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Sentimental Education: Essays in Art
Essays Volume Two by Lethe Bashar
A Short Introduction 3 What is Contemporary Art? 4 Reflecting on Basquiat 9
Here Come the Culture Critics 14 Is Nic Rad the Next Warhol? 18 Art, Taste, Money 21 Magic and the Subconscious in Michael Cheval¶s Art 27 The City 33 On Music 35 The Meaning of Brice Marden 39 Why is Photorealism Hugely Popular? 45 Olaf Hajek and the Illustration Masters 50 The Unknown Aspect of Human Creativity 52
A Short Introduction
The visual arts have been at the center of my life from my earliest memories. My mother was a painter and she taught me to observe the world intently; she also conveyed the mysteries of the creative artist; a love of introspection; and an intelligence built on association. My father had a passion for classical literature and he taught me the importance of words, sentences, logic. He introduced thematic concerns. My own form of expression, I like to believe, is a combination of the two. My sentimental education was not based on failed romances, or successful ones, for that matter. But my maturity to appreciate art. I believe visual art is born in the emotional realm, that it lives in emotion as a human being lives in the open air. A poet once said that art leaves the imprint of the artist¶s emotions as she creates. I hope these essays carry a sense of experimental wonder to whomever reads them; also a love of beautiful forms, and a sadness toward self-destruction. Because I am not a visual artist, I have the privilege of looking on, the privilege of an outsider¶s point of view. I admire painting, drawing, illustration, photography, architecture, even music, like a little boy mystified by a magic trick. Literature and writing, on the other hand, is a trick I wish to learn.
What is Contemporary Art?
Travels with Isabella 1 (2008), Luisa Rabbia
I stole my question from²³Predicting the Present´²an interview with science fiction writer Cory Doctorow in the Harvard Business Review. His answer: I believe that from the artist¶s perspective, today¶s art must presuppose copying. If you are making art that you expect people not to copy, then you are not making contemporary art. A bold claim; it places the activity of copying at the center of contemporary art-making. I struggled with this at first. Maybe I was in denial, but I didn¶t want to believe that ³copying´ could be the prevailing zeitgeist. After several days researching and writing this essay, I¶m coming to see the light of our Xerox-infatuated culture . . . Let¶s resurrect that boogie of a concept, ³postmodernism´. After John Barth, famed contemporary novelist, first condemned postmodernism as the ³literature of exhaustion´, he later recanted and saw the possibility for a ³replenishment´ and a transcendent ³synthesis´ in literature. He wrote: The ideal postmodernist novel will somehow rise above the quarrel between realism and irrealism, formalism and µcontentism¶, pure and committed literature´ to combine the most vital aspects of past literatures.(1) The exact terms that Barth uses are not as important as his idea of synthesis. I believe contemporary art, and specifically contemporary fiction, sees itself as a synthesis of genres, styles, approaches, materials, and modes. This has to do with the tendency in contemporary art to distrust ³totalizing mechanisms´ and ³grand narratives´, and instead to employ ironic juxtaposition, pastiche (mixing high and low art), and imbuing works
with a naïve sense of playfulness.(2) Novelists aren¶t the only ones recycling outmoded genres and repackaging them, musicians are too. Portland band, the Decembrists, loosely based their fourth album, The Crane Wife, on a Japanese folk tale; but listening to the album, you¶re more likely to attribute the lyrics to 19th century Irish literature. While combining many styles, baroque pop, progressive rock, and folk music, the transcendent, replenishing synthesis John Barth refers to becomes increasingly self-evident.
We are living in the age of the re-mix; where the creative act of re-mixing and combining styles and vignettes claims an originality of its own. This may be scary to some, but to others it means unfettered creative freedom. One musician and producer from Israel, known as Kutiman, rose to fame almost over night with his music video project ThruYOU. Kutiman created a seven-track wonder from video material exclusively found on YouTube. Each track mixes samples, such as drumbeats and base lines, to produce seamless melodies and elaborate compositions. The tracks employ a variety of instruments (guitars, pianos, drums, harps, synthesizers), and reflect a variety of influences (R&B, Funk, Reggae, Jungle, Afro and Jazz).(3)
Under the same sky 5 (2009), Luisa Rabbia
The collagist impulse, I argue, is seen across disciplines. A parallel to Kutiman is Luisa Rabbia in the art world. Recently I read an interview with Rabbia in Art in America (June-July 2009). Rabbia¶s range of works include drawings, collages, video art, porcelain and paper-mache sculptures. In her most recent project, she uses images on the
web that have been made by someone else, much like Kutiman uses video clips from YouTube, and integrates these images into a ³non-existent landscape´. The collagist impulse in contemporary art is more than merely combining images, sounds, or pieces of text. I see it as inherently social and global²a departure from the artist¶s role as private and alienated from society. With technology that knits us together in a million different ways, there is now an augmented awareness of each other. Local issues become more prominent and so do seemingly random intersections between different parts of the world. Along with the freedom implicit in new technologies and mediums, artists embrace a mixture of narratives and feel comfortable (and liberated) creating their own story from the varicolored cloth of the many. Rabbia writes, ³What is different now is the fact that the images are not mine, but come from the experiences of other people. I stare at the images a long time, and try to bring my own journey into their journey.´
A la Guerre comme a la Guerre #1, Michael Cheval
When talking about contemporary art, I also use the term ³collage´ as a metaphor for combining disparate elements into a singular tableau. Michael Cheval, a Russian artist who I¶ve written about before, borrows the style and technique of 17th century Dutch art
and combines them with his own surrealistic dreamscapes. The historical elements in Cheval¶s paintings, 17th century dress, courtly figures, jesters are not historical references; but instead part of an inventive and original assemblage.
Sendai Mediatheque, Sendai-shi, Japan (2001), Toyo Ito
I¶ve always felt that architecture, more so than any of the other arts, presages the future. There may not be any truth to this, but it has served me as a guide. Toyo Ito is the Japanese architect who was commissioned to design the Berkley Museum of Art in California. His buildings evoke the complexity, maddening paradoxes, and transcendent, replenishing synthesis of contemporary art. To begin with, none of his buildings look alike.(4) They are independent of a dominant mode or aesthetic style. Furthermore, Ito experiments with reversing expectations in modern architecture and design. The Sendai Mediatheque, a library and exhibition space, has the trappings of a Modernist building²from the distance, the building looks like a conventional glass box²but upon closer investigation, one notices ³white latticework tubes that pierce the top of the structure´.(5) The juxtaposition of Modernist rigidity and outlandish, outer-space tubes extending ³down through the entire structure´ imbues the building with a lavish sense of freedom.
Kaohsiung Stadium, Kaohsiung, Taiwan (2009), Toyo Ito
The 44,000-seat Kaohsiung stadium designed by Ito goes even further with pushing the boundaries of contradiction. A stadium that resembles a giant coiled snake combines the expansiveness of a super-stadium while maintaining a transparency and openness between inner and outer worlds. Nicolai Ouroussoff, from the New York Times, writes, ³Mr. Ito¶s stadium seeks to maximize our awareness of it while still creating a sense of enclosure.´ I love how Ito describes his architecture. ³I am looking for something more primitive, a kind of abstraction that still has a sense of the body. The in between is more interesting to me.´ Contemporary art revels in the spaces in between. In between materials, styles, stories, histories, and techniques. Contemporary art is the art of perpetual discovery, an art without a destination, only entry points and possibilities. And if it is true what Corey Doctorow says about today¶s art presupposing copying, then it is only because copying is merely a first step towards something greater and less recognizable.
Reflecting on Basquiat
I watched Basquiat, the movie, last night. A couple weeks ago I posted some of the artist's work on this blog. I knew about him, and had seen snatches of his paintings before. But I didn't know the story behind his life . . . . which the movie clearly portrays. As an artist, Basquiat interests me from the point of view of direct, unmediated expression. Whereas many artists strive for an ideal in their work, whether it is technical or visionary, Basquiat seemed intimately related with the underlying surface of the self. This is not the projected self, the idealized version of the self, but the scars. This is not the articulate, polished meanings of the self, but the cryptic messages and uncoded symbols. My immediate emotion after watching the film was sadness. How is it that a certain narrative comes to define a person's life? I am very interested in this. The person becomes defined by their story, and after their death, it
seems, the retelling of the story replaces the person. For Basquiat, it is the story of his rise to fame in the art world at a young age; his descent into heavy drug use; and the looming question of whether he was being exploited. From a book review in the New York Times in 1998, "Hyped to Death": Their (Warhol and Basquiat's) joint show at Tony Shafrazi's gallery in September 1985 was a glittering media event, followed by a wild, noisy party at the Palladium, but the show itself drew universal pans. ''Everything . . . is infused with banality,'' one critic wrote. ''The real question is, who is using whom here?" From the second chapter of the book, Basquiat: A Quick Killing: According to a friend, painter Arden Scott, "Basquiat was intent upon being a mainstream artist. He didn't want to be a black artist. He wanted to be a famous artist." But Basquiat's celebrity owes more than a little to an almost institutionalized reverse-racism that set him apart from his peers as an artworld novelty. Says Kinshasha Conwill, director of the Studio Museum of Harlem, "Race will remain into the foreseeable future a major and usually unfortunate, issue. The fact is, it was anomalous to be an AfricanAmerican and get that kind of attention for his art. Other people did exploit his race and try to make him an exotic figure." And so these unavoidable themes come to define Basquiat as we know him now-as we see him portrayed in movies, as we read about him . . . The artist by nature is a unique individual. We are all "unique individuals" but the artist expresses this individuality, gives it a language, a palette, a series of recurring images. Baquiat had the same dreams that many of us have, to be recognized for our talents, to be visible-But in realizing these dreams, in becoming recognized or famous, your life changes, your environment changes--
I relate to Baquiat. While I lived in Spain, I took drugs every night for six months and filled pages in a notebook until my fingers could no longer scrawl sentences. I never left
my room, except to buy drugs and Chinese food. I lived in a pensione in Madrid all by myself--I know what this manic drive feels like, this ambitious mania to create . . . Some artists are able to move between two worlds. Some artists are able to live in the rational, adult world, and the realm of childhood. The later realm is where the artist thrives. The later realm is the oxygen of the artist. But oftentimes, children are destructive. They are destructive to themselves and to others. When we abandon ourselves to fancy, to the imagination, to dreams, we often lose our way back to reality. In adolescence, for example, during the time I mentioned living in Spain, I wanted to be a novelist. If you've ever read Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, I wanted to be Miller in that novel. This is how I would've turned out if I followed the manic, drug-strewn path of the artist. Of course, not every artist takes drugs; I'm drawing parallels here to Basquiat. A writer must employ the rational mode of argument. A fiction writer is still to some degree confined by logic and the credibility of her tale. A visual artist, less so. The writer appeals to emotion, like the artist. But she does not rely entirely on emotion just as she does not rely entirely on logic. To construct sentences one must have at least one foot in the rational universe. The painter, the poet, less so. The artist can fully embrace the realm of childhood, can totally disregard the rational, adult world. In short, the artist can become a servant of her imagination. With Basquiat, we see the picture of a young man who was easily able to live in this imaginary world. He could create paintings that conveyed a direct engagement with the imagination. His paintings weren't rational. They were full of emotions, color, expression, and character. All of us have been in this realm of the imagination before. We lived there as children, and as adults, we all visit there on occasion. You follow a line and see where it goes . . . this is the mindset. You bring two or more things together onto the same page. You create new relations to things. I loved the scene in the movie where Christopher Walken, playing the character of a journalist, interviews Basquiat in his studio. Walken asks Jeffrey Wright (Basquiat)
what the scrawls on his paintings mean. He says, "Can you decipher this for us?" Basquiat: "Decipher? Just words." Walken: "Yes, I understand. But who's words are they? Where do you take them from?" Basquiat: "I don't know. Would you ask a musician, like would you ask Miles, 'Where did you get that note from?' I mean, where do you take your words from?" Walken: Right. Basquiat: Everywhere. The originality of a work of art does not exist in a vacuum. Art like language is reused, recycled, and reinvented. Originality is not so much a new entity as it is old elements in a new relation. We see something new, something original, but really what we are seeing is a new relation. The artist is the inventor of new contexts, not new things. Not only was Baquiat's work original at the time, but the artist himself, as an African-American, was unique to the art establishment. But is fame acceptance? Is recognition, the right recognition? All of us dream of these things, we seek visibility in our own environments and in the greater environment. But to be unique is to be alone, and to be recognized as unique, is to be even more alone. There is a yin and a yang to success. Sages have known it for centuries. Success breeds disappointment; failure is never too far away from success. Whether you are an artist, a writer, a poet or a musician, you cannot stay popular forever. If you achieve fame in your lifetime, there is a good chance nobody will remember you after you die. Success is never a permanent deal. Even Shakespeare has been criticized as a literary figure! We are not gods. We are people. Society either ignores the artist's expression, or affirms it. But when an artist is living, and society recognizes them, the artist becomes even more set apart from that society than she was to begin with. Now the artist is not only unique, but also viewed as unique. This magnification
has a huge psychological impact on a person and their subsequent behaviors. The death of Dash Snow is a just a recent variation of this theme as it relates to drugs, art, and fame. It happens to artists who cannot separate themselves from society's view of them. But who can? Look at how absurd famous people act; they become distorted in the mirror constantly held up to them. Detachment under these circumstances would be a saintly thing if one could ever attain it. Many novelists, like J.D. Salinger, flee from society altogether. When success comes, we naturally want to embrace it, to take it as the last word. But identifying with our success in one moment only leads to a more precarious existence. The minute public opinion shifted concerning Basquiat's prowess as a young painter, he was deeply affected. My whole life, which is thirty years, I've been trying to describe to the world who I am. I've been trying to define myself. If I were to let anyone else define me, even if that definition were flattering, I would essentially lose my grasp on a life-long quest. This is what happens to artists who become cannibalized by their fame. They stop defining themselves; society begins to define them. The respect we achieve from our peers, and from the world around us, is based on this simple fact. Self-definition is the highest form of integrity.
Here Come the Culture Critics
Michiko Kakutani's New York Times article, "Texts Without Context," attempts to pull together a number of loose strands about contemporary culture and technology. Her basic premise is that culture is feeding on its own tail; without creating anything new, we are depending heavily on the materials of the past, using new technologies to copy, paste, and mash together anything and everything for our creative or intellectual purposes. She also emphasizes that a culture based on "immediacy and real-time responses" means that people are less interested in reading entire books or articles, and more interested in "cutting to the chase." We want the summary, the anecdote, the biased review that appeals to our emotions but pays little attention to context and nuance. Personalized media feeds you the content that matters to you, but this emphasis on the subjective also contributes to the polarization of political views on the web. Everyone is reading what they want to hear. Kakutani quotes the scholar Susan Jacoby: Reading in the traditional open-ended sense is not what most of us, whatever our age and level of computer literacy, do on the Internet. What we are engaged in--like birds of prey looking for their next meal--is a process of swooping around with an eye out for certain kinds of information. If readers have become birds of prey, media outlets have become even worse by pandering to the whims of impulse-driven audiences. In an effort to get more clicks, websites dole out mindless cat videos to their millions of viewers, or "gossip, rumors and the sort of amusing-entertaining-weird anecdotes." Editors, writers, and artists have the benefit of mass feedback provided by interactive media, polls, and fan bulletin boards, and are therefore more likely to give their audiences what they "want or expect." Cyberculture has a decidedly adolescent character in Kakutani's view, perpetuating "a Peter Pan fantasy of being an entitled child forever, without the responsibilities of adulthood." Her main attack, however, deals with what she sees as vapid cultural production
in the form of "parodies, homages, variations, pastiches, collages and others forms of appropriation art." The vast majority of this user-created media, according to Kakutani, is lazy, mediocre, and suffering from what Jaron Lanier, author of the book, You Are Not a Gadget, calls "nostalgic malaise." Lanier writes: Online culture is dominated by trivial mash-ups of the culture that existed before the onset of mash-ups, and by fandom responding to the dwindling outposts of centralized mass media. It is a culture of reaction without action . . . Comments about TV shows, major movies, commercial music releases and video games must be responsible for almost as much bit traffic as porn. There is certainly nothing wrong with that, but since the Web is killing the old media, we face a situation in which culture is effectively eating its own seed stock. In essence, the mash-ups, remixes, parodies, and re-appropriations are more valued than the original sources, and so we face a culture of texts without contexts, a sort of floating, pseudo-world, where beliefs are privileged over facts, subjective reactions over objective research, and online collectivism over measured criticism. I'm summarizing these viewpoints because I believe they are valid and persuasive. The metrics of the web are the second and the minute, and not the hour and the half hour, as it once was for television. The majority of content on the web, unfortunately, reflects this new metric. The superabundance of content, along with the many non-linear pathways to accessing content, removes the notion of the passive subject in relation to culture. Now we must actively forage for our reading material, design the ways in which we want to receive our content, and even respond to the news that is served. We are all filters to the hundreds of webpages that are put in front of our faces every day. On the one hand, it may be argued (as Kakutani argues), that the democratization of cultural production leads to a diminishment in quality. The mass section of the web that Kakutani criticizes is much like the majority of television programming: it appeals to the lowest common denominator. This is only to be expected when websites and media outlets are trying to raise advertising dollars by higher and higher numbers. Similarly, it may be argued, that where more people are creating content, as on
the web, a vast amount of that content will naively reflect trends in popular culture, appear superficial or juvenile, and lack critical or artistic merit. I believe that Lanier and Kakutani are focused on a certain part of the vast topography of the web. If they were immersed in the content production side of the web, they would see it from a different angle entirely. As Clay Shirky notes in his book, Here Comes Everybody, users play different roles in online culture. Some users read blog posts and don't comment on them, some users comment on blogs but don't have blogs themselves, and yet others actively maintain blogs and produce content. There is not only re-action on the web. In truth, the web is driven by the very opposite. Internet startups, online publishing hubs, and countless websites are all actively architecting the virtual world. Every person who creates a blog and publishes their own content is actively creating something on the web. In my view, the proliferation of mashups and re-appropriated art is culture's response to superabundance. While it's true that many pop-culture mashups re-use materials from only a decade ago, the bigger picture is that our culture is swimming in the materials of over 2000 years of history. This is not merely a case of "nostalgic malaise." Digital culture inundates us with what is essentially our past, and not only the past, but many versions of the past, stretching from yesterday's news, to the beginning of time. Technology also puts us in the paradoxical position of looking forward, anticipating what's next, while we are faced with a flood of what came before. The cultural production that arises from this unique combination is forever at the helm of reinterpretation. All you will find now are "translations," without the original source, or perhaps a slim, watered-down version of the original source. Self-publishing heralds a culture of active culture-producers. Everyone can produce culture, and that implies that each of us must interpret, and actively understand the world around us. The world is no longer a fixed place, held up by the artificial supports of newspapers and magazines. We are actively cobbling together the world now, from endless fragments, webpages, points of view, and utterances.
In one month, I am exposed to more aspects of culture on the web than I was exposed to in four years of college. The confluence of social networking and exchange, active content production, and research using search engines, makes what I learned in college look parochial. I'm the editor of an online journal. I'm constantly reading articles that discuss wide-ranging aspects of art and culture, and then I make editorial judgments about the material, and prepare it for a large readership. In short, I'm doing something with the information on the web, and so is nearly everyone else, for the first time in history. We are not just "readers" anymore. We must act, interpret, judge, and discriminate. Art has always relied on inter-textuality, but in our era we see something else, something more extreme. The individual is primarily relating to texts by showing ownership of them. User-generated media facilitates this process of ownership. By taking images that seem beautiful or funny, passages from books that stimulate the mind, or holding discussions about the issues that matter to a person, each individual is actively working to produce his or her own cultural landscape. If the result of this kind of cultural production seems to only involve the self as it relates to the world, rather than the other way around, then I see this new culture as a boon, even with all of the drawbacks associated.
Is Nic Rad the Next Warhol?
Nic Rad, Peter Schjeldahl
Nic Rad's PeopleMatter project is essentially a portrait project in which the artist paints media personalities, tech-industry giants, literary and entertainment figures. He shows the portraits on his website and offers his paintings to anyone who can give a good enough reason why they should have them. (Some portraits have a paywall; meaning these works must be purchased.) Reading the interview Lara Cory had with Nic on Escape into Life sparked my thinking in the direction of contemporary art as a predominately social vehicle. Because the PeopleMatter project has leveraged the potential of the web to spread word about a single artist's work, I see this experiment as noteworthy and perhaps suggestive of how art is increasingly becoming a social object. One could argue that art has always been a social object--a topic of conversation, a locus of interaction with others in a museum or gallery--but I believe the acceleration of the web is serving to emphasize the social aspects of art. And if it continues, I believe we will be seeing more projects like Nic Rad's, which enroll the public to participate in the
process of the art-making, exhibition, and sale. There is a Warholian overtone to the PeopleMatter project. Like Warhol's silkscreen prints, Rad is making a statement about celebrities through his portraits of them. He sees these portraits as "avatars" and "graphic symbols" of members of the media, inspired by how we are represented to each other online. Furthermore, his method of aiming for imperfect works, perfectly resonates with Warhol. Rad says, This kind of painting requires a certain speed and stops looking and feeling like art. It starts to look like fan fiction or signage or candy wrappers; it looks like everything but nice furniture . . . which is why I believe I¶m doing something right. What has changed since Warhol is our notion of celebrity, and Rad seems to pick up on this and play off of it in his portraits. He purposely intermingles actual celebrities with self-anointed ones, and blurs the distinction between the new media and the old. With Warhol, we have the mass-produced image of Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley, but with Rad, the mass-produced image is no longer meaningful as a critique. Today we are deeply entrenched in mass-produced images and so what titillates the viewer is its opposite: the one of a kind and the possibility that it could be you. The democratic process by which a person can obtain a portrait of herself from Rad, simply petitioning for one on his website, appears straightforward: If you feel that you¶re a member of the media and are on some inexplicable trajectory and that I should consider painting you instead of one of my current subjects²tell me why. There¶s a decent chance I¶ll agree with you and make a replacement. The democratic process, however, is not without its irony. Rad is offering to memorialize you as a cultural figure (read on his website: Become Immortal). And he's also capitalizing on our particular historical moment, with major industries, and social hierarchies, in transition; this project could not be achieved at any other period in history. The categories for fame these days are fluid and loosely-defined as new technology catapults regular people into the sphere of celebrity over night. The genius of the project is how the website generates interest in the portraits. First, with the possibility to be painted, and second, with the possibility to receive a
painting for free, Rad has created a mini-ecosystem of "celebritization," a word that Rad used in his interview. The whole experiment could quickly be dismissed as a promotional gimmick, and Rad knows something about public relations and marketing for having worked in the field for six months; but I believe Rad is holding up a mirror instead. His PeopleMatter project shows how we make each other known and important in this new cultural landscape; and how the individual is made into a media icon. It also shows how we use "graphic symbols" to represent ourselves in the Internet era; and how the public projects meaning onto these short-hand representations through floating bits of information on Twitter streams, articles, video clips, and web searches. It is not by coincidence that many of the portraits resemble caricatures, some more than others. This representation of the celebrity is meant to be a visual reference point which may only capture a single quality of a person's character or beliefs, but serves to place them on the map of cultural dialogue. It is also important to remember that the portraits are set against the background of the entire body of paintings. Unlike Warhol's prints, these icons are taken together, as a cultural whole. Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, following the tradition of Warhol, put as much work into marketing their art as they did creating it. The PeopleMatter project is contradictory and wonderful for its ability to make art social while at the same time critiquing the social consequences of such art. Rad does not attack the cultural apparatus, but instead feeds it to each of us. We are one among many; no single portrait deserves ultimate scorn or praise. None is set higher or lower. These portraits are a tapestry of dreams, however imperfect or fragile our dreams may be.
Art, Taste, Money
Your taste determines what kind of art you like to look at. Taste is intuitive, and also learned. You just know what you like. But when you are asked to explain why you like, say, a Salvador Dali over a Stephen Prina, you are hard pressed. ³It¶s more beautiful to me,´ you reply. The key phrase here is ³to me´. As some of you know, I¶m the editor of Escape into Life, online arts journal. We publish art reviews, feature articles, and interviews. Most of the writers have a background in art history, and are familiar with many different schools of art. Most of our readers, however, do not have art history backgrounds. As a result, they tend to respond more viscerally. There is less intellect involved and this is not always a bad thing. For example, when Aurelio Madrid published a review on Stephen Prina entitled, ³Difficult Art´, one reader replied: I must be stupid, unaware, not intelligent and extremely uncultured because I don't get this thing you're critiquing. When I'm looking at it ... I want to see the intelligence behind it but I only see the naked-reality that there is an unattractive, un-engaging, un-organized collection of dots simply dirtying up someone's perfectly good white wall. Maybe the reader overlooked or had simply forgotten Aurelio¶s description of the work's origin at the beginning of his review: The general idea for the project is that Prina will recreate each of the 556 Édouard Manet paintings, as recorded by a (now obsolete) 1960¶s catalogue raisonné. Prina does not recreate the works as direct copies; rather he uses only the actual size & title of the original Manet. Each work in the series is a diptych. One ½ of the diptych contains a ³legend´ of the whole of Manet¶s output, represented by thumbnail outlines of each painting (with a number). This is a monochrome (ivory colored) lithograph printed on white paper (in a black frame, under glass). The ³legend´ is coupled with Prina¶s re-painting. Prina¶s re-paintings are painted using an ivory colored ink wash on white paper (black frame, under glass), with no visual reference to the original (the size & title are the only similarity). And so the project continues until Prina paints the 556th Manet. Most likely, the anonymous commenter drifted off at about the third or fourth sentence
(as I nearly did myself the first time I read it!). That¶s not to say Aurelio should have excluded it; rather it¶s essential to understanding the context of the work. Without this context we merely see dots on a canvas, some lighter some darker. Where Aurelio sees a tradition of minimalism, conceptualism, and ³institutional critique´, the anonymous commenter sees, in his words, ³fartwork.´ He goes on to say, ³When I see this µFartwork¶ I get sick from the fumes of it's own arrogance.´ Another word commonly associated with taste and art: arrogance. Art critics are arrogant buffoons, declares the anonymous commenter, because they deem that a work of art has value when in truth it has none. Art critics resort to making up ridiculous stories about the ³meaning´ of the art; art critics fall back on jargon and intellectual babble to justify their impressions. For if the work had value, then at least it would be aesthetically pleasing. And here we find ourselves in a delicious paradox. ³Value´ in the art world does not seem to correlate at all with ³value´ in the people world. Let¶s take a look at the most expensive Post-War painting sold at an auction . . .
White Center (1950) by Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko¶s White Center, which was created in 1950, sold at Sotheby¶s New York auction in 2007 for $72.8 million.
Who can explain this price tag? Don Thompson can. Thompson¶s book called, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art, explores the concept of branding in art and skillfully reveals the complex relationship between marketing, mystique, and influence. He writes: Art professionals talk about Impressionist art in terms of boldness, depth, use of light, transparency, and color,´ he writes, ³(and) they talk about contemporary artists in terms of innovation, investment value, and the artist being µhot¶. Okay, so our value code changes with contemporary art, and the new value code makes critical judgment slippery at best. At least with Picasso we have some ground to stand on when we declare a Cubist painting as beautiful, appealing, or interesting. But what happens when we¶re given Andy Warhol¶s Green Car Crash (Burning Car 1), which was created in 1964, and sold for $72.7 million at Christie¶s New York auction in 2007.
Green Car Crash; Burning Car 1 (1964) by Andy Warhol
I took one art history class in college, and if I remember correctly, it was Early East Asian Art. While my mother was an oil painter, and I have been exposed to art my entire
life, I respond to art mainly from the gut. I¶m the same way with literature. While all of my friends were reading Thomas Pynchon and John Barth in college, I was reading Balzac, Flaubert, and Zola. Intellectual games do not interest me. I want to see a picture. And so²not unlike the anonymous commenter²I rely on my aesthetic sensibilities. And my aesthetic sensibilities tell me that this work by Andy Warhol is not beautiful. My gut tells me, ³It¶s too green.´ Does my opinion of the work change when I discover that: Between the years 1962 and 1964, Andy Warhol created a fantastically morbid series known as Death and Disaster. These serigraphs were all based on grainy, black and white tabloid images of race riots, suicide, fatal accident scenes and instruments of death including electric chairs, guns and atomic bomb blasts. The arguably best-known and most gruesome component of this macabre lot is Warhol's set of Car Crashes, of which the five "Burning Cars" are extremely highly prized. Here we see Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I), created by Warhol and his newly-hired assistant Gerard Malanga (b. 1943) in 1963 from an image taken by photographer John Whitehead and published in the June 3 issue of Newsweek. Whitehead's shot captured the aftermath of the fiery conclusion of a police chase in Seattle. The car that had been pursued overturned at 60 m.p.h., ejecting its driver at a speed sufficient to impale his body on a climbing spike in a utility pole. Green Car Crash was the only Warhol "Burning Car" painting of five (all based on Whitehead's photograph) to utilize a color other than black and white. It had been privately held for 30 years and generated a tremendous amount of interest in potential buyers. (About.com) I must say that with this knowledge I have a slightly greater appreciation of the work. Like with Aurelio Madrid¶s elucidation of Stephen Prina¶s methodology, at least now I understand the context. But on the whole, Green Car Crash does not provoke me to tears and I surely wouldn¶t hang it on my living room wall unless Andy Warhol did it and it happened to be worth $72.7 million. Which brings us to money. Or maybe we¶ve been circling around money all along, like a hungry shark in search of prey. Thompson¶s masterful thesis gives a perfectly rational explanation for why contemporary art is priced the way it is. There are two major reasons.
1.) Non-contemporary work is becoming an endangered species. The recent surge in art prices is driven by a shortage in non-contemporary work. While new museums are being built, existing museums expanding, and private collections growing, the availability of masterpieces becomes scarce. Thompson sees a direct correlation between this shortage and the price explosion of contemporary art. He writes, ³Contemporary art has achieved its current importance in resale markets in part because the best examples of other schools of art are disappearing from the market, and are never again likely to appear for sale.´
2.) Branding rules the art world. ³You are nobody in contemporary art until you are branded.´ (Thompson) Branding in contemporary art works in much the same way that it does in consumer products, or for that matter, luxury goods. People tend to buy branded products over generic ones because they offer a sense of security. I trust Colgate. I do not trust the toothpaste at the Dollar General, especially after I discovered that a Chinese-made toothpaste contained trace amounts of a poison used in some antifreeze. Luxury goods offer a different kind of security; they give the reassurance of "prestige" or ³elegant fashion.´ Contemporary art seems to need a lot of branding because even ³art schools and critics can¶t agree on the merit of a work´ (Thompson). Furthermore, branding adds personality and distinctiveness. When Thompson talks about the 25 major contemporary artists, he is mainly talking about artists whose work is represented by branded dealers such as Larry Gagosian, bought by branded collectors such as Charles Saatchi, and sold in the auctions of Christie¶s and Sotheby¶s, which are brands themselves, and by extension, brands of paintings. ³In the end,´ he writes, ³the question µwhat is judged to be valuable contemporary art¶ is determined first by major dealers, later by branded auction houses, a bit by
museum curators who stage special shows, very little by art critics, and hardly at all by buyers.´
Magic and the Subconscious in Michael Cheval¶s Art
Comparative Analogy II by Michael Cheval
One of the pleasures of writing art reviews is that the writer gets to enter the world of the artist¶s creations. Obligingly, the reader follows as the writer gently leads her into another dimension, another continent of possibility. Perhaps no other living artist deserves a guide, a shaman, for his works than the Russian master, Michael Cheval. I am no shaman; but I will lead. I set out to write illustration art reviews for Escape into Life, but inevitably I stepped into a brier patch of fine art, notably Cheval¶s. The instant I saw his work, I knew I had to write about it. The images had cast a spell on me . . . There is magic in this artwork. Not only are the paintings populated with magical characters, court jesters, and magicians themselves, but a supernatural magic suffuses each painting like the flower juice Oberon orders Puck to drop into Titania¶s eyes as
she¶s sleeping in Midsummer Night¶s Dream. ³Love-in-Idleness´ is the name of the flower in the play. Likewise, Cheval¶s artwork conjures visions of supernatural spheres, doorways into parallel realities, and glimpses into absurdist theaters. Absurdity is Cheval¶s main subject. But he creates his own definition of absurdity, which his paintings seek to reveal. To Cheval, absurdity is a ³game of the imagination, where all ties are carefully chosen to construct a literary plot.´ In addition, he says that absurdity is ³an inverted side or reality, a reverse side of logic.´ Cheval¶s works are grouped into themes; "Nature of Absurdity", "Eternity of Absurdity", "Illusions of Absurdity", "Reality of Absurdity", and "Sense of Absurdity". The shape of a dress or a faucet will become another object, a surreal object, such as a table or a horn instrument; but it will retain the original shape of the dress or the faucet. Such are Cheval¶s games of the imagination; we do not always know what we are looking at. The eye must adjust to the picture object-by-object as it simultaneously takes in a new chessboard of reality. Despite the illogic pervading the works, there is a coherency of representation. The heightened realism reminiscent of 17th century Dutch art does just that²the precision knits our illusions together to such a degree that we see Cheval¶s paintings as actualities playing out in another dimension. There are so many delectable images on Cheval¶s website, and a viewer can spend hours looking at them, lost in a labyrinth of dreams; but for the sake of review, I will talk about two of my favorites.
Air of Attraction by Michael Cheval
Let us begin with the little boy in the jester¶s costume holding a lute, and with the slightest turn of his head, looking outside of the painting. The painting is called, Air of Attraction. It seems he¶s sitting on a green velvet pillow in the middle of a dirt road. But the dirt road, like the boy himself, is illuminated by sunshine, and green plants and grass grow right beside him. The boy¶s costume is distinctive. He wears a floppy jester¶s hat with four prongs and jingle bells on the end. He wears white stockings and purple knickers, and his dress seems more meant for the royal court than the middle of a road. But there he is, playing his lute and dreaming off into the distance. Gravity or the lack thereof plays a large part in Cheval¶s parallel realities. And here we see some apples on the ground (obeying gravity) and one apple floating above the boy¶s head (not obeying gravity). The boy doesn¶t look at the apple, but just under it; his gaze fixed by an innocent daydream as he plays his instrument. We almost hear the measure of delay between the plucked strings and are drawn along with him into a current of distraction.
And what does the title mean? Perhaps the ³air of attraction´ is how involuntary attention comes across us like a spell and makes us all children for its duration. The child represents this phenomenon best because it is during childhood that we are engrossed in our games and our imaginary worlds. Moreover, the painting has an intangible quality of air; the sunlight on the dirt, the bright colors of the boy¶s costume, the boy¶s eyes lost in distraction, the floating apple; all of these elements conjure a sense of the ethereal. It is as if a supernatural law is guiding our distractions and attractions.
Lullaby for the Hero by Michael Cheval
We move to our next painting, ³Lullaby for the Hero´, and in this case our hero is another little boy. A mime in gold and crimson-striped tights and regal Late Stuart costume holds the boy in his arms. The boy is dressed in armor and a royal blue cape; he holds a lance pointing down and stares directly at us. The mime is looking off to the side. It appears as if there was some horseplay, the mime has just picked the boy up off the ground, and now the scene is fixed in stillness. The knocked-over chair suggests this
earlier bit of chaos. The boy¶s sister (presumably) holds a magic wand and looks dazed by her own magic. She is in the picture but not in it. Her gaze betrays her. She wears a baroque pink dress with a collar. Contrast her eyes, mesmerized--to her brother¶s eyes, which are alert and aware of us. The toys on the floor of the children¶s playroom, a wooden rocking horse with a bicycle chain, a globe, alphabet blocks, and a train, are like riddles. Why is there a toy train if trains haven¶t even been invented yet? And what century is this exactly? The costumes seem to place it in the 17th century, but did they even know the world was round at that time? And then, the most powerful image looms in the background. The wall of the children¶s playroom is a gray-scale mural of a war battle with men on horses. A violent, bloody scene, it reminds me of the Shield of Achilles in Ulysses. The shadow-play over the gray-scale mural adds to the gloominess of it. The mural is actually Leonardo Da Vinci's Battle of Anghiari. The connection between the boy¶s play-armor and the ³real´ battle on the wall has many different connotations. Does the mural forebode a war that the boy, when he grows up, will fight in and perhaps die? Or is the mural there only to reveal the other side of child-hero's play world? Could the children be acting out an adult world in their playroom? And if so what does the little girl in pink represent? She doesn¶t seem to belong in the ³real world´. But the boy, who stares at us, knows he belongs. The mime is a particularly evocative figure to me. My mother was an oil painter and she used to dress up in a mime¶s costume and paint herself, looking into a mirror. I remember her with the white face makeup and the blank, bemused expression just like the mime in ³Lullaby for the Hero.´ Who is singing the lullaby? The mime is the artist and his song breaks the boy¶s fierce play-acting; the song puts his wild fantasies to rest. He is only a boy-hero for now, not a real hero yet. In his essay, ³Abusurd Intacta,´ Mark Gauchax writes:
32 Instead of relying on cultural sources, he (Cheval) explores deep motives of unconsciousness that are easily understood because they are universal, regardless of one¶s geography, experience or knowledge. His paintings lead their independent life. Outside of time and space, this artist spends too much time communicating with specters. The few cultural and historical references we have in Cheval¶s paintings, 17th century dress, courtly figures, jesters, are all jumbled. The narrative is not linear; as Gauchax writes, the paintings cut through historical time and the probabilities of space. What we connect with, then, what we make sense of, is our own subconscious. As the mime in ³Lullaby for the Hero´ becomes my own mother who has passed away, I slowly begin to see myself in every little boy that Cheval has ever painted. And the magic, Oberon¶s magic, Cheval¶s magic, Shakespeare¶s magic, is the belief that I am represented here, and here, and here . . .
This photograph has been on my mind for several days now. I look at hundreds of images a day for the art website, and often it's like living in a dreamworld, the images flow past my eyes, some hold my attention for a moment, some longer; but then, there's that picture like the one above which speaks to my reality. Who is this man, holding his hat, dashing up the concrete stairs? He's a tiny figure to the backdrop of an immense city structure. And a four-lane highway rolls underneath like some giant asphalt river. The lines of the photograph are also interesting to me. They signify movement, with the bars angling up, and the thick flank of the concrete making a wide zigzag. The fact that the (mostly straight) lines are crossing, the highway lines with the stairway lines, lends the photograph to a sort of confusion. The man is obviously in a hurry, rushing up the stairs. But to where? To what? Great art is a false mirror that reflects the truth. When I look at this picture I see myself, I see myself in that little man. I am racing up a monolithic structure, which I can hardly see, because don't have the view I have right now, looking at the picture. I have
the view of the little man. I'm not really looking around, I'm running. Like the Mad Hatter, I'm late. Always one thing and then the next. But I catch glimpses of this immensity I'm climbing, and it's cold, it's stark, but bigger than me, much bigger than me. It's not me. It's a city compared to me.
On Music There is nothing in this world which does not speak. Every thing and every being is continually calling out its nature, its character, its secret; the more the inner sense is open, the more capable it becomes of hearing the voice of all things. --Hazrat Inayat Khan
Music, literature, poetry, sculpture, theatre, visual art, dance . . . each of the arts interpenetrates every other. That is to say, in poetry you find music, and in music poetry, in novels you find pictures, and in theatre you find stories . . . Each artist will feel a certain affinity to her chosen medium, like it is her birthright. But she will also have a deep appreciation for another art form, one that she has dabbled in, or simply admires . . . This is the way I am with visual art. I draw for pleasure, drawing relaxes me, but you cannot call me a visual artist. While the things I've just said make perfect sense, there is one exception to the rule and that is music. Music is an art form that wins all of our hearts. We are all lovers of music. Have you ever met a person who doesn't like music? So music is universal, across cultures, and persons, music finds a way into everyone's heart. Artists and non-artists alike appreciate music. Music is an integral part of human nature. We cannot escape our intimate relationship to music. From childhood, we remember the songs our parents sang to us. My father still talks about the lullabies and prayers his great grandmother would sing over his bed. During adolescence, our identities meld with certain genres, certain groups. The bands we listen to almost define who we are, our favorite songs describe our feelings and attitudes toward the world. Into adulthood, we cultivate different tastes, and broaden our musical vocabulary, we discover new niches and return to old ones . . . I listen to music with all of my senses. If it is pop music or electronic, I want to be
dancing. Vibration is inherent in music and I can honestly feel these vibrations when my body is moving. If I am listening to a plaintive tune, like Willie Nelson or a song by the Grateful Dead, I like to be still. A great songwriter tells a story, and develops a theme, as a novelist or a dramatist would . . . Classical is perhaps my favorite type of music. I think the reason for this is that classical feels more like poetry to me. The infinite quality I refer to in another essay of mine about poetry, is fully described in a symphony. I let the music seep into my consciousness, and from there, the music cools me down until I am in a relaxed state. At one point in my life, lying on the couch listening to classical music became a form of mediation to me. I lit candles, closed my eyes, and opened myself up . . . I used to have a library card to a private college in my town. This gave me access to a full music library. There were thousands of classical CDs and box sets, Haydn, Mozart, Vivaldi, Beethoven, Lizst, Rachmaninov . . . and I would sift through the stacks, searching for my nightly medicine. Similar to reading a novel, I like to enter the world of a symphony, become enveloped by it, and forget everything but the strains of violins, the dialogue of cellos, and whispers of wind instruments . . . Nothing calms me more than resting my head on a cushion and listening to classical music in the evening. I regret that I haven't done this in awhile. During the day, my head is full of sounds, but none of them important. Mostly these are the manifold voices in my head, one chattering away about deadlines, the other commanding petty anxieties, a third analyzing and evaluating everything from my next meal to a past behavior. Music is another form of silence for me, because the voices in my head grow still and then dissipate entirely. That silence is worth more than anything I could earn in a day. When I was ten years old, my parents sent me to Interlochen Summer Arts Camp. Every summer I attended Interlochen for eight weeks. At first, it was a frightening
experience, being away from the family for so long, but then I grew used to it and even came to enjoy it. One of the things they tried to teach me at Interlochen was how to play an instrument. Despite many years of practice, I could never learn how to play the drums. My teachers used to say that I didn't have the attention span. All of the students at Interlochen were practicing something. There were little music huts scattered throughout the campus, and you would hear trumpet blasts, timpani, violins, pianos, wherever you went; and it was kind of soothing to hear these sounds. I never achieved even a mediocre success at my chosen instrument. I was always off-beat, and this became a constant reminder that music was not my calling. Our counselors took us to many concerts, famous orchestras played at Interlochen, Itzhak Perlman was a regular performer (his son, a camper). While I didn't particularly care for classical at twelve years old; later I would recall these moments with great pleasure. On one occasion, I brought a date to the symphony and we held hands during the concert. The last concert of every summer at Interlochen was a big event, and they always played the same score by Liszt, Les Preludes. In my childhood imagination, the words "Les Preludes" became synonymous with the end of the summer. After the concert, which usually ended around 9:00 o' clock at night, the campers were allowed to say goodbye to their friends and visit the other parts of the campus. There were three main divisions, Junior, Intermediate, and High School; and a separate camp for males and females in each. Everyone was crying and hugging each other in the main square outside the concert pavilion. At the famous well in the center of the square, a hubbub of voices echoed with the exaggerated emotions of children being torn from their friends. It was dark and the old-fashioned lanterns illuminated the swarming crowds . . . The music of Les Preludes ended with such strength, such power, but always left me feeling empty inside. I suppose the emptiness came from the fact that it was the end of the summer, and I knew exactly how each summer ended, with the crowds in the
square, crying and holding hands, and signing yearbooks . . . It was both sad and exhilarating. There was a festival quality to the spectacle after the final concert. But I think I was most sad, not because I was leaving for the summer and I had to say goodbye to people; there were very few people, if any, I was friends with . . . I think I was sad because it felt like I was a spectator looking on. After the Les Preludes concert ended, the campers funneled out of the pavilion and filled up nearby benches and open spaces. They burst into paroxysms, threw up their arms, shouted, and I walked toward the center of the square . . . I slowed down, witnessing their strange grief, their celebration, their madness, perhaps I was looking for someone I recognized, or maybe there was someone there who knew me . . . I made my way through the crowds, holding on to those last strains of music, I wandered farther and farther away from the crowds, until the voices died down completely, and it was only me walking back to camp.
The Meaning of Brice Marden
Brice Marden: Study for Muses, Hydra, 1997
I envision a moment--perhaps two hundred years from now--when people, not institutions, get to decide what hangs on museum walls. Brice Marden was floating around the Internet earlier today. I found a New Yorker article on Reddit Art, which I tweeted. And then a friend, in response, sent me the Charlie Rose interview with Brice Marden. Who is Brice Marden? He is an abstract expressionist painter who gained worldwide attention in 2006 because of the Brice Marden Retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (New York). The show traveled to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in early 2007, and then to Berlin's Hamburger Bahnhof, Museum für Gegenwart . . . The MoMA called the exhibition "an unprecedented gathering of [Marden's] work, with more than fifty paintings and an equal number of drawings, organized chronologically, drawn from all phases of the artist's career." (Wikipedia)
Brice Marden: Bear Print, 1997-98/2000
Sometimes I use Twitter to get a sampling of public opinion on a prominent artist or intellectual figure. Last week it was the Lacanian-Marxist political philosopher, Slavoj i ek. This week it is Brice Marden. I'm interested in what people think. I tweeted the New Yorker article to see what people think of Marden's work, and the merits of the article itself. We already know what the Museum of Modern Art thinks of Brice Marden. If for some reason the show does not make that clear to us, we can always read the 330 page hardcover book (published by the Museum of Modern Art) about Marden's importance to the art world, Plane Image: A Brice Marden Retrospective. At the time of this publication and retrospective, Charlie Rose also thought Brice Marden was important. So he interviewed him. And surely, forty years of painting must mean something!
A detail from "The Propitious Garden of Plane Image, Third Version," 2000-2006
So what did people say on Twitter when I asked if they liked Brice Marden's paintings? @TDeregowski love it, saw a big show at the whitechapel. @LT78 brice bardon = snooze. sorry. (This comment was erased, probably b/c the author realized she spelled his name wrong) @twicklicious Brice Marden, excellent marketeer, not so much "artist" though.. (personal opinion) @ownnothing I've never liked Brice Marden's work. Flat, lifeless, doodles, color studies. Are these paintings for the ages?
Now let's look at what the New Yorker had to say in 2006: Marden¶s current retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art confirms him, at the age of sixty-eight, as the most profound abstract painter of the past four decades. The surface eludes them. Sombre color seems at once to engulf you, with a sort of oceanic tenderness, and infinitely to recede. This effect distills that of the furry-edged, drifting masses of ineffable color with which Rothko aimed, he said, to evoke a mood of ³the single human figure, alone in a moment of utter immobility.´ His grays and grayed greens and blues recall the ungraspable nuances of Velázquez and, at times, the simmering ardors of Caspar David Friedrich. (Am I dropping too many names? There¶s no helping it. Marden, an artist bred in museums, communes rather directly with all past painters whose temperaments correspond to his own.)
Regardless of the merit of these aesthetic judgments, never has a writer been so accurately self-conscious of his own journalism. The Peter Schjeldahl article in the New Yorker drips with what the anonymous
commenter (from my recent essay ³Art, Taste, Money´) detested as art-speak, intellectual art babble, hyperbole, and so on . . . We can almost picture the anonymous commenter, after reading the New Yorker, lifting up Peter Schjeldal by his shirt collar and shouting, "Just tell me what you think of the goddamn painting!" The interview with Charlie Rose is also revealing. Marden: There is a real responsibility of being an artist. I mean you¶re not just doing this stuff to make pretty things for people to hang on their wall. You know, there is some meaning to it. You are living in the culture and you are reflecting on the culture. I mean they¶re going to know more about this stuff in three hundred²I mean, this stuff is made to last . . . You look at Venetian painting and you have some idea about what¶s going on²you don¶t have to read about all the battles-CR: Art is the permanence of a civilization. Marden: Yeah, well, it¶s a reflection of a culture.
Brice Marden: Cold Mountain 6 (Bridge), 1989-91
Terence Clarke, a blog critic, finds the trumpeting of Marden's work absurd. As
for the meaning that everyone seems to be talking about, he writes: In the case of Marden's work, Stella's dictum (what you see is what you see) is an accurate assessment. You theorize about its deeper meanings at the risk of describing the emperor's new clothes. There is little here of the great intentions that I've read about in descriptions, by many critics, of Marden's art. They may think such intentions are there. Maybe even Marden thinks they are. But they aren't. Clarke also has something to say about feeling: Metaphor is what makes good art so riveting. It opens the soul to variegated depths, to an acknowledgment of emotions. To conflict. To soul-saving resolution. It stirs the heart's blood, surely one of the classic purposes of all art. And of these particular elements--emotions, conflict--he finds a definite dearth in Marden.
Brice Marden: For Pearl, 1970
In another segment of the Charlie Rose interview: Marden: I think there¶s a lot of painters around doing it (abstract expressionism) . . .
44 CR: There¶s a line that goes through Pollock and you and . . . Marden: Yeah, but I don¶t know who they are. I mean, I sort of know some of them. I mean, it¶s still going but . . . it seems to me the big thing going on now is like non-abstract expressionism² CR: It is? Marden: Well, it has much more to do with the kind of literary, storytelling . . . as I said, it¶s more literary, it tells little stories. Not little stories, but there¶s a narrative, there¶s a lot of narrative stuff going on . . . CR: Does it influence you? Marden: Ehhhh, maybe, I don¶t know . . . I mean these things, these long paintings are sort of a narrative, but no, I don¶t want to tell stories in my paintings. If I tell the story, I¶d rather it be a symphony rather than like a book. CR: With movements . . . Marden: So you respond to it viscerally, rather than intellectually . . . You can look at it, you¶re figuring it out, but at the same time, if you¶re beginning to have some sort of jump in your stomach, then I think you¶re sort of getting it.
I did in fact have a "jump in my stomach" tonight, but it was not looking at Marden's oeuvre, nor any individual painting. The "jump" came from all of the voices around me, responding to Marden's work. All of the voices that contributed to this meaning of Brice Marden. I'm interested in what people have to say. Not institutions. Not the MoMA. Not the New Yorker. Meaning takes care of itself. The artist need not worry about meaning. If the art has integrity, originality, and yes, beauty, it will provoke meaning.
Why is Photorealism Hugely Popular?
One of the things I've noticed lately is the immense popularity of photorealistic works online. I believe this is related to how photorealism conjures up the "real" while simultaneously negating it due to the materials involved; ie, this is a drawing or a painting, it can't be real. Apart from the technical virtuosity of many of these works, there is an enigma at play beneath the surface; and there is something about the works that mesmerizes us. Escape into Life receives surges of traffic around photorealist artists such as Richard Estes, Dirk Dzimirsky, Denis Ichitovkin, Don Gore, Eric Zener, and Alyssa Monks. Another arts blog by Alice at My Modern Met, covers photorealistic and hyperrealistic art frequently. Some of Alice's most popular entries include, "Hyper-Realistic Acrylic Body Painting," "21 Mindblowing Hyperreal Paintings," and "Photorealistic Pencil Drawings by Paul Lung." When we look at these works, we see some similarities in technique and method. For example, images of water are common in hyperrealistic paintings and drawings. Eric Zener chooses solely to focus on pools and individuals diving in or suspended underwater. In an interview I had with Zener last year, he described his method: I take photos of models in the water and then use them as a reference to make my drawing. Usually a lot changes but it gives me a good starting point. Then I paint an underpainting in grey/blue scale. After that I paint from the farthest point back to the foreground.
Many of the paintings by Alyssa Monks are situated in bathrooms or behind shower doors. We are presented with a human face behind glass, steam clouding the glass, and drops of water blurring the picture. This play of barriers against the direct human image heightens the drama of the "real"--we see the human figure, but we cannot directly approach/access it.
Another example is Dirk Dzimirsky's Drawn Face VI (below). Here we are drawn to the frenzied motion of water, the splatter of drops and the trajectories down and off the
man's face. The water is so pronounced that it seems to take on another form, like transparent oil. The heaviness of the liquid reinforces its impact. Just as the drawing enhances the qualities of water, the image heightens the reality of being drenched, producing a simulacrum of experience and sensation.
Another technique used in photorealistic works is reflection. Like water, reflection deflects the "real," fragments the "real," complicates the "real," and thus heightens it. Richard Estes is a contemporary master of this technique, often using reflections from city buildings and the play of sunlight on various types of glass, to create a multidimensional effect. In The L Train (below), we are presented with a dead-on view through multiple layers of glass. The reflections from each panel create distorted, but corresponding images in different quadrants of the painting, while the numerous steel bars at various angles further break up the picture we are looking at.
If the Photorealism heralded decades ago by Chuck Close, Ralph Goings, Richard Estes, and Audrey Flack was a reaction against Surrealism and Pop Art, then these artists seem to have presaged our contemporary moment. The popularity of photorealistic works right now says something about our needs and desires as humans in the 21 century.
Consider the introductory paragraph in David Shield's Reality Hunger: A Manifesto: My intent is to write an ars poetic for a burgeoning group of interrelated (but unconsciously connected) artists in a multitude of forms and media (lyric essay, prose poem, collage novel, visual art, film, television, radio, performance art, rap, stand-up comedy, graffiti) who are breaking larger chunks of "reality" into their work. While photorealism in art has been around since the late 1960's, there is a curious resurgence of interest around these paintings and I wonder if it is connected to Shields's thesis. He goes on to describe the "hunger" contemporary culture has for "the lure and blur of the real´:
Living as we perforce do in a manufactured and artificial world, we yearn for the "real," semblances of the real. We want to pose something nonfictional against all fabrication. In a convincing argument, made up entirely of quotations and passages, many of them not even the author's own, Reality Hunger uses examples such as the popularity of reality TV shows, the ascendancy of the memoir, and sampling in hip hop to show our lust for reality-based art. Most of us would agree that reality TV is not art, but it reflects a trend in culture where we are more attracted to the "real" than the blatantly fictitious. Photorealistic works can thus seem to cast an enchanting spell upon our realityhungered lives. They are like drugs, providing the greatest visual impact, giving us the thrill of the "illusion of reality." Shields writes: The body gets used to a drug and needs a stronger dose in order to experience the thrill. An illusion of reality--the idea that something really happened--is providing us with that thrill right now. We're riveted by the (seeming) rawness of something that appears to be direct from the source, or at least less worked over than a polished mass-media production.
Olaf Hajek and the Illustration Masters
When it comes to art, I have a bias towards the vividly imaginative. Certain illustrative works are windows into childlike worlds, where color, whimsy, and spirits abound. The separation between fine art and illustration is growing smaller. We can look to Henry Darger's oeuvre, a collection of 15 separate manuscripts, each 145 pages--with hundreds of drawings and watercolor paintings illustrating the stories--as the point at which illustration becomes fine art. Today, master illustrators such as Olaf Hajek, are being recognized for their art in publications such as Lürzer's Archive 200 Best Illustrator's Worldwide. Well-known galleries are increasingly representing illustrators and comic book artists. One of my favorite contemporary art galleries is the Adam Baumgold Gallery. Baumgold sells the astounding graphite on paper works by John Borowicz, the comic art of Charles Burns (author of the graphic novel, Black Hole), the ink on paper works by
Rene French, and various other examples of contemporary art that reside in the territory between illustration and traditional fine art. Hajek's works stand on their own as fine art. They do not need the context of the magazine or publication to illuminate them. There is a prevailing style that is characteristically Hajek, and each illustration is a full composition. Particularly, I like the fine-lined figures that evoke the artwork of a child. At the same time, however, Hajek's art reflects a sophistication of design, in which fantasy elements and real-life elements are brought together into harmony. Objects in the illustrations are full of life-affirming beauty, and yet the scenes also give way to esoteric mystery. What is the future of illustration? I see illustration gaining importance to fine art collectors. Our world, which is entrenched in images, is best represented by these imagecentric illustrations. You need not look far on the Internet to see what our visual culture has become. We consume images daily, identify with them, avatar them, collect them, bookmark them, put them on our iPhones and screen savers; in short, we decorate our lives with them. But know that these illustrations are not merely decorative. They are imaginative works that add a level of depth and mystery to our lives. Master illustrators such as Olaf Hajek are emerging as a new breed of contemporary fine artists. Their art plays with the boundaries between high and low, pushes the threshold between comics and paintings, challenges the division between commercial and personal work. We are seeing it now, as illustrators display their works on the Internet by the thousands. Their vividly imaginative renderings create the visual diversity of the web, and in the process, make our experience of web-surfing even more delightful. How wonderful it is to come across the fanciful images of an unknown illustrator. It feels like a true discovery.
The Unknown Aspect of Human Creativity
The future of any creative endeavor is uncertain. I've learned that the only project worth doing is the one you don't know where it's headed . . . Life unfolds in much the same way. I'm going to publish one blog post per day on the Blog of Innocence. It took me awhile to get to this point. And I've been writing my whole life! But confidence is fleeting. There is always a small fear that nothing more will come out of the well, that the well has dried up for good. The well is never dry. It only needs time before a new groundswell is discovered, more abundant and richer than the last. Right now I'm working on an art journal for the Escape into Life Moleskine Project. In contrast to my usual manner of writing essays, I have virtually no inhibitions while creating these pages. There are no rules for the journal. I fill it with doodles, poetry, ephemera, freewriting, collage, illustrations. I use a variety of pens, markers, even some crayons. I remember when I was in grade school we used to have a half-hour of free time in class. I would sit at a round table next to a friend and we would draw pictures on
notebook paper. We made fanciful patterns with red and green markers, and lots of skulls and caricatures. After awhile the other students saw us drawing all the time and they would come over to the table to watch . . . Before I begin working in my journal at night, I read from one of two art books I purchased last month. The first book is called, Street Sketchbook: Inside the Journals of International Street and Graffiti Artists. Sketchbook is described as "unparalleled access to the books of more than sixty contemporary artists worldwide working in a broad range of disciplines--from graffiti and street art to illustration, painting, design and animation." I have an affinity to illustration art. My favorite artist of all time is Henry Darger. There is something about illustration art that mystifies me. The Street Sketchbook reveals the illustrations and markings of graffiti artists in their private sketchbooks, and for some reason, this excites me. The second book is 30,000 Years of Art: the story of human creativity across time and space, by the editors of Phaidon. The gigantic book barely fits on my lap. It presents 1000 masterworks from different countries, cultures and civilizations. I've only gotten up to 3300 BC. I marvel at the artifacts, trying to imagine the artists who carved ivory tusks, painted images of bison on cave ceilings, and engraved life-size depictions of giraffes on rock. When I open to a fresh page in my journal, or turn to a page I've been working on, I enter a state of near total relaxation. I practiced Zen meditation for five years, twice daily, and nothing comes even close to what my brain does when I'm drawing and working in my journal. The first markings I create on a page don't meet my expectations. To be honest, I find them a bit juvenile. But for some reason, working in this medium, it doesn't bother me. I have already created the space and the freedom to draw and write spontaneously. This is also where my energy and relaxation comes from. And then, something interesting happens. I go back to pages I started. I spot an opening on a page and begin to tease out another progression of lines, or experiment with a different pen. Soon an entirely different picture comes into focus.
I am zigzagging through the journal, picking up wherever my instinct guides me. What I find is that my "mistakes" are no longer mistakes. A previous error simply leads to another framework, a re-appropriation of the original lines. In this sense, there are no mistakes. In fact, it is impossible to make a mistake. What I discovered with drawing in less than three weeks, I'm still trying to fully grasp about writing. Because writing follows the same principle. Nothing I write in the first draft is it. There can only be formlessness in the beginning. But when I go back to a poem, a drawing, or the chapter of a novel, I begin to see it differently. There are no absolutes in human creativity. A work of the imagination is never finished and it always holds the possibility of becoming something else. Like many writers, I struggle with this. My whole writing career can be summed up by an attempt to break free from my inhibitions while writing. I just want to write and not care about whether it will turn out a certain way. I want to immerse myself--and channel the writing directly. But a nervous edge, usually present at the start and sometimes into the middle, tells me that what I'm doing must be perfect, must be absolute. Yet when we look at great works of art, there is an honesty, an openness. It's the enigma of the work which comes from the unknown. And though we may perceive the work as perfect, the artist's conception had to go through countless deaths and rebirths to arrive at that last reincarnation before our eyes. The beauty of the art journal is that there are no absolutes of creation. Whatever goes down on paper can always be re-envisioned, re-invented, re-worked. Words can cover words, drawings can grow out like vines, and if the page you've created becomes hideous or revolting, you can always paste a picture over it. Art is impermanent. Nothing I create during my lifetime will be the final word, the final poem, the final drawing. All is ongoing, evolving, entering into a new context or another possibility. I may not know what it is I'm creating, but it's better that way. Let my guide be the work itself, rather than my conscious thoughts. To follow this path, I must be willing
to stumble and look foolish. But if I allow those perfect sentences to fall apart, and those mistakes to be part and parcel of the work, then I've shown that I'm ready to be counseled. It has a voice, you know, and desires of its own. We only need to listen to our creations.
END OF VOLUME TWO
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