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Friday, January 15, 2021

Outside the Walls, a meditation on the contemporary scene

 One thing I miss is the time when America had big dreams about the future. Now it seems like nobody has big hopes for the future. We all seem to think that it’s going to be just like it is now, only worse.

Andy Warhol, America

It’s sort of my philosophy—looking for the nothingness. The nothingness is taking over the planet.

—The Andy Warhol Diaries

 Art outside the Walls

These quotes followed the byline of Gary Indiana’s hit job on Blake Gopnik’s “Warhol” in Harper’s. I was directed to the article by Jed Perl after I sent him my blogpost on his “Calder” that compared their two mega tomes that were published this year. In that blogpost I pointed out that Calder uploaded his metaphysics of form into the popular culture and Warhol took “pop” culture and downloaded it his work. I thought that was rather clever of me! 

 Judging from the above quotes I thought that the Harper’s article might deal with the subject of nothingness in the work of Andy. The second quote seems to be a paraphrase of Nietzsche’s famous quote about how the wasteland grows. In an earlier essay I referred to Warhol as an acolyte of the church of contemporary nothingness. 15 minutes of fame was all the transcendence we would know in life. In a brief exchange with Gopnik on twitter when Gopnik’s book first came out I got gopnik to read the above-mentioned essay, which he found interesting but wrong. He went on to praise Koons as the successor to Warhol. He used the term aesthetic agnosia as Koon’s contribution the world of art. Aesthetic agnosia is a sort of brain damage that disallows as it were the recognition of an object. Does Koon’s cause brain damage or is the use of the term meant to describe Koon’s rendering of his objects inaccessible to normal aesthetics. Is not nihilism just an expansion of our notion of what is aesthetic. There seemed to be a resistance on Gopnik’s part to my attempt to see Warhol as a priest of the religion of nothingness. Based on the above quotes Warhol was no philosophical neophyte. 

The Indiana piece surprisingly did not deal with nihilism despite the quotes but was a rather straightforward essay on a book that seems to be a rehash at  best and badly written at the worst.

Over the years artists have left comments on my blog insisting that the so-called nihilistic tendencies of Zombie Formalism provided just another tool in the artist’s toolbox to make interesting art. These comments were framed in a sort of resentment that the use of the term nihilism that has such mean connotations should be applied to the postmodern phenomena of neo-abstraction. I never said that such art was off limits but rather that is had consequences. And made it difficult for an artist to engage the work of the visual powerhouses of Pollock, Gorky, Rothko and de Kooning in a sort of visual battle in the way they had engaged Picasso, Miro and Kandinsky in their work. Raphael Rubinstein named it ‘provisional painting’ and Sarah Butler named it casualist painting, both monikers implying a rather open-ended attitude toward painting, on the one hand not aggressively reductive and on the other not reaching for a Hegelian self-overcoming. I once lauded her strategy of putting that kind of painting in a negative dialectic with modernism. A handle for art critics to grab on to. Addison Parks in Boston put together a show called “the severed ear” that seemed to say abstraction is a visual language that need not be only a noisy gigantomachia but should be spoken as it were to describe day to day experiences. He included the witty deconstruction of Richard Tuttle and the private narrative of a life lived in the art of Tim Nichols. In the case of Parks, he just liked that kind of painting as it seemed to allow for more autobiography. In the case of Rubinstein it seemed to be a sort of weak Hegelianism influenced indirectly by the philosopher Vattimo’s notion of “weak being.”  Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe references one of the adherents of the provisionalist school Charlene von Heyl in an article he wrote called Teaching What Can’t be Taught” whose work was included in the “Forever Now” show at MoMA. Whereas the show was premised on the end of dialectics and history where in the lingo of Fukuyama the same ideas just get recycled, Jeremy puts her in a world of just good painting, where quoting Herbie Hancock on playing with Miles Davis: They just got it right as the music was playing itself. 

For me I cannot shake the creative explosion of the Impressionists and its seminal effect on Modernism. It seemed based on a deeper cognitive notion of how our eye/mind shapes the world and I probably rather naively thought that more and deeper insights could be drawn from that period in time. Reading the work of cognitive scientist David Marr in the late 80’s it even seemed possible to come up with an abstraction that went deeper or somewhere else. Svetlana Alpers who was introduced to my book on drawing and painting had read his work but had not predicted the same radical conclusions. Serendipitously I learned that a colleague of Alpers at UC-Berkeley Whitney Davis had such hopes and expresses his disappointment in an interview from “Farewell to Visual Studies” edited by James Elkins et alia.  But the postmodern equivocation of cultural and scientific insights made it impossible to construe anything world changing of the visual in his work. Scientific culture has been problematized as purely a Western phenomenon on par with the world views of other cultures. As well as our popular “pop” culture.  In the mean-time social issues so dominant in the thirties and forties of the last century have overtaken temporarily the commercial world of art. Interestingly enough the book which is collection of discussions on the role of Visual Studies at the University level there are scant references to contemporary artists. 

I have been led to repeat some territory already covered in earlier blogposts and in my book as a prelude to writing about a show of a former student she put together in Black Mountain NC. Such a portentous place where Albers taught painting and Charles Olson taught poetry. I said I could not promise that it would be sympathetic and mentioned my review of a show by Lorraine Shemesh, who I was a student with at Tanglewood with Philip Pearlstein as the artist in residence. Just had this flash that she does underwater Pearlstein’s. In any case I used it a pretext for the impossibility of what could have been very romantic paintings but placed a barrier between the seer and the seen. And talked about the romanticism of Edwin Dickinson that was so 19thc with its Shakespearean notion of the seer.

The art world is so beholden to the historical and its Hegelian version that it is absolutely impossible to get recognition if you are outside the zeitgeist or in some way either evolving with it the dialectics or consciously rejecting them. A former student talked about an interesting exchange with Roberta Smith and her husband Jerry Saltz on the relationship of his art to the contemporary scene. Although Saltz came across as the mensch he plays on twitter, he peremptorily dismissed this student’s involvement in painting the figure in the landscape as overdone in the art world and not worth talking about. This is without seeing the student’s work. I have found the notion of a personal journey in art that might conjure up some necessary interactions with art of the past crucial to being an artist. IN the 90’s I was soaking up and applying so much AbEx only to be told by an art historian at UNH that it has already been done. The harsh constraints imposed by the academicians on the individual artists.

Despite attempts to contemporize the show with its title “The feminine gaze” and have it carried along by notions of the diversity of a women’s gaze like all art the medium is the message. Moreover, the strength of the work lies in the success with which each artist uses their respective mediums. Fortuitously Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe in the above quoted essay cites Paul Valery who felt that ceramics was the highest form of art as it involves the possibility of the piece blowing up in the kiln. This possibility haunts Melisa Cadel’s work reinforcing a notion of the fragility of the human ego and the human body. The ego seems strengthened in the ceramic of the bald head empowered by the wreath of bloodied hands. The reference to a native American headdress works in that the role of feathers is to empower the wearer with the power of the bird from whence they came. Or are  they “scalps”  of past conquests. People get bloodied in her work; there is a man presumably killed by a victorious woman. No matter how adversarial the images seems in the end  the bald headed woman surrounded by her conquests seems to speak to vulnerability. Is the work about fragility of our human conquests? The hoody that is flat on the floor  might be a reference to wife killer Carl Andre whose work was often placed in the same manner on the floor? I have lately been reading about Cormac McCarthy and his classic "Blood Meridian" that someone described as a mix of Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" and Melville's "Moby Dick". Is this ceramic head that of Judge Holden the scalper?

Cunningham and Bessac

Angela Cunningham has learned marvelously the techniques of verisimilitude. Realism’s evolution from the Early to the High Renaissance results in an increase in the recognition of individual personality in portraiture. Angela understands the connection between oil painting technique and the uniqueness of each person’s face. In the Mannerists that precision becomes “mannered” and less precise. Angela stops before that stage. The technique of chiaroscuro perfected by Caravaggio leaps beyond the mannerists and is where Angela chooses not to go. She feels at home in the seamless connection of body and face that playing around with black and white might undermine. So different from John Currin an artist who used classical techniques only to mock their ability to describe a self.

                                                      Cadel and Cunningham

Anne Bessac makes that leap using charcoal within the language of chiaroscuro. Functioning on the borderline of using black and white both as abstraction/flatness and the voluminous allows her to achieve an energy that is reminiscent on the one hand of Richard Serra’s abstract charcoal drawings and Jim Dines figurative drawings. This juggling of the two directions that the use of value can take the viewer gives her work a great deal of visual sophistication.  The faces are suppressed in favor of the bodily presence. Like those two artists she “values” the white of the page incising the marks made by the line into its whiteness. The woman’s monumentality reference the earth mothers of prehistoric times. 

                                                                  Cadel and Bessac

Although the works in this show are a vehicle for the contemporary political agon of feminism they show a reverence for both the material used and the historicity of the visual languages. They are hermeneutical. They reach back into the past to see how those languages can be used as platforms for contemporary narratives.

                                                                     The above work can be seen at the: 
                                                                     Flood Gallery, Black Mountain, NC
                                                                  “Diverse, The Contemporary Female Gaze”
                                                                      November 15, 2020-January 31, 2021

                                                                   A critique more focused on the artists

followed by a thoughtful comment by Anne Bessac