Counterfeit Commonality

1. Wonder and Awe

2. Doubt

3. Forsakenness; retreat to self.

Karl Jaspers talked at me about this.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Finally, and What Feelings Never Cease Their Iron Grip

Doris Salceda
Untitled (Armoire) 1992

February was the free weekday special at the Museum of Art in Chicago. I visited a few days of every week while I could. It was, rather embarrassingly, my first visit there. The coat check crew grew tired of seeing me very early on.

The first day I couldn't stop for any length of time at all in the late 17th or early 19th century. I needed something else. I wanted to binge on some fleshier work, something coagulated and floundering. So I sought out some of the Ab Ex.

There's a concentrated area wherein Joan Mitchell, De Kooning, Pollack and David Smith all glower at you. Hanging around Ab Ex feels like watching a motorcycle gang from a nervous and timid periphery. They're just really tough. The reputation is true, and I can see what all the lampooning is about as clearly as anyone. But the work is tough. Undeniably. It's athletically poetic. Where would we be without it? What a dumb way to think, I suppose.

They have De Kooning's "Attic" and a much later one from the 70's not far away. I love the work from the 70's. His vision just blooms and undulates like he's constructing something that breathes, battered and eviscerated though it may be. I'm for art that's beaten into existence. On top of this De Kooning's is sexy and lovely and sensuous. Like you can see the genesis of a genetic lineage of flowers.

Willem De Kooning
Untitled 1975

Sure, De Kooning has all the signature marks of the macho bravado of Abstract Expressionism, but really, enough with all the schoolyard hushed talk about the aggressive kid. In-crowd reactionary art about other art really only goes so far. Endurance calls for far more personal risk. Except Paul McCarthy. Fire away, sir. Yours is keen insight into universal human absurdity.

Untitled XI from 1975 is juicy. It's a prime example of a consistency lacking in contemporary discipline. If a better pure painter was produced in the States in the 20th century I have yet to discover them.

Joan Mitchell comes close.

Joan Mitchell
Untitled 1955

I want her to tie me to a chair in a room with one wall of windows and beat on me until I pass out. Is that weird?

Cy Twombly
The First Part of the Return from Parnassus 1961

Twombly speaks my language. To quote a love song by Erland Oye: "My baby, when you're gone there's no one, and I'm lonely." It's as simple as that. Twombly's aesthetic is par excellence when it comes to speaking in tongues.

I just read the below article which was presented not long ago by Carol A. Nigro. It's got it all. I won't waste your time.

Cy Twombly's Humanist Upbringing, Carol A. Nigro, earch/tateresearch/tatepap ers/08autumn/carol-a-nigro .shtm

Surprises abound in museums. It has become a place for me to go to gauge my devotion to what I'm supposedly aiming for in my own life. You go for lessons, for discussion, to see what still seems spectacular, what has become stale or banal or has always failed spectacularly. Have I kept myself flexible? Have I kept myself open yet sought insight and formed my own opinions? It's all there for us. I collect toss-aways and garbage and debris and going to the museum offers much of the same, too. It's just more rich raw material much of the time, raw material to be left intact for others.

I've seen Doris Salceda's work before. Many times even, but often in reproduction. At least, the concrete and furniture piece. It really grabbed me this time. I was just ready for it to come inside. It's arranged in a little niche with some other great work.

A Kiki Smith for one. Her work has had a line directly into me for as long as I am able to recall. A very straightforward display of what looks like flayed flesh is pinned to a wall. It's just paper and water based paint but it knocked me over from a hundred feet away just the same. Preschool children use these materials. Here it is on a museum wall knocking me silly.

Kiki Smith
Untitled 1988

Brice Marden
Attendant 2, 1996-99

Brice Marden is odd. His shift to the above play of abstraction was some of the first nonobjective painting toward which my developing eye gravitated.

That means a lot to me. Finding those ins to new terrain is one thing that perhaps the information age takes for granted. But, as I've maintained for years, the phenomenological experience of even 2D images is irreplaceable. Growing up as I did in one of the vast expanses of nowhere in the U.S. I seldom came across good art. So, discovering Marden in books was one thing. Rediscovering him in person was something else.

But he holds. The flow and sensuality of the image can be somewhat beleaguered by it's dry, stiff surface. This tension is nice. All the simple formal elements add up to some very poetic results. And sincerity, too. Take the leap; risk being sentimental and lame.

Mary Cassatt
The Child's Bath, 1893

Mary Cassatt has long been a mainstay of my visual vocabulary. Probably even before my age reached the double digits. It's all kind of kitschy and borders on the verge of a Hallmark Card image, but that's the risk she took. It's one of the most difficult risks a serious artist can take; to be intellectually branded as kitschy or sentimental.

But the work is powerfully touching. Cassatt worked fucking hard. And she didn't stray into territory where her personal visual endeavors didn't belong. That's too easy to do. She found her voice, and she stuck it out.

The bit of canvas in "The Bath" I detailed up top, it's some of my favorite rendering and placement of shape within composition of any painting I've ever seen. There is, of course, something baptismal or at least loosely affiliated with Christian imagery going on in this painting. What with the washing of feet and all. The pose is something similar to Michelangelo's Pieta'. I'm injecting some of my personal baggage into it, of course, but I can't help but see it as an image of protection. A protector finding rituals appropriate for shuttling their ilk into a harsh world.

Luca Giordano
Abduction of the Sabine Women

I never knew anything about Luca Giordano. My preferences in pre-modern paintings never really veered toward the grandiose canvases of the Italians, but I was captivated in that area in the collection. Not just by Giordano's Abduction, but most potently by far.

First of all, the arrangement of the life-sized figures is unusual, it's emphatically asymmetrical. The action is lead and played out over and over (rendering the retelling of this particular tale a more horrible and less theatrical tone). In fact, Giordano's handling of paint and his treatment of the figure in both rendering and pose look so much like what Goya did a little while later.

I am absolutely blown away by this piece. It's pathos and violence are powerful. It sweeps and punctuates the space.

Philip Guston

I'm not sure what to say about Philip Guston at this point in my life. He's meant so much to me. I don't think it's all gold. It's not. His is a modern art hero's tale, but its got legitimacy. He took unintellectual risks. His Plain in Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum collection changed me. He was just a name before that. Painters need to look at Guston's surfaces. I assumed that more knew what this meant, but it isn't so. It's very much a painter's term. If ever any Ab Ex painter managed to infuse concept into the material and breath new life into a brush's touch, Guston was he.

Brice Marden's flow of image which I'd mentioned as being somewhat incongruent to the paint handling and surface; Guston's like that, too, but it's the opposite. His images and drawing are clunky. But the surface and paint handling are delicious. His is a virtuosity and grandeur supporting images of feverish insomnia and awkwardness.

I love that he took what was developed in materials and imagery through Abstract Expressionism and brought it back to a heavy human stain again.

Automatism. The re-emergance of the figure from long abstracted fields. Homage to history's stake. A head completely in the present. These things combine brilliantly in Guston's work. It's pregnant with human sadness, and the paintings and drawings respirate between feeling congested and expansive all at once. From Phil Guston I've learned to better honor my instincts. From Phil Glass I've renewed my commitment to making work that could be feasibly authored by an idiot. There's a powerfully subversive sophistication to simple-mindedness.

I also very recently saw his Reverse which was painted late in life at the Toledo Museum of Art. It's miles deep, but so spare. He gifted it to a writer whom he met late in his life, a man through whom he felt understood and with whom he had great conversations.

I have a terrible feeling in my stomach. It comes from the suspicion that passionate writers and visual artists don't have a healthy relationship anymore. Writers invested in art write about art and read art theory. Artists read theory, too, and then make work about it. But the two are divorced from one another. No communication. It seems stagnant and incestuous. Gross and sad.

Jean Baptiste Camille Corot (French, 1796-1875) isn't exactly pertinent to young artists. I overlooked him for a couple of decades. Landscapes from the 19th century don't exactly make me quiver and tingle. Corot is a painter's painter in certain ways, though. His landscapes were obviously consumed readily by a nonpainter audience in his time, but they are sophisticated in ways that stimulate a much more discerning pair of eyes, too. The light is exquisite, often of an aching timbre.

Jean Baptiste Camille Corot
Souvenir of the Environs of Lake Nemi, 1865

But I was so surprised and mesmerized by his Interrupted Reading from 1870. The treatment of the figure, it's blockiness and heaviness; they seem to allude to what would come to us through the Cubists. My ignorance prohibits me at this moment from knowing whether or not Picasso studied Corot's work at all, but this piece reads undeniably like a precursor to many of Picasso's monumental women. If seen in context with his tight and meticulous landscapes it comes across as that much more surprising. It's comparatively loose, paired down, and the focus is brought to very specific points. The feel of Corot's brush on the surface suddenly becomes more intimate.

Jean Baptiste Camille Corot
Interrupted Reading 1870

It's noteworthy to point out that the piece Interrupted Reading was painted in the last years of Corot's life. It radiates a lifetime of looking and studying, of the reward inherent in continually finding the profundity in playfulness. What else could it be but that very concept which Picasso was trying to tell us later?

Pablo Picasso
Head 1927

Picasso's surrealist figurative experiments from the 1920's and 30's couldn't possibly mean more to me. Just brutal and raw. Splayed, crooked, taut, unflinching. Playfulness like this is as offputting and inevitable as a young boy torturing small animals.

They say more about our conundrum of being human than most would like to admit.

Gerhard Richter
Ice 3

The seductive qualities of oil paint are seemingly limitless. Never mind all the intellectual rigor mortis. It's just sexy and full of life and death by itself. One of the challenges of art making is to present something that stands on its own as an experience of significant and shaped magnetism. Oil on surface has proven itself to get an artist there with great efficiency through all the technological changes. There will never be a viable substitute for human on human fucking. Oil paint has that same primal quality.

So, it's with some real disappointment that I find myself at odds with my most recent encounters with Gerhard Richter's work. In my development as a painter he's been key in that primal seduction with the material. I suppose I've always been aware of the fierce intellect behind his practice, but now I cannot shed it's ubiquitous coloring of the work.

Consistency is Richter's domain. He's kept that same cool rhythm for decades. And, obviously, he's been quite prolific. So now where his abstracts seemed so celebratory before, they now feel clinical. Or, more precisely, the ever-present clinical quality is not subsumed by their celebratory bravado. How did I never note the restraint in the past? His power as a painter is astounding, but the lack of animus leaves one feeling bereft of a potentially deeper experience. It's an interesting tension. The odd taste of failure seems to come from these canvases painted with such virtuosity.

Gerhard Richter
Two Candles, 1982

Martin Puryear
Sanctuary 1982

I know dick about Martin Puryear. I was lucky enough to happen to be in MOMA when his retrospective was taking place in New York. I admit, I glanced over most of it.

Sanctuary really grabbed me, though. Figurative nonliteral sculpture with a healthy pinch of playfulness grabs my boys. If I weren't as clumsy I'd work with wood instead of paint. But I can't afford to lose all my fingers right now.

Charles Ray
Hinoki, 2007

Charles Ray's room feels like a meditation room. That seems fitting. Or probably intentional. "Hinoki" looks like a dead log. That's what it is, but not really. Or actually, not, but just not entirely. It seems too pale and uninflected to be that, so you start thinking "this must be cast" because something is off about it. If you look closely or just read the information provided you learn that it's all carved. It's a carved sculpture of a dead log Ray had found, but it's carved from new wood by a team of professionals from Japan. Ray cast it, and they imitated the form.

Can one transfer the consciousness of a fallen and decaying tree into a less decayed "tree?" Or is this about the projected consciousness we put into other things? When we preserve things is it just another pathetic and beautiful attempt to talk to the future about our thoughts?

I'm not one to react well or readily to information-heavy pieces, but it's unfair to call Ray's piece info-heavy. It provides so much visual pleasure and weirdness. It's graceful and meditative and proportioned to elicit charged response to a viewer's bodily interaction in space. It's also celebratory. A dead log, but given a proxy through which it's likeness will last another several hundred years. All with the visible touches of the human hand and mind.

This was intended to be a succinct and thorough personal review of my experiences at the Chicago Institute Museum of Art. It failed. It was terribly naive of me to think that I could do it all at once. It's really just a paltry cross section at best. But, then I've always set out to offer impressions rather than enlightenment.

My collection of sensations there will never be forgotten, but also never fully expounded upon in a blog. Another lesson in humility.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Brown Line Eyes

Brown Line Eyes

For some weeks I've been depending on the trains in Chicago to get to and from work. The cold and snow are too much for my limited body and limited gear to ride my bicycle.

It's been nice to read on the train. People watching is fascinating, too. There were some new fashion spread billboards put up on the Brown Line platform. They're roughly lifesize images of a smiling model in winter wear. Situated as they are along the railing that lines the outer edge of the platform they are exposed to vandals. I waited several days to see what would happen. Soon enough someone acted on their compulsion to decry the outlandishly handsome man's image. But the marks were surprising. Just angry slashes across the eyes. None of the usual squiggled marker or highly stylized graffiti. Not even blackened teeth.