Autumnal Equinox

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Sausalito
 

It has been a summer of strange and wonderful places, surreal incidences and itchy portents. At the moment I’m on a balcony of a hotel overlooking the town of Sausalito. In another time this town might have been called an American hamlet, a bedroom community, but today for some inexplicable reason it is considered a tourist mecca. Below there are hundreds of sun glassed weekend bikers clad in black spandex, cleated shoes, and plastic airflow helmets. More surprising are the packs of foreign sightseers making their way to and from the ferry (mostly from Italy and Japan.) The open air tour buses circle the marina entertaining the paying customers with – what? fuck all? the bay? the parking lot? the boats in the harbor? what???? What is so interesting? It’s lost on me. From my balcony Sausalito looks very Mediterranean, but with a decidedly American accent. The area is quite charming. It’s quiet. And there’s nothing to do, hence its charm.  Its proximity to San Fransisco, where there are sight seeing opportunities, is also a big plus. But unfortunately, I will not be making my way into SF for sights and museums and really pungent sweaty seals at the wharf. I won’t have time. This evening I’m going to the wedding of a friend, and tomorrow Delta economy awaits for a butt-numbing 5 plus hour flight back to NYC. It’s an Un-trip, a faux vacation, a red-eye-turn-around. But as I sit here looking out to the bay I’m reminded of the south of France and the coast of Italy in a very real way. I’m happy.

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ABEX room in the New Whit (those folks wouldn’t move…)

 

As for Art, well that’s becoming more of an after thought in this freaky summer heat. I recently went to the new Whitney at the end of the High Line, and was impressed and disheartened all at the same time by the kind of museum that the Whitney has become. There is a fab new restaurant on street level – all outsourced, glassy and très chic. The expansive lobby has an open access bookstore – no walls, no separation just an area in which one might purchase stuff. The museum itself feels a lot like the kind of 21st century museum you’d see featured on level 5 of a video game like Grand Theft Auto, or to be more precise, it looks like one of those 20 story shiny glass POMO condo buildings erected specifically for one-percent pied-à-terre investors looking for a tax break and a pathway to dual citizenship. Inside the museo the Starchitect’s combination of open walls and high-end hard wood floors gives one a sense of floatation and ever emptying space. And it’s this lack of place and gravity that has come to define so many of our new museums. It describes a kind of life spent in airport lounges and hotel penthouses. And this groundless existence has an effect. The wall art in this world is little more than a backdrop for party photo-ops, camera fodder for the attendees which are then posted in all the online “features” about who is in and who is on. The upper floor (7? I don’t know I was too busy floating about…) with the ABEX paintings has a great deal of open space and torrents of light pouring in through the enormous glass façade. DeKoo’s brush stroke landscape looks a classic, but it feels really, really, REALLY old fashioned. (I take no pleasure in saying that.) Newman looks positively inert in the sheer raking light, and  the”curators” have hung a Pollock painting wrong way up, or as my Mom used to say, “arse over tip”, because the painting was once photographed that way for a fashion shoot featured in a 1950s Vogue magazine. This kind of thinking only serves to drive home the point of flotation and dislocation – just like Jeff Koons’ balls.

New York Groove

At a recent dinner my good friend Paul Corio assured me that the painting world is sound. Paul was adamant that there are a number of young abstractionists making new and exciting work. (Paul will be posting his Fall Roundup soon.) So, I calmed down a bit. But online there’s very little being written about new ideas and new visions. Most of of the articles I’ve come across are about Art as Economy, art as a price point, art as gentrification and the absolute importance of curation and curators. In fact these articles are all so similar in tone and style that it’s almost as if the writers have been cutting and pasting from the same article.

In the Art World 2.0 innovation takes place ONLY in the market place not so much in the studios. We are assured that business models are the new focus for the “avant-garde.” A good recent example of this kind of Forbesian art write up was on Art Net. It listed the 17 Disruptors Changing the US Art World. The best thing in this otherwise dry and tasteless article about the business of art is a blurb about the fabulous Cady Noland’s continuing resistance and formidable insistence on being left out of this hack game. Her unabashed use of the “business friendly” court system to make her point must be particularly galling to these “good” profit-minded folk. The art world’s continuing fascination and insistence on business, ownership, copyright and litigation over provenance are also great examples of how we have reached the point where today’s blue chip artists must employ a phalanx of copyright lawyers and litigation specialists in order to make their work. In fact for certain well-known artists having their law firms on speed dial is probably part of their creative process, or in the parlance of MFA/BFA, part of their “practice.”

 

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Photo of the installation with Michael’s work from OMI

Work Goes On

It’s not easy coming to terms with this new Economic Modernist world especially in the studio. But I do know a few artists who are business savvy while working hard in their studios trying to engage with the visual realities of our new century! Michael Zahn and Paul Corio have been pushing their work into new territory and it’s been fun to watch.

Michael is currently showing at OMI upstate New York, and I’ve spent a bit of time mulling over his installation through photos. This show in combination with the three month series of abstract painting shows Michael curated at the beginning of this year have been a tour-de-force for thoughtful and beautiful abstract painting. “Oysters with Lemon” was a breathe of fresh air even as the painting world seemed stifled and congested by Zombie formalism, Retro Myopia and Post-Postmodern Ennui. Michael brought a new visual force into his work and into his thinking by confronting Postmodern abstraction from the Minimalist 60s, the experimental formalist 70s, the Neo-Geo 80s and the fragmented New Abstraction of the 90s. This new series of paintings, one group of tondi first seen in OWL and now again at OMI, encounter the organizing power of the electronic reality we engage with every day – the super flat world most of us spend entirely too much of our existence navigating. Michael has pulled familiar icons and signs, the “virtual communication” emoji that we use as a shorthand for our feelings, and painted them into bright and menacing realities sitting on the walls. In person these paintings feel like a different form of programmed figuration.

In his green “emoji” entitled “Dennis” Michael recreates a “received” grey text bubble – the emoji both grinning and grimacing at once – the painting becomes a warped electronic abstract “figure” pushing its way into the visual world. It’s both an object and a figurative image at once. Surprisingly there’s a great deal of emotion wrapped up in these wonderfully strange abstractions, and a real visual engagement emerges from Michael’s perfect surfaces and specific color. I also think that this particular tondo shows how fearless Michael has been in portraying emotion while painting with such rigorously objective visual theoretics.

 

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Photo from Paul’s Tumblr

 

Geometries and Space

Paul has been showing non-stop over the last few months, and he’s been pushing the boundaries of his own works with every new show. My favorite of these new paintings has opened up the space in his work in a very different way. Paul had been treating his surfaces as a whole, his color, patterns and geometries doing the heavy illusionistic work creating a kind of 60’s optical crunch. But Paul was also being playful with these patterns throwing in a hiccup to these systems and sending the illusions along different pathways. These optical glitches would change the expectations, upset the rhythms. But in this painting Paul has gone back further, historically, and opened up his geometries to the idea of actual visual illusion which plays against the “push and pull” or optical punch of his earlier color geometries. This painting begins to create its own deeper illusionistic space. The geometry feels “figurative” tracing the surface, then falling away into the distance only to return again. The bands describe and then break the edges of the canvas, fade in and out, moving forward and back. This surprisingly fast visual movement is clever, open, alive and visually engaging. It’s almost got a 19th Century feel, a kind of Impressionist’s take on the Op movement reintroducing light, illusion and physical imagery into the optics and color theoretics. This painting is an exciting challenge not only to Paul’s own history, but to the recent history of abstract geometric painting.

 
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Photo from George Hofmann’s web site

 

The fabulous George Hofmann has posted some amazing watercolors and new paintings on his site. George continues to push the boundaries of the lyrical abstraction/post painterly abstraction of the 1960s to create something really different. I love his paintings on the wood panels and this one from 2014-2015 entitled Scatter Flight is really daring. He attacks the surface of his work so thoroughly that the paint is barely there. The false wood grains, the graphic textures, are almost like drawing – they lead the eye, push it up and through the paint. The paint itself is always moving, always alive even as it breaks across the surface. It’s a lesson in seeing how far a painter can pare back the painted surface and still create an engaging image, still create a visual experience of imagery. This kind of tack reminds me of my friend Dennis Bellone’s work as well. Dennis was constantly stripping back the paint, the image, to find a moment of near dissolution where the image, not the painting, would still hold together. I don’t see this as provisional, but as a way to define a painted image whether that image is photographic or abstract. And I think imagery, whether abstract or figurative, is an exciting place to begin for painters at this point in our history.

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Photo of Dennis Bellone’s work 97.3 from the tumblr of the Show “Space Available”

 

After years of appropriation and the Postmodern reworking of historical and popular imagery it’s interesting that painters are beginning to create a different kind of visual interaction with images. It may be because we are so inundated with these things. It may be because we are exhausted from the Retro-Greenbergs, the Retro-Formalists, the Retro-Figuratives and the absolute deluge of reworked Retro-Abstraction. The artists that I’ve seen creating interesting work are thinking about and experimenting with images both as abstraction and as figuration – and they’re playing with the focus and content of those images. Maybe Paul is right – there are great things forming in the studios…. We’ll see!

One thought on “Autumnal Equinox

  1. Something you said about de Kooning looking old hit a chord.Some of these issues came up in an exchange I had on Hyperallergic with Joseph Nechvatal.

    Martin Mugar • 2 months ago
    I don’t think that you need to encourage anyone to be anti-modern or anti-transcendent when those ideas are universal in the art world.The “Forever Now” show was for the most part ironic in its treatment of abstraction and therefore fits into the deconstructive ethos.Unless you feel that it should be banished from being a relevant pursuit because of its patriarchal overtones? Here is my treatment of abstraction and “Forever Now”issues:http://martinmugar.blogspot.co

    Joseph Nechvatal Martin Mugar • 2 months ago
    Thank you Martin. I read with great interest your thoughtful essay. To be derivative is perfectly normal in societies that restrict their art to classical formula, but do we really want to be in that boat at this late date? One thing you said really jumped at me: “Either we use abstraction ironically or pathetically (with pathos), or expunge any remnant of the self and let art blend into technology by destroying the boundaries of the human and the machine.” My feeling is that there is greater range between these two options. I am exploring the self (myself) through art that blends with media/technology by blurring the boundaries of the human and the machine.

    Martin Mugar Joseph Nechvatal • a month ago
    Another essay I wrote that puts in context 20thc Platonism
    http://martinmugar.blogspot.co

    Martin Mugar Joseph Nechvatal • 2 months ago
    When Nietzsche proclaimed the death of god some people danced in the streets,for me it is a truth that I accept but one that nonetheless I experience as unremitting sorrow. Your essay and the images from the Paris show did succeed for a moment in putting the art of the 20th century further into the past than I had previously experienced it. I enjoyed that shift of perspective.Here is another take on contemporary abstraction. http://tinyurl.com/oh57q3c

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