Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"Unconsciousness Raising" article in The Brooklyn Rail

I contributed this article to the September 2009 Brooklyn Rail:

This summer it was possible to wade in the waters of pornography, erotic art, psychoanalysis, and feminism by visiting four almost concurrent art exhibitions: Peeps at CUNY’s James Gallery; John Currin: Works on Paper—A Fifteen Year Survey of Women at Andrea Rosen Gallery; Dorothy Iannone: Lioness at The New Museum; and The Female Gaze: Women Look at Women at Cheim & Read. Taken together, these shows trace a line of erotic imagery from the crass commercialism of pure pornography to the more refined commercialism of the art gallery, raising questions about how these forms relate to modern sexuality. Let’s be explicit: sex sells. It sells itself—always one click away—and it sells other commodities: beer, cars, tennis rackets, and, yes, art. Certainly, the aspiration for erotic imagery presented in an art setting is that it would stimulate reflections on desire, sexism and human rights. Working from the opposite direction, however, the exploitative forces at work in the making and selling of pornography cannot be completely sugarcoated in a fine art frame...(read full article here.)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Tonight! ARTWALK NY 2009 Benefitting Coalition for the Homeless


Art Auction Benefit for Coalition for the Homeless
Co-chairs: Alec Baldwin, Richard Gere and Carey Lowell
Artist Honoree: Pat Steir

Skylight Studio, 275 Hudson Street, NYC
6:30 pm doors/8 pm live auction
Tickets are $200 and $500
Full details here

ARTWALK NY unites artists and art lovers in an effort to help our homeless neighbors, and to celebrate the most important artists of our time. Coalition for the Homeless provides housing, food, job training, crisis services and children's programs to thousands of New Yorkers each day. We believe that affordable housing, sufficient good, and the chance to work for a living wage are fundamental rights in a civilized society. Since 1981, we've fought successfully for lansting solutions to homelessness through our renowned advocacy.

Article on Andrew Bush's Photography in The Brooklyn Rail

I contributed "A Glance Backward While Driving Over the Edge" to The Brooklyn Rail's May 2009 Issue:

"Owning a car is an American birthright. It is the personalization of American power, prosperity, and autonomy. Regardless of the impact on the environment or national security, we Americans go where we want, when we want, and in the car of our choice. Speed is the hook: put your foot on the accelerator and go. At least, that’s the way it’s always been. Now, with the rapid slow-down of our economy, we are being forced to confront our relationship to our cars. Andrew Bush’s “Vector Portraits,” photographs of people driving their cars, can give us a place to start. Opening April 23rd, two Chelsea galleries—Yossi Milo and Julie Saul—are showing Bush’s near life-size color images taken in the 1990s..." (read full article here.)

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Sigmund Freud Snack

Freud's clearheaded description of religion's myths encourages further thinking about its ongoing pitfalls. In "Civilization and Its Discontents," published in 1930, Freud quoted below his own writing from another book, "Future of an Illusion," from three years earlier.

"...I was concerned...with what the common man understands by his religion--with the system of doctrines and promises which on the one hand explains to him the riddles of this world with enviable completeness, and on the other, assures him that a careful Providence will watch over his life and will compensate him in a future existence for any frustrations he suffers here. The common man cannot imagine this Providence otherwise than in the figure of an enormously exalted father. Only such a being can understand the needs of the children of man and be softened by their prayers and placated by the signs of their remorse. The whole thing is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life.

Above image by Anne Sherwood Pundyk: "Dispersions (with Josephine in mind)", 2009, Oil and Acrylic on Panel, 10" x 8"

Monday, July 6, 2009

Judy Glantzman: The White Paintings, 1999-2001 at Betty Cuningham Gallery

To die, to sleep.

To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub,

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause.

It’s only from observing someone else’s death that we can get any clues about what dreams may come. All we have to go on is our experience as a witness to another’s death -- its approach, occurrence and aftermath. Our response to this sequence of events is shaped by how well we know the deceased and how well we know ourselves. There is a special pull and fascination with having proximity to another’s death. What we see “gives us pause.” Eventually, we know, it will be our turn.

Nearly a decade ago painter Judy Glantzman kept her father company as his health deteriorated. She briefly tried sketching him, she told me recently, but was not comfortable representing her father’s decline directly. Glantzman took the impulse of recording her experience of his death back to her studio. She wrote of bringing to her painting a heightened sense of the provisional nature of our “physical selves.” The resulting work was not shown widely at the time it was painted. It is, however, the basis for Glantzman’s show at Betty Cuningham Gallery this summer, “The White Paintings 1999 -2001.”

The focus of the show is five large, mostly white oil paintings. In each work there is a single, ambiguous presence drawn in contours of paint using minimal color – mostly reds and muted blues. Centrally placed, the lone figure is female and has a youthful, fidgety appearance. The effect is spare, as opposed to the colorful, populated feel to much of Glantzman’s prior and subsequent works.

The figures are incomplete and misshapen, missing arms, a torso, or legs. Rendered quickly in narrow painted lines, several wear a veil or headpiece and some are clothed in a full gathered skirt. The most prominent element in each painting is the subject’s doll-like face. The stylized facial features have similar proportions as they face the viewer. They could all be drawn from a classicized conception of the human face rather than from a specific individual.

Overall, the works have an interrupted and erased feel as if the artist made multiple, incomplete attempts at rendering her subject. What is left of the figure for us to see has been partially covered or reworked. However, the unfinished quality of the rendering does not result in an unfinished work. The striving and repeated attempts to understand her idealized subject suggest that which we can never really know.

Above image courtesy of the artist and Betty Cuningham Gallery:

by Judy Glantzman "Angel," 2000, Oil on Canvas, 90" x 80"

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Julian Schnabel's Midtown Cave Paintings (Post Script on Takako Azami)

The nearly perfect grid of streets covering Manhattan was designed to provide a stream of unimpeded vehicular and pedestrian traffic. A bird flying over the mid 40’s, however, can see that three monumental buildings in a row -- Grand Central Station, the MetLife and Helmsley Buildings -- sit squarely over Park Avenue. Who allowed this mass of structures to divert the flow? I vowed, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, to take back the streets from this blunt act of developer and city planning ego. With a bookstore on 57th Street as my destination, I pledged to walk in a straight line from Murray Hill directly up Park Avenue “through” this walled midtown fortress, as if it wasn’t there.

I made it through Grand Central Station from the south side, but got jammed up trying to get into the MetLife building. Just as the security guard waved me to stop I noticed -- with an overwhelming jolt -- two huge paintings by Julian Schnabel in the stone-faced interior lobby. What? Art? Here, in the heart of this imposing citadel? In perfect contrast to their polished, corporate setting – they were oversized, nearly falling apart, on dirty, wrinkled-looking canvas. The ham-handed strokes and forms looked to be painted by a giant who almost didn't care. The artist who, “cultivates provocation and paradox,” loves to define himself as a “cave painter,” according to a press release issued about the paintings when they were shown in Italy in 2006.

Immanuel Kant contrasts the beautiful with the sublime in his “Critique of Judgment.” A judgment of beauty involves a perception of harmony and purpose with respect to something we can grasp all at once. Judging the sublime adds size and scale to the equation – it addresses things that are bigger than us and even beyond our ability to imagine. “The feeling of the sublime is …produced by the feeling of a momentary inhibition of the vital forces followed immediately by an outpouring of them that is all the stronger…The liking for the sublime contains not so much a positive pleasure as rather admiration and respect, and so should be called a negative pleasure.” Schnabel’s oversized paintings functioned as a single sublime thread hanging from a tailored suit of stone. If tugged, the thread could unravel the entire building.

The guard let me see a third Schnabel on the floor closed to the public and explained that there were two more even bigger — measuring probably twenty feet square -- on the lower level. From there I could get back to Park Avenue and fulfill my mission. Ogling the larger Schnabels and making only one wrong turn inside the Helmsley building, I found my way uptown on the other side.

Julian Schnabel says about his work, “I use any tool I can to realize the physical embodiment of my impulse.” There is a connection between the artist’s impulse and their materials that is replicated in the audience’s experience of the work. The British photographer Tactita Dean believes “art works best when it responds to the autobiography of the viewer.” The connection may not be so much the gratification of a desire, or fulfillment of a fantasy, but a sublime “negative pleasure” such as recognizing our fears. Stumbling upon the paintings unexpectedly, my surprise drove the connection deeper. As I faced down my concern about getting lost in the labyrinth of stone and steel over Park Avenue, I found the treasure: Schnabel’s cave paintings.

Post Script: Takako Azami

On a different day I set out on a "safer" straight line to see a short list of shows In Chelsea. The walk was just a typical stroll from point A to point B, and, unlike my trek up Park Avenue, I fully expected to see some art. In thinking about Schabel’s translation of impulse to artwork, the clearest connection I saw was in Takako Azami’s ink paintings on stretched hemp paper at M.Y. Art Prospects. “Pine Trees”, in particular, felt musical with its rich array of tones and intervals. The artist has trained in the traditional style of Japanese ink painting, but has adapted and transformed the technique over the last 10 years. Visible on the surface of the stretched paper is the “back” of the artist’s dabs and blots of black and grey ink and white chalk pigments. The simple directness and intelligence of the work was right on the surface.

Above image: by Takako Azami, "Pine Trees," 2008, Ink, pigment on hemp paper, 4' x 6', courtesy of M.Y. Art Prospects Gallery

Friday, May 15, 2009

Pecha Kucha: MoMA, M.Y. Art Prospects, CUNY's James Gallery, Cuchifritos, Monya Rowe and CRG

I went to a panel discussion at MoMA expecting to learn about the six artists presenting, and ended up more curious about the format of the lecture: Pecha Kucha.  Each presenter is allowed 20 images and has 20 seconds per image to comment.  MoMA is hosting five presentations in this format this spring in conjunction with the exhibition, “Compass in Hand: Selections from The Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawings Collection.”

Pecha Kucha, which translates from Japanese as “chit chat,” is a recent innovation first used by architects.  In 2003, Mark Dytham and Astrid Klein, who have a Tokyo-based firm, saw the potential for expanding the role of the design presentation into the realm of nighttime entertainment. Pecha Kucha tightens up the parameters of a traditional lecture presentation relocating it to a bar or nightclub.  Consider Pecha Kucha as a substitute for Karaoke or a drinking game.  In the new, relaxed atmosphere, the shorter presentations allow architects and designers to quickly share their ideas.

So, does it work for artists?  

To get in on the game, I am modeling this post on the Pecha Kucha style. In addition to the MoMA presentation I will cover several recent art events: a lecture on surf blogging and an exhibition of Carolyn Swiszcz’s paintings at M.Y. Art Prospects; Thomas Torros Cordova’s performance, “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” at CUNY’s new James Gallery; Josephine Halvorson and Andy Rosen ‘s two-person show, “Close to Home” at Cuchifritos; and Angela Dufresne’s new paintings at Monya Rowe and CRG.  This is more than I would normally write about at once, but I’ll try for short and sweet.

Ready, set, go.  

At MoMA, the artists presenting were Christian Holstad, Kim Jones, Julian Hoeber, Dana Schutz, Dannielle Tegeder and Elizabeth Simonson. Most of them started with older drawings from the exhibition, followed by more recent work in other media.  While the styles and subjects of their work were diverse, by the end all of the artists where united in feeling nerve-racked by the constraints of the Pecha Kucha format.  Disco lighting and a pitcher of beer might have helped.

One side effect of presenting under pressure was a generous outpouring during the Q and A and the end. The artists offered personal advice to the audience about countering some common professional hazards.   Elizabeth Simonson stressed the importance of having a studio and keeping a close circle of friends.  In response to a question about disappointment, Dannielle Tegeder offered, “it is a natural part of the process of making and showing work.” Dana Schutz says she fights doubt by making lists of ideas and running.  Several artists agreed with Kim Jones that doing yoga helps.  Looking back, it may be that the artists’ discomfort came from trying to jam the contents of a more traditional presentation into too small a space. The most memorable moments came after the timer had stopped and the artists were more at ease. 

Moving right along. 

To mark her gallery’s 10th anniversary, Miyako Yoshinga has initiated a monthly informal lecture and discussion series called Telling Evenings (T.E.) at M.Y. Art Prospects. On April 9 -- the debut of the series -- new media artist and filmmaker, Marcin Ramocki talked about the brief history of surf-blogging. He projected on-line examples of this visual telephone game, played by closed surf clubs on the Internet. Surf blogging sprang up from the fertile crescent of amateur pornography connoisseurship and Internet image piracy. The audience’s reaction to Ramoki’s presentation was swift and polarized:  outrage at the unauthorized use of images posted on the Internet, and delighted fascination with the humor and creativity of the results.

Also at M.Y. Art Prospects through May 23rd, “Minnesota Miracle,” an exhibition of Carolyn Swiszcz’s paintings combines a bleak “South Park” aesthetic with pitch-perfect atmospheric effects also found in Hokusai’s ukiyo-e landscape woodblock prints.  The artist’s use of repeating geometric shapes to depict modern suburban architectural facades – they are “rubber stamped” – becomes a commentary on the winter-weary heartland mindset.  Her gaze at an impoverished, strip mall and beer-pong culture is both sympathetic and steady. 


Under the new directorship of Linda Norden, the programs at The Amie and Tony James Gallery at CUNY’s Graduate Center located at 35th and Madison have nearly exploded out of its large-windowed corner gallery space. Performances, videos, readings, and politically charged exhibitions rotate in and out of the gallery at a whiplash pace.  On April 17, 2009, film-maker, performance artist and crooner,  Thomas Torres Cordova screened his 3-D film “Everybody Loves the Sunshine.” 

During his performance Cordova narrated and sang over his video montage accompanied by Woody "Uncle Woody" Sullender‘s live banjo playing.  Cordova is a full-time on-the-ground airlines employee whose family runs an air-conditioning business.  Airplane crashes, “loony” astronaut love triangles, the American need for artificially controlled air environments, and the mass merchandising of art, piled together spell out an SOS in sky-writing.  Where, in our airtight, super-sonic space age, is there room for the lonely heart to sing out and be heard? 

Home stretch. 

In “Close to Home,” curators Melissa Levin and Mike Quinn have paired fine art “souvenirs” from a northeastern sensibility at Cuchifritos in the East Village through June 13th. The modestly sized still life paintings by Josephine Halvorson exhibit a wry, deadpan humor and play off the physical comedy of Andy Rosen’s nautical sculptures.   

Last one.  

A double dose of work by painter and musician Angela Dufresne’s is now up at Monya Rowe and CRG in Chelsea in “Modern Times I and II.”  Painting the movie of her life, scored by Bob Dylan and scripted by Charlie Chaplin, Dufrese’s friends understudy for contemporary and classic movie stars. She slides a filmic veneer under her painted forms and strokes reminding me of the late Picasso's, and the paintings of Louise Fishman and Cecily Brown.  There’s a split-screen music video made by Dufresne floating around the Internet I wish would show up in her galleries.


Pecha Kucha for writing:  is the result a haiku collection or a shopping list? I’ll take their word that it works for architects; the jury is out for fine artists. “Chit chat” implies a tuned out superficiality, but it sounds like the process is supposed to be more like skipping rope, it gets the heart rate up, hopefully pumping more oxygen to the brain.  Maybe fine art is less programmatic than architecture, so its harder to regulate.  Or should MoMA be serving cocktails? 

Above Image by Carolyn Swiszcz, "Walker Art Center, Minneapolis," Acrylic and rubber stamp on canvas, 36" x 48", 2009.  Courtesy of M.Y. Art Prospects.  

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Returning Abroad, Leaving Home

The Watercolors
"Souvenir," means to remember. A souvenir acquired while traveling is brought back home (a small crystal bottle from Versailles, let’s say.) Through its displaced physical presence -- it came from somewhere else -- the object disrupts the present. Is that how we remember something? Watercolor brush marks animate small blue and white bedroom interiors rippling the present tense of their photographic source images, like cyanotype snapshots. At 16, the girl’s bedroom at home in New York City, in the year 2007, becomes a point of departure. Her souvenirs remind her that further adventures await her and that at some moment in the future, she will make her own way and her own home.

The Paintings
The last royal resident of The Chateau Versailles was another girl, who at 14, in 1769, left her mother in Austria to become Queen Consort of France and of Navarre. The presence of the paint, in layers and strokes, supports the nearly life-size images of gilt furnishings from Marie Antoinette’s palace, covered in yellow, red and blue. Taken outside like the chairs, the images slip off the edges, as if pulled toward the water. The swirls and curves of the Queen’s carpets and chairs gaze back to the decorative bottle on the girl’s bedside table, across the wake of the Atlantic Ocean. Messages under the waving surfaces are migratory commands. The pattern repeats. The story repeats.

The Video
From the translucent souvenir flows a video of free associations: memories from the trip and from further back in time. With a cross dissolve logic moments remembered vie with the pull of the present. Images collect, connect, sort and fade: a walk along the Rue de Rivoli, a rooftop in Manhattan, and a cloudy day at Versailles. A photographic veneer hovers under the animated flow of paint forms and strokes. Typewritten reflections describe the adorned fountains in the formal gardens at Versailles. A landscape is mirrored across the water.

Later we can see that leaving home happens in marked stages. Making her new home at Versailles, the young Queen shed her girlhood clothes, wearing now only clothes of the Court. New experiences, new responsibilities. Her golden chairs encircle the round table, pulling back toward the water. The North Fork marshes of the girl’s childhood summers flood her dreams. From whose mind’s eye are these images being projected? Who is writing the story? The girl is my daughter. These are my paintings. I hold hopes, as any mother does, for my child to make a home for herself -- to fearlessly define her own world.

Image above:  Anne Sherwood Pundyk, "Journal", 2008, 10" x 10.75", watercolor on paper

Friday, February 27, 2009

Crossing the Line

I first saw Alyssa Pheobus's work as a tiny graphic on my computer screen.  I was drawn to the terse black and white image primarily through the words she had chosen to seemingly scratch, or draw.  They began with, "HEY LITTLE GIRL, IS YOUR DADDY HOME..." and continued with three verses.  I didn't realize until much later that they were the lyrics from Bruce  Springsteen's haunting, "I'm on Fire."  I found, though, in the un-sourced words the recognition of a pervasive subculture of sexual brutality.  It's a theme that spreads throughout Pheobus's work.

With her drawing, "I'm on Fire," Pheobus took the popular Springsteen lyric that you've heard at home, on your car's radio, or in any number of public places and separated it from it's beat.  You might have tapped your foot and sung along not even aware that it's a song about the singer's tortured sexual desire, but taken out of that context and hung on the wall there is little doubt.  In another drawing, Pheobus uses Leonard Cohen's lyrics from "I'm Your Man," in which the singer offers to transform himself, and take any abuse his lover can dream up, in order to be her man.  "I'll do anything you ask me to; And if you want another kind of love; I'll wear a mask for you," goes the familiar song.

We know these songs of love, and many more like them.  They are all around us, like wallpaper.  Pheobus asks us to take notice -- to pick the words out of the air -- and pay attention to the stories of desire, submission, sexual aggression and physical violence.  Her work questions what the works say about us and how we connect with them.  These songs and other poems and phrases used in her drawings are one element of Pheobus's work.  The stringent, yet open-ended way she "plays them back" to us is an equally important part of her call to acknowledge our own involvement in the subculture of violence and desire.  

The penciled letters, words, phrases, and primitive, cross-stitched-like designs of Pheobus's work hold together large wavy oceans of creamy, skin-like paper.  The blank paper's presence tells the story first.  Most of the drawings in her solo exhibition this winter, "Lay in the Reins," at Bellwether Gallery were big enough to be bed covers.  They were lightly pinned to the wall, hanging freely, sculpted by changes in the humidity.

As a whole, the aesthetic of her work, as determined by its construction and execution, is shockingly simple.  A stenciled pencil mark -- a small, barbed, dart shape -- repeated hundreds of times creates the letters and framing graphic forms.  The grays and emphatic blacks are made in a way reminiscent of Minimal Art drawing scenarios such as Sol LeWitt's cross-hatched drawings where density is built up by superimposed lines.

Some of the song lyrics, poems and phrases, such as "ROUGH SEX WITH A BIG MAN," sit where they are told on cleanly seamed sheets of handmade paper.  Others fume and beg -- "I'LL DO ANYTHING YOU ASK ME TO," -- muttering and spitting down from the top of the drawing until they are worn out.  The drawings's compositions -- or graphic layout might be a better term -- lend attitude and spin as they refer to embroidered samplers, architectural plans, Gold Rush era wanted posters, 60's Minimal Art, bored student doodles, quilts, or outsider art.

Pheobus has cited the writings and films of Jean Genet as important to an understanding of the way she creates her work.  In "'Prisoner of Love," Genet's last book, he writes of his time in the 1970's in the Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan.  His writing reflects his mistrust of all forms of institutional authority and his long time familiarity with captivity.  The book begins with a description of the process of writing, which leads to a philosophical supposition closely paralleling Pheobus's work and vision:

"The page that was blank to begin with is now crossed from top to bottom with tiny black characters -- letters, works, commas, exclamation marks -- and it's because of them the page is said to be legible.  But a kind of uneasiness, a feeling close to nausea, an irresolution that stays my hand -- these make me wonder: do these black marks add up to reality?  The white of the paper... may posses more reality than the signs that mar them."

So which is it for Pheobus, the marks or the white?  After thinking her work over a period of months, something shifted for me.  The queasy fear from the implied threats collapsed.  It was her deadpan delivery, I think.  Fueled by Pheobus's recognition of subversive oppression (even the forms we ask for and participate in) I wanted an escape.  What came to mind?  I conjured the exacting physical comedy of Buster Keaton's silent films, where we confront pain with laughter.  How about one of Pheobus's phrases, " NO INTEREST IN FREE LOVE," becoming a petition passed around a commune after the first blush of utopian freedom fades and no one has bathed in weeks?  Push past the dread until it turns into the absurd.  Can you see the possibilities?  I can protect myself as Pheobus does, with the juxtaposition of the wild threat of the words with the controlled sureness of their setting.  I'm not sure its part of her intention, but Pheobus's brave thinking and sumptuous execution help serve as my shield. 

Image:  "NO INTEREST IN FREE LOVE," 2007, graphite on cotton rag paper, 100" x 68" (detail), courtesy of the artist.

Alyssa Pheobus's work is included in a group show, "The Practice of Joy Before Death; it just would not be a party without you," a Die Storung situation, opening Saturday February 28, 2009, from 6:00 pm - 8:00 pm, at the Scaramouche c/o Fruit and Flowers Deli, 53 Stanton Street.  (212) 228-2229.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Diana's Forest

Anne Sherwood Pundyk, "Diana's Forest," 2008, 65" x 68", oil and acrylic on linen.

Diana Pitt's first visit to my studio was last summer, even though I'd known her for 20 years.  Looking over my artwork, Diana took her time, examining closely everything she saw, asking all sorts of questions.  We had met initially on the job, working in a fast-paced environment with constant, unrealistic deadlines.  As soon as she joined the department, I felt for the first time the impossible might be possible.  While not immune to stress, Diana could articulate under pressure the precise qualities and dimensions of any given insanity we faced.  Naming the chaos -- which took steely courage and a war chest of perfectly chosen works -- was the first step in taming it.  Of special note was her writing.  She countered any urge of mine to oversimplify, generalize, or re-use professional jargon with a solid demonstration of clear, relevant, forceful prose.  Her ability to write, I believe, was directly tied to her unabashed curiosity, and her ability to focus outward, listening and looking intently.  Simultaneously, she could sift and sort all she was taking in, discerning layers of meaning.

During her visit, she told me that in addition to the work itself, she was struck by the fact that it was mine.  At this point, I should say that she knew I was a painter, but when we first met I was taking a hiatus from making artwork.  (My reasons? New young children, a full-time job, and uncertainly about how being an artist fit into this few life.)  But looking at my work, she asked me why I had stopped painting, as if that had been a wrong decision.  Looking from one piece to the next, she seemed to be enjoying the experience of seeing it all.  One painting held her gaze, an interior from a french chateau, flooded by North Fork marshland.  "Someday," she said, "I'll have to buy that painting.  It's as if there's a sunken treasure there."

In the years since we had worked together, she started a family too, and by the time I returned to painting full-time we had fallen out of regular touch.  When we reconnected three or four years ago, she had been working for a decade at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, writing about the museum's exhibitions.  We picked up our friendship where it had left off.  Still, she didn't make it into my studio until this visit.

After guiding her through all the completed works, I pointed to a large unfinished painting:  a wooded landscape beginning to take shape, with most of the underpainting still visible.  Diana said, "Well, it's perfect just as it is.  I can't imagine what you would add."  She knew this might not be welcome news and laughed at what she guessed was my vague horror at the suggestion.  Yes, I had plans for the work, but at the same time, I trusted her, knowing that her comment was genuine -- and besides, I had seen something there, too.  I knew that something was happening in the painting that was worth looking at longer.  But, if she hadn't said something, I don't think I would have had the nerve to stop.  In an email after the visit she wrote, "Amazingly fun -- I'm so happy that we've reconnected.  Are you around this weekend for a quick walk through your portfolio again?  Maybe Sunday  (Reassure Jeff that I won't take much of your time.)  I keep dreaming about your little Japanese prints.  And promise not to touch your unfinished masterpiece until next week, though I'm sure it's luring you over ....Love, di"

A month later, in August, the painting remained untouched.  What about the painting made it possible to see it as both finished and unfinished?  In relation to other work in my studio there was less actual paint on the canvas, and yet it had everything it needed.  I thought about the reasons why I thought it was unfinished:  I wanted more detail, more sense of depth, alright -- I admit -- I wanted the feel of putting the paint on the linen.  Each reason disappeared when I saw that the qualities I sought were already there. (If I wanted to apply more paint, I could always move on to the next piece.) I sent Diana pictures of my studio on which she commented, "Your studio looks great with the "unfinished" masterpiece by the door -- I really like the interaction among the paintings, which are quite different from one another.  I'm glad to see the forest unchanged.  Thankfully there are not bears in my forest, though a few pugs might be nice.  Plus, the view of the chair shrine is cool."

By September I accepted Diana's challenge to leave the painting as it was, fusing forever a positive feeling from Diana with taking aesthetic risks.  The summer ended; the flurry of Fall in Manhattan; the energizing election.  In November, Diana told me of unsettling news of her health.  Her breast cancer had returned.  We were able, thankfully, to get together  for another lunch or two, but with a devastating speed and virility, cancer took her life on February 2nd.  Hearing her many friends and her parents describe Diana for the overflowing crowd of mourners, I saw Diana captured in words.  For the briefest, impossible moment she was back with us, listening intently, laughing, eagerly taking us all in.  I am keeping what Diana gave me; I am keeping Diana's Forest, untouched.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Bi-Lingual Travel Documents: A Look at Photography and Painting

The exhibition "Passages in Black and White" at the Susan Eley Gallery  documents the travels of artists Jessica M. Kaufman and Heather Boose Weiss to places far from home through their (mostly) large-scale, gelatin silver prints.  In different ways, and for different reasons, each photographer alters the straightforward documentary process of photography.  Painterly practices are injected into the work; for Kaufman, during the processing of her negatives, and for Weiss as she exposes her film.  For me, as a painter, the show raises the question of photography's relation to painting.

In the 1930's, Walter Benjamin wrote passionately about photography's beginnings, clearing room for thinking about what qualities are unique to photography as an art form.  In his essay, "A Little History of Photography," painting and photography shadow each other from photography's start.  The first camera -- the camera obscura -- known since the Italian Renaissance, was initially a draftsman's tool showing that mechanized image making has long been a part of painting.  As photographic printing technology came into being, early photographers such as David Octavius Hill, Julia Margaret Cameron, Victor Hugo, and Nadar used the medium in ways that distinguished it from painting, in Benjamin's view.  Photography was able to capture startlingly realistic details, as well as close-ups and a specificity unavailable (if not liberating) to painting.  During the late 1800's and early 1900's, Eugene Atget produced an unprecedented body of work by documenting thousands of uninhabited Paris street scenes.  Similarly, August Sander, in the early 1920's and '30's,  catalogued working class citizens of Germany.  These encyclopedic applications of photography had no relation to painting of the time.

Benjamin saw the effects caused by the long exposures required by early portrait photographers as particular to photography.  Soon enough, though, advances in technology, commercialization, and a form of "sibling rivalry," photographic portraiture was tainted, according to Benjamin, by painterly practices such as propping and styling subjects to resemble paintings and retouching negatives.  Paving the way for a more modern arbitration of the two media Benjamin said, "And yet, what is again and again decisive for photography is the photographer's attitude.  Camille Recht has found an apt metaphor:  'The violinist,' he says, 'must first produced the note, must seek it out, find it in an instant,' the pianist strikes the key and a note rings out.  The painter and the photographer both have an instrument at their disposal.  Drawing and color, for the painter, correspond to the violinist's production of sound; the photographer, like the pianist, has the advantage of a mechanical device that is subject to restrictive laws, while the violinist is under no such restraint."

Christopher Bedford, curator in the Department of Contemporary Art at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in his recent essay, "Qualifying Photography as Art, or, Is Photography All It Can Be?" echo's Benjamin's observation and looks at all the components of making a photograph: technical and other "explicit indices of intention, intellectual reflection, and considered action, all of which  -- in a sense -- mimic the minute decisions and adjustments that take place during the execution of a painting, for example; every detail therefore, may be understood as intentional and vigorously interpreted as such."  A photographer based in Los Angeles, Andrew Bush, outlines a framework for current contemporary photographic inquiries, some of which appear in Kaufman and Weiss's work.  He says there is an interest in "camera-less" abstractions which involves various exposure, chemical and printing processes.  In contrast, there is also work done to produce documents that become a social force, a fulcrum for our understanding and awareness of subjects outside of a "listened-to" voice.  Alternatively, photography is a way to document a performance where the idea of a photographer-as-witness changes to the photographer-as-subject.  Finally, a completely manufactured world is created to become the photographer's subject.  The elements of light -- which Bush points out symbolizes truth -- the camera, the subject, and the print can all be examined for evidence of the artist's intentions and become factors in interpreting the work of art.

Let me incorporate the thinking of Maurice Merleau-Ponty into this discussion of photography as he talks about painting in his essay, "Mind and Eye," from 1964.  Moving away from an objective, science-driven vantage, Merleau-Ponty inserts the body as a metaphor for how we experience the world.  He delves into painting (specifically how the quality of depth is developed) but opens up the possibility of relating painting to photography by equating light with flesh.  He quotes the pagan prophet, Hermes Trismegistus, Art is "the inarticulate cry, which seemed to be the voice of light."  Merleau-Ponty continues with, "And once it is present it awakens powers dormant in ordinary vision, a secret pre-existence.  When through the water's thickness I see the tiled bottom of the pool, I do not see it despite the water and the reflections; I see it through them and because of them.  If there were no distortions, no ripples of sunlight, if it were without that flesh that I saw the geometry of the tiles, then I would cease to see it as it is and where it is -- which is to say, beyond any identical, specific place."

Returning to "Passages in Black and White," both artists have traveled with their cameras to unfamiliar places and have stories to tell about their experiences.  The distortions of the water in Merleau-Ponty's image -- a metaphor for the subjectivity and specificity of our sight -- plays to the painterly distortions employed by Kaufman and Weiss.  When looking at the work in the show, the question becomes, what are the artists' intentions in incorporating the painterly effects and gestures in their work?  Kaufman wants to express her feelings of being a stranger in a foreign country, in this case China.  Each of her images show lacy evidence of the way she chemically treats her negatives.  Her engagingly composed landscapes, urban scenes, and interiors are simultaneously exotic and familiar.  But what about the "voice of light?"  I can't help but think that the decision to alter the negatives has been uniformly applied to her work -- in fact she may have decided even before starting her trip that she would address her work in this way.  Her negatives have been transformed, but, lovely as the images are, I'm not entirely convinced that the traveler has been.

Addressing the disorientation caused by travel, Weiss has found a way back to equilibrium by becoming in-tune with each location she visits.  She inserts herself into both the image itself and the exposure process.  She responds differently to each location: spinning as a spiral of light deep inside a cave, flowing in a feathered rivulet down a jungle ravine, or illuminating a gesture mirrored over dark waters.  Often her body is not distinctly photographed or even visible as a human form at all, but her intention of showing us that each place requires a different way of being is evident.  The resulting images are printed in sizes suited to their subject:  small intensely contrasting compositions, along with large landscapes of subtile washes of gray.  Her physical engagement with her location, responding with sculptured gestures, results in mesmerizing photographic images that feel authentic and exemplify Merleau-Ponty's "seeing flesh."  

Ultimately, the rivalry of painting and photography, for me, is an empty debate -- it is not genuine.  From its beginning photography has been an art form, but as with painting, not all photographers are artists.  It is not the choice of the media, or even the decision to combine techniques from both media that is important. It is the intention of the artist and her ability to authentically express her vision.

Image courtesy of Susan Eley Gallery:  by Heather Boose Weiss, "Cala d"Ego", gelatin silver print, 50 x 50 inches, 2008 (Majorca, Spain)


Friday, January 30, 2009

Walter Benjamin Snack

Written in 1935,  by Walter  Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," contains the following paragraph notable for its relevance to the current state of the Internet and for its coherence:

"For centuries a small number of writers were confronted by many thousands of readers.  This changed toward the end of the last century.  With the increasing extension of the press, which kept placing new political, religious, scientific, professional, and local organs before the readers, an increasing number of readers became writers --at first, occasional ones.  It began with the daily press opening to its readers space for "letters to the editor."  And today there is hardly a gainfully employed European who could not, in principle, find an opportunity to publish somewhere or other comments on his work, grievances, documentary reports, or that sort of thing.  Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character.  The difference becomes merely functional; it may vary from case to case.  At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer.  As expert, which he had to become willy-nilly in an extremely specialized work process, even if only in some minor respect, the reader gains access to authorship." 

Monday, January 19, 2009

Omit Needless Paint

I recently re-read Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, the classic guide to writing.  E.B. White gives us an image, "Will [Strunk] felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, a man floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get his man up on dry ground, or at least throw him a rope."  The book's rule number 13 for saving the reader is: "Omit needless words."

Josephine Halvorson's still life paintings save us from the swamp by omitting needless paint.

I was not familiar with Halvorson until I ran into her work at the Perception as Object exhibition opening, January 8, 2009, at Monya Rowe Gallery.  I saw a row of five, modestly sized, immaculate trompe l'oeil paintings.  Fortuitiously, Alyssa Pheobus, a draftswoman I know, was at the opening and is friends with Halvorson.  We were introduced and talk about her work.  Halvorson offered that I can see more paintings down the street at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., but the exhibition closes soon.  

There is suspense and stagecraft in the presentation of the objects in Halvorson's still lifes -- a whiff of Hitchcock.  I  am intrigued by the way they are structured and by the paint itself.  Each of the five works at Monya Rowe Gallery: the envelope, the boarded window, the puzzle, the math worksheet, even the farm machine have a finite space you could measure with a ruler. Within these shallow spaces, however, there are puns and jokes embedded into the paint strokes.  A playfulness abounds.  The colors are somber, humble, as if from an earlier, more simple time, but the compositions are sophisticated, witty and dry. 

Halvorson paints each work in one sitting and in situ.  Her method is exacting and it is not always easy or straightforward to locate her subject and finish the work.  I hear from her about one of the paintings, "Farm Machine (Squeeze Chute.)"  Sitting in front of the machine, in  a barn on a farm she "thought she had permission" to visit, she is interrupted by the farmer.  An inquisition ensues.  It goes both ways; the artist secures permission to paint and learns what the machine does (it holds the cow in place during vaccination.)

Another painting at the Monya Rowe Gallery is "Envelope Back."  The painting was made on the first day of January, 2009 -- we know because the date is written on the painting -- just days before we are standing in front of it.  There is a story about the envelope, but I don't know what it is.  I can only guess.  It has been openend two ways, slit open at the bottom with an opener, and also at the top.  But is has been taped shut.  I surmise one scenario:  what is inside has been sealed, opened, resealed, sent and opened by someone else.  Or was it returned after opening, did it come "back?" What is inside the envelope?  What does the year ahead hold for us?

Several days later, I take in nine of Halvorson's paintings at Sikkema Jenkins & Co.  They are the same modest size.  The list of titles reads like a poem" "Batterie Allemande," "Chateau Souvenir," "Dirty Window," "Hot Coals," " Crumbs," "Three Photo Albums," "Momento Mori," "Meter," "Fireplace Farm."  Unexpectedly, Halvorson walks into the gallery,  I've been speculating about if she works larger?  There is a restraint in her work, and I wonder if it ever takes flight.  Halvorson offers that the work is intentionally small (in "relation to the body") and in keeping with still life tradition -- it is portable work originally intended for a middle class audience. 

Halvorson emphasizes that she often selects subjects that are "inconsequential."  The drama and commitment to the act of painting has consequences that imbue the overlooked objects with a presence.  I feel it is not so much that the subjects she paints lack consequence -- the farm machine certainly has consequences for the cow, the envelope for the sender and the receiver, the tombstone in "Memento Mori," for its owner  -- it is that the consequences are "off stage."  The audience is eavesdropping on the main characters, piecing the story together. 

I don't think I needed to have met Halvorson to have connected with her work.  But her emphasis on being with her subject and finishing it in one sitting is now tied to my experience of meeting her twice -- and of being with her and her work.  It feels like a balanced equation, the prerequisites for transferring experience and meaning.  The paintings don't have figures in them, they are strictly still lifes.  But, they have the evidence of people's actions, their presence imbued by Halvorson's disciplined approach to their creation. 

Image above:

"Envelope Back,"  2009, 14" x 17," oil on linen at Monya Rowe Gallery courtesy of the artist

Related Material:
"Josephine Halvorson", by Litia Perta, The Brooklyn Rail

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Collectors' Market in Times of Global Economic Turbulence

I came upon a story about a facet of our current economic environment as it relates to art:  A report from Sotheby's about the secondary art market.  I don't think it will significantly effect large numbers of people compared to, say, the recent report of staggeringly high unemployment numbers, but it seems like a telling detail for the art world.  In a press release from November 7, 2008, Bill Ruprecht, Sotheby's President and CEO states, "...our business is not immune from the unprecedented global economic turbulence."  This message is positioned for Sotheby's clients in a recent video report called "Contemporary Art Market:  A Candid Look from the Inside." 

By viewing the video we learn that auction sale prices are down and estimates for art auction sales in the future are also expected to be lower.  Tobias Meyer, Worldwide Head, Contemporary Art and Anthony Grant, Senior Specialist, Contemporary Art Worldwide, are using the November, 2008 auction most specifically, and their collective experience with several significant market cycles, to quantify recent changes in the art market.  There are exceptions, they were careful to point out, but overall, prices are back to where they were 3 - 4 year ago. 

The video report is based on the period between last summer, as artworks and estimates were assembled, and this fall, when Sotheby's large Contemporary Art Sales in New York City took place on 11th and 12th, 2008.  During this time period, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped over 3,500 points, or 30%.  Meyer saw the November  auction as a "very, very important event in the art market" due to the weakened economic environment.  Grant, observed a shift from "telling a collector how much they had to pay" for an artwork to "[the collector] telling us where they would be."

Beginning in November and going forward Meyer put special emphasis on the "presence of the object" for sale.  "A great work holds and exceeds its estimate." A tightening of standards is underway and collectors will be looking for works that are"rare, great and fresh."  The specialists observed that the buyers in November were established collectors who watch prices over time and recognize the opportunities presented.  Meyer believes that "there is a market, it is stable and has a long tradition" and for now "it is a collector's market."  

My takeaway from the report is that the financial market's volatility means art market assumptions will have to be checked more often, and possibly even thrown out and replaced with brand new ones.  A broad-brush approach won't work as easily in the future:  both in assessing the artworks to sell and the intentions of their potential buyers.  Even though prices for blue chip artworks are down, the market's capacity for buying must be down, as well.  I think, as with other markets, such as the stock and real estate markets, the level of uncertainty is high for the foreseeable future.

So, stepping outside the large, corporate art sales environment of Sotheby's for a moment (but staying safely within the art world):  will there be any increased opportunities for art sales in the primary market?  Will collectors who might not find the high level of quality or "freshness" that Meyer and Grant are suggesting they look for in the secondary market, look beyond Sotheyby's and buy quality art as it comes into the primary market though galleries and artists?  I noticed a recent comment from art critic Jerry Saltz that parallels the positives in the message delivered by Sotheby's experts, but from a more grass-roots point of view.  Saltz observes, "Now is a great time to be in the art world; chaos breeds art and life; artists don't have to open "big" anymore; small numbers are powerful again."  The chaos of the financial markets has disrupted the status quo of the workings of established art markets and that creates opportunities.  

Related Material:

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Smells Like American Post-War Spirit at the Robert Miller Gallery

NOTE:  The show is extended through today, Sunday, January 4th.

Walking through "Beyond the Canon: Small Scale American Abstraction, 1945-1965" feels odd -- oddly comforting.  The feeling resonates with our hopeful horizon for the new year, more specifically the short, 16 days we have left until Barack Obama's inauguration.  I know it's not the same.  We know more now; we know our indulgences, excesses, corruption and shortsightedness.  But, I think it was comforting to see so much work, by so many different artists working in a time when feeling hopeful and idealistic about American was more easily possible.

Overlooking Young's link of the show's time period to our current "time of national self-examination," Roberta Smith focused her review in The New York Times initially on questioning the accuracy of the show's title.  It seems ironic now (and probably did then, too) that the wild, inventive, explosion of painting that took place in Post-War America -- driven by ideas about breaking from European tradition, Existentialism, and Freudian thought -- attracted the controlling grip of two critics, Harold Rosenberg (1906-78) and Clement Greenberg (1909-94.)  They apparently needed to own, limit, and otherwise dominate a phenomenon that took its own shape and size despite their efforts.

It also seems troubling that even now at the distance of nearly 70 years (if you start in 1940) their "standards" are still such a strong point of contention in talking about this fertile period.  For example, the curator, Amy L. Young, states  her motive for assembling the work in "Beyond the Canon" is to break the hold of Rosenberg and Greenberg and "recover our diverse heritage."  Is it that the critics were so emphatic that even Smith is compelled to address the era's metrics? I'll add that the exhibition, and related documentation, at The Jewish Museum in May 2008, "Action/Abstraction: Pollack, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940-1976" is a good point of reference in these matters.

But, back to the show itself.  I agree with Smith "Its relatively unfiltered view of art history is a wonderful thing to sort through."  Perhaps that is more to the point.  Labels aside, seeing these works in person, beautifully installed, allows us to make our own connections.  While the works are mostly small, there is a variety of painted surfaces: canvas both course and fine, masonite, board, cardboard, and paper that come into focus while cataloging the range of  media: oil, acrylic, watercolor, pencil, charcoal, collage and the variety of applications:  brushed, dabbed, smeared, whipped, scraped, splashed, and dripped.  

My list of favorites closely corresponds with Smith's.  I'll add a work on paper by Sam Francis, a larger oil by Philip Guston, a blue/green work by Ad Reinhardt (one of the only hard-edged abstract works) and a small work by Melville Price.  I found that despite Young's intent to fill out the picture with unknown artists, many of the most striking pieces were by artists we know well.  I realize its it not so much that the paintings bring forth a nostalgia for our country's earlier days of optimism, its that the works themselves, apart from where they may fit into any given categories, embody a spirit of confident, risk-taking.  I can almost hear a giddy, collective, "why the hell not?" walking  through the gallery.

Image above by Philip Guston, "Slope II," 1961, oil on paper mounted on canvas, 40" x  30", courtesy of the Robert Miller Gallery.

Related Resources:
New Yorker review of "Action/Abstraction," The Jewish Museum
New York Times review of "Action/Abstraction" The Jewish Museum
YouTube video of "Beyond the Canon" (starting at 6 minutes, 14 seconds)