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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.

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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 events@artomi.org)

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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

Space_Available

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.”

http://space-available.tumblr.com

Concurrently in the same space:

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

newyork.tigerstrikesasteroid.com

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

www.transmitter.nyc

Tintoretto – May 2015

It’s been fun playing Biennale Bingo here in Venezia, but I come here for other reasons. As I’ve said before I feel connected here. I can’t really explain it, but I like the light, the color, the canals, the sea, the inconvenience of it all, the mazes of walkways, the endless walking, the intermittent internet, the same 5 ingredients served 1000 different ways, the Venetians, the very strange tanning opportunities at the Lido, the conversations using whatever made up words that sound Italian that I can think of, and the painting. Painting here (mostly Mannerist and Baroque painting) is a dream. I am a huge fan of Tintoretto’s work but you can not understand unless you make the trip here to see it. I discovered that years ago on my first trip to Venice. I had heard of Tinto, but aside from a few crappy reproductions, there was nothing out there. Tintoretto is a home grown, home based, hometown hero. Nearly all of his masterworks are here, and they never travel, never leave the spots where they have been permanently mounted. In the US we have no idea what this little guy managed to do, nor how his work must have influenced many of the greats that came after him. I’ve read that Caravaggio came through here at some point in his early days, and it’s probably so, because you can see the influence of Tinto on his work, especially in the compositions and the light. In fact you can see a great deal of Venetian painting in his work…, but I digress.

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I’ve written about Tintoretto and the importance of his work on many occasions, so I won’t bore you again. But I will say that when he is great, and he is great often, there is no better painter. Even today the work comes alive in exciting and complex ways – his compositions, his rhythms and movements, his brush work, and his color – still can offer solutions to many of the problems of our contemporary Postmodern Mannerism. There are 4 paintings in the Scuola di San Rocco that send me to school every time I have seen them. I’ve sat across them in this amazing hall and watched as these images move through the centuries. When they were first painted the color must have been glorious. Today they are darker and harder looking – untouched by restorers. But even so, they remain an amazing lesson in painting. Yeah, I know the place looks like a gaudy Vegas showcase, what with the gold ceiling and the mood lighting, but if you take a bit of time the images will take you away.

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There’s no way we’ll see the best of this work in a museum or a white cube – no way for a “contemporary” experience of this work. Tintoretto’s paintings, especially in San Rocco, will remain where they are. But you can get a taste of how that might look, a cleaner look at the images – first from the Biennale a few years ago when Tintoretto actually opened the show in the Giardini and looked as contemporary as our colleagues. Second from a couple of works in the Academia that were claimed from a crap church installation. These goofy portrait scenes of saints are textbook compositions for Tinto. They are the kind of images he would usually combine into a much larger composition. He’s used both his life studies and his own imagined proportions for these figures leaving us convinced of this painted reality. Additionally, by taking liberties with the forms and space he’s pushed the boundaries of what might be considered “correct art” of his time. If you look at Tintoretto’s contemporaries you’ll see that even these restrained paintings are more active, more vibrant and more “tasteless” in their depictions. What’s also nice about the few isolated works in the Academia is that the color is still intact, and it’s right there in front of you at eye level. You get the flavor of Tintoretto’s strong primary palette, the tension that he creates in his compositions and the wonderful play of incorrect light. Needless to say – all of this appeals to me.

As I come to the end of my stay here in Dorsoduro I wanted to say that my friend Dennis Bellone would have enjoyed commenting on these posts. He has been in my thoughts, and I hope that some of you have made the effort to go to his web site, see his work and read his blog immaterial-culture. Dennis will be missed by us all. My good friends Michael and Paul have been working diligently for upcoming shows and keeping in touch during this adventure! They will be the recipients of a few drunken tales of artistic debauchery when I return. And finally I want to send my deepest thanks and warmest appreciation to the very lovely, wonderful and talented Tina, who absolutely loathes the internet and nearly everything on it, but helped this clumsy aesthetic tourist through a phalanx of Venetian difficulties. Grazie!

 

Twombly & Pollock – May 2015

At Ca’ Pesaro, Venice’s MOMA, Cy Twombly is having a moment entitled “Paradise”. Of all the shows done in concert with the Biennale I thought this one was absolutely beautiful. Once again I know that I’ve been suckered in by the space where this show is sponsored. And I’ve also reached the conclusion that all galleries should be designed like Venetian palazzos. They don’t have to be big, per se. (The Doig show in the Palazzetto Tito – see previous post – is not a huge affair, but man, is it tasty!) These buildings are made for the light, they are elegant visual spaces and they make paintings look amazing. Even the churches here are awash in light from beautiful windows placed high along the cupolas. This is different than the dark dramatic barracks of Florence or the midnight theatrical caverns in Rome. Anyway, Twombly’s paintings with all their smudges, empty billboard spaces, drips and scribbles, composition tropes that usually drive me crazy, came alive in these spaces. The direct crisp light of the sun and the reflected watery light of the Grand Canal poured through the blown glass windows of these graceful rooms and massaged these paintings into reality.

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Obviously, this photo does not do this painting justice (in fact I haven’t seen one online that does). The color is off, the light is too flat and you don’t get a feel for the history at work in this space. There was a wonderful visual dialog going on between me, this room, the Grand Canal, the painting, and the different kinds of light bouncing around. Then there’s Twombly’s ephemeral entropic flowers expounding on nature and beauty, the scrawl of the Rilke poem on love and death, the processes of the painting dripping down the canvas, and that flat bright acidy blue of the billboard background that fills the space like fragrance. Visually, the room was a dream with Venice as a backdrop. You’d see the painting, glance to your right to the Grand Canal, pace back and forth, see the Baroque architecture across the way, glance back at the painting from a different vantage point. “Place is everything!” – as I’ve said before…. Yes, dammit, I was being seduced. Look, I’m not a big fan of Twombly’s painting legacy. I’ve seen too many pretenders working these tropes into the ground, but there is a mastery here, along with an elegance, that I found surprising.

The starting point for this kind of American Postmodern Abstraction is actually being shown down the way at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, a beautiful palazzo on the way to Salute and the Dogona. Jackson Pollock’s “Mural” was a watershed painting in the history of American culture. Pollock and crew didn’t really know it at the time, but “Mural” opened the way for the Postmodern world that we all exist in – AbEx broke the European Surrealist chokehold on painting and provided an endpoint to Moderism. More important, it opened up the idea that meaning and process should be one while legitimizing the idea of a pure abstraction inherent in that process. I’ve never seen this painting before, this most American of paintings, and I had to come to Venezia in order to do it. Weird. Hopefully, this painting will go on tour before it goes back into the ether. At least it should make an appearance in NYC for a little while – I’d like to see it with other works of the time. The Guggy does not allow photography of this piece so I’ve used their photo of the room and it’s not a bad shot.

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Photo from Guggenheim Twitter Feed

I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Clem to come across this massive thing. I don’t know if he saw it in the studio or installed at Peggy’s, but it probably knocked him senseless. Finally, an American painter embodying the kind of pure painting that he had been going on about since 1939! (Ok, that might piss a lot of people off, but without Clem there would not have been a Pollock.) The process in this painting is right there front and center, and though Jackson still clings to a bit of figuration, he’s dropped it into the stroke itself so completely that it exists only as a metaphor. The painting moves and keeps moving stridently across the canvas. The brush never stops loosely applying the running paint – the dripping isn’t overly done or mannered like we see in Twombly’s painting. It’s just a side effect instead of being the endgame. The color – mostly splotches of bright yellows, fireplug reds and army greens – breaks through in bits and pieces though it’s held in check by the black, white and blue gray of the drawing. In fact the whole painting is closer to drawing than to painting and therein lies it’s real audacity. You can not improvise this kind of movement at this kind of scale without drawing, and in this painting Pollock lets the drawing guide the composition. Jackson works from top to bottom from side to side and expands the reach of the image, pushes at the edges of that image to make it feel larger than it actually is. The painting crowds the room. “Mural” was and is the precedent for so many works today that we tend to forget its uniqueness and its importance. I’m lucky to be standing in front of it!

It had been raining fairly heavily while I was in the Guggy enjoying Jackson’s legacy. When I came back out into the court yard the weather had cleared leaving deep puddles and a heavy warm haze in the air. It was exhilarating to see the way the bright light of Venice was now turning everything into pure vibrant color. The leaves, the flowers, the buildings, the canals, even the aesthetic tourists – everything was sparkling. For the visually inclined this city is like no other and it’s no wonder that painting was a natural part of its history. I really do love it.

 

Scully & Doig – May 2015

There are a number of shows going on at the same time as the Biennale. These exhibits are usually sponsored by galleries with the not-so-transparent intention of selling work to the collectors coming in town for a bit of Biennale sport. A solo show in a palazzo in one of the great art cities of history is a mouth watering opportunity for any artist (I know a lot of artists that would donate a kidney to show here during this particular party). It’s a very tasty, ego-inflating thing, let’s face it. This moment in the spotlight can also be an exciting opportunity for the ambitious gallerist. The “pop-up” gallery is a great way to connect with the incoming collectors who are attending the Biennale for shopping purposes. Additionally, if the gallery does a solid for the artist but doesn’t rep him or her, this might be the moment to poach them away from their current situation. Or if that’s not a possibility the clever gallerist might be able to piggy-back their own artists onto a collector looking for new blood. The opportunities for business at this level and in this setting are astounding if it’s done with the right sponsors, the right artists and a willingness to risk big cash. You might enjoy reading this fairly informative interview with Alain Servias about how these kinds of things work  – highly recommended.

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Photo from Sean Scully Press Assets

In a truly magnificent palazzo, Palazzo Falier on the Grand Canal, is a show by Sean Scully entitled “Land Sea”. It contains some recent abstractions, probably made for the exhibit, along with a number of older works to fill out the large space. The show’s basically a hyper-sales pitch for the artist, and the paintings are hung in an absolutely stunning setting. Scully’s newer works have gotten much looser, the paint handling is more offhand, drippier, the compositions have opened up and become less structured. The predominant color in these works is an ultramarine blue that occasionally gets lightened, muddied or blurred with acidy yellows or workman reds, dropping the primaries into secondaries and/or tertiaries. In these landscape-y blue works there is a broader swing from dark to light, the stripes open up while the paintings remain more monochromatic. It may be interesting to see where Scully takes this new space and openness. Never fear, there are the usual colorful stripes as well! The older works on view are the structured checkerboards in obvious grays, blacks, whites and earth tones. All in all it’s another show of Postmodern abstraction with all the familiar strategies and tropes in place. No great surprises here. Add the dramatic backdrop of twin windowed observation decks overlooking the Grand Canal and you can’t help enjoying the moment.

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Peter Doig is showing at the Palazzetto Tito, just down the way from the Ponte dei Pugni which is near my favorite place to get an evening drink while watching the Venetians go by. I’m already predisposed to liking this show ’cause it’s in my (pretend) neighborhood. The solid thing about Doig’s work is that there’s absolutely nothing new going, no innovations or critiques, but it’s fun at times to see an artist ply beloved and time worn painting clichés as if they were still relevant. This is called retro-painting. Doig’s color is hearty in blocks and stretches, the figuration is respectfully abstracted following Diebenkorn’s and Hockney’s examples, and there’s a bit of Surreal spectacle and art historical play in them. This is Postmodernism done well, and when it works as it does here, it can be pleasing. Especially in the setting of this marvelous building. Once again just like Scully’s show – place is everything. Ok, here’s an old saw for you – where you show (I know, I know, the viciousness of context) can make a huge difference to how collectors and aesthetic tourists experience your work.  And it’s without a doubt that both of these artists’ works benefitted tremendously from the historic places where they were shown. At this level, for these kinds of collected artists – place is everything.

There was an entrance fee for this particular pop-up gallery, which I found a bit strange, but I guess there wasn’t enough in the budget to crack the nut (rent) for that building. Never mind, I’m on an aesthetic vacation… and besides ImaginaCafé is just down the street – caipirinhas await.

Dogona – May 2015

In a kick in the teeth to the Biennale Costco crew, Pinault’s minions have practically emptied their beautiful exhibition space of everything. In fact the entire exhibit, “Slip of the Tongue”, is nearly invisible in the space of that building’s gorgeous interior. And that’s probably a good thing, because most of the the art installed is not the usual art fair anti-art, but the usual institutional non-art. It hardly exists at all. A couple of times I became very angry about the layout of the show – Sturtevant’s recreation of Stella’s painting hung on a crappy wall up on the second floor. If it had been hung elsewhere it might have been better able to make its point about originality and assimilation. The room that contained the Nancy Speros made them seem flimsy and tired, hung as they were on the brushed concrete walls. They needed more light, less grayness. Throughout the show unnecessary penises, vaginas and other tired bodily organs would occasionally pop into view trying to vie for your attention. A detailed toilet seat, a Rodin body cast, a tree stump, a piano covered in applied goop, a Picasso – it all sounds wonderful in theory, but visually the art on view couldn’t hold the walls in that building. Look, the truth is that building is a fucking monster – historic and contemporary at once it is layered with the life of an empire – and the work it shows has to be just as thick in visual associations or it just gets lost. A photograph of a hairy masturbator won’t cut it in that space. In the end I decided that this particular show would have been much more interesting in an easier space – more of a white cube experience. The Dogona made mince meat out of it. As I’ve said before – place is everything.

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The other Pinault experience is at the Palazzo Grassi and it is far more enjoyable. The show is a retrospective of Martial Raysse’s work, an artist who I do not know. It covers the 1960s forward, and it mixes present and past with panache. You can pretty much suss out the 60s stuff straight away – that work is really of its time – photo based, advertising color and composition, very Euro Pop-pie. But as time went on he became a more “conservative” Pop-surrealist and the paintings are more personal and introspective in nature. Though many of the works suffer from the aging straight male artist thing – quirky depictions of louche behavior by younger sexy types – the work manages to get thicker visually. He is a painter, and you can tell he enjoys painting. There were a couple of vitrines containing some smaller works and drawings that held some wonderful images. I would have stolen one little painting of a nude – about 9” x 6” – where the image and the paint handling just clicked in an offhand and masterly way. Too bad the guard was practically breathing down my neck at that moment…. Or maybe not – I have no desire to be cooling my heels in a Venetian jail, thank you very much….

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The show also presented a couple of Rayesse video presentations in half dark rooms – Surrealist inspired, psycho-sexual melodramas, that I spent no time with at all. My apologies if I’ve missed the artist’s intentions. In a particularly droll minute and a half that I spent in the first video room – a man in a wolf mask drags a desperate costumed woman up to a bedroom against her will. There was little doubt as to where this film was going. And there was absolutely no doubt that I would not be visiting the other video presentation. Ah, filmmaking…. Better to just stick with the goofy paintings for the rest of the exhibit.

Biennale – May 2015

This exhibit is difficult to describe in a short post.  The Giardini and the Arsenale contain Okwui Enwezor’s curated show “All the World’s Futures”. The exhibition is sprawling, packed and stacked, retro feeling, institutional, Postmodern and Mannered, but when it’s good, it can be highly enjoyable. Disclaimer straight off: I go to these things to see painting and sculpture. I really don’t give the installations, vitrines, dark rooms or shitty tv screens a fair shake. I’ve never had the patience to stand against a wall or sit on a bench to get through a movie – except in certain instances when I’ve been arrested by very strong imagery or by extremely lush photography. The problem for me is that art is made for these kinds of Costco exhibits these days, and product, preferably room-filling and cheaply insurable, is what curators want to show. And this show is no different. There’s not a lot of painting or sculpture to see, but there are a lot of “rooms” filled with stuff – piled up, hanging, scattered and/or artfully placed. When I did find a painting, a sculpture, an object or even a “room” that intrigued me it was a very welcome thing. Some of the images that I responded to and spent a bit of time with were by Kerry James Marshall, Chris Ofili, Melvin Edwards, Lorna Simpson, and Glenn Ligon. These were purely visual things – things to look at, images to see in a certain way, pictures that would unveil meaning by looking and engaging. And some of them were extremely beautiful – which was not the point of the exhibition – that I understand. But nevertheless, I enjoyed them!

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The state pavilions in the Giardini were basically a wash. And once again, the torrents of accumulated stuff in some of these lovely little buildings is amazing to behold. Look, I’ll say it again to those that care… I’ve never had the urge, the psychic distress, to pile stuff in a room much like those people on reality shows like Hoarding: Buried Alive. As art, as an aesthetic experience this kind of work’s meaning is totally lost on me. But there was one thing that did stay with me, and I thought it was a bit of an anomaly among these installations. I really enjoyed the Korea exhibition entitled “The Ways of Folding Space & Flying” by Moon Kyungwon & Jeon Joonho. The entire pavilion was turned into a video installation. The cinematography was stunning, and we were surrounded and encompassed by beautiful images on giant HighDef screens. The color and light were astonishing! It was one of those rare instances where I have been totally awed by a video image. All the tropes of popular cinema were on display, breaks in time, close ups, camera movement, slow motion, etc., in service of the story, but in the actual spaces of the building you had to keep readjusting your vision, moving along with the lens, unfolding the story through the syncopated images. The narrative was split into three distinct visions of the same incident. And it all comes together after watching through the windows out front along with the two rooms inside.  The clever part was that the video is set in the Giardini and the Biennale, past, present and future, and it was one of the few installations where the artists actually addressed the issues of time, place and this particular exhibition itself.

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The vaporetto ride back to Dorsoduro from the garden was a wonderful thing. It was raining, the boat was pitching, unsteady aesthetic tourists were grabbing whatever they could to right themselves. Most were wrapped up in inexpensive disposable  weather gear purchased for a few euros from the ever-present tchotchke kiosks – red, yellow, or  blue plastic ponchos and flimsy umbrellas – and complaining about how chilly and wet the weather was. The locals just kind of ignored us and purposely moved to the steady parts of the boat. Ahead, the Dogona was getting closer. Past, present and future came together. And I thought how lucky I am to be alive. To be here now. To see all that I have seen, all that I will see, for whatever time I have. These kinds of ephemeral moments happen in the most unexpected places, at the most unexpected times.