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Saturday, July 11, 2020

Photographer Joseph Podlesnik and Provisional Painting

There is an old Maine locution “You can’t get there from here” that is a response to a question from a lost driver getting directions in the Maine backcountry. Factually it states the obvious: it might be hard to describe the way places are connected by convoluted country roads but it also embodies a kind of laconic Yankee spirit that raises the question of why would one bother to go elsewhere when here might be just fine. Joseph Podlesnik adds to this dialogue: once you get there leaves us in a quandary: There may not be a here at all.

In photography and painting perspective has often been the main visual tool that connects the human presence to the here and now which becomes place. The image created by the handheld camera establishes ipso facto a tight bond via the picture plane on the back of the camera to the environment. If it is parallel to the subject matter or at an angle to it, the way the eye is moved by the image can be quite different. In an 8x10 format you can actually manipulate the plane in the back of the camera to be in alignment or not with the subject matter. As a young artist in the 70’s when flatness reigned in the world of Painting I took pleasure in looking at the snap shots of photographers who documented their presence in the world. It was a humanist bent that led me to appreciate the work of Cartier-Bresson. He is a master of the manipulation of perspective as a tool to both submit his subjects to perspective and then liberate them from its hold at the last minute so to speak. The perspectival effect was either achieved through the converging lines of architecture receding or with similar objects each being smaller in scale. In this photo he used both:

The perspective is created both by the receding barrier and the scale of the two men in proportion to each other. One wonders how different the image would be if the man closeup would be looking through a hole at what I presume to be a construction site. The side of his face is parallel to the picture plane of the camera putting him in the photos structure, but his looking away is an escape from the structure of the perspective to something outside the snapshot.

Eggleston is another photographer hypersensitive to the picture plane. Whereas Cartier-Bresson is using the diagonals Eggleston often uses the parallel picture plane as an inert underlying structure on which to hang some other visual strategies. In this picture the trash cans hang like two barbells supported by the food stand. It is a closed system except for the soft candy hues of the stand and their evocation of a warm summer day which like the gaze of the man in the Cartier-Bresson photo is an emotional release.

William Eggleston


Podlesnik compresses the space with the same perspectival tools but squeezes the human presence almost completely out of the scene for the most part with no escape, no hope for empathy for the human condition. The suburban/urban space he describes seems drawn from the non-spaces of industrial parks, parking garages, motels off of the highway. But the nihilist aesthetic is so powerful they could just as well be anywhere in the hands of Podlesnik. Cartier-Bresson and Eggleston started us down the route away from the monument, the easily recognizable. Poldesnik takes us ever further afar to the edge of the void with the places almost unrecognizable. But there is a surprisingly unexpected release in all his images but not in the subject matter of the photo: the things he describes are often represented with the marks ,structure and textures of abstract painting. Sometimes we see the influence of minimalism at other times that of postmodern provisionalist painting as defined by Raphael Rubinstein a style of painting shown several years ago in a show at MoMA entitled “Forever Now”.

Mary Heilmann


Can’t get there from here? Just at the moment where Podlesnik seems to abandon the here and now and “the place” seems to be lost in an existential dead end, the viewer is transported by a kind of transcendence into the language of painting. It might be considered in computer parlance as hypertextual the simultaneity provided by the computer in our modern life where one image suggests another.


Thursday, May 14, 2020

As good as it gets on the internet (Or the Three Penny Author)

I put my blogposts on Medium, a site that promotes writing on the web. My writing rarely gets any feedback as adjudged from the dearth of what Medium refers to as “claps”( I just got one for an article on Jed Perl). They offer some remuneration as readers pay a fee for access to the site. Last month I got an email that 3 cents($.03) had been deposited in my savings account from all the voluminous reading of my blogs. I really don’t despair anymore at the paucity of interest on Medium. I get emails from them touting what they consider to be the hottest submissions that are for the most part pulp stories of unsolved murders that have no real thinking going on, let alone narrative style.

I recently got sucked into another site called Academia that distributes scholarly papers. As an enticement to join they said my name is getting mentioned on their site. The only way to find out who mentioned me is by joining them for around $100 a year. (Linkdin uses the same trick where they say someone is talking about you, but again you have to pay  to find out) When I finally gave in and joined, the “mention” that they half-described was nowhere to be found.  There have been other mentions since that I vaguely recall as authentic but they tend to be chaotically strung together obscuring any real sense of where the mentions were made. They do reach out to people I have mentioned in my articles toauthenticate my referencing them. My blogs are not formatted academically but they have been disseminated by the site to numerous individuals who are often associated with universities worldwide as resident scholars, students or alums. Since my blogs are for the most part illustrated, I hope the recipients are finding them at least visually entertaining.

Twitter is all about power and the participants obviously love to wield it. Interactions with the famous can happen but they are for the most part short lived. You might be flattered to find your tweet acknowledged but it is never for interaction with the Pulitzer prize winning critic Jerry Saltz. I had sent him a rough draft of my self-published book on Drawing and Painting to New York magazine offices where he is on the staff. A week later I found him describing one of the exercises in his own words but with an illustration he could have only taken from the copy I sent him as the source of the image was rather obscure. I sent him a message asking him about the rip-off and he replied with cryptic .  He never acknowledged that I was the source of the exercise. He got 55 likes. Why did he bother to reprint what I wrote? With one hand he showed what I had written to his followers all of whom thought it was interesting but with the other hand made sure I did not get credit for it. It hurt and I think that was his intention. I think my hope was for the much vaunted and desired “retweet”, so important that often tweeters will say that a retweet does not represent an endorsement.  If he wasn’t interested in power then he might have just given the book a tweet. I would have sold a few copies and that would be the end of it. But that would mean I am piggybacking on the precious reputation he has so assiduously built on and cultivated over a lifetime. That reputation has monetary value.

I had a rather pleasant exchange with Blake Gopnik, a propos his recently published “Warhol”, where he engaged me in a dialog about what I had written on Warhol which he found very interesting but wrong. It was a quirky linking on my part of Warhol to Flannery O’Connor due to their shared umbrella of nihilism. Nihilism is sort of a dog whistle that you are clearly anti-humanist and he rejected that Warhol was a nihilist. And that the shared religiosity of Warhol and O’Conner was bogus as Warhol’s connection to his religion was rather shaky. Maybe he at least gave me the time of day as I knew from the horse’s mouth that Philip Pearlstein was Warhol’s roommate at Carnegie-Mellon. The accessibility he provided me by  answering my questions was an opportunity to show that he was the expert and that I should buy the expert’s book to have the definitive answer on Warholiana. He is promoting his book. That’s all. Nothing wrong with that. I was able to extend the discussion to his opinions on Koons whose artistic value is based on what Gopnik calls “esthetic agnosia” and the exchange ended there.

Facebook is folksy in comparison to the ego flaunting/flouting on Twitter. Twitter with its message limit forces you to hone your message whereas on FB you can ramble on. Topics are  mostly about family events and the Peaceable Kingdom where Lions get along with baboons and the endless casts of clever cats and more cats. If I get sporadic feedback on Twitter (as indicated by the stats)I am sure to get lots of likes on FB. I am sure this folksy image is  cultivated by the managers. The world of twitter discussions are short lived storms and then subside and can’t be revived. Maybe you leave a mark on your interlocutor or not. Things are more relaxed on FB. I recently posted for the hell of it an image of a painting I had done in NC years ago that ended up in the Weatherspoon Museum. It created some interest from students at UNC-Greensboro and some sincerely thoughtful comments from people who follow my work. I tried to flip the conversation to my book on drawing and painting in the hope of maybe selling a copy. FB is not a platform for forcing anything on anyone. We are just nice folks with an opportunity to celebrate Mother’s Day. It is not about making a profit except for FB. I didn’t bring up the book again. I flipped to my Amazon stats page and there was no sign of anything sold. Just some page views that have little monetary value.

It was the philosopher Rene Girard who talked about the magic of the “like” button. It offers us the illusion that we are all on the same (FB) page. It engenders a kind of harmony an often false sense of agreement. I think it is the power of the retweet that makes Twitter different in that our power on Twitter is based on your number of followers and to be retweeted by someone with numerous followers is inherently valuable as it gets you out of the bubble of your limited followers. I notice the editor of Hyperallergic is parsimonious with his retweets. I got one once when he retweeted an article he pretended to show interest in publishing and when I threw in the towel and put it on my blog he felt he could at least give me the imprimatur of his retweet. Never again, even though be follows me.

That brings up the existence of the comments section provided by many online magazines where I first interacted with the Hyperallergic editor who leaves the comment section open to anyone. Comment is often allowed only to buyers of a subscription. The monetization of the web is continuing apace. More and more sites not only now limit comments but open access to certain articles only to subscribers. If it doesn’t slowdown the number of readers and in fact increases them then there is nothing to stop it. But the comment sections have been my bread and butter starting with Hyperallergic. It was there that I made my first impact on the web commentariat. I read an article by John Yau, a well-known critic/poet from the days of hard copy. It described a phenomenon of a certain bland imitative abstraction that was being shown in NYC.  It was going for big bucks and he was not a fan. Based on the images he supplied I got on a tangential rant that became a blogpost with a label for the work: “Zombie Abstraction”. I linked it to the comment section for the Yau article and that was that. Four months later an article by Walter Robinson appeared in another online magazine referring to the same sort of painting as Zombie Formalism. Its publication must have appeared on the comment section of Hyperallergic. I pointed out in a back and forth exchange with Hrag Vartanian the publisher in  the comment section that it was I who first used Zombie to describe work of that ilk. Vartanian at Hyperallergic came to my defense although somewhat dismissively saying that zombie was in the air and that it was inevitable someone would use the moniker. At a later date Raphael Rubinstein in an article in “Art in America” mentioned me as the first to use the term. I heard from a blogger who is closer to the NY art scene that Robinson and Rubinstein are friends and that Robinson at the time was furious at the unwillingness of his friend to give him credit for first inventing the term. I must admit that if someone with the notoriety of Robinson had not written about the New York abstraction that I referred to, then my article would have remained insignificant. Such is the case with my article on “shake and bake” abstraction. I think the label is a clever one and the points I made are valuable but it will never achieve the same notoriety. As for ZF I did make the tour of online art writers who wrote about ZF. If they had a comment section or email I tried to convince them to include my name as the inventor of the moniker. Most agreed seeing the evidence from Hyperallergic to make the change. Saltz who was a major disseminator of the term with his “Zombies on the Walls” that appeared on the online version of New York Magazine noticeably did not. Noah Dillon of did make the change. My blog comes up on the first page of a google search for Zombie Formalism.

There is a pleasurable sense of isolation of being alone on the mountain top associated with blogging that can get one into trouble at times. It is probably a pleasure in getting things right in so far as you are not a gun for hire and write for yourself. Something as well about the facility of word processing that allows for one to get carried away by precision to such a degree one becomes oblivious to one’s audience. I write on my computer in solitude. One paints that way. It is the nature of the profession. I have had a knack for reinventing myself or at least respecting the issues that my painting represents to me and following their lead. In retrospect a lot of issues that I struggled with were not shared by collectors. I find critics have always been ready to chime in on the ideas that motivated my work. But that only reinforced my solitude and willingness to follow my intuition. Recently, this introspection backfired when I wrote about a hurtful experience I had with a New Yok coop gallery that with one hand accepted my work for a Summer group show and with the other upon the delivery of the work asked me to remove it from the show. No one ever gave me a reason for it. There was a smugness from the people I talked with on the phone that such a work would not be allowed to hang in the show. I could understand how it got in the show. The curator was a color field painter. In a desperate attempt to find some logic to it I made the farfetched claim that it was due to the gallery members who based on my research were fairly traditional artists sharing the views of a conservative(not politically) art critic whose work I actually admire. When the critic and his friends failed to show any interest in my drawing and painting book it dawned on me at the height of obtuseness I had probably rubbed him the wrong way. And even more appalling it took me a whole year to delete the presumably offending blog post. I was most likely so in love with my own words alone there at the computer at 6am when I do most of my writing that I let it stand published on my blog for this long.  To use an oft used expression: I cut off my nose to spite my face.

Casting a net into the net does bring in some interesting catches from well-known artists and critics who stumble across my writing, that would only happen off the web if I were published in respected journals. They have enjoyed my invective and in the case of one artist/critic shared some choice gossip about a contemporary artist that I had written about and I went on to repeat it on blog and then was asked by the source to delete as being too personal. What do I hope to achieve by all this blogging and interacting with the denizens of the web? On the one hand one creates a narcissistic self-referential bubble that only serves to reinforce a kind of clarity about one’s inner life but adds only to further isolation. On the other hand, there is a clear sense of chumming for fish. Throw something out on the water to attract some activity in the hope of catching a bigger fish. Meantime the ground of all this ranting and raving (there is some cogent thinking I hope) is my painting. It is still premised on being in the “white cube” the stage where the viewer and the work can interact and where both can be transformed. It is still primitive and is reminiscent of a believer in a church(a religious metaphor I used once on twitter that brought out the ire in an atheistic art critic with lots of followers) yet  miles away from the tumult on the net where everybody and their uncle pretends to know the status quo of the art world and the future. We all pretend to be omniscient. It was an early thinker of the internet Clay Shirky, who referred to this mass internet phenomena in his book “Here Comes Everybody”. But as I have pointed out (and my son Gabriel wrote his PhD thesis on this topic) there is still a power structure that those who have achieved notoriety outside the internet can enforce via a hierarchy of power built into websites on the internet. Trying to break into that hierarchy probably is the goal of my blogging. But as I have pointed out above there are always those who will with pleasure remind you of your irrelevance, where exactly you are situated in the pecking order.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Artists without faces. Or what do you hang your hat on? Jean Gabin, Cecily Brown, Dana Schutz and John Currin.

                         Artists without faces.
               Or what do you hang your hat on?
          Cecily Brown, Dana Schutz and John Currin.


Jean Gabin:"We had faces then"

"We had faces then." Words that describe the Hollywood actors of Gabin’s era: Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Kirk Douglas, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich to name a few. What does it mean to have a face? A sense of fate etched into the face, when you accept the persona which is one part what life casts across your bow and the other part  how you deal with it. Maybe grounded in the singularity of Christ’s body and face on the cross as he fulfills his unique destiny/apotheosis in a discrete moment in time. Or the heroes and heroines of the Iliad born to families that already doom them to a fate beyond their control. Does not apply to Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio, who still looks like to me the pre-adolescent he was one in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”. Too much a baby face to my taste for his gangster roles and Johnny Depp who always intrigued me with his performances in “Ed Wood” and “Edward Scissorhands” is not growing old gracefully. Unlike Gabin he won’t find a role  for an aging personality that Gabin created in “The Dominici Affair”. Nor will Jim Carrey transcend his iconic roles in “The Truman Show” and “The Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind”.  In this postmodern age the self is dischargeable, it carries not burden of debt;  it has no beginning, middle and end. Things seem to bog down in the middle. We are more Buddhistic now! Or transcendental meditators like Carrey. …In our culture if our image is no longer pretty to the public then we had rather euthanize ourselves than seem less than perfect. OK, acting is a job and your face is what you sell. But there seems to be a way that some careers transcend that purely mercenary definition. Their way of persisting to the bitter end.
Grant and Bergman

 From Wikipedia on Dietrich:

Marie Magdalene "Marlene" Dietrich was a German-American actress and singer. Throughout her long career, which spanned from the 1910s to the 1980s, she continually reinvented herself. 

It might be that Hollywood no longer likes it characters to age (obviously Weinstein, the gatekeeper, liked his women young) or is it so pervasive that our society cannot accept the wisdom that comes with age. The notion of the self consistently prevailing over or outwitting  death has disappeared in our throw away culture.

What to hang your hat on?  Nothingness?  This strange sort of erasure has oozed into the painting world. Three cases in point: Dana Schutz, Cecily Brown and John Currin.

When I wrote my seminal piece on “Zombie Formalism” I started the essay discussing some philosophical ideas that are current in academia that may be the underpinning of this new notion of self-erasure:

“In the first few pages of Santiago Zabala’s  “The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy”, there are incessant quotes and statements about how Tugendhat and other 20th c philosophers overcame the subject/object fallacy of Western metaphysics.  First Charles Taylor in a heading states: “Tugendhat is very certain of the kind of construal of self-consciousness he cannot accept. He calls it the subject-object model, and its basic error is to construe consciousness as a relation to an object.”  The author in the first paragraph goes on to quote Gadamer: ”….the subject as starting point, just as orientation to the object, is contested by making the intersubjective communication in language the new universal system of reference.” A few paragraphs later he says:”The impossibility of the mental eye means the end of any pure subjectivity, the end of Cartesian subjectivity, which implies that objects can be seen “objectively” or “scientifically”.”

This is the end of the central role played by the Socratic notion of knowing thyself. Further along in the essay I write:

“The counterattack on this sort of male gaze in 20th century philosophy is the subject of Martin Jay’s “Downcast Eyes”. To make his point about the domination of the visual in our culture, his first paragraph uses a laundry list of words etymologically based in the visual. In the first two sentences he succeeds in using: glance, demonstrate, vigilantly, keeping an eye out, illuminating insight and mirroring.”

The dethroning of the male gaze.

“And, of course, it got extended to the objectifying gaze, which was found most obviously in the male ego, responsible for all that was wrong with the world from slavery, sexism to the despoliation of the environment.”


What struck me about Dana Schutz at her Boston ICA show beyond the obvious hip ”in your face” cartoony funk of the brush stroke was the un-thought out color palette. It seemed to arise out of a beginner’s paint kit of ochres and umbers with a few primary colors thrown in as spice. There was no self-doubt or even a bow to the exploration of 20thc color's ability to move the viewer. It seemed to come right out of the tube. I pointed out in my Schutz essay how in Kirchner and Beckman, who could be considered precedents of Schutz, set off the human gaze against the acid color as in  Kirchner's case or with aggressive cubism as in Beckmann’s, that both try to dissolve it. Instead of seeing the erasure or distortion of the face as a fault or lack maybe it is just the final exit of a Shakespearean/Socratic/Christian self-consciousness. The self-consciousness that arises out of the inevitability of sin or as one sees in the American Westerns the plodding perseverance of the actor who in spite of the burden of sin tries to do good and in the end can etch something substantial into the human gaze.
Currin's cloning 

But we are postmodern. We gain our identities by being part of the group/herd or experiencing no separation between the mass media and the self. Hence the cartoon faces in Schutz’s work. Currin has faces, indeed, but with his ironic gaze deconstructs the vanity of women who imagine themselves to be unique fashion plates into generic good looks. Warhol bequeaths the face to the replicability of the silk screen. But still with the recognizability of the movie star or politician of the larger culture. The persona that still might seduce us with the magic of a Dietrich or of a Garbo is in the clammy hands of Currin devoid of magic, never star quality but intentionally cloned. The snark of a scientist looking at the world through a microscope, the human entity now subject to the replication of a virus.

Cecilly Brown adds her physical presence to her work

The best abstraction acknowledges a self that is not necessarily synonymous with the human face yet tries to achieve the steadiness of a gaze constantly undercut by the psychological and bodily drives. Gorky, Pollock, Rothko had fragile mastery of those underlying forces. Our contemporary practitioner of abstract art Cecily Brown suffers from what Baxandall perceived to be the weakness of so much late 19th c Realism. It was not grounded in the self but was merely descriptive of the current social world. The artists of the Salon painted identifiable landscapes not their perception of them. Brown thinks herself to be an abstract painter who paints abstractions in the tradition of Pollock and de Kooning but like Schutz she never thought twice about the dynamics of color and the tension of flattened space. There is no hovering of the neural matrix over the void that one finds in Pollock, the angst of Rothko knowing his colors hide the reality of one’s nothingness or Gorky’s incredible synthesis of the languages of psychology(surrealism)  and Cubism that tear at each other like angry cats. With Brown it is not zombie formalism but flaccid “Descriptive Abstraction” similar to the dead end of late Salon figuration of the 19thc. All great abstraction takes a bow to Picasso’s "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" with its violent flattening of space and his outrageous imposition of his portrait on the women.I am reminded of  a discussion I had with Al Held of a portrait that Matisse did of his wife that he so much admired. A compression of foreground and background that releases an explosion of energy. 

I once imagined a day when the earthy angst of the early work of Lester Johnson would matter more to our culture than what Blake Gopnik sees as the radicality of a Warhol. Yes! radical in that it uproots the human presence from any authentic meaning on earth. Once pulled away from the body and inserted into the matrix of mass media, it will never be radical in the true sense of the word again. It will roll on and on like tumbleweed over the modern desert. Still waiting for someone to create a radical art that is faithful to its real definition  that it  is “rooted” in the human presence.

Otherwise what is there to hang your hat on.

if you are interested in learning more of my ideas on art get my book on Drawing and Painting