Sunday, September 30, 2007

Jeff Soto at Jonathan Levine Gallery

Jeff Soto
"Hope Emerges From Behind A Storm Cloud"
Acrylic on wood
24 x 30 inches

Jonathan Levine Gallery
: The press release for Jeff Soto's solo exhibit, "Storm Clouds," speaks to popular misgivings about the state of things. "Soto explores his predominant fears and anxieties over his daughter's future, the civil war in Iraq, and the United States policies on environmental conservation." All well and good, yet I find myself asking if the artist's work communicates these ideas or if the release is merely an effort to lend Soto's cartoonish work gravitas?

Contemplating his paintings, environmental excesses, impending collapse, and enduring wars do not come to mind. Instead I'm more often moved to an exuberant giddiness. I smile wide and often. I feel good about Soto's healthy imagination and his sharing it with us. What I don't feel, however, is anxious; I do not brood. Even when Soto includes imagery of "death and decay" - oil clouds, fighter planes, pirate riggers, bombs - his stylized rendering and punch-out palette leave me feeling enlivened and upbeat.

Jeff Soto
Acrylic on wood
18 x 18 inches

Does this mean the work fails in its intention? I don't believe so. Quoted in the press release, Soto says, "I think we can make things better somehow." Soto's essential optimism is borne out in his work. If fear and anxiety motivate him in the studio, his process is alchemical; the paintings are full of frenzied joy and hope, both of which are much needed psychological commodities in our time.

Jeff Soto's exhibit, "Storm Clouds," is on view through October 6th, 2007. For more information, contact Jonathan Levine Gallery.

Photo credit: images courtesy Jonathan Levine Gallery

Editor's note: This write-up was originally slated to be published in a more high-profile publication, but was refused because of the Jonathan Levine Gallery's "no photo" policy. As an artist and art writer (and blogger and frequent picture taker), I sympathize with the position of the publication, and encourage all gallery directors to examine the "no photo" policy.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

A Ring-billed Gull

Sitting at my office desk this afternoon, I feel hollow.

A ring-billed gull catches my eye as it dips over the surface of the East River. Mesmerized by the bird's fluid flight, I recall a much pilloried line from the film, "American Beauty." "There's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much." Plastic bags, gulls, the little cactus sitting in my windowsill, the riot and filth of the subway platform; all of these things are extraordinary in their very ordinariness.

I learned yesterday afternoon that a friend of mine killed herself. She was a brilliant young philosopher and much sought after in her field. She was also insightful, an excellent observer and counselor of people. Not long ago, on a warm spring evening, she offered me her ear and thoughts when too many bottles of wine had me wrestling with some sad personal history.

Yesterday afternoon, just after I learned of her suicide, I fondly recalled a shared cigarette and conversation on an estuary dock. I also thought of her phobia of cameras, and my torturing her with surreptitious snapshot attempts, she half smiling, even if irritated by my childishness. I remember how fair her skin was, and her subtle smile and little girl's laugh and how I felt cheered by the sight of her curled up in a chair or at one end of a couch with a heavy-spined book and blanket for company.

Yet now there is more to think about. Sometime early Wednesday morning, unknown to so many who care deeply for her, she slipped away and drowned herself.

She was twenty-eight years old. She'd had twenty-eight years of taking in the extraordinary in the ordinary, and I just can't for the life of me understand why she didn't want at least that much more. Contemplating the 'whys' is baffling and sad.

In any case, there is her memory, but the pain she has caused for those who loved her dearly - her husband, her parents, her siblings - is difficult to fathom. I feel fucking sick.

I watch the gulls and the Roosevelt Island tram rocking gently as it carries a load of people from Manhattan.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

And so the Artist Arts

Matthew Offenbacher
"Recognizing the diligence with which death approaches, and trying to recognize also the desirability of her arrival, and to take advantage of such recognition"
Oil, acrylic and pieced canvas on canvas
52 1/2 x 32 inches

Six years ago, a roommate's girlfriend brought home the following Frank Gehry quotation, drawn from his essay "The Relationship Between Art and Architecture."
"The true artist is like a drug addict; he dwells in a tight little dream world all his own, and the men about him, whom he observes obliviously spending their days pursuing money and power, genuinely puzzle him, as he doubtless does them. He prides himself on being an unbribed soul. So he is byway of being a philosopher, too, and sometimes he makes art not because he suspects that so many of the other concerns of men are equally unimportant. Under his smiling coat of tan there often lurks a layer of melancholy and disillusion, a quiet awareness - and acceptance - of the fugitive quality of man and all his enterprises. If he must chase a will-o'-the wisp he prefers that it be art. And so the artist arts. It is at once an act of humility and small rebellion. And it is something more. To him his art is an island of reality in a world of dream and shadow."
The girl remarked that, although most of the artists she knew didn't fill Gehry's bill, she'd thought of me when reading the quote. I was flattered. But rereading the passage with the two preceding posts in mind, I'm a bit ashamed.

Art became a commodity in 5th century BC Athens, when particular works by celebrated artisans sold for vaulted prices. Ever since that time, the responsible artist must doubt her calling. Working principally in the service of money, with frayed or broken connections to community, ritual and utilitarian purpose, is an unnerving affair.

It is true, as Gehry states, that the "true artist" is melancholic and disillusioned, but it is not only because he considers the absurdity of existence. He is also aware that art making is now divorced from its root impetus.

Photo credit: courtesy the artist

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Flapping Wings

On the whole, I've been rather hopeful for the last two years. But perhaps it was naive of me to believe that the First World was at last recognizing the western model of political and economic "progress" as an undemocratic, globalized burden? Is it not clear that super-capitalism punishes, starves and buries the less fortunate "lower" classes along with the "lesser" species? Do the present-day "winners" not understand that, eventually, when the structural interior is rotted out, the upper echelon will come crashing down?

A friend gave me a copy of the Time Magazine Style & Design Supplement last week. I wish that I hadn't read it; the supplement's articles have only contributed to my intensifying skepticism of and despair for the art market.

Consider, for example, Karen Katz, Neva Hall, and Ann Stordahl, so-called "power players" at Neiman Marcus. Kristina Zimbalist, one of the supplement's writers, calls the three women "Magical Thinkers" because they've "orchestrated America's current luxury boom, lifting the consumer ever higher."
"And the world is primed for what Neiman Marcus president and CEO Katz calls 'high luxury'; the number of households worth more than $5 million is greater than ever before...'It's even more luxurious, more unique, harder to get. We want to sit at the top of the luxury mountain,' [Katz] says. 'We're pushing higher, to find that even rarer air.'"
The attitudes of people like Katz are irredeemable...and awfully depressing.

Publications like the Time Style & Design Supplement prove my optimism misguided; we are not yet recognizing the gravity of our trespasses. Even as wealthy dilettantes bemoan the tenuous station of the polar bear, they celebrate news of the "Global Luxury Survey: China, India, Russia," another article included in the Time supplement.
"Ask any seasoned luxury-goods executives what excites them most about the future of the category, and they will undoubtedly launch into a lengthy discourse on emerging markets. For some, China holds the most promise, with its double-digit yearly growth and the expectation that it will surpass the U.S. in luxury-goods consumption by 2015...In this, the first installment of a four-part series, Time measures the affluent consumer's appetite for luxury brands in these exciting markets."
China? Russia? Regular readers of ArtNews and other industry glossies know that these "market opportunities" aren't far from the minds of art world movers and shakers. The art world is, after all, just another arm of the global luxury market.

When Edward Winkleman argued recently, in his post, "Blinded by Blood Lust," that good art can coexist with a strong market, I didn't find fault with his assertion. Yet I'm troubled by the pain that radiates outward from a thriving market. Dealers and artists may not be directly assaulting the environment or the poverty stricken, but they're happily trading in bloody money, and all the while identifying themselves as "liberal," "progressive" and "caring."

As Edward contends, the "art market death watch cheerleaders" - I include myself in their ranks - are deluded if they cheer because they believe that "we'd have better or more interesting art if only" the market collapsed. I hope that most of them, like me, are instead cheering for change (for alternatives). The thriving art market is one more indication that our species, propelled by the west's thoughtless economic imperatives, is in a frightening position, every bit as tenuous as that of brother polar bear.

A successful man that I know, someone affiliated with the art world, recently purchased a watch for $11,500. This acquisition disturbs me for two reasons. First, even a limited awareness of the social and ecological ravages of luxury markets should discourage an educated individual from making such a purchase. Second, I was forced to acknowledge that his buying the watch is essentially no different from his buying a painting.

The watch wasn't encrusted with diamonds; outwardly, it didn't even look particularly expensive. If you didn't know the brand, you'd likely mistake it for an inexpensive model and make. It's a status symbol and, as such, is designed to be recognized only by other people of status. Considering the watch, I concluded that it (like the bought-and-sold artworks in Chelsea) is an artifact of contemporary "high luxury," a branded investment that is grafted to the market, useful only as a wealth signifier.

Daniel Quinn
's allegory of the airman, taken from his renowned novel "Ishmael," is pertinent to this discussion. Our civilization knows well that the laws of aerodynamics, physical realities that we had to identify in order to construct serviceable planes and helicopters, don't defy gravity. Quinn writes,
"There is no escaping [gravity], but there is a way of achieving the equivalent of flight - the equivalent of freedom of the air. In other words, it is possible to build a civilization that flies."
But before we understood aerodynamics, would be aviators built "pedal-driven contraptions with flapping wings, based on a mistaken understanding of avian flight."
"As the flight begins, all is well. Our would-be airman has been pushed off the edge of the cliff and is pedaling away, and the wings of his craft are flapping like crazy. He's feeling wonderful, ecstatic. He's experiencing the freedom of the air. What he doesn't realize, however, if that this craft is aerodynamically incapable of flight. It simply isn't in compliance with the laws that make flight possible - but he would laugh if you told him this. He's never heard of such laws, knows nothing about them. He would point at those flapping wings and say, 'See? Just like a bird!' Nevertheless, whatever he thinks, he's not in flight. He's an unsupported object falling toward the center of the free fall.

Fortunately - or, rather, unfortunately for our airman, he chose a very high cliff to launch his craft from. His disillusionment is a long way off in time and space...There he is in free fall, experiencing the exhilaration of what he takes to be flight...However, looking down into the valley has brought something else to his attention. He doesn't seem to be maintaining his altitude. In fact, the earth seems to be rising up toward him. Well, he's not very worried about that. After all, his flight has been a complete success up to now, and there's no reason why it shouldn't go on being a success. He just has to pedal a little harder, that's all."
As the extremes of wealth and poverty continue to grow at home and abroad, we point to our contraption's flapping wings, grin madly and pedal away.

The Time supplement tells readers that Russia's growing millionaire class has "[forgotten] about stealth wealth. The Russia luxury consumer wants to flaunt economic status." Of course they do. As the globe's upper 5% becomes increasingly burdened by a concentration of wealth, they will begin to in-fight, one-upping one another in ostentatious displays. The rest of us will suffer for it; governments will be bought and sold and human rights will be tread upon. So long as western culture continues to celebrate the individual over community, the economic pilots can keep pointing at their flapping least until we all slam into the valley floor.

Today, however, there seem to be more intrepid, deluded airmen than ever before. Priya Tanna, editor of Indian Vogue proudly relates the news: "At a very micro level, I think every Indian woman who is now financially independent is realizing the joys of guilt-free consumption. We are kind of moving from a 'we' culture to a 'me' culture." Oy, vey!

Why, then, am I a "death watch cheerleader"? Because no other species has acted this irresponsibly and survived. We are pushing the limits of natural law. I don't know if the poisonous labors of our hubris can be mended, but each of us, as citizens and moral animals, needs to make some significant, individual choices that will spill over, one hopes, into a renewed sense of community. For artists, these choices must affect how they eke out a living, and what sort of creative dialogue they are willing to participate in.

Again, I'm hoping to engender some sort of discussion about these ideas. I don't have any solutions jotted down.

Photo credit: unattributed picture of Damien Hirst's "For The Love of God"

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Demon Market?

The below excerpt was drawn from the comments section following a June 2007 Winkleman post, entitled "What's an Artist? Take 459."
"[The] problem is [this particular artist] doesn't know how to communicate her art to the gallerinas or curators and doesn't have an agent (yet) to help her do it. Generally, if you can't talk up your art in the commercial world of biennales, etc, you're out. When she finds [a gallerist] that perhaps also advises her on some crops, frames and gallerina lingo, she will accrue art-value."

Ah, yes, lest any of you idealistic creatives forget it, the measure of an artwork is rooted not in how accomplished, thoughtful or socially impactful the art is, but in the spin!

I'd like to scoff at Stefan's assertion, but he's right. Strong artwork will sometimes generate a lot of buzz, but the chatter is sustained only if the artist is appreciated by the greater machine. This machine is socially driven and fickle, not unlike the popular high school clique that (most of) us artsy types steered clear of.

Art world arbiters are no more scrupulous than their film, publishing or recording industry counterparts. Ignoring my personal struggle to come to terms with the "industrial" aspect of any creative realm - the word alone makes me cringe - I don't condemn successful art world players for their machinations. The recording industry generates buzz via MTV and billboard radio, the publishing industry with Oprah's Book Club and the NY Times Book Review, and the art industry via ArtForum, ArtNews and other glossies. All of these outlets are designed to sell or promote, and, with the exception of Top 40 radio, they're disguised as critical texts or cultural mediators. Sure, it's relatively transparent, but most of us play along. And why not? Who can blame the players?

Well, among others, Robert Reich, Professor of Public Policy at Berkeley and the former Secretary of Labor blames the players. The talent agents, gallerists, publicists and critics are but a small piece of what Reich calls the "supercharged global economy," but he acknowledges that this greater beast is a blind half-wit, intent on devouring its feet even as it continues to grow at an alarming rate. In the process, governments, communities and spirits are destroyed.

In his recently published book, "How Capitalism Is Killing Democracy," Reich contends that, by acting as consumers and investors rather than politically engaged citizens, "we've made this compact with ourselves." Likewise, by shrugging off the ethical ugliness and superficiality of the art market (among others), I've willfully ignored a sinister presence in my life. I wish that I could convince myself otherwise, but the Stefan's of the art world can not be ignored.

As an advocate of the Steady State Economy, local and reduced agricultural yields and population control incentives, I see our continued insistence on a "healthy economy" leading only to a more entrenched corporate oligarchy, increased cultural homogeneity, a host of new mental and physical disorders (and related diagnoses), and an exploding human population (at the expense of our animal brethren and the ecological niche we evolved to fill). But what does this dire forecast have to do with the art world? Not so much, if you compartmentalize thought as we now fence our borders. But if the art making process remains an essential part of efforts to live well, in accord with our moral values and the lessons of the planet, the willful ignorance of such an arrogant and annihilative system must be addressed, no matter the difficulty.

The question, then: In this attempt to live well, can you step outside the system without abandoning the idea that an artist can earn a living at their trade?

It would seem not. When my ancestor drew on the wall of her cave, or when we tag a truck, the act is "pure," communication is intended and self-gain ignored, but one does not "make a living" in this way. Is art only "sustainable" and vital when it touches a local community, likely serving some utilitarian purpose, too?

I'm interested in readers responding to this question. The last few months have been good for my art sales, which only accents the fact that each time I sell a piece, I'm tearing away at my own ideals...yet I continue to feel good about putting money in the bank.

Photo credit: image ripped from Houston's Clear Thinkers

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The little things

Unidentified wolf spider species on stripe painting, Chelsea, NYC, 2007

Photo credit: Hungry Hyaena, 2007

Sunday, September 09, 2007

A Scatological Parable

"The evil of automation. Never again will I sacrifice my shit to the sucking vortex. My God, there was no trace left. My shit disappeared like the plague or like an abortion. It's terrible to have abortions every day. Wake up you people, humanize yourselves. Don't reject your shit like you reject your parents."

-Lucas Samaras, "Crude Delights : Shitman"

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Daily Conversation

Christopher Reiger
"some shambles of apology"
Pencil, watercolor, gouache, acrylic, sumi ink and marker on stretched Arches paper
25 1/4 x 30 inches
"We opt for what we want as daily conversation in the privacy of our minds, and whether on most days we get to watch the sunrise and listen to a snatch of the genius of Bach. It's not expensive to pay attention to the phases of the moon, to transport lemon lilies, and watch a garter snake birthing thirty babies and a catbird grabbing some, or listen to the itchy-britches of the Canada geese as autumn waxes. We will be motes in the ocean again soon, leached out of the soil of some graveyard, and everlastingly rocking."

-Edward Hoagland, "Compass Points"
Tomorrow night the New York art world will kick start another season. I've been trying to get charged up about the September frenzy, but when I visit Artcal's "Openings : Next 7 Days" listing, I'm daunted by the number of shows. This, despite the fact that I look forward to seeing a great many of them.

After eight years in New York, my stomach still tightens when I anticipate attending openings. Whether taking the polite chit-chat route or opting for an intoxicated art party approach, I'm out of my element. People tell me that I handle myself well enough; I suppose I do - I'm not a misanthrope - but the anxiety and the resulting physical discomfort rarely seem worth it. I prefer to be alone when I'm looking at art.

So, this year, as usual, I plan to attend only my friends' openings. All well and good, except that the reclusive temperament isn't well suited to an art career. Curiously, I'm less worried about this fact than I once was. Work is going well in the studio and, most importantly, I'm happy. As William Gaddis wrote in "The Recognitions,"
"What's any artist, but the dregs of his work? The human shambles that follows it around. What's left of the man when the work's done but a shambles of apology."
This being the case, listening to those Canadas is all that much more important.

Sunday, September 02, 2007


Kenai Peninsula, Alaska, 2004

"The sound of the water so softly battering
Against the shore is decidedly sexual,
In its liquidity, its regularity,
Its persistence, its infantile obliviousness.
It is as if it had come back into being
A beginning, an origination of life."

-from "Lake Water," by David Ferry

Photo credit: Hungry Hyaena, 2004