Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Light but Heavy

(Wendy White, Easy Rant, 2009)

Casual, ambivalent, unfinished are words that have been tossed around to describe current painting practices and artmaking: everything from Richard Tuttle, to slapdash abstract painting good and bad, to the Unmonumental show at the New Museum a few years back, to thin paint and “bad painting.” This article calls it “provisional.”

I think the gist is accurate: I do see a lot of under-wrought work around. I’m attracted to it because it doesn’t necessarily follow the rules and also you can see a human spirit at play. I look for vitality and rawness in art and I usually find it in the handmade.

But I’m not such a fan of many of these words, because I take myself seriously as an artist, and words like “casual” don’t sound very substantial. And yet, many writers have suggested that you can be serious and casual at the same time. Maybe. Personally, I’m never casual, even though I’d like to be. The drive behind my own immediate, quick spurts tends to be restlessness, often anxiety.

These words have been pitched as the opposite of program and agenda. And a dichotomy has also been established between everyday and ideal, ideal being a thing of the past, apparently.

I have ideals and I think art can be powerful. I also can feel disillusioned, helpless and that there’s nothing we can do about the way the world or the artworld or art is going. I can be in between an optimist and a cynic, but I’m not indifferent.

All this said, do words help you see?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

On Oehlen

(Albert Oehlen, FM 17, 2008)

In Jordan Kantor’s article about Albert Oehlen’s “Finger Paintings” (summer Artforum) he uses the word “campaign” to describe bouts or surges of a certain something happening in a painting. For example:
Following [Oehlen’s] previous body of work – in which collaged, printed elements jostled with campaigns of virtuoso brushwork in visual mash-ups – this series constitutes a new chapter in Oeheln’s sustained investigation into gesture and how it might signify in the context of contemporary painting.
I like the idea that an artist attacks a painting, that there is waging. I can relate to the approach. You look at the paper and then you go, you go for it, and you don’t really know what’s going to happen.

Investigation is also a key word, as it implies a searching, an inquisitiveness. Kantor argues that Oehlen leaves questions open, that he doesn’t argue a specific point. “Points” and “Positions” and “Intentions” are very important in art school and also for curatorial packaging and gallery marketing. But they bring art to a semantic level, and lessen the primacy of the visual and the visual experience.

So here I am talking about words used to describe an artist whose work isn’t best understood by thoughts and concepts, but through visual marks and scrawls and their possible significance – if any.

Kantor says:
So while they still operate within the aesthetic sphere of painting, these fingered marks speak to some primary moment of abstraction, when the first artists had an idea that mark-making on a flat picture plane might stand in equivalence to other lived experiences.
What makes Oehlen contemporary, is the way he doesn’t assert meaning like many AbEx Iers might have. Marks are no longer considered transcendental – although they might be – but are acknowledged as personal and contingent and also minor.

In short, conflicting impulses and contradiction make for challenging artwork that opens new doors.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Take Two

(Heidi Pollard, Heart, 2011, oil on canvas, 51" x 40")

On Monday I was a very good student, a very good girl, and wrote a mostly serious summary of Amy Sillman’s article in the summer issue of Artforum. It took forever. But in actuality it’s not very accurate: the spirit is missing.

Today, I’m just going to toss out a list of words that can release AbExII (and I). These words are all from Sillman’s article and could become rhetoric, but let’s hope not.

Praxis of doubt
Throw shit down
Mess shit up
Dialectical interrogations
If you want the body to lead the mind
Fat paintbrushes
Reversal of fortune
Double-edged challenge
Orchid-lavender paint
Discarded materialist excess
Repellent aggression
Risk of actual delight
Formalist rap
Like a big old straight guy who had gone gay

Monday, June 13, 2011

AbEx and Disco Balls

(Amy Sillman, Nose, 2010)

The summer issue of Artforum has accessible articles about the legacy of Abstract Expressionism. There are a lot of ideas in there that feel relevant to and for me, so I want to (attempt to) recap some here, probably over the next few posts.

Artist Amy Sillman writes funny. In her “AbEx and Disco Balls: In Defense of Abstract Expressionism II,” she notes that the original “school” has been an object of genuine loathing starting with Warhol (and even some AbExers), seen as overly expressive, outmoded or bourgeois. The original period has been boiled down to clichés and specifically gender clichés. For men, the practice is macho (the spurt of the paint), for women, it’s intuitive stroke making. This is obviously simplistic. The actual movement is filled with vagaries and conflicts that go beyond the mythic identity and rhetoric.

But being pushed aside has meant it has become open territory for artists on the margins. Sillman makes many references to Susan Sontag “Notes on Camp.” These are mostly over my head.

AbEx has become appealing to contemporary artists as “an active embrace of the aesthetics of awkwardness, struggle, nonsense, contingency.” You’ll hear talk about “de-skilled” art, but contemporary AbEx artists aren’t focusing on disregarding technique. Rather we’re interested in the terrain of the gestural, messy and physical. And these gestures, this mess, this tactile-ness are also a “technique of the body.” And the body is political: the woman’s body, the transgendered body. AbEx has in this way been reclaimed, and is a way to be promiscuous or anything an artist so chooses. Form and content become one.

The political body talk reminded me a bit of college, but Silman’s essay is quite a bit more nuanced, because (she argues) the body in the AbEx legacy is a body in conversation. It’s not so black and white.

Friday, June 10, 2011

A talk about Enso with Matt Jones

Matt Jones is an artist living and working in Brooklyn, New York. His most recent show at Freight + Volume was entitled Multiverse.

This interview was conducted for the Artstep Facebook page, where I'm spending few weeks looking at line in art.

Molly Stevens: Can you describe what it's like to watch an Enso being made?

Matt Jones: The only Ensos I've ever seen made have been by the artist I work for, Max Gimblett. Here’s how it usually goes with him: a piece of his favorite paper (Thai Garden Smooth) is set on a drawing board, usually a piece of cardboard. He then either places his hand on the paper - I usually think this is him absorbing its power or making friends with it - or he doesn't. He stands up very straight, breathes in very deeply, and exhales audibly. He always dips his brush (usually a large Japanese or Chinese brush) in and out of a quart container filled with sumi ink; up and down, letting the brush absorb the ink, so maybe the brush is as fluid as the ink. One more quick but deep breath in and then (most of the time) a loud guttural shout as he puts brush to paper. The result is an Enso.

MS: Wow, it’s really a ritual or practice. In the art world, we'd call it a performance. And is the result a circle or a line?

MJ: The result is a circle, though one could obviously argue that a circle is a line that connects to itself. And yes, it's very performative.

MS: And does the result matter?

MJ: For Max, yes. Sometimes there are good ones and sometimes bad ones. Bad ones get ripped up. It’s based on his rules and taste about what a good Enso is versus a bad one.

MS: Do these Ensos serve anyone else? Do they have value for the viewer?

MJ: Yes, I think, in two very specific ways. First: anyone can make an Enso. There is no mystery about it technically; it's a circle on paper. Max talks about this in regards to his workshops. He often says "every participant leaves with one or two masterpieces they've made and it really makes them feel great." That's so important.

MS: I dig that. It really un-geniuses the masterwork.

MJ: And second: Ensos signify many things. The cyclical nature of life. A single moment in time. The relationship between that Enso's moment in time and the next Enso's moment in time. All mind, no mind. Beauty. Clarity. Removal of suffering (confusion), etc. The viewer can do a lot of work with these ideas. The Enso is a marker and catalyst for the viewer to access these things.

MS: Do you think you can see those concepts visually in the line, in the Enso.

MJ: Are you asking if there's an "essence" to an Enso that allows access to that information regardless of context?

MS: Yes.

MJ: No, there’s nothing in an Enso that tells you any of the things I mentioned before outside of the context. There’s no "essence" of an Enso as there is no "essence" of any thing. Context is king when it comes to relaying information and its usefulness.

MS: In twitter form, what is "all mind, no mind.”

MJ: Max would say, I think, that one approaches the paper with every experience of one's life (maybe even all lives of that person and/or all lives of all sentient beings ever, the creative unconscious) and when the action of "painting" is made, it's all emptied out, all of it, and that moment is recorded on the paper. No concepts, only the mark. I think that's what the noise is. The shout. Breathing in everything, breathing out emptiness. Pretty literal metaphors.

MS: I pulled this quote from one of Chogyam Trungpa's essays: “Obviously, the sense of being can’t be one solid thing. It moves constantly. It projects out and in, and is very fickle. Nevertheless, there should be some attempt to relate to the overall situation, to a sense of the whole.”

MJ: A good quotation! But what’s the "overall situation"? What’s the "whole"? The work of art itself? The materials it’s made of? The studio it's produced in, the gallery or museum it's shown in? The city the studio, museum, or gallery it’s in? The state? The country? The continent? The planet? The solar system?

MS: Well, all the artist has is the moment of making. A moment of being on paper.

MJ: And then what if you have 100s of Ensos, as Max does.

MS: Then I think you have 100s of moments of being. And all of them are the big picture.

MJ: And what do you do with those? What is the "whole" there? I think they all add up to objects about a certain attitude relating to a specific moment in time. And one can look back at the 100s of them and see a life. It’s literally Max's life in Enso form.

Monday, June 6, 2011


(Picasso's Guernica)

In Dore Ashton’s A Critical Study of Philip Guston, she sets up two opposite directions for art: the lyrical and the grotesque. The former, consisting primarily of abstract forms, allows the artist to step away – and sometimes step above – the horror of the world. The latter takes the horror on.

I’m not such a fan of the word “grotesque,” because it implies all ugly with no hope of redemption. George Condo, for example, is grotesque. But Ashton seems to use the word “caricature” interchangeably with the word grotesque, and that makes me understand her term a bit better. Picasso’s Guernica is cited as an example of the grotesque.

She says some artist lines tend towards caricature. (I think mine do.) Nowadays that kind of line is often called cartoony, but I think caricature is a fuller word meaning both essence and distortion at the same time. The opposite of caricature might be “visually realistic.”

With postmodernism in the 80s and 90s, terms aren’t so established anymore and therefore the lyrical-grotesque division isn’t so neat. You can really be in between terms, or be both, or mean different things by either. Over at Two Coats of Paint, Sharon Butler proposes that concepts like “incompleteness” or even “failure” are more accurate ways to talk about what drives contemporary abstract painting forward to completion.

I think the more words the merrier. Just pick on purpose.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A bit on dopamine

In a my-kind-of-talk interview on Monday, Dr. Gabor Maté talked to Amy Goodman about stress diseases and how they stem from broken parent-child relationships, not from genetic abnormalities.

Humans are driven to be close to one another. In terms of the brain, when intimacy is shunned, dopamine levels go down. Dopamine is an essential life chemical that provides the brain with incentive and motivation. So, no love, no dopamine. No dopamine, no function.

If a child is showing signs of agitation or loss of concentration, doctors now dope up the kid on stimulant medications. The idea is that if dopamine levels are elevated, focus and attention are intensified. Yet, while these drugs can certainly be helpful, this knee-jerk prescription solution ignores the environmental causes of these symptoms, namely lack of connection and nurturing in the nuclear family or community.

As I understand it, dopamine is also associated with reward-linked behaviors like addiction. Do something, release dopamine, feel better. Do, get, do, get. Apparently the ding of an incoming Facebook alert or email releases dopamine. Hence social media as a stand-in for substantial emotional connection does the trick, scratches the itch. No needles.

It also seems that because dopamine increases goal-centered behavior and decreases inhibition, it releases the urge to be creative. Do we create as a means to be rewarded, or do we create because we have healthy connections?