Style VS Brand: Greig Sargeant

Style and Brand are not just the aesthetic and practical concerns of visual art. They affect artists of all type and situation. Greig Sargeant is an actor working in ground breaking Off-Broadway productions. His current project is with Elevator Repair Service in their presentation of Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury.” The company just returned from a successful engagement in Lisbon, and will be on the road shortly to Vienna and Amsterdam. He also is a member of Target Margin another progressive theatre company which presents exciting and groundbreaking plays. Additionally, he has been cast in two avant garde dance pieces choreographed by the amazing Kim Whittam. Greig and I have spoken a great deal about style and brand while discussing art, acting and theatre. As he has often said, style and brand are always a huge consideration at the creation of any theatre production. For Greig an actor of style develops his character by subsuming his own personality. He uses the script and the direction to become the embodiment of that character. Alternatively, an actor may impose his own personality on the character making that character a recognizable extension of his public self. Here the actor is playing to preconceived public perceptions and expectations. This is more about branding. I find it interesting that other thoughtful and talented artists, including those outside our little visual art world, must confront how one’s aesthetic practices are perceived by a larger public. Here’s more of what Greig has to say:
Greig Sargeant in Target Margin's The Dinner Party
Style is the direct result of an artist’s creativity. It comes directly from the life experience of the individual artist. Anything that makes up the unique individual characteristics of a human being is the source of a person’s/artist’s style. In my art form – acting – actors (men and women) who epitomize “Style” – truly unique individuals that defy the concept of “Brand” include – Sean Penn, Dustin Hoffman, Cate Blanchette, Vanessa Redgrave, Gary Oldman, Julianne Moore, Helen Mirren, Toni Collette, Lily Taylor, John Lithgow, Diane Wiest, Marion Seldes, Johnny Depp, Daniel Day Lewis and Kate Winslet. These actors best exemplify my true definition of style.

On Branding and Style
Brand is the direct result of an outside source’s (the media, entertainment and advertising executives, reviewers) opinion on a particular style which is marketed to the general public. Any style that is so identifiable is easily branded. Actors who have been branded include: George Clooney, Tom Cruise, Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Adam Sandler, Cameron Diaz, Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, Shirley Temple, Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro. If you have ever watched an episode of Entourage, you may have heard uber agent Ari Gold say, “find me the next DeNiro, I need a Julia Roberts type or I need a Will Smith type whose cheaper.” Many actors who tend to play the same type of character in every project they undertake may have their own style, but the difference is that their “style” can be generalized and labeled. This is branding.

Sound and FuryA true artist develops his/her art from within. A brand can be developed as well, but it is clearly a polished imitation of a particular style. I do find that the media feeds these distinctions in how an artist’s work is perceived, but it is the artist that decides by the work that he chooses if the media’s branding will have any bearing.

The trick is for the artist to do what he does best. A true artist who reaches deep down to his inner-most soul to create something that is uniquely his own does not concern himself with the functions of fame. If his work is good, it will lead to more work. If his work is not good he will have to dig deeper and continue the artist’s exploration.

Style and Brand in The Real World
The reality of the situation is that being an artist is not cheap. Living in an expensive city (like New York), trying to keep the roof over your head, trying to see as much art as possible, costs money. All artists want to be recognized and paid for their efforts. Those of us who supplement our incomes with “survival jobs” have the luxury of creating for ourselves and sharing with our audience while making a name for ourselves. Achieving “fame” in this way we are not compromised by the marketplace and the economy. Those who depend on their art to feed and cloth them, have it much much harder. They often lose out to the concepts of Branding in order to survive.

Fame and recognition are wonderful – To be acknowledged for the work that comes from inside of you, that’s the icing on the cake. However, that is not the thing that drives me to create, and thank God, I don’t have to sell my soul trying to be the next James Earl Jones.

Style VS Brand: Steve Durbin

Steve Durbin is a photographer in the classic sense. His work is crystalline, sharp and connected to nature. The great American photographers at the beginning of the last century are Steve’s precedent, and he builds on their legacy in interesting ways. His portfolio of horses is pure lens-based abstraction, and he gives us strong and beautiful images. Steve has been very interested in how we see and perceive things, and on the blog Art and Perception he discusses issues of light, form and space that continue to bedevil many an artist even in these Postmodern media times. There’s always an interesting dialog going on that invariably goes right back to vision. I thought it would be interesting to get Steve’s thoughts on Style and Brand and see how those concepts might work in his practice:

Steve DurbinI’d prefer to ignore freak cases like Koons and Hirst. Mainstream media, in whatever form, will always aid and abet the fabrication of celebrity. Fascinating or not, that’s not directly relevant for more than a very few. Unfortunately, it matters indirectly for a greater number.

Most of us, whether driven by fortune, fame, or something less easily defined are also driven by an interior something that makes us artists. That something is ours, and to be ours it has to be different from everyone else’s–call that individual voice our style. But it doesn’t emerge full-blown: style is learned and developed and subject to all kinds of influences.

If our motivation is largely fame or fortune, rather than internal demands of personal artistic development, we may be tempted to take shortcuts, adopting styles, subjects, or media that are currently or predictably eye-catching or popular. To the extent a style becomes pre-dictable and pre-scriptive, it becomes a brand, leading rather than following the work. A brand is constraining; it essentially represents a promise to provide a known quantity. Go to McDonald’s or Kinkade’s, you have a clear idea of what you’re going to find–and how it will be seen by others.

Steve DurbinMedia influences are strong, including, in a paradoxical way, the rise of the Internet. The key difference is that on the web artists can speak for themselves, and that possibility has already become a virtual necessity. Those who want to be noticed need a web site, and having a web site entails packaging and presentation. This is not entirely bad, but our models for packaging may not be very honest or imaginative, but derive from what we see: 1) our network and 2) what’s offered by the marketplace (that’s where Koons and celebrity come in). The need to present ourselves in this way that feels more definitive (perhaps because so public) offers more temptations and more obstacles to a “natural” development–a concept that may seem anachronistic, but is the ultimate source of our ability to create something new, rather than merely newyish.

Personally, I’m in the position of having a day job that frees me to ignore the marketplace in art, at least as far as financial compensation goes. I’m using that freedom to work on developing my own voice, which is certainly evolving. But to join the art community and to demonstrate a certain level of seriousness–not to mention preparing for the future–seems to require engagement in the marketplace, at least at the level of convincing those with exhibition space that your work is worth showing. Again, this is not necessarily bad; in fact, it’s necessary period. But I think it can become a problem if it causes us to brand ourselves too soon. A brand can be altered or even removed, but not without leaving a scar.

For more about Steve Durbin visit his website here.

Style VS Brand: Charlie Clough

Charlie CloughRecently, Charlie Clough has been developing a new way to produce his work using a group of creative collaborators. Charlie guides the evolution of the painting through many stages of production and documentation. In his Westerly Project he continues to find new expressive possibilities for known “styles,” and he works those styles into a type of conceptual brand production. As Charlie explains: “This method is developed from the evolution of Fauvism, Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract-expressionism, Post-painterly Abstraction, Neo-expressionism and Pictures Theory. It is distinguished by the participation of others in the painting of the painting and the casting of Clough as the “un-painter”.” In essence Charlie becomes the producer and director of the project while the credited “actors-artists” make the work – a sort of Clough Brand Painting – in front of the lens. Charlie has always been willing to step back and watch his work evolve – at times using handmade tools to distance his direct involvement, and lenses and computer programs to further deconstruct the process of his painting. We asked Charlie what Style VS Brand might mean in the context of his practice:

Artists want attention, art is nothing if not a public relation. Gombrich wrote “From Giotto’s day onwards the history of art is the history of the great artists”.

I see branding as the connection between name and legend. I see style as the visual development of the oeuvre through time. They are both inescapable, in whatever degree, from the first moment of exhibition or publication. As much as I covet the success of Koons, Hirst & Murakami, I admire their ability for gaining attention.

I find myself imagining my practice as being morally superior to those guys, but it’s not. I’ve got my story but it isn’t as well-known (yet). In 1976 I determined my project to be “the photographic epic of a painter as a film or a ghost” and I have had the time to fulfill it. Recently my works entered fifty museum collections and a curator contacted me regarding a forty-year retrospective of my work. As these things unfold, work that I haven’t seen for years is going to start making my story public. Sure, I want more and faster, but I’m in a good place…

Visit www.clufff.com & www.westerlyartproject.com for more information about Charlie and his Westerly Project.

Finch Takes a Stand

Charlie Finch is joining in on our discussion about the art world business model. Over at Artnet Charlie lets it rip about the art collective as an antidote to the ridiculous business structures and fear mongering that takes place in the corporate art world.

…we in the art world have become so brainwashed by the market model of contemporary art that we forget that the entire history of 20th-century art was a collective phenomenon. Or perhaps you have never heard of the Fauves, the Futurists, the Blaue Reiter, the Dadaists, the Cubists, the Surrealists, the Ten, the Gutai Art Association, CoBRA, the Oz Collective, the Guerrilla Girls, Colab or the Royal Art Lodge?

In our discussion of Style VS Brand Hans Heiner Buhr layed out a similar idea about an online collective through his Art Club Caucasus. As Hans explains:

…the power is the network of ideas, concepts, styles which is only in state for a couple of years now. So it’s a very early stadium. I remember the feel of joy, when I got connected to the Internet in 2000 here from the Georgian Hinterland (I was connected in Berlin in 1994). I got able to publish my works to the world, to the few, for whom it is of interest, the dictatorship of Media, Galleries, Curators, Museums, bad time ~ bad~ place~ handicaps were destroyed.

Carla Knopp also discusses the needs of an artist to market, to be seen, especially in the age of quick clicks and jpegs. In her reasoned comment to Hans’ post she finds that the collective is more a launching pad for ideas. It provides not only community, but a chance to further one’s own creative impulses with the one caveat that systems create rules that can come to limit an artists needs:

A collective provides the power of ready-identity, and also the creative potential of working within a framework, and working from others. This can stimulate one’s ideas, but it does so at the risk of creating myopia. However free-flowing and inventive are a collective’s individuals, the very nature of a collective framework is to distinguish one grouping of ideas. This creates an artificially focused set of values, and non-collective created work may fall into a blind spot.

Charlie is absolutely correct in detailing that the power for change lies within the artists’ community. How we shape things, how we use our creativity will determine what the shape of the art world will look like. WE ARTISTS CAN NOT AFFORD TO BE LAZY ANY LONGER. That is part of the reason for our current discussion about Style VS Brand. We wanted to take a clear look at what artists have to say about the market and how it effects their work. We also wanted to posit other ideas about what is possible for us, how things might be changed and how we might proceed. Keep up the fantastic work Charlie, and we invite you to expand on your thoughts and take part in the discussion here on Henri! Stay tuned for more Style VS Brand.

Style VS Brand: Carla Knopp

I’ve had the pleasure of following Carla Knopp’s blog for a while now. She’s been posting thoughts about her painting and her business that are incisive and intimate. The fascinating structure behind her studio practice is how one part feeds into the other, how she finds ideas in both the atelier and the business parts of her art life. Lately, Carla’s been struggling with some wonderful shaped abstractions, bringing us in to her process and practice on the blog. I asked Carla if she would drop some thoughts about Style vs Brand, and she attacked it by thinking creatively and practically about how one might work style and brand in the real world:

Carla KnoppAfter ranging around mentally, I focused in on an artist’s use of branding, but in very general marketing terms. As I read your well-reasoned thoughts on Postmodernism and on market-driven creative production, I experience a split screen in my own comprehension. It’s very similar to conflicting considerations I have in the studio. I don’t believe I’ve explained this conflict here very well (yet), but rather am putting forth the idea that a market perspective can benefit an artist’s art-making. This influence can also create conflict and contradiction, but how certain decisions will play in a public/market arena is a worthy consideration.

CK Blitzkrieg 2010: “One Artist, Five Shows”

This is my fantasy marketing gimmick. I throw myself an audacious multi-venue exhibition, showing five distinct bodies of work, all of which were simultaneously created by one artist (me) over a few of year’s time. Keep in mind the background here. I’ve been laying low in the Indy art scene for nearly a decade. There is no real consistent scene here, but rather a 3-5 year cycling of current players. I’m three cycles back and no longer on many radars. This scheme is a sink (backlash) or swim play for instant recognition. It’s a public branding.

This exhibition idea also markets and reveals a truth. Many artists are exploring ideas, not just creating product. This exhibition reveals insight into the creative process. It shows five creative meanders, each a distinctive investigation by the artist, and each part of an ongoing parallel development. This public projection brands by framing the unknowable. It’s about marketing truth; creating a public lens which exposes the realm of personal discovery.

Documentation for these shows further utilizes this ‘truth via marketing’ approach. Five show catalogues are available for individual purchase, or as a boxed gift set for $xxx 🙂
Each catalogue offers earnest dialogue regarding that body of work….and so on.

Carla KnoppI struggle to control my desire-motivated marketing impulses, but I don’t entirely discount the value of them. I want to include a “hard public parts” perspective in my art-making. Marketing requires a vibrant active type of energy and thought, and it’s beneficial to maintain a peripheral awareness of how we and our work play to an audience of skimmers. This doesn’t necessarily make us scammers (though it may tempt us).

A brand provides a framework for comprehension. It may represent truth, hype, or both.

When used as part of an inductive creative process, branding and market perspective can benefit an artist’s work. It allows a public perspective, along with one’s more personal considerations, to inform the making and presentation of one’s work. Here commercial success is not the primary motive, nor is it excluded. Rather, the reality of the work’s market presentation plays alongside its artistic evolution, all part of a process-fueled creative endeavor. This broadens an artist’s working arena without necessarily changing motive. It’s still a quest for artistic discovery.

A brand may also be developed deductively, based on what is knowable and predictable. An artist can calculate for art world success. The thrill of creative achievement is ready to reap, unencumbered by the tedious process of abstracted meander. The goal is to create an “interesting” product, and the method for this is straightforward. Do what you think/know works. Oh yeah, and the prize is fame and fortune.

As an observer, it’s good to distinguish the reasons for which we value art. Marketing can seduce and manipulate our experience, and we should know how and when this happens. Clarity begets comprehension.

An artist may do better with more permissive, even compromised rationales. A softening of one’s discernment, at least for periods of time, may benefit creative direction/impetus.

Blitzkrieg Backtrack:

I do want to show the separate bodies of work simultaneously, or nearly so, but I would greatly temper the ‘Blitzkrieg’ presentation, starting with a change in the show title. I’d refine the promotion from an obnoxious identity-fest, and more towards a process-revealing offering. The ‘home town big splash in a little pond’ mentality is petty and already has me cringing. I’d hone the entire promotion to more accurately frame the diversified creativity motive/motif, and also to present a more positive brand for myself, one which I can personally stomach. I think this type of flirtation with grandiosity is natural and honest, and its indulgence generates vibrancy in one’s work. We can always rethink and backtrack and cull the detritus. This sort of self-indulgence helps us define value.

I go through a similar process when painting, where an external, top-down perspective influences and sometimes battles more internal bottom-up decision-making. As difficult and self-hate-inducing as it is, I want to work with this ambition, and not excise it.

For More about Carla check out her website.

Style VS Brand: Hans Heiner Buhr

brand-style1-1000Hans Heiner Buhr is an artist I’ve only recently begun to know. He has begun an art site called the Art Club Caucasus where a lively discussion about art can always be found. Hans is an adventurer, a thinker, and an artist – three things I hold in high regard- and he approached the questions about Style Vs Brand exactly in that manner, first with a flurry of uploaded notes and then with direct answers about how he sees these things working for artists.

MS: I wanted to examine the hard public part of an artists work and career and how those parts of our lives might be perceived – how one might play into the other. I think that 21st Century media environments may have changed our understandings and expectations concerning a career in art. There has been a real shift in how we perceive artists and their work especially since Warhol.

brand-style2-1000ohnelink-1HHB: Warhol was one of the first to create a collective, but already much longer before, artists started to prefer again the potentials and protection of Art Groups, like the Brücke, Futurists etc. I think Warhol’s success was a direct result of the Factory Concept, it just was wrongly labeled Warhol instead of Factory. This was chosen by the Mass Media, as the Warhol-geek could be better marketed.

MS: It seems to me that there are two things guiding market perceptions of artists’ work – styles and brands. I believe Warhol was the first to create a true brand in the same sense as corporations create brands – and by that I mean an accessible product that can be reproduced, marketed and sold – something tied to a recognizable “name” or celebrity. This is inherently different from an artist’s traditional development of a style. Style used to come through in the making of art or better through the living of art. Style is intimately connected to the artist and is looked at as a unique embodiment of the artistic impulse. “Style” develops through practice, whereas “Brand” is a more conceptual approach to art making, brands sort of arrive familiarly full-blown.

HHB: Artists very often changed their styles, look close to the development of Pollock, it’s all the time changing. Styles and Brands are both wrongly picking our attention, it should be instead the concepts, which choose/demand a certain style as a package. A brand is only interesting, if it is a label for an interesting concept.

brand-style3-1000-1MS: What do you see as the difference between an artist’s style or an artist’s brand? Is there such a difference any longer? Does an artist have to develop a style or brand or can one appropriate a style or brand? Do you find that “media” feeds these distinctions in how an artist’s work is perceived?

HHB: Yes, of course, ideally a collective forms a brand, where are included many different individual artistic styles, which change and develop all the time in relation to the contemporary project/concept. Styles can be approved, as true new styles (maybe) do not exist anymore. Like the basic style for text are letters, which can form endless new content. All possible artistic styles should be used to create new images and new (interesting) meaning/interpretation. The media loves brands, they give a shit for the style, as they are not interested yet in the concept. Did anybody try to look deeply in Murakami’s concept yet (has he one ?) Btw I am not a big fan of Murakami’s works, he is just an example for those working (collective) like Koons, Hirst etc. but branding their work wrongly. The (print) media and their outlets are not healthy collectives as they are run by individual bosses like dictatorships.

MS: Behind the idea of known style or a known brand are concepts of fame or recognition. For instance the current crop of Postmodern artists that are in the news seem to “put on” or “wear” a type of art fame that is easily defined and already known making it easier to connect with their brands or styles – Jeff Koons as a business man (well-appointed designer suits and ad-man sound bites), Damien Hirst as a Rockstar (looking and sounding more like Bono every day), brand-style4-1000and Murakami as a tech geek (like George Lucas and his Skywalker lab.) All three have assumed media images of artists designed to be familiar and stable, based on a prototypical business formula. This concept of fame which is directed at selling art or the artist or creating a brand focus is different even than Warhol’s artist persona – he remained a sort of show, outside of the mainstream, a caricature or an avatar of a downtown art-type. The main difference is that he continued to be an artist that played at being a businessman, while today’s artists are more like businessmen who make art.

What do you see as being the functions of fame in the art world today and how does this relate to brand making or style making? How has this changed the practices in the studio and in the public eye? What part does creativity play in the development of both fame and business and what part should it play in developing art? What sort of fame do you see artists trying to obtain? How does the attainment of recognition affect the understanding and acceptance of certain artists? How much does this public recognition factor play into the creation and presentation of the work itself? Finally does the idea of style or brand or the creation of a style or brand inform your work – do you see yourself creating a brand or forming a style or both? Is fame and recognition a consideration of that development and if so how?

brand-style5-1000ohnelinkHHB: For me fame is not necessary, I even do not want fame. Fame is fake, when it’s not about the fame of a good concept. I would like to be an artist freely inventing ideas, concepts, projects, styles – paid with a monthly salary like a Google employer and adding units of form to the art collective. Recognition comes via attention to good concepts. The Collective should sell good ideas and concepts to gain revenues. A work without attention/recognition does not exist. This should come from other collectives/artists, which find these concepts interesting to integrate in their own concepts/works (You see how much here negative is the whole Copyright-Bullshit) I would like to contribute to co-create the Art Club Caucasus as a brand, but this will succeed only, if it becomes a strong collective, what is it not yet, it is in a pre-stadium of formation right now 😉 Styles can be freely chosen any time. The power is the network of ideas, concepts, styles which is only in state for a couple of years now. So it’s a very early stadium. I remember the feel of joy, when I got connected to the Internet in 2000 here from the Georgian Hinterland (I was connected in Berlin in 1994). I got able to publish my works to the world, to the few, for whom it is of interest, the dictatorship of Media, Galleries, Curators, Museums, bad time ~ bad~ place~ handicaps were destroyed.

Hans is offering a different view of our art world times, and a new idea of how we might change the constructs and systems we’ve inherited. The Art Club Caucasus is catching on with artists around the world. The Art Club is using the internet to create a vibrant site of images and ideas for artists. Check it out!

We will continue our discussion with other artists about Style Vs Brand in upcoming posts – Stay Tuned!

Precedent Redux

…[We] found what we found in the past when we were young because we were looking for a way out – not a way in. We were looking for precedents upon which to found a revolution – submerging ourselves in the murky swamp of unfashionable objects, stretching our toes downward to find a new bottom from which we might push off. We wanted things we could steal, borrow, misappropriate or cross-pollinate. Dave Hickey Art in America January 2009

Dave Hickey lets it fly in the latest AIA. I can not recommend his article enough. If you can – go to the bookstore and read the magazine. If you have the money – buy it – if not – well get it any way you can (I am not suggesting you steal it – that’s illegal in certain states and I don’t want you going to jail – there’s always the library…) Rip it out keep it close, and throw away the rest of the crappy issue. Everything he is writing about flies in the face of the rest of that magazine’s presentations. Dave gives us the “permission” we seem to have been waiting for to rebel. Which is doubly impressive because Dave is, after all, a Castelli Man, and by that I mean he came from the 60s. His taste was formed in the post-structuralist Postmodern world. He is one of “them” and basically he is asking, almost pleading, with US to do our fucking jobs, and make the art that he loves redundant in the way that unaccepted and unacceptable strong art moves past accepted and expected fashionable art. What Dave is looking for is a black swan, a new idea, a radical change of aesthetic, and that is what we’ve been formulating, gestating and speculating.

…The pressure builds up and boom! Raphael, Caravaggio, Manet, Picasso, Pollock, Warhol and Koons did not arise; they erupted. They got it right the first time, so we spend our time between quakes adapting to the last, never imagining there will be another until we start getting bored. Then, when we feel the change coming, all we know is that the “fashionable’ will not be replaced by the “post-fashionable.” It will be obliterated by the “unfashionable,” scrounged up in some dingy suburb by some Dumpster-diving young troublemaker. With every quake, the tectonic heirarchy of past precedents is reordered, but nothing goes away.

Finally, the old guard is looking for a window rather than a mirror! Stay tuned!

2009 Style Vs. Brand

Artists are beginning this new year with cautious optimism – at least the ones I know. A new political administration is coming in, and we are hoping that a new attitude will manifest, that the economy will change for the better, and that the war will end. But I’ll take a wait and see attitude regarding all of that blue sky speculation. In our little Art World we are hoping for a change of ideas, a new aesthetic discourse, and a better “business” model. I have no hope that those things will be changing anytime soon either. The artworld made its bed in the early 90s and it will continue to lie in it. Though we, and by we I mean Henri, will continue to battle for a better mattress.

These past few months since the Fall (both seasonal and economic), I’ve been ruminating on the changes that so much of the art world press has been trumpeting and wondering how all of this real world angst will affect our microcosmic art world. Specifically, we Henri -ites, wanted to know what was on other artists’ minds – so we reached out to some folks that we know, some we’ve begun to know, and some dear friends that we get to bandy with periodically. Basically, we wanted to know what goes on in the studios, and how does this work in the larger world. Now in those moments of calm in my own studio I thought about this momentous cultural upheaval as its effects began to take a toll on my friends and in my own life. I’ve been able to have a few wonderful discussions as I was eeking out some meaning to ascribe to this enforced change. I realize I’m circling right now, but that’s how I had to approach the dialogue. In the end what we kept finding was that this moment in history very well may be changing our ideas about how our larger art world and smaller studio world can and should work.

We’ve discussed some of this in form in the past. We have found that the art world has become more like a corporation and artists ply their trade more like auteurs or corporate executives. Many of these Postmoderns insist on linking these corporate practices to studio formulations of the Old Master tradition, but with a difference. Today is the day of the outsourced art product where “manufacturing” can be literally done through the computer and relayed to corporations that specialize in art making for artists. To say this has changed the look and feel of most art is an understatement. A type of “professionalization” has occurred as the MFA became a CEO micromanaging the specifics of the manufacturing of an art product. The term studio has been transformed from its former function as an atelier into that of an international corporate distribution center.

So I took it upon myself to formulate some questions. In the posts that will follow we’ll hear from a number of other artists about what they experience and recognize in their own studios. Some had a good time with it, some were brief and to the point, but it’s all interesting and exciting! Hopefully we’ll spark some comments about your experience of studio life as well. Stay Tuned!

Popular Culture – Academy of Paint II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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