“For Nature, who abhors mannerism, has set her heart on breaking up all styles and tricks, and it is so much easier to do what one has done before than to do a new thing, that there is a perpetual tendency to a set mode.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson Nominalist and Realist
What you are looking at is David Reed’s painting from the 1970s entitled #90 – it’s somewhere after Pop/Minimalism and right at the beginning of Postmodern Neo-Abstraction (an amalgamation of 80’s Neo-Geo and 90’s Conceptual Abstraction.) In this work he’s commenting both on the ubiquitous material formalism of the period and the idea of the previous generation’s “signature” Action Painter’s brush stroke. His challenge incorporated both the Pop/Minimalist theoretics and media contingencies inherent in reproduction and replication AND the physical/material theoretics of institutional academic painting. He’s doing it by synthesizing these programs through the still viable (in the 70s) construct of a Postmodern critique. His solution to the painting conundrum is one of the most elegant reformulations of America’s dueling endgame painting movements of the 60s. It’s also the beginning of a new form of institutional Mannerism that quickly became THE WAY to approach the problem of endgame painting. His work has the look and feel of the lens-based image, but it is not. It is painting made to look like a reproduction. There has been a plethora of artists working in this same manner ever since, with hundreds, if not thousands of artists, coming to very similar conclusions about Postmodern painting, brush strokes and vision. In the meantime David has gone beyond this painting’s emphatic materialism to earn his place as one of the foremost Mannerist imagist painters of the last thirty years. His works have explored nearly every incarnation of the brush stroke; what it does, what it means and how it exists in painting history. And he has done it by expanding and breaking the grounds of the Corporate Postmodern Billboard and collaging his “manufactured” painted images across the surfaces of an highly artificial spatial/temporal ground. David Reed is abstraction’s Bronzino.
The construct that delivered this idea of the brush stroke, the ongoing Postmodern critique of painting in general, is based on the complementary techniques of both replication and reproduction. Replication refers to imagery, reproduction to process. The second generation of this Neo-Abstractionist critique is of course embodied in the now very popular work of Christopher Wool. And it looks like this:
“The first duty of life is to be as artificial as possible.”
Oscar Wilde “Phrases And Philosophies For The Use Of The Young”
This painting is not. For all of its technological impressiveness it is yet another clever and timely reiteration of Magritte’s pipe. With this kind of painting we have arrived at that point in the Postmodern critique where the image of paint has become the “paint”. We reference yet again what has been referenced, and we are doing so through yet another medium. Basically, this is a reproduction of a lens replication of a painting happenstance – the splotch, the drip, the remainder of the brush stroke. It’s a technique quite unlike Reed’s which examines painting as-if through a lens. Its subject is the emptying ground, the media itself, swallowing up the disappearing reality of the act of painting, the act of anything, really. In Wool’s work we don’t encounter abstraction straight on any longer. Nor are we constructing or composing a painting in order to engage with it in a visual sense. Instead we have moved behind the lens and within the synchronous program in order to feature the workings of machine-made images themselves. All that is left to see on these overtly mannered, computer-collaged surfaces, is the idea and fabrication of the ground itself, or rather, an image of the ground – a secondary studio experience of some form of a former vibrant painted reality. As Raphael Rubenstein described it, this is how Provisional Painting works. For so many painters in this school, painting as a visual experience is something lost to the past, some former human condition, something that can not and probably should not be done any more. And because visual painting can no longer be engaged outside the mediated experience, what we are given instead are “painted” objects, things to encounter, things to purchase, stockpile and trade in the moment that we look up from our screens.
“Photographic seeing, when one examines its claims, turns out to be mainly the practice of a kind of dissociative seeing, a subjective habit which is reinforced by the objective discrepancies between the way that the camera and the human eye focus and judge perspective.”
Susan Sontag “On Photography”
Advanced painting in the early 21st Century, especially abstract painting, leans heavily on Provisional visual techniques enhanced and disseminated through programmed replication. This kind of work made for a certain kind of optical engagement is described by Sontag’s above observation about dissociative seeing. And make no mistake, that dissociative viewing is the difference between optical painting and visual painting. In order to find meaning in the provisional we must see THROUGH the machine, the program. The object itself must also remain provisional, in other words, an art-like thing. And so there is a preference toward mannered actions or highly “theatrical” presentations of painting processes. It’s a new kind of action painting without any outright action taking place. The paintings employ “hand-made” fucked up grounds overlaid with machine-made reproductions of institutional studio techniques scattered upon the endless surfaces of billboard junk space. This type of “painting” must then be disseminated through lens based media, experienced online in photos and blog commentary or published in Taschen-style presentations. When we see and experience the object first hand, in the flesh so to speak, the actual physical encounter, more often than not, reveals that the object is shoddy, unmade, and indeed, provisional. It looks like a Hollywood Prop, something made specifically for the fracturing gloss of the lens/program, a suggestion of something that “appears” FOR the lens while it dematerializes before one’s eyes. In this regard the “real” experience of the work becomes the after-experience, the Post-game wrap-up, so to speak. The “painted” object finds its meaning not in its being, not as it’s revealed, or in its experience, but as it’s re-presented, contextualized through other media. This third generation of Postmodern Neo-Abstraction, can and does, reproduce painting-like products without addressing first person visual involvement with originality, talent, quality, beauty, ugliness, specificity, thought, critique or irony. All of these “qualities” of former Art have now been quantified and subsumed into the lens based programs preferred by this new institutional elite. Painters no longer have to be accomplished, practiced, eloquent or expert – our job has become to simply re-contextualize replications of paintings, or indeed, absolutely anything that has been uploaded. Once a context, any context, has been incorporated and disseminated about the work by the program, it can and does turn everything, even the most abject or overworked product, the most absurd or grand idea, into Art, and further, into Critique. We are no longer bounded and defined by the realities of our fleshy experiences, we no longer HAVE TO SEE anything in the first person, never confront our own limitations in order to participate as an Artist, Critic, Curator, Collector, Theorist, or even as a Culture Consumer. The seamless len based program replicates and reproduces “Art” by, for and of the masses.
“I am the poet of the body,
And I am the poet of the soul.”
Walt Whitman “Leaves of Grass”
In the past it was the connection to Nature that was the catalyst for a new critique, a new vision. This is a large part of the Romantic attitude. It was the way to move from the strictures of an artificial existence and an artificial mode. All through Art History when an idea had reached a Mannered apex there would suddenly appear a new idea connected to fleshy vision, to an actual encounter with the world right in front of the artists’ eyes. When we’re looking at Manet’s picnic the world slips sideways. Why? Well it’s not only the critique of academic vision and institutional indoctrination that’s being presented, it’s Manet’s version of vision, his own understanding of his life in the painting. He’s describing nature through a changed vision. Temporal space collapses in this new Modern world and Manet SEES it, paints it. What makes the painting new, dramatic, disturbing is exactly this temporal shift to vision. He’s rebelling against the strictures of history and the artificiality of his own profession, his own time, and ultimately his own understanding of what he is seeing. However, our time is different. And I’m not so sure any longer that this sort of visual rebellion can happen – simply because we no longer connect to Nature, we no longer engage in it, no longer SEE it.
“I am Nature.”
What I’m trying to understand, what I’ve been struggling with all this past summer, is the nature of Nature itself. What is it, how do we experience it, how do we interpret it, how do we express it, where do we find it? McLuhan made the assertion that once the first satellite rounded the globe, there was no longer Nature. We had contained our entire world through our media. Today, you can’t walk down the street without having your life documented, cataloged and used in some way by some device, some lens, some program. So I’ve looked inward to see if there might be anything close to “nature” existing there, and truthfully, I’ve been horrified by my own artificiality, the ease with which I participate in the program. Look, when I thought about it, I came to the conclusion that nearly every physical occurrence within our bodies can be modified and controlled by electronic, chemical, or surgical means. Christ we are, nearly all of us, cyborgs, mechanized humans (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah…fact and fiction, Marko, keep it real, please.) I then turned to my emotions, surely something there? But even those personal experiences can be and have been controlled and focused through social mores, copious amounts of pharmaceutical concoctions (ritalin anyone?) and the “realities” of electronic existence. Everything, including our most intimate relationships, are defined by these new programs, by the ever present “realities” of programs, both analog and digital. So what is natural, what is real, in this environment, in us? What exists outside or in spite of the program? Does anything? And if so what does it look like? Can any of us, especially now at the beginning of the 21st Century, truly claim, as Jackson did, to be “Nature”?
The problem, as I see it, isn’t necessarily in discovering “truth” – what it means to be human etc. We are a new kind of animal, like it or not. Yes, truth may set one free, but as Postmodernism has shown us, EVERYTHING we encounter in the program, every thing swallowed up by the program, has a kind of “truth” (truthiness?) and that truth can be and always is manipulated. So in desperation we’ve turned our search toward Reality hoping that in our daily encounters we might find some moment that isn’t programmed, a moment outside of the program – what’s Real today? But this is problematic as well. For instance in NYC recently we experienced an earthquake and a hurricane within the same week. Unprecedented experiences to say the least. They would have seemed WAY out of the ordinary, scary even, just 10 years ago. But the speed and deftness with which the media encapsulated the physical realities of those fleshy occurrences was truly astonishing. Astonishing because the program made these once life defining moments into everyday events. In one grand moment a commentator was televised actually standing in foamy raw sewage in order to illustrate the “reality” of the narrative. And none of us thought that this programmed “reality” was out of the ordinary. Not even Nature, as we once knew it, once were in awe of it, once were slaves to it, interrupted or changed the course of the narrative formed through the constantly streaming media reality.
We can not, do not, acknowledge the reality of our own existences, our own natures, any longer. We can not see outside the program, can not remove ourselves from the artificial existence in which we exist. The rebellion is programmed, the Romantic inclination to question codified and incorporated like a virus. For me this describes the Postmodern Condition.
Which brings me back to my concerns for vision and painting. If our bodies are manipulated by our products and procedures, our minds overwhelmed by a streaming narrative, our vision blurred and refocused by lenses, then what is Real, what is Reality, and further, what is Natural, what is Nature? And then how do we see it, how do we paint it?
End of the first part…