“We can now modify Constable’s dictum and propose that art seeks the pure apprehension of natural fact wherever natural fact, as registered by the senses, is regarded as meaningful reality. Where it is not so interpreted we shall find some form of anti-humanist distortion, of hieratic stylization or abstraction. But—and this is crucial—such abstraction will continue to apprehend and to express reality. Though it rejects the intimations of mere sense perception, it does not thereby cease to be representational. Only the matter that now calls for representation is drawn from a new order of reality.” Leo Steinberg “The Eye Is a Part of the Mind”
I walked around an old firehouse in Williamsburg looking at a row of paintings. Each was spare, fast and loose. They were pushing at the edges of what painting could do, what one could leave out and still have the goddammed thing hold together. I had the feeling that they were composed of the last bits of painting, visual painting, that Postmodernism had long ago discarded and forgotten.
The works were lined up almost chronologically, and with each painting, you could feel the artist daring himself to leave off this or that, scrub out this or blanche out that. There were moments of absolute brilliance; a beautiful faded crimson soaking into the canvas, a bloom of forest washed in “light”, an ultramarine scrub bounded by a weak and ineffectual grayish line. The paintings were all about hard moments, those moments when we have to decide what to do with the impossible endgame that we’ve all inherited. In each painting, no matter the visual cost, there is a rage for vision, to see clearly again, one more time, and this feeling runs through Dennis’ compositions. It’s there in the placement of imagery and the play of incidence. These works recall half forgotten histories and the ignored visual past of great painting. Let’s face it, we over-educated POMOs sure can rattle off the big names, but we have real trouble accessing and understanding the visions created by them, let alone, entering into a cogent dialogue with them. We can reproduce or replicate style or subject, but we can’t seem to live through them, can’t SEE them anymore. As Dennis pared away at our contemporary dementia something older and more urgent began to take shape before my eyes.
Raphael Rubenstein in his now famous essay “Provisional Painting” describes a similar optical process of reduction favored by many Postmodernists. Theirs is a zero sum game brought on by the dictates of reproduction and replication, business and economy. They are masters of the ground, the dictates of production and the logistics of the commodity. There is no past, no history or memory because those connections are constantly being erased, refurbished; their work is “always already”, always accessible as something “new”. For the Provisionals there is no longer “juice” in visual power. Instead they give us optical entertainments. These painters remain mired in Postmodern affectlessness, confident that they know that painting, realized before Warhol, has nothing to offer us, here, in the 21st Century. But in Dennis Bellone’s work there are none of these provisional endgames. He is striving for something different.
Using the scraps of memory that are left outside the Provisional contexts, he moves away from their zero sum game into a dialogue with a grander painterly tradition. He is intent on understanding these connections and the ingrained visual instincts that they retrieve. These paintings are all about memory, or better, the loss and persistence of “genetic” artistic vision in great painting. There is something torrid and raging about the emptiness and spareness in his work. Dennis dares to unmoor our vision while giving us something to connect with – something to pull us across and through the surface into his fractured spaces. Beauty or ugliness plays out in a lost passage and a found line. Emotion is whipped up with the speed of the work as he slices through his images. Color and line fade in or out, washed or solid, scratched through or smeared in bits and pieces. It’s as if past and future have collided and Dennis has located the moment before they disappear into nothingness. These works DEMAND and DEMAND and DEMAND: look and look again and then look harder, fucker, until you see, really see. It’s Dennis’ unwavering insistence on memory, visual memory, that is challenging, thrilling and solid – suddenly you’ll catch a link to Lorrain, Courbet, Corot, Manet, Monet and others, right here, at the end of painted experience.
I was startled, as I turned the corner at the back of the long wall, to see two paintings blazing with pure color right in front of me – paintings solid, vibrant and alive. It was enervating because Dennis had found something definitively new in these paintings. They are still spare, economical, but there is something physically visual happening. The spaces are surely defined, the composition declarative and the colors are focused and deliberate. Sometimes we artists are selfish about the work that we connect with and like. We can’t help ourselves, and that’s the way it should be. I immediately felt connected to these paintings. The works had mutated, clarified what was tested in the others, become something else, something that I recognized as different and new. I understood that Dennis had moved beyond the endgame of Postmodern experience.
2010.a02. The title of the painting is like a library call number, a place for a stored memory, the cataloging of a lived/painted moment. It’s a sharp visual critique of itself and its making; a sly tribute to the onanism of painting. For contemporary painters, especially for the POMO Provisionals, this work is a direct challenge. Why paint, after all, and what does it say about you if you do? Dennis begins with the AbEx artists and then slides further back into Miro and Kandinsky without relying on their Modernist conventions. The composition is a blow up, inherited from the all-pervasive isolating lens that guides our understanding of space these days. This is not a thing in a field, but the subject up close. The image takes the entire surface, plowing and cracking the ground, breaking the glass of the “window”. The cartoon hand grasps the phallic shape right in the middle of the image. It’s a visual pun about the painter, “brush” in hand, ready to connect to the canvas. He’s daring us to stand in his place, to dig right into the fucking ground and open up our view. The quickness of the image remains Modern in feel, more like a loose Matisse or Pollock’s later brushy works. Those fast lines, truncated, paraphrased, hint at something both ridiculous and real, something rude being unveiled on the surface of the POMO billboard. But it’s the color that brings this sketch to life. The warmer hues on the right, the cooler on the left. The painter says the artist must remain at a distance, must remain grounded in nature to find the pictorial space. The green above and below, the sky blue between the fingers, hint at both tradition and nature. Their application reverses the academic irony of the “stroke”. Process isn’t meaningless nor is it an arch enterprise – it is imperative. The color is blown through with the brush, scrubbed in like the early Modernists used to. On the right the streaked pink and orange feel like solid architectures. They are armatures to structure the fragmenting image and sliding spaces. They hold the ground at bay. In between nature and abstraction, sliding through the smear and the stroke, is the thin, fast red movement of Dennis’ brush pooling at the bottom of the canvas. There is a price to be paid for this kind of painting, for the need to connect to something older, and there it is, one’s own blood. This painting works between natural occurrence and forced intention, a cool visual diatribe aimed squarely at the shallowness and inconsequence of the Postmodern optical auteur.
“No man can quite emancipate himself from his age and country, or produce a model in which the education, the religion, the politics, usages and arts of his times shall have no share. Though he were never so original, never so wilful and fantastic, he cannot wipe out of his work every trace of the thoughts amidst which it grew. The very avoidance betrays the usage he avoids. Above his will and out of his sight he is necessitated by the air he breathes and the idea on which he and his contemporaries live and toil, to share the manner of his times, without knowing what that manner is.” “The complete works of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays.” 1st series [Vol. 2]
On my way home after the afternoon at the firehouse I thought of that painting and the break it indicated. Emerson says that we are all products of our times and we must work with the tools we are given. That is where the individual must begin. Like many of us Dennis inherited the Postmodern tradition, and like many of us, he wants to paint something else – he is after a different visual outcome. And for me, at this time, this is a Romantic urge. These paintings, as tough and real as they are, push us to re-imagine our painterly past just as they move ahead out of the visual conundrum we find ourselves in.