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David Smith

Mountains-Clouds-Haze, David Smith, Hong Kong, China, 12" x 15" oil on plywood

Mountains-Cloud-Haze, David Smith, Hong Kong, 12″ x 15″ oil on plywood

I’m happily painting every day again, to the neglect of other things, such as writing about painting. But I want to pass along a series of examples from the INPA 5, the latest international painting annual from Manifest Gallery. This detail, slightly cropped at the right edge, is of a painting done by David Smith, one of my favorite artists who exhibits regularly at Manifest in Cincinnati. He combines the subject and feel of classic Chinese scroll painting–misty camel-hump mountains–in a contemporary mode. Instead of water-based paint on paper, he’s using oil on plywood, and the integral role of the brushwork in traditional Chinese painting here has a gestural quality that reminds me of Richter’s abstraction. And yet it works perfectly to evoke nearly the same kind of world a Song dynasty painter-poet would have evoked. Would love to know more about Smith, how and why he paints in Hong Kong, and if he was born there or is an expatriate.

 

A way of being human

Northern Parula

Northern Parula

I’ve been talking with some other artists lately about the motivation to make art–and how easy it can be to lose the intrinsic urge to make it by focusing on it as a means rather than an end. If you aren’t selling anything at the moment, or no one seems to be paying much attention, then it’s tempting to go outside and, say, plant some vegetables rather than struggle with a resistant picture. Art is hard work, but I do it mostly because it’s so pleasurable to finish a painting, and sometimes even more so if the image played hard to get. It’s easy to drift away from that zone where the effort is both constraining but also feels good, the reward of pushing back against a challenge, with the sequence of the hundreds of interim completions along the way toward being done. When it’s most frustrating, it’s easy to dismiss what Keats said about poetry: “If Poetry comes not as naturally as Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.” But I doubt that he meant all good creative work has to be a first draft: Kerouac, non-stop with his long scroll of paper, or Edwin Dickinson with his premier coup work. I think what he meant was that the urge to create something comes naturally, and that’s why people do it, with no other purpose in mind. It’s an end in itself: which is what the “fine” in fine art really means, fin, the end.

I had coffee yesterday with a young artist, Adam LaPorta, who also sells Piction software to art museums. He sat down with me, Bill Stephens and Bill Santelli, for a casual conversation about how technology has changed the way artists connect with buyers, or simply how it helps, or doesn’t help, increase the visibility for their work. He confirmed what I heard informally on my last trip to New York, that even the most successful galleries in Manhattan are struggling right now. Anyone who thinks this economy has recovered is deluded. Those who buy the work of emerging artists are harder and harder to find, and those with the most money apparently are still relying on the art fairs. (And that must not be bringing in enough income to pay all the bills even at established galleries throughout the rest of the year.)

Adam’s job is, in part, to help museums open up their collections to art lovers on the Web, but he also talked about how social media and other online platforms, like Artsy, can connect artists with those who enjoy visual art. As always, the incredible quantity of available art makes it harder and harder for people to spot what they would love if they had a chance to see it–anyone who keeps up with music knows how difficult it can be to discover what you love, even with a medium that has the level of widespread popularity music enjoys. There’s just so much of it out there. Adam had some interesting things to say about visibility that weren’t about technology at all. He suggested artists need to articulate as clearly as possible the idea behind the work and communicate it. (That’s a slippery slope, but it makes sense to try and put into as few words as possible words why you’re engaged in art, even if it’s an effort that resists conceptualization.) He also said something that I’ve heard before: people want to hear a story. A friend once suggested that he’d love to read how each work in a show came together and why–and Adam said exactly the same thing. People want to know why you made a particular piece, and also why you paint, period.

But all of this sidesteps the core issue, which is to stay focused on making art, not what’s going to become of it, once it’s done. I wrote to Jim Mott yesterday afternoon, having sent him a photograph of a northern parula warbler I spotted on our birdbath in the back yard–a rare sighting, according to Jim. I had no idea what kind of warbler it was, though I guessed correctly after a Google search, but I knew I’d never seen that bird before, which is a rare experience for me since the birds we get here are pretty much the same from year to year. (I’m an armchair birder–I keep track of what birds I can spot without actually standing up. I keep a short list of what I’ve seen through our sliding glass door, but Jim is serious about it. He’s spotted more than 500 North American birds in his life, and regularly heads to the shore of Lake Ontario in May to see as many warblers as he can before they head across the water on their way up to Canada for the summer.) I mentioned to him how most artists I know right now are, to some degree, moving slowly through their own version of the horse latitudes, still working, but feeling the struggle. I mentioned that, as the weather changes, it’s tempting to postpone the work. He wrote back:

Time in nature feels wholesome and good, and the sense of life and meaning is so transparently available. This sort of self validation or intrinsic reward is increasingly not there in the world of art, or in the artist’s dealings with the world. At least, the pursuit of art these days often feels the opposite of time in nature: It’s hard to feel the point of it.
Culturally, the art enterprise, especially fine art as practiced by people like us, seems almost completely irrelevant to the world at large. The “big” artists are servicing the 1%, and the regular artists don’t seem anything like necessary to most people. BUT I do think art still can be a meaningful, purposeful, necessary thing…. And hopefully others will agree, and support will slowly rally. In my better moments I think of art as a realm of life and hope that complements nature and, for society, may be similarly necessary. However, one has to be pretty strong, inwardly, to hold onto that sense of purpose, the confidence that people will get around to remembering why art matters, or will buy it or whatever.
It’s definitely a time of crisis for the regular artist: collapsing markets and expectations, way more supply than demand, and a cultural marginality that’s no longer made bearable by the cultural constructions and glorifications and reverence that once made it seem important to be an artist.  Everyone can make cool-looking stuff with their cameras and computers.
I think art making–responding to the world, exploring vision, making meaningful marks, etc–will always be an activity of intrinsic value for some people–both artists and viewers. Engagement with the world through representation and other kinds of image-working and mark-making (with substantive, resistant materials) is a vital part of culture-building (culture as a collective realm for promoting shared experience, articulating and storing meaning). But art as a cultural project is almost certainly going through a major transformation, possibly equivalent to mass extinction by asteroid blast. Who knows what will come out on the other side, but probably not a whole bunch of wall space for all those little framed pieces of art that fill the closets of countless earnest artists these days.
I’m not suggesting that traditional painting and drawing will necessarily become obsolete…I doubt they will… not to the artistically inclined. But the customary channels of appreciation and distribution and support seem to be breaking beyond repair. Or simply out of sync with the ways of the world these days.
I guess because I see it as a puzzle, and possibly a spiritual opportunity, a creative challenge (artists that stand up for value and meaning , etc. in ways that reach people may do some good and find support), I don’t get as discouraged and depressed as I used to about the situation. I may even have some advantages – certainly by having my work linked to a story and having the chance to regularly encounter supportive strangers with the IAP (as do you, with your philosophical arsenal). But I do get discouraged and depressed pretty easily in general. Warblers can be an easy antidote, but work and progress are a better fix.

I couldn’t have put it any better, and probably not even as well, as Jim did here (as long as I’m right in assuming he was being sardonic about asteroid blasts.) The other dimension of making art that he and I have talked about is how completely antithetical it is to our media-induced passivity and fragmentation of attention. When you make a painting you’re requiring yourself to live in a completely backward way (in a good sense) that throttles the flow of stimuli from smartphone/iPad/TV/computer screen, which for most people now is a non-stop pinging of incoming color and sound, ever changing, a mental IV drip. Like meditation, painting narrows your field of awareness down to one very slow spot of color at a time, and you might spend days looking at that spot and working on it. In its own way it’s an act of rebellion against the tide of monkey-mind, clicking from one thing to the next in flight from feeling captive in the present moment. That alone is all the motivation one needs to do it. It’s a way of staying human against all the forces that seem to be eroding the old assurances about what it means simply to be a person. We live in nihilistic times that are quietly redefining (destroying?) human nature, I think, and it’s worthwhile to stand back from it and say, “Enough’s enough.” A painting can still offer painter and viewer both the same kind of stillness, the inclusive awareness of the world, that it has offered for hundreds of years, of a sort that nothing else does.

So, I have some plants to put in the ground. (And then some painting to do.)

Familiar vs. Novel – Everything is a Remix

First, if you’ve never seen Everything is a Remix, go watch it now. It’s a great primer on creativity, originality, and copyright.

Recently Kirby Ferguson posted a new installment about the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens.

Towards the end he makes a point about a sweet spot existing between the familiar and the novel. He’s talking about movies with box office hits on one side and critical hits on the other.

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This is very close to something we at the Center for Artistic Activism have talked about with popular culture and radical ideas. Popular culture(s) are familiar and comforting, and radical and visionary ideas may be a hit with academics, researchers, and your activist friends, but are fairly new and unfamiliar to the bulk of the population.

As artistic activists, when we can combine the two: we can put something new into an familiar container.

I remember talking to Jon Rubin about this when he was giving me a tour of the Waffle Shop (Talk Show). The Waffle Shop was just that – a restaurant that sold waffles to customers who sat at tables. It was also a talk show. The customers were welcome to play both host and guest on the talk show and a video camera streamed the show to audiences online. The waffle restaurant is familiar, the talk show is familiar, but going to a restaurant and becoming the host of an internet tv show? Well, that is a little unusual.

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Jon explained that people walk into the Waffle Shop and they might not understand what’s happening over at that side of the building, but they do understand how a Waffle Shop works. They understand tables, chairs, menus, and waiters. They can sit there and be comfortable. Then, after some time, they start to try to figure out the talk show. And after that, they have a chance to put it all together and figure out what it means.

A community driven talk show wouldn’t work alone. Families don’t just up and decide to go to the cable access studios and make a show some Saturday morning. And a Waffleshop alone has no meaning. But the two together hit that sweet spot between familiarity and novelty where something new and exciting happened. The Waffle Shop was a huge hit.

The Waffle Shop (Talk Show) is just an example, but the core idea is: if you want your radical ideas to resonate with large audiences, it needs to be rooted in the familiar. We need to speak in a language people understand, and use that language to tell them something new.

Women and nature

Heart of the Matter, Jean Stephens, oil on canvas, 12" x 16"

Heart of the Matter, Jean Stephens, oil on canvas, 12″ x 16″

An interesting two-artist show opens this week at Patricia O’Keefe Ross Art Gallery at St. John Fisher College, with a reception Thursday evening. Entitled “Where Two Women and Nature Converge” it features new work from Jean K. Stephens and Raphaela McCormack. I’m familiar with Jean’s work from exhibitions at Oxford Gallery, and have always loved her nests and the less frequent skulls she does. This show also features images based on still lifes she has assembled from various materials–natural and human–many of them in the shape of female figures. McCormack assembles sturdy-looking but delicate urns, vessels and images of sailing ships from natural materials. Both artists honor the physical qualities of the materials they gather and shape in the process of creating an image that has human resonance–without obscuring the actual nature of what you’re seeing.

Bar-B-Que Utopia

Stephen Duncombe & Steve Lambert

“The Good Life” was the mantra of the United States in the 1950s. The country had emerged from a devastating economic depression and a brutal world war into a era of seemingly unbound plenty. The economy was in high gear from the war: there were new products to consume for well-paid workers to consume as factories switched from military to civilian production, and suburban expansion was financed by the federal government. The Utopias promised — and not delivered — by political leaders and intellectuals in Europe, Asia and beyond throughout the 19th and into the 20th centuries seemed to be almost within the average American’s reach.

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Nothing symbolized “The Good Life” more than the backyard Bar-B-Que. A well kept lawn, a modern charcoal or propane fired grill, and bountiful processed food, along with family, friends and leisure all combined for an idyllic afternoon.

Indeed, there is plenty wrong with the American backyard Bar-B-Que. In the post war period resources were channeled from healthcare, education and urban development to – literally — pave the way to individual home purchases in the suburbs. Burger smoke wafting into the air from a million backyards, each separated from the other by a picket fence, symbolize the atomization of the public, as around each grill a nuclear family, perhaps joined by a few close friends, acted out the bourgeois fantasy of self-sufficiency. And the Bar-B-Que does not stand alone, it is but one component in a an array of leisure activities that gobble up resources and pollute the planet; each hamburger flipped and chicken thigh basted makes an implicit argument in favor of an ecologically unsustainable lifestyle. Then there is sartorial travesty of leisure wear: grown men and women wearing clothes best suited for children at the playground: t-shirts, sneakers, and shorts, or worse: track suits whose elastic waistband expands effortlessly to accommodate the ever-growing American girth.

But there is also a positive utopian dream at the heart of this crass, materialist travesty. The very form of the grills themselves bear witness to this dream: the domed flying saucers which transport the suburban backyard into a fantasy of the future; the sleek brushed steel grill which bespeaks the modernist ideal of integrity of material more eloquently than Bauhaus or the Seagram’s building; or the tropical island motif common in the larger consoles that, like the later paintings of Paul Gauguin, conjure up nothing less than an ideal of human harmony with the natural world—a backyard Rousseauian idyllic. In each case the Bar-B-Que takes you away, some place other than where you are. It transports us to the Greek roots of the word Utopia: a magical “no-place” where race and class and gender divisions disappear, concrete dissolves into a plush lawn, and work is a hazy Monday away.

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The Bar-B-Que is remarkably egalitarian and multicultural, a leisure locked dream of universalism sequestered within the class, race and gender segregated reality of the United States. While it is easy to stereotype the BBQ as a white, middle-class, suburban activity, Chicano families gather around the grill at Griffith Park in Los Angeles, Nuyoricans stoke charcoal in Bronx casitas, and African-Americans roast chicken in the backyards of the Mississippi Delta. The very word barbecue derives from the word “barabicu” (meaning sacred fire pit) found in the language of the Taíno people of the Caribbean.

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The Bar-B-Que promises the dream of class egalitarianism. Meat smoke rises from the slums of Detroit to the gated communities of Orange County. No politician in the United States dares run for elected office without a photo-op at a grill. Indeed, when the king and queen of England came to visit the country on the eve of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited them to his palatial estate where they were treated to an American-style Bar-B-Que replete with grilled hotdogs. In a society like our own, dividing ever more rapidly into the haves and have-nots, the appeal of the Bar-B-Que may be one of the last places where the revolutionary American ideals of a democratic, classless society are actualized.

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The archetypal man at the grill even upsets the standard patriarchal conventions of the spheres of the sexes. Is marinating a steak for the Bar-B-Que preparing for the domestic or public world? Is a backyard grill outside, or inside? The sharp divisions of domestic vs. public and inside vs. outside which have characterized gender divisions in modern times don’t seem to hold for the world of the Bar-B-Que. In front of the grill, man bonds with man, not over business or sport, but in the arts of familial nourishment and the sensually sublime pleasure of taste. (A subject position which, with the right encouragement, even blurs the boundaries between homo and heterosexuality)

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But the phantasmagoric kernel of the Bar-B-Que is a dream of endless leisure. This revolutionary possibility of a world without work has been recognized – albeit in its non-Bar-B-Que form – by radical theorists like Karl Marx’s son in law, Paul Lafargue, who penned The Right to be Lazy to contemporary Italian Marxists who theorize that any revolutionary movement needs to recognize that radical subjectivity has migrated from the work place to sites of leisure. Where other utopias have been ordered around the fantasy of or a unified people (Fascist) or non-alienated labor (Marxist), the Bar-B-Que utopia is one where work and social regimentation are left behind. This is a space in which one can dress as one pleases, be as one is, and, if one desires, take a nap on a hammock with beer in hand.

In their 1972 manifesto, Learning from Las Vegas, the architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour attempted to reform and reconceptualize the relationship between designers and the people they design for. As “Experts with Ideals,” they argued, architects traditionally “build for Man rather than for people.” Venturi and his colleagues wanted to challenge this practice by building for real people rather than abstract “Man.” It was in Las Vegas, garish and commercial it was, that they glimpsed a model for the future. Las Vegas was, is, not a city planned and built by idealistic experts, it is a phantasmagoria constructed to appeal to everyday people’s desires.

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The contours of the modern Bar-B-Que have, no doubt, been shaped by experts with ideals, be they grill manufacturers or government housing bureaucrat. Yet the Bar-B-Que also needs to be recognized as an organic vision of Utopia lovingly imagined and created by the people. The dreams of the ideal Bar-B-Que – seemingly alone among modern Utopias – have never lead to the gulag or the death camp. There has not been, nor do we believe there ever will be, a totalitarian state of Bar-B-Que. Abstract Man may want to collectivize farms or subject their will to the Fuhrer, but everyday people want to grill.

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Myths and mythologies

Cupid and Psyche, charcoal on paper, Barbara Fox

Cupid and Psyche, charcoal on paper, Barbara Fox

On the heels of my visit to New York to see contemporary interpretations of Medusa and Pandora at Danese Corey, I recently toured Oxford Gallery’s Myth’s and Mythologies. The invitation to this themed group show went out half a year ago and the results are thought-provoking, rewarding, and occasionally stunning, built around various interpretations of mythological figures as well as modern “myths” begging to be busted—the glory of motherhood, in one case, and “trickle-down economics” in another. In other words, there’s a little something for everyone. It ranges from an astonishingly beautiful example of classical sculpture in cararra marble from Italy to a minimalist abstraction painted on a metal panel. A small figure of Daphne, carved by Dario Tazzioli at his studio in Italy, has already been sold—the highest priced piece in the exhibit. It’s easy to see why: astonishingly well done, the female figure seeming to reach up and dissolve into a filigree of roots and branches around her head so delicate that it’s hard to imagine how the sculptor did it. It’s a rare example of centuries-old artistry done by someone trained in Renaissance techniques, using the kind of marble Michelangelo used and a bow drill—reason alone to visit the show. At the other end of the spectrum is Ryan Schroeder’s “Trickle Down Economics,” a large, vigorously executed oil showing the half-demolished interior of an abandoned building, with what appears to be a sinkhole almost underfoot—overall a sardonic reflection on how one man’s ceiling is another one’s floor, economically speaking.

Most of the work relies on traditional mythology. Icarus gets a lot of attention here, as does Persephone, as well as a crew of other Greek or Roman figures: Medusa, Pluto, Neptune, Pandora, Romulus and Remus, Cupid and Psyche, and Pegasus. But the subjects are wide-ranging and the artists find clever ways to put a mythical spin on something otherwise typical of that artist’s work. Helen Bryce Ely’s “Angel of Lock 32” offers a cascade of water rushing through an Erie Canal lock in the shape of wings. And Matt Klos’s painting of his own basement studio, a favorite subject of his, is appropriately presented as an alchemist’s workshop. It’s a small canvas that has a distinctly spiritual aura, a single window shedding light into the dim interior work space that seems to become more distinct and summery as your eyes adjust. It put me in mind of another myth, though. It’s as if, from the back of Plato’s cave, you were to look over our shoulder at the light of day behind you—toward where you’ve been and where you’re headed, if you let the artist take you there.

Amy McLaren offers another of her glimpses into the craziness of parenting in the ironically titled “I Am Atlas” where it’s impossible to discern who is the puppet in this mother and child duo entangled in a sort of cat’s cradle of improvised climber’s rope. Bill Santelli’s “All Things Are Buddha Things” offers a glimpse into a multi-dimensional space that feels enormous even though it’s on a fairly small scale, compared to many of his abstractions. It’s almost a psychological hall of mirrors, combining script, silhouettes of figures that seem caught in motion, and the profile of the foreground face, the one witnessing it all. Tom Insalaco’s large figure of a triumphant horse in an Italian piazza with fireworks exploding in the distance refers to the Festa del Redentore, a celebration of the end of the plague, a tradition that began in 1576 in Venice. Though the canvas is dark, as is most of his current work, it’s a stubborn assertion of endurance and survival, an affirmation of life and art both—and a bit of a self-portrait, maybe. It hinted to me of a rebirth for the dying horse in Picasso’s Guernica, now with a backdrop of harmless bombs bursting in air.  And Bill Stephens offered one of his improvisational drawings, part of a series he’s been doing for months now, as finely delineated as etchings, mysterious and evocative, a dreamlike depiction of the creation that looks more Gnostic than Hebrew.

The sculpture in this show, including Tazzioli’s “Daphne”, in many ways quietly upstaged the paintings and drawings. Most of the three-dimensional work is modestly sized, but magnetic: Wayne Williams contributed two versions of Icarus, and one of them captures the chaotic fall of a human body through space perfectly, with two wings outstetched toward the upward-hurtling ground, the feathers frantically contracted into cylinders, so that they look as if their weight is actually pulling him down—hubris in nutshell. And John Lombari’s “Winged Figure” sits like a mystical marble cairn, its detail reduced to minimal forms, with wings of smooth, hard rock. Leonda Finke’s “Expulsion of Eve” reminded me of a figure study by Rodin, the woman caught in mid-flight, full of shame and fear, like a notorious celebrity fleeing the paparazzi, but in her case far worse: naked, vulnerable and lost.  It’s achingly human, full of pathos.

It’s impossible to do justice to all the great work on view here. I expect to see new things to love when I head down to see if for a third time on Saturday evening.

Why I avoided art school

 

Bathers by the River, Matisse

Bathers by the River, Matisse

I woke up at 1:15 a couple nights ago and couldn’t get back to sleep until around 2:30, which has been my sleep pattern for years, but while I tossed and turned, my thoughts came together on Matisse, whose work and life I’ve been studying intermittently for half a year now. It occurred to me that he knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote the famous line in 1908, a year after Picasso’s outrageous Demoiselles D’Avignon was painted, and this short passage of prose probably relegated Matisse to a back seat, in comparison to Picasso, with critics and historians ever since. (Do a search for the many biographies of Picasso and then try Matisse. Incredibly, as far as I can tell, only one biography has been written of Matisse, and it was published only a decade ago.) I came across his personal declaration of independence again yesterday reading Matisse on Art:

What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art that could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair that provides relaxation from fatigue.

Imagine the derision this remark must have inspired from all quarters, and still probably does even now in the Age of Koons, especially over his “devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter.” From the point of view of those who saw art as a continuous shocking overthrow of prevailing artistic norms—modernism’s hollow legacy—this sentence sounds like blasphemy and backsliding, or worse. I think, in reality, it was a way of taking a stance against history, in a way. Matisse knew the risk he was taking, that he was setting himself at odds with the elements and theories he expected to be most celebrated in painting as it emerged in the 20th century. He asserts that he’s painting for the middle class, the businessman, the ordinary art lover, the loathed bourgeoisie—all of the people modernism was trying to outrage and unsettle and disturb. Instead, like Van Gogh, he was painting for everyone and anyone. That passage in “Notes of a Painter” was his refusal to be indoctrinated away from his own deepest instincts and aspirations—his faith in what art was meant to do. The man who, near the end of his life, told a nun that his aims as an artist were nearly identical with hers, as a follower of God, would have had a hard time recognizing a place for himself in the rhetoric of modern art as a destructive, revolutionary force. He was describing art as meditation, something that rises up from individual silence and joy, with no other agenda than to induce silence and love and joy in the viewer, and maybe even an occasional pleasure.

He was asserting that art is about the individual, one at the easel and the one in the armchair looking at the finished work. It is about the web of unarticulated imperatives that drive each individual artist to make a particular kind of mark and choose a certain way to paint—which grows and develops in fits and false starts, leaping forward then backtracking, exactly the way a complex personality does. Only a few paragraphs later, he writes:

Rules have no existence outside of individuals: otherwise a good professor would be as great a genius as a Racine. I am ready to admit that from a study of the works of Raphael or Titian, a more complete set of rules can be drawn than from those which suited their temperaments, and I prefer the most minor of their paintings to all the work of those who are content to imitate the Venus of Urbino or the Madonna of the Goldfinch.

This sounds perfectly consistent with the modernist code: it was throwing out old rules and encoding new ones into each new image. Yet, I think for Matisse, any set of inherited or borrowed rules would once again lock the individual into a certain way of painting, a new school, the safety of the herd. And he never actually says the Impressionists were creating a new cage of shared rules: simply that they were following their own individual imperatives. In reality, there are plenty of rules embedded in Impressionism, and in any consistent body of work, and they are both limiting and liberating. His first sentence is the heart of it: rules in art have no existence apart from the individuals who generate them. The rules grow organically from the ungovernable passions of a practice, not the other way around. The rules are nothing more than hard-won personal habits an artist discovers at the end of the act of painting not before it begins.

When I was in college, I’d already been painting for four or five years, and I was urged to go to art school, but I backed away from it and got a degree in English instead. I didn’t want to be indoctrinated into anyone else’s way of making art because I felt alienated by much of what was happening in painting in the 60s and 70s. Though I’ve come to love many of the painters whose work left me cold back then, at the time I distrusted the way theory had come to seem more important than instinct and feeling. I was too young and lazy to discern the deep individualistic passions in much of the work being done at that time, feeling loyal to a panoply of artists who had already inspired me, from half a century earlier: Braque, Chagall, Van Gogh, Matisse, Gauguin and many others. For example, I didn’t see in Diebenkorn a sort of fulfillment of what Matisse began in 1913 and then abandoned four years later, the monumental paintings he reworked for years that were so stunning in the Radical Invention show I attended at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010. (The bathers Matisse painted in those years are as much his calm reply to Demoiselles as they are an homage to Cezanne.) I didn’t warm to photo-realism, which Tom Wolfe celebrated as a cure for the oppressive influence of theory on visual art: it seemed at the time too spiritless and robotic, though I’ve come to love much of it since then. I didn’t even know Fairfield Porter existed, nor that he was exploring the stylistic space Matisse opened up in Nice, after he abandoned those large experimental canvases in which he internalized the challenge of Cubism and pure abstraction.

So, feeling as if the work I imagined doing had no place in my era—that my only hope was to be an irrelevant late-comer, if I were to amount to anything—I continued to paint, without thinking I had a chance of exhibiting, while finding a career as a writer. (It wasn’t clear to me that there’s no such thing as a late-comer now. As Danto pointed out, art history is over.) I chose and continued on that path in a spirit of defiance, because the art world seemed to become only more alienating over the next couple decades. I felt I had no footing anywhere—though, again, this was only because I was missing much of what had been happening in less celebrated corners of the art world. Eventually, I became aware of other artists who were continuing to work in a representational mode, and I studied their work in books and exhibits: Louisa Mattiasdottir, William Bailey, Neil Welliver, Lennart Anderson, Chuck Close and all the others who chose a path as Matisse did, without regard for whatever was being celebrated as avant garde at the time, finding a more individual means of expression by relying partly on the past, but adapting what could be learned from previous work and making individual choices to create visual worlds all their own. (One of the very few times I’ve wanted to be rich—or at least rich enough to be an art collector, that is—was when I went to New York in 1991 and saw a little exhibit of Matthiasdottir’s work at Robert Schoelkopf’s gallery. Anyone with a moderately nourished savings account at the time could have afforded one of her paintings at that show. I should have worn old clothes and shelled out the money for art, as Hemingway did, when he bought paintings with Hadley’s money in Paris. But I didn’t. It happened to be the year Schoelkopf died and the gallery closed, and I got there just in time, as it were, to stand a few feet away from one Matthiasdottir painting after another. When will there be another opportunity to do that?)

All of which is to say, Matisse’s most significant period, for me, is the one least respected, the work he did while he was in Nice, when he reached back toward Post-Impressionism and backed away from the near-abstraction he had been obsessively perfecting for four years. It wasn’t that he was giving up on being a more integral agent in the art of his time; he was rejecting the notion that his historical context had to determine the way he painted. He was choosing himself over what was happening around him, market and critics and fellow painters and Surrealist poets and all other considerations be damned. That meant, for Matisse in particular, he was increasingly choosing color and line over theory, over ideas, over the notion that art rises up out of concepts instead of inchoate feeling embodied in physical labor and visual perception. Color became his medium, until he was essentially shaping pure color itself with a pair of scissors at the end. Those later cut-outs are the most joyous work any artist has ever done, and I never want to look away from them, but for me they aren’t as substantial or lasting as the modest-seeming interiors and still lifes and figures he did in Nice, which may seem to some critics little more than odes to pleasure. (He set himself up for that with his line about easing the life of the businessman in his armchair.) Instead, they are melodies composed with color, a balance of his desire to both represent the world and yet be just as obsessed with the physical qualities of a painting’s surface and of color for its own sake. And yet, for all that, they feel natural and effortless. More significantly, in each one, you sense what it was like to be this particular human being, at this time of day, in this warm and light-filled place, paying attention to how it felt to be alive, mindful of everything around him and within him, and trying to pass all of it along to anyone else who would pause long enough to notice.

Why I avoided art school

 

Bathers by the River, Matisse

Bathers by the River, Matisse

I woke up at 1:15 a couple nights ago and couldn’t get back to sleep until around 2:30, which has been my sleep pattern for years, but while I tossed and turned, my thoughts came together on Matisse, whose work and life I’ve been studying intermittently for half a year now. It occurred to me that he knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote the famous line in 1908, a year after Picasso’s outrageous Demoiselles D’Avignon was painted, and this short passage of prose probably relegated Matisse to a back seat, in comparison to Picasso, with critics and historians ever since. (Do a search for the many biographies of Picasso and then try Matisse. Incredibly, as far as I can tell, only one biography has been written of Matisse, and it was published only a decade ago.) I came across his personal declaration of independence again yesterday reading Matisse on Art:

What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art that could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair that provides relaxation from fatigue.

Imagine the derision this remark must have inspired from all quarters, and still probably does even now in the Age of Koons, especially over his “devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter.” From the point of view of those who saw art as a continuous shocking overthrow of prevailing artistic norms—modernism’s hollow legacy—this sentence sounds like blasphemy and backsliding, or worse. I think, in reality, it was a way of taking a stance against history, in a way. Matisse knew the risk he was taking, that he was setting himself at odds with the elements and theories he expected to be most celebrated in painting as it emerged in the 20th century. He asserts that he’s painting for the middle class, the businessman, the ordinary art lover, the loathed bourgeoisie—all of the people modernism was trying to outrage and unsettle and disturb. Instead, like Van Gogh, he was painting for everyone and anyone. That passage in “Notes of a Painter” was his refusal to be indoctrinated away from his own deepest instincts and aspirations—his faith in what art was meant to do. The man who, near the end of his life, told a nun that his aims as an artist were nearly identical with hers, as a follower of God, would have had a hard time recognizing a place for himself in the rhetoric of modern art as a destructive, revolutionary force. He was describing art as meditation, something that rises up from individual silence and joy, with no other agenda than to induce silence and love and joy in the viewer, and maybe even an occasional pleasure.

He was asserting that art is about the individual, one at the easel and the one in the armchair looking at the finished work. It is about the web of unarticulated imperatives that drive each individual artist to make a particular kind of mark and choose a certain way to paint—which grows and develops in fits and false starts, leaping forward then backtracking, exactly the way a complex personality does. Only a few paragraphs later, he writes:

Rules have no existence outside of individuals: otherwise a good professor would be as great a genius as a Racine. I am ready to admit that from a study of the works of Raphael or Titian, a more complete set of rules can be drawn than from those which suited their temperaments, and I prefer the most minor of their paintings to all the work of those who are content to imitate the Venus of Urbino or the Madonna of the Goldfinch.

This sounds perfectly consistent with the modernist code: it was throwing out old rules and encoding new ones into each new image. Yet, I think for Matisse, any set of inherited or borrowed rules would once again lock the individual into a certain way of painting, a new school, the safety of the herd. And he never actually says the Impressionists were creating a new cage of shared rules: simply that they were following their own individual imperatives. In reality, there are plenty of rules embedded in Impressionism, and in any consistent body of work, and they are both limiting and liberating. His first sentence is the heart of it: rules in art have no existence apart from the individuals who generate them. The rules grow organically from the ungovernable passions of a practice, not the other way around. The rules are nothing more than hard-won personal habits an artist discovers at the end of the act of painting not before it begins.

When I was in college, I’d already been painting for four or five years, and I was urged to go to art school, but I backed away from it and got a degree in English instead. I didn’t want to be indoctrinated into anyone else’s way of making art because I felt alienated by much of what was happening in painting in the 60s and 70s. Though I’ve come to love many of the painters whose work left me cold back then, at the time I distrusted the way theory had come to seem more important than instinct and feeling. I was too young and lazy to discern the deep individualistic passions in much of the work being done at that time, feeling loyal to a panoply of artists who had already inspired me, from half a century earlier: Braque, Chagall, Van Gogh, Matisse, Gauguin and many others. For example, I didn’t see in Diebenkorn a sort of fulfillment of what Matisse began in 1913 and then abandoned four years later, the monumental paintings he reworked for years that were so stunning in the Radical Invention show I attended at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010. (The bathers Matisse painted in those years are as much his calm reply to Demoiselles as they are an homage to Cezanne.) I didn’t warm to photo-realism, which Tom Wolfe celebrated as a cure for the oppressive influence of theory on visual art: it seemed at the time too spiritless and robotic, though I’ve come to love much of it since then. I didn’t even know Fairfield Porter existed, nor that he was exploring the stylistic space Matisse opened up in Nice, after he abandoned those large experimental canvases in which he internalized the challenge of Cubism and pure abstraction.

So, feeling as if the work I imagined doing had no place in my era—that my only hope was to be an irrelevant late-comer, if I were to amount to anything—I continued to paint, without thinking I had a chance of exhibiting, while finding a career as a writer. (It wasn’t clear to me that there’s no such thing as a late-comer now. As Danto pointed out, art history is over.) I chose and continued on that path in a spirit of defiance, because the art world seemed to become only more alienating over the next couple decades. I felt I had no footing anywhere—though, again, this was only because I was missing much of what had been happening in less celebrated corners of the art world. Eventually, I became aware of other artists who were continuing to work in a representational mode, and I studied their work in books and exhibits: Louisa Mattiasdottir, William Bailey, Neil Welliver, Lennart Anderson, Chuck Close and all the others who chose a path as Matisse did, without regard for whatever was being celebrated as avant garde at the time, finding a more individual means of expression by relying partly on the past, but adapting what could be learned from previous work and making individual choices to create visual worlds all their own. (One of the very few times I’ve wanted to be rich—or at least rich enough to be an art collector, that is—was when I went to New York in 1991 and saw a little exhibit of Matthiasdottir’s work at Robert Schoelkopf’s gallery. Anyone with a moderately nourished savings account at the time could have afforded one of her paintings at that show. I should have worn old clothes and shelled out the money for art, as Hemingway did, when he bought paintings with Hadley’s money in Paris. But I didn’t. It happened to be the year Schoelkopf died and the gallery closed, and I got there just in time, as it were, to stand a few feet away from one Matthiasdottir painting after another. When will there be another opportunity to do that?)

All of which is to say, Matisse’s most significant period, for me, is the one least respected, the work he did while he was in Nice, when he reached back toward Post-Impressionism and backed away from the near-abstraction he had been obsessively perfecting for four years. It wasn’t that he was giving up on being a more integral agent in the art of his time; he was rejecting the notion that his historical context had to determine the way he painted. He was choosing himself over what was happening around him, market and critics and fellow painters and Surrealist poets and all other considerations be damned. That meant, for Matisse in particular, he was increasingly choosing color and line over theory, over ideas, over the notion that art rises up out of concepts instead of inchoate feeling embodied in physical labor and visual perception. Color became his medium, until he was essentially shaping pure color itself with a pair of scissors at the end. Those later cut-outs are the most joyous work any artist has ever done, and I never want to look away from them, but for me they aren’t as substantial or lasting as the modest-seeming interiors and still lifes and figures he did in Nice, which may seem to some critics little more than odes to pleasure. (He set himself up for that with his line about easing the life of the businessman in his armchair.) Instead, they are melodies composed with color, a balance of his desire to both represent the world and yet be just as obsessed with the physical qualities of a painting’s surface and of color for its own sake. And yet, for all that, they feel natural and effortless. More significantly, in each one, you sense what it was like to be this particular human being, at this time of day, in this warm and light-filled place, paying attention to how it felt to be alive, mindful of everything around him and within him, and trying to pass all of it along to anyone else who would pause long enough to notice.

Freedom and obedience

File_000 (10)

Striped Bowl in the Kitchen, detail

I’ve gotten back to a schedule of daily painting, and it makes a difference. When you get pulled away from painting for periods of time, it takes awhile to regain momentum and also to restore a sense of confidence in balancing the freedom of making intuitive, felt choices—taking chances to see what will happen—against an adherence to predictable craft, what you know paint will do from years of working with it. Which is obedience: to what you see, and what you know you need to do. If you go too far toward freedom, or you surrender completely to a routine of reliable labor, the soul of the painting slips away, or else it just becomes a mess.

So far, since I’ve been able to resume working every day, I’ve stuck to a series of smaller paintings of patterned bowls in order to focus more on the surface and the paint, less on producing an exact replica of what I see. I’m giving myself more room to improvise with color, and the way I’m setting up each still life it’s easier for me to see the flat pattern of shapes and color in an abstract way. I’m trying to increase the tension between representation and visible marks. I told Bill Santelli recently that I’m attempting to use a thicker application of paint, but afterward I realized that wasn’t entirely right: in places I’m letting bits of canvas show through, so the paint’s actually non-existent in those spots—one can’t get any thinner than that. But when I’m applying the paint, more often its consistency is closer to its original viscosity out of the tube. It’s thick where it needs to be and thin where it needs to be, that’s all, but overall a little heavier than in the past. I want the paint to be visible, as paint, as much as possible. I’m also trying to simplify the areas of color, and value, striving for the ability to depict more with less brushwork, while  leaving more evidence of my hand and the brush. I’ve done all of these things in the past, intermittently, and then returned to the more finished, highly detailed realism of most work I usually sell. (I plan to alternate between both modes now.) Paintings I’ve done this way have sold, as well, so marketability isn’t the calculation I’m making. In this series, I want paintings that evoke more while specifying less, that’s all. And if I succeed, I may be able to apply what I’m learning in more and more ways.

When I was in Manhattan to see Suzie MacMurray’s show, I put in a day touring a dozen other galleries, and saw Alyssa Monks’ new paintings at Forum. She seems to be trying to break away from the photorealism she’s been known for—and it’s giving her a path toward a much more varied palette, looser application of paint, and images that are much less about the way the physical world looks and seem closer to a psychological depiction of an inner world. It’s a move away from the urge to astonish with technical skill toward something more felt and elusive and hard to pin down. Still, I wanted them to be even more abstract, looser and ambiguous—in reality they may simply be straightforward depictions of a beautiful face seen through a window that reflects a wooded tract behind the viewer. (A new take on her faces seen through water, only this time the water is still and reflective.) But her focus on color and the more painterly technique seems as if it might lead to something even more interesting. And I learned Arcadia, one of my favorite galleries, has moved to Santa Monica. I was disappointed not to be able to pay a visit, but it’s now located on the same street where my son and daughter-in-law live–which will be mighty convenient in July.

 

INPA 5 published

File_000 (9)Manifest Creative Research Gallery and Drawing Center has shipped its fifth International Painting Annual, which arrived here last week. As usual, it’s full of treasures from artists who made the cut from the around the world. The gallery received 1,475 submissions: 434 artists from 44 states and 20 countries submitted to INPA 5 and out of those artists, only 69 were chosen. For a select few, Manifest choose several pieces for inclusion, offering a clear sense of that artist’s stylistic continuity from one work to the next. The honor was fully deserved in the case of the lucky few. It’s a joy to see the diversity and vitality of work, some of it technically astonishing, from painters located in places as far-flung as Hong Kong, Kentucky, Germany and Scotland. I’ll post some of the work that impressed me the most over the next couple weeks. There are some real gems.