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“It’s tough” is relative

Face Painting, Jonas Wood (2014). Courtesy of the artist and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo: Brian Forrest.

Bill Santelli sent me this interview, which is a good read. Jonas Wood makes Hockney-esque paintings that look like graphic art, colorful in unpredictable and interesting ways, and dense with detail. They feel immediate and carefully observed but executed with almost childlike simplicity. I love the embrace of flatness because it forces him to put so much of his feeling into the color and his color can be extremely good (but sometimes not all that interesting.) What you see is what you get and that has to be part of his appeal, the ordinary quality of the experience he conveys. It’s funny to hear Wood talking about his staff and his office. Who does he think is going to hire a staff after reading this? The only staff I could imagine wanting or needing is Gmail with a good spam filter and auto-reply as my receptionist. Which he would applaud, if it worked to manage the tsunami of demand I anticipate any day now. It’s sort of his point: detach yourself from all pressures other than the work and get it done, but that’s easier to say when you are selling work for $2 million in an auction. There’s a no-nonsense fearless voice here, but it’s speaking back towards us in a foreign tongue he picked up in this other dimension of big art world success where nothing is commensurate with the way all but one percent of one percent of artists live. All of this reminds me of France before the storming of the Bastille. Where did Fragonard go after the revolution? I think he just dematerialized. Or maybe he finally hired a staff. But it doesn’t seem we are at that point, income inequality notwithstanding. We’re facing something different. Economically, Wood is among the elite of the elite. This world the rest of us live in, the world nearly everyone else lives in, can’t imagine hiring a staff. But who doesn’t envy Wood’s ability to just do what he loves doing and, voila, the money and attention flows? Reading his comments feels like watching the Kardashians have breakfast while they talk about how you need to become an Instagram star as practice for your reality TV show. Working hard isn’t what gets these results. Most of the factors that make Wood’s work so lucrative are beyond anyone’s control–and if art schools teach anything about the market it should be that you aren’t going to face his choices. It happens to an infinitesimally small number of people who get beamed up to this rarified world, and then have to find a way to shelter in place from the abundance of their new planet, the way Wood does, in order to keep working. Hard work is a given, but it isn’t enough. Van Gogh ramped up to a painting a day, more or less, near the end. Nobody has ever worked harder. It got him something far preferable to sales. 

Some good advice here, with the intro from art.net:

Jonas Wood is not shy. He won’t hold back, takes aim when he fires, and doesn’t seem concerned about ruffling anyone’s feathers. He’s also busy—very, very busy—and seems to have a lot on his mind.

When artnet News spoke with the artist earlier this month, he was preparing for the first institutional survey of his work at the Dallas Museum of Art, which opened last week. The show is a real boon; although Wood has earned a solid reputation for his lush interiors, tender portraits, and vibrant still lifes, which he has shown in dozens of commercial gallery exhibitions, museum support has largely eluded him until now. Not that he has much time to bask in his success. In April, Gagosian will present new works by the artist in New York, which means he has to quickly shift gears and look ahead.

From Wood’s answers to artnet’s questions:

I think it happens to be that I have a broad audience right now. Maybe that’s not always the case, but the reason I paint is not for those people. I think it’s for my own mental health and for my own sort of goals as a painter, but I’m aware of the viewer.

I worked with Laura Owens. And I got this really good advice—and from other people too—which was just, if you want to separate yourself from the noise, you’ve got to create some distance.  Another thing was just saving my own work and not being so greedy, and being aware that, okay, $5,000 now is $5,000 now. If I sell three more paintings, yes, I’ll get a little bit more money, but it’s not like life-changing money. Maybe I should start holding onto things for myself and not selling everything. I mean, the dealers are going to hate hearing this, but maybe they won’t. Maybe it’s good because they want an empowered artist. But they would offer to give me money to buy stretchers and buy stuff for my studio, and I didn’t really want them to buy stuff for me because I didn’t want them to know how many paintings I was making.

I was painting for me, and I knew that I didn’t want to paint for the collector audience. I wanted to paint for me. 

So establishing that was really important for me because I was able to keep my practice open. I didn’t want to be pigeonholed right away. I showed a lot of different kinds of work, and I didn’t really cut myself off and be like, “He’s the tennis court painter.” Or, “He’s the sports portrait painter,” or, “He’s the guy who makes the still life.” I guess I’m kind of all of those things, which is better than just being one of those things.

Well, when I was at school in 2002 at the University of Washington, my goal was to teach at a liberal arts school, have a studio on campus, have the summers off. That was probably my ideal.

Man, it’s fucking tough because people say crazy shit about your work. You have to be super thick-skinned, and it’s hard. That’s a big part of it. I would say that you just have to take all that energy back to your studio and try to be critical in your own way and just take that criticism. Just say, “Okay, yeah, I’m going to keep looking because maybe these people have a point.”

But that type of shit is tough. Dealers saying crazy shit, your friends saying crazy shit, collectors saying crazy shit, having a show where you don’t sell a bunch of stuff. That shit is tough.

 

 

Magnetic and inexhaustible reality

Iris Murdoch

I’ve just reread Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of the Good, in reaction to my rereading of Dave Hickey’s The Invisible Dragon, in an effort to see the contrast between their ideas about beauty. Hickey speaks about beauty and desire. Murdoch about beauty and love. One might think they are speaking the same language, Hickey at a very high rate of speed, full of rebellious spunk, and Murdoch deliberately, cautiously and in the dry language of a professional philosopher. They were both pushing back against a tide of thinking and theorizing, in their time, about what it means to be a responsible social human being. There is some commonality. It would seem Hickey would have been very uncomfortable with Murdoch’s wisdom. They arrive at what sound like very different conclusions, yet I’m wondering if Hickey might have appreciated Murdoch’s embrace of Greek philosophy a little more than he lets on in his own book. On the evidence, his view of beauty seems entirely utilitarian compared to hers, but his assertion that artists need to do beautiful work in familiarity with a tradition of past beauty that has some kinship with Murdoch’s concept of attention.  

She starts off in the weeds of shop talk, fending off one academic philosopher after another, trying to somehow save the idea of individual subjective consciousness against all the 20th century efforts to render human beings merely an agglomeration of genetic/cellular activity–or an isolated will, an abstract freedom of choice, completely detached from any governing reality external to the individual will. (The latter, existentialist view, has certainly receded since she wrote her book.) In rereading the book, at first, I was annoyed and puzzled by how dense her thinking gets, right out of the gate, as she fends off the other thinkers–analytic and existentialist both–who want to dismiss the idea of what used to be called the human soul, a consciousness that isn’t simply the epiphenomenon of bodily activity. She tentatively asserts subjective consciousness as the only way to describe the actual experience of being alive and human–an inner life apart from actual behavior that proves to others it exists–in order to build her philosophy of Goodness. Everything good in human behavior for her depends on a lone individual’s effortful attention to other people and things external to the self and she needs that inner life, that inner struggle of attention, which goes on invisibly from moment to moment (essentially a sort of continuous, daily discipline of contemplation) for her view of moral goodness to make sense. (Though she probably would have been disheartened by the current ubiquity of mindfulness meditation, complete with helpful apps on your phone, her thinking isn’t all that far from the moral dimension of mindfulness.)

For now, here’s a long series of excerpts from throughout her book. Any painter, including abstract painters, will recognize how much this describes the act of painting, how little depends on personal choice and how much relies on obedience to the requirements of a given picture, even though her focus is on moral behavior. She sees very little space between moral attention and creative attention:

But if we consider what the work of attention is like, how continuously it goes on, and how imperceptibly it builds up structures of value around about us, we shall not be surprised that at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over. This does not imply that we are not free, certainly not. But it implies that the exercise of our freedom is a small piecemeal business which goes on all the time and not a grandiose leaping about unimpeded at important moments. The moral life, on this view, is something that goes on continually, not something that is switched off in between the occurrence of explicit moral choices. What happens in between such choices is indeed what is crucial.

If I attend properly I will have no choices, and this is the ultimate condition to be aimed at. The ideal situation . . . is . . . to be represented as a kind of ‘necessity’. This is something of which saints speak and which any artist will readily understand. The idea of a patient, loving regard, directed upon a person, a thing, a situation, presents the will not as unimpeded movement but as something much more like ‘obedience.’

This is what Simone Weil means when she said ‘will is obedience not resolution.’ As moral agents we have to try to see justly, to overcome prejudice, to avoid temptation, to control and curb imagination, to direct reflection.

One of the great merits of moral psychology which I am proposing is that it does not contrast art and morals, but shows them to be two aspects of a single struggle.

In one of those important movements of return from philosophical theory to simple things we know about great art and about the moral insight which it contains and the moral achievement which it represents. Goodness and beauty are not to be contrasted, but are largely a part of the same structure. Plato, who tells us that beauty is the only spiritual thing which we love immediately by nature, treats the beautiful as an introductory section of the good. So that aesthetic situations are not so much analogies of morals as cases of morals. Virtue is au fond the same in the artist as in the good man in that it is a selfless attention to nature: something which is easy to name but very hard to achieve. Artists who have reflected have frequently given expression to this idea. (For instance Rilke praising Cezanne speaks of a ‘consuming love in anonymous work.’)

And here we retrieve the deep sense of the indefinability of good, which has been given a trivial sense in recent philosophy. Good is indefinable not for the reasons offered by Moore’s successors, but because of the infinite difficulty of the task of apprehending a magnetic and inexhaustible reality. Moore was in a way nearer the truth than he realized when he tried to say both that Good was there and that one could say nothing of what it essentially was. If apprehension of good is appreciation of the individual and the real, then good partakes of the infinite elusive character of reality.

We need a philosophy in which the concept of love, so rarely mentioned by philosophers, can once again be made central.

Stepping away from her argument briefly, for me, the problem with discussions about art, such as this, is that the terms goodness, beauty and love all sound trite or can easily be taken to refer to their most shallow examples. Goodness can be misinterpreted as the rote obedience to socially acceptable customs, beauty a meretricious commodity when seen in a fashion plate or a showroom car, and love merely romance or sex. What Murdoch refers to is goodness not tied to the self—anyone who has ever worked weeks and months on a painting knows how much pleasure has to be sacrificed, how much gratification has to be postponed or relinquished, and how much the self has to be subdued to simply see what needs to be done, let alone do it. Pursing order and beauty in the work itself, paying such diligent attention to what the work requires, that you simply try to fulfill whatever it demands in a sort of endless submission to the work’s necessities. The question simply becomes “What do I need to do to get this perfectly right?” The only motivation and reward for this is love. 

Back to Murdoch:

In the moral life, the enemy is the fat relentless ego. Goodness appears to be both rare and hard to picture. It is perhaps most convincingly met with in simple people—inarticulate, unselfish mothers of large families—but these cases are also the least illuminating.

There is nothing odd or mystical about this, nor about the fact that our ability to act well ‘when the time comes’ depends partly, perhaps largely, upon the quality of our habitual objects of attention.

Of course the good man may be infinitely eccentric, but he must know certain things about his surroundings, most obviously the existence of morality (and also in art) is personal fantasy: the tissue of self-aggrandizing and consoling wishes and dreams which prevent one from seeing what is there outside one. Rilke said of Cezanne that he did not paint “I like it,” he painted “there it is.” One might say here that art is an excellent analogy of morals, or indeed that it is in this respect a case of morals. We cease to be in order to attend to the existence of something else, a natural object, a person in need. We can see in mediocre art, where perhaps it is even more clearly seen than in mediocre conduct, the intrusion of fantasy, the assertion of self, the dimming of any reflection of the real world.

A deep understanding of any field of human activity (painting, for instance) involves an increasing revelation of degrees of excellence and often a revelation of there being in fact little that is very good and nothing that is perfect. Increasing our understanding of human conduct operates in the same way.

Art presents the most comprehensible examples of the almost irresistible human tendency to seek consolation in fantasy and also of the effort to resist this and the vision of reality which comes with success. Success in fact is rare. Almost all art is a form of fantasy-consolation and few artists achieve the vision of the real. The talent of the artist can be readily, and is naturally, employed to produce a picture whose purpose is the consolation and aggrandizement of its author and the projection of his personal obsessions and wishes.

The consumer of art has an analogous task . . . the appreciation of beauty in art or nature is not only the easiest available spiritual exercise; it is also a completely adequate entry into (and not just an analogy of) the good life, since it is the checking of selfishness in the interest of seeing the real. But the greatest art . . . shows us the world, our world and not another one, with a clarity which startles and delights us simply because we are not used to looking at the real world at all.

It is important too that great art teaches us how real things can be looked at and loved without being seized and used, without being appropriated into the greedy organism of the self. Unsentimental contemplation of nature exhibits the same quality of detachment: selfish concerns vanish, nothing exists except the things which are seen. Beauty is that which attracts this particular sort of unselfish attention. It is obvious here what is the role, for the artist or spectator, of exactness and good vision: unsentimental, detached, unselfish, objective attention. It is also clear that in moral situations a similar exactness is called for.

The direction of attention is, contrary to nature, outward, away from self. . . toward the great surprising variety of the world, and the ability to so direct attention is love.

It is in the capacity to love, that is to see, that the liberation of the soul from fantasy consists. The freedom which is the proper human goal is the freedom from fantasy, that is the realism of compassion. What I have called fantasy, the proliferation of blinding self-centered aims and images, is itself a powerful system of energy, and most of what is often called ‘will’ or ‘willing’ belongs to this system. What counteracts the system is attention to reality inspired by, consisting of, love. In the case of art and nature such attention is immediately rewarded by enjoyment of beauty.

Freedom is not strictly the exercise of the will, but rather the experience of accurate vision which, when this becomes appropriate, occasions action. It is what lies behind and in between actions and prompts them that is important, and it is this area which should be purified. By the time the moment of choice has arrived the quality of attention has probably determined the nature of the act.

Beauty appears as the visible and accessible aspect of the Good. The Good itself is not visible.

The ‘there is more than this’, if it is not to be corrupted by some sort of quasi-theological finality, must remain a very tiny spark of insight, something with, as it were, a metaphysical position but no metaphysical form. But it seems to me that the spark is real, and that great art is the evidence of its reality. Art indeed, so far from being a playful diversion of the human race, is the place of its most fundamental insight, and the centre to which the more uncertain steps of metaphysics must constantly return.

 

Painting in Watercolor Society of Oregon Spring Exhibition

An invitation to see painting “Three Minute Egg #12” as one of 80 water-media paintings in the WSO Spring 2019 Experimental Exhibition!

About the Exhibition.

Greetings!  I am happy to say that my painting “Three Minute Egg #12” is showing in the Watercolor Society of Oregon’s Spring 2019 Experimental Exhibition.   My painting is one of 80 stunning water-media works accepted by Juror Jean Pederson.

What makes this show particularly special is that the rules accept works from a variety of watermedia and supports.  That is to say, artists can include acrylic paint or use clayboard panels, for example.  There might be a bit of pastel or colored pencil worked in too, as long as the painting is primarily watercolor.

WSO Spring Water-media Exhibition: Three Minute Egg #12

Location and Hours.

The WSO Exhibition will held at the Oregon Society of Artists (OSA), 2185 SW Park Ave, Portland OR from April 8th to 30th. Gallery hours are Monday through Saturday, 1 – 4 pm.

The opening reception is Saturday, April 6th from 4 to 5 pm.

About the Painting.

Some of my favorite things: egg cups, espresso cups, a timer and a spoon.  I am reminded of special family breakfasts we had when I was young.  It just seemed exotic to have an egg served in an egg cup.  I loved dunking my toast in the egg yolk.  The design of the painting perhaps emphasizes the idea of remembering the past.  The items are simplified and expressive rather than realistic.  It is about experimenting with shape and color to create something joyful.

The colors of the painting refer to an early morning, perhaps.  In other words, dawn; the time of day when the sun is just starting to peak into the breakfast room.  The darks of night have yet to disappear for the day.

This is one of 13 paintings created to date in my “Three Minute Egg” series of paintings.

If you would like, I wrote an article about creating the design for this painting and published almost a year ago.  You might enjoy the extra insight about the painting.

Invitation.

If you are in the area, I invite you to stop by and enjoy the show!

The post Painting in Watercolor Society of Oregon Spring Exhibition appeared first on Margaret Stermer-Cox.

Picasso, the blind Minotaur

Pablo Picasso, Blind Minotaur Guided by a Girl at Night, burnished aquatint

I’ve been surprised that the exhibit that has occupied my attention the most since my last visit to LACMA was Fantasies and Fairy Tales. It was a small, quirky collection of prints from around the year 1900. The aim of the exhibit was to show how, within this tight, curatorial window of qualifications (prints mostly within a narrow, fin-de-siecle range of dates), a selection of work could suggest incorporeal states of mind or spirit, as well as hint at transcendence. The show was beautiful and eerie, dreamlike and occasionally chilling. There was a slightly morbid strain in the imagery on view, but it was tempered with stylistic wit in the work itself and the playfulness of the curation. Charles Addams might have brought an Edwardian folding chair to this one, the better to take it all in. David Hockney etched a simple rear view of the prince nudging his horse up to Rapunzel’s dangling locks. In Death the Strangler, Alfred Rethel engraved an image of a skeleton in a hooded monk’s habit pretending to play a fiddle with a pair of leg bones as people cowered around him. Max Klinger’s aquatint, Pursued Centaur, depicted three seemingly naked hunters chasing a centaur through long grass—right after the centaur has loosed an arrow backward into the leading horse’s neck. It shows you the moment when the hunters became the hunted. It’s all slightly magical, in an altered states sort of way.

But the revelation for me was a print from Picasso, the one of the blind Minotaur commonly considered the final image from The Vollard Suite—if you discount the concluding three portraits of Vollard required by the art dealer in his commission. I’d seen many prints from that suite before, but seeing it in person, for some reason, stopped me in my tracks. It was an entrancing exhibit, and this one print sent me briefly down a rabbit hole of study off and on during the past two months since my visit in January. Eventually, I’m going to post a long essay on The Vollard Suite—if I can sit still long enough to write it—because it has changed the way I think of Picasso and his career. I’m finding it hard to see anything else he did as equal to this suite of prints, especially if you consider Guernica the offspring of his years laboring on them.

The Vollard Suite is giving me a deeper respect for the sort of art—the kind of art that critics love because it can generate so much discussion—that doesn’t fit into my essentially modernist advocacy for visual art’s fundamental kinship with music, in the way it acts directly on the pysche, in contrast to language and narrative. Visual art and music are equipped to do something different from the meaning-making role of language, opening up an immediate sense of the world, but in a direct way that bypasses the intellect, and I consider this their most valuable role among all the arts. When this work gets tied to the notion of “meaning,” then visual art heads in a direction that usually seems less compelling to me. Yet the Vollard Suite is making me see the other side of this argument. It’s catnip for the thinking mind, but in such a way that it leads you toward the impenetrable paradox of Picasso’s own personal daemon. The Vollard Suite is a maze of implied, mysterious narrative, but it becomes, as Picasso is drawn toward greater and greater honestly about himself and his art, a work of tormented self-questioning and self-criticism. I’m not sure there’s anything else like it in his work, or in anyone else’s. It’s art that calls art itself into question. Out of this self-defeating struggle, one of the most worldly and pagan of 20th century artists created, in this image of the blind minotaur, a dead-end reverie of blind enchantment. It’s a depiction of himself as both baffled and instinctively creative with no way to see where he was going, yet obedient to the beauty that offered to lead him through his darkness. In a way, it’s an image of soon-to-be rejected grace. I think Picasso understood his own spiritual blindness. It’s his brief discovery of enchantment, as a consequence of his being honest about his inability to comprehend himself or his life, that takes him and the viewer by surprise. He had his secular equivalent to Beatrice in his teenage lover, Marie-Therese Walter, yet he parted ways with her. Yet while he created this print and its companions, she offered to light a path for him that he ultimately abandoned. 

Busy But Still Drawing My Favorite Things

It has been a busy year so far!  I have been doing some volunteer work with the Watercolor Society of Oregon, for example.  Plus, I took artist Sarah F. Burns‘ “Anatomy for Artists” drawing class.  The class was intense, challenge and wonderful; a good learning experience.

Busy But Still Drawing: Coffee Cup With Broken Seashells

But, no matter how busy I get, I keep drawing.  You see, it’s absolutely essential for me to continue to do so.  In part, drawing keeps my skills honed and improving. Also, I draw for the fun of it.  And, I get grumpy if I don’t draw.

So, out come my favorite items, like these broken seashells, coffee cups, brandy snifters.  It is interesting that I never tire of them and I continue to learn.

Busy but still drawing: Brandy Snifter

So, I may be busy, but I can still find time to draw.  Thank you and please enjoy!

 

 

 

The post Busy But Still Drawing My Favorite Things appeared first on Margaret Stermer-Cox.

Zoey Frank

Peter Reading, oil on panel, 36″ x 36″

Zoey Frank has a show at Gallery Mokum in Amsterdam opening on March 16. She has to be the perceptual painter who has risen to prominence more rapidly than anyone else in that club. I’ve been following her with bemused fascination since she was the star of Manifest’s INPA not long ago. She’s everywhere, it seems. When I checked out Arcadia’s booth at the L.A. Art Show two years ago, I noticed they had one of her paintings on view. She’s included in a group show now at Danese Corey, with plenty of work to spare for a solo show in Europe. For someone with her prolific confidence, the challenge has to be picking what not to paint.

The polarities in her work are what keep me trying to reverse engineer what she’s doing, but it’s as hopeless as twisting a Rubik’s Cube back to perfect alignment. At her best, the surface works on its own semi-abstract terms. Conversely, the image works just as well, as a representation, despite all the flat decorative patterns she so often seems to improvise behind and almost in front of her subject, if you can actually pin down a single subject in some of them. Note the checkered pattern of the boxer shorts, the irregular cinder-block lines in the wall, the random-looking orange stripes at the top, as if someone has ripped a pasted advertisement away. Hers are “all over” paintings that resolve themselves, at least partly into the old familiar genres of interior, figure and still life. When this polarity between surface and image is strongest, but without marks that don’t seem unified into a recognizable image, her paintings are the most satisfying. (It looks as if lately she’s moving more toward heavy impasto, in the vein of Stanley Lewis, and the image flattens into two-dimensional patterns completely, losing some of her charm in the process.) Her work is about the texture of the paint and yet they often look as accurate in the way they convey light as a photograph. (It’s hard to imagine she doesn’t refer to photographs at all in some paintings.) As with most of the perceptual painters, she’s willing to paint anything she sees, seemingly just as she finds it, so that anything for her is a fitting subject. Each individual painting looks more like an inconclusive portion of a long scroll of work that never ends–just an arbitrary clip from a continuous experimental translation of seeing into paint, never quite arriving at completion, which adds to the transitory quality of her images. They feel more dreamed than seen.

In her most interesting work, she’s constantly juxtaposing scumbled or scraped spots of paint against crisply defined edges–the way Eve Mansdorf once talked about the importance of edges as a counterpoint for her more improvisational areas of paint. The governing greenish light here–is it a yellow incandescence or a muted natural glow on her friend’s nose from a leafy summer scene outside? She conceals a line that looks as if she’s trying to slice her friend’s anatomy off at the knees, angling up from the lower right, the way a Cubist would, arbitrarily (hints of Braque often are absorbed into her compositions and texture) and yet that little edge seems to work as an accidental but accurate alignment of shadow. In most of her work, she uses these structural straight lines, as if she’s clicking everything into a purely imaginary grid that keeps surfacing in the shapes she puts down. She breaks up this particular image with little shards, wedges and shims of color, without detracting from the depth of her forms and the realistic light, so that a lot of these details don’t coalesce the way you would expect them to, yet don’t keep you from seeing the scene. In this case, it’s almost the way a digital photograph looks when it’s pulled off a slightly damaged SATA hard drive, fractured with visual noise, but still recognizable.

Message from the unseen

From “Art is Dead; Long Live Aesthetic Management:”

“The work of art,” Alfred North Whitehead writes, “is a message from the Unseen,” or as I would say, the unconscious. “It unlooses the depths of feeling from behind a frontier where the precision of consciousness fails.” This, I think, is the credo and intention of all true artistic creativity–to reach into the unseen depths of the psyche and bring back the pearl of original feeling from them. T.W. Adorno says something similar. “Works of art,” he writes, “do not, in the psychological sense, repress contents of consciousness. Rather, through expression they help raise into consciousness diffuse and forgotten experiences without ‘rationalizing’ them.”

Artistic expression thus undermines the pseudo-self and restores the original self. It uses unconscious feeling to undermine conscious reason. Diffuse feeling arises spontaneously, as though experienced for the first time or suddenly remembered, and so all the more meaningful. It is an unexpected message from the unknown depths, a surprise that cannot readily be explained, which makes it all the more resonant and urgent and profound–and makes the art that mediates it convincing.

–Donald Kuspit, Redeeming Art: Critical Reveries

 

Happiness, courtesy James Neil Hollingsworth

Honda: Aft, James Neil Hollingsworth, oil on panel, 12″ x 12″

To the prejudiced, everything that belongs to a certain category tends to look alike. Likewise, to its detractors, I suspect photorealism all looks the same. In their view, it smothers individuality. It’s impersonal and slick. It’s meretriciously seductive in its surface pleasures. And what makes it so galling: it’s popular. Although I use photorealist methods, I have been known to respond this way to some of the hyperrealism I see—opulently lavish with color and light and detail and yet seemingly devoid of subtle emotional tones. It’s so extreme in its technical skill that mostly it gives you an envious thrill similar to what you might experience while gazing at a Lamborghini on a showroom floor. I’d love to know how that car and those paintings are made, but I wouldn’t feel right bringing either of them home. I think that’s how many fellow painters react to this genre as a whole. It’s cool perfection seems as off-putting as a luxury item.

On the other hand, I could rattle off a list of photorealists whose work I love, as well as work that has the same deadpan, literal accuracy but relies to a lesser degree on photographic technology. (The Dresden painters, the French classicists, for example.) With his lenses and maybe mirrors, Vermeer would be the most beloved practitioner, of course, but many different contemporary painters working in this mode evoke far more than just a lust for looking. Their paintings find ways to convey almost exactly how things look, without any creative meddling, and yet also manage to be individually expressive by employing subtle, personal stylistic jigs—the self-limiting guides of an individual painter’s personal conventions and preferences. Some of these painters evoke a world of memory and stillness and poetry: the sense of order that saturates a certain kind of autumn afternoon, the smell and sound of a golf course, a childhood home in the dusk, or the look of a certain season in the way its light falls on things arrayed under a window. Behind all of that, throughout almost all examples of the genre itself, there’s an affirmation of the Apollonian order embedded in science and technology–its almost ontological presence in modern experience so omnipresent it becomes invisible, though it is what makes possible suburban homes and golf courses and lunches at a favorite diner and lavishly abundant supermarkets and quiet October afternoons scented with burning leaves when you can sit and do nothing in your backyard but listen to a remote motorcycle start up again at a green light. By and large, photorealism shows you how contemporary happiness looks and feels–you look at one of these paintings and realize how happy you actually are. Which is, by and large, what Vermeer wanted to depict as well.

I’m finding myself this year, in my own painting, concentrating on one sort of photorealist work that ought to have its own name: photorealist abstraction or abstract representation would describe it pretty well, though it deserves a shorter moniker I’m not clever enough to invent. Someone probably has already. In this type of work, the painter often takes a photograph of an isolated object or set of objects and then crops the image so that its abstract properties become paramount. The structure and color of what’s photographed become the armature for a painting that serves up a pattern of line, form, color and light, so that these qualities in and of themselves become the actual subject of the work—the style and the object or objects being painted fuse together so that the painting works as an accurate representation but also as an improvisation of color and line, simply by virtue of how the photograph was shot and cropped. I’ve been giving all of this a lot of thought because I’m working this year on enlarged images of small, colorful commonplace objects, yet—speaking of motorcycles—it’s the work of James Neil Hollingsworth that’s most on my mind. I first saw his paintings on Instagram, without ever happening to catch any of them at Arcadia on my visits to the gallery, except for my last one in January when I saw his small oil on panel of a classic Honda motorcycle’s tail light and rear turn signal along with portions of the bike’s wheel and seat.

His work at first looks like the sort of painting one might see at Plus One in London or one of several photorealist galleries in Manhattan, but the more you study his paintings the more you begin to see how his restrained use of color gives his work its own unique, quiet appeal. His almost minimal approach to color and composition is a good part of what makes his work stand out in comparison with hyper-realism that often seems dedicated to creating a highly saturated and extremely vivid rainbow of hues that appear to come straight out of the tube. One painting he’s done, of a salt and pepper shaker sitting behind a prone bottle of Heinz ketchup, could serve as an icon for the sort of abstraction representation I’m talking about. The painting uses objects so dear to Ralph Goings, in his wonderful glimpses of life in a diner, yet Hollingsworth arranges them to create a pattern of shapes and colors for their own sake, our of their usual context, simply for the formal properties they enable him to achieve in the painting. You don’t see beyond them through a diner’s window into a parking lot, but rather you see, with their help, a quasi-geometric composition of gray, blue/gray, red and white, green, and a thin strip of gold.

As much as they work as abstract formal compositions, his objects are illuminated by natural light, and he’s intent on using the actual color—without heightening it at all—of what he’s painting to invest the image with a kind of restrained joy. The rear fender of a classic Honda motorcycle gives him a template for juxtaposing the muted rose of the brake light against the butterscotch and honey tones of the turn signal, which are made even more piquant by the slash of varied greens in the chrome fender—which also reflects the rose and amber of the two lights. The taupe wall behind the bike, the other slight hint of red in the diagonal piping on the leather seat, the dark gray of the tire—all of these subtle colors click into place in what seems like geometrical inevitability. What this little painting has in common with most of his work is the way all of it is conveyed with understated elegance, with the freshness of first sight, but also how the reflections in the shining surfaces hint at some verdant scene behind the viewer, rather than beyond the object depicted, maybe a wooded expanse, with a twisty path waiting to be blazed on that bike. Even the wire wheels seem to reflect that same green prospect, a world opening away behind your head, portrayed with the slightest lines of color.

Many of his paintings seem bathed in this same Goldilocks light, not too bright, not too dark, with the background blanked out into a nearly uniform color, so that the lines and form of the object—a bowl of pool balls, a moped, a bicycle—rise up from the lower edge of the picture, like something breaching the ocean. His image of a moped intensifies this evocative quality of surfacing into view by being a study in aquamarine, everything shifting from teal to a wedge of slightly truer blue around three little ovals of deep red and amber in the scooter’s candy-colored rear signals. He balances all that negative space, the aqua sea of light, against the muscled tension of the scooter’s design, the mirrors like a crab’s tentacled eyes, everything suggesting sun, life, and freedom. This isn’t about speed; he doesn’t paint a Ducati. It’s just a moped, the preferred mode of transport for mods, not rockers. And only the top half of the vehicle at that. It bulges up into that blank field of blue like a twisted figure in a Francis Bacon. His esthetic is restrained, evocative, humble and yet beautiful as a gem. He paints ordinary joys with extraordinarily calibrated color. His particular color and light make the heart hum with remembered longings that began in childhood and only need paintings like this to remind you that they haven’t died but have only been ignored.

Complementarity, a la Niels Bohr

Again while running, two songs came up in my playlist rotation, and the lyrics struck me as a good description of two sorts of people, with two different visions of the world. But maybe not. It seems I fit into both of these groups. Why do both of these songs feel true at the same time . . . 

Time Hard, The Pioneers:

Everyday things are getting worse
Everyday things are getting worse
Everyday things are getting worse . . .
I took him down to the market place
And them laugh at my dog
You never see smoke without fire
I said
Oh,
You gotta hold your head up high
Everyday things are getting worse
Everyday things are getting worse
Time so hard, why oh why oh lord

Getting Better, The Beatles

I’ve got to admit it’s getting better (Better)
A little better all the time (It can’t get no worse)
I have to admit it’s getting better (Better)
It’s getting better
Since you’ve been mine
Getting so much better all the time!
It’s getting better all the time
Better, better, better
It’s getting better all the time
Better, better, better

Hey, somebody be Vermeer

Girl with the Red Hat, detail, Vermeer, National Gallery of Art

While I was running today, it occurred to me there ought to be a contrarian challenge directed at idealistic and/or gullible art students before they get launched into the world. Someone should dare them to leave behind, at their death, fewer paintings—or works of any sort—than Vermeer or Piero did. Of course this isn’t difficult. Anyone could leave behind three dozen paintings. Three dozen supremely painted ones, though, is still a challenge. Vermeer’s A-game isn’t in evidence in every one of his 36 extant works. There are around twice that number from Piero della Francesca. The seed to be planted here is that you would spend so much time on each of them that you have a far better chance of achieving something near that rarefied level of quality, without going full-throttle OCD. Finish fewer than most, not more, but make each one count in a way few artists can. It would run counter to most of what the commercial art world herds people toward: don’t get on a track where you’re working for another solo show every three years, don’t try to come out of art school and sell through a metropolitan gallery for significant sums, quit worrying about building a CV with awards and honors, and so on. The whole point would be to ignore the entire system that turns an artist into a one-person factory and simply focus on producing a small number of supremely realized works of art, on your own terms. This is all slightly self-justifying though I have no intention of reducing my slow output even more. Yet I’m thinking about this because my own production has slowed down in the interest of getting things right and focusing on a single series of larger paintings. But the Vermeer Way would be more extreme. For someone thinking on those terms, it would require a day job, or some other humbler and/or more nefarious way to make enough money to get by, short of becoming a professional gambler or day trader—and it would probably mean not having children, though a marriage or other domestic partnership could certainly help, on the economic end. It pays to be gay in the art world, in many ways, but the greater chance it gives you of being childless is a major logistical advantage. Mostly though it would be a way of focusing, while in the studio, on nothing but the quality of the work itself, leaving aside all motivations related to quantity. Imagine posting one image every three or four years on Instagram. You would have six followers, but it would be an event. At the very least, you and a few others would know what you’d done, though you might feel like Crash Davis breaking his minor-league baseball record in Bull Durham with only Susan Sarandon paying enough attention to realize he was a record breaker. Worse fates could be imagined.