the end of a long week…almost…

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
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My head exploded this week, and boy, it was a mess. BP, Halliburton and Transocean, the stock market, Postmodernism revived once again at Greater NY, and three contentious discussions about these very things, left me to deal with the fact that either I’m not being CLEAR ENOUGH with artists about what’s at stake, or most people just don’t give a good goddamn that nothing, absolutely nothing, has changed. All of which makes me sound like an out of control crank – and I hate that. So there I am watching Jon Stewart hoping for a laugh, when suddenly, out of nowhere I get a moment of vindication…. Thank you Jon – maybe I haven’t completely gone ’round the bend….

Plus Check out James Kalm’s wonderful walk through of GNY. In one CLASSIC throw away line James gives us the most marvelous and memorable critical assessment of Leidy Churchman’s work ever. I’ll leave it to you to discover and luxuriate in James’ genius!

POMO is the New Black

I don’t know if Ben Davis has been reading Henri, but what the hell, I’ll say it – it sure reads like he does. WELCOME Ben – c’mon in – the POMO’s fine! Or more to the point – the Demise of POMO is totally Bitchin’ Dude! Ben winds out the recent history of POMO in a discussion about whether or not it still exists for art and artists. He takes the economic route to understanding in the end, finding the cultural and theoretical ones crammed with traffic and going nowhere…
It’s a wonderful, thoughtful piece about our current theoretical dilemma, and it comes to the conclusion of many other art writers – we’re in a transition:

“As of this writing at least, what we have looks like a minor inflection in the dominant ideology, not any full-blown change of direction. Glance again at the factors Lyotard lists above as providing the correlate for “postmodernism,” and ask yourself, how many of these things have actually been reversed? None. If anything, for the moment, there seems to be a radicalization with regard to all of them — the instability brought on by “vigorous” economic competition, the erosion of U.S. hegemony, the lack of a political alternative that anyone can believe in, etc. So, where, finally, are we at? On the level of theory, you have the waning of something, but an inability to articulate anything that actually sounds like an alternative.”

I take issue with that last statement. We’ve been discussing these problems for quite a while. And we’ve offered a few new ideas about where we might find fertile ground to make new painting. Oh well, I guess you just can’t make that horse drink the water – even if your hosing it down. These days it seems the discussion of the “end of Postmodernism” really is – the new black.

DIY Aesthetics

Lately there have been a number of artists’ DIY projects on view. Many are looking to break the monolithic mass of aesthetic sameness that clogs up the NYC gallery system. These hit and run tactics have been, well, hit or miss, but in this case, it’s definitely a hit. Michael Zahn dropped an invite to see this DIY project (sponsored by Lisa Jacobs and Non-Objectif Sud) of the painter Dennis Bellone’s works from 1990-2010. The space being used for the exhibit is in a building that comes with a literary pedigree – “This exhibition is housed in an old fire house, Engine 216, which was mentioned in the best selling novel, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” which was later made into a classic movie. Engine Co. 216 functioned as a fire house for 125 years before it closed in 1971.” The location makes a wonderfully funky backdrop for the paintings on view and a hopeful statement about the resilience of art and artists.

Dennis has been steadily working at his craft since the 90s. I wasn’t familiar with his work, and we spent the afternoon discussing his history and his approaches to abstraction. We share the idea that at the beginning of the 90s there was an exodus from painting, which left a gaping hole in the imaginations and practices of a generation of painters just coming of age. After the maximalist 80s and the sudden disappearance of money following the market collapse, the art world turned its attention to video, installation and performance leaving painting to a school of mannered abstractionists. Dennis found recognition during this time for his performances, critiquing and extending the Warhol/Nauman/Beuys legacy. His experimentations came to a head with a wild and wooly televised boxing match in Belgium when he stepped into the ring with then SMAK curator Jan Hoet. But all the while he was painting away, breaking his work across the conceptual catechisms and root-bound mannered abstractions of the time – reducing painting to its elements in order to find a new expression. There were other painters just beginning to mine similar ideas, and many have come and gone. But what makes this work real and timely is Dennis’ color – it is instinctive and thorough, strained and specific. And even as these compositions begin to fall apart in front of our eyes – he manages to pull them back together with his hue – watery Impressionist pastels melt into the ground flowing this way and that, a brush scrubs over an ultramarine field like Matisse, a naples yellow stroke is tightly pulled into existential ABEX crisis, a saturated red field is streaked through with titanium – tracing that candy colored surface with hot pink edges. He is a real believer in process and hue. As a painter you have to admire his willingness to push away nearly everything to get at essence and presence. And it would not be a stretch to say that he should be included amongst Raphael Rubenstein’s pantheon of Provisional Painters – Christopher Wool, Albert Oehlen, and younger painters like Josh Smith. Make some time to head out to Williamsburg and catch Dennis’ tight wire act.

Paul Corio – No Hassel At The Castle – has written a wonderful post on Dennis’ work – check it out here.

Drawn to Kuniyoshi

A couple of weeks ago I went to see an exhibition at the Japan Society of one of my favorite artists, Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Truth is, I am in awe of many of the artists from the Ukiyo-e period, especially Kitigawa Utamaro. The sophistication of vision and the clarity and speed of execution in these artists’ work is fascinating. But what is really interesting to me is the emotional impact of many of the images themselves – the way they involve you, intimately, in what is being represented. It is a vision determined through direct drawing, memory and touch, then reproduced using woodblock printing techniques. Woodblock printing! Christ, most of us have NO CLUE how labor intensive and difficult this is. Images are backwards, you must work from the negative and the entire thing is hand carved – meaning it takes great skill and technique to do it well. In order to make a line you must remove the material around the line. Not only is it laborious, but you have to think from the end rather than work to the end – making the whole process even more conceptually driven.

Kuniyoshi is a marvelous story teller and a brilliant technician. His work is about movement and drama – theatrical in the best sense. The exhibitors had placed an open sketch book of his drawings at the beginning of the galleries. The page of drawings on view were stunning – all process and reworked lines. In this sketch book the creative act was on view, and it looked extremely contemporary. But what really took me aback was the strength of the line, the sureness of the execution. When he decided on something he was emphatic. We don’t draw like that any longer, unless we are tracing an image. Oh, we play the drawing game, sure, but it is removed from the act of seeing. By that I mean we start the drawing knowing that we’re going to erase it, smear it, work the paper, tear into the surface. Our drawing is about the processes of working the drawing rather than involving ourselves in forming an image, and this “process” has become an academic/institutional preoccupation in so many studios. We don’t look or see our way to moving a line; we process the line, we distress and/or antique the paper, we concentrate on the effect of the materials. So, it’s always wonderful to see and be reminded of real visual thought in action – ideas pushing the image into view through the artist’s hand. You get a real jolt of this difference in our time and in this sketch book. But there were even more delights on the walls! Kuniyoshi was a master of technique and his work is dramatic, cinematic and way OTT. But for me it is his composition that is divine – in piece after piece he drives you straight into the visual sweet spot – pushing and pulling the rising subject through the ground.

There were just a few people in the galleries, a couple of wonderfully tatooed Manga fans drawing copies, an old couple discussing their trip to Tokyo and a family pointing out the minute details of each print to their totally bored nanny. Basically, I had the place to myself and I spent a bit of time going back and forth between the images. One of my favorites was the image on the left. The linework is incredible and it literally enervates the entire image. Everything in the piece is moving. The wind is blowing life around the figure, leaves, clothing, hair, all of it in motion. The line IS process, like DeKooning’s brush strokes, but here, conceptualized for vision, bringing the rising subject into sharp visual focus. The figure struggles against the heavy wind, his left foot about to step into our space, as if he is leaving the frame. The long grass moves in waves, leaves blow across the glade. You get a strong sense of fall, of the chill in the air, like late October. This figure has a purpose and is resolved to move forward – the rather nasty looking hook and tether in his right hand allude to some serious goings-on. But what I truly love are the textures that Kuniyoshi has created using only line – short bursts, long flows, thick stubs, long razor-like shards, all of it designed to move your eye – the silk of the robes, the thick fur of his cloak, the landscape, the dried leaves, the woven hat. Van Gogh did a very similar thing with line in his drawings and paintings, and he appropriated the power of these techniques from the Japanese woodcut prints that were all the rage amongst the Parisian avant garde of the time.

As I was leaving the show I wondered why our drawing practices today have little in common with the visual feast going on in those galleries. I have grown tired of the naive ham handedness and itchy scratchy line or the singleminded pursuit of the “badly made piece” that passes for “expression.” I want more sophistication in drawing. Sophistication that isn’t based on academic posturing or lens based “reality.” I don’t care about verisimilitude, especially if it’s clumsy, but I do care for understanding and simplicity – like Ingres’, Delacroix’s or Michelangelo’s drawings. Picasso was a master of technique, and he would use that mastery to get at and simplify his vision. A good friend of mine used to say that Matisse was dangerous with a nib, like a deadly fencer, and with just a few quick flicks of his wrist an odalisque would appear. I thought about this as I made my way back to the subway. A lot of gallery shows these days like to show off a wall of drawings to go with the paintings on view, and I’m always struck at the wierd disparity between those drawn works and the paintings. I think this is so for two reasons. First, drawing is an intimate visual experience connected to thought. Most of us do not experience visual thought in this way any longer – we prefer to lens capture on our phones and airbrush with an app. We do not see in a physical sense – we conceptualize through lenses and programs. Robert Hughes used to complain that the Postmoderns couldn’t draw and in this sense he was correct – we have been concerned with processes. The second (and probably a reaction to the first) is our reliance on materials and the effects that they can produce. There are many painters who are wonderful technicians and materialists. They can move “stuff” – dripping, erasing, scraping, sanding and scumbling the work with torrents of physically pliable things. They are creating effects and backgrounds – and it happens in both painting and drawing. But what is left out of this process is seeing the world around us. When the Parisian avant garde went nuts for Japanese prints it opened them up to new ideas about composition, flatness and visual economy. For Van Gogh these prints challenged him to change his ideas about the way his hand worked, the way his drawing techniques could express an emotion through vision. For me, when I go back to see the Japanese masters, I see the movement, the linework and the visceral pictorial composition as a way to enliven and engage our media saturated scanning eyes.

If you can, I suggest you find an afternoon for Kuniyoshi.

Painting…eh?

My mind is all over the place these days – no continuity of thought, whatsoever. I’m pretty sure that I know that there’s been a shitload lot of painting on show in NYC lately, and most of it looks professionally “bad,” “interior decorator” colorful and academically re-worked – as in artful pentimenti. All of this continues the current Postmodern trend of re-making and re-using Modernist painting while ignoring the irony, or if one wants to say it plainly – artists are painting like irony is now “the new sincerity.” But if you’re looking for thoughtful visual ideas or challenging imaginative groundbreaking work – well, you’re definitely looking at the wrong medium. Charlie Finch took notice of this trend, and ramped it up in a recent devastating critique about some of these shows.

“I guess the rationale for esthetic distortion to the point of entropy is that we live in a multi-valent, overstimulated technical world, so that it is simply amazing that any painter can make anything at all. Yet, even the formalists are bad…The soft, haphazard gesture beckons to the lazy collector and painting is reduced to nothing but shades of gray.”

Charlie is, quite rightly, critiquing our lazy eyes, our reliance on academic propositions and our half-assed imaginations. At the beginning of the last century Picasso and Matisse were stretching the boundaries of vision for a new century. Today, most painters prefer to see through lens programs, cowtow to Duchampian prigishness, and mush mud around photographs. I remain unconvinced that this trend will abate anytime soon, and I’m struck by the sameness of so much of the work on view. I find that I don’t carry the works that I’ve seen. I thought that this was a personal thing, but after talking with my friends, it seems that I’m not the only one. Anyway, not everyone I know shares my favorable opinion of Charlie’s critiques. What I like about his work is that he’ll give us a piece of his mind, poking us in the eye while doing so. Maybe it’s hyperbole, but we can take his sharp-eyed critiques as a reminder that we are not doing our jobs.

The other “big” art world news was the so-called blacklist that shut out a collector. I’m sure you’ve all read about it in some form. The collector sued, a gallerist testified, and phony outrage ensued. Guess what we discovered? Business being done in the art world is an elitist whores’ game, and we’re being manipulated by money, power and some super-secretive backroom finagling. OK, we’ve all heard that before. Many of us have seen it go on right in front of our faces, and for the most part, many of us anxiously manuever to be a part of that system. The most stunning revelation is that even as the economy continues to “pancake” nothing much has changed, especially our aesthetic preoccupations, because WE, artists, refuse to challenge the endless sameness of our thought. As an aside, I can’t tell you how disappointed I am that so many of you artists, critics and art world denizens, especially a few that I know, went to the NuMu for the recent collector sponsored dry hump. All I can say to you art bitches, and you know who you are, is don’t even try to justify that bullshit. Reprehensible isn’t a strong enough word – let’s just say disgraceful. Angry? Just a touch.

Additionally, my distaste for the Postmodern edifice has grown even deeper as its effects keep floating into view during this so-called economic “recovery.” The theoretical schiesse slide keeps whisking bucket loads of public money into the grasping hands of connected and corrupt institutions. They, in turn, use this money to bilk the public out of even more money and goodwill. The most galling part is the “feel good” PR that the powers-that-be continue to bulldoze into our collective consciousness. Right now on our TV screens in one of those “feel good” about renewal commercials is the CEO of General Motors, telling us that the bankrupt company has repaid the government loan that bailed them out. But as this article in Forbes by Shikha Dalmia succinctly points out, the “reality” of the rising subject is much different than the advert’s Postmodern “interpretation” of the all-encompassing ground.

“…most ordinary mortals unfamiliar with bailout minutia would assume that he is alluding to the entire $49.5 billion (the money invested in government takeover of GM.) That, however, is far from the case. Because a loan of such a huge amount would have been politically controversial, the Obama administration handed GM only $6.7 billion as a pure loan. (It asked for only a 7% interest rate–a very sweet deal considering that GM bonds at that time were trading below junk level.)”

The article goes on to discuss the fact that GM was provided a “working capital” escrow account to ensure the continuing operation of the company. However, this money is being used to pay back the government loan (so proudly detailed in the commercial) – not profits from sales. And if that weren’t enough:

“…the company has applied to the Department of Energy for $10 billion in low (5%) interest loan to retool its plants to meet the government’s tougher new CAFÉ (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards. However, giving GM more taxpayer money on top of the existing bailout would have been a political disaster for the Obama administration and a PR debacle for the company. Paying back the small bailout loan makes the new–and bigger–DOE loan much more feasible.”

Now who can argue with that? Suffice it to say that what is being serviced and maintained with our tax legacy and sold to us with POMO dialectics is the well being of the Power Elite. This political/economic/cultural shell game that defines our realities has been designed to keep the public’s gaze fixed firmly on the constantly sliding ground while the subject walks out the door with the cash – widows and orphans indeed. Now before I’m accused of being a part of a cultural bunko squad or whipping up some Marxist/Leninist scariness, I’ll try to make my way back to the “clean world”. OK, Marko, so what has all this impotent outrage got to do with Art? Just this…

OPTIMISM has returned to the multibillion-dollar art market. Expectations are so high that many will be disappointed if Picasso’s 1932 painting “Nu au Plateau de Sculpteur (Nude, Green Leaves and Bust)” doesn’t break the record for a work of art sold at auction when it is offered at Christie’s on Tuesday.” And sure enough – “At $106.5 Million, a Picasso Sets an Auction Record.”

Ah, the stimulus and the bailout! The trillions of tax dollars piled into the stock portfolios of the hedge fund classes has been like a double dose of viagra for the secondary market! Holland Cotter – in this recent column for the Times – comments on the ubiquity of blue chip size queens currently cruising the auction houses. “Despite the high figure, the whole thing feels a bit ho-hum. These days so much money is in so many hands, and so many of those hands are after trophy art, that record breaking has become routine, de rigueur. Two, three, four million extra? Worth it. After all, if you’re the evening’s big spender, you not only get to own an object you’ve just helped to make fantastically valuable, but your extravagance, with your name attached or not, also buys a mention in the news.”

And then there’s this Bloomberg article – “Wealthy investors can see the rebound is real,” said John Rogers Jr., chief executive of Chicago-based Ariel Investments, which held 3.2 million Sotheby’s shares at year-end. “This is a confidence game. They’re more confident,” he said after watching last night’s auction with his 20-year-old daughter, Victoria, an art-history major at Yale University.” I’m sure the double entendre about the “confidence game” was a sly critique of the global art economy by Mr. Rogers. But my favorite cliche was delivered by a VP at Citigroup “Art Advisory” – “Historically art follows the money and the money is in emerging wealth,” said Suzanne Gyorgy, Senior Vice President of Citigroup Art Advisory Service, referring to collectors from Russia, China and the Middle East. “These paintings follow the wealth.”

Does all of this “wealth” effect what comes out of the studios? The new sincerity says “No” without a hint of irony.

We’ll have another reality post coming soon…stay tuned!