Same Old Art

On a personal note: Crimea and Art

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).

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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.

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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).

Steinhauer observes:

 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.

Painting today: the art industry collaborator

In Holland Cotter’s contribution “Lost in the Gallery-Industrial Complex" which was recently published in the New York Times Arts Section, Cotter makes an important distinction between the art industry and the art world. The art world, according to Cotter, is a "labor source" that serves the more powerful art industry (the latter includes high-price galleries, auction houses and collectors).

In his article, Cotter touches on many sensitive and significant issues regarding the role money plays within the numerous and interlinked realms of the art world. He discusses the role of media and argues that art critics tend to favor a conservative approach to art (Cotter labels this approach a “describe-the-strokes style of writing”). 

This all is very true from my point of view. What I found particularly striking was Cotter’s understanding of what is missing from contemporary art criticism: “evaluative approaches that developed in the 1980s and 1990s, based on the assumption that art inevitably comments on the social and political realities that produce it, tend to be met with disparagement now […].”

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Austin Lee, Supplemental, 90” x 60”, acrylic and flashe on canvas, 2013

I would claim that the same is true for much of today’s painting (specifically among younger, emerging artists and recent MFA graduates). The trace of the hand, mark-making, drip painting, ‘casualist’ painting, the aesthetics of ‘bad’ painting, Neo-Expressionism (once again) - whatever you want to call it - plays a more important role within painting than its social and political implications. By social and political implications, I have a more literal understanding in mind: the absence of social and political issues and problems that can be directly addressed by contemporary painting.

The paintings that I include in this post are not meant to be seen as illustrations of what painting should not do. Nobody can impose any such restrictions on art, nor would these restrictions be helpful. The more important point is this: a large portion of contemporary painting makes itself palatable to the art industry when it really should and could take a more critical stance that would resist and challenge it.

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A. R. Penck, Standart, acrylic on canvas, 1971

A painting like Austin Lee’s Supplemental is a good example of painterly attitudes that are mistaken for ideas (a formulation Holland Cotter uses in regard to critics). When paintings become all attitude, their attitude might be spot on and justified and certainly entertaining. But it does not save these paintings from being concerned with art alone and, in this case, a particular style/attitude of painting. 

When the painter A. R. Penck developed his Standart works (Standart is German for “standard” or “normative”, but can also be read as a word play on “stand” and “art”), he had a simplification in mind that could operate on a very basic formal level: a Bildsprache (or visual language) that functions as an outlet of our most human needs - the need to communicate and share our views with each other. At that point in his career, Penck was already being monitored by the East German secret police who were suspicious of his artistic activities. Penck - a citizen of Dresden in Communist East Germany - was not allowed to exhibit his work in his country and when several of his paintings and various other works were destroyed during a raid in 1979, Penck fled to West Germany.

A particular style of painting is always an expression of the conditions it is produced under. You can talk about Penck’s stick figures in a purely formal way. You can talk about him in regard to Jörg Immendorf who he was collaborating with, you can talk about an alternative history of painting that undermined classic and traditional tropes of representation and Penck’s contribution to a new, more deliberate painting. You can talk about the relation between figuration and abstraction and a myriad other things. But what will never work is the claim that Penck’s work stands for itself, can be enjoyed as is and maybe should not be bothered with history. If you look at paintings that way, all you get is half a painting - its shell, without substance. What you will miss is painting’s mode of resistance. In Peck’s case this would be a resistance toward matters such as pictorialism, conventions of representation, and resistance toward a political regime hellbent on silencing its artists.

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Ridley Howard, Red Buildings and Gray, 9” x 8”, oil on linen, 2011  

Much of painting today is an endless story of empty shells. The idea of a painting as a shell is not very new either. In the late eighteenth century, it was the German Romantics who considered much of classicism in poetry, literature, music and the visual arts to be a series of empty shells (leere Hülsen): embodiments of a past long gone and the inability of the arts to respond to the changed social and political conditions of every-day life. 

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Angelina Gualdoni, Sonia Sauntering, 28” x 24”, acrylic on canvas, 2011 

Painting today has become a willful collaborator of the art industry. Ironically though, painting tends to regard itself as subversive. While Lee’s or Howard’s work might have caused an uproar at the 1913 Armory show, it will most likely and without much hesitation be bought up by today’s collectors. What painters seem to ignore is that new styles and formerly subversive aesthetics get absorbed and repurposed by the art market and industry much faster today than just two or three decades ago.  In terms of style and technique, almost anything goes; no matter if it is rendered meticulously or thrown together in an hour.

In order for painting to stop or at least delay its facile consumption by the art industry, it has to realize that its subversive potential is not exclusively located in stylistic and formal attributes that painters have learned to appropriate and recycle. Painting’s power of resistance is located much deeper, below its surface.

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Kerstin Drechsler, If you close the door (47), oil on canvas, 2008-10

What is absent from much of today’s painting, but surfaces in much of Kerstin Drechsler’s work, is a sense of unease and ambiguity. We are accustomed to looking at paintings (and drawings for that matter) and instantly ‘getting’ them. What we usually ‘get’ is what a painting’s or drawing’s source is, what it refers to, what it cites, what it makes fun of, what it plays with. These paintings rarely reach beyond their references and when they do, all they want is to please (which makes them susceptible to art industry/market consumption).

In Drechsler’s If you close the door (47), we are offered a glimpse at an intimate moment. In its intimacy and fusion of bodily parts, this painting does not give away the gender of its participants in any clear or definite way. We could be witnessing a lesbian couple (a subject that Drechsler has employed) or a heterosexual couple in which one partner is engaged in deep throating. This is where the formal aspect of Drechsler’s painting comes into play. In its sketched and fuzzy appearance due to the thin washes and runny layers of paint, the actual encounter remains ambiguous. Are we seeing a couple in which the man dominates the woman by pushing his shaft to the point where it reaches the back of her throat causing her to gag? In this case the fuzziness of the paint is suddenly infused with a degree of force that springs entirely from our mind. No matter what our reasoning might be, the fascination with this painting lies in its fluctuation between deep, raw affection and possible abuse, not unlike a Nan Goldin photograph

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Kerstin Drechsler, Revolver, gouache and watercolor on  paper, 2005

If more painters were to embrace ideas instead of vague attitudes or styles, and if they were less concerned with painting as a source of pleasure alone, then painting would be able to diminish its art industry dependence - although it will never rid itself from this dependence, what Clement Greenberg once called the  ”umbilical cord of gold,” because it just looks too good on a white wall.    

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Painter and the Art Lover, engraving, 1565

Forrest Bess: Painting Things Visible

Once a label is attached to an artist, it becomes difficult, if not impossible to see past these particular labels. In case of the painter Forrest Bess, it is the term “visionary” that has been used ever since Bess referred to himself as “visionary painter” in a letter to art historian Meyer Schapiro in 1948. Among other things, Bess has been called “a simple man”, “a type of painting hermit saint" and "eccentric" who experienced "painful isolation.” It seems that the temptation to characterize Bess as a tormented, artistic genius still prevails.

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Forrest Bess, Untitled (No. 5), 8” x 12”, 1949

On January 5th, the first museum retrospective of Forrest Bess’ work in over two decades ends at the Armand Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. The exhibition features 50 paintings from the years 1946 to 1970 and it was my first opportunity to see his work in person.

Forrest Bess was not the recluse we would like him to be. After he graduated from High School in Bay City (where he spent a large portion of his life), Bess enrolled at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas to study architecture. Two years later and without a degree, he transferred to the University of Texas, where he eventually left in 1932 (again, without a degree) to work on several oil fields. According to Claire Elliott’s informative catalog essay that accompanies the Hammer exhibition, Forrest Bess made extensive use of the libraries at both institutions: “He read widely of Hinduism, Greek mythology, mathematics, and the writings of Sigmund Freud and Charles Darwin. One book at UT intrigued him particularly: Psychology of Sex (1933) by Havelock Ellis, a pioneer in the objective study of human sexuality, which helped Bess to come to terms on some level with his own sexual difference (12).”

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Forrest Bess, Untitled (The Dicks), 14” x 16”, oil on canvas, 1946

Throughout the 1930s, Forrest Bess made several trips to Mexico to see murals by David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera. In the late 1930s, Bess moved to Houston and set up a cooperative art gallery with local artists (Carden BaileyGene Charlton, and others). Even though he became part of a vibrant artistic community, Bess did not feel entirely comfortable: “There I found protection in numbers with people I thought were my own kind - but for some reason or other I was too ‘butch’ - rough for them - I was an oddity and I didn’t fit. I wasn’t effeminate enough.” (From a letter to Rosalie Berkowitz written in 1950.) In other words, the circle of artists he met in Houston accepted his sexual identity as gay man, but not necessarily his lifestyle. The idea that Forrest Bess chose to live on an island by himself because he wanted to be isolated, might have a simple explanation: he wanted to live on his terms. Did he lead a happy life? Did he believe that the choices he had made were inevitable? These are questions that can hardly be answered. But what becomes indisputable is that Forrest Bess was neither a naive simpleton nor a genius loner. 

In 1941, Forrest Bess enlisted in the US Army designing camouflage patterns and eventually training African-American recruits. While in service, he revealed his homosexuality to a fellow soldier who then assaulted Bess by inflicting a head injury (Bess mentions this incident in a letter to Rosalie Berkowitz in 1950). In light of the recent ruling - in July of 2011 - against the US military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, it becomes clear that the widespread practice of denial was not only forced onto generations of gay, lesbian and bisexual service members, but on civilians outside the military as well. 

It is unclear how much and what information exactly the people of Forrest Bess’ home town Bay City had about him. Therefore it is not surprising that they considered him “eccentric.” They might have had their suspicions, but probably never asked in fear of the answers they would be presented with. Under the given circumstances - having no college degree shortly after the Great Depression, growing up in a conservative, Texan working class family, being gay and interested in literature and art - Forrest Bess was left with few options in terms of building a future for himself. 

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Forrest Bess, Bread and Potatoes, 16” x 18”, oil on canvas, c. 1938

In 1947, after Bess had been discharged from the military and moved to San Antonio for a short time (he set up a studio, frame shop and gallery there), he decided to return home and make his living as a fisherman outside of Bay City on his family’s bait-fish camp (which was set on a peninsula and only accessible by boat).

The story of Forrest Bess is not unlike an odyssey. Before he decided to move back with his parents, he traveled the state of Texas and worked on oil fields.  He visited Mexico, studied at two universities (or attempted to do so), and was actively involved with the art scene in Houston and San Antonio. Long before his work was shown at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York City in 1950, Bess was honored by solo shows at the Witte Museum in San Antonio, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington in D.C.  He was no hermit saint, nor was he a simple man. He was not an outsider artist either.  Bess was an established regional artist and an active participant in the fashioning of his own career.

From his letters, we get the sense of an avid reader and a man with a great intellectual appetite. While Vincent van Gogh was one of his heroes and references (the painting Bread and Potatoes appears like a hasty fusion between a late Manet and early van Gogh still life), Bess repeatedly mentions Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, Goethe, Homer, symbolism, surrealism and his own visions that form the basis for many of his paintings. While the visions or dreams that Bess claimed to experience regularly have received most of the attention in numerous articles and essays on his work (in addition to his genital self-surgery), his roles as a skilled observer, informed reader, writer, multifaceted intellectual and engaged individual have been neglected.

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Max Ernst, Graetenwald, 1926

In 1948, Forrest Bess traveled to New York City with the intention of finding a potential gallery. There he met the gallery owner and artist Betty Parsons who exhibited his work for the first time in the winter of 1950 (the same year that Barnett Newman has his first solo show there). The Betty Parsons Gallery featured work of American avant-garde artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler and others. It is easy to imagine the amount and diversity of art that Forrest Bess must have seen when he was going from gallery to gallery during his stay in New York. The fact that he chose New York as the destination for his work shows that Bess did his research and was well aware of the centrality of New York as the capital of the art world after WWII. With the influx of European artists immigrating to the United States, the New York art scene had dramatically expended in size, diversity and cultural relevance.

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Forrest Bess, Dedication to Van Gogh, 15.6” x 17.7”, oil on canvas, 1946

Even though the painting above is titled Dedication to Van Gogh, it seems highly unlikely that Forrest Bess would not have read extensively about early twentieth-century art, in particular surrealism’s focus on the unconscious, dreams and their meanings, as well as automatic drawing and writing, and the role of chance within art making.

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Joan Miro, The Tilled Field, oil on canvas, 1923-24 

The importance of nature and the landscape with its ever-changing fields of color and organic forms becomes evident in many of Bess’ letters. In an undated letter to Jack and Naomi Akridge, Bess described the scenery during a fishing trip: “[T]he sun was setting red, but the sky was blue crystal blue but a light wind caused ripples on the water to be reflected both red and blue. I was catching trout but took time to see it. Very rare. Background nothing but dark salt grass-deep green.

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Forrest Bess, Untitled (Indian Dancers), date unknown

There are many differences between the Miro and Bess paintings, but what they share is their interest in a visual language that is universal, yet deeply individual. In their paintings, nature is not so much a product or object to be looked at, but a productive force: water flows, it reflects light, waves break, trees grow, the sun sets, grass sways. Miro (as well as Paul Klee) and Bess deduct signs from it, shapes, forms, colors and arrange them into systems not unlike an iconography of phantasms. Some of these elements are reminiscent of human bodies or organs that are oozing out of the natural world and back into it, taking on colors and hues that are foreign, but strangely familiar.

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Forrest Bess, Untitled (No. 11a), 18” x 24”, oil on canvas, 1958

Forrest Bess is also a painter of all things visible. He is not a copyist, but he clearly paid attention to what surrounded him. These visible things include other works of art, literature, people, history, the politics and ethics of his time, the experience of “self”, the natural world - reflections of it alongside less reliable byproducts like dreams - fevers of the mind - and unfinished thoughts. Why should we wonder about “visions”  that might or might not have occurred in Bess’ case, when we can’t even answer a simple question: which one comes first - thought or language?

Looking at some of the stronger work in this retrospective, I could not help but think that Forrest Bess found a way to paint what would otherwise be impossible to experience: Bess’ paintings think, while others, usually the less interesting ones, only talk.

Meg Webster’s Food Stamp Table at Art Basel Miami

The experience of reading about Art Basel Miami and watching the stream of feel-good, uplifting, toothless artworks presented on blogs, websites and art magazine slideshows is not unlike watching Fox News. 

An overwhelming number of critics and art lovers reporting about the fair seem to have lost any sense of what it means to be critical and when they try to be critical, they just get it wrong. One such example is today’s post on the “most offensive artwork in the fair.” Titled “What the Hell Is Food Stamp Art Doing at Art Basel,” ArtFCity-contributors Paddy Johnson and Whitney Kimball deliver a piece of commentary that is offensive unto itself. 

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Meg Webster, Food Stamp Table, (canned soup, instant Ramen, egg, broccoli), 2013

The work in question is Meg Webster’s installation/display of four food items that constitute one ration bought with food stamps. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recently cut the benefits for households in need resulting in an average of $1.40 per person per meal in 2014.

Webster, who employs organic materials in much of her minimalist work, delivers a piece that is not fanciful or even artful. Food Stamp Table forcefully visualizes poverty in a way that no photograph, text or video could. We are not looking at an attempt to appropriate poverty or to use poverty for the sake of art. The arrangement Webster created is an unfiltered look at what it means to no longer have a sufficient amount to eat. To be poor and on food stamps is not a state of mind, not a choice or political agenda, but a state of being in which the hungry are kept from starving. What else could describe this existential situation better than a frighteningly small amount of food. 

This, of course, is no laughing matter. But Johnson and Kimball suspect Meg Webster of hypocrisy, or at least insincerity. They fixate on the price of the displayed work - $12,000 - and ask if the work is not compromising its message by being up for sale at an art fair. They conclude: “But who needs wall text to tell you about the hardships of the poor, when you can see the homeless RIGHT OUT FRONT OF THE CONVENTION CENTER. Money on that kind of back-patting self education would be better spent on the people who actually need it.”

To find an answer regarding the politics of the price of her work, I reached out to the artist. Meg Webster was surprised by the negative response on ArtFCity and had the following to say:

"It never occurred to me that someone would be offended.  Should I have said the sale will be donated to a food bank?  Would that have made it valid as a work of art?  I probably will if it should sell."

I am deeply concerned about poverty and hunger and the political reality of this country that they could so callously threaten to massively cut aid which is very low to begin with.  It is horrible.  I wish deeply to speak about this.
The work brought up poverty and food hunger and all those issues of the 1% verses everyone else and those on the bottom. Am I making a mockery of the art world with all its dollars? Am I presenting poverty in the belly of the beast…the rich?  No.  Does the work perhaps position itself there somehow particularly in the context of Miami Basel? Very complicated stuff.  Would the work have been better if it had not been for sale?”  

Even if you do not agree with Meg Webster, it is hard to ignore the complicated questions that her work raises. This is not a black and white, clean-cut matter in the way that Johnson and Kimball present it.

If I had the money - which I don’t - I would much rather support an artist (and her gallery) who has the guts to bring a work into Art Basel Miami that is provocative in the art fair context, and who dares to make art with a social component.

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P. Diddy in front of Ai Wei Wei’s Forever

Back to ArtFCity for a moment: what is the alternative you are suggesting? To focus on the other art instead that does not make the mistake of injecting some real-world issues into the fair? Like Sterling Ruby’s painting SP256 that sold for $550,000 or Wade Guyton’s and Kelley Walker’s painted mattresses that sold for $65,000 a piece or Barbara Kruger’s print Value (ironic, isn’t it?) for $275,000 or Ai Wei Wei’s bike sculpture for $270,000?

To find a work like Food Stamp Table offensive, is to misunderstand art and the art market. Can socially conscious art only be good if it comes without a price tag? Is an artist who raises politically delicate questions not entitled to live off her/his art? Should we establish categories that identify art as sale-worthy while the rest has to be free? To call Food Stamp Table offensive because of its attached price is to ignore the market aspect of the art market. 

The question should be: who do you want to support? If work like Food Stamp Table would be taken out of Art Basel Miami, who would we be left with? With far too many artists who do not need your support because one of their works is worth more than what you made last year. Think about it.

Violence in Art: Goya and 12 Years a Slave

After seeing 12 Years a Slave by Steve McQueen, I found myself utterly distressed. A question that came up immediately following the end credits was: why has a movie like it not been made earlier?

When I was growing up in Germany as a Polish immigrant, recent dark history followed me everywhere - in school, in my free time watching TV, or when playing outside in forested areas that sometimes contained overgrown bunkers. I will never forget my former history teacher, then in his late 50s. One day he stood in front of the class, choking on his tears and reassuring us that he had been too young to understand what was happening around him during WWII. My teacher’s father fought at the Eastern Front and never made it back alive, while his mother was struggling to make ends meet in the countryside. She and her young family had a Polish teenage laborer, who was forced to help them on the family farm. The Polish girl had been separated by her family in the early 1940s, put on a train by German officials in occupied Poland and sent off to Western Germany (in 1944 there were over 5 million forced laborers registered in Germany). 

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Above: The execution of a Polish forced laborer in Bavaria during WWII. In the background, other Polish laborers are being gathered to deter resistance (exact date unknown). 

As teenagers we were unsure about our role in regard to WWII. Some of my friends did not ask themselves what it meant to be German, Polish, or Russian when facing that part of German history. Their credo was: what happened in the past, belongs to the past. But many of the people surrounding us in our daily, mundane teenage days had been part of it and now they had entered our lives too - whether we liked it or not.    

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Gerhard Richter, Uncle Rudi, oil on canvas, 1965 

You could not read a magazine or turn on the TV without a discussion about Germany’s long-standing guilt. It was - in the best possible way - an ongoing and open-ended debate about every citizen’s responsibilities. In a nutshell, our responsibility was to stay informed about our country’s recent history and particularly its sins. 

When Gerhard Richter learned about his uncle’s involvement in WWII, he made a painting based on a family photograph he found. In the painting we see a smiling uncle Rudi, strangely removed from the context of war. One could argue that within art there are two ways of depicting war (or, more generally, violence). The first option would be to show conflicts and war as exercises in power by making visible and naming all its cruel results. The second option is to depict war through its absence. Gerhard Richter’s Uncle Rudi fits into the second category, since Richter sets up a visual metaphor: he comments on war by painting a participant of that war; a very relaxed and content participant too. His uncle stands in for the war - even though Rudi takes up a small role within the larger context of WWII.

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Scene from 12 Years a Slave

In 12 Years a Slave, director Steve McQueen smoothly moves in between these two modes of representation. In one scene, we see the main character happening upon a group of men who are about to hang two fugitive slaves. In another scene, we are looking out on a river, gliding over the water while a low, golden sun shimmers through the curled branches of the surrounding live oaks. Desperation, violence, death and the Louisiana landscape are tightly intertwined - if not inseparable.

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Scene from 12 Years a Slave

During a discussion session at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis this November, Steve McQueen mentioned his interest in Goya’s work as a source for his most recent movie. McQueen - who started his career as a painter and then received the Turner Prize for his video work in 1999 - is quoted in Variety magazine stating about Goya: “[he] painted the most horrific images on battlefields, but they are the most beautiful paintings you’ve ever seen. He wants your attention. He’s saying, look at this: This is us. There’s no point in painting a picture which is ugly, your attention would be drawn to the form, not content… “

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Francisco Goya, The Custody of a Criminal Does Not Call for Torture, etching from c. 1810

One can argue where to draw the line between “ugly” and “beautiful.” But it is probably safe to say that McQueen has an aesthetic in mind which - despite its horrendous subject - draws the viewer to a visually striking image. In case of Goya’s etching, The Custody of a Criminal Does Not Call for Torture, the line work and tonal variation of the print demonstrates Goya’s highly skilled mastery of the medium. The contrast between the body and his cell, between what is lit and what remains dark pushes the subject to the foreground. It is a tortured body, a twisted body even, but the time and control it took to render this violent vision speaks of its significance for the artist. Goya’s royal portraits often lack a in-depth consideration of their portrayed subjects. Every detail in this etching - the legs, knees, feet, upper body, hair, fabric and folds - are differentiated, are considered individually and rendered with the intention to mesmerize and shock.   

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Still from 12 Years a Slave

It is in this pairing of the horrific and terrific that Steve McQueen’s movie 12 Years a Slave challenges viewers to revisit the horrors of 19th century slavery (and, by extension, 20th century lynchings and racism) in all their unbearable clarity. The beauty of some of his images only amplifies the abundant violence. The question then becomes: how can these two (violence and beauty) exist side by side, in the same place and time? And: what about America’s relationship to slavery? Why does slavery and its multifaceted legacy remain invisible to so many people still? 

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Sanford Biggers, Lotus (3), 2011 (In this print Biggers used part of an eighteenth century diagram that depicts a ship carrying slaves in its bunt. At the same time, his work assumes the shape of a lotus: a symbolically charged natural form in Asian culture that floats above water and is often associated with renewal and purity.) 

There is no easy answer to these questions. All viewers can do is to raise more questions of the kind McQueen is offering. And more art needs to be made that addresses these conditions that have assumed new forms in our times and are anything but a thing of the past.

   

Painting Forever in Berlin

For five more days, the comprehensive exhibition Painting Forever continues in four locations throughout Berlin. The participating institutions are Berlinische Galerie, Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, the KW Institute for Contemporary Art and the Neue Nationalgalerie - Staatliche Museen in Berlin. 

Painting Forever is not a bad title. It is clever since it avoids the ever-present and overused declaration “now:” Painting Now, Photography Now, Sculpture Now, Video Now, Performance Now, etc., as if art needed this particular qualifier to be relevant. Painting Forever is a similarly sweeping claim, but it comes with a sense of humor and the realization that maybe any mention of the death of painting is irrelevant. Painting continues to be made no matter if we choose to pay attention to it or not.

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Alexander Rodchenko, Pure Red Color, Pure Yellow Color, Pure Blue Color, three canvases, 1921

In September of 1921, Alexander Rodchenko and several of his fellow artists staged an exhibition in Moscow - titled 5x5=25.  The show demonstrated their belief that painting was a dying practice, an outmoded bourgeois art, bereft of revolutionary potential.  This is why Rodchenko subsequently turned to photography and sculpture, leaving painting completely behind. His monochromatic triptych (pictured above), constituted an attack on the conservative values attached to the medium. But at the same time, he used painting as a vehicle to point to its ability to articulate - in visual terms - that painting can outlive its own death.

Painting Forever is an attempt to demonstrate painting’s longevity and persistence, despite the fact that it has been marginalized at high-profile biennials and the Documenta. On the other hand, painting is still largely a bourgeois medium. It remains in high-demand at the countless fairs that have mushroomed all over the world in the last decade; it therefore does not seem genuine when we throw our arms in the air in outrage, trying to rush to painting’s rescue. Painting does not need our help. It is the painters who do.

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Franz Ackerman, Installation shot of his work at Berlinische Galerie

The world of painting has increasingly become toothless over the years. One such example from Painting Forever is Franz Ackerman’s gigantic installation piece. His work is symptomatic of a broader, global phenomenon within painting.  So are Anselm Reyle’s pieces. Their work is pretty, engaging even, if you consider a high volume of cheerful colors or shiny surfaces a measure of engagement. Do cheerful paintings not make you suspicious? What is beneath them? What waits under all that crusty happiness/shininess? Often not that much.

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Anselm Reyle, BubeDameKoenigAss, mixed media, 2013 

The exhibition Keilrahmen (German for stretchers), which is shown as part of Painting Forever at the KW Institut for Contemporary Art, offers the most diversity. It consists of over 70 works by contemporary Berlin painters and creates a welcoming antipode to the other venues which have been supplied with predominantly established artists. 

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Birgit Megerle, Geometric Eye, oil on canvas, 2012

One stand-out in this cluster of works is Birgit Megerle’s Geometric Eye. First of all, it is painted extremely well. And that is not due to its figurative nature; it is due to the variety of painterly textures that inhabit her small canvas (roughly 20 by 30 inches). Often painters are tempted to let the materiality of their medium speak for them (whatever that really means). This temptation tends to result in dots, dashes, drips, loose and unintentional marks of all sorts, weird color parings - basically the repertoire of  60s painting that intended to bestow a spectacularly violent death upon painting. The main divergence from the 60s is that now the same styles and tools are dressed up as positive, affirmative characteristics of painting.

Megerle does not rely on any of that. Her brush work is both deliberate and considered, the figure’s cheek, neck and chest reveal underpaint but it is left alone just enough to rejoin the other parts of the painting - like a porous island that suddenly surfaced. This is a more harmonious understanding of painting, away from the notion that the act of painting has to be one of apparent, formal ruptures. But Megerle does not do away with ruptures altogether. Horizontal lines hover in the background, vertical strokes move around her figure’s head on both sides, three right yellow dots scurry by in the upper right corner of the painting. And then the geometric, circular, possibly cone-shaped object that replaces her right eye. It could have been goofy, comic, laugh-out-loud funny. But it is not. It stops you in your tracks and you want to find it funny and lighthearted. It probably is, yet there is nothing else in the painting that would lend itself unmistakably and undoubtedly to this sentiment. 

Birgit Megerle’s painting is comfortable with being situated in between states. It is a state of serious playfulness on the one hand, and playful seriousness on the other. And the longer I look at her work, the less I seem capable of distinguishing these two modes from each other. One thing is certain though: if Megerle keeps painting forever, I won’t have to worry too much about the Reyles and Ackermans of painting.

Jerzy Szumczyk’s intervention: Komm, Frau

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Installation shot of Jerzy Szumczyk’s sculpture Komm, Frau

Last Saturday night/ early Sunday morning, the art student Jerzy Szumczyk and several of his friends from the Gdansk Academy of Fine Arts installed a concrete sculpture depicting a Soviet soldier raping a highly pregnant woman. The sculpture was removed within hours, Russian government officials got all upset, and news outlets across Russia, Europe and the US have been reporting  on the incident since.

The site that Szumczyk picked was not a random choice. Close to the city center, it functions as a memorial of Gdansk’s liberation toward the end of WWII. The memorial consists of a tank that was operated by a Polish officer who participated in the liberation. What the monument misses to acknowledge is that the majority of troops entering the city and in charge of the “liberation” where Soviet troops who would remain in Poland until 1989 and with them Stalin’s version of communism.

Hyperallergic reported on the story as well and got a few facts and observations wrong. So I decided to give a more accurate account surrounding the sculpture and its context within Polish-Soviet history.

At that point of the war, Gdansk was still a German city (known as Danzig). The large majority of Gdandsk’s population was therefore German and the majority of women raped by Soviet troops was German as well. The title of his sculpture (“Komm, Frau”) most likely refers to the book “Frau, komm!” which was published in 2009 and deals with the mass rape of women by Soviet soldiers in the years 1944/45. The book contains many eyewitness accounts one of which recalls how a Soviet soldier forced a woman to follow his demands with the words “Frau, komm!/Davai suda!” 

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Photograph depicting Soviet soldiers toward the end of the war (most likely in East Germany).

In Poland, where every large city still has monuments from the Soviet occupation reminding the Poles of an independence that never was, Jerzy Szumczyk’s work (which is executed in the socialist realism’s style as employed by the Soviet Union) is not about “good” or “bad” art. It is about what is necessary and what has been largely ignored by Poles and Soviets alike - even 68 years after the war.

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The Bulgarian Monument to the Soviet Army after its transformation by an unknown artist group in 2011.

Poland’s contemporary art scene has been growing over the last two decades, but work that addresses issues of its recent past and the general silence regarding it, has been relatively rare (exceptions are Artur Żmijewski or Magdalena Abakanowicz who represent an older generation of Polish artists). In a country that has an active nationalist party with many followers and that is still ruled by a conservative Roman-Catholic majority, Jerzy Szumczyk’s intervention is not bad art or tasteless art. It is vulgar, explicit and provocative. But because it uses the tropes of socialist realism so well, it finally lends all those stale and pompous Soviet monuments an air of truth and thereby turning each Soviet bronze shell inside out. More of it, please.

    

The Loss of Criticism

After I started looking through comments in various art-blogs on Jerry Saltz’s contribution about “Neo-Mannerism,” I decided to leave a comment on Sharon Butler’s “Two Coats of Paint" where the Saltz essay is mentioned. What caused me to leave a comment on her blog has to do with how criticism about contemporary art is becoming a rarity that is largely unwanted. Here is my comment:

What is straight downward disturbing within the context of Jerry Saltz’ article and the reactions toward his piece, is the absence of a critical debate. You do not have to agree with Saltz and you can ask him to be more specific in regard to individual artists who practice “Neo-Mannerism.” But any kind of in-depth conversation becomes impossible if his opinion is declared a rant - something not to be considered seriously. In the eyes of many readers, he appears merely as a bloated ego. The question here should be: is there a grain of truth in Saltz’s criticism? I think there is. Jerry Saltz writes about a broad phenomenon, not individual artists that he intends to blame. What he seems to point out is a mode of art making that has spread among a predominantly younger and up-coming generation of artists. One of your commentators - LM Smith - mentions the publication New American Paintings and he/she is right. The scope of the paintings featured in their issues is frighteningly narrow and thereby safe.  

There is a lack of critical reviews on contemporary art and painting in particular. When did you read a critical review of a painting show lately? And I do not mean Ken Johnson who often ends up putting his foot in his mouth. Think of Art in America: one positive review following another. Think of Art Forum. Same situation. Think of the many artist-run blogs that promote their friends or write about art that looks like their own. They are outlets of art appreciation, rather than art criticism. How did this happen? Why do people shy away from discussing different points of view? And what do we do to change this?”

The Loss of Painting

Two days ago Jerry Saltz published an article about the emergence of a phenomenon in contemporary art: “Neo-Mannerism.” Before I continue with his most recent commentary on the state of art in New York City, I want to go back to an earlier essay of his. This past Sunday, Saltz reviewed Bjarne Melgaard’s current show at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise.

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Installation shot of Bjarne Melgaard’s exhibition Ignorant Transparencies at Gavin Brown enterprise

In his review, Saltz points to the presence of cliches that persist in art today and argues that Melgaard manages to avoid many of them. He then singles out the “bad-boy installation” - something many male artists emulate, but fail to master. According to Saltz, Melgaard’s work “doesn’t rely on scale, high production cost, obvious symbolism, hipster hieroglyphics, or post-adolescent sexuality. You get the feeling that instead of this being a punkish game of piecing gothlike signifiers together, Melgaard is replicating things less recognizable and not so easily named or snickered at.”

I do not agree with Saltz’s evaluation of Bjarne Melgaard’s work. It is true that we are spared from post-adolescent sexuality. Instead we encounter something more raw and less watered-down. But I wonder if the inclusion of painted and dressed pink panthers functioning as alter egos of Melgaard are not too literal in their attempt to camouflage any obvious meaning and readability. Does Melgaard hope that altered pink panthers will leave gallery visitors flabbergasted, irritated, or amused enough so that they marvel at what they are looking at?  Mike Kelley’s stuffed animals are not only more effective in this way, but they are quieter, stranger and creepier.

There is a fine line, but a line nonetheless, between overstating and understating one’s point. I believe that Melgaard has no trouble overstating his work’s elusiveness and nonconformity whenever he can. A tactic that could potentially be confusing and thereby liberating (because the viewer has to fill in the gaps), becomes a cliche. I am not sure that I can follow Saltz’s arguments that distinguish Melgaard from other bad-boy installation artists (or bad-girl installations for that matter). Saltz’ differentiation appears to be an arbitrary choice rather than a critical position.

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Gedi Sibony, Who Attracts All That is Named, 2010

But there is something very important and true in Saltz’s review of Melgaard’s work. Saltz praises the absence of hipster hieroglyphics and the importance of rendering things less recognizable so that they cannot be easily named.  A similar sentiment can be found in his essay on “Neo-Mannerism.” I haven’t read the readers’ commentaries that can be found at the bottom of his article. I am sure that a fair amount of people will be challenging his choice of the term “Neo-Mannerism.” Any attempt to capture and describe a tendency within art with an -ism, will only be partly satisfactory. But that is also not the point here. Saltz’s -ism only works as a contextual framework to give us an idea of how he evaluates this current pattern in art. All he is saying is that a large portion of contemporary art repeats and mimics itself and that it looks alike. On this point, I would concur (hence the name of my blog).

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Installation shot of Helen Martin’s FATSO from 2008

I started this blog about two years ago with the intention of focusing mostly on painting and two-dimensional work. I should be offended that Saltz is seriously considering the death of painting yet again. But I am not. The current mannerisms in painting are undermining its potential and strength. One of the biggest problems for a younger generation of painters is that they do not seem capable of ridding themselves of references. By references, I do not mean subtle reconfigurations or appropriations. I mean pop-references, 80s references, Magritte (who seems to be having a big moment right now), 70s cartoons, spray paint, phrases and entire sentences that appear on canvases and photographs, Matisse, 1910s Expressionism (I think that Neo-Mannerism in painting is really Neo-Expressionism), Baldessari photo-collage/-assemblage, Immendorf, Baselitz, and yes: Albert Oehlen is on that list too.

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Brion Nuda Rosch, Old Rock Face, acrylic on book paper on found book page, 2010

To include and work with these references is not necessarily bad. It is good to be constantly looking for ideas and to draw from the most unlikely sources. What makes these references bad is how they are being employed. If they are predominantly used for their visual properties, they become a measure of the artist’s aesthetic sophistication. The only issue is that this sophistication is mimicked (as evident in the examples of various works that I included here) and not acquired or developed. In other words, if you include these references in a similar fashion as other contemporary artists do, you do not have to carve out your own niche. You end up doing half the work. That way, you also demonstrate your cultural knowledge of which sensibilities are currently in demand and which are not. The downside is that very few painters dare to explore beyond these parameters. It is safer to do a personal twist on something that is already in place than to enter new territory. The same can be said for the numerous galleries that represent and showcase these artists.

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Ryan Schneider, Receiver of Nights, 48” x 60”, oil on canvas, 2013

To come back to Jerry Saltz’s Melgaard essay, the greatest loss in contemporary painting is that of objects that cannot be easily named. References that appear in paintings are usually all too obvious, even bordering the pedantic. Often they are aimed at a particular audience who consists of fellow artists who think and work in similar ways. This idea of schools of thought and schools of style is an old-fashioned one and should no longer be possible.

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Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, To Tell Them Where It’s Got To, 60cm x 55cm, 2013

An extraordinary exception are the paintings of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Fairly traditional in her handling of paint and the representation of  human figures, Yiadom-Boakye reveals some of her references (a mix of Velasquez, Manet, James Ensor and occasionally George Condo), but always manages to deliver paintings that stand on their own.  

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Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, 11 pm Friday, 84” x 72”, oil on canvas, 2008

The fact that her sitters are imagined - and not observed - is just enough to turn the set of employed painterly conventions on their head. Yiadom-Boakye’s subjects have fallen out of time and yet they are timely as they exist alongside ourselves. Nothing is named, all is withheld in the dark areas of her paintings, the heads turned to their side resisting our glances. Then, on other occasions, Yiadom-Boakye’s figures return our stares, but they remain wordless, soundless, still, fixed in undefined spaces as if to welcome our projections, questions, desires and fears.  

Her work is not about pledging alliance to a painterly style or fashion. Yiadom-Boakye is committed to painting alone and what it is capable of doing if left alone and entrusted with its most powerful of tools: not to affirm a point of view, but to question it.