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Leo Ragno

A sample of Leo Ragno’s portraiture, from Instagram

The hermit of Aix’s color

View of the Domaine Saint-Joseph, Metropolitan Museum of Art

I saw this painting almost exactly ten years ago at Cezanne and American Modernism at the Montclair Art Museum. After all these intervening years, I finally bought the catalog for the show. It’s a hardbound book once in the collection of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh Library, with the little envelope for the library loan card still glued just inside the cover. Purchased through a third party on Amazon, the book was finally a bargain. I bought it because seeing this show revealed so much about Cezanne’s influence on American painters and because this particular painting had such an impact on me when I was at the museum. I wanted to see the work in the show again after all this time.

The almost iridescent quality of the variations in color from the hillsides down into the forest, the way in which each mark hummed vibrantly in harmony with every other mark in that field of paint, left me more in awe of Cezanne’s color than ever before. I’m struck more and more by how Cezanne’s greatness has, for me, so little to do with his enormous historical influence. It’s ironic to react that way to a show designed to confirm his enormous affect on later American painters. But it seems that his influence had less do with with his theories–in other words his position in history–and seems so much more a result of the unique, lyrical feeling his paint inspires. His color, his handling of oil  is almost always understated, and he seems to always find combinations of tone that make time itself visible–as Vermeer does in a different way. It derives from the intensity of his subdued passion for what he sees as he translates it into paint, which is hard to square, so to speak, with his famous dictum about interpreting nature geometrically, the advice that gave birth to Cubism. I wonder if his stress on seeing nature as sphere, cone and cylinder was merely an arbitrary way of imposing self-restraint to temper his passion for the colors of oil paint. He forced himself to think about form and volume rather than color and as a result his color became more subtle and unique. His actual achievement could have been almost as an incidental byproduct of the geometrical guidelines uppermost in his mind–even though color was what drove him to paint. Somehow, in the lower left hand corner, I see Gorky, of all people and I don’t mean the early paintings Gorky did which are hugely talented imitations of Cezanne. I mean his later paintings and his self portrait with his mother–the line and shapes and even a bit of the color. Cezanne is a marvel–and one can see why he could be classified as both an Impressionist and Post-Impressionist, though he was unlike everyone else in any category. He was perfectly himself.

Johannes Muller Franken

Les Indes Galantes, Johannes Muller Franken, at Louis K. Meisel Gallery

I saw this painting some years ago at an invitational group show at OK Harris, not long before the gallery closed, seemingly another little heartbreak in the cancer of real estate inflation in Manhattan driving out all sorts of businesses that operate on a human scale and replacing them with gentrified real estate and Google office space. I wonder how a simple corner bodega survives this slow, torturous cleansing by the tsunami of finance driving our metropolitan economies. That isn’t really why the gallery closed, but I’ve been wanting to rant about out-of-control inflation in big American cities. Many galleries have closed–or moved away like Arcadia, happily thriving in Pasadena now–because they can’t afford to stay open. In reality, its founder, Ivan Karp left instructions for how to wind down the operation when he died in 2012, and the managers of the gallery were simply following his dictates. He picked the name OK Harris because it sounded tough and American, like a riverboat gambler. Visiting on a whim five years ago, I saw one painting after another that startled me with its excellence, and this one left me gobsmacked at the raindrop-by-raindrop realism in mellow counterpoint with the scene’s romance and Maxfield Parrish color. Apparently, it’s still available at Meisel. How is that possible?

The Manifest Prize: The Cartographer

The Cartographer, mixed media, 39” x 132′ x 104″, 2019

I loved the artist statement (I can’t remember if I have ever those words in the past) for this installation that won Manifest’s coveted $5,000 Manifest One award and single-work exhibition. Here is the email announcement with Indiana artist Damon Mohl’s statement below. I like the sense of exhaustion and lostness in his vision, which seems appropriate as a viewpoint on Western culture. But I loved , his statement about the genesis of his creative work–which apply to the most compelling creative work in general.

Manifest’s projects are carefully crafted exhibitions of engaging works from around the world, judged and chosen by a dynamic jury of working artists, creative professionals, scholars, and educators. Once each year, we honor an exemplary artwork and test the extremes of our selection process in ONE: The Manifest Prize.

The nonprofit Manifest Creative Research Gallery is proud to be celebrating a decade offering this momentous award supporting artists making exceptional art. Now in its 10th year, one artwork has been chosen from a pool of nearly 900 works by 192 artists from 41 states and 12 countries to stand out as the best in one of the largest artist responses this project has ever received. Seventeen jurors from across the U.S. participated in this multi-stage selection process.

It should be noted that the winner and finalists*, 11 works, represent the top scoring 1% of the jury pool. The winner represents the top one-tenth of 1% of the jury pool.

We are proud to award this year’s $5000 Manifest Prize and corresponding ONE exhibit to Damon Mohl for his work, “The Cartographer” which will continue on view in Manifest’s Central Gallery through January 10th.

Of his work the artist states:

In 2018 I spent a month traveling the north and south islands of New Zealand. Leading up to the trip, I had completed numerous sketches for an experimental film. In truth, the many fragmented images never connected, and when I arrived I started filming without a clear sense of the project. Traveling in a camper van, I gradually woke up earlier each day and heard a cacophony of birds singing before dawn. One song, in particular, stood out because of its melodic, contemplative nature and haunting strangeness. I learned this was the song of the Bellbird, and for the rest of the trip, I set my alarm so I could make audio recordings of the Bellbird’s morning song. These recordings led me to a new idea, and I ended up creating an entirely different film.

I find it compelling the way an image or sound can lodge itself in the subconscious and open up an expansive idea. Creatively speaking, ideas that originate from a presumed understanding or with a specific goal are often prodded and forced into existence. Outcomes are narrow and predictable, even before they are developed. Everything is over before it even begins. The most exciting ideas arrive as mysteries. They create enigmas to be explored but never fully understood. Art is the language that embodies and evokes that which cannot be rationalized or explained with words and it is this revelatory journey that keeps me fascinated and dedicated to the process of creating. My work is firmly rooted in metaphorical narrative, but at the project’s origin, I relinquish as much control as possible. I often reach a place on sustained projects where I can no longer remember what propelled me forward in the first place. If the origin remains intact, it was strong enough to stand the test of time. If it fades, what came after was much more interesting to me.

The Cartographer was recently created for an exhibition of costumes, objects, and set pieces utilized in five different film projects over the past four years. Thematically, the film connected to this piece tells the story of a man whose mind is locked in an endless cycle, in which he repeatedly imagines himself on doomed 19th century expeditions. The voice-over narration provided on the nearby wall is also from the film.

Artist Biography:

Damon Mohl (b.1974) is a filmmaker and interdisciplinary artist. His work bridges drawing, painting, collage, and sculpture with digital technology to create experimental as well as narrative-based films and works of art. He received his BFA in drawing and painting from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and his MFA from the University of Colorado, Boulder. With a focus on filmmaking, his graduate thesis film was nominated for a Student Academy Award in the experimental category. He exhibits his work nationally, and internationally his films have screened in over thirty countries. He is currently serving as an assistant professor of art at Wabash College in Indiana.

Peter Schjeldahl will be missed

Peter Schjeldahl, courtesy The New Yorker

I was delighted when Jim Mott sent me some excerpts from Peter Schjeldahl’s sayonara at The New Yorker, inaugurating his retirement. I spend so little time reading magazines now; I missed it. May he move on to write a book, if he survives his battle with cancer long enough. The prospects don’t sound good. He’s always been my favorite art critic. I didn’t realize he had a faith, but it sounds as if it didn’t emerge until he quit drinking. Maybe I am reading too much into a couple sentences. In this cultural climate, it’s a brave move, albeit a bit quieter than Kanye’s, to offer a shout out to Christianity, which now seems to be equated unfairly with deplorable politics. It feels as if we are living in the cultural Dark Ages. (It helps if you quote Simone Weil; that “cherry on top” is a nice touch.) His judgments have almost always struck me as unimpeachable and delivered with wry self-awareness, meaning humility. The humility grows here to the proportions I consider de rigueur for an artist, and especially a critic. I agree with nearly any self-skepticism: I don’t know much, and maybe someday, if I’m good, I’ll know nothing, along with Socrates. Danto often has a similar tone of implied disclaimer: Well, this is how it looks to me, I could be wrong, but I don’t think so. But Schjeldahl’s doubt is less philosophical and more personal, hence more engaging and intimate. His first paragraph below says precisely what I recognized a few months ago after my father’s death, when I came across the Google street view photograph of the house my wife and I lived in during the first few years of our son and daughter’s childhood–the photograph did everything a work of art ought to do, and it was simply the tiny artifact of some camera mounted on top of a car moving past the house in the most impersonal way possible. It was essentially a surveillance shot. But it contained more than my world from those years; it gave me a window into the entire world, emotionally, imaginatively, and in some other way I don’t have language to pin down. I had been punished into receptivity at that point, granted, but there you go. That’s how it works. Danto would smile at the fact that the Google street view shot was art for me right then and there–though it would contradict his argument about the need for meaning–but it’s exactly what Schjeldahl is getting at.

From Schjeldahl’s farewell, courtesy Jim’s email:

To limber your sensibility, stalk the aesthetic everywhere: cracks in a sidewalk, people’s ways of walking. The aesthetic isn’t bounded by art, which merely concentrates it for efficient consumption. If you can’t put a mental frame around, and relish, the accidental aspect of a street or a person, or really of anything, you will respond to art only sluggishly.
I like to say that contemporary art consists of all art works, five thousand years or five minutes old, that physically exist in the present. We look at them with contemporary eyes, the only kinds of eyes that there ever are.
I retain, but suspend, my personal taste to deal with the panoply of the art I see. I have a trick for doing justice to an uncongenial work: “What would I like about this if I liked it?” I may come around; I may not. Failing that, I wonder, What must the people who like this be like? Anthropology.
Simone Weil said that the transcendent meaning of Christianity is complete with Jesus’ death, sans the cherry on top that is the Resurrection. I think so.
“I believe in God” is a false statement for me because it is voiced by my ego, which is compulsively skeptical. But the rest of me tends otherwise. Staying on an “as if” basis with “God,” for short, hugely improves my life. I regret my lack of the church and its gift of community. My ego is too fat to squeeze through the door.
Disbelieving is toilsome. It can be a pleasure for adolescent brains with energy to spare, but hanging on to it later saps and rigidifies. After a Lutheran upbringing, I became an atheist at the onset of puberty. That wore off gradually and then, with sobriety, speedily.

Giotto and A la recherche du temps perdu

Envy, from Giotto’s Arena Chapel frescoes

To paint pictures is to live in a state of paradox. What I intend usually just points me in the direction of what I achieve, and by not achieving quite what I want, I sometimes succeed in ways I wouldn’t have imagined and may not even realize. Occasionally I invest paint with something far better than what I could have intended or predicted. In every success, there’s a bit of surprise, if not discovery. 

When you begin to realize how great paintings aren’t necessarily limited by whatever outcomes the painter desired, it dawns on you that this is how life itself works, almost invariably. All of your representations, all of your mental pictures of what matters in life fail to embody what it is you think those images represent. Try to picture anything—goodness for example—and whatever instance of goodness you imagine will fail to capture what it actually is. And, even if you lower your sights and accept the consolation prize of depicting what’s actually visible in life, even then, there’s shortfall. What you do picture to yourself as familiarly good will rarely resemble how living, new instances of goodness actually appear.

Early in Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust elaborates on a physical similarity between his cook’s pregnant kitchen-maid and one of Giotto’s figures of virtue and vice in his Paduan frescoes. It’s a little running joke between the novel’s protagonist and Swann, when he comes to visit and asks how things are going with Giotto’s Charity. As his focus shifts from the kitchen-maid to the painter, the way Proust elaborates on the Gothic painter, circling around his subject, reminds me of how Francis Bacon, in his essay on it, seems to turn the subject of Truth inside-out and then outside-in, until you are almost completely disoriented but left with a kind of Socratic doubt about your own callow assumption that you can actually know Truth. In the same way, you think you’ve understood Proust’s point and suddenly he seems to be saying just the opposite—this symbolizes X, but X is nowhere visible in the behavior depicted and yet the reality of X is embodied by it. Come again? It does make sense, but at first it feels like riding in circles on a Mobius strip. All the while he asks you to keep reconsidering what exactly is happening in Giotto’s paintings of virtue and vice—forcing you to go back and look at them. Which is both the first and last step in letting a painting do its work.

For years, I’ve considered Proust a purposely amoral novelist, someone so driven to see exactly what’s happening in human behavior and human consciousness, that he can’t stop to pass judgement on the behavior he depicts—not letting discriminations of good and evil constrain his phenomenology. Passing judgment on something gives you an excuse to ignore what you’re seeing. I’m beginning to think differently. In my third reading of this novel right now (first in college, second when the Kilmartin translation was published), I’ve delved only a hundred pages into the book, and it seems he was constantly thinking of goodness, interested in why his many of his characters found it so difficult to see and embody it. His ability to convey goodness was so fresh, so unsentimental, that it’s hard to realize what he’s doing as it happens on the page—in a way analogous to his consistent depiction of social and sexual relationships as detours that usually lead away from an authentic life. In a way similar to how I’m seeing this new dimension in Proust, this year I’ve become more and more interested in visual art that seems to be doing exactly the opposite of what I think painting and drawing should do when operating in its most innate way.  Painting that has always struck me as the most fully realized has no meaning. Any effort to extract meaning from it is, in a way, to look away from what’s actually happening in the work, the awareness it can generate, and nullify it by translating it into thought. (In the same way, the best passages of Bergotte’s writing have an impact on Proust’s narrator unrelated to their significance. In one of his book’s quietly amusing moments, Bloch advises him to read only poetry that means nothing.) What’s most powerful in a work of visual art has nothing to do with meaning: deconstructing it will get you places, but it won’t replace the looking and often gets in the way. 

Against all this, Giotto clearly intended his paintings to mean something—as did most of the great Renaissance painters, as well as scores of artists who came after them. His work signified what for Giotto were the most important things, forms of behavior that led toward and away from ultimate truth. Proust says that for a long time he (his avatar in the book) couldn’t see any evidence of Giotto’s strange genius in the reproductions of the Arena Chapel frescoes on his schoolroom wall. But as he got older he began to realize how profoundly accurate, in an allegorical way, were these images of Envy and Charity, along with the others. Aldous Huxley said that Piero’s painting, The Resurrection, was the greatest painting in the world, and it is wonderfully simple and powerful, but it seems conventional and almost predicable compared to Giotto’s visionary Envy. It’s shown as a serpent living, like an intestinal parasite, inside and outside a man’s head, slithering into the back of his skull and them emerging through his distended lips to curl back and gaze directly into his eyes, as if the cobra has charmed the man rather than the other way around. A wreath of red flames consume his feet, melting him from the ground up, like someone being burned at the stake—all of this, the blinding, the burning, with no trace of recognizably envious behavior in the figure. It’s quietly scathing, obscene, Dantesque. Giotto’s victim might as well be in a coma. To the young Proust, all of this looks about as impassioned as an illustrative plate from a Medieval manual for surgery—there is no sentiment, no familiar human emotion nor pathos in the faces, qualities which Giotto became so famous for being able to convey. This is what puzzled the young Proust: he couldn’t see any sign of the vices and virtues in the eyes, the social behavior, of the figures Giotto had painted. Where in all this is actual, envious behavior?

This is the point in Proust’s mini-essay on the painter that turns it into a nest of Chinese boxes. Open the first one and another one, this time locked, rests inside of it (and inside the smaller one, if you could pick the lock, you suspect you might find the larger one you just opened, as in a weird recursive dream.) Proust says Giotto’s figures are entirely allegorical, entirely symbolic, and yet the symbol disappears in images so physical, so strangely mundane, that you can hardly see what the image signifies in the situation it actually depicts. The symbol seems to disappear into the immediate physicality of what’s happening in the scenes. The reality made visible in these symbolic figures erases the inner emotional lives of the people themselves—they aren’t shown to be envious or charitable, but rather they are puppets of the vices and virtues, engaged in an entirely physical, specific, awkward and often bizarre pantomime. These people don’t experience the reality of what they embody. Charity stands on a hoard of worldly goods, as if to subdue it, and uses it to hike herself up a bit in order to hand her heart—her actual physical heart, seemingly with the stump of its aorta sticking out—to God. In its own way, this is actually a bit funny. It’s so matter of fact. Proust is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, but his wit and humor constantly resurface throughout the novel and glow in this passage because of the ironies in Giotto’s originality.

. . . The powerfully built housewife who is portrayed in the Arena beneath the label ‘Caritas,’ and a reproduction of whose portrait hung upon the wall of my schoolroom at Combray, incarnates that virtue, for it seems impossible, that any thought of charity can ever have found expression in her vulgar and energetic face. By a fine stroke of the painter’s invention she is tumbling all the treasures of the earth at her feet, but exactly as if she were treading grapes in a wine-press to extract their juice, or, still more, as if she had climbed on a heap of sacks to raise herself higher; and she is holding out her flaming heart to God, or shall we say ‘handing’ it to Him, exactly as a cook might hand up a corkscrew through the skylight of her underground kitchen to some one who had called down to ask her for it from the ground level above.

And, contrary to Proust’s assertion, you have to give her credit for actually being so visibly charitable that she doesn’t even say, “I’m going to need that back very shortly” as she passes this workaday pump up to street level. If Giotto were a contemporary film-maker, the muscle in her hand would still be contracting. Giotto seems to be implying that if there is any Truth worth conveying, it isn’t conceptual, it isn’t disembodied, it doesn’t reside in the consciousness of those who serve it or who want to see a symbol manifest it—it isn’t something that can be reduced to thought—but is incarnated in human activities through time, just as these virtues show themselves in the strangest way, through the behavior of figures who don’t even feel the emotions one would expect of them and don’t seem to understand that they are icons of virtue or corruption. They aren’t even aware of what they embody—as, in a more literal sense, people aren’t entirely aware of the full reality of what they are doing as they do it. And this is suddenly where this passage gives the reader a glimpse of the crux of Proust’s entire project: the hope that art can offer a hint of the whole when all the human mind can grasp are the parts of life, of individual identify, of being itself.

This is where Proust’s reading of Giotto becomes thoroughly Proustian: the symbol disappears into the experience, the Truth merges with the behavior that upholds it, in such a way that these people can only live it, unaware. We all live in this darkness, this fragmented and warped ability to understand who we are and what we’re doing. This is Proust’s fundamental insight: that none of us can know ourselves in a complete way, at any given moment, except on rare occasions through spiritual insight or through art or, in Proust, a kind of spontaneous memory categorically different form the recollection we rely on to survive.

. . . That Charity devoid of Charity, that Envy who looked like nothing so much as a plate from some medieval book, illustrating the compression of the glotis or the uvula by a tumor of the tongue or by the introduction of the operator’s instrument, a Justice whose grayish and meanly regular features were identical with those which characterized the faces of certain pious, desiccated ladies of Combray whom I used to see at mass and many of whom had long been enrolled in the reserve forces of Injustice. <Again Proust’s quiet, subtle wit.> But in later years, I came to understand that the arresting strangeness, the special beauty of these frescoes derived from the great part played in them by symbolism, and the fact that this was represented not as a symbol (for the thought symbolized was nowhere expressed) but as a reality, actually felt or materially handled, added something more precise and more literal to the meaning of the work, something more concrete and more striking to the lesson it imparted. . . . and in the same way, again, are not the thoughts of the dying often turned towards the practical, painful, obscure, visceral aspect, towards that ‘seamy side” of death which is, as it happens, that side that death actually presents to them and forces them to feel, and which far more closely resembles a crushing burden, a difficulty in breathing, a destroying thirst, than the abstract idea to which we are accustomed to give the name of Death?

Having been at my father’s side this past summer when he died, I know that Proust understands the actual reality of death. He describes it perfectly. It is hard, punishing labor for the dying and everyone else nearby. What Giotto paints is a physical correlative to a spiritual state: the dizziness of Inconstancy depicted as a woman levitating off the ground and tipping backward in space, floating like a balloon, rootless and on the verge of whirling away in the breeze. (Proust’s appreciation for this symbolic power, for Giotto’s achievement, has little to do with what he was trying to achieve himself in his novel, which was anti-conceptual, anti-symbolic, almost entirely sensual and immediate, where the greatest glimpses of the truth he was chasing arose from seemingly random sensory experience. Which is, for me as well, where painting’s greatest power resides.) Instead, as Charity itself, a woman has physically excised her own heart and is handing it up to a cherub reaching down from the ceiling. In reality, it’s fairly simple to turn this into a bland concept: give your heart to something greater than yourself. In his matter-of-fact way Giotto depicts something almost bizarre with all the weight of ordinary human activity. What you see is awkward, unlovely effort, not the loving, caring gift-giving of some favored, saintly icon of compassion. What’s here seems more in the vicinity of a bizarre anatomical nightmare.

Proust concludes with a passage that proves his psychological novel was a profoundly moral effort and points toward the need for art as a way of glimpsing what’s actually there in human behavior and experience, hidden and inaccessible in the moment—but fleetingly manifest in the best art. The wisdom and moral depth of Proust’s sentences here, at the end of his passage on Giotto, are stunningly eloquent:

There must have been a strong element of reality in those Virtues and Vices of Padua, since they appeared to me to be as alive as the pregnant servant girl, while she herself seemed scarcely less allegorical than they. And quite possibly, this lack (or seeming lack) of participation by a person’s soul in virtue of which he or she is the agent has, apart from its aesthetic meaning, a reality which, if not strictly psychological, may at least be called physiognomical. Since then, whenever in the course of my life I have come across, in convents for instance, truly saintly embodiments of practical charity, they have generally had the cheerful, practical, brusque and unemotional air of a busy surgeon, the sort of face in which once can discern no commiseration, no tenderness at the sight of suffering humanity, no fear of hurting it, the impassive, unsympathetic, sublime face of true goodness.

 

 

Loose yet accurate

Mark Tennant, 20 x 16

Mark Tennant, 20 x 16. That’s all I know about this painting by an artist who has turned a bit of a corner in the past year or two–the simplicity of his execution has become extraordinary given how convincingly he puts one perfect tone alongside another. These chunks of color do exactly the job he asks them to do. In some cases he creates an almost expressionist surface that resolves, after a bit of viewing, into a bracingly convincing glimpse of women caught in a candid moment not intended for public consumption. No title, no medium nor indication of the support, though it’s almost certainly oil. He posts his work on Instagram and at his website, but it’s all untitled as far as I can tell. I did a post about an earlier painting of his not long ago, but couldn’t resist posting again, it’s so impressive. I found his scenes off-putting at first, murky and seemingly jaundiced visions of people lost in an eroticized world of youth and folly. Now I’m not bothered by lost-in-the-dark quality of his figures. The brushwork is so deft and accurate and minimal, as if he were the Fairfield Porter of cultural decline. At first, his work briefly brought to mind Eric Fischl and Richard Prince’s ironically prurient stuff, but this latest work feels more like early Richter. There’s a muted compassion in all of it, even though the scenes are illuminated unsparingly and the figures are mostly faceless. It all looks as if he has discovered troves of snapshots, Polaroids maybe and worked from them quickly–the way Martin Mull buys boxes of old, unwanted family shots at garage sales to use as sources. The bruised sexiness that runs throughout Tennant’s work is suppressed and seems almost accidental in many of the images–the young women are mostly unaware that there’s a guy with a camera eavesdropping on their misdemeanors, but in more than one of the paintings the women are hiding their faces. Many seem lit by flash photography, which adds to the tabloid feel that runs throughout, the awkwardness of bodies caught off balance or hunkered down in self-defense. He gets exactly how a single bright light source plays on objects in dim surroundings and his extremely abbreviated handling of paint captures the look and feel of an onlooker snapping a furtive high-contrast exposure of a compromised subject. The shot above could be from a cocktail party in the Hamptons or Connecticut, some partier with a Kodak Instamatic up on a balcony, gazing down at his bored fellow celebrants, the butler or caterer passing with his gleaming tray, with nothing to offer the idle women on the flagstone patio. The elegance and evening formality seem imported from America’s economic heyday, or else from last week in certain increasingly wealthy and isolated zip codes. Either way these privileged figures look as exposed and spiritually endangered as nearly everyone else Tennant captures unaware.

Inka Essenhigh

Flowers in Starlight, enamel on canvas, 24×24, 2018

The artist’s individual struggle, individuation as Jung would have put it, as it worked itself out in her own career: 

I wanted to paint what today looked like or felt like. But as I just grew older it didn’t seem as important to make paintings that were necessarily as contemporary as possible. I wanted to make paintings that I wanted to make. You don’t have a choice. You can try to make the work you think everybody likes, but that isn’t going to work. If I had never changed then possibly I would just be that person who made paintings that looked as if they were done in the 90s.

    –Inka Essenhigh

I didn’t want to be light and girly and trivial and I suddenly was and I loved it and it was all okay. And I had an immediate sense of relief. I could tell stories and I knew that I was on the right track for making something that was important to me. I could pursue what you might call “the inner world.” I could sit down and look for certain images I wanted to paint and they would look a certain way, they would feel a certain way. They could have that feeling of child-like wonder and I could bring it forward.

–Inka Essenhigh

Inka Essenhigh

Flowers in Starlight, enamel on canvas, 24×24, 2018

The artist’s individual struggle, individuation as Jung would have put it, as it worked itself out in her own career: 

I wanted to paint what today looked like or felt like. But as I just grew older it didn’t seem as important to make paintings that were necessarily as contemporary as possible. I wanted to make paintings that I wanted to make. You don’t have a choice. You can try to make the work you think everybody likes, but that isn’t going to work. If I had never changed then possibly I would just be that person who made paintings that looked as if they were done in the 90s.

    –Inka Essenhigh

I didn’t want to be light and girly and trivial and I suddenly was and I loved it and it was all okay. And I had an immediate sense of relief. I could tell stories and I knew that I was on the right track for making something that was important to me. I could pursue what you might call “the inner world.” I could sit down and look for certain images I wanted to paint and they would look a certain way, they would feel a certain way. They could have that feeling of child-like wonder and I could bring it forward.

–Inka Essenhigh

Fine, Call Me Pop

I’m beginning to realize it’s entirely fair to classify some of my work as Pop, and I’m comfortable with the idea. It doesn’t clarify anything—categorizations and schools and movements just obscure what’s actually going on in a painting—but I’ve begun to warm up to what Pop was doing, historically. It made me uncomfortable in the past, because I didn’t arrive at what I do as a way of emulating Pop Art at all. I’m sympathetic with the non-intellectual aims of that movement, the notion that visual art can be accessible and enjoyable to anyone with eyes and that visual art can, maybe should be, entirely a perceptual matter. I’m happy that Arthur Danto considers Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes to have been a major philosophical meditation calling into question the nature of art and putting an end to the notion of progress in the history of painting—but I don’t think that sort of philosophical investigation was Warhol’s mission. Whether it was or wasn’t, Danto’s insight made me realize, in my thirties, that I could consider myself a contemporary visual artist, rather than just a latecomer. I don’t think Danto would agree with me that people now have permission to do exactly the sort of thing done in the past, without irony, and create work that is absolutely vital and compelling and fresh. But his insights make this conclusion inescapable.

I conclude from Danto’s thesis that for the past seventy years or so artists have been free to do anything at all, including exactly the sort of work that has been done in the past, and what they produce can be considered entirely relevant and contemporary. Everything is permissible because anything can be art. (This doesn’t mean anything is great or even good art: that’s as rare as it ever was.) Ending the tyranny of art history is the last, great liberation for individual painters—and it was Danto’s genius to recognize all of this. The challenge now is to become oneself, in whatever idiosyncratic way works, even if the outcome looks like a painting rooted in traditions from thousands of years ago. Picasso already understood this between the wars when he was borrowing stylistic inspiration from Ingres and the figures on attic vases for the Vollard Suite.

What I’m beginning to realize, though, is that I’m sympathetic with the way in which Pop Art pushed back against art of the previous decade, along with its advocates, primarily Clement Greenberg. Pop tried to prove that art didn’t require the existential pretensions of abstract expressionism—its self-conscious Zen profundity, its rootedness in the subconscious. (Although I happen to love that.) Pop showed that art didn’t need to have any intellectual significance whatsoever, though Danto can write at length about its philosophical weight. I’m more and more convinced that much of Warhol’s work was done in an innocent spirit, without irony and without cynicism: formally, it’s in a neighborhood close to the Matisse cut-outs. But his two-dimensional renderings of Marilyn Monroe’s face or a Campbell’s soup can were also a sort of taunt, at the time, from a planet orbiting far from Matisse. With Warhol’s rendering of a familiar object or face, reducing it to its flattest possible form, he seems to mock Greenberg’s worship of painting’s “flatness” even while pleasing the masses with something Greenberg must have considered kitsch.

I’ve always been put off by what seems self-consciously hip posturing in Warhol’s productions and yet I wonder if he was often too absorbed in the challenge of what he was doing to have any sort of ironic agenda. I had lunch with AP Gorny eight years ago in Buffalo and he recalled an experience Mary Griffin, a friend of Gorny’s, had with Warhol:

I have a friend, Mary Griffin, who was the Director of The Kitchen NYC for ten years. What helped them survive every year was an annual gala. There were ‘heavy hitters’ on their board. One was Warhol of course. When you hear the stories of what he was like to be around, you realize he was always ‘paying attention’ and thinking. What happened? Of course, the Kitchen was artist-initiated with artists running everything. So it’s a sort of improvised, screwed up mess. Mary describes having worn her highest heels for this most important annual fundraising event. She ran with two slide show carousels missing their locked retainer rings. Speeding across the lobby she trips and, literally, the carousels fly out of her hands, and hundreds of slides are on the floor. Who comes out from the restroom? It’s Warhol. The lobby’s empty. Of course he seems not engaged with this crisis, but he kneels down on the floor, and helps her pick them up. But as he picks the slides up, he’s looking at them. Staring at the images he starts saying: ‘This is interesting’. He’s committing the experience to memory! 

I had the impression from this story that Warhol was not only memorizing the experience, but was simply transfixed by what he saw in the slides, receptively aware of anything and everything as a channel for delight. He couldn’t help himself. There was an important slideshow presentation waiting (could there be such a thing in the days before the Powerpoint deck?) but Andy couldn’t tear himself away from these random slides. I can identify with childlike rapture over the commonplace. That kind of delight is partly why I absorb myself for weeks with an image of taffy.

The first time I was aware someone would call my work Pop was around the time of that conversation with Gorny. Before I was represented by Oxford Gallery, I found an article about Art Brokerage, an entirely web-based platform for selling artwork—primarily from people who want to resell work they’ve purchased in the past. I surfed around at the site and noticed that it was seeking paintings by Thiebaud for a particular buyer. I found an email for the company’s owner, Donna Rose, and wrote, “Are you looking specifically for Thiebaud or will any old painting of candy do?” She was amused and said, no, just Thiebaud, but she asked to see my work. She offered to put them up for sale, and she sold some. This was not something she often did—posting new work directly from a painter rather than reselling work already in someone’s collection—and she didn’t want me to advertise the fact. I’m now represented exclusively by Oxford Gallery and it’s been years since I’ve worked with Donna. I wasn’t entirely alone; she sold original, new work by friends of hers: Ed Ruscha and Russell Chatham, for example. She’d also sold work by Lisa Yuskavage early in her career, when Yuskavage was still unrecognized, and, I think, hanging out in Vegas, where Donna’s company is headquartered. When Donna tagged my candy jars as Pop I was startled, because it hadn’t entered my mind. The series of salt water taffy paintings I’m doing now represent a reprise of the same situation: they could easily be considered Pop, with subject matter that would have been deemed unworthy of representation before Pop.

Yet when Donna tagged my candy jar paintings as Pop at artbrokerage.com, it irked me because I hadn’t arrived at them with Pop Art in mind at all. There were only two Pop artists who had found a place in my heart over the years: Jim Dine and Wayne Thiebaud, especially Dine. Though I have been painting candy for years, it wasn’t as a result of my admiration for Thiebaud’s confections. With her painting of four stacked honey jars, arranged to almost entirely fill a square canvas, Janet Fish gave me the idea of filling an ordinary jar with gum balls and enlarging the image dramatically to create a unified field of color across the surface. After gum balls, I moved on to jelly beans. Chiclets. Breath mints. And so on. The motive was to solve a formal challenge: to find a way to paint a straightforwardly realistic still life while making color the primary consideration and giving it as much real estate on the canvas as possible. But the repetitive format had roots, as well, in the way Rothko could paint the same horizon line, the same format for his subtle color, over and over. Monet with his haystacks. And Warhol with his color variations within the armature of the same arrangement of flat patterns to depict the same face. The fact that I was painting in a traditionally realistic way seemed, for me, to put the work somewhere outside the category of Pop. I’ve warmed up to this designation because I’ve become more conscious of the way Pop was a repudiation of a dominant theoretical aesthetic—it was a conclusive rejection of the last real set of rules, a repudiation of theory itself.

There was a mixture of defiance and ironic acquiescence in the way Pop accepted, as a tease, (while it was also rejecting) Greenberg’s influence over the art world at the time. Flatness still demands tribute from painters everywhere, including the perceptual painters, and their results can be wonderful. It’s always on my mind as well, whether I’m doing it justice or not. But I like Pop’s punk eagerness to do what was forbidden. It defied Greenberg by being kitschy, even as it submitted to him, ironically, by being flat—paradoxically short-circuiting his dominance. Try to get flatter than this, Clement! That kind of defiance-cum-acquiescence runs throughout what I do in a slightly different way, especially in the candy paintings, because I’m embracing a lowly, unserious subject for formal reasons—and also out of love for its humble beauty and appeal and almost erotic physicality—while painting these objects with highly realistic methods that ultimately stretch back centuries. The paint itself becomes more and more my focus, in ways that probably wouldn’t be of interest to anyone but me. Oddly enough that aligns me just a bit, alas, with Greenberg but he would wince, thank God, since I’m haunted more by Manet and Velasquez and Welliver than anyone striving for flatness, when it comes to the feel of the paint as I apply it.

Not that there’s anything wrong with any of that now.