The other day I was reminded of the way Postmodern excess continues to hum blithely beneath the thin veneer of our everyday realities. I was standing among a group of folks waiting for the crosswalk sign to change. Another ordinary moment in the city, but in this case, there were two straggling SUVs traveling at a high rate of speed trying to beat the light. Like most impatient NYC drivers in “the box” they were determined to make it through the intersection before the people clogged the crosswalks. The “walk” signs had already lit up giving the pedestrians the all clear, and immediately, the people around me poured into the street. The two automobiles nearly mowed down at least 15 people – it was like watching a horror movie’s inevitable plot unfold. A barrage of four letter words ensued, and a lot of outraged pedestrians stomped across the street.
When I finally had crossed the street I was feeling a bit on edge, and I began to really think about what had just occurred. It seemed to me that both the drivers and pedestrians paid more attention to the “reality” of the signs than to the reality of the situation and the surroundings. For the drivers the visual world outside the window is easily ignored in the womb/cocoon of the automobile cockpit. Let’s face it, these days, a car interior may as well be a Vegas Lounge – touch screen monitors, programs, onstar, cel phone service, climate control, speed control, blind spot video monitors, entertainment panels, HD-LCD touch screens, GPS systems, electronic comfort adjustment, etc – the only thing missing is a stripper pole. And to top that off, drivers develop a weird disconnect between the personal spaces of their car interiors and the public spaces of the potentially violent machine itself. Pedestrians are hardly any better. Those people in the crosswalks were mesmerized by the media light show on display in Times Square. Many of them were chatting on phones or texting on blackberrys. Not one of them paid attention to the fact that a couple of tons of speeding metal was headed straight toward them. But what really seemed to irk this crowd most was that the “reality” implied by the “walk sign” had, suddenly and emphatically, been called into question. In our world of untethered electronic consciousness mediated signs have come to define and direct our experience of reality, and as such, we expect the physical world to adhere to these signs. We believe the reality of the text, the ubiquity and certainty of the sign over physical visual experience. In layman’s terms our beliefs are stronger than our eyes.
In a recent post on Japanese art we briefly discussed the fact that most contemporary artists have settled into a kind of academic somnambulism in their approach to drawing. I thought I’d concentrate a bit on this topic, because radical visual exploration through drawing has always been the first foundation of great painting. But today, our drawing remains mired in the academic practices of the 20th Century.
It’s been my experience that many artists today “see” no further back than the 1950s. If we look to anything “older” we immediately go blind. Sure, we pay lip service to the geezers Matisse and Picasso, but we act as if their accomplishments are set in stone, their art an exception and indifferent to our times. If we go back to the once radical Impressionists we see them as bourgeois makers of Kitchen Calendar schlock (I beg to differ – check out the compositions in Monet’s late work!) If we go further back, we tend to treat the Venetian painters as if they were mere decorators of a quaint and expensive tourist destination. We are so self absorbed and myopic that we can not for the life of us find anything “real” in what these artists might have to offer – nor can we find a way to use their legacies to make anything truly NEW. Our references are brittle and insular, our appropriations are narrow and shallow.
For example, I was speaking with a painter the other day that claimed that Matisse could not draw. Bald-faced. Unrepentant. Granted, this artist is a realist using lens-based programs to make his work, but c’mon man, what the fuck? You can’t be serious? His contention was that it didn’t look like reality. I pointed out to him that “reality” as he saw it, came through a lens and his computer – Matisse didn’t need a prophylactic to define “reality” – he worked it bareback so-to-speak. (OK, it got a bit heated.) I prefer my encounters with “reality” to be unprotected visions. Another artist I know has been to Venice three times without seeing the work in the Scuola di San Rocco. No curiosity at all. But for now let’s just concentrate on abstraction and drawing.
Modernism emphasized the way an artwork was made – process and materials. From the first half of the 20th Century – Matisse all the way through the AbEx painters – the ground and the process became the focus of any interaction and declaration. “The resulting work often emphasizes the physical act of painting itself as an essential aspect of the finished work or concern of its artist.” It was a way around, a way under the vast wall of Western visual history. American artists, especially, found that by rephrasing the question about what painting could be, they could ignore the weight of visual history and begin again. This is a very American thing to do – we’re good at ignoring consequences while we take a bow for figuring out how to slice the Gordian Knot. We constantly “cheat” the “real world” in just this way – steroids in sports, financial statements on Wall Street, environmental disaster estimations, military incursions, government regulations and Presidential elections. We are great at shifting the ground beneath your feet. Which brings us to “American type” painting at the end of Modernism, and with it, we began the first truly American theoretical art movement – Postmodernism.
Since the 1960s Postmodernism has institutionalized and fetishized the processes and practices of Modernism. And this institutionalization is defined, mostly, through the manipulation of context – the constantly shifting ground that quickly submerges any rising visual subject. In this regard POMO is all about references and revisionism – interpretation of an appropriation. But before I get lost once again in these larger issues, let’s get back to drawing. There are a couple of styles of drawing that seem to predominate in POMO, but I’ll concentrate on the one that I learned and the one I continue to see a lot of. It is also a style of drawing that I put aside in favor of something different. That style is based on the working of the drawing – lots of smearing, erasing and re-drawing. This is by now an academic feature in universities the world over. For example:
Now in this drawing Matisse was still engaging the rising subject, the thing in itself. The model posed before him and he would draw, redraw, erase, and smear, trying to get at an emotional connection to the subject through his vision. Matisse was trying to process the connection between hand and eye in order to come to understand and abstract the rising subject. He searches for a line, pushing and pulling it back and forth, until finally, he has worn a path around the reality he is engaging. He is looking for a composition, for a truth in what he sees and what he draws. He wants the eye to move over the subject, engage with it understand that it is separate and real. Matisse and the early Modernists were hanging on to the idea that the drawing process is connected to the rising subject, the visual world outside of themselves. Or as I discovered the other day on that corner – the world of speeding cars, sweating bodies and awkward moments.
Later this process would become the focus of the AbEx painters, and I’ve chosen DeKooning’s work to make the point. Here the rising subject is already an abstraction, a totem. It is not a specific woman in the world, seen and made into an abstraction, but it is an idea of a woman made material through process. This idea was revelatory for American painters and offered a way out, hemmed in as they were, by the visual dictates of the Scylla and Charybdis of Modernist painting – Matisse and Picasso. Painters found that they could not challenge them directly, there was no room to maneuver past their experimentations. Instead they had to up the ante, move away from the visual world. Painting and drawing became more about process – the ground. The arena won out as the visual world slipped away. Matisse’s tentative lines and fearless reformations of outward visual reality are now, in DeKooning’s work, shot through with a persuasive belief in materials, physicality and process.
Postmodernism doesn’t engage in the physical world in the same way. We accept the uploaded image, the media image as our totemic reality. In our “reality” Shrek is as real to us as the Venus of Villandorf was to a Paleolithic crotch grabber. The rising subject doesn’t interest us, but the constant flow of information does. We exist in the ground, in the processes of abstraction. We look no further than the surface of things because everything we know is always already known – we live in a Corporate World of Signs. We no longer process our images as DeKooning did, we aesthetisize them – we “treat” them. We add “finish” value to the media image. We inflate its worth in just this way. We are beyond engaging with the image itself or finding a new meaning in or for the image. We know what it means. We merely provide a more desirable context in which to present it. We alter the ground. We focus the process. For instance in Joyce Pensato’s image we have a banal cartoon character removed from its media/graphic presentation and given the Postmodernist contextual treatment.
“Cartoons depend so much on their own plastic surface, and this is something Pensato vigorously takes on, using the eraser as a tool in its own right to transform any semblance of plasticity or sheen. Her palette of pastels and charcoal is limited, another push against the full fluorescent spectrum of cartoons. The figures are reduced down to what could be thought of as their “essence,” if cartoons had essence, and then pushed outward again by Pensato’s strong hand: Homer ’08 has the eyes, bald pate, and mouth recognizable to watchers of The Simpsons, but the texture and surface of the piece is all about painting and its visual engagement.”
Once again this process is about adding value, customizing a graphic image through physical engagement, mark making and burnishing the ground – trying to bring about reality through the sign and the system. This is not about vision, or visual interaction, but about the fetishization of Modernist processes through Postmodernist contextualization – the assertion of self through an avatar, a sign. In this Postmodern action the subject and the ground are treated as the same thing, folded one into the other. The drive of the piece is to enhance and exemplify its physical embellishments – the paper, the materials, the process. The context of the image is changed from Pop culture meta-character to Fine Art critique. But nowhere in this transformation is there an outward engagement with other, with the world outside the various Modernist theoretical/material techniques and the abstract sign.
Now I bring this up, yet again, because lately, there have been a number of articles discussing the end of Postmodernism. I find this all a bit hip and specious mainly because THERE HAS BEEN NO DIRECT AND SUSTAINED CRITIQUE IN OUR ART WORLD ABOUT HOW POSTMODERNISM WORKS AND WHAT IT DOES. Nor has there been any NEW theoretical advancement either in opposition to Modernism (outside of the POMO critique) or Postmodernism itself. A lot of folks seem content to point out that we have new technologies – computers, internet 2.0 and interactivity – and make the claim that these new technologies have moved us into a new type of theoretical critique. The problem for me is that even with the new technologies we remain tied to a way of thinking, a way of “not seeing” that doesn’t allow us to use these new technologies in a different way, to “think different.” And again I have to make the case for vision, for the way we use our eyes and the way we interpret what we see. We must look beyond the world of signs and define our reality outside of the lens programs.
In this video I was intrigued by the line – “…drawing laid the foundation for a new world of art.” The rebirth of drawing and painting began with a different kind of visual engagement. For centuries religion, a system, a program, had limited the scope and practice of how artists saw and experienced their work. Their works served the dictates of the church until Giotto began to fill those abstractions with the life of his time. Faces began to become more “real,” spaces began to flow in time and light moved across the surfaces of things. We started to see the world around us instead of the systems in front of us. The floodgates were opened for new expressivity, new ideas and a new reality, and an old way of seeing life began to take shape in a new way. And for this crew, it all began with the intimacy of drawing, of moving the hand along with the eye. Reality is what wakes us up, breaks our view of the signs guiding our interpretations, and it reminds us, that we are indeed, alive! To make an end to this long and looping post I’ll leave you with one of my favorite movie quotes of all time from Blade Runner – “I want more life…fucker!”
MOMA has an excellent resource of drawings online. Check out the link and study the Postmodern age!