From Mail Order Catalog to Amazon-Prime: or, Walter Benjamin’s Loss of Aura All Over Again

Gold Marilyn Monroe 1962

When Andy Warhol silkscreened Marilyn Monroe off-register onto a stretched canvas, he did two things: he called attention to the distance between the mythical and the real, (the iconic and the ordinary) and, at the same time, with the same action, he closed that very same distance.  The gesture’s the thing with Warhol; his art found in the “placing upon” while engaging in the ironic erasing of.

Mythic proportion (our perception of things seeming larger-than-life) is throughout history unveiled for us as individual societies progress.  Belief systems created to understand the world moved in the direction of science [of knowing] and mythic distances closed. Ancient Greece (Western Art’s primum mobile) gives us evidence in their art’s evolving anthropomorphism: gods and goddesses becoming more and more human in character (sculptural) depiction.  Distance is lessened further during the 15th century Italian Renaissance:  paintings applying manmade formulae to otherworldly spaces (utilizing Brunelleschi’s linear perspective) in the disavowal of spatial translations of  the heavenly with the earthly. In result, we arrive at a shattering of mythical distance once again.  The shifting from earthly to heavenly (specifically, for our purposes here, in Western Art before Modernism) is a constant throughout the intervening centuries. 

By the time we greet Modernism in the early 20th century, American culture had, [was actively in the process of] creating its own version of gods and goddesses in the form of film stars, sports idols and other larger-than-life figures which would become for Warhol, the ideal subject matter for his art.  His art’s meaning would, in turn, depend upon this reality of the mythical, the sacred, the distanced.

Warhol’s art evinces itself in the mechanical reproduction of popular culture icons, offering us the disillusion he sought (the truth he wished to reveal) as he blurred the line between the iconic and the everyday real.  Warhol’s Marilyn, his Jackie O. his Elvis fall from their pedestal as he places them silkscreened-smudged and mass-produced onto canvases, and, as the ink itself runs its mechanical course simultaneously upon it. Image is blurred; literally, smudged, and made everyday by the process and, maybe, more significantly, by the quantity produced. Twenty Mona Lisas placed off-register in deliberate manufactured reproduction removes the mystery by engaging the process. With every image reproduced, repeated, enumerated, the place of aura, the line between the iconic and the real diminishes.

The point to note here, though, is that there [was] a line there for Warhol to blur; the distinction existed; the fall from the distant and the sacred, real. This is what accounts for the disillusionment we, [as a generation living through it] experienced.  We see the metaphorical in changing our Marilyn Monroe from iconic pedestal to many-numbered reproduction, no longer able to maintain mythic distance.  Postmodernism simply ensures for us the finality of the loss of the mythic, the illusion we once had the opportunity to momentarily believe in.

“Shelf Life”, linoleum block print, 2006

Today, though, is quite different.

Today, we are not given the distance needed to note any such fall. We are as close to our Beyoncés and our Lady Gagas as we can be, just in terms of sheer mediated enumeration and our immediate access to it.  There is no mythological goddess in the distance for us to worship – for the form in image that these icons take, and, the one they took from the start – [one of enumeration and accessibility] makes this no longer applicable. Lady Gaga was never mythic, sacred. She was never that far away from us.

The use of the tally mark eventually morphs into numerals to signify ‘all of those many marks’. A threshold reached; the realizing of an amount unmanageable results in a change in form. Degree influences kind.

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We are no longer a society of manageable quantities: _the Sears, Roebuck Catalogue, Life Magazine and The National Geographic Magazine, only three broadcasting networks on our television sets, the tangible vinyl records of the music of the ‘70’s taking up only one aisle in a Caldor Dept. store, and, a handful of books found on high school required reading lists, and these lists fairly standard: manageable, finite. We all read Animal Farm in 8th grade; Lord of the Flies in 9th; The Great Gatsby in 10th; Our Town in 11th, and The Grapes of Wrath in 12th.

Today – there is no end to the amount of books, musicians, writers, bloggers, magazines, publications, artists, news cycles, references, television entities [and, options for viewing], videos, movies, images, data, tweets, memes, texts, opinions, information, margins, status, standards, trends, and, more importantly, those which we have access to: our access to it making all the difference.

“Google estimated in 2010 that there were 300 exabytes (that’s 300 followed by 18 zeros) of human-created information in the world, and that more information was created every two days than had existed in the entire world from the dawn of time to 2003.” 1

We are not only living in more of what we used to have, but, by this very fact, are experiencing it in a new way. This translates to a change in the way we read things; our act of reading influenced by the enumeration of the readable (sheer amount available) and the form in which the ‘enumerated readable’ takes.

For those of us who grew up in an age when the amount of media access was limited in comparison; limited in amount of options, we were more assured of a knowledge base (whether  accurate or biased or mythical itself) we could manage, and, given the limited sources, far more willing to trust without the built-in skepticism needed for today’s source-sifting.  

We took our time, because we had the opportunity to, and, because we were dealing with a fairly manageable amount. Most of what we knew was determined by what was within our own tangible reach. Library aisles were walked; reference book sections arrived at; their physical spaces experienced in sound, smell, sight and touch. Screens were limited to one small box in the corner of one room in our house. This was our limited-in-perspective access to (a) much larger world.  

For the pre-digital world generation, the purchase of an LP record closed a sacred distance that truly existed, brought us nearer to the music artist we cherished as much as the photographs we clipped from magazines and posted on our (real) walls. These were larger-than-life images held up by scotch-tape — significant in a way not quite possible today.

Today, iPods hold our music — but not in tangible “cherishable” form, (a record album cover’s physical wear relative to its degree of “cherishedness”), but in an un-felt invisible digital code. Even the act of purchasing a record album has lost its recollected significance. It would be difficult to do this, I think, with an electronic purchase download onto a replaceable-when-it-breaks device –:  we probably won’t recall our favorite iPod, our favorite Kindle.

–The tactile objects of the past will remain just that, (becoming even more of a museum treasure) while the scanning and processing of our cultural products (literature & art) turns what used to be individual hand-held objects into a field of digital code. 2

The way we seem to be viewing our present is in an overlapping of distance and myth with closeness and real; the experienced disillusionment now a perceived “something cherished”. In a way, this “Before Digital” generation views things with the advantage of a luxury of loss.

The Warhol mass-reproduced image can now be read as our Marilyn Monroe before she was silkscreened; that very gesture in demystifying as our latest version of “hand-held treasure” — as we hold onto not the myth which was lost, but rather, the memory of our personal experience of losing it. 

This is not unlike Keats in his choice to reject both nightingale and urn for “being too happy in thy happiness”, far preferring –[like those of us experiencing now], (with our aim to see the 2016 Star Wars installment simply for the anticipated reunion of Fisher and Ford) a charged sentimental nostalgia as cherished experience.

At least, with our worn-out record collections and recollected awe—– [when Lucas first gave to us ‘special effects’ (BCGI), that, at the time, were thought to be the size of galaxies ]- we have something to weigh against the present – and, one quite different in kind – and, not merely, degree.

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Our reliving of yet another loss of aura is worth the introspective reflecting, but that is as far as it will go. We may still find ourselves nostalgic for imagined innocent times, but, these times were simply for us, clouded in myth; our limited number and access keeping us from the real; not unlike Plato’s cave, where shadows served us far longer than maybe they should have. Today’s digital is the new linear perspective.  Lady Gaga could not be more real for us to appreciate, and, given today’s context, be more grateful for. Video Killed the Radio Star —– once again. We will gladly sacrifice the sacred for the access, the shadow for the real pixels on our relentless high-def screens.

As with our mythical bird’s song – a song that does not change, it “singest of summer in full-throated ease” – but, fortunately, [and, regardless of any lines blurred or distance lost], our listening does.

“In my mind and in my car, we can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far………..” 3

1 In the Age of Information, Specializing to Survive By J. PEDER ZANE   MARCH 19, 2015    

2 L. Szpak – “Some Thoughts On Language and Its Evolution in the Advancing of a Digital Technology” 2010

3 THE BUGGLES lyrics: “Video Killed The Radio Star” Copyright © 2000-2016 AZLyrics.com

Ctrl Alt Del

reboot

It is of no coincidence that part of our computer language has in it a control key (CTRL) – and upon using this key in combination with Alternative (Alt) and Delete (Del) we get change.  Use this 3-key combination to change the screen before us, the screen we are stuck on, and refresh ourselves with either a complete shutdown of the current screen or simply return to it with a refreshed state of mind.  Control = (one’s progress) by Alter[ing] the present status quo by Delete[ing] for a moment to create a fresh look at where we were or, move away from completely. The options are there for us to take. We must put CTRL though, as instigator, precipitator, initiator as our command.

I know I have been considering for my own work, the teaching of art in today’s art schools and its necessary adopting of the computer as a means of creating not only relevant work, (commenting upon this technology and its impact on social change) but work which simultaneously commands a virtually green existence.

Also, at its heart, is the issue of relevance. I would like to think that the barriers between the real world out there and the artist’s “secret-language” studio have lessened, become weakened by computer technology and the artist’s very own participation in it, and that art instruction at higher levels of academic learning are addressing this.

The common viewpoint held that one area in an artist’s life which can be completely controlled is that of his own art-making becomes a double-edged sword. Graphic Designers play within an existing field of competition and established rules to have their designs met with an applauding corporate purchase. You must know what sells, and what it will sell with. The studio artist however, has this hermetic existence in a private studio acting as both luxury and identity. The more eccentric (out of touch with the real world) the artist, the greater the [eventually] recognized value of output.

Does the artist working quietly in one’s studio overwhelm the designer who must exist within convention and forgo that sanctioned state of true freedom, complete control? If so, what is the result of this arrangement? How effective is the designer’s art in constituting societal influence and change as opposed to the studio artist?

It is here, ironically, in the design world (and, not in the artist’s studio) where one needs to be “in control”. The design world is where the cultural images [we] create effect how our society operates. Advertising imagery gives us our template of cultural prescription. The images created for mass media advertising are those which have brought us to the level we are currently at; embracing corporate enterprise, making conspicuous consumption a virtue, and promoting status as staple to our spiritual-societal needs.

We artists, those in our studios closed out and “in complete control of things” end up maybe commenting upon this in our art. We make these tangible works of art to show the very same society how out-of-control it truly is. But to what effect?

To really produce change, comment upon society, make art matter, one must seemingly have to work from within. Break the paradigm. Move the clock to present and consider where the past decades have left us.

This is the one role we artists should assume, and that is in the attempting to work from within.  And, the only way to do this with any success is to have the artist, [the thinker, the seer, the one who does not play by the rules of conformity and corporate sell ] apply them to the teaching of Design. [We] should be the ones teaching Graphic Design, sacrificing our freedom (in the quiet calm of our studios) for the chance to upend the entire structure, and, in effect, make real change where we need it.

Movie Review: The Necessity of Cliché in “Stranger Than Fiction”

Upon viewing the movie “Stranger Than Fiction,” I had no choice but to begin to do what I always do when a movie doesn’t work for me.  I begin to become aware that I am sitting watching a movie rather than being taken in by the images on the screen.  I become anxious and think about leaving the theatre or hitting stop on my remote.   Despite my initial inclination with this film, I decided to give it a chance, and, gratefully, (in retrospect) watched the entire thing. 

From the very start, we are given cliché, almost too much in the image of the writer (Emma Thompson):  i.e.:  chain-smoker, anxious, sterile-looking, recluse.  Adding to this was some weak dialogue; improbable lines presented in a rough sketch of clichéd ideas about writers, specifically, in this case, writers of tragedy, and what kind of impact (both scholarly and commercially) such a piece of writing might have on the world of literary fiction. 

As the story line unfolds, issues of time and death and significance offer themselves up for a weighty grasp of the existential.  There is both the discussion of life and its personal and social value, the distinctive moral load set against our own mortality and an attempt to deliver some sort of twist in irony, redemptive folly, of clever pun regarding such.  Wrist watches and time, death knells and Shakespeare’s “time’s up, you’re ripe”, “saved in the nick of time” – given, almost, as a comic mystery novel’s clues (even the literal pun made with the presented novel’s fictional character (Will Ferrell) and the author’s real life aim in meeting the publisher’s deadline with “dead line” – the line that ends the novel) all offer some nice directions to go in.  But, without reason, or, maybe because I was uncomfortable with the weight of subject matter set within such playfulness of script, (and, at this point, without the nod to irony) I began creating my own depth.

I had John Berger’s viewing of Van Gogh’s crows in that so significant wheat field.  I had the philosophical argument of art’s value in the vast scheme of humankind in relation to the significance of the sacrificing of one human life (powerfully communicated in Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway”).   I had Antoine de St. Exupery’s “Night Flight” in this ……. I mean, I was, in truth, doing back-flips in my head trying to reach conclusions with concepts about writing and art and truth and life and meaning which were [being] done here, yes, were given as substantive angles, but only mechanically, as mechanically as the fiction itself, and, then, only on the surface and finally, to no avail.

I then began to see the writing itself as the tragedy; the presented image of the writer as protagonist playing key role in the downfall of literature, of good writing, of uniqueness in creativity and promise in the world of contemporary fiction; the latest hero in a field of writing where bad receives as much an accepting readership as good [possibly more?]; where literature has somehow been reduced to formulaic approach and cliché; where the ending of a character’s life becomes as arbitrary in its choosing as does the color necktie one wears to work.  Death is presented here as something understood by taking a glance at a dead body.  Really? 

Then, it all began to take shape.  It finally hit me.  Maybe the author presented here is supposed to be the complete and perfect mirror of the character she’s created?  This is how it usually works anyway. Could the writer be more unknowing than the projected hero of her story?  Is this not the real tragedy?  A writer who has not lived, has not known love, death, or sorrow (nor, even, the eating of a chocolate chip cookie in one’s youth?) attempts to write about all three as if it were possible, as if to succeed in this should only require the inclusion of a gimmick, an arbitrary plot-mover, a contrivance or gratuitous formulaic ending?  Might the resorting to and then accepting of this approach to writing be, instead, the highest form of literary suicide if taken, rather than allowing it to read as ultimate salvation?

Isn’t this film, then, in its perfect Postmodernist angle mirroring exactly where we are regarding surface and depth?  Could this be in its own clever and very deliberate way a conveyance of the democratization of literature in contemporary society via an example of it presented through this movie’s very script?  Is this more of a statement about how we have come to accept surface analysis and cliché as viable forms of communication?  Is this film trying to have us consider, to ask ourselves:  are we as Forrest Gumpish as we were with our philosophical evaluation of life being compared to a box of indiscernible-from-the-outside chocolates?  Could we be any more surface?  Have we reduced writing to fashion?  Is arbitrariness something we now settle for in our attempts to convey truths? 

It is of uncanny interest, also, that the character of the scholar, conveyed to us in the body of a still-virile-looking Dustin Hoffman, is presented to us as comic element.  Hoffman provides the best lines, the richest character, and, the most enjoyment.  But, as sacrifice, we must accept that even his world of Academic Study has become light.   Simplistic plot devices and synopses are presented as pillars of great fiction writing by him, a leading figure in Literature and the Arts.  The closest we get to dissecting this work of fiction being presented to us comes in the form of a Professor of Literature who must while away precious hours of study at the campus pool watching for swim-lane violations amongst his various and buoyant colleagues.  

The film eventually wins me over; doing so, with its ending.  As presented to us, the only way the author’s book can meet greatness is to have the hero die.  Only death, according to this writer’s work, [and, the scholarly critique of it] can save it from mediocrity and move it to gravity and depth.  Therefore, it is most fitting that the ending give us not a plummeting-to-one’s-death jump from a tall building, [which would make this book an instant classic in literature, a masterpiece, and thereby furthering the plummet of distinction in what we consider to be great writing] but, rather, an airy plunge from an indoor pool chair. 

The script writers give us a nice splash ending:  a lightweight jump into a swimming pool.  No death, no depth, and, therefore, according to the film’s premise, no further harm to Literature. Our scholar jumps into a pool of water, touching upon the depths he knows to exist somewhere beneath, somewhere far beyond the surface splash.  We are then to assume that our scholar rises, [for he is our symbol of bobbing hope] returning to the place where the splash occurs, and where the audience and film have been floating all along – right up at the surface.  Hoffman’s pool-side plunge is perfect.  

March 2007

Can the Entrenched Language Found in Contemporary Art Be Political in Today’s World?

“Now listen!  Can’t you see that when the language was new – as it was with Chaucer and Homer – the poet could use the name of a thing and the thing was really there?  And can’t you see that after hundreds of years had gone by and thousands of poems had been written, he could call on those words and find that they were just wornout literary words?  The excitingness of pure being had withdrawn from them, they were just rather stale literary words.  Now the poet has to work in the excitingness of pure being; he has to get back that intensity into the language.”

Gertrude Stein

The use of painting as a vehicle for change, for social-political commentary in today’s world, or for advancing any discussion within the more specific field of Contemporary Art is something we might want to take a look at.  We might want to figure out how the subject matter or meaning of these kinds of familiar mannered surfaces actually translate.  Is the language used an effective form?  Is the intended backdrop of political or social commentary (something artists insist exists as they battle with paint and brush on ever-enlarging surfaces) at all possible given the predisposed way in which we look at large (very large) abstract-expressive mark-filled paintings? 

The collaging of photos painted over, personal expressive paint strokes layered thickly onto surfaces, graffiti-type mark-making in an all-over approach comprise these currently successful works of art.  Julie Mehretu and Mark Bradford, [two 21st century artists of significance and note] exhibit paintings that secure both this busy-ness mannerism and its very large wall-length surface.  These two artists not only use the language of abstract and large-scale, but also aim for social-political readings to be found in their work.

The spectacle-seeking environment we live in provides us good reason for the success of these two artists.  The paintings get our attention through scale and spectacular visual.  We are all Disneyland at the American core.  [Was it not Baudrillard who gave us Disney as our true reality?] The 21st Century Art World aims the spotlight on works like these, and, in doing so, claims that yes, these paintings are relevant, and, political.  But is this meaning derived or presented as such due to the art object on the wall that we stand before, or, the artist’s own activism in the real world running alongside the actual paintings?  Can any artwork made today be political in its reading?  Moreover, if presented “as art” – can it be political? 

We no longer rely upon the artist to show us our socio-political sphere (Goya, Daumier, Courbet) for we have a far more direct means of political activism through technology and its media-covered real-time political protest.  Same-day activism, same-minute response conveyed via the Internet and social media technology makes the static art object tucked away on a gallery wall somewhat arcane, remote.  It is only with the direction of the curator, the gallery operation, the art world system do these things operate beyond a really fantastic visual presentation.  Do art works existing on such a scale and promotion instead, and, yes, maybe by default, serve capitalism’s unfettered reach? 

Large Abstract-Expressionist paintings are not only visually powerful; powerful in terms of our encultured definition of what we see as visually strong, but, to most of us now, familiar. 

“Stadia I”, 2004

.www.nytimes.com/2017/08/03/arts/design/julie-mehretu-san-francisco-museum-of-modern-art.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=photo-spot-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0

The painting, (with its busy-ness of brushwork all appealing to our ingrained appreciation of this manner) is Postmodernism’s answer to Modernism’s innovations – and, by default, (because we are Post-Modern) involve the use of visual language once acknowledged as avant-garde but now a quotable component to echo in direct reference when used today.  Homages are possible in certain works, as are the more cynically claimed appropriations. 

“The abolitionist movement, the Civil War, the move towards emancipation, all of these social dynamics that are a part of that narrative we don’t really talk about in regards to {sic} American landscape painting. And so, what does it mean to paint a landscape and try and be an artist in this political moment?” — Julie Mehretu

When we look at Mehretu’s “Stadia I”, 2004 or

“Black Venus”, 2005

Mark Bradford’s “Black Venus” 2005 – we see something gorgeously made and executed, [heavy on compositional tactics that credit Modernism’s successful visual language trials] and composed of a deliberate layering which adds to the overall reading of a dense history, relative space, and visual complexity.  All of this is wonderful in terms of the final visual created.  The only issue is that the language used offers first, (and, maybe only) that of a purely formal spectacular visual surface.  We are right back to Greenberg and Rosenberg battling it out in the seminar classes across the Modernist landscape – well over 50 years ago. 

Joan Mitchell , City Landscape, 1955

We are well into a world where we’ve become so very familiar with large abstract-expressive mark-making works that cover gallery walls and large public spaces that the language chosen by (these) artists trying to say something with their painting is no longer an effective form.  The work looks too much like every other using the same vocabulary, the same manner. We’ve grown fond of seeing these things; their scale and busy-ness of marks and colorful shapes echoing maybe, an early Joan Mitchell in appeal, a Frank Stella (color), a Cy Twombly or Mark Tobey (marks) and an Anselm Kiefer (scale) we’ve experienced decades ago when it was initially(?) introduced.

We may arrive at the jaw-dropping nature of the endeavor, the “wow of the making”, (yes, specifically because it has become so very large!- one need only compare one of Picasso’s seminal works and our response when we see it (how small) on a museum wall) or, the championing of the artist’s story:  the artist’s geography, economic background, occupation, age, etc.  The artist may insist the painting is about economic inequality, issues of race, or the consequences of climate change, but the language itself, the Visual Language of abstract mark-making is so spectacular to look at (esp. with these two artists who are so mesmerizingly good at creating these rich surfaces) that there might be this unavoidable compromise in the reception of it.

At one time abstract expressive marks made on a canvas along with the random outpouring of paint spilled, smudged and dripped were political – the Abstract Expressionists in America’s 1940’s defying illusive pictorial space by disrupting the previous manner of representation, having the process of painting itself become the subject.  Random chance, automatism, bio-morphism, and physical gesture become significant elements of the new subject of process.  The action painting was new, as counter-cultural as it could have possibly been at the time, and, responded in kind to the social-political events of that time. 

There had been Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, Nihilism, the expansion of industrialization, advances made in Psychology, Theatre, Existentialism, Freudian analysis, and the pivotal reckoning of two World Wars which served as echoing prompts to this radical change in form, this radical change in subject matter, this new language entering into the discipline of painting.  The language was alive, new, and worked because it was new, (not anything seen before within the discipline) another key component to art.

It is no different today.  We have our own social- political landscape to confront.  It is this very issue where I find the language artists using to be antiquated, out-of-touch with the otherwise successful modes of communication used by all of us, for better or worse.  It is the effectiveness of the form, the language, the tools available, the form we use that defines us, and, in the end, matters.  This is at the heart of this discussion.  If the social-political reading is lost to the gorgeous mark-making of a marketable object, how can this method of approach succeed?

Our language today is found in the icon and the soundbite via social media connections; the using of an abbreviated visual cue to mean something in sign, an immediacy in both form and reading.  The less visual mark-making used, the more communicative.  Memes are our new alphabet.  Our ability to read dense passages of text, or, visual compositions that demand some time to take in are no longer viable. Not only has brevity claimed the soul of wit, brevity has moved us to pure visual utterance.  Smiley face tells us everything.  A Like’s thumb’s-up is more than enough for us. 

The use of an obsolete language in art echoes the overall contemporary art world’s stagnation within its own exclusive arena.  The political and social change occurring in our society at record pace due to our digital platform of communication stands in ironic contrast with the art world and its snail-pace change.  The only thing that seems to change at an equal pace is the market value of biopic’d stardom-making marketable paintings. 

Let’s consider an artist who did allow form to communicate meaning – the artist Nick Cave, with his sound suits.  A Nick Cave Sound Suit, for example, work that uses a language (form) that is (was?) truly effective in its initial arrival in the art world ends up losing its political meaning while allowing the art market to co-opt the work for its own marketing purposes. 

“The highest price to date was $150,000 for a 2008 Soundsuit that Sotheby’s offered in its contemporary day sale this past November (estimate: $80–100,000). Another example, from 2007, sold for $118,750, also at Sotheby’s, in November 2013, on an $80–120,000 estimate.”

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/how-nick-caves-soundsuits-made-him-an-art-world-rock-star_n_57277dcde4b0b49df6abd1c4

Do we no longer read the political in Cave’s artwork?  Is it no longer possible to do given its art-world elevated price-tag?  Which meaning do we end up within the discourse of Art History?  Is marketability, brand, signature, style, fame, luxury our true meaning for us today?  Is anything we artists make today unable to be read as anything but fodder for yet another spectacular purchase by our continually protracted ridiculously-priced art market which, in its own way, points to nothing other than a perfect mirroring of what currently defines the debate we need to have in our political landscape > the further securing of wealth concentration at the top?  Is this failing then, as a political statement by default, and, as disservice to the meaning (intent) of the artwork?

The language of expressive mark-making in an overall field of something we all agree to be gorgeously composed is something we can appreciate for its visual splendor, as we have been conditioned to do by virtue of familiarity.  But, with this, the message stops. If the visual is stuck in communicating only itself, its formal properties with only chance allusion to something other, something we might read into if prompted by a completely separate language, (notecard, brochure, artist statement) we have quite a different picture.

This makes me think of The Guerilla Girls appearing on the Stephen Colbert Show several years ago, when asked the obvious (and, obvious only to those outside of the art world) by Mr. Colbert  – “if you’ve been at this for over 30 years, your art as your method of political commentary – and it has left you in virtually the same place – why use this method if it hasn’t worked over all this time?”  The Guerilla Girls simply answer – “because we’re artists.” Thirty years of “making their art” and there are still only a tiny percentage of women artists represented in the establishment museum collections they wished to challenge and change. 

It seems we artists are blind to the barriers we’ve created and get caught up in the routine and acceptance of what we do, the language we’ve decided to stick with, regardless of its steady and long-since-reached ineffectiveness.  

The only thing we can do if we continue using such a manner will be to attempt even larger works, go beyond the Basquiats and Kiefers to our currently EVEN LARGER Bradfords and Mehretus, and make bigger and bigger paintings until maybe we somehow regain the language, express ourselves in a manner that just might give us our message and allow our chosen medium to succeed.  Making something bigger seems a great way to convince us of [a thing’s] physical presence.  Can this also, then, be translated into a social relevance? 

10/20

 

    Contemporary Photography’s Response to Digital

cmyk

Forget the illusions of Surrealism and Realism and History Painting and Portrait Painting and Religious Painting and the Still-life.  There is nothing but the process here, the process of painting.

 

Like American painting of the 1940’s, Photography opens itself up to the gesture and visceral connections we (once) had with paint.  No illusion suffices when the darkroom magic no longer means anything, just as the representational after WWII proved meaningless.

When the photographer’s eye loses out to digital photography’s own technological magic, when any image, all images, made, taken, shown can be easily edited, cropped, and placed into any context, when this is the new norm, Photography readjusts.

 

The “eye” of the photographer – the ability to capture something from nature ‘as is’ – print full-frame – is no longer viable.  The prestige we once placed on the skill of the photographer’s eye has been replaced with the egalitarian ‘so can I’.  Photoshop toolbars are the new darkroom and access to it all exists no matter what level or claim.

 

The Everyman’s camera with digital grip on capturing every moment before us – because we can — must somehow be distanced from the art photographer working diligently at his/her craft.  Rather than a World War to diminish the significance of painting things from nature ……we have the ubiquity of Digital diluting the democratized pool of images we now all make with abandon.

 

It is no wonder that new work in Contemporary Photography is found returning to that of origin, and, with it, possibly, an aim for the retrieval of aura in the literally-pulled-from-the-negative; a move to discussing the process of Photography itself. The subject matter contemporary artists photograph now is imbued with the process of making one.  And, the subject matter photographed is likewise ensured of greater meaning because it is indeed, a (true) photo.  Artists photograph Photography now, leaving the task of recording sunsets and snapping in successive impulse the documenting of the everyday to the now incurable digital.

 

 

In the late 19th Century, Painting went through its own self-evaluative phase with the advent of the camera –its arrival on the scene challenging artists re-presenting likenesses on canvas.  If the camera can reproduce nature as it is, (and, much more directly) we painters must give the Nature we aim to imitate with our brushes and canvas another angle, another view.  Realistic portrayal is no longer the painter’s aim, but one of creating more of an impression of what we see (one which examines the Science of light and the study of refraction, saturation and hue) rather than what the artist has worked at for centuries to achieve.  The camera changes everything.

 

Today, Photography has been taken over by the dpi pixelation of image —  computer-generated and electronically processed without any gestural, personal touch or hand in the making other than the holding-at-arm’s-length distance (no longer eye pressed tightly peering through the closeness of the camera’s lens) one of the many electronic devices we carry around without distinction, and then, the tapping of a few remote keys on a keyboard while awaiting the contrast-adjusted screen resolution’s response.

 

With digital technology we can paint photos, make photos look like paintings, scan photos and print them as if paintings, photos, or, maybe, if we wish, both.  (There is even an app that can make an image photographed look as though a painting by Thomas Hart Benton!) The origin of source is rejected for the contrivance of cut and paste and digital manipulation.  The advantage of the eye in seeing something unique in the real world is overwhelmed by the savvy nature of the digital screen’s editing options offered at the touch of a distanced keystroke.  Darkroom pools of chemicals and physical film emulsions dipped and swirled and submerged and pulled are all part of the mystical past printed in sepia-toned nostalgia.  The capturing of the observable taken by our clunky cameras and then preserved in a photograph has been replaced by the ease and facility and access and uniformity of technology’s latest picture-taking app.

 

What then, can the artist who works in Photography do to maintain a level of artistic creation, freshness, scholarship, expertise, and, add to the discipline by contributing to the evolution of Photography in offering commentary on this phenomenon through one’s art, one’s own photographic work?  How does the artist comment upon this digital world and its competing role?  Where are the Impressionists of today and what are they doing to unite past history and our current ‘taking of pictures’?

 

The photographer’s image will now, always be measured against the new paradigm, the digital world’s offering — (in both quantity and kind); the photograph no longer able to carry itself just by virtue of “its being”.  “Is that digitally created?” is the context all photography now faces.  It no longer matters if it looks one way or another.  It is now about the viewing of such a thing amidst – and, how it reads now that technology has diluted [in its own nonchemical solution] Photography’s very origin, process and meaning.

 

 

2017

 

art vs an artwork:  aka – the thought’s the thing

 

 

Don Quixote

 

The artist thrives in the unique state of being able to see things beyond surface appearance, and presents to the rest of us such a translation in an equally unique vision.

 

Art is both verb and noun.  It is an act of thinking and receiving.  It is a sinking-in of information which prompts us to consider our place in the much larger world.  Art prompts us to recognize meaning in an artist’s object, a playwright’s dialogue, an actor’s performance, a novelist’s writing, a poet’s verse.

 

Art is not something which one can visit without having some sort of thought-process, some act of thinking immediately following.  This is where the art happens; with the thought—the thinking-about – usually in response to [the] contradictory nature of what is observed.  A contrast in size, shape, material within an environment prompts us to think in symbolic terms, and, here, we begin to venture into the realm of Art.

All of this makes me consider Melville’s description of art in his poem of the same name, for he posits just this with his lines: “A wind to melt, a flame to freeze, sad patience, joyous energies – such unlike things must meet and mate” and, also, Wilde’s “Art can make an almond tree blossom in winter, or make snow fall upon the ripe cornfield”; …. or Blake’s “Joy and woe are woven fine, a clothing for the soul divine” or, in Berger’s sharper prose “the wooden bird is wafted by the warm air rising from the stove in the kitchen while the real birds are outside freezing to death!”

These are all effective definitions of what art is – for they all contain within them an engagement of opposites, an irony, a new angle in the way things are seen.  This is art.  Art jolts us out of our accepted narrative, and makes us consider the veracity of that narrative, and, then, has us question our nominal acceptance before we came to our newest point of questioning.

This is why we need the art, artists = to keep us from slipping into a world where there is no contrast, no quest, no questioning, no new view presented to us, no way to really see our world and our place within it.

Whether through Alice’s Looking-Glass prompting us to look at the society of Victorian England or Don Quixote’s Chivalric-Lens in realizing Spain’s place in the advancing modern world, both of these works, (especially) and, all works of literary fiction, works of successful art lead us to a significant and greatly-appreciated truth.

 

July  2019

 

 

 

 

the potential for Art: where dialogue and emphasis seem to matter

 

 

The Wrestler:  An Unrealized Potential; (at least from where I was sitting)

 

 

“The Wrestler,” directed by Darren Aronofsky was one film I had always wanted to see.  This was mainly due to the much-hyped screen “debut” of a long-lost Mickey Rourke.  I was even willing to stomach the idea of watching professional wrestling in order to witness something extraordinary…

 

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To begin, it is a given that the story line of this film almost demands sentimentality.  This is not a problem.  We think of the quintessential sentimental film “Rocky” * and its improbable story line, but somehow it renders our sentimental hearts moved.  We are moved by a well-written script (Stallone), its rough-edged camera work and editing, good direction (Stallone) and supporting role performances in Shire and Meredith.  It need not court a realistic turning of events, nor contain the acting performance [a] Rourke can give, but rather, in its honest dialogue and warmth in originality – it has no problem at all reeling the viewer in.

 

*In revisiting (viewing on my tiny television screen over a holiday weekend) the original “Rocky”, I came to appreciate the skating-rink scene, and this, far more than I recall the first time viewing it over 30 years ago.  Why was this?  I remarked upon the dialogue in each scene, how refreshing and original it was (despite its out-dated-ness).  For a full five minutes we watch Stallone woo Shire as he stomps around the ice rink mumbling things about what it means to be a southpaw.  Was it the cold outside in contrast with the warm couch and wood stove filling my need for a nice holiday weekend escape?  Or, was I displacing the disappointment I have in current films that had me slipping into a mythical “new remembering” of this film?  Was it desperation at trying to consider anything I see these days as wonderfully written that had me adopting such nostalgia?

 

 

 

In “The Wrestler”, Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, played by Mickey Rourke is shown to us from the very start of the film, from the back – not through a subjective camera point of view, (as if seeing things through his eyes) but an objective one – he is our object given —  to watch, to look at, to get to know.  Aronofsky uses this technique over and over, creating for us a nice figurative motif.   It us up to the director, (the painter of the canvas) to have us meet metaphor with motif and realize what is offered here (given the story line) as a possible redemption, real-life resurrection or return.

 

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“Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience . . . We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible.”  DFW

 

It is of no coincidence that Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is mentioned in this film.  Though briefly, and, only once, it is purposeful in that the director of this film hopes to have the suffering of Randy realized by the moviegoer.  It is here, with the idea of sympathy from the viewer, [a pathos realized for the story to succeed in its telling] where the dilemma for Aronofsky exists, and where the reference to Gibson’s “Passion” is ironically relevant.

 

Gibson’s film, in giving to us his story of Christ’s suffering, concentrates on the ‘how’ of his protagonist’s suffering. The film spends its time showing us the actual graphic depiction of a crucifixion.  For art, this approach becomes flawed, for part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience.  If all we are given are images composing [a] crucifixion, what would cause us to feel anything for the specific person suffering if we are not given his story?

 

For Gibson’s approach to work — the story must already be known; the audience already having a knowledge of the ‘story’ before even entering the theatre.  With the person of Christ, this is possible.  We care despite not being given the story of Christ’s life here, by the director, in this film being shown before us only because we are inclined to “already know the story”.   The director knows this, and, is thus afforded this “luxury of neglected story line”—– for we are able to tap into an already-existing (however fraught with controversy) story line template.  The director then, can concentrate on giving us the far-easier-to-produce shock-value graphic tale.

 

All of this leads to the showing of suffering, or, its counterpart, the conveyance of an inner suffering with which an audience can identify.  The former relies upon the literal; and for the two films involved here, is destined to be graphic, violent, bloody.  The latter relies upon storytelling and metaphor, allusion and symbol.  The endgame for the director of a film is to make his audience care.  It is easy to show blood pour; it is difficult to make an audience care that it’s pouring.

 

The potential of “The Wrestler” resides in this very distinction made between the two methods of depicting suffering (literal graphic vs metaphorical symbolic) and the two types of audiences (collective crowd vs sympathetic moviegoer) involved.  Here is where the film succeeds in one respect, and yet, overall, where an otherwise surefire motif loses its potential power in metaphor.

 

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With the world of professional wrestling, we have the boundary well-secured between detached viewer and spectacle:  the viewing is of a collective nature, where the event watched is encouraged by [an] audience kept at a sympathetic distance.  The collective viewing of pain and suffering as object, and not as subject, precludes sympathy while preserving spectacle.

To watch Randy suffering in the ring is simply abiding by professional wrestling’s intended design, where each blow has no consequence, each spill of blood only serving to further the distancing and preserve the lack of any emotive connection with the person(s) in the ring.  The wrestler knows this; the audience knows this. The audience will never understand what it is like up there in the ring if kept at its required distance.  This is deliberate on the part of the spectacle itself; the act is understood by both those in the ring, and, those not.  And, furthermore, the audience not only need not understand, but cannot know anything about the real-life person in the ring in order to successfully complete its role as spectator.

There is this nice boundary maintained – and, one which must be for it all to work.  It is the same boundary created for the mob-like crowd who gathers at the foot of the platform upon which Hawthorne places Hester Prynne amidst 17th century Boston Puritanism.  With boundary maintained, no sympathy is possible.  The collective crowd no more wishes to know Hester Prynne and “follow her to” her story than do the crowds who gather along the road to Calvary.

But, as spectator of this film, (a film where I will no doubt be asked to watch some violence, blood, depictions of physical and graphically-portrayed suffering) I must know the story for me to complete my role as satisfied (sympathetic) moviegoer.  My role is as subjective viewer, not objective.  I cannot survive “outside the ring”.  I need to know why this specific person’s blood pours, not see blood pouring in an overall general and distanced way for “an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience”– to be realized. 

 

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The essence of art, be it film, literature, visual art, etc. is to “make us see”.  If we are prevented from seeing, from identifying with, from knowing, no amount of clever motif will get us there, bring us in the locker room, so to speak, up on the platform with Hester, or knowing the historical figure in Christ.  And to find a given motif symbolically powerful, we must appreciate its context – its surrounding story.

 

A way in which this can happen, [and, to Aronofsky’s credit, does] is in the staple-gun wrestling match scene.  By employing the use of flashback, (a film tool which disturbs the real-time sequencing of narration) – showing both the blood inside the ring, and then, outside it, afterward, in the locker room – the crucial distinction between the two audiences, objective and subjective is made.  Yes, blood flows in both scenes, [and the graphic nature is equal in intensity in each] but the pain in the latter, we now realize, is far greater.  Why?  Because we’ve been allowed a glimpse into this person’s pain, the pain outside the spectacle with which we, as sympathetic human beings must identify.  We never need to have been punctured with staples and razors and glass in order to realize that the pain Randy suffers is not to be found in the ring, but rather, outside of it, fumbling with his hearing aid, begging for more work hours, seeking reparation, reflecting upon his life, enduring his self.

 

…its rough-edged camera work and editing, good direction (Stallone) and supporting role performances in Shire and Meredith. 

 

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Given the powerful performance of Mickey Rourke, the symbolic ‘motif to metaphor’ potential set up by Aronofsky in direction, and the multi-level story line of resurrection and return, one would think this film to be able to succeed beyond expectation.  But, why didn’t it?  What was lacking in the film?  Why didn’t the showing of Randy from the back throughout the entire film materialize into something more?

 

This motif found itself in Randy’s searching for his own front door, the door to his daughter’s apartment, his boss’s office door begging for more hours, and ultimately, his entering the ring.  It was so intentional an attempt by the director to show this hulking tattered outdated down-jacket in front of us throughout the entire film, moving away from us while confronting symbolic thresholds in the form of literal doorways which either open or reject.  Rourke’s character is shown continually walking away from the movie-going audience and toward those things he was in search of; a faceless large figure shown from the back in continual pursuit of something, and, for added allusion for Rourke himself, something other than that of the movie-viewing audience

 

This is the closest thing we get to art in this movie, and yet, it never really makes it to this realm.  The outdated down jacket walking away from us is the perfect symbol of the actor himself, — as equal to, or, maybe even more, the character he plays.  Rourke the actor snubbed his audience years ago, and his real-life search for reparation and return could not be better portrayed.  But, why didn’t it work?

 

One has to again, look at the scenes in which this motif has been placed, and consider the time we spend as “distanced spectator” versus “sympathetic viewer”.  The supporting performances (by E. Rachel Wood and Marissa Tomei) seemed to never get past cliché.  The father-daughter template is the centerpiece, and yet there was nothing offered to make one want the two to reunite, make reparation.  Their story, their narrative, is never tapped into nearly enough, nor, without stereotypical image, so we are left at a distance unable to sympathize.  Without the narration, we are stuck with appearances, and can only respond to the character as something to look at, and not someone to know.  The dialogue contributes greatly to this in its substance and delivery; neither Wood nor Tomei able to do much with the script given them and the lack of their story.

 

Tomei’s character is given to us primarily as spectacle; a strip-club act her version of the wrestling ring where we cannot see who she really is.  Why did the director choose to exhaust so much film time with the audience kept at the collective-crowd level and not that of the sympathetic viewer?  One scene in a clothing shop ‘outside the ring,’ and, without much more than this was not enough to make us care about her character.   The lengthy pockets of pulp-fiction-viewing give us nothing [except maybe some ratings issues] and – what does this all serve other than to keep the viewer at a distance watching her “act”?  Maybe this is the parallel intended by the director – to show us the parallel lives of empty spectacle.  But, to do this, one must counter it with the sympathetic.

 

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If anything, this film offers tons of irony.  My whole worried-over wariness in having to watch a film about professional wrestling ends up being completely misguided.  The wrestling scenes were probably the strongest ones Aronofsky offers, the ones I most enjoyed, (and, yes, from my sympathetic role as moviegoer); the most real and the least spectator-like despite their heavy doses of Passion-ate bleeding.  It is ironically the storytelling aspect (the part which should reel me in and make me care about all that blood) which leaves me unnerved and detached.  Stomaching the stuff in the wrestling ring was nothing compared to the dialogue, the non-dimensionality of the characters.

 

 

If a film’s dialogue is weak, the created characters one-dimensional, and the emphasis placed on the “how” rather than the “why” we end up with a well-devised metaphor with no narrative in which to place it.  We then have a great performance given by an actor whose own offering of self (Christ figure complete) is there to save the film from its unfortunate mediocre reception.  Rourke as ‘Saviour’ – again, is maybe the best metaphor yet – (to be realized here) – though, one devised not by the director, but by the viewing audience.

 

 

In an ironic way, Aronofsky’s passionate portrayal of his Christ figure in Rourke need not be realized through the Gibson spectacle but rather, through the slowly-before-our-very-eyes painful realization that Rourke has found himself not in a realm of resurrection, (that which brought us to see the film in the first place) but in one having to carry the burden of trying to save yet another film.

 

 

This film gave me the actor Rourke in his other ring, the real-life ring of professional boxing, unleashing his own barrage of blows to the audience in the form of his acting genius, yet all we can do is wince and suffer with each glove to the face as we recognize [once again], the wasted talent before us.  Rourke’s performance as Randy rings true to life, true to form in the furthered echo of his own acting career, where his films (barring “Diner”, “Rumble Fish” and his part opposite William Hurt in “Body Heat”) have been just that; mediocre at best, artlessly awful at worst.  This is the real tragedy.  The more devastating destruction of Rourke doesn’t come from the receipt of blows he endures in the boxing ring all those years, but rather, from the landed gloves of suffering and loss recognized by the moviegoer.

 

The only thing holding anything together in this film is Rourke himself; his unique talent evident in even the worst of dialogue given him.  Loss is the theme here, as it is always in the examination of life; our loss as viewer unable to appreciate a gifted actor, and, Rourke’s, in plying his talent in a constant swill of bad films.  Just add “The Wrestler” (despite his outstanding performance) to the already-too-long list.

 

 

January 

 

 

 Addendum: 

One scene which may be on par with Stallone and his southpaw is the video game scene played in Ram’s trailer.  The outdated Nintendo game with images of wrestlers barely discernible, [stiff and obsolete in geometric form] are a perfect symbol for Randy as he sits in front of us now, worn out, out-of-fashion, tired.

He wins, but he wins at a game so far in the past that his “opponent” (an eight-year-old kid) has no interest in a re-match.  This is metaphor at its best.  Rourke’s minimized little victory on the video screen (in its equally sad and outdated state of technology) on par with the minimal and spare existence inside a trailer was perfect.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

that venue for showing art

caa show announcement

Regarding the static painted visual art piece on a wall, or, the static sculpted object on a pedestal, what are we to read beyond the object’s own “art-object-ness” in a recycled environment of reference and quotation? Can the object we now make be successful at translating our meaning given its expected reception in a now seemingly all-too familiar field? Is the gallery context itself somehow inhibiting as it moves from exclusive space visited by students of art and other artists to the David Byrne familiar with Eric Fischl painting art’s own art-going morphology?

Is it like the phenomenon of digital accessibility —- with too much equaling too ordinary and expected for us to even blink an eye no matter the possible strength of the work residing? Can the static art object give us the reading it means to in its current context of “being art in a gallery”? or, have we become too savvy an audience, too familiar with how the system works for the art object itself to move beyond the space it relies upon for its translation?

Is Visual Art stuck in its own necessary replication, unable to move beyond the “look” of what we know art on a wall to be, to move beyond the entrenched orthodoxy of this look, this paradigm? Does the gallery space by default, due to our familiarity with it – create for the artist a space impossible for understanding the actual work?  Is our awareness of “looking at art” getting in the way?  Has our method of looking overwhelmed the actual art (if there is any) to be found?

Not unlike a Kafka character caught in truest dilemma, the balance for both lies between the method used (gallery space = traveling circus ) and, the very awareness of the method by both the artist (when placing work in such a prescribed space) and the viewer (upon experiencing that space).  Both require an isolation without self-awareness, and, given our method of viewing art – (which includes taking along our image-conscious selves), neither of these seems possible.

Sept.  2018

today’s realism and bowls of fruit drawn, painted

 

Apples with PLU - entry 1

  • Apples [w/ PLU Sticker] in Pewter Bowl : ( w/r/t the history of Still Life painting)  37” x 46” – Digital – inkjet collage – 2016

 

A realistically drawn apple may be read as the mastering of a skill in the field of representational drawing.  There are endless ways in which the drawing can be done:  varying materials, altering the approach in tackling formal qualities, playing with scale to name but a few.

 

The subject of an apple, or, bowl of fruit, allows for a connection with 2-dimensional art’s tradition, its history in both the academic “learning how to draw” and the prominent genre works found in painting.  This connecting to the past empowers the apple, the fruit as subject matter, referencing a linear progression comprising any true discipline or study which, in turn, genially accounts for its validity and, yes, its relevance.

 

Depending upon how “good” the drawn fruit is (honoring the laws of Realism) will determine the level of mastering.  The drawing becomes somewhat of a biographical sketch of where the artist is at the time in the advancement of a learned technical skill.  Like hitting the perfect note in music, the wows of the viewer are in response to the artist’s performance, the result of a practiced skill, the visual cue to an artist’s bettering this sought-after facility.  We are struck by the artist’s ongoing mastery of drawing something convincingly “real” on a 2-D surface.

 

In looking at a drawing of an apple or fruit Still-life made today, we might be asked to look at it not in terms of success or failure of a bench-marked realism, (our go-to assessment as viewers) but rather in terms of the choice of subject matter itself.  It is in the choosing to draw an apple, fruit bowl that is now our subject matter.  Not unlike our original choosing of the apple, the enactment, the act of drawing or painting is now our content.

 

The weight fruit carries today is not the same in origin, when introduced as subject as it was for Bruegel, Chardin, Courbet.  Our supermarket-stickered fruit reads far differently than the anonymous peasant apple-carting of a Bruegel, the bourgeoisie interior sitting-room of a Chardin, or the crumbling aristocracy of a Courbet.  Our fruit drawings or paintings hold all of these weighted meanings in reference and tribute which is now our subject.

 

In today’s world of the ease of digital rendering, and, an omnipresence of PLU- stickered fruit, the romantic notion of a fruit bowl set in golden-hued light on an elegantly arranged table seems foreign, out-of-date, remote, exotic.  The only connection to this is precedent, art’s own history’s role in continuity of subject for meaning.  We paint and draw fruit because we know painted and drawn fruit register as art.  Still-lifes are wonderful rendering workshops and tradition gives us the proverbial nod to go right ahead and draw the apple, so to speak.  Weight of subject matter is found with a nod from history and the enactment of the actual making.

 

The art part, if there is any to be found, might arise, for instance, from the enacted, the activity or ‘scene from a play’, [maybe Chekhov in spirit?] where the fruit bowl is set upon an old yet elegant gate-legged table, and a drawing is worked on by an actor on stage, the actual result never seen by the audience.

The fruit bowl need not be drawn or painted well, poorly, or … at all, even, for the visual prompt to our much larger subject matter is there, found in the reference to an acceptable academic art-making approach and made real by our artist’s set-up of easel and oils; and, our artist, maybe long-since disillusioned —- yet still searching for meaning in a palette of colors fully within physical reach, but, irretrievably lost to one’s failing eyesight or quickly closing memory.

 

May  2018