Sunday, February 28, 2010

Art Questions

Installation view of #class, at Winkleman Gallery

Sculptor and performance artist Dominique Mazeaud recently proposed on her blog a "second round of 'Les Magiciens de la Terre,' an exhibition held at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1989, that asked one hundred artists to define art along with showing their work." Mazeaud, however, throws a curve ball: "I would simply change the question and ask artists to offer a definition of 'what is the spiritual in art.'"

Defining the spiritual in art is no mean task. The curators of Mazeaud's proposed show would likely receive as many different responses to the question as there were artists participating. Contemporary spirituality, after all, is understood to be an individual quality or experience. But a diverse field of responses doesn't make the question any less interesting, and I agree with Mazeaud that such an exhibition would be exciting and insightful, especially in light of recently reinvigorated conversations about the role of art, artists, and the art market.

Presently, at the Winkleman Gallery, artists Jennifer Dalton and William Powhida offer a platform for this conversation. They've created a temporary "think tank" for "guest artists, critics, academics, dealers, collectors, and anyone else who would like to participate to examine the way art is made and seen in our culture and to identify and propose alternatives and/or reforms to the current market system." I readily admit that I'm more interested in talking philosophy and "ultimate meaning" than I am in discussing practical approaches to the contemporary art market, and I believe that my charitable sales model implicitly announces my ambivalence about (and proposes a viable alternative to) our day's dominant system. That said, only naive artists truly believe that contemporary art can exist completely disconnected from the market (while still finding an audience).

Unfortunately, I arrived late to James Leonard's performance piece on Thursday night (thanks to the snowfall some news sensationalists dubbed "the snowicane"), and I had a conflict that kept me from attending the presentation by Barry Hoggard and James Wagner last night, but I hope to make at least a few more of the sessions that Dalton and Powhida have lined up. You can view the calendar at the exhibition/think tank blog, Hashtagclass."

Image credit: ripped from the Winkleman Gallery website

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Propagandist's Purpose

"The propagandist's purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human."

-Aldous Huxley, The Independent

Photo credits: ripped from Jim Gogek's blog

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Friday, February 19, 2010

Originality and (Re)cognition

Xie Zhiliu (Chinese, 1910–1997)
"Ducks and Blossoming Branches"
Pencil and ink on paper
20 1/2 x 30 3/4 inches

In his recent review of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition of works on paper by the late Chinese artist Xie Zhiliu ("Tracing the Path to Chinese Finesse," New York Times, February 14, 2010), art critic Ken Johnson reminds readers that imitation is often a prerequisite for originality. Johnson's piece begins with a Western commonplace,
"Copying is bad; originality is good. That’s what we learn from toddlerdom on. In art as in life, be yourself. Don’t pretend. Nobody likes phonies, fakes or frauds. Forgery is illegal. Authenticity is holy.

But wait. Copying and imitating have been the rule for most of the history of human civilization. In the West artists from Raphael to Picasso have profited from copying the works of others. In art there is no such thing as pure originality."
Or is there?

I suppose it depends on one's definition of originality. Having recently come under the intellectual sway of George Steiner, I wholeheartedly endorse the philosopher-critic's distinction between originality and novelty, detailed in his book Real Presences.
"Originality is antithetical to novelty. The etymology of the word alerts us. It tells of 'inception' and of 'instauration,' of a return, in substance and in form, to beginnings. In exact relation to their originality, to their spiritual-formal force of innovation, aesthetic inventions are 'archaic.' They carry in them the pulse of the distant source."
Put another way, novelty is self-conscious invention or difference for the sake of invention or difference (that is, mere newness), whereas originality is an individual's expression of a primordial and universal resonance.

What better way to absorb the lessons of your predecessors (to better prepare yourself for originality) than by reproducing the work of those artists? More from Johnson's article:
"Maxwell K. Hearn, the exhibition’s organizer and a curator of Chinese painting and calligraphy at the Met, explained in an interview that the show’s main significance is in what it reveals about methods used by traditional artists. It turns out that the kind of graceful naturalism that Xie achieved in his best works came not from extensive study of nature but by tracing over and over the works of other artists on sheets of semitransparent paper. [...] Repeatedly tracing the works of old masters as Xie did might be compared to a pianist practicing a composition by Bach. This may sound suffocating for a modern artist, but it is not unlike how many young artists learn to draw: by copying their favorite comic-book characters over and over."
I was no exception. I spent countless teenage hours copying comic strips and, later, comic book characters. The graphic line and compositional sense that I learned from emulating those comic artists significantly informs my artwork today.

Johnson is correct, however; these ideas "may sound suffocating for a modern artist." That copying (a casual form of apprenticeship) might offend contemporary sensibilities is further evidence of the excesses of modernism and postmodernism. Too much was purged in the revolution of modern aesthetics; the rabble is today without coherence.

Fortunately, the art world is undergoing a sea change. The majority of artists under 40 years of age (and an increasing number of those over 40) do not mistake novelty of expression for originality, and they will readily acknowledge the value of copying, especially for the young artist. In fact, we realize the genuineness of Steiner's insistence that such activity is vital in all aesthetic disciplines.
"To learn by heart is to afford the text or music an indwelling clarity and life-force. Ben Johnson's term, 'ingestion,' is precisely right. What we know by heart becomes an agency in our consciousness, a 'pace-maker' in the growth and vital complication of our identity.

[...] Accurate recollection and resort in remembrance not only deepen our grasp of the work: they generate a shaping reciprocity between ourselves and that which the heart knows. As we change, so does the informing context of the internalized poem or sonata. In turn, remembrance becomes recognition and discovery (to re-cognize is to know anew)."
Image credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Evolution Weekend

This past weekend, countless couples the world over celebrated Valentine's Day. Far fewer, however, marked Evolution Weekend 2010 on our calendars. I did not participate in any Evolution Weekend events this year; I hope to rectify that oversight next year, as the goals of the project are worthy and important.

From the project's website:
"Evolution Weekend is an opportunity for serious discussion and reflection on the relationship between religion and science. One important goal is to elevate the quality of the discussion on this critical topic - to move beyond sound bites. A second critical goal is to demonstrate that religious people from many faiths and locations understand that evolution is sound science and poses no problems for their faith. Finally, [...] Evolution Weekend makes it clear that those claiming that people must choose between religion and science are creating a false dichotomy. Through sermons, discussion groups, meaningful conversations and seminars, the leaders [of this effort] will show that religion and science are not adversaries."
To date, roughly 13,000 American Christian, Jewish, and Unitarian Universalist clergy have signed letters stating that evolution and religion are compatible. To some of us, this compatibility is a no-brainer, but for many intractable anti-religionists and literal-minded religious Americans, there can be no comfortable cohabitation. Both extremes are guilty of arrogance, thoughtlessness, or both.

Yet those of us in the middle might do well to take a lesson from the activist extremes. As Rabbi Robert Barr, of Congregation Beth Adam in Loveland, Ohio, said recently,
"It is amazing and disturbing that biblical literalists have been able to successfully challenge the concept of evolution and in doing so change how science is taught in school and [require] congregations and clergy to stand up and endorse an idea that is 150 years old. [...] Perhaps what has made the anti-evolution crowd most successful is their passion. While I disagree with them, I appreciate their energy and their commitment, and I want those of us who embrace science, modernity, and religion to be equally committed to our beliefs."
It's not enough to know that there needn't be conflict between the material and metaphysical. We must also speak truth to bigotry and ignorance.

Image credit: ripped from C95 FM website

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Endangered Species Condom Project

I'm happy to help spread word about The Center for Biological Diversity's terrific Endangered Species Condom Project. The organization is addressing human overpopulation in a novel, fun way.

Such approaches are vital to opening a floor for further discussion. Even though our species' population is a clear-and-present threat to hundreds of thousands of other species (as well as to the Earth's limited natural resources), population control remains a fiercely debated and sensitive subject.

From the CBD's press release:
"At 6.8 billion people, the human race is not only the most populous large mammal on Earth but the most populous large mammal that has ever existed. Providing for the needs and wants of this many people — especially those in high-consumption, first-world nations — has pushed Homo sapiens to absorb 50 percent of the planet’s freshwater and develop 50 percent of its landmass. As a result, other species are running out of places to live.

To help people understand the impact of overpopulation on other species, and to give them a chance to take action in their own life, the Center is distributing free packets of Endangered Species Condoms depicting six separate species: the polar bear, snail darter, spotted owl, American burying beetle, jaguar, and coquí guajón rock frog.

The beautifully designed packages, featuring clever slogans, are being distributed by a network of 3,000 volunteers ranging from ministers to grandmothers to healthcare providers to college students and biologists. The condoms will be handed out at concerts, bars, universities, spiritual groups, local events, and farmer’s markets. Along with two condoms, each package contains original artwork and information on the species, facts about overpopulation and the extinction crisis, and suggestions on how the human population can be stabilized."
I'm certainly no fan of the tribalistic and despicable practices of groups like Quiverfull, but the general population needs to be better educated about the dangers of overpopulation, too. I'll be distributing the condoms around New York City during the next two weeks.

If you know me, be sure to ask for one of the handsome packages, each of which is adorned with artwork by Molly Schafer or Jenny Kendler, of Endangered Species Print Project renown.

For more information on the Endangered Species Condom Project, please visit the website.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Nathan Abels' "Natural Causes"

I wrote the following short essay for the exhibition catalog that accompanies Nathan Abels' "Natural Causes," currently on display at Rule Gallery, in Denver, Colorado.


Nathan Abels
"Sullen Roar"
Acrylic on panel
36 x 48 inches

At the extent of the campfire's reach, we glimpse a shadowed form. Then it is gone. What is it that we saw there, at the light's limit? In that instant of vague apprehension, before our mind has had time to interpret the stimulus, we are John Dewey's "live animal," a creature "fully present, all there, in all of its actions: in its wary glances, its sharp sniffings, its abrupt cocking of ears." The "live animal" mode is often awakened by an alarming sight or sound, but it can also be brought on by a rush of emotion or any substantial sensual experience. If we remain attuned, "fully present," our nurtured sense of self may be blurred, even surrendered, and the scrim of conventional, acculturated understanding is ruptured. We recognize that transcendental mysteries and primordial presences are located in ordinary experience, and that our mundane perception of the material world is incomplete. We see the world anew, boundless and beautiful.

Nathan Abels' artwork is concerned with such transformative breakthroughs. Many of his works juxtapose the primeval with the temporal. "Wildfire" pictures the moon, our planet's celestial companion, serene above a raging forest fire, a violent agent of ecological transformation, both destructive and renewing. In "Sullen Roar," the lights of human infrastructure glow like our aforementioned campfire, but the riverside outpost is surrounded by an opaque darkness. Abels reminds us that the hum and pulse of human civilization amounts only to a footnote when considered within a more holistic context. Other works, such as "Passage" or "Half-Seeing," picture moments of potential rupture, opportunities for personal transfiguration. In "Passage," a spelunker slides on his back through a narrow section of cave. His headlamp illuminates the low ceiling. The confined space would make even the least claustrophobic among us uncomfortable, and the viewer senses the spelunker's powerlessness. Such an experience, like the wildfire, can be at once annihilative and regenerative. It is a subjugation of the self, a recognition of the infinitesimal reach of our individual vision, yet also an expansion of our vision to include the infinite variety and scope of being.

Nathan Abels
Acrylic on panel
36 x 48 inches

Abels refers to his paintings and drawings as "visual pauses" in an otherwise "persistent turbulence." To be sure, our contemporary landscape is a turbulent one: industrialized, globalized, and digitized for maximal efficiency and consumption. We are so burdened by stimulation as to be deadened to the underlying reality of each moment and every place. Abels' "visual pauses" are a response to our routine mindlessness; the artist provides the viewer with opportunities to regain focus, to intuit the unfathomable in the worldly. His drawings and paintings are pictures of transitional experiences at the edge of known and unknown.

Nathan Abels
Acrylic on panel
36 x 48 inches

Image credits: courtesy the artist

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

"Inherited Purpose and Pattern"

William Kentridge
Still from "History of the Main Complaint"

I enjoyed reading Calvin Tomkins' recent profile of William Kentridge ("Lines of Resistance," The New Yorker, January 18, 2010). Tomkins includes some fascinating details about Kentridge's background and family, and I especially appreciated some of the remarks made by the artist. The following quotation was particularly resonant.
"[Working in South Africa,] I was aware of Joseph Beuys - Beuys and his honey pump, which was supposed to be political art. But politics is not spreading honey around the main building at the Documenta art exhibition. It's putting electrodes on people's testicles, locking them up, putting them in fear of their lives."
Kentridge acknowledges his South African perspective (the artist was born into a state of apartheid and is today living through its often grim aftermath), but his observation also speaks to the general disconnect between so much 20th century fine art and "the real world."

Both modernism and postmodernism prioritize iconoclasm and individual achievement over "a system of inherited purpose and patterns."(1) It's thoughtless to dismiss the sibling -isms (both offer valuable insights and fundamentally inform our contemporary world), but the march of globalization is revealing the societal impotence of the philosophies. Absent "inherited purpose" and narrative, postmodern community is soulless, a mere facade. One of many casualties, the artist is but a mote in a vast and turbulent sea of competing sentiments and ideologies. Graphic design and advertising occupy the popular position once given to fine art, but, excellent though some of both may be, these are commodity driven disciplines; as such, they can make no genuine claim to political or moral coherence.

Still, I don't believe that we should bemoan our station as the end of the line. Globalization is in its infancy, and the 21st century will likely see a new concept of cosmopolitan citizen emerge, one that could usher in an era of shared mythos. Back to the future, so to speak.

(1) This definition of pre-modern art is drawn from Adam Gopnik's fantastic essay, "Van Gogh's Ear." (The New Yorker, January 4, 2010)