reality_image

I know, this studio photo is a bit creepy, yes? Matisse looks like a frickin’ doctor already. I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a metal table with a paper cover and some elevated stirrups. I can’t imagine that this is how it was done in his studio, at least, I hope that’s not how it was done in his studio. I’m talking about his art – I think? This picture is posed after all. The easel is loaded with a finished painting. The low side table with the flowers is positioned to fill the frame behind Matisse while holding open the door for light. The whole thing just looks really uncomfortable. Basically, this photo is staged and staged for a reason. Rather than seeing the wild, color dude painting nude chicks, what we are meant to see is a photo of a staid professional clinically involved in a reasoned and reasonable interaction with a subject. There isn’t a SHRED of heat or emotion in this set up. And this “pose” is in stark contrast to the way Matisse talked about his life, his work and his reasons for making art in the first place. Our Matisse spent a lot of time denying the label of wild man (fauve.) He felt that in order to find respect he had to appear as a reasonable man. He did, after all, study to be a lawyer. But if you’ve read Hilary Spurling’s or Jack Flam’s books about his life, you know that this picture only makes sense in the way Matisse crafted his public persona. His life was far from conventional. And that “fauve” came through in his personal correspondences.

“…occassionally he [Matisse] lets down his guard, and in a letter to a friend he expresses his delight in the sheer physical presence of the women themselves. “She’s a big girl,” he wrote of one model, “a colossal woman with tits like 2 liter chianti bottles!” Matisse and Picasso by Jack Flam

So much for the staid professionalism…

Klimt

Artists present themselves in all kinds of ways and for all kinds of reasons – to each his own. But what is the truth of these presentations and how do they form out of the studio lives that artists lead? Above are the artists Gustav Klimt and Julian Schnabel. Both were/are known for their outsized lifestyles and their nonchalant attire. Klimt wore self-designed monks’ habits in order to exist in a kind of profaned artistic religiosity. Schnabel is known for wearing designer silk pajamas; a pilgrim’s habit donned on the road to a Postmodern Luxe Internationalism. These are artists playing the parts of Dantean tour guides through the Heart of Hollywood Darkness. Both of these presentations allude to an extreme disregard for social convention. But they also portray something deeper, showing us that the creative is and must be connected to another reality. These artists live in an ecstatic world in a way that most of us could not, would not understand. They both reside somewhere in the realms of magic, somnambulism and inspiration. They are natural, decadent, unbridled, sexy, effete and in-human – like Byron in his oriental robes or Lawrence in his kaftan or Prince in his purple trench coat. These artists are ready, willing and able to engage with a heightened dream state, life lived as ecstasy, where clothing and convention become hinderances to artistic communion. To roll from the bed into the studio, unshaven, unwashed; to listen to the call of the muse at any moment; to forego the conventions of constructed time – all of these constructs are there in these photos. These men are otherworldly artists – at least that’s the presentation.

In a more contemporary view is this photo of the marvelous Cecily Brown by the fantastic David LaChappelle. Cecily’s paintings were/are presented in a very specific way. First in her work there is the idea of painterly touch and the historic connection that has been made to Willem De Kooning’s oft repeated bon mot, “flesh was the reason that oil paint was invented.” Next is the subject matter of her work which is garnered not only from art history but from pornographic photographs. Finally, there is the press that has followed her every move from the very beginning of her career; her parentage, her boyfriends, her stellar career and mostly her immediate acceptance into the top tiers of NY fashion culture. Cecily has been featured in nearly every “hot” magazine in the business. In the picture above she is presented by the fashion photographer LaChapelle – all you have to do is google to see the spectacular high-stakes world that he inhabits! In this photo all of that spectacle is evident. The artist appears in a working class neighborhood dressed in an outfit appropriate for a night of rave and trance, cigarette and cocktail in hand. Her large painting, a huge erection front and center, is at odds with the ordinary life of the Mom and child making their way down the ordinary street. In the back of the scene the words True Value underscore the artist and her work. Cecily is the artist of flesh and sex, the hot new celebrity artist connected to the streets, transcendent through her youth, beauty and art – Kiki of Montparnasse NY, heir apparent to the world of ABEX fleshiness! Now, all of this is interesting because she’s being presented in this way by a well known and highly-sought-after glamour photographer as an “advertisement” about a contemporary artist/celebrity. He has taken the basic PR story of her glamorous life and blown it up into grand proportions giving us not Cecily, but “CECILY!”

I find pictures of artists and how they present themselves fascinating. I often wonder what they’re thinking, what images they are looking to present of themselves, because it’s also speaks of their work and their lives. For me, it all comes out of the studio – the world that’s created there. Now I know a lot of artists, or I did at one time. Many of the studios I’ve been to over the years kind of look alike. Large-ish empty spaces with white walls and painted grey floors – a desk to the side (sometimes), an uncomfortable paint smeared chair to sit in, a place to store finished canvases (usually near the desk) and at least one long wall to paint on. This is a cookie cutter work convention we all learned in college. It smacks of the professional, the worker, the serious clerk. I, however, look for the tell-tale slip – the piece of material hidden near the papers, the black & white picture of a beloved or the postcard purchased at the museum shop. It opens something human in this “profession.” And it is the human part of all this Art Entertainment that has been missing. And it is the human part we should be looking to, involving in our work.

In September we will be bringing you a series of articles by and about artists and their lives in the studio. It will be Henri’s “Art Issue” if you like. Just in time for the new Art Season!

Opening Another Front

Dennis Bellone and Paul Corio have teamed up to discuss the institutional critique and a lively discussion it is. Paul began with an incisive discussion about Carl Andre expanding into a larger critique of Postmodern theoretics. “At this point in history, it is understood that the bricks are art, along with a dazzling array of things that would never be considered as such prior to the twentieth century. Now that the bricks have lost all power to pose difficult questions, all that’s left is the art, and as art, there’s not much to see…”

In a wonderful return post Dennis contends, “The problem inherent in post-modernism is that it is the opposite side of the coin, modernism being the obverse. The coin in fact needs to be jettisoned as it provides inadequate support for the future and in my opinion, the reality of what art is. As an educational tool both sets of theories and those adjacent to it provide an entry point into understanding the development in western culture of arts function and place. Now what is left is art and marketplace economics, and this is not just arts problem, it is a societal illness that pervades every aspect of American culture in particular.”

Earlier this week on Ovation I watched Robert Hughes’ wonderful show “The Mona Lisa Curse.” Now this program could be mistaken for an old man’s rant about the good old days, but it’s far more than that. It is a hard critique of the state of a High Mannerist Age. I highly recommend it, especially the meeting of Hughes and Rosenquist – two old lions telling stories. Fantastic!
More of us are moving into uncharted areas and we’re looking back for foundations rather than for resources and we’re questioning and experimenting with new thoughts about the continuing problem of the Postmodern academy.

reality_absence

It had been four sleepless nights; coming to an end of things. She’d call out. I’d help her to the toilet, straighten the bed, try to make her comfortable. She laid back and smiled at me. So tired, so very tired. Morphine is bitter administered with a dropper. She had a hard time swallowing. Watching the clock. Just before dawn, she was, the only way to describe it, collapsing inward. Gently touched her forehead, brushed back her hair, kissed her cheek. And wished that it would stop. Exhausted, and raw, and totally, fucking useless. On a beautiful, sunny, spring morning after a long, dark night, finally.
Days later, returning to an unchanged reality that was no longer real, I discovered something very… old.

The black dogs come barking in the night for all of us. Reality changes in all kinds of ways and for all kinds of reasons. We try to process these changes through the things we know, through the ways we’ve been taught. But that’s never quite enough, is it? What we are told, what we learn secondhand, never actually gets into our experience, never quite fits into our flesh. We won’t really understand how things feel until we’ve lived it. And when we’ve gone through it, we have to fit those feelings back into the “reality” that still exists around us. We have to parse those feelings, mold them and empty them out. For some of us, well, this just won’t do. The experience is much too big for what’s known. We try to express this process in our work. We try to find a direct way to communicate those thoughts and feelings so that others might come to understand as well. Or better, so that others might realize, “Yes, I’ve seen that, experienced that. I know EXACTLY how that feels.”

The problem for artists, as it has always been, is finding a way to do just that, finding a way to express ourselves so that we are understood EXACTLY. It’s never enough to use someone else’s way of doing things no matter how we might parse the arguments. To be understood we have to change what we’ve learned, make it over in our own voice, our own style. We have to challenge what’s known, what’s been appropriated, with our own reality. And in that case, the understanding we want to share with others will never be immediate. We, all of us, have to get over what we’ve learned. The artist has to teach, leave clues in the work, give us something to hang on, something to really see. That’s just the way it’s always been, the way real understanding begins to spark in our imaginations. Think of Matisse, dressed in his tweeds, calmly and emphatically speaking about ease, pleasure and deep emotion, while the suits and his colleagues tore their hair out in front of his work. Of course Matisse knew EXACTLY what he was doing in that sense. As radical and dangerous as his work might look to everyone around him, he knew that he was building on a solid historic foundation of innovation for the future.

Today we live in the very straight world of professional practices and emotion. A defining part of our fleshy lived existence, the part that brings us to understand what is meant by EXACTLY, has to be kept in check. Emotion must be politely woven into the fabric of every social discourse – it must be presented as sentiment rather than emotion. Look, “change” in all of its forms seems to be a terrifying thing to the rank and file. And you can see this fear even in our art history – how new expressions of age old emotions makes everyone very, very nervous. Why? Because it means that one has to adjust one’s reality, one must question what one takes for granted, one may lose control.

As we all know, it’s the artists’ job to make the suits (both in and out of the art world) question their reality, but that’s never really a sure thing. In the professional world stability is what makes everyone successful, rich and correct. Stability is a good thing for all concerned. But if an artist goes off, walks away from the well worn path, then there is no guarantee of success in the world. As Dave Hickey said, “You’ll never know if you’ve got it.” Now there are a lot of cool customers in the history of art, especially in the very hot 1960s. Minimalism was the coolest of the cool and it provided an emotion free zone of pure neo-platonic idealism. Pop art, though infused with sentiment, couldn’t muster a real feeling if it wanted to. And that was the attraction. Cool ruled and it still does. In the late 70s and early 1980 there was a new generation of painters living rough in the East Village mixing Pop with Expressionism creating a kind of hyper-sentimental work – it was a time of proliferating desire. Postmodernism had begun its great institutional revision of Art’s visual history. Today this hyper-sentimental historic precedent is the grease in the great Art economy. Warhol, the machine, is beloved by all because no matter what you put in the studio end money comes out the business end.

But for a few of us visual truth comes through emotion, and the heated tango between expression and OTT failure can be excruciating for all concerned. And it’s also true that many works that flirt with the idea of going emotionally Over The Top become instantly ridiculous melodramatic failures. Risking one’s inner world can be hard on both the audience and the artist. “You never know if you’ve got it.” Why? Well, we just don’t want the “acted” emotion, we don’t want our feelings manipulated. Melodrama is control and manipulation. We would rather recognize, to see our own experience within a work. It allows us to move in close, to understand. We want to know EXACTLY how reality feels. A lot of the masters had many OTT failures, but the works that stick, the ones that truly succeed take us into new realities. And it’s through that reality, or rather a shift in our reality, that we begin to feel a very different and very old kind of emotion.

In our current 21st Century reality we live through things and on the surface of those things. We take for granted material abundance, endless desire, the dematerialized object, the painting of nothing, the empty sign, the shifting context. All of these things are subterfuges, distancing devices for physical experience and the diminishing of actual contact with the rising subject. All of these things are awash in the sentimental, the acceptable, and the expected. They keep us from our emotional selves. They keep our feelings in check. They keep us from vision.

(Modern) art managed to be a part of the accursed share, a kind of dramatic alternative to reality, by translating the rush of unreality in reality. But what could art possibly mean in a world that has already become hyperrealist, cool, transparent, marketable? What can porn mean in a world made pornographic beforehand? All it can do is make a final, paradoxical wink — the wink of reality laughing at itself in its most hyperrealist form, of sex laughing at itself in its most exhibitionist form, of art laughing at itself and at its own disappearance in its most artificial form, irony. In any case, the dictatorship of images is an ironic dictatorship. Yet this irony itself is no longer part of the accursed share. It now belongs to insider trading, the shameful and hidden complicity binding the artist who uses his or her aura of derision against the bewildered and doubtful masses. Irony is also part of the conspiracy of art.” Jean Baudrillard – The Conspiracy of Art

So what is it that we need EXACTLY? Well, for each of us it’s something different. And that difference is always what art should be about. But there have been times, and I believe this is one of them, when we’ve grown very satisfied with our realities, when we are awash in sentiment, when we prefer the mannered to the fresh. And it’s in those times that artists have redefined themselves. In our reality it’s time to be surprised by our recognition of our deeper realities, that deep emotional part of ourselves that has been absent.

reality_intimacy

“We are led to believe a lie
When we see not through the eye…”
William Blake

I have been fascinated with Bernini’s sculptures since my first trip to Rome. Winding ’round Scipione’s old house and coming upon this vision had my heart in my throat. Truth be told, I could care less about its narrative structures, the textual histories that the figures are acting out – that stuff mostly feels like annoying background noise. I’m always looking for the HOW and the WHY things come together. Real visual moments, as many of us know, are very hard to accomplish, and when they do come together, it’s always a compelling experience. In Bernini’s work, if one engages visually and looks deeper, what one always comes to see is the moment when reason degenerates into a swell of physical passion. There’s always an onslaught of difficult and tough emotions wrapped up in the carving. Many great artists have created compelling work about this very subject, and quite frankly, many have lived it in their lives. Even the wondrous Bernini, beloved genius that he was, had his out-of-control, Gibsonish moments. Ah, but Bernini…well he was a master, No?

What I look for are the realities in a visual moment – something specific that creates a deeper visual connection and understanding of the rising subject. I want to get stuck in with the give and the blur so that I might be able to feel that physical, involving, thickness that only happens when one finally does come to actually “see” something. All the other stuff, the storyline, the text, or the narrative falls back into the ground. What let me in to this carving was the hand grasping the flesh of that thigh. The strong fingers digging into that flexing leg. They are trying to hold on to and control what is straining to get away, what doesn’t acquiesce. That’s where the meaning is focused, and to achieve that focus, one has to move in, to be close to the action. The screaming face, the flowing beard, the flying cloth, or the finely carved tears – though those things are great to look at and comment about – they’re theatrical embellishments. But with those few small, thick parts, as seen in the photo, we can understand exactly what Bernini had in mind. Over time this particular lesson on visual economy has grown larger in my memory. And it’s lead me to a different idea of what abstraction can accomplish in the 21st Century.

I want to explain again a particularly overlooked reality in our new visual culture, the idea of being in close. First of all, and I should be quite clear about this, we are not talking about the blow-up. Increasing the size of an image/object while maintaining its proportions is something we are familiar with just as we’re familiar with the fact that lenses are now ingrained into nearly every aspect of our everyday realities. With the replicating lens we can take any image, any object, and blow it up (or reduce it for that matter) into any size, into any medium, without diminishing our accepted cultural understanding of that particular image or thing. For instance, Angelina Jolie is the same in a thumbnail, as a poster girl or on a billboard. The larger than life image/object doesn’t actually change our relationship to the meaning of the image – we accept the mediated sign and regard the text or context as its meaning. What this proportioned event does do is create a sense of distance, a nebulous consumerist desire, and a sense of the surreal. Inflation is used as a contextual adjustment – the image/object as symbol can be appropriated, replicated and manipulated because it has become a program, a construct rather than a thing in itself. This particular photo is not a blow up in that sense. In this image there is something older at work. Rather than increasing the proportions of the sculpture or replicating the image/object, we viewers have moved into the action, we are a part of the action within the grouping. We are in close – our vision is intimate.

There have been a lot of photographers through the years that have moved in close to create a kind of abstraction in their work, and it’s produced some wonderful pictures. It’s a visceral way of seeing. We also experience this type of viewing in movies, TV shows and especially pornography, because, when done well, it can create an instantaneous physical visual connection to our tactile natures. The truth is it’s a quick and easy way to emotion. The idea of moving in close, of being a part of the action is something a lot of theorists talk about when they discuss Caravaggio’s work and the radical innovation that his work proposes. Their claim is that by putting the scene into our space, by making the viewer intimate, we visually become a part of what is happening in front of us. And it’s true. It’s a kind of visual reality that we encounter in our lives. For instance when we are in an elevator we can be pretty sure that the folks around us have not only a front and back, but sides, tops and bottoms as well. We are also aware of the way they move, they way the smell, the way they exist, but mostly, our relationship to them whatever that might be. We are seeing and feeling all at once and that actively alters our perceptions. We have an instant understanding of what I call the thickness of reality. We see more fully and create a deeper, more connected kind of vision. Now this kind of thickness is a very rare occurrence in photographs, and to be honest, in a lot of painting as well. In Simon Schama’s Power of Art episode on Caravaggio he’s discussing the painting The Lute Players and he puts it like this –

Now there were lots of paintings of young boys with lutes in Baroque Rome. But never anything like this. Nothing this close up. Nothing this fleshy and close to us. It’s like this – four youths in a closet. “Excuse me. So sorry. Don’t mean to intrude. Oh No! Come on in darling, pull up a cushion. We’re just rehearsing.” The claustrophobia has a point, and it’s not erotic. What he’s doing is demolishing the safety barrier between the viewer and the painting. Carravaggio’s art crashes the safety barrier of the frame. It tears away the separation. It reaches you.”

This idea of painting “reaching you” is a very old one, and one tied up to ideas of illusion, space and time. (But we’ll save those ideas for the part II.) Modernism in all its permutations has been all about removing the safety barrier between you and the art. And just think, it all started in the 17th Century. Well, maybe even before if we really look hard. And that was Hockney’s point in Secret Knowledge – the lens, so obvious in so much of our history of painting, was used and could be used differently by painters in order to change our relationship to our own vision. We’ve used the lens to enhance, to make specific certain relationships to life and reality, to make us sharper and more economical painters. We have lied to tell the truth. And time and time again we’ve carved out reality from a flat surface. All in the attempt to convince us that what we are seeing IS real. And it’s that intimate reality that many of us struggling with abstraction are looking for. Delacroix said as much as he looked into the Modernist future from his drawing room in the early 19th century. However, here in the 21st century, the lens tool is now the reality, not the way to a reality. And that is our problem, and very few of us seem to be asking the question – How do we see?

Susan Sontag talks of the democratization of the image through photography in her book On Photography. Her essays were written at the end of a long experimental arch and the beginning of the institutionalization of that experiment. Today, the democracy is finished and we live with the fascism of the image – an optical world militarized with corporate texts, programmed contexts and the imagery of the New New. And all of it, ALL of it is done through the programmed lens.

“Photography is the reality; the real object is often experienced as a letdown. Photographs make normative an experience of art that is mediated, second-hand, intense in a different way. (To deplore that photographs of paintings have become substitutes for the paintings for many people is not to support any mystique of “the original” that addresses the viewer without mediation. Seeing is a complex act, and no great painting communicates its value and quality without some form of preparation and instruction. Moreover, the people who have a harder time seeing the original work of art after seeing the photographic copy are generally those who would have seen very little in the original.)” Susan Sontag On Photography

So many of my friends think that I’ve gone ’round the bend with this “lens obsession.” And it’s a fair cop – I do go on. But what they don’t understand is that I love many works made with the lens, made through the machine. And why not? I was raised looking at that imagery, through that lens. I understand it. But there’s more to making a painting than transferring the image, replicating in paint what the lens has already replicated. Painters must find a way to actually SEE differently, to understand their involvement in what they are painting differently. We have a long history of painters who pushed the boundaries of HOW & WHY they made paintings, challenging the accepted versions, the institutional mandates of seeing. To do that in our age I believe that we must define again what our intimate lives are all about. Like Bernini, we must struggle with what is trying to get away from us. And for me, that seems to be where painting is – both in abstraction or realism. We don’t push our images into the lineage of our painted history or really use our visual inheritance. We are not thinking and translating our thoughts and feelings into vision. We remain cool and distant, replicating imagery just as the lens separates and flattens. Can abstract painting, any painting, give us the same visual thrill that we may have in front of the best works of Titian, Velazquez, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Tintoretto, Picasso or Matisse? Can we take our flat surfaces, our processes, our mania for materials and translate that into something THICK, palpable and visceral in its way? Like Georgina we have to confront our “own devils” and we have to risk that confrontation in our paintings. We must rethink the way Caravaggio’s figures emerged not only from the darkness but from his hand, from the paint. Or we have to see the way “reality” forced its way through the mythology, the text in Bernini’s sculpture. We have to use the mechanics behind our lens saturated world and push it through our own physical visual involvement, mixing it up with our own lives. What has been missing in so much paint is not technique, not accepted standards, not professionalism or competence, but visual intimacy.

We’ll discuss this further in part II ….

Matisse and Charlie

We are almost back on track here at Henri. But in the meantime you might want to take a look at Charlie Finch’s recent article on the Matisse show at MOMA. It’s Charlie’s best of the year so far, and it will be one of our top 10. I’ve read it through a number of times already and a better piece of art criticism you won’t find. Memory and vision are top of the bill and Charlie gets it. Fantastic all around!

“If you look at some old home movies, or read a diary or leaf through some old party invitations, the richness of memory is abruptly stopped by the hard fact of its randomness and of the small slice of past experience that such mementos represent. With sharp knife and severe brush, Matisse is prepared to do the selection for us, to provide us with the means of memory avant la lettre.”

Strong work brings out the best in some art writers. Thanks Charlie!