century’s technological imperative. We see human flesh and dignity being warped, torn and emptied of meaning. Dix, Grosz and Beckman all pushed the idea of a decadent anti-Renaissance – where man and his passions are becoming tools of the machine of industry. I’m not a fan of this German Expressionism. I find it difficult to live with – it is hard on the eyes and hard on one’s emotions. Dix’s unflinching pictures of whores and war victims are especially devastating. He depicts victims of the horrible sublime who survived in spite of it. They are wounded humans who have barely escaped the ravages of the evil promises hinted at in Picasso’s Demoiselles. Dix uses classic realism and caricature to emphasize the connection to a lost era and tie that moment to Surrealist theoretical imperatives. It is a twisted expressionism. Beckman, a more ready 20th century realist, is interested in a kind of Mediterranean modernism. He willingly invokes the mythology of Homer visually connecting this primitive life of gods and mortals to Modernism. He twists figures, lays them flat against expanses of color, and reaches into a kind of medieval classical figuration. He finds a new form of expansive figurative expressionism that’s visually powerful.

“At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act-rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze or express an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” Harold Rosenberg Tradition of the New 1959

After the war America became the ground for advanced painting. Our sensibilities immediately latched onto the potential of the physical, the arena of the canvas. Rosenberg coined the term Action Painting. Expressionism melded with abstraction through the physical and the material. DeKooning could never get away from the Western Visual Tradition. He hung onto the idea of the rising subject and began to submerge it in the physical ground of paint and canvas. “Woman I” takes Picasso’s Demoiselles and Matisse’s Odalisque and arabesque and rams it into a new materiality. Expression is manifested in the stroke, the drip, the sludge, and the scumble. The treatment of the ground overcoming the rising subject becomes the technique. Pollock, the iconoclast, pushed this idea completely submerging the figure – vision, no longer looking outwardly, is manifested in the physical technique itself. For the American Expressionist the ground swallows up Western visual history to create an art of direct inner experience. We arrive at a painterly crime scene and piece it back together, feeling our way into the moments of action. This type of painting dared to try to depict an unknowable force of a larger power – “the sublime.” The painters wanted this experience to center directly in the viewer. To understand the “sublime” in American Expressionism one must recreate the moment of creation, react to being off balance in the face of uncontrollable visual desires and then reestablish some kind of visual equilibrium. For American Expressionism the ground is now the arena for this physical improvisation. Pollock may have understood this idea intimately. “The modern artist…is working and expressing an inner world – in other words – expressing the energy, the motion, and other inner forces.” His painting Full Fathom Five is a torrent of emotive line and a sea of physical ground, but circled in the upper right corner is a small figure lost in the immensity of paint. Pollock had turned himself inside out.

Postmodernism began as Expressionism split into Minimalism and Conceptualism. Minimalism is the ground, the physicality and materiality of art – the rising subject is gone replaced by the thing in itself. Conceptualism is the idea, the ideal perfection, the final disappearance of the visual figure. Both of these types of art are Neo-Platonic in nature – model, code and concept. Expressionism has been burned out completely in the last throes of the American century. The Post-industrial, the Postmodern, the Post-structural ushered in the endless litany of the Neos. The first of the Neos was the theatrical, selling product of the 1980s – junk bonds, junk science, junk space and junk painting. Neo Expressionists were the first to actively engage in Mannerist Postmodernism. Academic historical models and the new professional class of artist combined to create an art that simulated the poetic enterprise and expressionistic sublime of the Modernist artists. The era of the auteur had begun. Since then we’ve run through quite a number of “neo” art styles – every two years or so. Expressionism and Surrealism are threaded through all of these seasonal changes providing a classic familiarity to art production as a whole.

Over the last 25 years we’ve seen academic expressionism flow both through abstract painting and figurative painting. All of it comes across as mannered and distanced. Don’t get me wrong some of it is very fine, and I have a great respect for many of these painters. But ultimately, this mannerism is not pushing us further – it doesn’t challenge us with new visual ideas. All through these recent neo “moments” of painting there have been many promises made of a baroque era for expressionism, but it has never caught fire in the minds of new artists. We have not had a new “movement” nor have we experienced the beginning a a baroque age. Who knows if this is possible any more?

We exist in a new century. We hear constantly of the rise of the Eastern Empire, the fall of the Western. Art, though, especially painting, has become moribund – trapped in the circular logic of Neo or Meta Production Art. In addition the massive corporatization and professionalization of art practices has emptied out the idea of an individual style or an original expression in art, especially in painting. Production, outsourcing and management are the preferred working methods for artists today. Art is happy to be sold as high-end consumer goods manufactured for the well heeled, the well endowed and the well connected. This pathetic disregard for visual history has to stop. We live in a cut and paste aesthetic, mannered, academic and professional. It is time to move beyond the 20th century and the Mannerism that is grinding vision out of painting in these early years of the 21st. There is far more at stake than the next art fair, biennial or museum retrospective.

In part 6 we will be discussing a few prescriptives and new visual ideas, especially considering abstract figurative painting.

Figuring It Out – Part 3

I was coming down in an elevator the other day. It stopped on a number of floors and folks crowded in. As the elevator filled we could feel the rising discomfort. Most all of us pulled out our blackberries or cell phones, busily whirring through the message lists and text messages. The forced physical intimacy of that box caused us to immediately retreat to an inner world – in this case we sought out the electronic ground rather than acknowledge the physicality of the rising subjects directly around us. It was almost as if there was too much subject for an unfettered consciousness to absorb. The door opened and everyone piled out – no one acknowledged the ride or the encounter. Now in a city like New York where humans are in constant contact in a public physical sense, most of us feel a desperate psychic need for autonomy. That elevator ride suggested that we use our electronic devices to reestablish a larger ground in which to submerge the self and minimize the presence of others. This is different than finding physical autonomy. What we wanted was to alleviate the anxiety caused by the physical presence of others. 60 years ago existentialists experienced “the hell of other people.” Today, other people no longer exist. What we encounter in the flesh and blood realm is the anxiety of presence, a much less poetic inference having nothing at all to do with 20th century existentialism and everything to do with 21st century dematerialization and disappearance of the subject. Our eyes can not adjust to the reality of pure existence, the reality of the rising subject, and so we continually blinker our vision in the electronic ground.

We left it off last time with the idea that figuration and abstraction were retooling so to speak. So let’s break down the idea of painted figuration first. Now when I speak of a figure in painting I am talking about the subject that rises against the ground. A figure can be anything really, but I shall be talking about it in two ways. First as a human presence, then as a subject or object of visual encounter. This is an idea we began to explore in our last post. As the figure emerges and we are confronted baldfaced with a subject, what do we see? And I have to clarify at this moment – the subject is not the voice on a phone, the email on the blackberry or the visage on the screen. This is a visual encounter of flesh and blood. What are you seeing? Now before you get all head up and think this ridiculous, let’s try to find a common understanding of how we look at some thing before us. What is the process of vision? This seems easy enough to describe, but it is far more complicated process than we assume.

In art school, for example, there are drawing classes with live models. The students are required to translate their time of looking into a hand made approximation of what they are seeing – in this case the model. This involves a great deal of interior intellectual discoursing by the artists. Visual processes requires the translation of 3 dimensional perspectival measurements (likeness), the grading of light to determine form (value), in some cases the description of hue (color) to determine, let’s say, expression, and finally, time – the occurrence of the actual process itself. The artist must actively translate this visual discourse into an image of some kind. Basically we are talking about an intellectual examination, but more, it’s the translation of vision into a rendered form – the making of an image. These are the mechanics behind any classical interpretation of artistic “seeing.”

In the 20th century vision was further compounded by the emphasis on the relationship between the observer and the observed. Emotion, which is at the heart of most relationships, began to direct the dialog of vision. A prime example of this idea of classical vision and the new emphasis on the emotions of the observer is Matisse. Emotion became the final arbiter of his observations. “I do not literally paint that table, but the emotion it produces upon me.” Matisse’s contemporary vision was more interior, more subjective. He clarified the complicity of the visual relationship between the observer and observed. And as the century wore on the connections between vision and emotions became almost overwhelming for the visual imperative. Existentialism which, simply put, defined this visual/emotional connection between emotion and vision as nausea. Nausea was the feeling induced by the face of the rising subject as it was in my elevator ride. It throws us back into ourselves, it locks consciousness on the objects around us which confer neither meaning nor insight, just existence. In another time we had to work it out, today we go to ground. The electronic world has effectively done away with existentialism through the digitization of corporeality. Virtual existence, the algorithmic universe, is now a cleaner reality. Vision does not occur.

Part of the reason for this expanding ground is related to McLuhan’s idea of the inside out human being. He suggested that by extending our nervous systems through electronic communication we have basically exposed our inner circuitry. In other words, we are a walking talking bundle of nerves, constantly massaged by the electronic ether. The way we soothe the constant flow of this “touch” is to immerse ourselves ever deeper into the collective subjectivity of programming. We bury ourselves in the ground, become one with it, use it as our skin and our salve. We become the program in order to feel whole and to not feel at all. Vision is the first casualty because we do not look outward, we do not see. The acknowledgment of the other, the not me, is startling when one emerges from behind the screen. Our eyes have to become accustomed to the “bricks and mortar” world again. The rules of the program no longer work, the reality of that inside out human does not exist. We must adjust our vision and feel.

What is interesting is the flip. What happens to perception in that moment when we move from the ground to the rising subject? What changes in us and what doesn’t? Have we arrived at a point when one is no longer distinguishable from the other? And if that is true then what does it mean to see?

Many people mistakenly believe that we live in a visual age. Their contention is that TV, the internet, movies, video games etc etc are all designed for consumption with our eyes. But I don’t think this is the whole case. I agree with Hockney. We live in an age of optics. Yes we use our eyes, yes it’s all meant to appeal to looking, but none of it is designed so that we see beyond the surface, so that we actually understand the sights before us. We remain close to the ground all the time. It’s very much like being in a car at night – as you drive quickly past the colored lights and billboards you see only the surfaces, only the orgy of product, the face of commerce, the flash of desire. All the while we remain cocooned in the steel pod, an embryonic physical being. You don’t see, you react to the stimulus of the changing ground. This is similar to the reactions one has while using TV or the internet. It is called the orienting response“In 1986 Byron Reeves of Stanford University, Esther Thorson of the University of Missouri and their colleagues began to study whether the simple formal features of television–cuts, edits, zooms, pans, sudden noises–activate the orienting response, thereby keeping attention on the screen. By watching how brain waves were affected by formal features, the researchers concluded that these stylistic tricks can indeed trigger involuntary responses and “derive their attentional value through the evolutionary significance of detecting movement…. It is the form, not the content, of television that is unique.””

What we experience when we are in the program, how we use our eyes is different than the classical formula above. We react rather than engage. We recognize rather than understand. Throughout the 20th Century painters forced the ground forward as artists looked inward and away from the outside world. DeKooning and Pollock were among the last painters to fight with this idea. The ground forced its way through their subjects and defined a new physical surface for painting. Vision was changed forever when the electric world transformed into the electronic ether. At that point the rising subject disappeared completely, dematerialized, leaving us with a world of object/images fueled by Postmodern consumer desire. We will discuss this further in part 4.

Figuring It Out – Part 2

IN High Times Hard Times Katy Siegel and David Reed gave us a taste of abstraction in the Scorsese Seventies. It was an era of dwindling painting prospects in NYC, grainy visions, washed out color, graffiti, and violence. Artists were busily deconstructing painting’s physical limits. Surface, side, material and whatever one could make of the actual “thingness” of painting were the subject matter of the day. It seemed as if the damned works had willingly dismantled themselves and splattered their guts across the walls and floors like the Forty-Seven Ronin. The show at the NATAC was a crime scene, the only thing missing were chalk lines. These works were a prelude to the emergence of punk figuration and Neo-Expressionism. These, the first of the Neos, were young, angry, rebellious and Postmodern.

SchnabelNEOEX artists were all about the physical – Schnabel bondoed crushed crockery, Kiefer dug up whatever he could find and stuck it on the surface, and Clemente made frescoes. They had learned the lessons of materiality and married it to a surrealist/pop optical sensibility. Paint slashed and dripped through theWeimar Republic aesthetic sensibility. A materialist’s overindulgence took hold of the greedy collective as the exhausted cold war cyborgs, Reagan and Russia, locked horns waiting to see who blinked. There was a fuck all end-of-the-world feeling. Prince wanted to party like it was 1999 and movies were all about life after nuclear holocaust. Figuration was the theme because it defined the “me-first”narcissism of Baby Boom ennui. Corporations rebranded themselves as multinationals and made headway in third world markets recently opened for business. Money was everywhere and artists began to demand their due. Expressionist Figuration fueled by junk bonds and media hype flew to heights it hadn’t in years. It was a golden age of hot markets and hotter backdrops, a grand stage set for the rich and famous. Unfortunately the heady hedonism couldn’t last. It all came crashing down with the market in 1987, leaving painting, expressionism and the figure reeking of the ugly stench of economic failure and aesthetic exhaustion. Illusions of infallibility were crumbling all over the world.

David ReedBut the Postmodernism of the 80s carried over into the abstraction of the early 90s. Paint strokes, fractured surface plains, fetishized finishes, antiqued glazing, remade objects and tons of thick, gooey theory tended to smear itself all over the now academic Post Structuralist painting techniques. Many abstract artists misunderstood Stella’s “Working Space” and invoked what I like to call the “Baroque Defense.” Basically this entailed a spit-shined and academy approved theoretical fall back position which stated that more is always better and more meaningful. More hue, more form, more information, more billboard, more empty space, and more of everything were all the rage. It was the flip side of bondo and broken plates. But it went no where. It didn’t catch on.

Yuskavage BallsAs money leaked back into the art world so did the re-figured eighties, irony minus the expressionism and technique minus the emotion. The “Painters of Yale” cool, sophisticated, sexy and Postmodern re-figured the art world through an amalgam of 80s ennui and 90s academic sophistication. Painting from photos was all the rage as media images became the source material for a crop of cool copycats creating finely honed, outsourced paintings. Slightly political, slightly wry, brightly hued, recently historical and topical, these paintings promised figuration with an easierzeitgeist comprised of insider art jokes, sexual politics and historical references.

However a problem continued to plague these types of figuration and abstraction. Artists remained caught in the web of Postmodern theoretics. There wasn’t a rethinking of visual theoretical structures, nor was there a challenge to the academy. Whether abstract or figurative this art was bound by the same rules of engagement, and it left artists chasing their own tails. Late in the game now we must look to the artists who remained tied to a more personal vision to learn of a way out of the POMO maze. IN our last post we discussed Picasso’s late works. We saw that he was working through cubism and historical vision pushing into something new – a contemporary figuration – one packed with emotional content, done without the easy tropes of expressionist painting and tied to Modernism and abstraction.

Vision has to be more than the recognition of arrangements of color and form, symbol and sign. It is a cognitive/emotive process. At its best it demands active thought, deep involvement and intimacy. It also defines a subject – vision structures it against and away from the ground. Postmodernism relies on the breaking up of visual cognition and emotional experience by ironic distance or material/technical exhaustion. It keeps intimacy out of a visual encounter. If I see one thing and its meaning and its being is in flux, I do not see it or I must find a meaning for what it might be. In POMO meaning and interaction are determined outside of the “thing in itself.” Postmodernism relies heavily on the ground, on context. Defining limits of where the thing is seen is more important than seeing the thing. The ground, the “where” is the focus – the thing, the subject must fall back. It can not be emphasized. This conceptual contexting is a byproduct of our media culture. It originates from the emphasis on the disappearance of physicality. For instance, if I extend my presence through technology to other places around the world then where do I exist – where am I located? How much of my existence is determined through the programming technology? And how much of my physicality, my human existence, my thingness is actually bound to flesh and bone?

We experience a kind of existential irony as we struggle with media images. The harder we seek to see or define a subject it sinks deeper into the ground – like quicksand. That is why so much abstract painting looks like a backdrop, a set design for what happens outside of it – the subject of these works is the ground. This ultimate visual irony is illustrated best by David Reed when he inserted photoshops of his paintings into the movie Vertigo. He customizes the sets and backdrops of Hitchcock’s masterpiece without changing or creating meaning. The fetish objects rest seamlessly in the background, a programmed collage element or an architectural element. The careful installation of the replicated set insures that there is no rupturing of the surface or the ground – neither in the paintings nor the sets. There isn’t a trace of involvement with any of the actual foreground subjects – the characters or the storyline. The paintings magically blend into the background.

“…the world is a “closed circuit” of mediated layers; this becomes a metaphor for the impossibility of distinguishing between waking and dreaming and the permanent transgression between both areas….In all Reed’s pictures, at least since the 80s, this experience of a pre-existing secondary reality is deeply embedded; even more, it is the essential theme of his art. The artist’s reflections on his work revolve around a pictorial concept in which – instead of the window on reality to which Alberti wanted to commit Renaissance painting – the idea is born that paintings are the shadows of realities that can never claim for themselves the status of solid, corporeal existence.”The context is easily defined. For Reed Painting exists in the backdrops and fantasies of programming. This is the state of hyper real existence defined and feared by Baudrillard.

IN part 3 we’ll discuss the defined figure and the need for abstraction…

Figuring It Out – Part 4

This post had been lost in the quagmire of failed programs a couple of years ago. I was happy to find it again and I’m reposting it to complete the Figuring it Out series.

Before we discuss prescriptives I think it important that we discuss the twin barrels of the Postmodern rifle that is pointing in our direction. We have previously discussed the ground and the rising subject. And this remains a huge problem for those of us trying to push beyond Postmodern painting. Part of the reason for this is that most figurative and abstract art today is based on and comes from Surrealism and/or Expressionism. So we begin there.

At a certain point in my life I decided that henceforth I would write about myself, my friends, my experiences, what I knew and what I had seen with my own eyes. Anything else, in my opinion, is literature, and I am not interested in literature. I realized also that I should have to learn to content myself with what was within my grasp, my scope, my personal ken. I learned not to be ashamed of myself, to talk freely about myself, to advertise myself, to elbow my way in here and there when necessary. Henry Miller An Open Letter to Surrealists Everywhere

Surrealism is ubiquitous. It is threaded through our culture, economics and politics. It is theoretical super-glue holding Postmodern art together. Its proponents speak with reverence of its connection to the unconscious, that grab bag of insidious desires, endless neediness and wanton lasciviousness. Surrealism is the gateway to salaciousness exposing our inner world, our fears, our human darkness. It shows us who and what we are. It reaches back to the dark beginning of human consciousness when man regarded the dream state as an alternate reality filled with truth, prophesy and extra-awareness. Surrealism is born of oracles, myths, symbols, signs, drugs, alcohol, anything that will open that inner world, its secrets and its connections to something larger and more profound than the life we lead. It flies in the face of our genteel civilized constructs and reveals our raging desires. At least that’s what the press release says.

Of course in today’s Postmodern world Surrealism sells. It sells on Madison Avenue. Advertising is rife with appeals to the unconscious, the extra ordinary – talking geccos selling insurance, automobiles soaring along impossible country roads, the elimination of pain/stench/age with a pill, lotion or treatment, the cruel promise of eternal youth and beauty, an end to suffering. It is in our televisual programming – the perfect TV family, the impossibly beautiful/heroic character, mythology come to life on screen, our endless fascination with fame, money and power – the super-human. And it is all over the internet. Millions of beings pouring their ideas, their inner thoughts and feelings into the electronic ether, a vast digital receptacle for humanity’s psyche, the unconscious desires of the collective. It is our version of heaven, lightspeed souls instantly made manifest with the touch of a button. All of this is the considered outcome of Surrealism.

Salvador Dali related stories of his need to paint from his unconscious. He would deprive himself of sleep, force his mind into sheer exhaustion so that he might unleash his inner desires, hallucinations and dreams – somnambulist visions that he thought promised truth and revelation. For the Surrealist truth would be found when one was out of control – when larger desires pushed one to the precipice. This was not a new idea. Artists and shamans had been experimenting with the unconscious for centuries. Open any art history book and you’ll see visions of unconscious excess in pictorial form from every culture, from every age, and every country on the planet. There are visions of cruelty and pleasure, strangeness and banality, sex, drugs and rock and roll everywhere. This time, though, it is different. For the Postmodernist Surrealism is a tool of control.

The first casualty of Surrealism is memory. We’ve discussed this at length in previous posts. For the most part memory becomes distorted, easily manipulated, changed to suit the moment. The POMO idea is that context creates meaning – all things are in flux. We are comfortable with the shifting ground. We expect change or ambiguity when memory is challenged – no one is sure of their own experience, no one remembers. The great “Surreal” moment for America in this century is 9/11. The endless political, economic and media spinning of that event and the consequences it has wrought is mind boggling. My memories of that day on the roof of my apartment building always temper every word or vision I encounter. I hang on to my visceral memories especially when someone who wasn’t there begins to describe their encounter through the electronic media. Those electronic memories don’t come close to my experience. The vision I encountered that day was a reality of such starkness and vividness that I emerged transformed. It wasn’t Surreal, it had nothing to do with the undertow of the unconscious. The manufactured reality that followed created a strange and dangerous dreamlike existence. A Postmodern shift came in the few months after that event as movies and television shows began fictionalizing the officially sanctioned media fictions. Suddenly context was everywhere and the ground swallowed up the rising subject. What was a bald-faced reality, a black swan, had become a means of manipulation. Surrealism exhausts our reason and our reality to create a collective strangeness. Memory is merely “…a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Green StripeThe next casualty of Surrealism is emotion. Now this may seem strange to say, considering that Surrealism claims to be a doorway to exploring our irrational natures. Emotion is connected to memory and it is formed there. Matisse was famous for explaining that he was trying to get at his feelings, how he felt about what he was seeing. This process of vision is an integration of memory, presence and honesty. He looks outward to the world aware of his presence in it, a part of it. The Surrealist, on the other hand, is the world he is painting. He is not interested in expressing his feeling about anything outside of that interiority. He only wishes to impose his dreamstate, his inner subjectivity, his connection to a collective. He is not expressing a part of the world he inhabits, rather, he depicts the unreal to keep the world in check, to keep it at a distance. We know nothing of him, but we know about the ground he shapes. Matisse paints a green stripe down his wife’s face. He wants something more in the vision, something about how he feels about her, something about how she feels about him. He is grounded in the rising subject. He is commenting on the thing in the world. He differentiates himself from what is outside of his inner experience while allowing his memory and feeling to determine the visual outcome. Dali paints a melting clock to enlist a history of symbolist historical precedent. Dali does not let on. We do not know how Dali feels about that image, we only know it is meant to cause some kind of acknowledgment in us, the viewers. We are to react, not to think. We understand the symbol, we react to it. Further we marvel at the depiction and the cleverness. We say “that’s so real.” We don’t understand the green stripe, but we understand the melting clock. We are not comfortable in front of a strong visual emotional experience, but we accept without question a familiar optical encounter.

Persistence of MemoryThe last casualty of Surrealism is vision. Surrealist painting is based on the idea that we know always already. There is always a strange familiarity to the dream states. The Freudian, the Jungian, the primitive, the mad, the violent, Eros and Thanatos – we “know” simply by existing, we are familiar. Our collective unconscious understands immediately. Magritte played with the familiar merging a clumsy realist style with visual puns, unusual pictorial juxtapositions and clever innuendos. His is an academic realism mixed with a louche dogma. Magritte could very well be the poster boy for today’s figurative painters. Currin, Yuskavage, Rauch, Hirst, Loeb, Fischl, Salle, Minter and many others. Magritte was the happy Surrealist, the bourgeois Surrealist, the Hollywood Surrealist. We do not have to see to understand. We look, we acknowledge, we marvel. It is an optical art of symbol and sign accessible, easy and readymade. Surrealism is an art of gamesmanship and innuendo. It is conversational art.

But to see, to use one’s sight to discover, to be active in connecting one’s emotional core to what one is seeing is a different process. Words escape the moment and come later, haltingly. What was it Greenberg used to say? “Dumb like a painter.” Dumb in the classic sense of being unable to speak. Words can not describe the vision. Vision demands more than knowing it demands experience. It means that you will have to risk that green stripe.

“…the aim of the artist as I see it, is to make people want another, a different picture.” Henry Miller “An Open Letter to Surrealists Everywhere”

Expressionism will be discussed in Part 5…

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…

TBTF – Too Big To Fail

There seems to be a perception among participants in U.S. financial markets that if a large banking organization were to get in trouble, the government would, under most circumstances, intervene to prevent its failure (or limit the losses to uninsured creditors upon failure). This possibility of a government bailout is commonly referred to as the “too-big-to-fail” policy. The idea behind this belief is that, in general, policymakers will be inclined to bail out institutions which are considered to be of “systemic” importance; that is, institutions whose potential failure could threaten the stability of the entire financial system.

Jerry Saltz and Ben Davis are busy playing the part of federal regulators for the now defaulting and deflating Postmodern generation of artists. For Jerry the TBTF moment comes with the re-interpretation of Koons as a mystic in which his paintings have become the mandalas and 60’s psychedelic record covers that Jerry loves to see on canvas…”But although the paintings are still pointless [bold is mine] if looked at only iconographically, they come alive as 21st-century versions of proto-modernism if you confine your gaze to the surface itself. There are no lines to be seen: Koons has meticulously separated every area of paint into a well-defined mass or island that interlocks perfectly with every other area without ever overlapping it. It’s like looking in a microscope and seeing what had formerly been a blur resolve into distinct forms.” With these few words and the admonition not to look beyond the surface of the billboard, Postmodern theoretic, economic and corporate power transforms the participant with instant understanding – satori. I really have issues with Jerry when he backtracks to the 90s, lately he’s been doing it a bit less and I’ve been grateful. However, this withering and inexcusable defense of Koons is beyond the pale. As Jerry describes Koons’ work it begins to resemble the same shell game behind repackaged subprime mortgage debt – “…vacillate between gleaming fact and mirage…material turns into light, color and reflectivity…familiar objects take on the aura of the unknown….” All of these descriptors are nothing more than cautionary statements to aesthetic investors – “don’t mind the man behind the curtain…” Jerry also touches on the Eventocracy – an idea put forward by Francesco Bonami describing art specifically made for the corporate buying experience. In this regard I prefer Ben Davis’s idea of the Superartist (extremely clever idea.)

It’s his idea that artists are now making art directly for the corporate public bypassing the quaint idea of private delectation. He concedes that this sort of art is popular in nature, event driven (like Bonami) and accessibly expensive. The Superartist is indeed the artist that can direct a production and create a sensation for mass consumption. Ben discusses both Eliasson and Murakami (among others) as embodying this aesthetic, and there can be no denying the success of this type of art. “…with the superartists, who function more and more like “imagineers,” who cut their work to the specifications of giant institutions, whose work is indivisibly associated with production by their own boutique design studios, “visual art” becomes less and less distinct from mass culture, and the idea gains more traction…” (We have discussed this idea before and labeled these Superart types as auteurs rather than artists.) Ben’s idea also implies that Superartists and their aesthetic are threaded through multiple industries and disciplines and they are part of the interdependent economic fabric of the art world itself. Additionally, their continued market viability must be maintained if the system is to be maintained. All of these Superartists have developed name recognition and brand consciousness as they partnered with established corporate entities and academic institutions, such as Louis Vuitton, Nissan, Broad Art Foundation, the Guggenheim, etc. But we must understand more – as time has passed and the monetary, institutional and political investment in Superart work has widened and deepened has this type of art become TBTF in the classic sense?

I have to take issue with Ben in his comparison of Superartists to the early Modernists. Unlike the Superartists the early Modernists were not institutional artists funded and collected by powerful corporate interests. They were not accepted and promoted by their artistic communities as the Superartists have been. If you must reach for an historical connection the artists that Superartists most resemble are those of the French Academic School of the 19th Century or the Mannerists in 16th Century Italy. Those were the artists that obtained government/institutional funding along with the acceptance of moneyed collectors. They were publicly lionized and respected. They continued an accepted academic tradition through small incremental changes in taste rather than outright changes in style. They appeared in the gossip pages and magazines of the day. I feel that Ben does a disservice to the challenges that Modernism demanded of its participants. Rather than an institutional professional climb, the Modernists stood in opposition to the prescribed aesthetics of their times. They challenged accepted aesthetics. The Superartists do not challenge ideas. They provide entertainment experiences. They repackage, reconfigure and re-contextualize proven aesthetics on a grand scale, blowing up art “brands” until they are larger than life.

A few days ago I happened on a chart that showed the value of financial funds in the stock market from 1996 to the present. It showed a sharp steady rise in the value of financial institutions and a recent very steep fall which effectively wiped out the 12 years of gained value (and then some) of those institutions to pre-1996 levels. Their perceived worth was nothing more than a market illusion, and suddenly, the reality of true value had come into focus. This time period roughly approximates the “Superartists” and Postmodernism’s boom. If these artists and products go the way of the markets we will have to deal with the problem of what a new artist will embody and what that art will look like. We can not go back, but we might be able to make sense of the best ideas defining both Modernist artists and Postmodern Superartists. In the meantime we must decide if Superartists are really just too big to fail. I’ll leave you with this assessment of TBTF in regards to the United States itself

“In other words, in the estimation of people in control of money, the United States cannot be allowed to collapse, just as Fannie and Freddie cannot be allowed to fail. Too much is riding on their survival…The central truth of that logic still seems to be apparent as the Treasury keeps finding takers for American debt. So the government offers its rescue of the mortgage companies, and foreigners keep stocking the government’s coffers…
But all the while, the debt mounts along with the costs of an ultimate day of reckoning. Debate grows about the wisdom of leaning on foreign credit, and about how much longer Americans will retain the privilege of spending and investing money that isn’t really theirs. Bailouts amount to mortgaging the future to stave off the wolf howling at the door. The likelihood of a painful reckoning is diminished, while the costs of a reckoning — should one come — are increased.
The costs are getting big.”

Is it any different for the art world where we’ve been recklessly stealing and repackaging past intellectual capital, aesthetic daring and visionary integrity from our vast visual history? Once the wizard has been exposed will we continue to accept his illusion?

By The Inch

 This past week I was struck by a couple of things. The first was watching James Kalm’s video of a bunch of art bloggers attempting to institutionalize art blogging. Why? No one takes this seriously and they shouldn’t. It isn’t reporting. Anyone can have a website or a blog – and you, my friends, are reading one. We happen to think this is a good one, but we make no claims of legitimacy. The truly embarrassing visuals in the video were the stick on name tags and the table name plates which brought up visions of delegates attending a DNC nominating convention or contestants appearing on a game show. “I’m a single Mom from Tarzana, California. I enjoy needlepoint, bowling and taxonomy. I have 2 beautiful kids and I am a tractor pull enthusiast…” Art shouldn’t act like this. You guys made it hard for me to write anything this week. eewwww.

The other was the sophistry engaged in by Marc Jacobs in Sunday’s T Magazine. This quote is breathtaking in its half hearted cliches and party line dogma. This is why Postmodernism is DOA.‘‘Appropriation is a totally contemporary and actual way of creating. Every field works to a certain extent in that way, and I think one is absolved of being a thief or a fraud when one fesses up to what informs one’s work. I always get this quote from Chanel wrong, but the gist of it is that he who insists on his own creativity has no memory. I don’t think it’s necessary to say how fantastically original one is, and if one does, one only has to dig in the past to find out who came up with that idea. Innovation is an evolutionary process, so it’s not necessary to be radical all the time.’’ Innovation is a revolutionary process. It happens usually in small increments until it reaches a certain mass and then it explodes. It is by its very nature radical, because it is about life, about reality, and mostly, it is about change. It is radical all the time. It is the inch we need to make a difference.

There is a lot of fear and loathing in the art world at the moment, and it’s beginning to show. Money is tightening, careers are starting to dry up and institutions are beginning to feel the pinch. Change is always incremental. It starts as a slow trickle, a movement of inches. Like Hedwig in an ice cream parlor the truly fantastic will manifest in strange ways in the most unexpected of places. It is always the small things that ultimately matter to each of us. Sometimes that inch gets angry. It demands to be experienced, understood or acknowledged. Sometimes that inch is more real than the miles and miles of institutionalized belief that we are force fed through our culture. In the end that inch is what we believe, what we express, and what we demand of ourselves. In NYC there is a lot of anxiety and arrogance about the future of art. Postmodernism has failed. And as it continues to throw around the same tired cliches and empty promises it looks more and more like a has-been musician clinging to fading recognition at a Las Vegas tourist venue. Slowly the art institutions are finding it harder to exert control over the “story” of POMO art, especially as the money has decided to do its own thing and promote its own stories. Hell even after all the ass kissing, expensive additions and corporate promotions museums have found that promises don’t mean squat to the money handlers. POMO is drying up in good measure and leaving us with an inch to work. There has never been a better time to have a strong new vision!

In art and in life it is a matter of inches. For those of us who are looking for real visual change it is the inch or so in our studio that matters the most.
We are talking to Phil Collins’ people, but then again, aren’t we all?

Interview: Michael Zahn

I first encountered Michael Zahn’s paintings in a show this past summer entitled “Late Liberties.” It was an exhibition I was very interested in mainly because there seemed to be a renewed interest in abstraction. Many of its works were still dealing with abstraction from a post-structuralist viewpoint which was a bit of a disappointment. However, I had a very different reaction to Michael’s painting. As I thought about his work I realized it was pushing around the last 15 years of theoretical abstraction opening a door to a more expansive exploration of what materialist abstract painting might entail. What stuck with me about his work is the light touch and the absurdist sense of humor that played on the surfaces. He is currently having a show of new work at Eleven Rivington, and what follows is an “e-interview with Michael.”

Mark: In these new works, you’ve said you’re using naïve set theory to resist any formal organization. As I understand it, this sort of structuring is done so one may group various things together while creating casual connections and contingencies between entities. There is a kind of Duchampian feel to this technique, and I am thinking of 3 Standard Stoppages,
where random action determines measurements that are then categorized, grouped and displayed. What criteria were you establishing for your sets? Does randomness play a
part in the process?

Studio Shot of Works in ProgressMichael: Set theory is an expedient metaphor. It offers a way of building an expressive vocabulary where definitions aren’t rigorously codified, and terms retain a quality of openness. This expressive quality arises from the proximity of terms to one another. I’m not interested in set theory as an organizing system per se. I’m as influenced by a Bugs Bunny cartoon, or a menu in a terrific restaurant, or the reflected light of the sunset over the roofs outside my apartment. I just want the work to be present, and to be convincing. Those are my criteria, and there are a number of ways of bringing the work about. Duchamp’s example is a good one too, as I’m basically looking for means around the formal orthodoxy that governs abstract painting. Internalizing arbitrariness and postponing judgement are probably the two biggest issues I face when making something.

Mark: I see aspects of your work as both a continuance of and a challenge to the physicality of Minimal painting. I am thinking directly of Frank Stella’s black paintings, Donald Judd’s boxes, and Brice Marden’s diptychs. Though you have adopted the materiality of Minimalism’s “surface and side”, you also play with the techniques of dematerialization, using the illusions seen in optical electronic structures such as the sizable windows or pixelated images of interactive media.

Michael: I guess the relationship I have to Minimalism contends with its mode of address, and with the scale of things. Last night I was talking with a friend about this idea of making a life-sized maquette of something, which sounds kind of stupid, but I think that’s more or less what I do alot of the time. One of the paintings for the show at Eleven Rivington is called Hang. It’s a two-panel painting and is just under seventeen feet long. Its internal division evokes the structure of the gallery’s north side, which is all glass and opens to the street. In this sense, the painting resembles a huge window, or a curtain wall. It also shares an affinity with Blinky Palermo’s wall painting Fenster I, a transposition of the facade of the Bremerhaven storefront in which it was exhibited. Yet the large scale of Hang, by physically doubling the horizontal expanse of the wall on which it’s placed, projects another elevation into the room itself. This second architecture to which the painting refers is the virtual lattice of the graphical user interface. The broken black dashes across the painting’s top and the overlapping white panel at its right suggest glitches, images or components that haven’t loaded. Technically, a ‘hang’ occurs when a computer doesn’t respond to input from a keyboard or a mouse; if a computer is hung, the user needs to restart the machine to continue. Hang thus acknowledges the alleged failure of heroic abstract painting, while humorously rebooting its program. The modulated tints of Hang, basically variations on red, green, and blue, are then distributed across the three walls of the gallery, creating an immersive, all-around space perceptually networked by these colors. This triad establishes a ground against which the exhibition at Eleven Rivington is figured. I suppose this is what I mean by something being ‘life-sized’. It creates conditions that implicate the viewer in its presence.

Mark: I see this as a radical re-imagining of viewer interaction. Unlike Palermo, who stops with the schematics of a double, you dematerialize space through the use of color, and morph it into optical code.

Michael: I’d say scale and color deform things, rather than dematerialize them. The work has a pretty insistent physicality.

Mark: This essentially complicates the conventional notion of the double, or of its representation as well. With Hang, you push the question of the ‘real’ that’s behind these multiple structures. The gallery space becomes an open operating system, or a shell composed of chroma and code.

Michael: The work at Eleven Rivington acknowledges observations made by Daniel Buren in his essay ‘The Function of The Studio’, and gives some of his points a droll quarter-turn to the left. In certain ways, I’ve always considered the endgame of abstract painting as a closed system begging to be hacked. But some of the issues you raise are difficult to talk about, as they’re related to the Western metaphysics of representation in a pretty profound way. Regardless of what I just said, we’re no longer engaging a simple dialectic of presence and absence, since materiality is mediated by these coded structures whose foundation is that of a simulated uniformity constructed out of patterns of information. This relates to what I mentioned previously about internalizing arbitrariness, or filtering randomness and noise. I’m looking for relatively simple expressions that are capable of conveying the maximum amount of information in any given situation, and that compress experience into discrete moments that continually unfold as a continuum. I’m not a programmer, I’m a painter, but I like to think my medium is flexible enough to engage these issues on a number of levels.

Mark: Your work manages to straddle both the corporeal and the ephemeral, and creates a disjuncture around the codes of both painting and computer programming. What structures of abstract painting do you find represented in operating systems and electronic media? How are they different from painting, or is there any difference? How do the virtual and the actual inform one another in your work?

studio shot_1Michael: Desktop iconography in particular aspires to a level of thingness that something like, say, a monochrome aspires to as well. Gaming environments, which are ephemeral, can be intensely visceral. I give a certain thickness and weight to immaterial metaphors by painting them, by making them into actual things. I also want to disturb the totality of the work and make the painting difficult to see, to really, actually see, in a sense. I mean that literally. We might agree that we know what a painting is, or we think we know what a painting is, so I tend to disrupt a unified vision of the painting as an integrated entity. The work is sensed as much as it’s seen. The paintings possess haptic qualities that are very subtle and discrete, that don’t reproduce in photographs, that resist the tyranny of the jpeg. I’ve always been drawn to the use of multiple panels, as those formats activate space in very specific ways by making space itself a part of the composition. As an analogue, one of the most interesting things about my laptop is the tricky space that exists between the screen and the keyboard. Sometimes I recognize this space as an incredible complication of the concept of the flatbed plane described by Leo Steinberg, since in this case it’s neither vertical or horizontal, neither nature or culture. It’s somewhere in between, right? Yet it’s one of the sites upon which meaning is constructed, or knowledge is based. Michel Foucault describes something similar in his reading of the Saussurean algorithm. He refers to the bar separating signifier from signified as a neutral band. I find similarities in this observation to the nebulous space I’m describing that runs through the computer. It’s also present in the surface of the painted work, and in the relationship its support has to the wall, or to the space around it. The work is located where phenomenology and semiology intersect.

Mark: Is there a connection between this illusive electronic space and the Baroque space of expansive perception? Personally, I’m thinking of the painting in San Pantalon by Fumiani, where the ceiling explodes, and I do mean explodes, in a teeming vision of heaven. Abstract painter David Reed contends that Baroque painting was bound specifically to architecture. Your approach to space seems different than that of the Baroque artists. You bring the painted codes directly onto the walls, as if the electronic world is wrapping reality in its optics. I imagine someone has clicked on the sizable corner of the operating system and dragged it directly into the room.

In and OutMichael: Mark, I think my work is way too primitive to be considered in the same breath as that of the Baroque! If anything, it’s closer in spirit to the paintings of Giotto and Mantegna, or even to Cimabue and Duccio. There’s an awkward grace to that work that’s really mesmerizing, and that I seek to emulate. The painting you saw last summer is a good example. The four panels rest in a shallow space that’s similar to the way devotional figures are clustered in a Trecento altarpiece. I mean, the color in that work alone, with its highlight and shadow edges, is little more than a dopey riff on the apostles’ robes in a Fra Angelico panel. The Early Renaissance was an incredible period of human invention, yet technically things were a little wonky. I see certain parallels there with the present moment, regardless of how slick or resolved the objects of our daily lives might appear at times.

Mark: I get the wonky visual bit, and that’s what I responded to immediately. I see your visual “primitivism” as extremely sophisticated, just as I do with Giotto or Masaccio. The way we visualize, the way we see is always a personal, human thing tied to our fleshy memory. I’m also reminded of that picture of Barnett Newman standing inches from his giant red painting, as he demonstrated the idea that the sublime was connected to both the physicality of the canvas and to the limits of his peripheral vision. Are there elements of the sublime in your ideas of sets, genres, codes, and programs? Is there a utopian vision similar to the underlying platonic ideas in Minimalism, or the reductive sublime seen in Constructivism?

Michael: I love Newman’s writing as much as his art. His description of the Indian burial mounds in Ohio is really radical. I grew up there, and his words are true: Standing before the mounds, there’s nothing to see, and he says so. He’s totally present in a specific place created by those walls of earth, and everything else– I forget how he describes it, trees, rivers, nature– is out there where it is. He’s here, as he says of what he apprehends. It sounds pretty simple, but the implications of that awareness are huge. I guess it was shortly afterwards that Newman began to understand his work as not being about space, but about time. I think this has less to do with sublimity as he addresses it, which retains the subject, however residual or atomized, at its center, and more with a contemplation of infinity, which exists without one. If I’m able to get even a fraction of that kind of presentness in my work, well . . . That wouldn’t be too bad.

for further information about Michael check out this interview at Minus Space!

Michael Zahn …As Michael Zahn is currently showing at Eleven Rivington May 29- July 3. The opening is May 29 from 6-8 pm.


  1. Sandy Seawright wrote:

    The rectangles invite contemplation.
    The use of color has depth and warmth – much more than you see in
    minimalistic work. The closest comparison I can think of to Zahn’s use of color is Gene Davis. Zahn’s images are warmer than Davis’.

    Wednesday, May 21, 2008 at 5:28 pm | Permalink
  2. Arundel wrote:

    God, what an intensive amount of blather over some extremely plain and boring paintings. One can intellectualize forever, but these are so cold, devoid of soul or effort, why would anyone spend more than ten seconds looking at them?

    Sunday, June 1, 2008 at 4:28 pm | Permalink
  3. There is a wonderful review of Michael’s show at Paul Corio’s Blog – “In the end, I always judge art (and especially painting) on the way that it looks, and the thing that separates As Michael Zahn from the endless parade of critiques out there is that fact that it looks great, and feels no need to mask or apologize for that fact.”

    Thursday, June 5, 2008 at 1:31 pm | Permalink
  4. Another great blog on Michael’s work is here at Timothy Buckwalter’s Blog. “…it’s impossible to say what gets me the most about his pieces. I just have some gut reaction to it. The paintings suck me.”

    Friday, June 20, 2008 at 8:09 pm | Permalink
  5. The always intrepid Martin Bromirski “gets it” at his blog Anaba. Fantastic!

    Wednesday, June 25, 2008 at 9:01 pm | Permalink
  6. Darrell Groves wrote:

    I first encountered Michael as a sophomore in high school. He was a student in my art class. I knew he had unbelievable talent when I observed him working on his first project. We kept in contact through the early 90’s. I was excited when he showed me his initial ventures into the works he is doing now. He has attained a celebrity in the art world that I expected him to achieve. Great work Mike.

    Friday, August 15, 2008 at 4:52 pm | Permalink