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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"

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

For Gagosian this Spring it's "Dots" (Damien's dots)

I regret having treated with snark on Twitter the new work of Damien Hirst in so far as my knee-jerk reaction did not allow me to see that  his work might have a connection with the zeitgeist defining the work of other contemporary artists.  It is hard to take him seriously when so much of his work like Koons's plays again and again the Trump card of oversized bombast. It leads me to believe that their dealer Gagosian's only goal is to totally dominate the art market with art of oversized egos that aims to emotionally crush the competition. Sorry Larry! I am sure you voted for Hillary but the work you show anticipated Trump, whose architecture crushed the Westside of New York with bad taste from which it will never recover unless global warming raises the sea level to wash it away. It became clear in the primary debates that Trump was incapable of dialog. For him there was only winning which means crushing the competition. So with Hirst. He will always find a way to gross you out, to desensitize you so that you lose faith in any sense of shared values. If there is any awareness of tradition in his work he inbalms it with icey technology as he did with his earlier dot paintings. Or his inbalming of the essence of phusis/life in the shark sculptures. shows how far a cold ego can go in destroying the natural world.  So what's up with  his new work that evokes a  sensibility, that looks like his fellow Brit Andrew Forge's homages to Seurat. Is this bloke getting a wee bit daft in his middle years.

This morning I  recalled my essay Topoi of Contemporary Culture that ends with this paragraph:

We are neither the mothers nor fathers who built the modern industrial state for which modernism was the topos. Either we use abstraction ironically or pathetically (with pathos), or expunge any remnant of the self and let art blend into technology by destroying the boundaries of the human and the machine. Any hermeneutic to go back is doomed to miss the essence of the past. Contemporary abstraction is caught in a twisted embrace with Modernism which ever escapes its hold and retreats further and further into the past. How much longer will we  limp along in this contorted topology, that knows vaguely where it came from but for sure does not know where it is going. 

What if Hirst has decided to join in this twisted embrace with the past that is an acknowledgement of the logos of Western thinking that sought out the foundations of consciousness and applied them to the structure of painting. I have already remarked that there was a shift in the work of Jennifer Guidi, the wife of Zombie Formalist Grotjahn with her use of pointillism and atmospheric colors. It were as though the logic of  Zombie Formalism has hit bottom and could only reiterate its nihilism so many times before it became boring. Dialectically the only way out is to move back in a sort of culturally reactionary move to the origins of Modernism in the color of Seurat and Matisse. It would be comforting to think that Hirst drinking at the well of these artist might stimulate a new synthesis but Hirst is at his best at being a bully boy and even though his work assumes the oversized scale typical of New York galleries, which makes up for lack of intelligence, this work is a dead-end. This retreat into origins is interesting to consider culturally. Is it a fear that the mockery and tearing apart that is the leitmotiv of contemporary art  has gone so far as to destroy the cultural ethos that allows for such mockery in the first place?



Thursday, February 8, 2018

Laura Owens and the New All American Century

A few years ago I wrote a blog that covered in part the “Forever Now” show at MoMA ,which included Laura Owens, although I did not single out her work for comment. The catalog essay accompanying the show tried to establish a shared gestalt of the exhibits participants based on the Internet culture we live in. For the author it were as though all the dynamic dialectics of American Art of the last half of the 20thc had come to an end and were replaced by a sort of neo-liberal endlessness in the style of Fukuyama’s  “End of History “: the Cold War was over; Western Capitalism had won and globalism and its factotum the Internet were destroying any hierarchies in a global race for infinite efficiencies.


I was intrigued by David Salle’s recent essay on Owen’s in the “New York Review of Books”. It is effusive praise of her it seems intent on lifting her out of any cultural critique as for example the one Salle himself partook of back in the 80’s or the internet cultural thesis of "Forever Now". Salle glorifies  her “can-do” spirit. He sees her as a quintessential american pragmatist. If someone like Robert Longo, along with Salle, part of the Neo-Expressionist movement of the 80’s, drew businessmen in free fall it embodied a critique of rampant capitalism in a period where one might still be horrified by it. The experience of “Free-Fall” is what Salle loves about Owen’s work. But it is more of the country fair roller-coaster variety.


In Schjeldahl’s essay in the “ New Yorker,”entitled “The Radical Paintings of Laura Owens” he creates an ”Aw-schucks” image of her as an unpretentious Mid- Westerner.  She is described as spunky and in a canny fashion having moved through high-end art academies like RISD and CalArts without submitting to their dogmas. Like Salle he sees her as leaving behind the dialectical critique that tied the work of Rubinstein’sProvisional painting antithetically to Modernism. She appears to benefit from a loosening of Europe's hold via postmodernism on contemporary art with a hearty embrace of American pragmatism as the philosophical zeitgeist of a New American art. The language she employs in her work fits into the distinction I made on Twitter about the relation between the Provisionalist painters and late Stella.  In Stella’s work early and late there is an intentional  schism created between its material and any reference to the optical world that still remained in the Abstract Expressionists. Everything becomes "materiel"and the visual is sort of color-coded and the imagery is not so much abstract as just signs and symbols.  These are the bits and pieces with which Owens pieces together her new artistic world. Imagistically she makes direct quotes from the later Stella. Whereas Stella yearns for the overall dynamic of the Baroque, Owen’s goes far beyond the bas-relief that Stella adheres to. So there is a doubling of the detaching of the retina in the work of Owens and at times an exploding of the idea of painting into our physical space in a way that Stella never achieved. And whereas every move Stella made came out of a certain machismo to leave mood and gestalt behind, Owens using this imagery coming from various media, the internet and graphic design ties everything up with the language  children’s books with not an ounce of Camp.

Salle uses “gestalt” and the lack thereof in Owens’s work as a "mot-clef," with which he hopes to unlock the secrets of her work. According to Salle it was an obsession with gestalt that underlay the teaching at the schools she attended: the Modernists at RISD or the Conceptualists at CalArts. Parts have to add up to an idea; you could have heard the same story in the ”Pit” at Yale, parts/whole, mastering black and white before venturing color. But Owens survived all that macho bullying and kept a certain predilection for play alive in her work, a knack for how to mix and match or as I once described it to “shake and bake”.

Salle does express some reservations about the notion of the role of an anti-gestalt in her work since one could say all art has some sort of over-all-ness: try as you may you can’t escape meaning. Even ZombieFormalism with its squeezing out of any mood or feeling in Guyton’s inkjet work is still a selection of parts that create a whole even if the mood is in its absence of mood. A better conceptual framework with which to package Owen’s work would have been to use anthropologist Levi-Strauss’s “Bricolage” defined in English as tinkering. It was a way of putting together a cultural structure  as a sort of mish mash typical in so-called primitive societies not dominated by monolithic scientific schema.  The postmodernist Derrida latched on to the notion of bricolage to make a point of the possibility that even in the monolith of Western scientific culture we are doomed to function in the manner of bricolage. We are always already in a culture, defined by it, swimming in it so to speak. But each response to it takes place in time looking back hermeneutically as well as being in the present and is subject to distortion. We end up with something that is not homogenous. Salle’s work from the 80’s fits perfectly into that construct. It is a commentary on our mediated Warholian existence, where we are not sure where our physical self ends and the world of the media begins. The media sends us mixed signals from Sesame street to pornography all at the same time.  I recall the zeitgeist of that time from a talk Robert Longo gave at UNC-Greensboro in the early 80's: The subject of his speech was basically a self-indulgent rant about who came first the Euro trash Neo-Expressionists or the New York Neo-Expressionists. At the end of his talk he stated that just before he draws his last breath his last thought he will be: “Eat at Burger King”. Succinct postmodernism. Owens is post-postmodern. As she does not want to squeeze everything into the same procrustean bed, she lets things lay side by side with ambiguity. Salle  thinks ambiguity is a mot-clef in understanding her work. It allows him to make the point that ambiguity is not irony, the gestalt of the postmodernists that he came out of. 

What Salle is getting at is her abandonment of a gestalt as a totalizing meaning. He says her espousal of ambiguity arises from images being sourced from different media all put in the same space that may agree or not agree with each other. Or referencing something other than what their sources imply. Salle refers to her as a space alien who is strangely out of touch or detached from our culture but because of this may function as an effective cultural critic. She has no skin in the game and can be even-handed about her relationship to popular culture. The only popular culture is the culture of children's books she reads to her kids. She is not a critical theorist from Frankfurt, angry at our culture for its superficiality nor bitter for it mediating and totalizing so much of our lived-life. Maybe thinking along with the anthropologist Levi Strauss we could see her as the creator an American cargo cult out of the bits and pieces of our cultural detritus. I noticed this tendency in the semiotics of David Row that is built out of citations of other painters. That would bring her in by the backdoor to a kind of gestalt. But just as she pieces the parts together in a funky mix of objects in a hybrid of sculpture and painting it is up to us maybe to make further connections to come up with our own interpretation.  

She told Schjeldahl of a list of dictates she wrote up to aspire to as an artist when she was in her early twenties: among them were “Think big,” “Contradict yourself constantly,” “No Guilt,” “Do not be afraid of anything,” “Know if you didn’t choose to be an artist-You would have certainly entertained world domination or mass murder or sainthood.” I would say they are a pretty good description of where she exists with her work today. She thinks big with her New York gallery scale work but not very deeply. She can easily contradict herself since any position she holds means so little to her, it can be easily changed. I would love to be a person without guilt but how can you live and love among others without at least occasionally feeling you are not fulfilling your own expectations or the expectations of others (though I’ll admit she may just be referring to painting not human relationships). And if you think art is keeping you from indulging in mass murder, maybe your art should be a self-aware exploration of those dark desires.

The post-modern view implicates that we are always moving away from our origins, yet even in the continual distancing from the origins something of the source remains.  Like Stella Owens says what you see is what you get. There is nothing beyond the work itself that the work might point to. Anything that might upset the applecart of her manufactured world is kept at bay. For me the disparities the mix and match of the real and the printed are already well covered by Rauschenberg. 

The description of Owens I get from the two articles made me think of my mother a nurse in the Navy during WW11, whose favorite compliment was to call someone a “real trooper”, someone who pragmatically knew that things had to be done and there was no time to overanalyze details or motives. Yet even she knew that the realm of pragmatics did not apply to her relationship with nature, that offered her a refreshing sense of belonging.  She knew that she was more than an object maker or as Barnett Newman said not just an object among objects. Even Salle back in the day,had a touch of strangeness of cultural weirdness and disparities, e.g. the weight of pornography on the mundane. A lot of it did not add up but that void he created had a touch of the spiritual. Where does all of Salle’s neo-expressionistic culture clash end up: with Laura Owens ! whose work has all the Aw-shucks banality and mild irony of a Grant Wood.*

n.b The article written by Carl Kanduch on Abcrit shares a lot of the same points as this essay. And resulted in several people being blocked by Roberta Smith on Twitter.

*In a comment below someone claims that I misjudged Grant Wood who has a dark streak in him. All  I see is irony at the most and that could be shared with Owens.There is now a retrospective of his work at the Whitney.Is it ironic that it follows Owens?