A few days ago I realized that it was time to post another art-related review here. It is not easy to keep a blog like this one going when you hold multiple jobs while doing all the writing yourself (with exception of some proof-reading and editing done by my wife as she is the native speaker in our household).
Nataliya Slinko, Ghost Looking for its Spirit (Karl Marx Beard), steelwool, 2012
But the last two weeks have been very much like a haze. I am referring to the ongoing crisis in Crimea. Some of you might have been following the events, some of you probably have not. And I am certainly not going to talk about the crisis itself here. I have no time and energy left to do so and others have done an excellent job laying out the facts (for example here).
I was born in Eastern Europe, my maternal grandfather came from Ukraine and most of my family still lives in Poland. Just to keep this brief (and simplified): Poland is Ukraine’s neighbor and both share a very similar history in that they were annexed by the Soviet Union after WW2. I only spent my first 5 years growing up in Poland, before my parents decided to flee to what was then West Germany. Even though this seems like a relatively short period of time, we also know that a child’s first years are crucial and formative. Growing up on food stamps, constant power shortages, without hot running water, while people were being shot in the streets in the attempt to protest the Soviet occupation - this is not an environment that will go unnoticed even by a child.
What has been happening in the past two weeks in Ukraine and in the Crimea reads like a very troubling re-run of my early years. People in Poland, Ukraine and all the other Eastern European countries must all be experiencing a set of very similar sensations. Most of these countries did not gain their independence until 1991. Seeing Russian boots on formerly independent soil is simply sickening and nightmarish.
Trevor Paglen, Salt Pit (black site prison northeast of Kabul, Afghanistan), 2006
If you have been following this tumblr, you know that I tend to talk about and lament the absence of issues and politics in contemporary painting. Media like photography, video and installation are traditionally associated with addressing “real-world” issues as they do not rely on the same pictorial and aesthetic parameters as painting. A photograph taken in Afghanistan for example, delivers what would seem to be a much more direct and less distorted version of reality than a painting of Afghanistan would. In painting you have the painter’s hand that - worst case scenario - turns the subject matter into artifice.
With all the art fairs currently happening, I do not think that I have ever felt this distanced from what is being exhibited at these fairs or what is being written about them. It reminded me of a conversation I had with Trevor Paglen back in 2011 after a talk he gave, when he bluntly said: “I don’t care about art or artists.”
Under these circumstances, it was particularly refreshing to read Jillian Steinhauer’s review of the 2014 Whitney Biennial on Hyperallergic. In her article, she concludes that there is a lack of political art on display and the few works that deal with politics are mainly from the 70s, 80s and 90s (even though she mentions some work that deals with identity).
“ For the most part, the art in this year’s biennial faces inward, reflecting on itself and sometimes the larger world in safe and comfortable ways. You won’t be too put out, turned off, or riled up. You’ll probably just have a good time.
[…] All art need not be political, but a show that disregards politics in the United States in 2014 is a delusion — not simply because of the state of the country and the world, but also because of the state of art itself.”
I have always held the belief that painting can take a stance too. But for the past years, almost a decade now, I have mainly come across safe and easy painting. Colorful, predominantly abstract, expressive in gesture (a sort of Neo-Neo-Expressionism or Mannerism), reflecting on itself or on pop-culture, cartoons, comics, advertising or other niche artists (generally labeled outsider artists).
When was the last time you found yourself looking at a painting that managed to provoke a set of thoughts in you which were not concerned with art or painting?
I am not suggesting that all painting should be concerned with politics. Painting has to be varied. But I would ask painters to at least try to do one painting that makes you uncomfortable, a painting that does not follow current tendencies, a painting unlike what you generally paint, a painting that addresses a delicate, if not controversial issue. A painting that is not yet another embrace of irony or style, but one that stems from an interest in things unrelated to art. You will make yourself much more vulnerable that way, but it will be worth it.