Romantic Vision – Opening Position

“For Nature, who abhors mannerism, has set her heart on breaking up all styles and tricks, and it is so much easier to do what one has done before than to do a new thing, that there is a perpetual tendency to a set mode.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson Nominalist and Realist

What you are looking at is David Reed’s painting from the 1970s entitled #90 – it’s somewhere after Pop/Minimalism and right at the beginning of Postmodern Neo-Abstraction (an amalgamation of 80’s Neo-Geo and 90’s Conceptual Abstraction.) In this work he’s commenting both on the ubiquitous material formalism of the period and the idea of the previous generation’s “signature” Action Painter’s brush stroke. His challenge incorporated both the Pop/Minimalist theoretics and media contingencies inherent in reproduction and replication AND the physical/material theoretics of institutional academic painting. He’s doing it by synthesizing these programs through the still viable (in the 70s) construct of a Postmodern critique. His solution to the painting conundrum is one of the most elegant reformulations of America’s dueling endgame painting movements of the 60s. It’s also the beginning of a new form of institutional Mannerism that quickly became THE WAY to approach the problem of endgame painting. His work has the look and feel of the lens-based image, but it is not. It is painting made to look like a reproduction. There has been a plethora of artists working in this same manner ever since, with hundreds, if not thousands of artists, coming to very similar conclusions about Postmodern painting, brush strokes and vision. In the meantime David has gone beyond this painting’s emphatic materialism to earn his place as  one of the foremost Mannerist imagist painters of the last thirty years. His works have explored nearly every incarnation of the brush stroke; what it does, what it means and how it exists in painting history. And he has done it by expanding and breaking the grounds of the Corporate Postmodern Billboard and collaging his “manufactured” painted images across the surfaces of an highly artificial spatial/temporal ground. David Reed is abstraction’s Bronzino.

The construct that delivered this idea of the brush stroke, the ongoing Postmodern critique of painting in general, is based on the complementary techniques of both replication and reproduction. Replication refers to imagery, reproduction to process. The second generation of this Neo-Abstractionist critique is of course embodied in the now very popular work of Christopher Wool. And it looks like this:

“The first duty of life is to be as artificial as possible.”
Oscar Wilde “Phrases And Philosophies For The Use Of  The Young”

This painting is not. For all of its technological impressiveness it is yet another clever and timely reiteration of Magritte’s pipe. With this kind of painting we have arrived at that point in the Postmodern critique where the image of paint has become the “paint”. We reference yet again what has been referenced, and we are doing so through yet another medium. Basically, this is a reproduction of a lens replication of a painting happenstance – the splotch, the drip, the remainder of the brush stroke. It’s a technique quite unlike Reed’s which examines painting as-if through a lens.  Its subject is the emptying ground, the media itself, swallowing up the disappearing reality of the act of painting, the act of anything, really. In Wool’s work we don’t encounter abstraction straight on any longer. Nor are we constructing or composing a painting in order to engage with it in a visual sense. Instead we have moved behind the lens and within the synchronous program in order to feature the workings of machine-made images themselves. All that is left to see on these overtly mannered, computer-collaged surfaces, is the idea and fabrication of the ground itself, or rather, an image of the ground – a secondary studio experience of some form of a former vibrant painted reality. As Raphael Rubenstein described it, this is how Provisional Painting works. For so many painters in this school, painting as a visual experience is something lost to the past, some former human condition, something that can not and probably should not be done any more. And because visual painting can no longer be engaged outside the mediated experience, what we are given instead are “painted” objects, things to encounter, things to purchase, stockpile and trade in the moment that we look up from our screens.

“Photographic seeing, when one examines its claims, turns out to be mainly the practice of a kind of dissociative seeing, a subjective habit which is reinforced by the objective discrepancies between the way that the camera and the human eye focus and judge perspective.”
Susan Sontag “On Photography”

Advanced painting in the early 21st Century, especially abstract painting, leans heavily on Provisional visual techniques enhanced and disseminated through programmed replication. This kind of work made for a certain kind of optical engagement is described by Sontag’s above observation about dissociative seeing. And make no mistake, that dissociative viewing is the difference between optical painting and visual painting. In order to find meaning in the provisional we must see THROUGH the machine, the program. The object itself must also remain provisional, in other words, an art-like thing. And so there is a preference toward mannered actions or highly “theatrical” presentations of painting processes. It’s a new kind of action painting without any outright action taking place. The paintings employ “hand-made” fucked up grounds overlaid with machine-made reproductions of institutional studio techniques scattered upon the endless surfaces of  billboard junk space. This type of “painting” must then be  disseminated through lens based media, experienced online in photos and blog commentary or published in Taschen-style presentations. When we see and experience the object first hand, in the flesh so to speak, the actual physical encounter, more often than not, reveals that the object is shoddy, unmade, and indeed, provisional. It looks like a Hollywood Prop, something made specifically for the fracturing gloss of the lens/program, a suggestion of something that “appears” FOR the lens while it dematerializes before one’s eyes. In this regard the “real” experience of the work becomes the after-experience, the Post-game wrap-up, so to speak. The “painted” object finds its meaning not in its being, not as it’s revealed, or in its experience, but as it’s re-presented, contextualized through other media. This third generation of Postmodern Neo-Abstraction, can and does, reproduce painting-like products without addressing first person visual involvement with originality, talent, quality, beauty, ugliness, specificity, thought, critique or irony. All of these “qualities” of former Art have now been quantified and subsumed into the lens based programs preferred by this new institutional elite. Painters no longer have to be accomplished, practiced, eloquent or expert – our job has become to simply re-contextualize replications of paintings, or indeed, absolutely anything that has been uploaded. Once a context, any context, has been incorporated and disseminated about the work by the program, it can and does turn everything, even the most abject or overworked product, the most absurd or grand idea, into Art, and further, into Critique. We are no longer bounded and defined by the realities of our fleshy experiences, we no longer HAVE TO SEE anything in the first person, never confront our own limitations in order to participate as an Artist, Critic, Curator, Collector, Theorist, or even as a Culture Consumer. The seamless len based program replicates and reproduces “Art” by, for and of the masses.

“I am the poet of the body,
And I am the poet of the soul.”
Walt Whitman “Leaves of Grass”

In the past it was the connection to Nature that was the catalyst for a new critique, a new vision. This is a large part of the Romantic attitude. It was the way to move from the strictures of an artificial existence and an artificial mode. All through Art History when an idea had reached a Mannered apex there would suddenly appear a new idea connected to fleshy vision, to an actual encounter with the world right in front of the artists’ eyes. When we’re looking at Manet’s picnic the world slips sideways. Why? Well it’s not only the critique of academic vision and institutional indoctrination that’s being presented, it’s Manet’s version of vision, his own understanding of his life in the painting. He’s describing nature through a changed vision. Temporal space collapses in this new Modern world and Manet SEES it, paints it. What makes the painting new, dramatic, disturbing is exactly this temporal shift to vision. He’s rebelling against the strictures of history and the artificiality of his own profession, his own time, and ultimately his own understanding of what he is seeing. However, our time is different. And I’m not so sure any longer that this sort of visual rebellion can happen – simply because we no longer connect to Nature, we no longer engage in it, no longer SEE it.

“I am Nature.”
Jackson Pollock

What I’m trying to understand, what I’ve been struggling with all this past summer, is the nature of Nature itself. What is it, how do we experience it, how do we interpret it, how do we express it, where do we find it? McLuhan made the assertion that once the first satellite rounded the globe, there was no longer Nature. We had contained our entire world through our media. Today, you can’t walk down the street without having your life documented, cataloged and used in some way by some device, some lens, some program. So I’ve looked inward to see if there might be anything close to “nature” existing there, and truthfully, I’ve been horrified by my own artificiality, the ease with which I participate in the program. Look, when I thought about it, I came to the conclusion that nearly every physical occurrence within our bodies can be modified and controlled by electronic, chemical, or surgical means. Christ we are, nearly all of us, cyborgs, mechanized humans (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah…fact and fiction, Marko, keep it real, please.) I then turned to my emotions, surely something there? But even those personal experiences can be and have been controlled and focused through social mores, copious amounts of pharmaceutical concoctions (ritalin anyone?) and the “realities” of electronic existence. Everything, including our most intimate relationships, are defined by these new programs, by the ever present “realities” of programs, both analog and digital. So what is natural, what is real, in this environment, in us? What exists outside or in spite of the program? Does anything? And if so what does it look like? Can any of us, especially now at the beginning of the 21st Century, truly claim, as Jackson did, to be “Nature”?

The problem, as I see it, isn’t necessarily in discovering “truth” – what it means to be human etc. We are a new kind of animal, like it or not. Yes, truth may set one free, but as Postmodernism has shown us, EVERYTHING we encounter in the program, every thing swallowed up by the program, has a kind of “truth” (truthiness?) and that truth can be and always is manipulated. So in desperation we’ve turned our search toward Reality hoping that in our daily encounters we might find some moment that isn’t programmed, a moment outside of the program – what’s Real today? But this is problematic as well. For instance in NYC recently we experienced an earthquake and a hurricane within the same week. Unprecedented experiences to say the least. They would have seemed WAY out of the ordinary, scary even, just 10 years ago. But the speed and deftness with which the media encapsulated the physical realities of those fleshy occurrences was truly astonishing. Astonishing because the program made these once life defining moments into everyday events. In one grand moment a commentator was televised actually standing in foamy raw sewage in order to illustrate the “reality” of the narrative. And none of us thought that this programmed “reality” was out of the ordinary. Not even Nature, as we once knew it, once were in awe of it, once were slaves to it, interrupted or changed the course of the narrative formed through the constantly streaming media reality.

We can not, do not, acknowledge the reality of our own existences, our own natures, any longer. We can not see outside the program, can not remove ourselves from the artificial existence in which we exist. The rebellion is programmed, the Romantic inclination to question codified and incorporated like a virus. For me this describes the Postmodern Condition.

Which brings me back to my concerns for vision and painting. If our bodies are manipulated by our products and procedures, our minds overwhelmed by a streaming narrative, our vision blurred and refocused by lenses, then what is Real, what is Reality, and further, what is Natural, what is Nature? And then how do we see it, how do we paint it?

End of the first part…


Paul Corio – Pattern Logic

I called from the street and then made my way up a few flights of stairs. This old building in Brooklyn is a working place, stuffed with “small businesses” – Asian men and women sewing piece goods in a loud crowded room on one floor. Another floor chocked full of electric machine tools ready to be used for fuck all. And as always in NY you’ll find a few artists’ studios filled with old paintings and half finished projects. Paul Corio had invited Michael Zahn, Dennis Bellone and me over for a studio visit. As usual I was running late – always…. Paul had been pulling out his works and lining them against the painting wall. Michael and Dennis had just finished the first round on the six pack and were deep in discussion about the last painting they’d seen. Artists tend to take studio visits deadly seriously especially among friends… I was happy to be there and looked about for signs of Paul’s studio life before really having a look at the work (I enjoy seeing how artists incorporate their lives into their work.) On a few table tops and shelves there were stacks of jars of paints, mixed and labeled in sequence, hues and values morphing from light to dark, precise and orderly. Used painters’ tape was scrunched into balls discarded here and there. I thought it was wonderful – a working production studio filled with 21st Century electrically colored paintings contrasted by a bank of windows looking northward over a view of Brooklyn’s 19th and 20th Century manufacturing detritus. Glorious.

As I was looking at Paul’s paintings I kept thinking about his blog postings on No Hassle at the Castle and the post he did here on Henri about his painting processes and studio life. Numbers and patterns are extremely important to Paul. He is interested in the specific mathematics of horse racing and betting. Paul is also a jazz musician, a drummer to be precise, and for me all of these things come across in his work in a very specific way. His vision is connected to rhythms and time, color, space, pattern, movement. Paul has a real way of involving the viewer across the surfaces of his works using specific kinds of optical repetitions. The paintings become physical and direct through their temporal movements. Color fades in and out and then turns on a dime into its compliment. The geometries break into packets, keeping time in moments of explosive visual energy. He’s constantly building signatures through these algorithms, pushing the viewer along to his visual beat. Christ, you can feel your body start to move as you look – I caught myself bobbing my head to these back beats a couple of times. It’s hard not to feel time slip and slide in front of Paul’s paintings. But there’s more going on here than music. His imagery pushes into the ground, exaggerating the pulsing efficiency of his colors. What you begin to feel as you look and follow is your own subjectivity sliding into this time frame. The visual experience is sharp, electric and thorough.

Paul has pushed back the literal optical surfaces and mannered surfaces of the 1960s. He’s playing with the idea of a deeper illusion – taking these algorithms and floating them against and above the expanding ground. In the most successful works Paul reaches for something darker and more emotional in his patterns. Unlike the Postmodern appropriation critiques of the 80s and 90s based on geometric/op abstractions (for example like those found in the work of Bleckner or Armleder), Paul examines a more direct idea of a visual and transcendent painting unmoored from irony. Rather than critique a style, keeping us at a distance, his illusions push the geometric patterns further and deeper into our consciousness, involving us in the rhythms. These paintings represent a kind of faith in the constant flow of repetition and movement that defines our world. The visual impetus behind the work is more Modern than Postmodern. There are no pretty bows or glittering curtains of material painted on the surfaces to hold us back from a direct physical vision. Paul is demanding that we engage in these rhythms and patterns and feel how they move us in this particular moment. In some paintings he raises this geometric imagery just above the ground allowing the subject to float and pulse there before our eyes. We are uplifted, transported out of our material concerns. And this is where Paul breaks with the Postmodern. His work is not held to the ground. Paul is fucking with those surfaces, reaching over the optical billboard to grasp older ideas of visual conflict and consternation – those Modernist concerns related to pattern, decoration, and transcendence. What he’s getting at is the fragility of vision in the optical overload of our time.

What was truly impressive, what really stuck with me was the large black painting that Paul let rest against the wall. It kept drawing me back in. I had only seen it in reproduction, but in person it hums and vibrates in a very dark and moving way. I kept feeling a kind of landscape like one sees in Asian paintings – where the eye travels along the length or width of the painting. You watch the world fade into the light and mist and then reappear further back, like you’re moving along space through time. This dark painting plays on that kind of temporality as it keeps regenerating – top becomes bottom, bottom top. Paul’s rhythms catch and break, and that’s when he pulls the shifting ground out from beneath you. You begin to feel that you’re upside down, folded back on yourself. I thought of Jasper Johns’ paintings that push the words and images around the sides of his canvases making the viewer realize that he’s stepped into an endless loop, there’s no escape. Again, there isn’t a hint of irony, not a bit of “aside” or commentary. This is a first person experience, fast, slow, broken and whole.

Lately Paul’s work has taken on the corporate, the logo, the straightforward presentation of power. What’s really interesting in these “word” works is the way Paul has skewed the visual approach and impact. We don’t see the work straight on, it’s as if he’s moved the perspective to one side to show us the optical workings beneath the logo and the program. They fly past us, breaking into geometric codes as they do. The program is false in these works, and once we catch that fakery, we quickly find another vision within it. The works take us back into our own understanding of color, light, space and time outside of and through the programmatic corporate vision. For me these paintings are hopeful, joyful and alive. And in a new clever twist Paul re-presents this work within a work. He’s doubling down on his bet against Postmodern irony, appropriating his own work, his own studio into a painting within and about the studio and himself. He’s patterning the flows of both his creative experience and his work-a-day life, documenting and glorifying the temporal space of that studio. It’s a very clever 21st Century self portrait – like Matisse’s Red Studio – a painting of the studio as a doppleganger for the artist himself.

We no longer speak of transcendence with any seriousness here in the 21st century. Most artists are content to make a work that looks good, that says something passably intelligent. Usually it’s not that personal, or that deep, but it looks good, you know? We have tons of work that does just that, stacked to the rafters in the Chelsea galleries. But Paul is looking for something else. He wants to get at an experience of visual contact, communication, and in that way, he’s quintessentially American, wholly himself. He’s reaching back to a tradition of abstraction that begins with Cezanne and culminates with Rothko and Newman. His vision is connected to a more physical and literal visual experience of the geometric and abstract, emotion and vision. You get a similar feeling standing in Paul’s studio – the heady mixture of brilliant color and fast pattern, the clash of time and history going on out the window – it’s a sense of place, solid and ephemereal at once. Paul wants you to see, to feel, experience in a visceral way and in that, his work embodies our great American Romantic visual tradition.

For more about Paul Corio – website and No Hassle at the Castle.

Poke in the Eye, Punch in the Gut

Sometimes they come late to an understanding…

“The ubiquity of cameras in exhibitions can be dismaying, especially when read as proof that most art has become just another photo op for evidence of Kilroy-was-here passing through. More generously, the camera is a way of connecting, participating and collecting fleeting experiences. For better and for worse, it has become intrinsic to many people’s aesthetic responses.” Roberta Smith “When the Camera Takes Over the Eye”

Lenses define our realities – we’ve been discussing this for ages…

Sometimes they still haven’t got it…

You see much more of art viewing via a digital filter in museums and biennials than you do in art fairs and less still in actual galleries.
Edward Winkleman What Has Art Got To Do With It?

Where would gallery budgets be without the lens based web, the sale of work through jpegs, and the endless coverage by the online art press taking pictures and disseminating…oh fuck it…why bother refuting this?

And sometimes you come across something REAL…

Big Ups for Henri

The marvelous artist and theorist George Hofmann has included Henri as one of his go to art mags! Artcritical, helmed by the indefatigable critic and round table impresario David Cohen, has begun a new series entitled Bookmarked in which artists discuss their favorite online art sites etc. George also mentions some other wonderful sites including No Hassle at the Castle and immaterial culture. Thanks George for your kindness!