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.