Sunday, August 31, 2008

Lisa Adams: Now, Shamelessly Gorgeous

Lisa Adams, 'The Future of Paradise Past,' oil on panel, 32"x 78", 2008

I first encountered the work of Lisa Adams in 2004, when a curator tapped her for the "Carpetbag and Cozyspace" exhibition at my gallery, Healing Arts. Her work at that time bore little resemblance to what you see above; it was diminutive, cryptic, and engagingly bizarre. She combined odd text phrases with enigmatic and vaguely hostile foreground images, superimposed upon lusciously painted backgrounds. Her artist's statement declared that she was addressing different states of consciousness with each of the elements in the painting--intellectual, emotional, spiritual. I was all over that, of course, and included her work in another exhibition, "Visual Poetry."

Now, four years later, she is still playing metaphysical games with her imagery, but she has left aside the text and the odd objects in favor of the exuberantly pretty--vines, birds, flowers. The pictures pack a hefty consciousness wallop. They have precisely the same effect, to my mind, as extended contemplation of a Zen koan; the intellectual tangles of the sharply painted vines are superimposed upon backgrounds of moody, open sky, encouraging you to let go of your own circular thinking and access the raw emotion underlying those thoughts, eventually releasing even the emotions. Ultimately, the process is one of liberation. Her painterly technique is formidable, all of it rigorously directed toward the goal of taking your mind off technical concerns. The painting is so successful that you forget you are looking at a painting.

For all its universal import, Lisa's work is deeply and specifically personal. She says:
I try in my work to embody my own sense of what it is to be alive, to encapsulate the difficulties in being human, experiencing all the itinerant shadings of joy, sadness, rage and despair, the things I am sometimes afraid to look straight in the face. Most of my paintings ask difficult questions both of me and of the viewer. These questions comprise a larger aesthetic that infuses my interest in spiritualism, pathos and the strangely complicated and enigmatic discourse between human beings.
This, in my view, is what great art does. It moves from the specific to the universal, speaking a visual language which defies intellectual analysis. Looking at painting is an experience. When the medium seamlessly conveys its content, without intermediary translation, that experience is a transcendent one.

Lisa's upcoming solo show will take place at the Lawrence Asher Gallery in Los Angeles from January 10--February 14, 2009. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Status update; Yari Ostovany, Brian Dettmer, Edwina White

As you can see from the sidebar, I now have prints available of selected works from the New York series and the Implicate Order series. The Implicate Order series seems to be winding to its natural conclusion; I've updated my website with favorites (both mine and other people's) and am looking for an appropriate venue to show them. Heart II has sold to some favorite collectors in California. Ring and Blue Orchid are safely home from Pittsburgh, thanks to Jean McClung of Urban Bytes and and Jill Larson of Fe Gallery, who crashed in my living room over Memorial Day weekend and drank me under the table. We had a blast. Thanks, gals!

My next series, I think, will be more expansive, more abstract and less rigid; right now I've been washing a lot of brushes, taking long random bike rides, and sitting on the window seat of the fire escape, fussing over my miniature garden. It feels like I'm being horribly lazy, but I've come to understand that this phase of the process is necessary. If I try to force it I just wreck a lot of canvas. The last two big pieces from 'The Implicate Order' are currently facing toward the wall in the studio, after I hit the wall with them and decided to organize the practical details of my life for awhile.

Last week an old studio mate of mine, Yari Ostovany, found me on LinkedIn. Upon perusing his website, I was thrilled to discover that not only is he producing some gorgeous work, but that we've followed parallel creative paths. He is also dealing directly with mystical and spiritual sensibilities, with series titles like 'Numinous' and 'Koans' and 'Conference of the Birds.'

'The Poet (II)' oil on canvas, 20"x 16" by Yari Ostovany

'Numinous Nr. 10', oil on canvas, 26"x 27" by Yari Ostovany

Yari's work, when I knew him in the early 90's, was surrealistic and expertly rendered; he, like I, was subjected to intense institutional abuse at the San Francisco Art Institute because we both thought it was important to actually learn to paint. The prevailing SFAI aesthetic was 'a piece of the floor,' which dominated not only the painting department but the film and photography departments as well. In the long run it has only added richness, depth and subtlety to the work, as frustrating as it was to be immersed in an entire art community that seemed philosophically opposed to the creation of images.

Finally, I saw a show recently at Kinz, Tillou and Feigen which rocked. The book sculptures by Brian Dettmer needed no fancy statements, or even titles, to blow you out of the water. What he does is obvious; he excavates old books with a scalpel, to wondrous effect.

Pictures don't do these sculptures justice. The layers and layers of images and text have been painstakingly cut to reveal a jungle of free but precise associations, and the outer surfaces of the books have been filed, sanded and shellacked until some of them resemble stones, or other natural landforms.

The other artist in the show, Edwina White, also works with old paper; her whimsical figurative images were economical and enchanting.

Art is looking up.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008


This is the kind of patron that gives me a reason to get up in the morning.
My art education is lacking. Yet I come from a long line of artists, myself. Some were quite good. Not even approaching Pretty Lady's level, but then, I have a sneaking suspicion that very few are. When I look at her artwork I have a powerful sense that I'm seeing paintings that the art world is overlooking, and should not be.

These are works of far greater merit, I believe, than she's getting credit for. They move people. It's not just me; I read some fascinating comments about this on her blog. You look at her paintings and things can happen to you, deep down inside of you. I've only felt that before in museums. World-class museums like the Art Institute of Chicago, wondrous place of early art memories for me.

So I want one. There are paintings on her blog that I return to, over and over, falling into them, and I want one.

I doubt I can afford one. Maybe later. Maybe, if I keep on taking care of business here, straightening things out, paying off those old business debts till there's nothing left and we can finally use our bits of money to enjoy ourselves. Walter is all for it; his European love of culture shines happily upon my plans.

So. This precious piece of real art will find a home on a wall in my happy room, my home office, close to me. For now I'll just sit here looking at it in front of me, falling into it. Touching it in its protective sleeve. Happily thinking up frames, and where to put it.

I'm overwhelmed.
It's not about money. It's not about fame, Art World Parties, hipness, fashion, or status. It's about being seen, really seen, both for what is there on the wall and what you had to go through to put it there.

Thank you.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Tenuous Universe

Last week I attended the E32 art series, hosted by Linda Griggs, despite some deep forebodings, based upon past unfortunate experiences with arts groups that met at cafés on the Lower East Side. I am very pleased to report that the past unfortunate experiences were NOT repeated; on the contrary, it is my sober conclusion that this event was far superior, in both content and attitude, to the Armory Fair. At least, I had a lot more fun there.

I was particularly struck by the paintings of Barbara Friedman, which at first sight appeared to be mere blurred photo-depictions, but upon deeper inspection, proved at once more painterly and more metaphysical. The physical world is indeed an illusion, resolving momentarily out of linear time, then sliding away again.

'Ferris Wheel,' Barbara Friedman, 36"x 27", 2006

A salient feature of her style is the bright, almost fluorescent underpainting, which is allowed to glow through the image at key points, intimating the existence of an otherworldly light penetrating into this one.

'The Garden of the Fitzi-Continis, 45"x 60", 2005

They manage to be romantic, melancholic and downright creepy, all at the same time.

'Yellow Splashes,' 36"x 84", 2006

Barbara says that she usually starts out with a specific image in mind, but often her original plan is completely obliterated by the time she is finished. Her work has been compared to Richter, of course, but has a warmth and depth that Richter's lacks.

Then this week, as if my cup weren't already overflowing, I discovered the work of Judith Simonian, through my critique group. Lo! Another rich, vivid, metaphysical painter.

'Twin Boats,' 36"x 48",acrylic, mixed media, collage on canvas, Judith Simonian

Judy told me that she envied people who had had a formal art education in painting technique; I countered that no painting technique was taught at my school, and that her work did not seem to be suffering for the lack of it. I have not been to her studio, but spent a good half an hour on her website.

'Crossing II,' 2007, 42"x 62", mixed media/collage and acrylic on canvas

Again, it seems to me that her work evokes a radiant but fractured world, where physical events and objects are continuously obliterated by light and color, transcending the passage of time.

'Twin Plateaux,' mixed media/collage and acrylic on canvas, 44"x 82"

But maybe that's just what I'm bringing to it. ;-)

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Two Percent

I meant to post about the art fairs, really I did, but spring is here. To those of you who do not live in a climate with honest-to-God seasons, I don't expect you to fathom the importance of this. I have been out biking round and round the park, the cemetary and various cute little neighborhoods, soaking in the blooming trees and the sunshine like someone with bipolar disorder in a manic phase.

So I am pleased to announce that David Behringer has taken it upon himself to parse the NYC art scene, and particularly the Chelsea scene, into something manageable for people who do not spend 10-20 hours a week reading art reviews. It's called The Two Percent. Because:
On any given day, no more than 2% of contemporary art galleries are even worth entering. With over 300 galleries in Chelsea, each with frequently rotating shows, finding that 2% is an arguably impossible effort… until now.
I don't know if this guy's taste is all he claims it to be, except that he liked the Pulse art fair, too. So I'm taking a chance on him. Let us know what you think.

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.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Gosh, What Beautiful Art!

I just received a veritable packet in the mail, from the Smack Mellon studio program. Here is the stack of invitational postcards contained therein:

Man, how inspiring, and humbling at the same time. I just can't wait to see the shows. They're bound to be both aesthetically compelling and intellectually challenging, in ways I literally can't imagine.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Feminine Mind

'fifth seed,' collage and etching on wood
Susan Constanse and Stephanie Lee Jackson

People are still wringing their hands over the radically unequal representation of women in the blue-chip end of the Art World. All the possible, political explanations for this fact have been discussed ad nauseam; frankly, I'm not interested in them anymore.

On my last visit to MoMA, I caught the Martin Puryear retrospective, which most of my friends found to be staggeringly wonderful. I thought it was fine. It was playful, whimsical, relatively broad in scope, and the pieces were well-executed.

What struck me was the essential singularity of each piece. The sculptor would think, "I think I'll make a circular piece that hangs on the wall," and boom! he'd do it. There was no second-guessing about any of these sculptures; what you saw was what you got. "I think I'll make a horn shape that points this way." "This time the circle goes on the floor."

This show, in fact, was as relaxing as having a male roommate. There was no Subtext, nothing Implied, no shades of emotional complexity to unravel, just a nice, straightforward guy in the living room, drinking beer and messing with his tools.

I went through the show fairly quickly.

Suspended sculpture, Lee Bontecou

As I perused the rest of the museum, I found myself looking for works by women; I suppose I was in a Mood. What I found, when I found them, were works that tended to have a greater number of layers of complexity. Julie Mehretu's work, for example; and an enigmatic and unwieldy installation by Louise Bourgeois. Some of them I liked, some of them not so much. They took a lot of time to apprehend, and some of them were downright creepy.

Rather like some of my female roommates, in fact.

I have, in the past, made the case that women's brains actually work differently than men's. Not better or worse, just differently--in a more holistic, non-linear, relational way. This theory is borne out by recent brain scan studies on how men and women handle stress:
Increased corpus callosum in women—the connective tissue between the left and right side of the brain—was the first big discovery about how men and women's brains work differently. It was extremely controversial at first. The corpus callosum allows both sides of the brain to be in conversation. Her brain is, to much greater extent than his, multitasking due to all of this communication that goes on in different parts of the brain. There's a tendency for men to sort of stay focused, using one part of the brain. In a woman's brain, when the thinking part of the brain is in use, the feeling part is involved. In the middle of a crisis, men will go sit down and watch TV. And women are going, "How can you do that?" When a woman is using the right side of the brain doing recreational activity, the left side of the brain is still pumping her messages that there are important problems that have to be addressed.
Perhaps part of the reason that art by women still goes underrecognized, particularly in the Big Leagues, is that we still define Great Art from a masculine perspective--as a Monolith, as a Big Statement. Women tend not to make grandiose statements, so much as an intricate web of conjecture, which points to many levels of being, of consciousness, and relation. So much so that I don't think we can get to the top of the tree by faking a masculine attitude; we're simply not pushing with our whole minds when we do that.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Visual Art: Not Visual Any More

How apropos. I must quote Franklin.

1. Taste is the ability to detect visual quality. People with taste are relatively rare. People with inclinations towards art and the mental capacity to wonder about it are quite a bit more common.

2. The art market grew to its present size thanks to the latter group, not the former. It has done so by flattering the latter group into thinking that it has progressive taste, not a lack of taste.
Apropos because the list of 2008 Creative Capital visual arts grantees arrived in my mailbox this morning. The title of the announcement was, "41 ideas whose time has come.'

Note that ideas. Not 'visions,' not 'artists.'

Creative Capital grants are the biggest grants available for artists working today, as far as I know. They not only provide grantees a whopping influx of cash, around $50,000, but they provided mentorship, promotion and visibility. A Creative Capital grant can and does make an artist's career.

And Creative Capital makes its first cut of visual arts grant applications without looking at any visuals.

This is disgusting. It is sheer, unmitigated, blithering arrogance, ignorance and stupidity. It is pseudo-elitism at its most banal and bourgeois. It is flattering the tasteless at the expense of people who became visual artists because they communicate, and express themselves, visually.

Thus, Creative Capital is guilty of extreme bigotry and prejudice against the very people they purport to be supporting.

Visual art is a language of its own. It does not translate into English, particularly not the kind of postmodern bullshit that appears on press releases, artist's statements, museum catalogs and Creative Capital applications. It can transcend culture, religion, language and politics; it can heal the world, if given a chance.

I am really, really tired of arts organizations which are more interested in appearing important and progressive than they are in actually making that kind of a difference in the world--the kind of difference that would genuinely heal, genuinely communicate in a manner that transcends chatter, politics, social class and culture clash. I am disgusted and I am furious and I don't feel like being polite about it anymore.

Look, people. Ideas are easy to come by. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Ideas are good, bad and in between, but they don't mean jack without thorough follow-through and execution in the physical world. You don't fund ideas to get results; you fund people who are actually out there doing something, with or without your funding. You will not shut us up. You will remain banal and irrelevant, regardless of the press or the plaudits you receive, and those of us with actual taste will always know the difference.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Vital Importance of Spirituality in Art

'Heart II," oil on linen, 36"x 48", 2007-8

No, it's not hubris. It could save our culture.

This week Ed W. was discussing the latest, predictably overblown controversy on art and death threats:
It's almost become a punchline, the notion that any artwork exploring both sex and Islam will be met with a flurry of extreme reactions (death threats, riots, burned-down embassies...again?). The controversy in question this time involves the Iranian artist who goes by the name Sooreh Hera, whose photography of naked gay Muslim men wearing a mask said to depict the prophet Mohammed was pulled from an exhibition at the municipal museum in The Hague once it became clear to the museum director that that's what she was showing.
Ed, and most of the other artists on the thread, see this as a Freedom of Speech issue; just about everybody seemed to take it for granted that violent Muslim extremists need and deserve to be publically taunted, provoked, and confronted in a way that is bound to cause an extreme reaction. Failing to do so is labelled cowardice and censorship.

It never, ever seems to occur to anyone that there is more than one way to confront an extremist; still less that said extremist could be, in any way, worthy of attention or respect.

This attitude, in my opinion, could lead to the end of civilization as we know it. It is already leading to the trivialization, degeneracy, and near-total irrelevance of Fine Art, as it is viewed by the vast majority of people who are not intimately involved in the elitist, hubristic, self-involved Art World.

I've already written about the Art World's tendency to dismiss anything that remotely hints at a spiritual context, in a way that is much stronger even than 'that's not trendy right now.' I believe that this is one of the ways that the sense of an elite, exclusive club is maintained; it's a way of separating ourselves from the deluded masses out there, some of whom are fundamentalists ready to kill and be killed for their delusions. We, of course, are Above All That, and any artist who outspokenly says she's not is obviously Not One Of Us.

The fact is, it is human nature to be drawn toward the transcendent, in whatever context. When a concrete, workable religious tradition is absent, we channel this impulse into politics, or career, or environmentalism, or art. There's a reason that apparently sane people get sucked into cults and stripped of their money and sense of individual identity; the pull toward the spiritual is so strong that when it is ignored or suppressed, it is all the more vulnerable to manipulation.

Moreover, as Karen Armstrong elucidates in 'The Battle For God,' extremist fundamentalism is a relatively modern phenomenon, which arose as a natural response to the rapid and traumatic changes brought about by technological, political and social revolution. Religion not only provides a channel for our spiritual instincts, but a basis for stable society; when religious law and tradition is rapidly, obviously flouted by extremely disorienting and destabilizing change, the backlash is equally extreme.

Thus, in my opinion, whatever you may think of the fundamentalist mentality, the worst possible thing we can do to contront it is to use our media, our 'elitist' bully pulpit, and our creativity to deny the spiritual, and smack people in the face with puerile, shallow affirmations of secularism.

Ed says, "Perhaps part of the problem there, though, is the difference between cultures in the significance/taboo/sacrity of images. How do you visually discuss Allah, for example, when any image of him is forbidden and I suspect any proxy would be open to intense scrutiny."

Oh, please. We're visual artists. We don't have to be literal, transgressive, or confrontational in order to evoke a response; still less do we need to write a ream of unreadable text, in a language that our audience doesn't even speak, in order to communicate across cultures. We merely need to reach deep into our own hearts for what is universal.

We sell ourselves terribly short when we assume that shallow, literal, provocative statements about 'This is good, this is bad, this is what I like' are the best we can do as artists. We sell ourselves short when we allow the Art World Game to pigeonhole or ignore us entirely.

Music communicates across cultures; two people who agree on nothing politically will calm down and cease arguing when a mutual favorite song comes on the radio. You don't need to understand someone's language, religion, culture or tradition to listen to their music and respond to it on a visceral level. Art can communicate this way as well, if we shut up with the conceptual blather long enough to allow it.

As a parenthetical note--even though I am a die-hard Obama supporter, I think that Andrew Sullivan's article in the Atlantic about him was maudlin and over the top. But his point about Obama's face being a statement in and of itself is analogous to my beliefs about the transformative power of visual art:
The next president has to create a sophisticated and supple blend of soft and hard power to isolate the enemy, to fight where necessary, but also to create an ideological template that works to the West’s advantage over the long haul. There is simply no other candidate with the potential of Obama to do this. Which is where his face comes in.

Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.

Are we going to prove to the fundamentalist extremists of the world that we, as artists, are every bit as depraved, shallow, and soulless as they believe us to be, or are we going to work to create powerful images that speak to our common humanity?

collaboration update: also, Susan has a new blog!

Saturday, January 05, 2008


Happy New Year, everybody!

This year is going to be interesting. After getting completely enveloped in The Blogger Show, including chauffeuring the redoubtable John Morris to Pittsburgh in a snowstorm with a truck full of art, I'm beginning a collaboration with Susan Constanse of Digging Pitt, and her blog oranje.

We are both terrified.

I was drawn to Susan's work because it is a lot like mine--organic, layered, nuanced, subtle. Particularly in her line quality, she does what I do, only better, which may not necessarily be the best reason to collaborate, but will certainly be challenging. On some level, it seems that we resonate.

Susan Constanse, 'seed 1,' silverpoint on paper, 4" x 6"

We decided to start small, by mailing each other three 4" x 6" 'seeds,' which could be anything. Then we'll mess with them, and send them back.

Susan Constanse, 'seed 2,' collage on canvas

I once wrote, in a review of an exhibit by Alicia McCarthy, about the joys and pitfalls of collaboration:
Looking at it I was overwhelmed by longing, for such courage and such comfort, such lack of neurosis, that two people could share a studio and a gallery, drip all over each other's paintings, and not kill one another. It was like watching a litter of puppies, sleeping in a pile, knawing on one another's ears, never knowing loneliness. Most artists are way, way too uptight to work like that.
Neither Susan nor I have ever collaborated like this before; until now, visual art has been the one area of our lives over which we were able to execute complete control. Thus the reason for starting small, and long-distance.

Susan Constanse, 'seed 3,' mixed media on paper

I really love these first three that she's sent me, and it was a bit intimidating, coming up with adequate pieces to send in return. I won't post mine, or my alterations to hers, until she's received them; they went in the mail today.

I realize that although the essence of artmaking for me is spiritual, and spirituality for me is about connection, that I've always made art in virtual isolation. You spend a year or two in your studio, editing, tweaking, adjusting, and destroying the evidence, then you hang a show, and voilá! you finally invite other people in to see it.

This sort of collaboration makes you a lot more vulnerable. The other person gets to see all your false starts, failures and procrastinations. At the same time, the possibilities for really engaging and pushing things to a new level are legion. So, Susan, here's to becoming the artists we were meant to be!

P.S. For the first time in my life, I've been mentioned in an art review written in English, which was not written by a friend of mine. Hoo whee!