Lagoons, Buffoons and Narcissistic Wheezebags

I am in Venice at the moment. I’ve come a bit early, I usually wait for the fall (it’s cooler and less crowded with tourists.) I come here for the TTTV (Tintoretto, Titian, Tiepolo & Veronese), but this time I wanted to see the Biennale, the day after the party so to speak. I’m ensconced in a lovely place and take to the streets to visit at least one Art thing a day. The rest of the time I layabout, drink Amarone, make a few sketches and watch the world go by. This sedentary tourism truly is about all I can take any longer. The Rick Steves thing I used to do – rushing about from site to site to see everything in 36 hours before heading to the next Italian locale – is a sucker’s game. No, it’s better to just “live” into a place and get to know it. Venice, at least to me, is like nothing else, nowhere else, and I’ll spare you the details. However, if you feel you must know more about it, drop me a line and ask. I’ve no problem shooting my mouth off about Venetian greatness, especially for painters.

That said, I’ve been to the Biennale – both the Giardini and the Arsenale along with a few of the satellite things set up in Palazzos all over town – and I’ll get to all of that in a moment. But first, the thing one notices straight away is the staggering amount of art world players’ money that’s involved in presenting the collections and tastes of the world’s billionaire corporate elite. Crickey Mate! Luxury Goods Corporations have now refurbished and filled a number of these face-lifted Grand Canal Dames with expensive contemporary art collections. The Dogana is case in point. It is one of the most beautiful architectural upgrades I’ve ever seen – graceful and excellently proportioned Postmodern galleries sparsely filled with top of the line machine manufactured luxury art. It’s a stunner. Sigmar Polke’s suite of paintings from the Storr Biennale 4 years ago are housed in a dramatic open roof-beamed, bare walled hangar (or so it seems). I like these paintings very much, they are truly beautiful, and for me, the best in the show, not least because the room that they exist in is so generous in space and discrete in background. But that being said it’s the only room where real painting makes a stand, where Postmodern critique is not lost in outright capital consumption.

The other things in the collection are upscale conceits and very, very shiny – lots of machine made things with fetish finishes, outsourced by auteurs, specifically tailored for very wealthy indulgences. It’s Art about Art with all too obvious POMO in-jokes, allusions to sex, violence, power and/or death. Subtlety is not required in this kind of art – its intentions and allegiances are front and center, right in one’s face. In fact there’s nothing subtle about any of the art in this collection, and that becomes very apparent as one makes one’s way through the hangar-like showrooms. What we are looking at is the top down aesthetic of institutional corporate art – luxury goods made for the bemusement of the fabulously wealthy collector. And this point gets made again and again – Catalan’s horse hanging off the wall by its bricked-in neck is nothing but fucking cruel looking. Paul McCarthy’s silly sod sexuality complete with penis noses, frightening giant clown heads and splayed female bodies, had me creeped out in seconds. Jeff Koons’ expertly manufactured water toys and high end cookery tools seemed right on point considering the giant freakin’ yacht with helicopter pad moored just outside the Dogana. Julia Mehrtu’s corporate decorations sit stately and untouchable on the walls of yet another hangar-like showroom doing and saying absolutely nothing untoward or controversial – well behaved, polite and inconsequential – just happy to be there. This is “painting” made from art history books and reproductions – overlaid projections of architectural plans on giant white grounds, no space, no light, no color, no real movement – handsome billboards, acquiescent and silent. It brings to mind Fukiyama’s definition of the Postmodern world –

“The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.”

And this description of our time also defines Venice as a contemporary art experience. The Biennale is filled with boat loads of this same sort of work, and the best of it (yes there is some good work) was on show in Illuminations, the curated group exhibit that brings the current trends and fashions into a collective data dump. Chris Wool and Co. all looked of the moment. Urs Fischer’s installation was excellent, because somehow, he had the stunningly theatrical Giambologna’s “Rape of the Sabine” sculpture made into a life-sized wax replica that was then used as a candle (a bad boy critical gambit he has played before). I’m sure the collectors were lining up for a shot at a piece from that expensive edition. The Clock ticked on in a black room filled with comfy white sofas – instant auteur classic. Maurizio Cattelan expanded his pigeon installation causing many of the viewers to look upwards instead of at the work in the room. Nothing like a pigeon’s backside perched overhead to get one’s attention. There were also misses, some real whiffers, by the dozens – institutional installations flown in on cargo planes, the corporate art carnival come to town. Most of the pavilions were nothing more than Six Flags thrill rides for art enthusiasts. There was the fun house, the horror house, the freak show, the ferris wheel, the tilt-a-whirl, and the many concessionary con games where you might walk away with a stuffed animal, but only if you manage to toss the ping pong ball into the too small shot glass. All of this “showbiz” is what we aim for in Art these days, and the curator of Illuminations, Bice Curiger, seems to want us to see and understand this idea from the very start. She’s installed 3 (count ’em) Tintorettos in dim light to work on our senses, warp our spaces, push us to look and look again at illusion, narrative and painterly visual daring. It turns out that our old man, Jacopo, is still a bad ass after all.

I also went to the Schnabel retrospective at the Museo Correr. The best room is the opening room with 3 giant primitive-looking backdrop paintings leaning against the walls of an 18th century grandly appointed Neo-classic meeting hall. Schnabel has always been good at smashing styles one against the other. But I have to say, the rest of the show is a bit of let down. He needs the architecture for contrast (the show is on white walls and cramped cubicles), and when the architecture isn’t there the paintings tend to diminish in power, no matter how big they are. I still have a soft spot for the earlier works, but his debt to Polke et al. is too readily apparent from the mid 80s on. The last room was the most disappointing. A schematic figure painting of a rather fey and bookish artist overlaid on a giant photograph of an exotic looking woman (who Schnabel says is now royalty) entitled “Portrait of an Artist with the Muse He’ll Never Meet” or something to that effect. Now being a fey and bookish painter myself I took umbrage to this acidic portrayal of the useless fantasist and unsuccessful artist. I understand it’s a well-deserved shot at his critics, but I would have preferred a kick ass painting rather than a thin skinned put down about his successes – beautiful Muses or not. Maybe some time with Jacopo would fire his jets – Oh well….

Today I’ve been catching up on my reading, and I’ve discovered, that this Venice Biennale was used as a scouting expedition. Many of these participants were shown and sold at the Basel Art Fair the following week. Rising prices ensued. I really don’t know what to say about that. I’ve written a few things that sounded too bleak and despairing, and I absolutely don’t want to think that way or sound that way. There is more that we have to do as artists, as painters, and it’s high time we got off our asses and did something about it. They, the power elite, won’t give it back to us, Art I mean. There’s too much unfettered, unregulated money and profit involved in the Art Economy. I’d prefer to think that I might have a bit more say about what I do in my studio, and I have no intention of being in the “perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history” business. Do you?

More Romanticism to come…

ps. I posted this on the run without too much time for editing. Please forgive the dropped sentences and misspellings. I’ll clean it up as I can…ah, the power of the internet.

6 thoughts on “Lagoons, Buffoons and Narcissistic Wheezebags

  1. I fear, that art as we know it, is dead and it must be reborn and re-invented. Not sure. I have myself no idea what to do next in art. There was a sharp rise of the importance of images the last three years, but now it seems to me as even images became over night irrelevant, as if the the ability to proof reality is lost.

    Maybe lets protect nature in the meantime or do something else.

    I really enjoy your clear writing and interesting ideas. I will be in Paris from July 8th till 15th (in Montmarte ;)) is anybody there ?

  2. Thank you for a lively survey of the Biennale. It surprised me to read that a Julian Schnabel retrospective exists anywhere, let alone at the Museo Correr. What does his work have to do with the history of Venice? The only two places I’ve seen his work in ages is in a conference room at J.P. Morgan Chase and on the walls at Wallsé, the German restaurant on West 11th Street. Somehow, that last seems most appropriate.

  3. love wallse

    the big gnarly albert oehlen in the dining room rivals the maxfield parrish mural at the king cole bar for sheer comic effect

  4. I’ve never been to Wallse but I’ve looked at the menu, and quite frankly, I think I’m missing out – looks delicious!

    And you’re right Maureen – it’s most appropriate – what with huge pink Palazzo Chupi right around the corner. It seems Schnabel is everywhere in our Postmodern Art World – paintings, cuisines, movies, architecture, design, politics, literature, magazines, beautiful muses, and JP Morgan. Very Biennale, Very Dubai indeed…

    A – I’ll have to check out the Oehlen while having a schnitzel one evening.

  5. Hans
    I understand your exhaustion with images. They flash by in such quantities and at such speed that they do indeed become irrelevant. No seeing, no enjoyment in looking just more data. I recommend reading David Shields’ Reality Hunger for an interesting take on our time and our exhaustion. But put that aside for now – you’ve got better things to do…
    I hope you enjoy your visit to Paris! What a wonderful city and filled with great painting – I’m sure you’ll have a fantastic holiday. Let me know what you think of the Courbets in the D’Orsay. Also the Manets – fantastic to see those early Modern works in the flesh!
    Safe Journey!

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