Counterfeit Commonality

1. Wonder and Awe

2. Doubt

3. Forsakenness; retreat to self.

Karl Jaspers talked at me about this.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Personal Land-Speed Record

This weekend trotted out of the gate with (I believe) Pittsburgh's first Visionary Arts Festival. It was loosely described to me some weeks ago as a blanket term for a gaggle of artists whose work could fit into a sense of mysticism. Ok, ok, but then... what?

Pittsburgh is the kind of town where an arts fest is still a reason to set up tents in a scenic area and make visual jumbleaya. It makes for little cultural impact, but it's relaxed. Very. It's a way to get people together and have something for tourist mags to write about. And some decent artists get attention, too.

And this is certainly no claim that no good work makes its way into the mix. It just has more of a County Fair feeling to it than an Art Basil one.
Maybe it's for this reason that the quantity of nude suggestive images of women felt right. Only, instead of tossing darts at targets or pennies into glasses to win posters of Pamela Anderson's tits you are meant to experience the works as art in a tent.
Mike Buddhai has been known to get lusty at times. Some newer images feature his cute-enough-to-puke animals and vampires screen printed over the nether regions of TNA magazine starlets.

Someone else was also experimenting with incorporating gratuitous images of loose women into multi-media pieces. Quite at home next to such lasciviousness was, of course, Cornell-esque little pieces cut into old texts about the seven deadly sins. Although, I don't think "Anger" was among the list of sins as the title to one of pieces would have us believe.

Then there was some electronic stuff. Some kids scribbling on giant paper. Some pretty digital prints. Some horrendous painting.

The standouts for me were Carly and Vanessa German. Carly's work I'd seen very little of. We're acquaintances, but the occasional fist pound revealed little to me as to how profound her private little world of image making has become. That's exactly what it is, too; a very private little world. That's only part of the reason it absolutely smacks of Alice Neel. In a very good way. The paintings there were all self-portraits and obviously done from life. Just very spare and honest and genuine. Not the most accomplished technically, but really the most straightforward impressive thing I've seen done in paint from someone in Pittsburgh in a long while. The nudity in her watercolors is so erotic, too. She paints herself from behind on all fours with both orifices deftly and clearly represented. Nearby are the water pots used to keep the brushes fresh. Nothing else is there. They're stark and so natural and off-putting simultaneously.
Thrown in among the paintings were boxes of ancient rotting fruit paired against her own body represented in paint. The connection doesn't seem emphasized, and Carly dresses like Keith Haring; very colorful, like someone you pay to entertain children, but rotting bananas next to nudes vibes in a specific way for better or for worse. She's so odd but sincere in her searching. That's rare for Pittsburgh. That honesty and private restlessness.

Vanessa German makes rather intense African-influenced pieces. Many are painted dolls with things like shells and bullets and bones incorporated. Sounds like a disaster, but it works. They're really engaging.

From the Visionary Arts Fest in Pittsburgh I went to New York for the remainder of the weekend. From trot to land-speed record. It's astounding. The Moldy Peaches sing that New York City is a graveyard. I love them, but I disagree.
Rob got the idea of going in order to see the Francis Bacon special exhibition at the Metropolitan. That was our first stop. I've long been at task to see what was so worthwhile about Bacon. I'd had very limited access to any of his work in person. The 65 paintings at the Met didn't produce any immediate response. Some were impactful, had an unfolding beyond flashy grotesquery and surface treatment.

I like that he squeezed the work down to the point of hit or miss. He trashed a lot of work we'll never see. I like his thoughts on the nature of removing the intellectual barriers between paint and viewer, but he's not a strong painter. He can compose really, really well. I think of David Hockney drinking too much and forgetting how to paint.

Some of it produced that "raw emotion grafted onto the nervous system" he talks about. I felt nauseous in front of one. When he paints his companion George Dryer it feels so much less sensational, grounded by the reality of human tragedy instead of some abstracted diatribe about how crappy life is.

Seeing that rhino skin-like surface on several of the paintings was really something, too. Bacon is easy to sensationalize. He's accessible, he was an alcoholic, and his filthy studio will always be emphasized. The Met put out displays of some of his actual magazine clippings, drawings, and photos spattered in filth. Nice touch.

James Ensor at the MOMA, though; that is something. I'd only been lightly familiar with his work. The Carnegie here in Pittsburgh has a great piece out on display. Seeing dozens more made him one of the most meaningful artists for me. It was one of the best exhibitions I've ever seen. Succinct to the point of being truncated. That's because his variety, dedication, and craftsmanship is rock solid across the board. I imagine a show twice the size would still fail to do justice to his output.

Whereas Bacon's handling of paint gets its power strictly from its earnestness, Ensor seduces you with one brushstroke, a few pencil lines. His genuine relationship to his materials alone would have carried him far.

But he LIVED his work. That made the difference. It's so truly strange and unapologetic. Some of it could be brilliant work coming out of a studio yesterday, and he worked 100 years ago. That's part of how he's like Goya; ahead of his time. Their drawings are similar, but Ensor's tragic human parody has more humor. Good Christ, the paint! He was a virtuouso, a wag, and a painter with more sincerity than most of my generation can muster.

Some pieces looked like Turner without all the austerity. I prefer it that way. Some looked like Vermeer with softened intensity.

While at the Met I made sure to visit some of my other favorites. The Howard Hodgkin and the late Philip Gustons. Ensor still won out over them for now.

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