Friday, August 29, 2008


Ernst Haeckel

"A key has no logic to its shape. Its logic is: it turns the lock."
-G.K. Chesterton

Ernst Haeckel

Photo credit: via Wikipedia Commons, from Ernst Haeckel's "Kunstformen der Natur" ("Art Forms of Nature")

Monday, August 25, 2008


Steve Mumford
"Pool of Oil"
Watercolor on paper
From Baghdad Journal

"The dog yelped constantly,
Tipping our canoe.
Silly dog."
- Dorothea Tanning

Photo credit: Artwork reproductions ripped from ArtVitae

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Hype and fashion

First, there was Courbet. Now, there is Emin.

"Courbet 'paved the way for modernism in art,' Chu writes in the last sentence of her book...[Courbet] 'demonstrated that controversy need not be harmful to an artist’s reputation, as it was just another form of publicity.'

Hooray? Variations on those terms, often employing the shorthand 'hype and fashion,' pop up perennially both in conservative denunciations of new wrinkles in art and in leftish critiques of capitalist culture. Baudelaire[, by contrast]...saw that the fate of true artists would henceforth involve forms of internal exile, even in bright circles of cosmopolitan fame. That sort of compunction was lost on Courbet, and it is hard to imagine, let alone detect, in the conduct of the art world today...Dirty laundry has become the emperor’s new clothes."

-Peter Schjeldahl, "Painting by Numbers," The New Yorker, July 30, 2007

"This may explain why the [Emin retrospective at the Scottish National Galleries] is already proving hugely popular. Many visitors probably expect a voyeuristic thrill; others look forward to confessional, titillating outpourings by a damaged victim/beneficiary of dysfunctional contemporary society. That is why Emin is, after all, noteworthy. What gives her work its consequence is what she unwittingly reveals of the world we inhabit. There, celebrity is more important than real achievement, self-revelation more gripping than anything created by talent and a considerable imagination. For the artist herself, the chief purpose of art is as a means of achieving fame. God help us."

-Frank Whitford, "Fame Academician," The Sunday Times, August 10, 2008

"Hooray?," indeed.

Writing in The New Yorker in 1967, Pauline Kael hailed the arrival of "trash cinema." "Bonnie and Clyde" served as the prototype, a titillating film rife with violence and produced to appeal to viewers on a visceral level. At the time of the film's theatrical release, Kael rightly celebrated the movie as a populist challenge to critical snobbery. Late in life, however, she would bemoan the changing face of Hollywood's offerings. "When we championed trash culture we had no idea it would become the only culture," she said.

I share Kael's distaste for the typically self-conscious, intellectually defensive work of the avant garde, but Tracey Emin's crude publicity stunts are equally distasteful.

Celebrity alone is meaningless and empty...but, depressingly, it seems that just ain't actually so.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Spilling Ink

Zhang Huan
"Family Tree"
Portfolio of 9 images
25 x 20 inches

"'Everyone is entitled to know everything' a false slogan, characteristic of a false era: people also have the right not to know, and it is a much more valuable one....A person who works and leads a meaningful life does not need this excessive burdening flow of information."
- Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Photo credit: Reproduction of Zhang Huan's "Family Tree" ripped from Art Core Gallery

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Bit by little bit, I'm reprioritizing and learning how to achieve relative balance. It feels good.

But while I'm finding (and making) more time to read and write, my online activity remains limited. So limited, in fact, that I've only just learned of Olympia Lambert's nice write-up about my upcoming three-person show, "Animus Botanica," at Denise Bibro Gallery.

Olympia is an arts writer and fellow ArtCal Zine contributor. I used to pay regular visits to her art blog, Oly's Musings. Unfortunately, none of the "regulars" receive much traffic from me of late. Bit by little bit, though...

Read Olympia's post, "What the Flock?," here.

Friday, August 08, 2008

An Inner Untidiness Too Vast... be tamed by secular means

Most professional art critics accept modernism's conceit that art progresses linearly, movement begetting movement. Their promulgation of this outmoded precept is surprising and disappointing.

Art, as with all other forms of cultural development, moves in random hiccups and circles. It resembles more the wanderings of a drunken homebody than modernism's straight line ideal.

In "Feeling Blue" (The New Yorker, August 4, 2008), Peter Schjeldahl's recent review of "After Nature," a group show currently installed at The New Museum, the critic observes "something...happening in artists' studios: a shift of emphasis, from surface to depth, and a shift of mood, from mania to melancholy, shrugging off the allures of the money-hypnotized market and the spectacle-bedizened biennials circuit." He goes on to declare that younger artists are assuming "a backward crouch preceding a forward leap" because "[a]bruptly, once-settled views and values have unsettled themselves and stalk the mind."

His suggestion that a loosely defined trend is indicative of imminent sea change is tidy and exciting but, like the notion that avant-gardism is central to a healthy culture, it is misguided. Many artists - including some of those participating in "After Nature" - have been making deep, melancholic work for years. The shift of emphasis is not in their studios, but instead on the curatorial front, where the administrators of the arts industry, themselves unable to shake off the modern canon and dreams of Life magazine covers, are responding to the media frenzy around all things "eco-": ecology and economy. How many open-calls for "green-themed" group shows have we seen of late? And how many new gallery or non-profit side-projects devoted to addressing "issues of the environment"? I'm buoyed by these developments, but the impetus is managerial and directorial; the artists embraced by these new shows and venues have, for the most part, been there all along.

Near the article's end, Schjeldahl calls for a hero. "What we want now is a major artist - a Manet, Picasso, Pollock, Warhol, or Beuys - who will manifest durable truths at the core of inevitable hypes and hyperboles. If none such appears, that will be a valuable datum. It will help us adjust to the happenstance that, once and finally, our particular civilization is spent." Ignoring the rhetorical overstatement, I appreciate the anxiety that Schjeldahl and other intellectuals feel. Amos Oz describes globalization as "a sort of infantilization of the entire human race." The prominent cultural historian Morris Berman argues in his book "The Twilight of American Culture" that most of what ails the contemporary world - social and economic inequality, xenophobia, declining resources and literacy, and a debilitating spiritual void - grows from our pandemic culture of superficiality and postmodern dullardism. Both Berman and Oz are right but they're also wrong. To characterize an inevitable process as infantile is itself infantile, and although the Enlightenment and it's fascist successor modernism both allowed for the championing of reason and so-called progress, the shrinking world is simply too complex for a strictly left-brained approach. It's proving difficult for our dualistic brains to accept that the good guys don't necessarily wear white.

But if Schjeldahl and the arts industry insist on a standard bearer for this flood of anxious melancholy, they needn't wait for one to appear. Werner Herzog, whose 1992 film "Lessons of Darkness" is included in "After Nature," is an influential hero to a great many younger artists, myself included. The German director and writer combines Manet's keen observation and social sensitivity with Pollock's violent, self-destructive embrace of the chthonian and Beuys' playful intellect and deep faith in the spiritual value of art. He is the "major artist" Schjeldahl calls for.

When I feel the poison mercury of misanthropy rise in me, I revisit this clip from the 1982 film "Burden of Dreams." Though Herzog's language is harsh, his observations are essentially celebratory. Sometimes, his comments are laughably bleak: "There is some sort of harmony; it is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder." Even so, his tone, posture and face betray a wounded sensitivity.

Watching the excerpt, I'm reminded that other people are emotionally stirred by the terrible, indifferent beauty of nature's doings. I want to embrace Herzog and his complicated mess of a mind...and I'd wager that a great many other artists do, too.

Note: The title of the post is stolen from another contributor to The New Yorker: Don Chiasson wrote of T.S. Eliot possessing "an inner untidiness too vast to be tamed by ordinary secular means" in "Fire Down Below," a review of Les Murray's poetry in the June 11, 2007 issue.

Photo credit: Still from "Lessons of Darkness," 1992, Werner Herzog; Excerpt from "Burden of Dreams," 1982, Les Blank