Archive for March, 2012

And now for something completely different

Without elaborating much, this is a conversation I had via email with my cousin, a retired Washington D.C. attorney with an encyclopedic knowledge of film, and his friend from Kenyon College, Dave Roberts, who is an expert on math. We were trying to figure out whether or not there are random elements in great art, whether they matter, and then, eventually, whether or not art is fundamentally about “newness” or about something else. I also got sidetracked onto the subject of freedom and free will. Somehow all of this seems tied together, but I have a hard time connecting the dots. When Brian veered toward his distinction between “newness” and fundamental value, in creative work, he got close to what  seems to matter quite a bit in the world of visual art right now, to the detriment of quality. Over the past century, the world of visual art has idolized the New, and Brian’s unabashedly ultra-conservative position on the world of film, in particular, is that this has done almost nothing but corrode the intrinsic value of the art form. Godard is something of a villain in Brian’s world. For him, substance is all that matters, and that substance—story and character, essentially—can be as old as the ocean. Newness is beside the point. Yet, the way I look at it, when you see great work, you have a sense that you’re seeing something for the first time, and that feeling of freshness, of seeing something anew—that’s a component of creative experience that’s essential to what art is. It means the work is alive, and you’re alive. Define that word “alive”, or that feeling of “new” for that matter, and you’ve unpacked all these issues and made them clearly understandable, but that’s a tough job. I’m just not sure how great art works, what it ultimately “means”, why it seems to be impossible to mechanize—and what all these questions we explore here actually mean in relation to human behavior and human experience. But I’m pretty sure the best art tries to manifest what it means to be alive and it involves all of these issues we were addressing.

Brian: I don’t read the comics as regularly as I once did, but last Sunday’s Dilbert caught my attention.  In it, Dilbert espoused the following theory More

A way of not knowing

Soren Kierkegaard

When I was in my mid-teens, one night, I was seized with the classic existentialist question: why is there something rather than nothing? It was a bit more complex, and the experience I had felt more like a frightening recognition than a question, but that was the heart of it: along with a sense of absolute certainty that there was no possible meaning to anything in life. It was as if I’d stepped out of our back door into the Void. Anyone who has been seized with this kind of questioning knows how overwhelming it can be. Those who haven’t been obsessed this way will probably scratch their heads and point out that the question itself hardly means anything. What possible answer is there? But that’s exactly the problem, when you are consumed by this overwhelming hunger to know “why” you are alive.

I was reminded of this recently when I came across a little meditation on anxiety in The New York Times, in which the writer quoted the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard:

Though he was a genius of the intellectual high wire, Kierkegaard was a philosopher who wrote from experience. And that experience included considerable acquaintance with the chronic, disquieting feeling that something not so good was about to happen. In one journal entry, he wrote, “All existence makes me anxious . . . the whole thing is inexplicable . . . “

I thought: that little sentence I’ve boldfaced pretty much nails it. That’s exactly what I went through. So for several years in my teens all of life seemed meaningless, pointless—but not depressing. I wasn’t depressed at all, not in any clinical sense. Good appetite, decent grades, went to the prom with Cindy Bethel. Got into college. But life seemed like Shakespeare’s tale told by an idiot . . . signifying nothing. I looked at everything, good and bad, beautiful and ugly, just and unjust, life and death, and I thought: what’s the point? Not because I was frustrated or disappointed. It was as if I’d been knocked completely out of all my ordinary frames of reference and was, in an anguished way, trying to remember what had once seemed so compelling about getting up in the morning. I had no urge to die, or otherwise escape this state of limbo, because I knew there was no escape. The escape would have been just as empty as what I was fleeing. It wasn’t that I was upset about injustice or America’s materialistic values or our involvement in a foreign war or how hard it was to make a left turn into the village Starbucks. (If there’d been a Starbucks back then.) Nothing made sense. Yet this is when I started getting serious about painting.

A year or so earlier, I’d found some small starter oil paints my father had More

Slow and steady

Four Plums

Four Plums is an oil-on-linen still life I’m going to show in the fall at Oxford Gallery, in a two-person show, the first I’ve had there. It’s the sort of thing I want to keep doing as I build a portfolio of work specifically for that show. I’m under the gun a bit, yet I’m changing the way I work as part of my effort to present the best work I can do. I’ve replaced some economy paint with a more expensive line, and I’ve noticed a real difference in the way the paint handles, but I’m still not sure if it’s the quality of the paint or simply the fact that it’s new. The other tubes were getting old, since I use fairly thin layers of oil and a tube can last me years–if it’s a color I don’t favor. If it’s several years old, it thickens and gets harder to use without some dicey thinning. Yet buying the new paint, using better materials, was only part of a  larger commitment I’m making to this show in the fall. I’m also resigning myself to taking whatever more time than I might have devoted in the past to finishing  a painting properly. What I’m finding is that when I surrender to the natural pace of a given painting, as a way of committing to the best possible outcome, the act of painting will flow the way it should, and I’ll feel more secure about the results as I paint—because I don’t move forward until I’m satisfied with the work I’m doing at the time. I might go back to that area again and again, but if I’m as careful and accurate with it as I can be, from the start, it sets me up for more effective finishing touches later on. I’m not saying I was doing rushed work in the past, but sometimes I would ignore frustration and plow ahead, forcing things, instead of listening to my reactions. I guess all I’m saying is that I’m working in a way that feels more natural to me, rather than trying to paint with a method some other painters I know are using.

There’s some deep connection between the tactile feel of applying paint, in a way where each brush stroke brings a little ping of satisfaction, partly because it’s so carefully considered, that conveys some hard-to-quantify freshness and life in the finished work. It doesn’t make much logical sense that the feel of the activity results in a more convincing look, but that’s what I keep discovering, over the years, and then repeatedly ignoring, when I’m under pressure or impatient to be done. I am putting myself under a self-imposed deadline here, which motivates me to work faster, because I’m hoping to contribute a couple dozen paintings to the show, which means, ideally, I’d like to create maybe eighteen new paintings. I’ve already finished a few, but I still have more than a dozen to paint between now and September. I can do the math and I know how much time I have for each one. Yet it seems that I need to forget the deadlines and try to do only what a good, careful pace requires, which threatens to slow me way down. Here’s the paradox, in the image I’m working on now, of a ceramic bowl, when I slow down and forget about how much of the image I want to finish on a given day—and just focus on getting every stroke done properly, every color applied after long consideration—I begin to see how what I’m doing in one area can be duplicated in another, I spot parallels between a color or value in one part of the object and other parts, and I find myself getting more done than I expected. By ignoring the clock, I discover efficiencies that actually save time. By slowing down, I speed the process. Not always, but I seem to remember a line from the band Genesis back in the 70s: you gotta get in to get out. Something like that seems to be operating in this surrender to the required pace of the work.

Molly Crabapple works the crowd

Molly Crabapple with Great American Bubble Machine

Bob Cenedella would love this. Illustrator and fine artist Molly Crabapple is using Kickstarter to fund her political paintings. It’s a way of doing an end run around the galleries, the collectors, the whole apparatus of how the art world rolls forward. It’s a great idea, partly because she spins off from each project a line of small novelty items and even gives her lesser contributors artifacts of the process itself: old brushes, a used palette, preparatory sketches, or little tchotchkes adorned with little drawings. Or, if you can’t give much, you simply get access to what she’s up to at particular times. It’s a bit Warholian, a way of turning the process of making a painting into a business with investors, and yet it doesn’t reek of cynicism or greed. She wants to get the work done without being beholden to anyone or anything other than the idea that drives the work. Still not clear on who actually gets the one big painting that spawns all the other items, if anyone, but for her latest project she’s raised more than $50,000. Take that, Chelsea. This isn’t for everybody, or even most of us–does she have a staff of elves to make all this “merchandise” for investors? And it does seem to veer queasily close to the capitalist business model the movie industry uses to generate merchandise from a summer film. Yet it’s an interesting way to make a living doing good-hearted work. I like her attitude too. She’s serious but she keeps it unpretentious:

Is Shell Game dirty commie pinko propaganda?

Maybe a little. But you’ll find the same scampering fat cats, tentacles, and surreal details that are always in my work. So my fans who could care less about world affairs should still like it.


A little gem hidden at Mary Boone

Eric Fischl, Christie Sitting in Neil's Truck

The Eric Fishl show at Mary Boone is both repellent and wonderful, though not at the same time, and not in the same measure. You walk in to see a large interior with a man in a business suit bearing up a naked woman, reclined on his lap—as if he’s offering her to the viewer on a platter. It’s a masterful image, wonderfully painted, but it’s also routinely startling, in Fischl’s de rigeur way, with creepy and intriguing sexuality. I lingered there on the way out, I’ll admit it. As Ken Johnson put it in The New York Times:

A painting in the foyer of Ms. Boone’s Chelsea location is woefully emblematic. Based, like all his portraits, on a photograph and painted in Mr. Fischl’s signature, lushly sensuous style, it pictures the model, actress and artist Anh Duong lying naked across the lap of the elegantly dressed Simon de Pury, the auctioneer and co-star of Bravo’s reality television series “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist.” A blasphemous Pietà, it flaunts a sophisticated but pointless decadence.

The painting is visually powerful, but is this sort of thing really shocking anymore? If he’s trying to remind us of Manet, he does, but he doesn’t fare well in the comparison here. This is Fishl’s familiar trope, sophisticated decadence, and it makes you wonder why he puts so much effort into such elitist imagery: until you see all the red dots at the front desk. Much of the show has a similar creepiness, but from a different direction: it’s as if he wants to show how blissfully oblivious the “one percent” still is, partying on the beach, clothed or otherwise–but these are his friends right, so are they supposed to see how superfluous they look in these pictures? Or else he’s showing how beautiful and cool our media celebrities still appear, in their private lives, even when they sit in an unforgiving shaft of sunlight. I mean, is he just trying to make us all feel even more miserable for having to struggle to make enough money to pay our bills?

Yet, if you hunt in the back room of the gallery, you’ll be rewarded at least once. I didn’t start writing this post to grumble, but to lavishly praise one painting I saw hidden back there: Christy Sitting in Neil’s Truck. It happens to be the first image you see at the Mary Boone page promoting the exhibition, so I may not be the only one who thinks its far superior to the rest of the work.

I loved it primarily for its loose brushwork, nothing overworked, nothing belabored, just a liquid pool of color that seems to eddy and flow into focus, without distorting the image much, showing you an ordinary-looking woman in a truck, gazing into the sunlight toward the camera. She’s probably another of Fischl’s important friends, but this scene doesn’t seem to expect or require you to know it. It captures the feel of the snapshot that served as its source, without slavishly reproducing the image, so the painting is full of life, and because of the way the vehicle creates blocks of color, the image’s abstract qualities strengthen its power. I stood there gazing at this painting wondering why Fischl doesn’t venture outside his economic strata more often and put his amazing skills to use capturing more scenes like this, letting his clear love of color evoke the kind of ordinary, mundane, but beautiful moments all of us experience: light filtering through trees, sunlight on a friendly face, the plaid pattern in a woman’s ordinary wool sweater, and the shimmer of a newly washed red truck. It doesn’t seem to depict someone laden with assets or fame. Been there, seen that, nothing extraordinary going on—and  that’s what’s so wonderful about looking at such a moment, with fresh and attentive eyes, through the medium of paint.


Bouncing balls vs. Indy 500

Zimoun: Volume

After most of my posts, my friend Walt, an amateur photographer who has a great eye, usually checks in to point out typos and grammatical offenses, and generally gives me some idea what he thinks of the post. Walt’s a college grad, an excellent writer and has a consistently funny take on most of the world. In other words, he’s a very sharp dude who appreciates art. After my latest post on the show at Zwirner, he pointed out some awkward sentence constructions and that was it. I could tell he wasn’t too charmed by the work nor persuaded by my writing about it. I didn’t pursue it, but in an email exchange today he brought it up again. The conversation circled around the issue of how broad the definition of art has gotten and how it so often creates work that communicates, if at all, with only a small group of people. It was in some ways an extension of a conversation I had while staying with Rush Whitacre and Lauren Purje and Krystal Floyd in Brooklyn, a week ago: after a tour of openings earlier in the evening, Rush and Lauren and I were debating the BS quotient in a lot of contemporary art, and Rush was defending the right of artists to do nearly anything to create a memorable experience, which was interesting because his BS alarm goes off quite often while walking through Chelsea, in my experience. Walt’s opinions came from the other end of the spectrum.

Walt:  Finished watching Herb & Dorothy.  Has a charm to it, as a portrait of this couple and I liked the look at the NYC art world.  But as far as art goes, I have to admit I don’t get it.  What they saw and what you write about is a mystery to me.

DD:  Really? Everything I write about?

Walt: No, what I mean is when I have a sense of the art then your take on it is enlightening and makes sense More

The trophy wolf

Jesus, in razor wire

There’s another week left to see Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf, an installation involving various media—sculpture, drawing, video, and, well, taxidermy—at David Zwirner. It’s the latest from Adel Abdessemed, an Algerian artist, whose past work has aroused the wrath of animal activists. This show might irk them as well, though it’s not clear that he abused any living creatures in the process of putting it together. The installation is mostly about how we turn our own worst impulses into a trophy of victory, and it revolves around issues of the relationship between violence, power, entertainment, and the natural world. That’s a lot of ground to cover coherently, but coherence isn’t the goal here—instead you get an eerie and strangely serene impression of beauty as you move through the exhibit, which raises questions about how people condone and hide from the reality of violence. Abdessemed has created a series of horrific images, representing the worst aspects of how human beings inhabit their world, and yet has managed to invest them with a beguiling, if occasionally slick, sense of economy and formal perfection. The show is unfeeling, impersonal, cerebral, and yet gorgeous. If that series of adjectives doesn’t make you uneasy, then you aren’t paying attention to the show. How he achieves this kind of visual charm in, for example, an enormous assemblage of actual animal carcasses is a bit of a mystery, and that’s what’s disturbing and riveting. You don’t want to look away when you  should be averting your eyes with disgust. Anyone familiar by now with something called the Internet shouldn’t be surprised to feel those opposing impulses at once.

As you walk in, you see a boat, found abandoned in the Florida Keys, that previously held refugee immigrants. He has filled it with stuffed garbage bags. (I hear an ironic take on: Bring me . . . the wretched refuse of your teeming shores.) Next, there’s a resin sculpture that depicts a head-butting incident at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, which seems to coalesce nearly all of the concerns of the More

Art as alien virus

Armory Show, 2012


Some fun, big-picture reflections on the current Armory Show can be found today from the New York Times, starting with the idea that art is an intelligent virus that propogates itself through the work of artists, without any clear indication of why. That sounds just about right. And a nice passage on how the resurgence of painting hasn’t slowed down:

There is a ton of painting here, and it is all over the place in stylistic terms, from the postcard size, photorealist pictures of nondescript suburban homes, stores and roadside signs by Mike Bayne at Mulherin to the big, colorful, Pop-Expressionist canvases of Bjarne Melgaarde at Greene Naftali. Painting is far from dead; it just does not feel the need to progress linearly, and that is a good thing.

Quote of the day

Maira Kalman

From a blog by Lori Pickert, a question for Maira Kalman from her eight-year-old son:

(Jack’s Question:) What do you weigh? Just kidding! What is your secret for drawing?

My secret for drawing is not a secret. It is sitting down and drawing. I do the best I can which means I try not to do it right but just to do it as I feel and as I see.

Getting it right is not a good goal.

The biggest secret is perseverance. Just not stopping no matter what.

Though I do stop to run and play tennis so I won’t weigh too much.

But that is a whole other story.

I do everything I do because I love to do it, even when I worry or am confused or slightly in despair. Those feelings usually pass. And then the next day is there.

Always a good thing. The next day.

Mosaico minuto, American-style

Blinded by the Light

If you want to see yet another way obsession gives birth to beauty, check out the work of Mary Wells at Viridian Artists, a show that runs through March 10. After a visit to Rome, where she discovered mosaico minuto, the art of glass mosaic—images constructed of tiny colored glass filaments—she came back home to Portland, Oregon and invented a way to do it with tiny fragments of paper. The resulting work is as intricate and luminous as a magnified photograph of the scales in a butterfly’s wing. What’s most amazing is how, working from her own photography, she’s able to evoke the light of different seasons. The work depicts scenes from two locations in Italy—the Villa Vignamaggio, ostensible Tuscan birthplace of Mona Lisa, and the cortile of the Ducal Palace in Mantua.

Working from her photographs of the Villa Vignamaggio during each of the seasons, offering a visual representation of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Her pace allows her to complete no more than a square inch per hour, so the four panoramas, begun in 2008, were completed earlier this year. Each one contains 70,000 paper tiles. The smaller mosaics in the show offer smaller views of the same villa: gardens, flora, vistas and architecture. An additional triptych combines mosaic and painting, with a scene, rendered in cut paper, framed by a painted image of a window flanked by pillars. To complete the work in this show Wells relied on three residencies over the past two years at La Machina di San Cresci in Greve in Chianti, Italy.

I sat down with Wells at Viridian today for a conversation on her work:

DD: How did you learn this technique of assembling cut paper? More