Thursday night, I attended Alois Kronschlaeger's opening at Plus Ultra Gallery, now located in Chelsea. (Because Alois is a good friend of mine, I won't write much about his work, but his large wall piece was outstanding and I covet several of the smaller works.) Alois' opening was a veritable who's who of art bloggers, a function, in part, of Edward Winkleman being both an esteemed blogger and co-director of the gallery. Happily, all the art bloggers I've met so far are all intelligent, forthright folks, and I enjoy some of them a great deal.
Still, all the meeting and greeting gets to me. I hang close to those people I know and trust, drinking defensively. Many interactions with folks I'm less familiar with, be they dealers, artists, curators, or collectors, are short and awkward. "Hey, it's good to see you. How's your work coming? Life is treating you well otherwise? Great...well, I need to refill my wine." They further strengthen my conviction that I'm a social incompetent. As a result, I'm drawn to the more off-beat conversations. My chat with artist, Trever Wentworth, about his Jackson, Mississippi, upbringing was more stimulating - and comfortable - than any of the artcentric conversations I found myself involved in over the course of the evening, particularly now that the business of art seems to dominate these exchanges, a subject that I'm realistic about, but not very interested in.
As usual, I ended the night feeling slightly agitated; how does someone of my temperament connect himself to the art world without going mad? Unfortunately, the prospects for a painter who flees the big city (e.g., community center shows and the admiration of the county book club) are none too thrilling, either. In the end, I'll only be happy if I can make a living painting and writing, so whatever approach works, works. Like most artists, I'll deal with a little stilted conversation and palm sweat if it means I can continue doing what I must.
Next door to Plus Ultra, Schroeder Romero Gallery was also celebrating the inauguration of their new Chelsea digs. The work on display was - and there really is no other way to put this - awful. Appropriately enough, the show is titled, "Royally Fucked!" According to the press release, Ken Weaver's large pastel drawings are based on "theatrical photo-sessions of models and friends." If the "friend" part of that description is true, Weaver's is an open-minded circle; his works depict Bacchanalia-like orgies with plenty of penetration and no shortage of masked girls on their knees. Even my more, um, liberated friends would pass on that photo shoot. Already skeptical, I became convinced of the falsity of the press release's claim when I overheard a group of young men, presumably friends of the artist, laughing and animatedly discussing the work. "Dude...if he's shooting pics of this first, I never knew about it. I've been missing out on something." Of course, I could be a big prude, but I'm willing to put money on Weaver's having ripped most of the explicit source material from online porn sites. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It makes sense, if for no other reason than it's a hell of a lot cheaper than paying models and less difficult than asking friends to fuck for the camera. Whatever the case, Weaver is selling frivolous titillation. Again, I've got no problem with that - I'm a single guy, after all, who freely admits to using the Internet for it's God-given purpose - but I stopped thinking it was intelligent or cool to take pictures of my dick when I was twenty. Apparently, Weaver still likes to give the finger to convention by adopting a conventionally reactionary pose. "Fuck you, bro, we're all a bunch of filthy animals fucking under chandeliers, man! Hells, yeah!" Yeah, but what's your point?
bronze, steel, tape, paper
23 3/4 x 23 3/4 x 35 1/2 inches
edition of 3
Already on the topic of dicks and middle fingers, now seems as good a time as any to elaborate on the Feigen Contemporary exhibition, "Blessed Are The Merciful," which received passing mention in the preceding post. This uneven, aggressive group show, curated by Jerome Jacobs, is definitely worth a visit; it is on display through the end of April. Given my reaction to Ken Weaver's puerile content, you won't be surprised to learn that many of the included works, such as John Isaacs's bronze sculpture, "Let's dance," fail to provoke a thoughtful response - "Yeah, well, fuck you, too, buddy." - but "Merciful" includes twenty-four artists, offering viewers a range of styles, mediums and approaches.
Jacobs believes the participating artists are divining rods, responding to our shared, contemporary anxiety and pointing us to healthy alternatives. "The world today revolves around a few key elements," he writes, "Money, power and religion." (One might ask, in response, when has it not revolved around the latter two?) In this milieu, he continues, "it's impossible to know where to turn, given the indifference of friends and the hostility of enemies."
"Science is evolving, explaining, frightening and dehumanising. Money is building, accumulating and dividing. The human dimension is becoming lost in the globalisation of its being which is diluting and isolating it. The media are underpinning this abuse of the spirit in favor of the material. Consumption of television programs is replacing citizenship, freedom is being stifled and democracy is turning into autocratic populism. Lies are invading the public arena."Jacobs's assessment is awkwardly phrased, but not inaccurate. Frustrated by our bleak prospect, Jacobs assembles a group of artists he feels are "sensitive to the misery and misfortune of others"; hence, the title of the exhibition, a reference to Matthew 5:7. ("Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.") These artists, he contends, "inculcate a sense of conscience" and "bring us back to the roots of our Western faith." For his aspirations, Jacobs should be commended, but his curation is questionable. The bulk of the included artists rely heavily on irony and cynicism, evoking less sensitivity than apathy and defeatism. Does Isaac's middle finger really inspire soul searching or provide a lighted path for the lost?
Michael van den Besselaar
oil on linen
3 of 7 works, each: 12 5/8 x 12 5/8 inches framed
Michael van den Besselaar's delicately painted series, "Interiors," presents the viewer with excess in the form of posh limousine and private jet interiors. Conspicuously absent from the paintings are the beautiful people who typically occupy such spaces. The atmosphere is lonely, cold, and clean. These small paintings are not appealing wall decorations. Is this Besselaar's intent? Is the artist turning the critique, initially focused on the conspicuous consumption of the very wealthy, onto the viewer? We are, after all, a privileged lot, even if our sins are less colorful than those of P-Diddy or Brangelina.
"The Truth Yet Again Asserts Itself in Obdurate Reprisal, and in So Doing Belies
the Fact That You, No Longer Besieged by Doubt, Have Come to the Conclusion
That Maybe Things Aren't Really All That Bad After All"
Oil on canvas
60 x 36 inches
Bookending "Interiors" are oil paintings by Eric White and David Nicholson. Both artists use loaded images and bold colors; the paintings are not as subtle as Besselaar's monochromatic works, but subtlety doesn't interest White or Nicholson. White's painting - the title is a monster itself, at once intelligent and pretentious - features three cropped, duplicated news anchors, all smiles, tight skin, and pin stripes, who share one body - in fact, one arm - that extends into an opulent netherworld. In the background, commercial airliners pass over a lush mountain landscape in a tight, opposing flight path. White is a skilled painter, but "The Truth..." is a shrill work, every bit as angry as Isaac's middle finger. The artist highlights the negative, a common practice today, but one thoroughly concerned with wrongs of "the other." It offers little in the way of moral guidance. The same critique can be applied to David Nicholson's oversized "Reason and Fury." The piece is immediate, visceral and angry, but ultimately borne of fear. Conscience is not inculcated, as Jacobs intends. Instead, the pervading sense is one of helplessness, of impotence, when faced with our own base beast, made manifest, in Nicholson's painting, in the form of raging wolves.
"Reason and Fury"
Oil on canvas
90 x 130 inches
After leaving the Plus Ultra opening on Thursday night, I headed to the nearby after party. On the way, one of my artist friends decided to strike up a tired chorus: "Painting is dead!" Painting is not only dead, she continued, it's become immoral and unethical in today's world. (I later realized she was likely inspired by Jerry Saltz's thoughtful, but easily misconstrued "Idol Thoughts," a recent piece in The Village Voice.) The details of our exchange are unimportant. Her claim is too ridiculous to merit much response; as long as the human animal remains a visual, social creature, paintings and novels are here to stay...no matter how much the self-proclaimed avant-garde may howl. My friend's brief rant set the gears turning, though, and after drinking too much too fast, laughing a lot, and gorging myself on cheese, I headed home, feeling a little melancholy. I thought again of "Blessed Are The Merciful." With a few exceptions - Charley Case, Petroc Dragon Sesti and, maybe, one or two others - the included artists fail to meet Jacobs' standards or, rather, he fails to select a group who can. In the press release, Jacobs writes, "It is vital to give back to collective life a decency that it has completely lost, and to private life a substance that it never really acquired."
I've been giving a lot of thought, lately, to the social obligations of the contemporary artist. In the recent Scrawled interview, I rambled on about this topic.
"Increasingly, [...] artists will engage their communities in more intimate and immediate ways. It's long overdue, this turning away from the modernist, colonialist myth of linear development. Frankly, I have some related reservations about my own painting that are yet to be worked out. For me, engagement may take the form of local activism and community involvement wherever I land after New York. Ours is a time that demands that we think like citizens rather than individuals, less about ourselves and more about the whole, even though this runs contrary to the iCulture/Bush Administration philosophy of the day."Based on that quotation, one might assume I think the social turn in contemporary art - note the growing number of anonymous collectives and activist collaborations - agreeable, but this is not always so. In fact, I find art world social collaboration as inadequate as the jaded, sardonic commentary it claims to respond to. The increasing focus on anonymity and benevolent enterprise is an improvement over the artist-as-hero, profit margin model, but this sea change is as much a function of the zeitgeist as it is an ethical gesture on the part of the artist(s) involved. As Claire Bishop points out in her article, "The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents" (ARTFORUM, Feb. 2006), the judging of an artwork on moral grounds shifts emphasis away from the art and onto "a generalized set of moral precepts," an activist checklist, of sorts. Given the narrow confines of the art world, then, the critics are offering moral judgments inside a vacuum. Furthermore, if "authorial renunciation" is a vital requirement - the topmost item on the checklist - then the truly "successful" collaborations should remain unknown even to art world insiders. By Bishop's standard, every collective and project highlighted in the pages of art journals is something of a failure. Once attached to art world institutions, these artists are celebrating their actions, even if they legally change their names or don animal masks.
Do-gooding is often a vain enterprise and the superior tone exhibited by the cynical finger pointers (and finger givers) is, unfortunately, also associated with contemporary collectives; they're the flip side of the coin. After all, why should Oda Projesi or SuperFlex, both collectives I admire, be celebrated by the art world when hundreds of thousands of other people work just as hard (or much harder!) and expect nothing more than the satisfaction of a good day's work and a sense of community? No grand statement need be made. No commentary need be generated. Is this not, clearly, the more moral approach? If moral art must, as Bishop contends, involve "self-sacrifice" and "extract itself from the 'useless' domain of the aesthetic and be fused with social praxis," why do so many activist artists name their respective collectives or document their efforts on websites and in catalogs? To truly succeed, they should operate outside of the art world.
Bishop concludes her excellent piece by reminding us that "Dogville," Lars von Trier's underrated, but terribly cruel film, critiques the notion of the helping hand. "[Grace's] desire to serve the local community is inseparable from her guilty position of privilege, and her exemplary gestures perturbingly provoke an evil eradicable only by further evil...one terrifying implication of the self-sacrificed position."
So, then, where are we left? That I have time enough to reflect on these questions proves I am, like von Trier's Grace, a privileged member of society, even if not of the same means as she. Instead of turning over these ideas, I should be in the soup kitchen! I should be in the field, pulling invasive species from the soil! I should be teaching blind children to swim! Seven years ago, a Portuguese judge visiting the United States told me that he found me "typically American" because, despite being an atheist, I'm "consumed by Christian guilt." Taking stock of contemporary art, it seems we've all become, in at least this respect, "typically American." What remains to be seen, though, is whether the majority will choose social involvement or defiantly hold up their middle fingers. Discouragingly, the fucking, fuck yous, and renewed modernist cries in Chelsea point to the latter.
Photo credit: all images, courtesy Feigen Contemporary