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)