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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Here is a more recent and grimmer version of the essay on Pollaro and Mugar

Mugar

Pollaro
                           Mugar and Pollaro at the Bromfield opening Feb 1,2013

Why the pairing of Martin Mugar and Paul Pollaro’s paintings? The obvious difference binds them together as artists in the tradition of Western Painting: Mugar loves color and Pollaro value. Mugar’s color hints at an overall value and Pollaro’s values suggest colors. This focus puts their interest in light as revealed through color and value from the Greeks to its dissolution in Kelly, Richter and Ryman. These three linger at the endgame of a long tradition of optics and seeing as the ground of painting. One foot in the tradition and the other where? They still tempt you to look with remnants of the language of light but imply that there is nothing to see if not the space between and around the paintings or just the paint as paint, which is not pointing the viewer anywhere beyond the canvas. In the end Kelly just puts up a plywood board, the substrate and abandons the color, his last link to the tradition of seeing. Richter stays with the paint as paint and the human presence still allowed with nothing more than a perfunctory smear. Ryman’s limitation of value to barely perceived shifts lingers longest with paint as seeing.

Pollaro’s and Mugar’s art references paint’s physical reality on the canvas and puts them more in the company of these artists that bookend the history of painting than the abstract painters who precede them such as Mondrian and the Color Field Painters. Mondrian supplied the ground upon which was built a full century of abstract painting. It was an intellectual ground of proportions and harmonies organized into clear wholes constructed out of distinct parts, sharp edges. Ryman, Kelly, Richter, artists of their time, take apart this language by casting doubt on our belief in the illusion of painting itself. If Mondrian moves beyond painting as an illusion of the real then these artists deconstruct painting as the illusion of a metaphysical reality. Everything in the painting can only point to itself and the message is the self -effacement, the wiping away of paint that might vibrate with something beyond itself.

These three artists attract Pollaro and Mugar due to their relentless cutting of ground from under one’s feet. Maybe they see more clearly the grim nihilism embodied in the work of Ryman, Kelly and Richter than the artists themselves do. For the grad school ingénue these artists provide an easy way to produce market ready product but for Mugar and Pollaro they challenge any easy notion of visual meaning. They seem to relish the site of painting’s demise as a sort of challenge to their creative drive to resurrect painting. Both Pollaro and Mugar seem to ask: is this end of painting to be constantly reiterated?  Is it the contemporary artist’s only role as spelled out in the academies and the galleries to constantly hammer nail after nail in the coffin of painting?

Their notion of a ground and support goes beyond the canvas or board supporting the paint and becomes a metaphysical ground hidden beneath the visual. It is a harshly altered notion of the visual on the canvas. For both these artists their inspiration for ground does not come from some lofty notion of a higher world but from the world they move around in. The surface of paint does not just refer to itself but is the crust where the hidden becomes visual, but almost simultaneously withdraws. It is a rather precarious zone where meaning no sooner gained is lost.

Pollaro’s notion of ground is mud, embodying a murky primordial earth, beneath the surface of visuality, from which the Buddhists knew the lotus drew its strength. Like some miner he leaves the sunlit surface of the earth to look in the sunless earth for veins of ore that glow of their own accord. His work seems to have its locus in sites of volcanic activity where earth is formed or consumed. The work is self -referential in that the object is the subject: it is made with tar that looks like mud. But the journey he follows as he manipulates the tar becomes a strange amalgam that speaks of certain special and sensual qualities: from limitlessness to the armor of a giant crocodile. To quote again the Buddhists: it is not the finger that is pointing at the moon that we should look at but the moon itself. But what is he really pointing at? Pointing at himself. Maybe not much more than the grim stoicism of the toiler of the land knee deep in the field unsure of the payback of his efforts.

Mugar has set sail on a sea whose flickering surface is the interface of the sunlit world and the swelling body of the ocean’s restless flux. This is not a world of people and things, of sunlit porches and verandas looking out on the world. Nor the distinct forms of abstract rationalism. The individual units of the painting are an impulse themselves as the flat units of Mondrian are questioned as a basis for painting. But what if all this repetition of marks no matter how well crafted hints only at a grim monotony that all the color cannot belie: the repetition of waves ad infinitum that reveal nothing or only serve to hide the truth.


Pollaro and Mugar wrest technical deconstruction from Ryman, Kelly and Richter to expand the vocabulary to let painting say something about the seen and the unseen. It is an unseen that is always present in the day to day, as close as one’s body that surprises us when we look out at our hand that reaches out to the world. Everything hovers between sense and non-sense, understandable as a clear summer day at sea but escaping clarity when swells suddenly manifest themselves as waves and engulf the sailor. The toiler in the earth despite a lifetime of assiduous toil knows that one day he will be part of that soil. There are no claims here to having accomplished some heroic meaning in the face of the void.

(link here to 2015 show essay with Mugar Pollaro et alia)

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Mugar and Pollaro at the Bromfield, Boston Jan 30-Feb 23



                             
Why the pairing of Martin Mugar and Paul Pollaro’s paintings? The obvious difference binds them together as artists in the tradition of Western Painting: Mugar loves color and Pollaro value. Mugar’s color hints at an overall value and Pollaro’s values suggest colors. This focus puts their interest in light as revealed through color and value from the Greeks to its dissolution in Stella, Kelly, Richter and Ryman. These four linger at the endgame of a long tradition of optics and seeing as the ground of painting. One foot in the tradition and the other where? They still tempt you to look with remnants of the language of light but imply that there is nothing to see if not the space between and around the paintings or just the paint as paint, which is not pointing the viewer to anywhere beyond the canvas. In the end Kelly just puts up a plywood board, the substrate and abandons the color, his last link to the tradition of seeing. Richter stays with the paint but it is paint as paint and the human presence still allowed with nothing more than a perfunctory smear. Ryman’s limitation of value to barely perceived shifts lingers longest with the use of  paint in the tradition. Stella is the only one of the group to overcome his minimalism of the late 50’s with his misinterpretation of Caravaggio that results in a garish maximalism. He would have been better off staying put and lingering at the site of paintings demise. In any case the zeitgeist of the last quarter of the 20th century was one of deconstruction of big metaphysical concepts and Stella was too much of a builder. So we will remove him from this group.

 20th c painting owes its trajectory to Mondrian. If any one artist supplied the ground upon which to build a full century of abstract painting it was Piet. It was an intellectual ground of proportions and harmonies. The lines of measurement and pure color spread out into the culture as a whole and defined architecture and interior design for at least 50 years from its inception. A theosophist, he imagined that he was bringing to the surface hidden harmonies. In the end he was a rationalist that establsihed the language for the scientific culture of the 20th century painting, constructed out of distinct parts, sharp edges and organized into clear wholes. Ryman, Kelly, Richter, artists of their time, take apart this language by casting doubt on our belief in the illusion of painting itself. If Mondrian had killed painting as illusion of the real then these artists killed painting as the illusion of a metaphysical reality.Everything in the painting can only point to itself and the message is the self-effacement, the wiping away of a painting that might vibrate with something beyond itself.

Their self-consciousness that keeps referring back to paint’s physical reality on the canvas puts Pollaro and Mugar in the company of these artists that bookend the history of painting. However, both seem to ask: is this ending of painting to be constantly reiterated? Is it the contemporary artist’s only role as spelled out in the academies and the galleries to constantly hammer nail after nail in the coffin of painting? What if painting points to something beyond an artist’s intentions to play their role as stern-eyed dispassionate contemporary painters? What if their notion of a ground and support went beyond the canvas or board supporting the paint and became a metaphysical ground, which is hidden from the visual, but, which a harshly altered notion of the visual could point to? For both these artists their inspiration for ground does not come from some cerebral notion of a higher world but from the world they move around in.
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Pollaro’s ground is the underground. There is in his painting a grim stoicism of someone who works on the land, knee deep in the soil. The return on one's labor is slow and the earth unforgiving. Or like some miner he leaves the sunlit surface of the earth to explore the sunless earth for veins of ore that glow of their own accord. His work has its locus it seems in sites of volcanic activity where earth is formed or consumed. His use of tar embodies it.

Mugar has set sail on a sea, whose flickering surface is the interface of the sunlit world and the swelling body of the ocean’s restless flux. This is not a world of people and things, of sunlit porches and verandas looking out on the world. Nor the distinct forms of abstract rationalism. The individual units of the painting are an impulse themselves as though the flat units of Mondrian are questioned as a basis for painting. The very building block of the painting is "physis" itself.


 If Mondrian brought the light that had defined the real for centuries into the flat patterns of modern rationalism, and Ryman, Kelly and Richter deconstruct that notion of painting into its physical parts, Mugar and Pollaro forge a new path for painting if not reinstating its original one, to let painting say something about the seen and the unseen and to marvel at the sheer beauty of our life on this planet!




Monday, January 14, 2013

Billy Lee:A former colleague from UNC-G whose work can be found in sculpture gardens throughout the world

"Guardian of Nature" 2000
"Split "1996
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I was first introduced to Billy Lee’s work in the mid 80’s when he was a candidate for a teaching post at UNC-Greensboro and I was on the selection committee.  His work at that time made it clear that he was very much an artist in the Modernist tradition. His imaginatively engineered geometric wall pieces spoke of the ground and pattern of an underlying reality. His demeanor was imbued with the air of someone aware of his accomplishments. And indeed in the modernist realm he has accomplished a lot. He came to the US in the mid- Seventies from England to study as a Kennedy Scholar at MIT ‘s School of Advanced Visual Studies and subsequently had risen up in the ranks at the University of Michigan. The senior faculty at UNC-G were not uninterested in the work presented for his application but were more intrigued by those candidates influenced by Postmodernism which was exemplified at that time by the style of sculptor Tom Otterness. The tide of Modernism that had filled the top ranks of many of the top schools in the country during the Sixties and Seventies such as Michigan was already beginning to subside. If Otterness was all cleverness, play and social relevance, Billy embodied the seriousness and purity of a scientist looking for the logical shape of the visual world. It seemed to me his seriousness about the role of a coherent visual language in the making of art, made him a good choice to be a professor at UNC-G and I think more importantly stood him in good stead as a sculptor for the next 30 years.

Billy Lee has always been a maker and shaper of material. For several years between his stints at Michigan and UNC-G he lived in Vancouver,B.C. where his extended family resided. He got involved in some building and renovation projects in the family business. I remember he talked about them with the same relish he would talk about sculpture. His preternatural drive is to reach out into our physical world and reshape and remake it. He is an artist who spontaneously connects with the material and the processes that allow him to manipulate it. That love of material places him in the company of such artists as Ron Bladen, Carl Andre and Richard Serra among others of that generation for whom sculpture reflects back on its reality as physical material and the raw physicality of the world.

Billy Lee knows that tradition thoroughly and can talk about it cogently. In our last meeting at UNC-G where I returned recently to give a talk on my work, it was a thrill to hear him bring up the above mentioned names from the Sixties and Seventies, which he said he was trying his best to put back on the radar screen of today’s students. He has internalized that tradition but surprised me when at the beginning of the Millenium he made an uncanny return to the figuration of Henry Moore. If there is a dynamic of material vs. form in all sculpture and if you were to calculate which dominates in any given artist, Moore’s art would fall on the side of form taking the upper hand. The same thing happened in Billy’s work.

"Sentinels"1994
Since Moore the history of sculpture would evince a split of materiality from form,  and, moreover, the notion of form becoming ever more detached and Platonic in the work of Donald Judd and Sol Lewitt. Materiality now detached from form, would often become absolutely formless. This is to say nothing of the development of installation art and its tendency toward a political critique of commodification. The notion of sculpture as a terrain for conveying the traditional push and pull of natural forces in the universe has not found many adherents in the contemporary scene. And in the arts ever obsessed concern for the New you have also the mix of recent technologies such as cell phones that succeed in dissolving the intimate interaction of viewer and sculpture that has defined sculpture from its very beginning.

"Helmet" 1997
What is lost in all of these evolutions and permutations of sculpture in the last thirty years and has not been lost on Billy is the notion of the artist as someone who creates himself in making and building within an ancient tradition of sculpting. He is a maker who knows the language’s roots which go back to the Kouros of the Greeks or the ancient Cycladic forms of the Aegean.The notions of a body in space and time defined by gravity, negative and positive space, of heft and haptic touch, of the slow movement of the body and eye as it moves around the sculpture inform all his work. But informing it more deeply is his understanding of the will that allows the self to persevere and to hold one’s physical place in the world. I have always marveled at the  psychic force and energy that Billy applies to the building of his sculpture.Is not this the ultimate meaning of works :They embody the will to create. They are the artist creating himself.

His series on warrior’s helmets, which reference images of armed men and which are a looming presence throughout the history of sculpture, are emblematic of individual self-assertion but also of holding one’s ground. Warriors can also double as guardians or sentinels, both titles of work done over the last ten years. Guardians and sentinels sacrifice themselves for the group in order to establish barriers, deciding who can enter or leave the homeland. Except for the Big Head series that allows for an ironic interpretation there is a seriousness about Billy’s work that is startling, because it has been so absent from art since after the Abstract Expressionists: the artist as hero, as Mahler in the European sense. This  leads to another notion about his work: these sculptures represent a defense of the precious values of sculpture’s homeland from the effacement of the modern tide.

Most contemporary sculpture inserts itself in a dialogue about man’s place in society or in relationship to the ever changing world of technology. It comes out of sociology, critical theory and deconstructionist ontology. It’s message is a reminder that we cannot transcend the way in which the media and technology define us. We are like a fly caught in a spider’s web of societal norms. Lee’s work suggests that our individuality cannot avoid its mythic roots. Our individual efforts embed themselves in ancient tropes of meaning that we are unable to escape. When we confront their power and inevitable reality it is like the epiphanies at the end of a Greek Drama. They are as transformative as the energy contained in a Guan Yin figure or a Michelangelo pieta.

P.S.

I have been out of touch with Billy Lee for awhile. I feel I should now back away from the melancholy mood of this piece and this more recent piece as Billy has made a leap into the world of global art where the influence of Koons and Oldenburg take over. It is no longer metaphysical and inward looking but has joined the currency of an extroverted global culture. Amazing leap out of metaphysics as Derrida would say.

"Changsa"