Thursday, March 27, 2008

Why I am Still a Painter

I was about to write a standard defensive post about why I continue to pursue the hidebound, retro, unfashionable art of painting, even though painting has been declared officially Dead, lo these twenty or thirty years, even though major contemporary art institutions seem to be sharing in this perspective, and even though it seems to be automatically assumed by the Art World Intelligentsia that a painter cannot possibly also be intelligent, progressive, and a unique original thinker.

Then I went to the Pulse Art Fair today, and changed my mind. Go see the Pulse Art Fair. It's wonderful. I will post about it when I'm not between seeing the Pulse Art Fair and throwing a birthday party for my honey. :-)

So, the reason I am still a painter has nothing to do with repeating an archaic Form, in a mechanical manner, the way the vast majority of persons who sell paintings at plein-air art fairs in places like Canton, Texas or Holton, Kansas do. It has to do with needing a complex and subtle language in which to communicate complex, subtle ideas; it has to do with using a medium that communicates kinesthetically and emotionally as well as visually; it has to do with the pragmatism inherent in using a language that has already been invented, and helping it proceed in its evolution, instead of having to invent an entirely new one, and explain it as I go along.

Also, as difficult and expensive as it is to find the space for a painting studio anywhere in the world, the difficulty and expense is nowhere near that of a welding shop, a film studio or a print shop.

(All images--screenprint, pencil and watercolor on paper, product of recent class at Lower East Side Print Shop. Now I must obtain a print shop residency so I can pursue this line of thought.)

Monday, March 24, 2008

REAL Art Reality TV

Just in case any of you missed Joanne Mattera's brilliant brainstorm over at Ed's:

. “Pimp my Rep”—a show in which the art is really about the curators. Oh, wait, it’s been done. The Whitney Biennial.

. “The Big Lie”—a show in which the contestants vie for top gallery representation, except (and here’s the fun part) what they don’t know is that 80% of the female contestants will be weeded out, even as they vie for one of the coveted slots. Extra points for extra penises.

. “Inverse Proportion”—top dealers judge potential gallery assistants on such talents as length of leg to length of skirt, trophy realness and their froid factor. The winners will receive a job in one of New York City’s top galleries, with a salary offer in inverse proportion to the amount of condescension the contestants have shown through the competition.

. “Studio Visit”—we show up at the studios of artists around town and try to guess what the rent increase will be at the end of the current lease period. Immunity on the next challenge if you can correctly identify the ground-floor spaces that will be taken over by Starbucks, Pottery Barn or Banana Republic.

. “Space’d”—tourists and artists alike will enter a gallery and remark “Nice Space” to an unsuspecting dealer who is paying $40,000 a month in rent. The dealer will be secretly wired to record his/her blood pressure. First visitor to push it past the “apoplexy” level wins. Bonus points if their kids can leave handprints on the art.

. “Hold My Slides”—producers troll galleries for the largest boxes of unlooked-at artists slides and CDs. Artists will serve as judges. Everyone loses.

Friday, March 21, 2008


'Fleurs de Marronniers,' Loren MacIver, 1963

Thanks to Sharon Butler of Two Coats of Paint, I have discovered another role model:
There are indications that [Loren] MacIver was neither gormless nor self-abnegating when it came to her career. She certainly recognized that being a woman could affect it negatively. When she was in her late teens, she adopted a moniker that obscured her gender. MacIver scholar Jenni Schlossman discovered in the census records that MacIver was born “Mary Newman,” but changed “Mary” to “Loren,” and adopted MacIver, which is a variation on her mother’s maiden name, McIvers. Yet at bottom, her anti-theoretical stance appears to have been resolute and genuine. It seems to have set her apart and enhanced her persona as an outsider, a naïf in the edgy territory of Abstract Expressionist histrionics, loftiness, and, arguably, pretension. During the forties, her work was acclaimed for its honest exploration of domestic subject matter and its frank, unapologetically female viewpoint, but in the late fifties and sixties, her paintings lost much of their currency to Abstract Expressionism and later to Minimalism. Nevertheless, MacIver, unlike contemporaries such as Louise Nevelson and Lee Krasner, had no urge to drain her work of content customarily considered “female,” and refused to do so simply to be taken seriously in a decidedly masculine arena.

'La Bonne Table,' Loren MacIver, 1963

Like Sharon, I can't quite believe I never heard of MacIver before now. If I've seen any of her works in person I don't recall it; it's hard to tell from the photos what the paint quality, brushwork and luminosity really is, but I suspect it's fabulous.

Chalk up another one for the 'amended' art history books. Sigh.

'Studio,' Loren MacIver, 1983

Also, this week J. and I caught a performance of Bride at PS 122, which was a cut above most of the theatre and diverse 'performance' work we've been looking at, or for, this season. (We got a membership to one of those theatre-goers discount clubs, so life has been lively lately. :-)) The Lone Wolf Tribe, directed by Kevin Augustine, does a spang-up job of integrating puppetry, post-apocalyptic set design, live music, acting, and dance in a way that greatly transcends both the sum of its parts, and the conceit of assembling those parts in the first place.

One of my biggest chronic complaints about 'integrative' art is that it so often congratulates itself for having the audacity to combine such things as dance, theatre, puppetry and woodwind quartets, without paying much attention either to the artistic quality of each element on its own, or the way in which these elements work together to form a cohesive whole. This production leaped masterfully over this pitfall, living up to its stated intent of creating a 'visceral, gut-wrenching' piece of theatre. Although I found the ultimate conceptual thrust of the piece a little annoyingly predictable, having spent a few too many years in the Bay Area among the Burning Man crowd, the music alone made up for it. Highly recommended.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


'Confusion,' oil on linen, 36"x 48", 2008
by Stephanie Lee Jackson

I think this one's finished. Maybe it's a little rigid, particularly up top in the cloud shape, but it's at that precarious level of balance where one slash could totally alter it, and maybe I'm not feeling so brave.

The reason I love painting is because it's magic. When you reach a certain point, suddenly a canvas becomes infinitely more than the sum of its parts. It's more than an image, more than a color, more than some grease on a piece of cloth. It starts to radiate an independent, complex energy of its own. I try to stop painting on a canvas when, in my judgment, the whole thing is radiating cohesively, with no 'dead zones.'

For me there's an infinite difference between a brush mark that is obvious, in a redundant way, and one that is necessary. A necessary brush mark gives you unexpected and incredibly efficient information about direction, light, energy, touch, form, and even emotion; a redundant one just delineates a form. Rembrandt's and Vermeer's brush marks are all necessary.

Sometimes I have to re-work mine a whole lot to avoid obviousness, sometimes they work as soon as I put them down. Sometimes they work but I don't trust them, and end up reworking them too much.

Is this sort of thing interesting to anyone other than other painters? Are other painters even interested?

I re-shot this painting this evening, so I'm re-posting the image in the hopes that it's a little better.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Anonymity in Art Criticism

Without linking any links or naming any names, let me just say that two things have become clear; 1) quite a number of people seem to agree with me about the state of the Art World today in general, and the state of the Whitney Biennial in particular; and 2) most of those people prefer to remain publically anonymous, or at least publically circumspect, about their opinions.

I don't actually have a problem with that.

One of the biggest fictions that the Art World tries to maintain is that it fosters an egalitarian playing field; that anybody's perspective counts just as much as anybody else's. Therefore we have people seriously stating that my cavalier dismissal of most of the art in this year's Whitney Biennial is mean and wrong and hurtful, because those artists and curators and the people who support them are just as vulnerable as I am.


Look, people. The fact is, artists have to eat. The fact is, we are bombarded with information about how many billions of dollars flow through the Art Market every year, at the same time as the vast majority of us are working two jobs, in debt, and worried about sinking into an impoverished old age without health insurance. In concrete terms, the Art World is the opposite of egalitarian. It is a pyramid scheme that depends for its very existence on the economic and aesthetic disempowerment of hundreds of thousands of contenders.

The fact is, there are a very few people in the Art World who hold the money strings, and pissing those people off can get you a one-way ticket to lifelong destitution. These people don't bother countering criticism with criticism; that would be to 'provoke controversy,' which in this modern Art World is synonymous with both artistic validity and big, big bucks.

What they do is just ignore you. Or else they use the word 'decorative.' Damn you to hell, too.

So I do not blame an artist for not wanting to make waves, by stating a decisive opinion about the doings of these economic manipulators of culture. A lot of visual artists are visual artists, in part, because they're not hugely articulate; the validity of their opinion is nothing if it is inelegantly expressed.

I speak up because I have to. I think my life might be easier if I could be more tactful, diplomatic and equivocal about stating my opinions; certainly I'd burn fewer bridges.

But the price for keeping my mouth closed has always seemed too high. Because I care passionately, not about Art in an unconditional, monolithic sense, but about the things that great art has the potential to communicate--inspiration, complexity, profundity, joy, despair, transcendence. I live for that thrill of humility and awe that can be triggered by a chorus by Arvo Pärt, an installation by Lee Bontecou, a ballet by Balanchine or a poem by Stevens.

And playing the political game of circumspection and relativism, for me, would mean selling out my entire reason for being an artist.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

More Junk in the Hallway

I am very sorry to report that this years' Whitney Biennial is an extension of the last one, only perhaps a teensy little bit lamer and more half-assed.

O was with me; looking at the expression on my face, she declared, "I think you're taking this a little bit too personally."

It was true, I was taking it personally. There seemed to be no curatorial vision or thematic direction for this exhibition at all, except perhaps for Tim Hawkinson and Gordon Matta-Clark Redux, Half-Baked and Ripped-Off. The vast majority of sculptures and installation-type thingies did not read as finished works of art at all; they came across as sketches and machettes for the sorts of ideas that get fooled around with for awhile, then discarded as not being sufficiently compelling. There was a lot of raw lumber, badly crafted and gracelessly arranged; a lot of garbagey goop suspended in plaster, concrete or resin; a lot of bare lightbulbs purposelessly attached to random structures; and a lot of construction materials just leaning around.

There was also Robert Bechtle. God knows why.

However. Here are the artists whose installations were a little bit better than contemptibly forgettable:

Matthew Brannon. Very nice letterpress prints with random, poetic textual snippets, giving the work a whimsically contemplative texture. White noise generators in the corners muted the assaultive noises from outside video installations, allowing you to calm down and actually focus on the work. Enigmatic wall sculptures of ordinary objects were, well, enigmatic. But cute.

Ellen Harvey. Her installation, "Museum of Failure: Collection of Impossible Subjects and Invisible Self-Portrait in my Studio" was a bit klunky, but it began to engage your perceptions in an interesting way, with levels and windows and ornate frames and mirrors and real lights vs. painted lights. She's an okay painter, not a great one, but competent enough not to look like a total dork when relying on painting to integrate with a larger installation. Check out her website; she used to paint tiny oil landscapes on graffiti-covered walls in NYC. Which is something I might have done. Except that tiny oil landscapes bore me.

(But I promised myself to be more positive. Positive! Cheery smile!)

Mika Rottenberg. Seriously hilarious and well-executed installation involving a sort of a shed/goat run, containing several videos of women with The Longest Hair In The World (the hair is real--she advertised on the Internet for them) milking their hair into buckets, and waving the hair at donkeys and goats. Feminist Fairy Tales, mmm-mmm.

Jedediah Caesar. Impressive big ol' lump of multicolored, porous resin, which looked like a gigantic block of drips from a hundred thousand multicolored candles; smelled like it, too. Also a wall of resin tiles full of random garbage. This actually worked, unlike most of the other garbage in the show; I'd tile my bathroom with it. My High Art outdoor bathroom in my avant-garde architect-designed house in the Andes.

Near misses:

Phoebe Washburn. Her installation for this Biennial appears to have been a bit of a departure from her earlier work; instead of creating tidal poetry with raw trash, she has created what ought to be a set for a comic surrealist film. More raw lumber (unfortunately) creates a towering framework for a 'soda factory' involving drawers full of colored golf balls, buckets of chrysanthemums, tanks of colored water, sprouting bulbs, and lots of hand towels. The title is something long and amusing which I've forgotten.

(In fact, a lot of artists in this show seemed to have appended long, strange titles to inscrutable works, sometimes two or three titles per work. Presumably to deepen the mystery. As if we cared.)

Charles Long. Sculptures intended to resemble encrusted birdshit. It is a testament to how uninspiring this exhibition was as a whole that I actually paid attention to these.

Rita Ackerman. Human sized drawing-collages under Plexiglass. Meh.

Karen Kilimnick. Four small, bright, mediocre paintings on four large walls, with a chandelier in the center. The way these were installed began to charge the space in an interesting way; I filed this idea for future reference, to be used with some good paintings and an original chandelier-type sculpture.

There were a few other things that weren't entirely bankrupt, from an aesthetic, conceptual or structural perspective, but now that I look at my notes, not enough to be worth mentioning.

In fact, after viewing this exhibition, I thought, "I could curate a better Biennial than this." Tune in next time for my submissions; suggestions welcome, with extreme prejudice.