Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Puff the pipe

(Self-portrait of Polish artist Pawel Althamer in Milan)

I showed some of my new drawings to an artist friend of mine and she at one point asked, “what about shading?” I told her I thought shading in this case would be mostly a shtick, that it served no other purpose than effect. She looked at me like I was some kind of uptight puritan. I can handle that.

Then we were talking about some text-based videos I’m preparing for a concert at a club on the Lower East Side this fall. I told her it was essentially enjoyable but lightweight work for which I had to worry about things like shades of red. She basically wondered what was wrong with that and recommended that I become more “hedonistic.” I can see what she means.

Then, in a review of “After Nature” at the New Museum, Peter Schjeldahl in this week’s New Yorker notes, “But the futility of artistic technique in the face of world conditions may constitute a subject for art as substantial as any other, and rather more compelling than today’s stacked-deck models of success.” What I think he means by that is that there’s a trend in contemporary art that’s veering away from virtuosity and seduction and towards what he actually calls “existentialist standards of authenticity” (ie: contemplative, serious work with a pinch of suffering).

He says,
“Politically, the new art is benumbed. Desperate to eschew narcissism of money and fame, along with academically entrenched ideology, the artists operate at psychological depths at which social attitudes can’t coalesce. (This is an interesting counterpoint in a summer when politics of the get-out-the-vote kind generates something like avant-gardist passion among young people suddenly excited to deem themselves citizens.)"

I don’t quite get what he means, but my hunch is that this attitude could turn into self-importance. I think I’d like to aim for an unaffected balance between “hedonism” and “existentialism.”

Monday, July 28, 2008

Sweet Revenge

I came out of a bout of depression earlier this year with the visceral understanding that there is not one art world – Gagosian’s - and that carving out your own niche is not only the most you can hope for, but the best you can hope for. This revelation released me from an extreme pressure I felt to make it down a very narrow path I had paved in my mind. Part of that path, for mostly random reasons, included getting into AIM hosted by the Bronx Museum of the Arts. The first four times I received my "unfortunately" letter kept me from the studio for weeks.

While I’ve become mostly casual about such programs – and even the rejections - , it was still with great and sick pleasure that I read Roberta Smith’s ruthless review of this year’s AIM exhibition.

Let it rip!

A few poignant goodies:

Perhaps an overfamiliarity with Conceptual Art and especially the theories it inspired can leave young artists with no sense of how to make an artwork that holds together as an experience. You can sense the lack of connection to either materials or self in their statements, which appear on the wall labels beside the work. They mix overblown, one-size-fits-all artspeak with quite a bit of wishful thinking about their work’s impact, as if they could control the meaning or effect of their work.
Not much else here will slow you down. It does gives me pause that 26 of the 36 artists have master’s degrees in fine arts from respected universities or art schools. I think most of them should ask for their money back. On the evidence here, at least, they have only a meager understanding of what being an artist entails.

“How Soon Is Now?” suggests that there is no point in spending time on “professional development” or learning how to advance one’s work in the marketplace if artistic development is not well under way. That requires lots of long, hard looking at all kinds of art, in all mediums, from all periods and cultures. Aspiring artists need to expose themselves to the sheer intensity and variety of art, to learn what they love, what they hate and if they are actually artists at all. New York’s galleries and especially its great museums offer ample opportunity for this kind of self-education, which leads to self-knowledge. Anything is possible when artists set to work knowing they have something they urgently need to say, in a way it hasn’t quite been said before.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Ritalin Rebellion

As a pre-teen, I was considered to have a focus problem and was promptly put on Ritalin. The drug drastically focused my attention and as a result I was able to plow through mountains of boring reading and writing. I just did what I was told to do, like a task. While it got me through school and most of college, I’m starting to see that it came at the cost of developing and feeling confident about personal ways of thinking.

An article in this week’s New Yorker partly explains why by looking into the work of neuroscientists Mark Jung-Beeman and John Kounios.

The right side of the brain deals with, among other things, linguistic nuance, connotation, emotional charge and metaphor, and also insight or “Aha” moments. In order for the right side of the brain to be able to reach into its depths, we have to be relaxed.

“The relaxation phase is crucial.’ Jung-Beeman said. ‘That’s why so many insights happen during warm showers.”Or in the pre-sleep, post-wake-up state. The brain is “unwound,”open to unconventional ideas. It’s a state of concentration that nevertheless allows the mind to wander, to free-associate. So, this is why we often have insights when we’re involved in an activity that is not related to a problem we’re trying to work out: because we’re awake but not overly focused.

Can't say I've spent a lot of time unwound.

The article continues:

“Many stimulants, like caffeine, Adderall, and Ritalin, are taken to increase focus[…] but according to Jung-Beeman and Kounios, drugs may actually make insights less likely, by sharpening the spotlight of attention and discouraging mental rambles. Concentration, it seems, comes with the hidden cost of diminished creativity.”

Fascinating! So, food for even more therapy.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Shut up already

Sometimes learning about an artist’s intentions really reduces the impact of a piece or the work as a whole.

I walked into Mathew Marks yesterday where a survey of contemporary painting is on view (the show continues at Greene Naftali). I thought the installation looked appealingly clean and bright and was particularly attracted to a piece by Lily Van Der Stokker (above) and Wade Guyton (below).

But, then I read about Van Der Stokker online and learned she’s interested in creating art that doesn’t have to be explained, that isn’t heavy, that’s anti-elite. Fine. But, even though her piece at Marks is called "Complain Mountain," it now seems a bit Pollyanna and kind of dumb.

Then I found an entire – and DENSE – article on Guyton in Artforum, only to understand how much I don’t understand about his work. The work in the gallery suddenly lost its freshness, it’s visual and graphic appeal.

Does this mean the work doesn’t actually hold on it’s own? Or does it mean that art speak is often a killer? Because I’m reading Mark Rothko’s writings on art – and more on this another day – I’m leaning towards the one-language-is-enough argument. At least today I am.

Monday, July 14, 2008


In a show of contemporary Icelandic art at Luhring Augustine, there’s a catchy video installation by Ragnar Kjartansson. You walk into a pink chiffon-lined dark room where a 1950s crooner and his orchestra gloomily repeats and repeats “Sorrow conquers happiness.” It’s both funny and sad.

I usually hate this kind of installation. A room decorated to suit a video; usually the décor adds nothing. But, in this case, the pink is satisfying. Also, the image looks crisp and stylish. And it’s good to be able to digest the extent of the piece rather quickly – this is not a thirty minute narrative.

For some reason, the piece is called God. This is pretentious, for sure, and makes me second-guess my attraction to the piece. But, maybe I’ll let it slide.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Summer Sluggish

Saw a few shows yesterday. I was vaguely intrigued by Crop Rotation at Marianne Boesky. The structure above is in fact made of mirror-material, and the spray-painted text you see is a reflection (the phrase is written backwards on a wall in front, that you don’t see).
But the exhibition is very heady. Perhaps the opposite problem of what appeared in the New York Times today.

This is exactly what I hate about “political art.” This thing is a one-liner. There’s no nuance, complexity, and certainly no poetry. Could that girl be in a Tide commercial or what?

Then there was Danica Phelps at Zach Feuer. She’s selling her scroll drawings by the inch. There are also piles of letters and a hanging mobile of letters, apparently made from trash, a purging of her practice of obsessively writing down every detail of her life (the practice that made her name).

Monday, July 7, 2008

Being Serious without Being Boring

In a June review of Louis Camnitzer’s show at Alexander Grey Associates, Caroline Busta in Artforum describes a 1978 piece by the artist, that refers to the death penalty and power dynamics.

"The text on the plaque positions the artist-genius as dictator and the viewer as being at his mercy: THE GENIUS OF AN ARTIST IS DEFINED BY THE PUBLIC THE ARTIST CHOOSES TO DEFINE HIM AS A GENIUS. A MISTAKE IN THE CHOICE OF A SINGLE SPECTATOR CAN CREATE THE DIFFERENCE BETWEE BEING A GENIUS OR ONLY A NEAR GENIUS. TO KILL THAT PARTICULAR SPECTATOR IS THE MOST SIMPLE AND DIRECT WAY TO BECOME A TOTAL GENIUS. […] But seen today Sifter functions primarily as a reminder of the era in which it was produced; one in which such earnest, literal, politicized artistic gestures had real agency."

There’s a general consensus that a 1960s revolution-minded attitude is naïve or outmoded. I do get this, to a certain extent. You can’t change the world overnight (anymore). And you can’t pretend to know what’s best for a diverse society. It’s didactic, a bit arrogant and usually heavy-handed. This way of thinking has seeped into the art world, where art with a mission is seen as arrogant or earnest. I get this – to a certain extent.

I’m just wondering how art with a position can distinguish itself from what’s become a reigning cynicism. How can art “impart a sense of political responsibility,” as Busta says, without being suffocating or uninteresting?

My initial guess is: avoid the irony, favor the metaphor.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Looking for just one more depressing movie to inspire your summer? Try 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, about two young women doing what they have to do to for one of them to get an abortion in communist Romania in 1987. It’s as much about the task at hand as it is about facing a soggy world alone, where many wield a power they barely have.

At the risk of sounding pretentious, time is an enjoyably rich character in the film. It’s slow and heavy at times – one of the women lies on a hotel bed waiting for her inserted probe to take effect (sounds gruesome, but it’s not) – and tense and frightening at others – during a torturous dinner scene, you watch the other woman sitting through a loud dinner party bearing the weight of her secret.

Their friendship is tender and honest, realistically complex. Not bad for a man director. I recommend.