Monday, March 06, 2006

Playing House In The Global Village

Thoughts Following An Art World Night

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?

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John Isaacs
"Let's dance"
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?

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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.

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Eric White
"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.

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David Nicholson
"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 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 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


Art Soldier said...

Jesus, H.H.; once you start writing you can't be stopped! ;]

I'm still processing the whole, but will remark on the latter. The idea of "social involvement" is an urgent yet difficult struggle to come to terms with. It is a concept that emobodies much more than helping out at soup kitchens or performing community service, but is a philosophical way of viewing the self that runs in exact opposition to the popular western idea of the individual. It seems to me that the dominant ideological or political view among Americans our age is that of Libertarianism -- the right of the self to be left alone to act and identify as an individual without regard to the 'whole'; in short, the freedom to be a narcissist.

It's the foundation of our post-modern, late-capitalist culture and is what makes our market society function. I honestly have no idea how to fight it, but I know I don't like it. I don't, however, think you should feel guilty for having the time to consider the question (although I would agree that I'm often racked with the same guilt you wrote of).

Personally, I think the answer for art, and its possibility for an ethically positive contribution to society, lies in its ability to enable comprehension through empathy -- a position I outlined on art soldier with regard to the philosophy of Adorno and Hegel in relation to a talk on "Forgiveness" at the New School. That talk was based on a quote from Hegel that

"Individuals in modern society easily suppose that they are in a condition of sinfulness, when their actual circumstance is that of alienation."

This has everything to do with your acknowledgement of a uniquely western "Christian guilt." As long as we perceive ourselves as being in a state of guilt, then we seek forgiveness as a respite from guilt -- a goal that, I would argue, is impossible to attain, as is being proven by the failure of Christianity to serve as an antidote to the evils of society. In contrast, I wrote:

"If Hegel is right, and we are indeed in a state of alienation, then art need not be looked to for forgiveness. It doesn't need to be a member of the exchange relation. Instead, by embodying human truth and ridding itself of the expectation for pleasure, art provides a healing and unifying empathy -- an anathema to alienation."

The trick is that this must be accomplished through form (which I believe involves both idea and aesthetic), but not a didactic message of forced social awareness.

Hungry Hyaena said...

Art Soldier:

Yeah, I tend to ramble on in the hopes of, eventually, providing myself with some semblance of clarity.

It seems to me that the dominant ideological or political view among Americans our age is that of Libertarianism -- the right of the self to be left alone to act and identify as an individual without regard to the 'whole'; in short, the freedom to be a narcissist.

Agreed. Hegel's quote is splendid. (I always meant to start up a dialogue after reading your Art Soldier post, but things have been hectic as of late.) The forgiveness we seek is not only "impossible to attain," but inevitably compounds the "sinfulness," whether sensed or real. Unfortunately, it's difficult to arrive at a happy middle ground; most of us are either Narcissus or St. Jerome.

Your conclusions regarding the empathetic nature/potential of art are sensible and hopeful. Thanks for jumping in. I really appreciate it. Now I have more to mull over in my privileged time. ;)

Michael said...

So I've been thinking about how to respond to this post and the previous comments, and this morning it settled enough for me to post something.
We artists (and the assorted pimps, johnies, and hustlers that surround us) talk a lot about the social role of art... how it is relevant... how it addresses contemporary concerns... how we artists are making the world a better place (or not) through our art...
But, why is it assumed that we, the artists, must use our art to enact change? Long before we were artists, we were people. Joe Shmoes. Men/women on the street. Citizens.
Can't we use THAT to address the world? Isn't THAT where we interact with our surroundings?
To a large extent, I think that we are burdened with ideas regarding the role of art that are the product of prior eras of idealism and grandiose dreams. Though we scoff at the idea that Pure Abstraction could open the human mind and create a utopian world, we are still trying to do just that. Our aesthetics are different, but that fundamental impulse remains.
What if art is simply another trade? Another means of communication? Another craft?
Would we expect the cabinet-maker to address environmental degredation and the rise of fundamentalism through his cabinetry? Of course not. We'd call for him to be a responsible cabinet-maker and choose the right methods, materials, and projects, but we'd expect him to address social issues as a person. Why are artists so damned different?
Why must art always serve such grandiose purposes? What about the painter that simply loves to paint or the musician that simply love to play music? And what, most of all, excuses the artist from his responsibilities as a person?
Perhaps it's time that we climb out of our egos and step out into the street again... Meet the neighbors... Clean up our back yards... Sweep the sidewalk... Walk instead of drive... Stop flushing the toilet everytime we piss...
There are a million powerful things to be done. Most of them are quite small, and very few of them have anything at all to do with art.

Hungry Hyaena said...


Your points are good, but I think the same question - how is my work relevant or beneficent? - could be asked of any realm. Janitors and cabinet makers should be asking themselves how they can better the world. As you suggest, the answer will probably entail many baby steps.

Unfortunately, I already let the urine stand - for days if I know I won't have house guests and I haven't dropped a deuce - and carry the canvas sacks to the store and use public transportation and pay extra for "green" energy and buy renewable energy certificates and so on. These gestures don't really satisfy me, though. I'm an artist, a craftsman such as you describe, a painter who loves to paint, but that doesn't excuse me from worrying that, no matter how much I do outside the studio, the act of painting isn't beneficent in and of itself.

After leaving New York, I plan to actively involve myself in environmental/conservation groups at the local/regional level and I'll certainly continue to do whatever I can, in the way of baby steps, to live well, but is this enough? If I spend the bulk of my time painting - um, that's the hope anyway! - am I not pursuing essentially selfish roads?

Granted, this sort of "soul searching" is the snake eating it's tail, simultaneously egotistical and selfless. I suppose, in the end, the baby steps and the regional volunteerism/activism will have to suffice.

Michael said...

I think that the important part of painting is in the connections with other people. It's not 'the message.' It's not some high-flung aim to right the wrongs of society.
If you, as a person are worth a damn and you, as an artist, can find a way to connect with others, then something powerful can happen. It may not be the great revelation that we are taught to desire, but I think it can be very worthwhile and very real. I think that the most unselfish thing that you can do is 'speak' the truth to another human being... and that's art.
Honestly, I think that one of the first steps in making things better is humility... and that's one of the last words I'd use to describe the art world.

Hungry Hyaena said...


Well, that's the dilemma in a nutshell, at least for me. "Making art" - which sounds a little silly to begin with - is necessarily an ego driven activity, even if borne of "good" intentions. Happily, the product can connect with others; I covet artworks by many other artists just as I covet books by my favorite authors. In this sense, art becomes a shared experience, even if you know nothing of the person responsible.

There's a part of me that believes my successfully balancing community/social activity (based on my own mongrel morality) with my more hermitic nature (necessary for painting and writing) should be enough. But I feel we've turned the conversation inward, looking to the "healing begins with the individual" approach, whereas the original post was addressing the more general zeitgeist.

I agree with you: the Art World is anything but humble. (I always use capitals when I write "Art World" in an effort to poke at it's pretentions.) However, the apathy and irony relied on by so many contemporary artists is a reflection of American - and increasingly global - culture. Though I was frustrated by the Art World's self-congragulatory celebration of socially engaged collectives, I was more generally asking what "the majority" will choose.

Michael said...

Ah, the zeitgeist and the majority... sorry.
I think that they (we) will choose to mock and critique until we get smacked in the face by the proverbial thrown brick.
Then we'll go back to making neat things because we like neat things and love to please those we love... decorations on the butt of a Kalishnikov... little embroideries on the patch of a ripped jacket.
Until then we will pursue our scatological fascinations until we have nothing left to talk about at the opening.
That's my 2 cents anyway...