Rough Trade – Reality

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

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

Matisse

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

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

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

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

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

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

Economics

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

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

Guts

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

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

Reality

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

Vision is next…

Camp – 19 SIXTY

In the 1950s the Abstract Expressionists were known for their machismo. There was a feeling that an artist, especially an American one, had to take on the world, had to fight the good fight. When the ABEXers weren’t busy telling you to fuck off as they junk punched you in your man-business, they were busy trying to find a drink, a dame or a drama.

“He [Pollock] had this way of sizing up new people very quickly. We’d be sitting at a table and some young fellow would come in. Pollock wouldn’t even look at him, he’d just nod his head-like a cowboy-as if to say, “fuck-off.” That was his favorite expression-“Fuck-off.” It was really funny, he wouldn’t even look at him. He had that cowboy style. It’s an American quality with artists and writers. They feel that they have to be very manly.” Bill DeKooning – Collected Writings

IN the Wild Wild West Art was not for sissies or fools. In fact any kind of foolishness, if practiced at all, was rarely bald-faced, never out, so to speak, in the ABEX community. A light touch was immediately held suspect. Rothko made statements that great art was about tragedy, Pollock was claiming to be nature while bare-knuckle fighting in alleyways, DeKooning was swept up in a Freudian battle of wills with the eternal female, and Newman’s big red painting was named Vir Heroicus Sublimis which translates to “Man, heroic and sublime.” Johns would take the mickey out of this bunch a little later – “Painting with 2 Balls” indeed. Art in ABEX America was made by two fisted, hairy chested painters, and they had something to prove. However, the art world, no matter what country it’s in, isn’t only about balls and balkanization. A different approach to art was beginning to take hold in the swinging sixties, and it emerged from ABEX’s closet with a flourish.

In Tyler Green’s Modern Art Notes post about Robert Rauschenberg’s passing he notes: “I also think it’s important to place Rauschenberg within the context of one of the great under-examined migrations in American history: That of gays and lesbians from rural America to cities in the decade after World War II, and the immense changes in American culture that migration helped kick off. Furthermore: While many obits mentioned that John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Johns, and Rauschenberg partnered to re-create whole disciplines, few mentioned that all four were gay, and how that commonality informed and enabled their practices and their friendship.” Tyler is absolutely correct. The rising American culture class that was forming in New York and other cities across the US was attracting an eager and ambitious group of artists from out of the hinterlands. And with this new class of creatives came a different take on what American culture might become.

A sensibility (as distinct from an idea) is one of the hardest things to talk about; but there are special reasons why Camp, in particular, has never been discussed. It is not a natural mode of sensibility, if there be any such. Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration. And Camp is esoteric — something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques.” Susan Sontag – Notes on Camp

In American Pop Culture Camp is a familiar experience. What was once an underground happening cultivated for a select group is now mainstream entertainment. Why? Recent studies show that Americans spend most of their formative childhood years watching TV, and let’s face it, just about EVERYTHING we see on TV is infused with Camp. We can track an historical line that stretches from Milton Berle in drag all the way to Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction, and right up to last night’s “reality” programming – Camp has been and remains a huge component of our media experience. It is the steady critical undercurrent electrifying our Postmodern era. And because of its pervasiveness it drives our hyperaesthetic sensibilities and artistic expectations in every cultural discipline practiced today. Television as a delivery system, and Camp as critique, are made for one another – both are purveyors of artifice, incongruity and stylization – and when combined they form a kind of OTT electronic Mannerism. We are immersed in campy programming at least 151 hours on average every month – and that my friends, equates to about 5 hours of TV watching a day. Which means that our sensibilities have been forged in the waters of Camp, and we, like millions of tiny Achilles, have been dunked headfirst into its aesthetic pools.

SEX and the City

“The Pop [culture] very, very much intersects, I think, with being a fag. Pop culture, historically, has been an arena through which I could actually more easily negotiate as an artist as opposed to negotiating through the history of Modernism – which tends to exclude my type of investigation. That was clear with Andy Warhol, anyway, that Pop Culture was a place where he could navigate more freely than [through] the history of Modernism, and I think, navigate more freely as a fag, quite honestly. It’s that type of voice, that type of over the top, gorgeously annoying, a lot of those, maybe, Rococo sensibilities [that] do still have a problem playing themselves out in Puritan Culture.” Lari Pittman “Art City A Ruling Passion”

Art has always had it’s Campy adherents and very strong artists. Italian Art in the 16th Century, late Baroque art, Rococo, Neo-Classical art, the Pre-Raphaelites and the Surrealists are some of the many Campy art forms. But today Camp is an institution of the highest order. From Andy Warhol’s Marilyns to Murakami’s latte rope skipping booby queen, from Jeff Koons’ Cicciolina photo/sculpture/paintings to Richard Prince’s customized auto Camp rules the Pop Culture critique. It also rules abstraction as well – from Gene Davis’s stripes (thanks to Michael Zahn for his email leading me to a wonderful essay on Davis’ work) to Ross Bleckner’s Stripes, from Andy Warhol’s shadows to Christopher Wool’s graffitti. It is the special relationship with Pop Culture that has allowed Camp to flourish in the Postmodern world. It is a quick and easy way to subvert expectations, to challenge hierarchies and norms and it is an indirect way of establishing new contextual relationships between Art and Pop Culture itself. Lari Pittman is correct – there is MORE freedom to move, to engage, to critique outside of Modernism. For Postmodernism Pop Culture is Camp sensibility in drag.

Pan-Aesthetic Sensuality

“I suppose Davis’s taste for the color was really not so very odd — some of the most interesting straight men of the postwar period put butchness to the test by dressing it in pastels. Like Frank Sinatra in a peppermint cardigan, like Kojak sucking on a lollipop, Gene Davis found candy colors delicious, and he had the guts to use them. Davis did delight in the contrast, however, and would sometimes comment upon his visual confections with a wink and a tongue slightly in cheek. Talking about his canvas Moondog of 1966, for example, Davis once startled a critic by bragging about his “boudoir painting of candy-box pretty colors.”…I like to think that Davis’s cute, cliche colors were part of a similar mission to camp up abstraction with connotations of the popular. I shouldn’t exaggerate, of course. Despite the phobia of pink from which some artists suffered, there was a substantial modernist tradition for that color from which Davis could draw.” Sarah K. Rich “Gene Davis: 1960s Stripe Paintings

The campy quality of Gene Davis’ stripes contrasts with Ross Bleckner’s knowing use of those stripes. Both artists discuss the optical, Davis plays it straight to create Camp, Bleckner Camps it up to play it straight. It is the difference between sensibility and critique. Either way Camp plays a major role in how we view these works – Davis for the structure of color, the optical play of the stripes and the absence of idea in the abstraction itself and Bleckner for the idea of contrived illusion, painting techniques and the critique of a failed “ism.” This “reversal” of approach to Camp has been a feature of the last 40 years. Camp is built into the work rather than an after effect of the work. Even though there is so much passive aggressive machismo in the history of abstraction – especially in today’s “Ecole de Gran Pastiche – Blanc et Noir” – the work still comes across like a Jean Genet tough guy – pugilism before assignation. But we remain at a theoretical crossroads here in the early 21st Century. Must we continue to pretend that Postmodernism is not the dominant institutional philosophy, that Modernism is the evil dictator of aesthetic values? Must we continue to fight Modernism in these same ways when Modernism as a discipline no longer exists? Artists have been camping it up in endless permutations of Postmodern Mannerism since 19 Sixty, but why have artists not engaged with the pervasiveness of Camp in Postmodern Art? Why has this POMO critique not been turned on itself? Why have we not questioned the validity and viability of our recent cultural theoretics in this new century?

PS I just saw this on Ed’s blog! Fantastic!

Rough Trade – Power

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

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

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

The Entrenched

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

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

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

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

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

Stay Tuned.

Rough Trade – Thick

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

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

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

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

THICK

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

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

So we begin with Rough Trade.
Stay tuned…

Hyperaesthetics – 19 Sixty

“So, after abstraction, the monochromatism of, say, Yves Klein and the advent of imageless painting, when nothing more can get to us, really touch us, you no longer expect some brainwave of genius, the surprise of originality, but merely the accident, the catastrophe of finality.”
Paul Virilio
“Expect the Unexpected”
Art As Far As The Eye Can See

By 1960 Abstract Expressionism was done. Pollock was dead. Most of the artists of that movement were sliding quickly into alcoholism, depression and decadence, or worse, mannerism and academicism. But by 1960 a new art world was forming, one that would be determined by the onslaught of the electronic world. In quick succession Art moved from paintings to objects, from ideas to concepts, from abstraction to images, from the avant garde to the in-crowd and from the material to the immaterial. The old visual world was now irrelevant. Speed would determine the outcomes and influences in our culture. Speed which would be documented by the camera and the program. And with that, we get the installation, the cibachrome, the video and the transformed object. All of these new art products are the outcomes of not an aesthetic dialect, but instead, an aesthetization of the culture of speed, the documentation of violent transformation. By 19 Sixty we had entered the age of Hyperaesthetics.

Throughout the 1950s the “advanced” nations were spending huge amounts of capital to find a new viewpoint. The race to space was predicated on two things, the divisions of the world after WWII into Cold War states, and the need to find a global delivery system for the atomic bomb. All through the rise of AbEx painting, Cold War nations were hard at work increasing the velocity of their cultures, particularly in aeronautics and communications. The earlier advances in film and radio simply could not supply enough information, they were too slow – both were still grounded in human interactions, storytelling and mythologizing, and both were limited by their delivery. What was needed was another delivery system of images and words, one that could be instantaneous and far reaching. Lens based television quickly filled the bill. But still these televisual studio perspectives were not enough, they were still grounded. For the Cold War to be understood the new instantaneous image would have to be from above, a birds eye view of the world below, able to parse and parcel huge amounts of optical information up close and in detail. In order to accomplish this new aeronautical and astronomical vantage point the sound barrier first had to be broken. “…Chuck Yeager was credited with being the first man to break that sound barrier in level flight on 14 October 1947, flying at an altitude of 45,000 ft (13.7 km).” Level flight meant that an engine had been developed that was powerful enough and fast enough to project an airplane beyond the speed of sound without using earth’s gravity to create a dive of death. Speed freed us of Newtonian physics. Soon these new velocities would take the lens outside of earth’s boundaries providing new perspectives on human interactions.

The lens followed and recorded every movement, every advance of this new culture in real time. Every new speed record, every step into space, and finally, the plethera of images and information beaming into our living rooms, have been dictated for and documented by the lens and the program. This new velocity was also working its way into our physical selves. We began to accelerate and pump our bodies and minds with new pharmacological potions designed to take us along with this new velocity of life, change our basic human structures, in order to play a part in this hyperactivated culture. The first drugs were designed to control our sleep, alter our thinking patterns and change our relationship to pain. And with the pharmacological hyper-activization, we began remaking our physical selves so that we might exist for this lens culture. Optical reassignments or “lens ready” images have created a proliferation of new plastic surgery techniques and medical innovations that have changed our bodies inside and out. We no longer look in the mirror, we must appear on camera. As we have progressed from 19 Sixty these changes have quickly eroded our connections to Pollock’s natural man, and have created a new kind of artist, one plugged into Warhol’s machine.

“It is a sense of being in communion with powers greater than yourself and intelligence which far outstrips the human mind and energies which are very ancient. You have a sense of being brought in to God’s workshop and that the veil is pulled away and for the first time you see how things really are.” Timothy Leary

The faster our culture speeds along the more we vanish into “God’s workshop.” Artists now leave digital trails of ephemeral happenings, theatre sets that held performances and ghosts mirrored in optical glass. But with our disappearance we remain in stasis, caught in an endless loop of repetition and ennui. For example – the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields” is a 1960s prototype for what would become a vast cultural imperative. In the video we see performance art, a theater set piece, camera trickery, quick cutting, overlays and montage. It predates all of the televisual editing tricks and installation techniques that are the hallmarks of Postmodern lens culture. In this culture we must become hypnagogic in front of our screens, and like Salvador Dali, remain awake to encounter the hallucinogenic visions playing in our brains. We are somnambulists and voyeurs, lost in the hallucinatory world of light-speed and lenses. We are no longer grounded. We float in the digital subjective, our voices not quite our own, because we have merged into the great electronic collective. We’ve tuned in, turned on and dropped out. We have found that it is only through our absence that we are allowed to become transparent, and with that transparency, we can be “seen” by everyone. We lack depth and heft. We are light as a feather on the breeze – a world of Forrest Gumps. Artists don’t make things anymore, we find things. We capture images rather than draw them. We scan rather than read. We signify rather than converse. We develop games rather than create poetics. We program applications rather than create mythologies. Our vision determines nothing in the free floating vacuum of space.

Happiness Is a Warm Gun

After the bullet – we find our bliss. The ironies unfold into infinity. Speed, violence, and disappearance all converge in our consciousness, and then, we find our happiness. Once we are gone all that remains are the endless loops of lens captures and empty rooms. It’s not death – no, that is physical. We “move to another level,” we are “no longer in pain,” and “we’ve gone to a better place.” That was the feeling I had in the recent show at the New Museum. It was all about art that had “gone on to a better place.” Jerry Saltz was correct in his estimation, that the sublime has become us…”These young artists show us that the sublime has moved into us, that we are the sublime; life, not art, has become so real that it’s almost unreal.” Life attains this unreality when we see it from the other side, when we are no longer “alive.” We crave the warm gun, and fashion its likeness into our electronic devices, each one delivering us to that other side. From that vantage point it all becomes clear, transparent. We can dream of our physical lives in bliss, we luxuriate in the nostalgia of a fleshy yesterday now that we are free of the struggle of gravity and flesh. We have attained the sublime. “We see how things really are.” We are happy.