The Long Tail

I began this as a reply to a recent comment by the artist, critic and theorist Martin Mugar and I thought it might be better as a post. Please forgive the editing – it was done on the fly – So without further ado….

Hi Martin,

Thanks for your comments, happy to be back. I just read the linked article in your comment, and unfortunately, it’s based in the same kind of Postmodern thinking as the work it categorizes and catalogues for us. We are presented with a menu of style and we can pick and choose á la carte. There’s something here for everyone. What’s interesting about the work he mentions is how accessible it all is without it being overtly distinct. Pepe comes across as a purveyor of goods, a proprietor of painting. The article is not so much a celebratory lauding of a new golden age or even the lasting legacy of painting itself, but it comes across as an inventory, a back catalogue of goods and services. And since art is now an economic activity this makes perfect sense. What Pepe is actually describing are long tail retail strategies for the continued economic viability of abstract painting.

So many of the abstractionists on his list seem to prize the professionalism of painting over expression, but there are a couple of exceptions. For the most part these artists’  works are capable, handsome, manufactured at the top end, filled with expected outcomes and familiar tropes – it’s proven, sanctioned and branded. However, even though I think that a lot of this work is (in Pepe’s words) “good”, I continue to want abstraction to move, change, evolve, and become something different. I want the work to be hotter, if that makes any sense. In the Postmodern Era we prefer our Art to be cool, ironic, to have a high-end slickness to its presentation. And this kind of “coolness” isn’t just in our painting – it goes across the board through all of our culture. For instance we are going through a cycle of branded entertainment now with the Summer Blockbuster Movie season. That kind of easy product, the accessibility and familiarity of it, is how money is made in our Modernist Entertainment Culture. Art, especially painting, is all about the coolness factor and it’s manufactured and presented like products that define a luxury lifestyle. Unlike Pepe, I do think most painting is dead in this way. It has become something we manufacture for a select group of collectors, and once we’ve hit on something sellable, we brand it and reproduce it like Ferrari F12 Berlinettas.

I prefer the one-off, the masterpiece. The one image that seers into your brain and is carried with you for a lifetime. Doesn’t mean that there can’t be a lot of other work done by the artist. After all an artist has to eat, right? But there should be a few great one-offs in a career. In the Modern era Picasso had them, Matisse, Pollock, De Kooning, Johns and Rauschenberg had them at the beginning of their careers, even Warhol had his in the beginning. But there were not too many others after them that did – though there has been a steady stream of branded series painters making “good” work. And I have a bit of a problem with that. I prefer the conceit of the arrogant stage comedian, like Chris Rock, who after his set would hold the mic out arm’s length, open his hand and let it drop to the floor, walk off stage. He left the set behind never to be done again. One and done. But that’s not the case with so many of the artists on Pepe’s list, and I’m sad to say that’s not how Entertainment Modernism works. There will always be a part II, III and IV, ad infinitum, or at least until the tickets stop selling.


Image from wikicommons


When Michelangelo first came to Rome he was seduced and overpowered by the Belvedere torso, the same one that’s now dramatically presented in the Vatican Museum. And it was so powerful an image that it changed Michele’s whole relationship to sculpture, painting and drawing. In fact it deeply influenced the work he was then doing on the Sistine ceiling. He was already hailed as a genius, a purveyor of Neo-Classic Florentine culture, and he could have continued to work as he had for his entire career. He was after all – the consummate professional. But there was something about this sculpture that fired his imagination, and nearly overnight his work became a different thing altogether. What Michele was not afraid of, what he was willing to risk was his own passion, his own personal demons. The Belvedere is not only beautiful, it is powerfully sexual, and it’s supremely obvious that it fired his passions in a deeply transformative way.  Because of the Belvedere he created thick, persistent fleshy imagery that wound up upending the “professionalism” of his day. He changed and redefined the Renaissance as something different. In fact his imagery was so jarring that the Pope had the scaffolding taken down half way through the making of the piece to show it off to Rome. It set the art world on fire.

Last Judgement

Image from camchowda


Years later Michele would be asked to do it once again behind the main altar of the Sistine with his Last Judgment. But this time he was older and he approached it with a different sensibility. His Belvedere discovery had been refined through the years and had started an informal “school” of Mannered art. Still, he was Michelangelo, an artist known for his terribilità and he once again challenged the taste makers of the day. He packed so much Mannerist nudity and sexuality on that wall that the church had to reconsider. So, the Vatican bean counters hired a hack to chip out and cover the crotches of all the massive flesh that Michele had dared to paint. But up above on his ceiling they didn’t touch a thing. The altar fresco was “contemporary”, a full on Neo-Platonic Mannerism filled with heretical bath house sexuality. It was of its time and place. The ceiling, however, is a personal Classicism so audacious and sacrosanct that they dared not touch it. Michele’s transformative passion is what mattered on the ceiling, and because of it his work was like no other artist of his day. Yes, he was trained by the Florentine institutional artists to be a “professional”, but on his own he went further into the past, and in so doing, further into his own passionate heart. There is nothing “slick”, “cool”, or “professional” about either of these one-off masterpieces. They burn. One and done, then Michele dropped the mic.

Abstractionists today are all over the boards trying desperately to find a niche in the long tail of our art economy. Pepe’s article makes that clear to me. But what I do not see in his list, and what I long for in abstraction is the thing that Michele brought to his own world, that thing that sparked some fantastically inspired one-offs – like the fresco I saw in Florence by Bronzino or Tintoretto’s San Rocco wonderland in Venice. There is a hot, visual quality to these works. You can feel the combustibility. You can see the passion. And that is, for me, something that I prize. Maybe the problem with our branded Postmodern painting is not with the professionalism in the work we see, but with the hearts that make it. Maybe what we need do is reconsider who and what we are as artists.

OMI International – The Crayon Miscellany

Friend of Henri, Michael Zahn, is participating in a show at the OMI International Arts Center curated by the wonderful artist, painter and curator, Julie Ryan. Details of the show are here: The Crayon Miscellany.  From the few photos I’ve seen we’re all in for a treat – summer in the New York countryside and galleries and landscapes filled with color! Make plans for a wonderful experience!

The Crayon Miscellany
2015 Summer Group Exhibition
curated by Julie Ryan

Exhibition Preview, Curator’s Talk + Cocktail Party: Friday, June 12, 6:30 – 8:30 PM
Tickets are $25 for non-members and free for members.
(members, please RSVP to

Opening: Saturday, June 13, 1-5 PM
The opening on June 13 is FREE and open to the public.
The exhibition will be on view through September 27, 2015.

Artist Talks:
Donald Baechler: Saturday, June 27, 4 PM
Pamela Fraser: Saturday, July 18, 4 PM

Sarah Lucas and the Pernicious Influence of Bruce Nauman – May 2015

Returning to the “real” world is sometimes a difficult thing. You slide back into your life. Everything feels just a bit off, nothing fits. It’s during times like these that I’ve been able to think outside of my own box. On the return plane ride I was ruminating about the Biennale, particularly about Sarah Lucas’ show in the British Pavilion. I really wanted to like this show. I’ve enjoyed her work in the past. She has a light touch about difficult things, she’s cheeky, and I like those qualities immensely. But during my walk through the pavilion a thought kept coming back to me. At first it seemed unfair, or maybe I just wasn’t dealing with the things in front of me with an open mind. So, I kept my mouth shut and tried to turn off my brain. But once the genie is out of the bottle – well, you know that old truism.

Dave Hickey once bemoaned the fact that ALL of us were held in check by the legacy of Bruce Nauman. I thought that was a bit off, but among the YBAs Nauman is a god and taskmaster. I was enjoying Sarah’s exhibit right up until the moment I saw the big, fat elephant lounging about in all of these rooms (and it wasn’t supposed to be part of the show – of that I’m sure). And that elephant was the pernicious legacy of Bruce Nauman. In fact as I went through the entire Biennale, both the Giardini and the Arsenale, I continued to see Nauman’s legacy in a lot of the work on view – including his own neon pieces that begin the Arsenale exhibition. I imagined a neon that lit up “Nauman”, then “Rip Off”, then “Nauman” again. But I guess in our Postmodern era of Entertainment Modernism we should just understand that innovation, or even personal style, is something that is no longer a worry in making one’s art. What we are supposed to enjoy, what we are supposed to become involved with is the artist, rather than the art.


“There is a paradox at the centre of much contemporary art: while the means by which that art is pursued are steadily less expressive of the artist’s personality, more reliant on conventional ideas than feelings, more the assemblage of ready-made elements than the creation of organic compositions, the personality of the artist, far from shrinking, has greatly expanded, sometimes overshadowing the work. Furthermore, the very fact that artists do rather little to their material but nevertheless garner huge rewards leads to a fascination with the artist as an individual.” Julian Stallabrass, “High Art Lite: British Art in the 1990s,” page 18.


What Sarah brings to this pernicious legacy is her own sensibility, her own biography. Each body cast is an impersonal portrait, each one also acts as Lucas’ stand in. The sexual and excretory orifices of these topless forms contain a cigarette, an ever present prop in the life of this artist. One cast hovers over a toilet in the classic “morning after a hard night” pose, another sprawls across a table top, another collapsed in a heap, one straddles a toilet, one spread eagle on an office desk. At the beginning of the show is a “painting” of “Page Three” vixens providing, “the tops”, portraits, the images of desire that accompany and lead to the outcomes portrayed by the cast plaster lower extremities. These are women worn into and out of passion, caught by addiction, fluctuating desires and lived passions. At the very entrance of the pavilion, presented to us twice – once on the portico outside to double the point – may be the reason for this state of affairs. It’s a swollen, phallic monster arching his member high into the air looking for release. He is not fleshed out, he is a lumpy cartoon, a desiring sexual animal (and this is made clear by the other lumpy animals in the show.) The fact that Sarah calls him “Maradona” – after a legendary football player, a symbol of physical hyper-masculinity – may even be a sublimation of Nauman’s continuing presence in this very show. In other words Nauman is Maradona, the giant prick father of generations of desiring and spent Postmodern hero worshippers.

Alright – I’ve gone Over The Top with that, but I’m allowed. Venice makes allowances for such things. I really wanted to like this show, but it turns out that I like Sarah Lucas better than the show. There’s a lot of clever punning going on, a lot of sensitive issues being laid bare with a bit of dry humor. The installation is perfect. But there never is an actual challenge to the giant prick father. And in the end that’s what I hope to see.

Still… Cheeky Monkey!

Don Voisine at McKenzie Fine Art – by Paul Corio

I’m a long time fan of painter Don Voisine, who’s been working within a strictly limited selection of geometric shapes for well over thirty years.  The thing that I’ve always been most impressed with is the variety he can coax from what, to the inattentive viewer, might seem like repetition or adherence to brand.  The modulations of scale and of surface, the use of smart, sneaky bands of color in the framing edges, and the addition of wry spatial surprises insures that each subsequent show never seems like a rehash of the previous.  It’s a real feat, not only because of Voisine’s Spartan playpen, but also because of all the historical baggage attached to geometric abstraction.  His current solo outing at McKenzie Fine Art is, for me, his best show to date.

For me, his real strength resides in his embrace of the motifs of Russian and European modernism, but without the rhetoric of purity that ultimately weighed them down.  Voisine’s pictures are sometimes canonically flat and non-referential, but other times suggest perspectival space in cartoonishly humorous terms.  Other paintings unmistakably conjure letterforms and the reading skews toward Pop or the proto-Pop pictures of Stuart Davis.  He uses the shifting figure-ground relationship most closely associated with Op, and that is one of the key features of the current exhibition.  Also prominent in the McKenzie show is a new understanding of color – there are some paintings that have no black whatsoever, which has always been as much of a signature as his geometric figuration.

Fold, 2015.  Oil on wood panel, 32 x 32 inches.

The pictures that had no black were among my favorites in the show.  “Fold” has a central X-shape in red, but the value change between the Coca-Cola red-orange on the lower half and the cadmium red medium on the top visually accomplishes exactly what the title suggests – the sharp crease describes an interior space.  But as the eye travels to the white triangles at the right and left which are created by the negative spaces left over by the X, the former shapes zoom back up to the picture plane, flattening the painting at the sides and upsetting the figure-ground reading.  The framing elements at the top and bottom are of a buff color; they flatten the space along with the triangles, but also talk about canvas and masking tape, which are some of the key materials from the tradition wherein Voisine draws inspiration.


Staple, 2015.  Oil on wood panel, 24 x 24 inches.

“Staple” is smaller than “Fold,” but nearly identical in proportion and composition.  This painting, along with “Duane,” were perhaps the biggest surprises for me as someone familiar with Voisine’s work. Not only does black play no role in these pictures, but the central forms in which Voisine would commonly place his blacks were instead painted in nuanced whites.  The effect was as though one were looking at a color negative of the artist’s more familiar output, and the paintings were in strong dialog with Malevich.  Reinhardt is another name which comes up quite often in the discussion of Voisine’s work, and paradoxically these white pictures reference the former quite strongly in spite of the fact that they don’t have a trace of the color that both painters are most closely associated with.  What “Staple” and “Duane” have in common with Reinhardt is that if you don’t spend enough time looking you quite literally will not see them.  I imagine they’re hell to photograph, too.


Flank, 2015.  Oil on wood panel, 33 x 24 inches.

For those who prefer Voisine’s signature palette, there’s still plenty of black in the show.  As in previous exhibitions, the painter articulates subtle spaces by using the contrast of glossy and matte black paint.  The gloss generally proceeds up toward the viewer and the matte recedes, but this spatial reading is often destabilized by the positioning of the white negative spaces within the central black figure. This latter quality is prominent in “Flank” and “K,” both of which at first glance appear to have a gloss black rectangle laid on top of a matte black italic X.  But a more careful examination shows that in each, only three of these negative spaces are positioned so as to comport with the above reading – one is moved away from the edge and within the confines of the glossy rectangle, and this small gesture casts the entire spatial organization into a state of flux.  Of the two, I prefer “Flank.”  The vertical orientation allowed it to breathe a bit more than the compressed, horizontal “K.” I also liked the former painting’s framing device: An olive bar top and bottom which is separated from the central figure by a slim band of a close value red, which is as tight and musical as a guitar string.


Narrows, 2015. Oil on wood panel, 40 x 60 inches.

Another new device in these pictures is a particular grey which is not mixed but would appear to be produced by applying black paint over a white ground then scraping or sanding back to partially reveal the underlying color.  The resulting atmosphere moves these paintings further away from formal readings, and far more into the realm of the poetic, possibly even romantic (although I shouldn’t get too carried away).  In “Landscape Into Art,” the venerable Kenneth Clark suggests that the most difficult thing to accomplish in landscape painting is a convincing evocation of night.  In “Narrows,” the largest picture in the show, two gloss-black spectral rectangles, like giant robotic eyes, emerge from the grey described above, each bordered by a pair of attenuated matte black triangles.  The latter shapes act as a bridging color, completing the illusion that the dominant shapes are rising from a spooky, nighttime mist.  So as not to let the picture become too much of a ghost story, however, Voisine borders the picture top and bottom with bands of incredibly cheerful sunflower yellow.

There’s an awful lot of abstract painting in New York at present, more than there has been in decades.  Needless to say, this means that the variance in quality is broad.  Don Voisine is at the top of his game right now, and I would place him in the upper echelons of  the category, even if he’s not being flipped at Christie’s.  McKenzie Fine Art is located at 55 Orchard St. and the show stays up until June, 14.

Paul Corio

June, 2015

All images Courtesy McKenzie Fine Art

Space Available

June 5 – 28, 2015

Opening Reception: June 5, 6 – 9pm

Open: weekends from 12 noon – 6pm

1329 Willoughby Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11237

(Between Wyckoff and St. Nicholas, Jefferson stop on the L-train)


An exhibition of larger size works by:

Antonia Perez • Christopher Dunlap • Daniel Crews • Dennis Bellone • Gilbert Hsiao • Lilian Kreutzberger • Jason Karolak • Jeff Feld • Jim Osman • Mark Sengbush • Natalia Zubko • Paul Corio • Rob De Oude

Press Release is here

Organized by Paul Corio and Rob de Oude

“Large scale painting (abstract and otherwise) is now one of a vast variety of historical and contemporary styles and media from which to draw upon in the formation of a body of work. But even as the remnants of post-modern critique lose their hold on the consciousness of the contemporary artist, the economics of being an artist in New York City present new issues in the creation and exhibition of large work.  New York City tabulates its surface area not so much in blocks, miles, or acres, but in square feet.  They are finite, and each one costs an increasingly large amount.”

Concurrently in the same space:

TSA New York will present: Shoal Survivor with works by Oscar Bedford and Alex Lombardand, curated by Sorry Archive.

Transmitter will present: The Model Reader with works by, Megan Hays, Paul Gagner, Alex Gingrow, Elle Perez, Devin Powers.