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Monday, August 6, 2018

Fuddy-Duddy art and Zombie Formalism

It has become current to demonize the power structure of the art scene that attracts large sums of money for Zombie formalist painting. The latest assault by Chris Wiley on “artnet” made a connection between ZF and the debt-ridden economy we live in. I have discussed this aspect of it with artists Mark Stone and Dennis Hollingsworth for some time now so that take is not new. Not bad. Five years running since I first coined the moniker that was popularized by Walter Robinson and people are still appalled. It all seems to reek of a modern flattening out of any dimensionality to the human species to end in a rank self-applied will to power that erases any complexity from the human species. From the multidimensional world of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment" via the Freudian dimensions of eros/id/superego to a one-dimensional presence devoid of even the erotic. No tensions ,no conflict, no struggle just corporate cogs, parts that accede to playing a role in the global economy. I recall Sergeant Joe Friday’s deadpan interrogations on Dragnet that start with “Just the facts Ma’am, nothing but the facts.”  Wow! There’s a succinct summation of Greenbergian Modernism. I wonder what the post-modern version of his interrogation would be…

So where does one turn. Where are the good guys. I always appreciated Jed Perl’s take on the art world especially his persistence in the face of the intransigence of the status quo. Now matter how many incisive assaults he could make on the likes of Cindy Sherman the power structure of the art world has so few doubts about her importance like a Whac-A-Mole she just keeps popping up. Perl has his good guys, typically members of the figurative movement of the 70’s, who still show in coop galleries and artists such as Leland Bell who along with William Bailey was a follower of the French artist Jean Helion. John Updike who reviewed Perl’s “New Art City” in the New York Times in 2005 scratched his head about these choices, as do I. It could be that in the context of the harsh nihilism of Rauschenberg and Duchamp or the ID driven marks of de Kooning what he sees in them is a touch of sweetness “a quieter kind of yearning” that Perl does not want to turn his back on.

But I find that sweetness often verges on the fuddy-duddy.  It crosses a subtle line where the work becomes cloying or even less than that: inert.  It is as though the artists were unaware of the nefarious forces out there trying to undermine their precious order. There is no pushing back. No struggle. Maybe in the end it is as bland as Zombie Formalism, although the human subject matter keeps it in the realm of the social. And of course ZF is self-consciously and intentionally bland.

I have already given sympathetic treatment to Helion and the Leland Bell's world of art and its followers on my blog. I saw them as conserving and deepening certain notions of visuality in painting discovered by the Fauves and late Derain that from an academic point of view are very teachable. The late Addison Parks studied with Bell at RISD and spoke highly of his teaching. Like Bailey I suspect he had a touch of the proselytizer, of the good V.S. evil to which I was susceptible as a student.

Recently, I had an encounter with the members of one New York coop gallery in particular when I got into one of their curated shows. The encounter reinforced my notion of their fuddy-duddy nature but also a realization that their conservatism verged on mean-spiritedness. It disabused me of any notion there was a place where values mattered. Just because you have the right beliefs does not make you ipso facto a good person.

I often submit work to juried shows at these coops. They are cheap to enter although probably a money-maker for the Coops which otherwise depend solely on member's dues to survive. I got into one several years ago, which provided a good excuse to go to an opening in the City but the quality of the work was so-so and the number of acceptances overwhelmed the shoe-box space of the gallery. A good friend had her work in one of these shows and was discovered by billionaire collector William Louis-Dreyfus, who not only bought the work in the show, but purchased enough of her work for her to quit her house-cleaning jobs she does to make ends meet.

This show looked a bit more promising in that the maximum size allowed was large enough for me to favorably showcase my work beyond the small size limit usually demanded for these shows. I did the requisite social media promo and heard from several blog followers whom I had never met personally that they were interested in going to my show.

I sensed a touch of apprehension when I left the work off in the gallery. The work already submitted leaning up against the walls seemed anodyne. The gallery director who looked at my work askance, mumbled something about the D-Hooks, which I had wired according to their specs, but I said if they preferred to hang it on two wall hooks the D-Hooks were in the right spot to be adapted. She seemed to understand.

Happy not to be ticketed, I started my return to New Hampshire.

The following morning I saw a call from the gallery on my phone and assumed they were calling about how to hang the painting. I was flabbergasted to learn that they were not going to even attempt to hang it. Something about it being beyond the weight specs in the application form. No problem! I will bring down tomorrow another smaller painting in the same style. No! Everyone wants the show hung by the end of the day and that was that. I protested about having reserved a hotel room and family and friends were going to show up etc. But to no avail. I was just one of more than forty exhibitors and that one name on the list absent from the show was not a big deal for them. I came to the realization that the work with its texture stood out like a sore thumb. Someone did not want it in the show. Out of common courtesy they should have let me bring a new work down. It were as though my reality as an individual artist with a history, aspirations and plans, in short, a life had no reality for them. I was upsetting their conceptual applecart. For a moment I got inside their collective head to realize my painting would have not had one work to interact with to give it context in the show. I would have crushed the exhibit and their sense of "self" as well. I was to be sacrificed to maintain the status quo.

Wittgenstein, who had fought in WW1, said you didn’t have to go to war the see Evil. It is all around us in day-to-day life.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

My recollection of Addison Parks will appear in "Provincetown Arts" at the end of this month

Addison Parks


WHEN JOYCE CREIGER paired Addison and me
for our inaugural show in 1998 at the Creiger-
Dane Gallery on Newbury Street, little did we
know that she had initiated our twenty-year-long
friendship. Little did I know that my exhibition
partner had already achieved renown in the ’80s
in New York, not long after graduating from the
Rhode Island School of Design as part of the
neo-Expressionists with shows at the Joan Washburn
and Andrew Crispo galleries. He achieved
parallel success as an art critic at ARTS Magazine
and, when he moved to Boston, at the Christian
Science Monitor.
In 1998, Addison drew on his New York and
Boston connections to mount a show of hybrid
abstraction at Creiger-Dane entitled Severed Ear,
which, in retrospect, could only be considered
postmodern anticipating the Provisionalist
painting that Raphael Rubinstein labeled as
such in 2007. It bespoke his ability to befriend
a diverse group of artists and also a highly intuitive
mind that could sense connections unseen
to most people.
For more than a decade, Addison and his
wife, Stacey Parks, ran the Bow Street Gallery
in Cambridge. On occasion, he would host
luncheons with gallery members and other gallerists
where there were vibrant discussions on
art that one gallery member described as Pinteresque.
These are memories of Addison at his
best, a brilliant conversationalist bringing people
together to discuss the topics of art and life that
defined his existence.
People remember him. One evening, I was
conversing with someone at the Milton Resnick
and Pat Pasloff Foundation, telling him about
the death of Larry Deyab, who had been Resnick’s
studio assistant. Somehow the conversation
turned to Addison’s death, and he said
Addison had reviewed his first show in NYC.
Recently, a Boston artist contacted me out of
the blue to tell me what an impact Severed Ear
had on his life and art. Addison was not a happy
camper in Boston, and justifiably so, since a
certain fussbudget mentality reigns in this town
that was not sympathetic to charismatic types
like him. He was an enthusiast in an art scene
defined by doctors and lawyers.
What is most memorable about Addison is
his unbending resistance to those experts who
wished to define him, whether it was the doctors
who set timelines on his illness, or a stockbroker
who thought he should go all tech stock in 2000.
Sometimes I almost wondered if he possessed
the wisdom of a shaman in the way his insights
seemed to transcend the boundaries of practical
knowledge. For all of these things and more, he
will be greatly missed.
— Martin Mugar

Saturday, June 9, 2018

John Updike and the A&P of the mind *

Last week I found myself again on the same route from Southern NH to Wingaersheek Beach travelled on by my family for more than fifty years. Originally the route we traced followed the Merrimack River between my mother’s childhood home in Sandown NH to our beach house in Gloucester. The route as it passes through Essex and Ipswich is pastoral, full of old New England architecture and plenty of antique shops. With many of the large estates still intact one can imagine that it will never change. In those days it was my mother who drove accompanied by my grandmother. I was often on the floor of the car playing with my cars not considered unusual in the Fifties before seat belts. My younger sister was typically suffering from carsickness as we debated whether to pull over or hope that the nausea would pass and my older sister would be gloating over her ice cream cone that she was still savoring long after I had gobbled down mine.  Now the back and forth which starts from our house in Durham NH to the beach home that we have since inherited has become routine.  It was the requisite visits as we monitored my mother’s aging and then the long process of preparing the house for Summer rental.   As memories are embedded in the scenery I relate a few of them to my daughter who rolls her eyes and reminds me that these recollections are oft repeated. I came up with what I hoped was a fresh memory of seeing John Updike crossing the street in Ipswich. My daughter Eve acknowledged that she had never heard that story before. Not much of a story, just a flash of recognition as the author tried to negotiate the five-corner intersection of downtown Ipswich.

The memory instigated by our slow traversal of the center of Ipswich was suddenly interrupted by the telltale crunch of being rear-ended. I looked behind me and caught the gestures of the driver who acknowledged the incident. We signaled to each other to turn into the next side street to appraise the damage. The accident took place in front of the fire station. Before long several of the firemen walked over to see what was going on, presumably to make sure there were no gasoline leaks. They lingered awhile but one of them remained. While I was looking for a pen to take down driver license #s and insurance information, he took out his cell phone and in the most efficient modern way photographed everything, the damage to the car, my license and insurance card. My daughter, equally at ease with the powers of the cell phone did the same of his documentation. I thanked him for his consideration and attention to the accident. He introduced himself as the father of the young man who just plowed into me. Someone in the back seat of a passing car haled us and asked if we needed any help. The fireman chuckled that it was the local tower looking for an opportunity to make a buck. The accident had thrust me into the middle of a small community of Ipswich “locals”.

As we awaited the arrival of the Police to document the accident, I thought I would pick up where I left off before the accident and ask them if they had known their famous Ipswich resident John Updike. Yes! they knew of him and saw him around town. The fireman asked me if I knew that the Rite Aid down the street had once been the A&P, that was the local of one his best known short stories. I recalled having read it, vaguely remembering that the narrator was a store clerk.

Since the recent death of Philip Roth, there has been a lot of chatter about Updike: Their friendship and their falling out. Who was the greater author? Both had their territory: Roth, the chronicler of New Jersey and in particular the Jewish immigrant’s move  from the city to the suburbs and the middle class. Updike’s territory was Pennsylvania and Massachusetts and in particular that of the Protestant America. Today, Updike is typified as a narcissistic white male by David Foster Wallace, who would have not survived unscathed the #metoo era. Roth in his later years was somewhat reclusive but socialized on the  phone with with the guardian of the Western Canon Harold Bloom.

Once home, I decided to read the short story “A&P”. Online there were a few copies most transcribed with misspellings. A neat version was a PDF from the Littleton NH library. The setting was undoubtedly Ipswich and the Rite Aid down the street had the emblematic A&P cupola on it. It was about the right size for an A&P .The company  went out of business before the era of the megastores.

It was a good read.  The first time around I found the conformity/non-conformity take a little stale. The corporate versus sexual dichotomy may have been part of the early percolation of the sexual revolution and carried more psychic impact when the work was first published. A split that was less pronounced in the story but indelibly there was that the girls were upper class and Sammy, the nineteen old towny, was aware of it in the way they moved and talked and in the choice of hors d’oeuvres that they were picking up for their parent’s cocktail party. Just the nonchalance of the girls walking into a supermarket in their bathing suits implies that they didn’t feel compelled to follow the priggish rules of the middle class.  These girls probably lived in those beautiful estates that are protected by conservation easements that make the ride through Essex and Ipswich so scenic. I once wrote a blog about the insider/outsider phenomenon experienced by the Armenians.  As a member of youth sailing at the Annisquam Yacht Club, coming from the then decidedly middle class Wingaersheek Beach I experienced first hand the self-assuredness of the well-to-do descendants of the Mayflower in contrast to my adolescent insecurity. They lived in the large shingle style estates that probably had been in their families since the 19thc. Clearly Updike was impressed by their demeanor that radiated self confidence. In the end the narrator tries to insert himself into the story by making an attempt to resolve all the moral quandaries he has set up within the writing. He quits his job in protest of the boss’s embarrassing the girls for walking in to his store half-naked. Sammy may have hoped they would have noticed but like the rich in "The Great Gatsby" they move on unaware of the effect they have had on others.

Like so much literature the story is about the nature of writing itself: the artist as observer, always looking from the outside in. Updike keeps trying to pin down the meaning of the sensory experiences; what do they mean in terms of larger societal constructs:  corporate/sexual or rich and poor. So much of the writing is just raw data: e.g. the movements of the actors through the store being like a pinball game and the detailed description of the cloth and color of the girl’s bathing suits. He has created a world for himself held up by incisive description and cultural insights but in the last lines of the story it forbodes a life time that is described as going to be hard. Could it be because he will always be on the outside looking in, never fully owning or identifying with the setting in which his description takes place. For the corporation the world is a site for the display of its brands. The artist, is a competitor in this realm but his power only comes from the fertility and staying power of his imagination not his bank account. However, we can say Updike has had the last word: his A&P of the mind* still exists whereas the original is long gone.

*a play on Henry Miller's comment about Coney Island as a state of mind that was used as a title of  Ferlinghetti's "Coney Island of the Mind"