Summering, Dog Days & Endings

The Art World has gone to sleep as it does over most Summers. I’ve often wondered why this is so. The main reason seems to be that our world follows the gatherings and goings of rich collectors and most of them seem to take the summers off. The concept of “summering” has become part of the art world mystique and those artist who summer, well they’re in a different game than the rest of us. A lot of working artists that I knew would use the summers to prepare for their upcoming shows in the fall, some of the luckier artists would head out to the summering stalls and hook up with the in-crowds to make a few connections, and some who weren’t selling and not showing would get their pink slips and wonder what the next step would be. It’s all part of the summer art game as it’s come to be played.

But through the years there have been some great summering artists. Marcel Duchamp was a master of summering. The Surrealists summered. The AbExers were the ones that discovered the concept in the Hamptons. They put Long Island on the summering map. But of all the summering summerers ever in the art world the greatest summerer has to be Eric Fischl. He is such a summering summerer that he has made a career of documenting the summering experience over and over again in his work. One can only look on in awe at the summering that is forever issuing from the summery studio of his art life. His paintings document the whole experience from hanging out with Hollywood icons to fabulously naked Euro beaches, and finally, to his own art crowd. He mixes the summering experience with a touch of upper middle class surrealism and guilt, and BOOM, he whips out the perfect angst-y Postmodern painting for the summering classes. I absolutely love his web site and I enjoy even more his unctuous interviewing style. This one on Artnet was amazing for its solipsism. Fischl is still smarting about his bronze figure of the tumbling woman being taken out of the Rockefeller Center after a few of days of viewing.

“The thing around 9/11 is that it was this horrific event killed 3,000 people but there were no bodies. If you remember all the passion was centered on architecture to replace the Towers. To secure the footprints of the Towers. It had nothing to do with human tragedy because it was too painful. So I think that the Tumbling Woman reminded people that it was a human tragedy.”

Now when I looked at the piece I didn’t make the connection to 9/11. I looked at the piece, how it works, if it’s made well, what feelings might arise from seeing a figure in this position. I ask does the thing work, is it doing what it’s supposed to do? I can make my own associations to outside events and personal recollections. The piece shows a formidable female figure falling over herself. She tumbles while we stand. Is she falling or landing? The style of its making reminds me of Michelangelo’s twisted unfinished Mannerist figures, and especially, Rodin’s tortured figures from the Gates of Hell. Unfortunately it has that lumpy “hewn” and “heavy” quality reminiscent of the 19th Century. Fischl has not titled the piece to directly reference the event of 9/11, nor would one necessarily see the piece in that light without the context supplied by the media through his interviews and articles about the work. It is not a portrait, it’s not specific, nor are their visual clues within the work to relate it to this event. The piece is a theatrically stylized academic figure study, and quite frankly, any media context will do. But it was the media back story to 9/11 that put a distasteful spin on the sculpture and that is what caused all the ruckus.

However, this “controversy” shows the problem that faces most all Postmodern art. It isn’t the work or how it’s made that creates a problem. It is the appropriation and the context that the work exists in that causes a problem for the viewer. For instance when Picasso painted the prostitutes for his Demoisselles it was the WAY in which he painted the work that caused the most offence, never mind that it was a painting of prostitutes. Or Matisse’s picture of his wife with the green stripe down her face. It wasn’t the subject matter that mattered it was the green stripe and what that might mean. The meaning of the work for both of these artists was tied up in the way the work was made, in the style they created. And because the WAY they made the work was a personal experience, the piece worked at a deeper level of visual experience. For Fischl’s sculpture this is not the case. The work is a rehash of an academic style and we accept his customization without question. The controversy surrounding the work is in its detailed media interpretation – the text on the wall, the interview on the internet. In other words, there isn’t anything aesthetically NEW or advanced going on here. He is not experimenting with a new vision or personal style. He is adding theater and providing a context for a narrative. The story about the piece and the back story surrounding the piece are what are important to understanding what the work might mean. Meaning is generated OUTSIDE of the work and the work becomes a document for the larger commentary. In this way we can apply meaning to anything and make anything into art. Is Fischl’s sculpture astonishing, ground breaking, interesting, pleasing or amazing – does the work succeed or fail as a work or art? None of that matters. Only the controversy around the sculpture attests to its effectiveness as art. At the end of the avant garde, historical progress and metanarratives we find that only the sliding commentaries actually matter.

So what has all of this to do with Summering, Dog Days & Endings? Well for me it means that Postmodernism is withering under the heat of its own bloated post-history. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a lot of Eric Fischl’s work, as I do many POMOs’ work. I don’t happen to find Fischl’s sculptural work interesting, but I am a painter and that is my focus. However if we look at the larger effect of these Dog Days in the art world we can see that Postmodernism looks extremely dated and dry. Postmodernism, secure in the academy for so long, is the thing to push against. And PUSH WE MUST! POMO is forever trapped within the contexts of the histories that it has manipulated. It has become irrelevant and its irrelevance is stunning. The only way that the POMOs will be able to move forward is if they have a great late phase to their art. But the problem for POMOs is that Postmodernism doesn’t age well. It can not disavow its own parasitic nature or its needy relationship to history. It must remain forever in stasis, forever youthful in that Posthuman steroidal kind of way, caught by the contexts and concoctions of its own making. In the end Postmodernism can not generate any reality from itself. As we have said in other posts – POMO grows old without maturing. So as we summer along to the inevitable fall there may just be a glimmer of hope that change is on the way, that the end is near.

Painters MIA

I haven’t been in touch with anyone of late. I find that I’m preoccupied with the fleeting moments rather than the overall pictures. As a friend of mine used to say – being in the game is different than watching the game, and another friend used to say – knowing the game ain’t the same as winning the game. Either way it always seemed to me that the physical vagaries of existence always put a different emphasis on the outcomes of the game. And it is those outcomes that always determine the issues.

I read recently that poor Dash Snow fell victim to one of those outcomes. And after reading so many discussions about his life and his legacy I can only say how sad it all seems, especially when there seemed so much available to this young man. But then again, there are a lot of young people falling victim to the outcomes these days.

In all of the articles there’s talk of the scene. But the “new” scene in the lower east side of Manhattan is very reminiscent of the old scene – even the type of art made there and promoted there hasn’t change very much. I’ll give you an example… Back in the early 90s a well-heeled friend of mine used to have mounds of coke hand delivered to his studio before he began to paint huge expressionist word paintings. The lines would be laid out on the palette right next to gobs of oily paint. All those POMO EV guys from the 80s and 90s would still look very much at home with the artists that Deitch and Co. promote today. In fact that’s probably the point. Deitch formed his aesthetic in those years and so he looks for what he knows best. But what do I know, I was never a street artist or an EV or LES artist – I look elsewhere for inspiration.

But I think that this is part of our time. We seem intent on repeating the past. Maybe this is the post historical conundrum. Without history time keeps moving on while we keep going in circles – an endless Groundhog Day. We age without maturing.

It’s funny, I recently spent time talking with an older gentleman. He was recovering from a mortal ailment. His name was Mr. McNabb. At 90 something years he was intent on telling me all about his life even though he had never met me before. I learned all about his youth, his wife, his children and grandchildren, that he worked at Sears for all of his adult life as an accountant, that in his thirties he had been hit by a truck crushing his left leg and leaving him with a limp, that his father had learned to build bridges in World War I, and that that same father had left his mother and him to fend for themselves in the 1920s when he went out West. I could tell you more, but it was entrusted to me to keep in a strange way. What he really wanted was to be known, wanted someone to understand that he had lived. When I got up to leave I shook his hand and told him what a pleasure it was to meet him, but he would not let go of my hand. He had so much more to tell me, and he wanted me to stay to witness, to understand.

I thought for a while after our conversation of seeing him slowly pushing himself along in his wheelchair, one hand on the wall, one leg pushing forward, how much this man embodied this time that we live in. If he could he would be online pouring his heart out to whomever would read about his life. However his age and his infirmity stops him. He is not the physical human he used to be. Yet his mind is still active, stretches into infinity. His life time, his history, his memory play out all at once without any way to express that memory. He is trapped in his broken body just as we all will become trapped in our physical realities. What I found real in my encounter with Mr. McNabb was that handshake. The reality of his history and his memory became full for both of us in that physical moment. I won’t forget him, but I’m sure he has forgotten me – he has no choice, and neither do I.

In the end it’s about just those memories and what they might mean, how they might come to be, and how they’re imparted to others.

As the summer wears on I find myself very much at odds with the things that I’m reading and the works that I see. Can painting and painters still do this – present a visual world, a visual memory? Does painting still have that sort of visual power? I’m convinced that it’s possible, but for now I guess that conversation will remain MIA from the current art world discussions. I am putting the finishing touches on our Rough Trade series and I hope to have it for you very soon. I’m finding it difficult, because it is so very personal, and I do not wish to bore. Nothing worse than ill conceived narcissism.

Stay tuned….

Rough Trade – Vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay Tuned…

Bubble Bath

After reading Matt Taibbi’s “must-read” piece on Goldman Sachs and their influence in our culture I couldn’t help but mark the similarities to our own smaller art world. Here Matt describes the Goldman formula for success, one that we see perpetrated in the aesthetic markets on a much smaller scale…

“The formula is relatively simple: Goldman positions itself in the middle of a speculative bubble, selling investments they know are crap. Then they hoover up vast sums from the middle and lower floors of society with the aid of a crippled and corrupt state that allows it to rewrite the rules in exchange for the relative pennies the bank throws at political patronage. Finally, when it all goes bust, leaving millions of ordinary citizens broke and starving, they begin the entire process over again, riding in to rescue us all by lending us back our own money at interest, selling themselves as men above greed, just a bunch of really smart guys keeping the wheels greased.”

I’ll leave you to find your own aesthetic metaphors and cross-cultural examples once you’ve read Matt’s piece. This type of thinking/sophistry is EVERYWHERE, and what’s interesting for us is the idea of “rewriting the rules” through institutional power structures. This is part and parcel of the POMO enterprise as we have come to know it – a solipsistic, narcissistic endeavor that begins with appropriation, expropriation and reproduction. It demands that one never innovate, never actually create anything, that one simply claim ownership. It works through recombinations, customizations and the pilfering of huge pools of historic capital. It succeeds by whipping up huge, sexy economic markets for visual crap. It accumulates large portions of wealth and media influence to ensure institutional dominance of the “right” players. These “rules” have become the keys to power and success in our current art world. Let’s face it, this type of art won’t change for us until more Artists decide to take on the Postmodernists.

Jerry Saltz’s latest Culture Vulture (unfortunate image that – a carrion bird feeding from a rotting carcass) raves about the No Soul For Sale art fair as a do-it-yourself enterprise. But what Jerry doesn’t tell you is that it’s still the same old stuff on sale, repackaged POMO for the “New new” look and feel of today – selling art without seemingly selling out. Even the name of the show can be read in two ways – the obvious first read which stands for integrity, or the more insidious “NO SOUL” for Sale where aesthetic integrity doesn’t even exist to sell. OK that’s a bit OTT, but I’m gnawing a bone at the moment. My apologies to all the artists that are just trying to make a living. But what is clear is that Postmodern theoretical hegemony exists across ALL of our cultural enterprises and not simply in the images and objects produced by groups like the “Pictures Generation” or their progeny the “Younger than Jesus” crowd. They are making art that reflects our time while they hope to make a living doing work that they love to do. I can’t argue with that… But maybe as artists we should expect more…

We hope to be back soon with new Rough Trade posts. June was a very heavy month. Stay tuned…

Addendum: I just saw this post by Paul Corio on his blog and I thought it relevant to our continuing discussion on Postmodernism. Paul’s blog is idiosyncratic and always interesting. I highly recommend his series on Bad Painting. His abstract paintings combine his love of horse racing (systems of chance based on physical characteristics and possibilities) and his love of jazz (improvisation around thematic structures.) Check in when you get a chance.