Looking at Suzan Shutan’s Work in A Contemporary Art Exhibit

The first time I saw art work by Suzan Shutan, I sensed a political reading.  Just in the way the works were installed, on both wall and floor, wrapping around corners, weaving mid-air.  I read the subject of “environment” before I even got near enough to note the material used, the titles of the work.  The seeping large shape of looped material poured out of and off the wall, continuing its path onto the gallery floor.  The visual read as suspended or slowed-down liquid flow, something rather beautiful and intricate and yet unsettling at the same time.

Once closer to the work, it became more apparent as to what I was responding to and why.  The material used to create these intricate woven constructions is tar roofing paper joined with industrial glue.  The roofing paper is wholly visible as roofing paper, as tar paper used for roofing, as direct as is the gluing process holding the loops together.  No attempts are made to alter the material as it reads industrial, bitumen, asphalt, oil.  Integrated within these loops are sporadic holdings of vibrant areas of color composed of lokta paper, another durable resinous paper; a material time-honored for its role in the preservation of sacred texts.  Shutan’s treatment of both kinds of paper are the same; both are looped, crocheted-like, and incorporate varying sizes.  The transition from wall space (conventional viewing area for 2-d work) to floor space (traditional sculpture) is the art category integrating, or, “the straddling of both worlds” Shutan speaks of.  But we also read the symbolic in the integration of material within its equally significant method of display. 

Where we find Shutan’s work in the evolving discipline of art is somewhere between the Public Art social (an example might be Serra’s Tilted Arc) and the Earth Art political (Carl Andre’s Stone Field Sculpture or Christo’s pink islands of Biscayne Bay).  Her past work (inspired by artists Andy Goldsworthy and Maya Lin) shows a connection to the environment and to the society and back again.  The pieces engage in the language of Earth Art, Land Art, when artists were abandoning the conventional space in order to get their political messages out there.  Here is where today’s world enters in – and, where I find Shutan’s oil-industry loop pieces to have the potential for moving our cloistered art world back into the real one.

 

If Shutan’s works such as “Ooze” and “Drift” were exhibited outside the gallery, as public art pieces – how effective would their language be?  By exhibiting inside the gallery space instead, given the context of this space, this venue for showing art – and observing the artwork’s activity within it (seeping, moving, gradually spilling over) the work lends itself in metaphor and maybe broadens the meaning to include the very art world her pieces find themselves in. 

Our environmental dilemma is echoed in these intricately designed loop constructions which take aim at the gradual formation of “cultural debris in our industrial enterprises” and, maybe, at our mutual acceptance of the closed-loop commodification and commercial sale of art itself.   

Since Shutan’s Ooze and Drift are exhibited inside a gallery, seen alongside other artwork – we need to figure out how we read it given its context.  The other work may allude to landscape, environment, the natural world and, in their making, be somewhat similar in the gluing and pasting of paper.  This is the common ground that works wonderfully, but might it lead us to one large reading of “environment” and miss the tension or address, comment or menace of Shutan’s work?  Does the political to be found in Shutan’s work get lost in the formalist visual magic?

So, when we take in the totality of the show, do we connect the art on the walls as a unifying theme and register a kudos for curatorial practice, or, only do this in an ancillary way and leave with what Shutan’s art is trying to say?  Does it matter?  Is what we take from the work leading us somewhere beyond the incredible visual, the wows of the making?  How do we feel after leaving this space?  Informed? Quieted? Appreciative? Alarmed? 

Would Ooze and Drift be more effective in communicating Shutan’s valid concerns – if placed in the arena of public space?  Back out where our taking-to-the-streets-in-political-protest is our best method of communicating where we stand as a society?  Placing the work outside the EPA building? Oil refineries?  Gas stations?  Or, bumping up the ante and oozing out into the gallery space itself – but not in a subtle manner, (relying too much upon metaphor) but literally, overtaking the adjacent works?  (Would the artist(s) exhibiting their own work cooperate for the greater cause?) Seeping out of the gallery itself?  Covering like ivy a Koch Brothers philanthropy-sponsored building? 

These are some questions worth addressing.  And, yes, these specific pieces might not physically hold up outside in the elements, but the ideal is certainly worth considering in getting the artist’s message out there where it needs to be.

How we got to this point in our art object making and exhibiting might be another thing to ask.  With “ooze” and “drift” – words that signify slowly, almost imperceptibly, maybe we get our answer. 

2021

Reading Our Screens

The surface of the computer screen is always in the present tense and the information searched and presented on the screen follows in contextual reading.  The computer screen has taken the musty aisles of the ages-old research library and has foreshortened them, having them recede (in space) rather than extend outward, or lengthwise, in a physical chronological unfolding. 

We no longer have to physically walk past shelves and shelves of books, but rather, sit at ease and face a small manageable computer screen.   There are no aisles of great depth, no panoramic view of thousands and thousands of books, just one page read out of every page available.

However at home we may feel at our computers screens, there is still an overbearing weight to assume in being able to digest all that is available via this medium.  A book from cover to cover is digestible; an endless Google search is not.  In paradox, we assume an easier time of acquiring knowledge, but are far more pressed to admit the impossibility of ever digesting anything fully.  From out of the much larger context, we extract what we want, what we need.  We need not read anything in its entirety because the new form denies us the ability.  Our current nonlinear collecting of linked information will give us as much of the meaning of a work as would our cursory skimming over of it.

The old trick of reading the back of a book in order to write a book report has become for us now – the way in which we operate within our knowledge-seeking world.  There is far too much at our fingertips for us to do anything other.  (I cannot read this book by Monday).  It is no longer just one book we have to read and comprehend, but all of them.  They are all there, linked together beyond any manageable boundary.  We are overwhelmed before we even start. 

So, our chosen alternative gives us the act of skipping and searching and looking for enough links and tangents to get to the theme we must arrive at in order to “write our paper.”  We won’t pass without it.  The plot we’ve tackled easily on our first Google search.  The meaning, though, our truest obstacle to be met will remain out of reach given the path we’ve chosen – the present paradigm of computer screen as perfectly fine library aisle substitute.

2021

We all love sunsets

How we consider a sun setting in the evening sky to be beautiful, to prompt a running-to-get-our-camera moment relies upon history and context and acculturation alongside our own neurological pathway-building influence of what we think of as beautiful “automatically” – how we have become seemingly auto-responsive to, and, yet, at the same time, have learned through our cumulative viewing experiences to love symmetry, contrasting colors, movement in space, Pythagoras’s triangles, harmonic structures and post and lintel construction.  It is both ingrained and learned. 

We all love sunsets for their colors, their striking visual display regardless of ever having been taught about color or striking visual displays.  But we also love sunsets because we have seen so many sunsets taken out of the flow of the everyday and ordinary to become something stand-alone beautiful, something shown to us over and over as an example of something beautiful to look at, to take in, to mystically observe and urge us to consider this one section of the whole sky at this particular time of the day.  Cameras are summoned to record these visual displays as our culturally-formed reflexes are reinforced. Is it merely the sharp color contrasts that move us, their fleeting duration, or is there something more meaningful in connecting the setting of the sun with the ending of a day which exists no longer, just as the colors diminish before us? Is this the connection we are making (one of the symbolic rather than the mere signifying?) with the sky’s colors and our own lives diminished by one more day?

We have learned to frame things in our minds, adjust our inner palettes to appreciate the sliver from the vastness, for the whole is far too great; the required rules of symmetry and soothing color shifts all help in the creation of the beautiful.  A harsh light stressing our retinal retention capacity is not seen as beautiful; but place the very same light in the sky at a distance, give it some capacity for dispersing itself gently and we somehow find in it, beauty. 

Perspective shifts of common elements aim for the beautiful; the context then, serving to administer the qualities needed to experience it.  One single flower growing out of a cement block in an otherwise gray drab slab of concrete appears to us beautiful despite its contextual reality – its place out-of-place, its natural reality far more harsh and unforgiving (does it live as if well-tethered in rich soil and ample water?) than if set within a field of anonymity and likeness and same.  Is it the contrast, then, the context of this which determines the experiencing of the beautiful?  Is it the “framing of” that again is required for us to even notice?

This all leads to the artist and the art created for us to look at.  The response to something visually beautiful is simply our natural inclination mixed with a continued repetition of having noted such things over and over in order for them to impress upon us some sort of ingrained survival mode which, if beneficial to us, if strong enough to last, will have proven itself valid and necessary simply by the virtue of its lasting; its capitulation due to such repetition —– like the worn-out comfort of an armchair after decades of daily use.  The artist need not be mired in the questioning of what is beautiful, for by the very virtue of the artist’s “framing of” – selecting and setting apart for us to look at – this should all be resolved for the artist in the end — if the art is working. 

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 (a distance from – in both time and space) is throughout the centuries unraveled for us by human progress.  Ancient Greece (Western Art’s primum mobile) gives us evidence of mythic distances closed 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 yet another shattering of mythical distance.  The shifting from heavenly to earthly and back again (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 mass 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 the 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 the 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, with this, our experience not only varies in degree, but in kind.

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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

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, reclusive.  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 (grasped in the film “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 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

http://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 (“Stadia I, 2004) and many similar in visual appeal, (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 used by today’s artists to echo in direct reference.  Yes, homages are possible in certain works, as are the more cynically claimed appropriations, but the artist isn’t claiming this when discussing the work. These works are being presented as heavily-loaded statements regarding our social-political environment.  

“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 art world devotion 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

 

 

 

 

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