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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

art anticipates -- rear-viewing

Art leads, sure seems to. Social and political movements of the twentieth century were previewed by art, so easy to see looking back. The Abstract Expressionists’ ascension was marked by an overthrow of the existing order, make that a radical contempt for all of art history, and the humiliation and banishment of just about everybody involved up until then. No blood, but careers stopped dead, and so did picture making. They claimed the old way of making art was too easy, painting pictures of things, and slathered paint from buckets. Since then, in the ‘real’ world, we’ve had the Taliban blowing up Buddhas, Isis dynamiting Roman ruins, and Pol Pot attempting to turn the human calendar back to the year one. Are these events related -- didn’t say that.

Along came Andy, with a haughty contempt for the high notions of art, ‘Art, why that’s a man’s name’, and ridicule for even the appearance of integrity of any stripe. He presented commercial flotsam for art, stole and copied, and had no regard for any traditional notion of value or propriety. ‘Print more Lisa’s, we can always sell those,’ is typical of other such stuff he used to say, and now we have a president sorta like that. One isn’t connected to the other, of course, and must be some kind of coincidence the way art seems to preview these shifts in culture, in morality, and even expectation by the general population.

Conceptual art is all the rage these days, applauded for all its unbridled audacity, its fearless excoriation of social ills, and its gold key access to media attention and expenditure of public money, but it can also be interpreted as an elitist affront to an offended and resentful middle class, and anyone else left out. In auction houses millions, upon millions, are spent for artwork that could be duplicated by a sign painter, and one did, forging most all the moderns for eighty-eight million dollars worth, before he was caught, by forensics. Gotta call BS. It’s money laundering, sliding out of a tax burden and hiding wealth by moving painted squares between warehouses, by funding non-profit agencies and foundations, and the everyday people who pay their share resent that too.

What’s next? Just in the last couple of days there was a review in the local paper, more of an acknowledgement but just as good, of an artist hanging art in a restaurant. Never saw that before. Is this new found attention and tacit legitimacy a harbinger of change -- maybe. If common citizens began to admire and then choose art based on what they’ve seen in public places, restaurants and offices, and in the homes of friends, perhaps they’d rely less on windbag authority explaining why some gruesome graffiti fetish is worth a staggering fortune. Would an emerging generation recognize in enduring works of art the extreme opposite of a constantly dissolving and reforming digital universe, and seek to forge an individual character, to express a singular sensibility, attempt to find themselves as persons by hanging serious art where they can see it everyday? Something to think about. Society could begin to heal itself, citizens cultivating self-reliance and personal identity, on a quest for empathetic connection instead of demagogic tribalism, and likely to express this new and emerging consciousness by owning art.   

Friday, February 16, 2018

what’s original -- a working definition

Any art we seriously consider ought to be original, but what does that mean? Direct from the source and not a copy is the simple notion, but it’s a bigger word, not necessarily with different meanings but it extends, becomes narrower and more specific when applied to individual works of art. It’s a term that’s used both for the making and for the creative inspiration behind it, although for some artists these are inseparable. Made by hand has been the traditional first qualifier, and it still counts for a lot, even though these days computers and inkjet printers claim legitimacy as well. Mostly the notion of original has to do with thought process, the amalgam of cultural milieu and personal character that shapes the art, a formula that has varied throughout history.

These days when the individual is exalted as free and capable of maxing-out their own personal potential, art becomes a token of that ideal, the expression of humanity unbounded by financial obligation, rush-hour twice-a-days, and the many layered expectations of others, churches, bosses, and family, that hold us captive, that limit our freedom. Many find in art an example of accomplishment for its own sake, a voice unsullied by crass commercialism, unlashed from the wheel, to be bought, hung on the wall and seen everyday. In a world of the manufactured, everything molded and extruded, simply owning something truly unique and inherently valuable offers a singular satisfaction, and works of art serve as an enduring anchorage for personal identity and serve as a touchstone of self-possession.

Original works of art contains mental nutrients that open vision and lubricate thought. The dedication and intent needed to forge the image radiate back into the room to influence and enhance the lives of occupants, yes it’s true, an effect that builds over time. Too bad if this sounds like science fiction, romantic and strange, perhaps you’ve taken a wrong turn. If the term original, to you, means something novel brought to market, some monographic replicated icon with track record and celebrity collectors, that’s a few doors down. Here we treat art as active in itself, as a means to help navigate the oncoming rush of sensation that makes our world, a message in a bottle, a recollection of the humanity we share. It’s organic, the artist doesn’t plan it, but successful art has an overtone of meaning which transforms with time into an intimate familiarity, while projecting an unique presence each time it’s seen.                                              

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

portraits -- altering reality

The nude is universal. No clothing to signify rank and station, just the person as human, naked, representing all of us. The portrait, on the other hand, is the depiction of one specific human at one particular time in their life, dressed and accessorized to support an individual identity, unique and sealed forever in a painting. A little book, written by a portrait artist and read long ago, suggested a few tips for pleasing the client to any who followed. In his observations there were larger truths about the nature of art in general.

He suggested an absolutely accurate portrait would result in the same complaint from family members, that the subject appears too old, and there’s a reason. It has to do with the way we see, all of us all the time. They’ve known this person over many years, and what they see is a composite image, from childhood up until now, and it’s a younger self than the more objective artist sees and represents. He also said merging the features of the successful businessman with the visage of the current president would always be met with glad approval and a check. We’ve recently discussed how farmers see cows, subject subjective -- 1-29, and turns out painting is stranger and intellectually more complicated than taking pictures.

There’s no magic in paint, sleeping away in the tube, but applied to canvas the pigments produce an instrument of pure mentality, a version of reality which seeks to produce resonances within the viewer, reinforcing or altering expectations, realigning and recalibrating the way the world is seen. People instinctively seek sympathetic portrait artists who’ll help them seem younger and prettier, more earnest and handsome, because they know it works, that the successful portrait changes the way the person looks to everyone else, and even in the mirror. Still, portraits are just one small department, a single application, of an immense slumbering technology available to the individual house or apartment dweller, the progressive CEO with offices, reception and break areas, or anyone who wishes to utilize the power of art to change their immediate and long term circumstance, to change the world.

Monday, February 12, 2018

'a clean well-lighted place' -- an old artist's simple wants

Art is a job where you’re the boss, you’re the employee, and you’re the janitor. The first accomplishment is simply to be productive all week without a paycheck -- there might be several of these. Artists sometimes dream, limos and steam heat, attention and fame, respect and paid bills, but dreams can be confusing. So much about art is just hype, it’s difficult to know what to believe. In any case, dreams don’t do the drudgery of prepping for the act of art. For the independent artist, semi-maniacal compulsion is much more efficient, and a modicum talent comes in handy.

The first thing the artist needs is studio space. The kitchen table can be used but there will be conflicts, stuff getting moved, thrown away, it’s inconvenient. 
Adequate would be a studio with a door, a bit of plumbing, maybe room for a cot -- excellent daylight would be extra. Supplies beyond student grade are always expensive, but the costliest component is time, since an unoccupied studio is just dead weight. Stealing time while working for wages sometimes involves periods of voluntary unemployment, bouts of creative accounting, and foraging for any assistance just laying around, applying for grants like playing the lotto, although the odds be less.

So somehow the artist is being productive, converting raw material, fabric and pigment, into their own personal statement -- ‘ain’t nobody allowed to play the blues like this but me.’ It took a few years of practice and a mountain of raw material reused over and over, to be finally thrown away, all an investment in a future less than guaranteed. The artist is resourceful, finding cheap rent and best deals, being frugal about living expenses, gentle and considerate of aging vehicles, and lucky in locating professionals willing to trade services for art, real but rare, or they wouldn’t be artists at all. An artist is a little monad of capitalism, sailing a one person dingy in the great ocean of commerce, run over and lost in the wake of billion dollar enterprise, credit card debt, gentrification, and all such as that, bobbing up again, or not. 

There is one last foot of bridge the artist can’t construct on their own, the final connection beyond their power to complete, and no, it isn’t oodles of sales. It’s being seen at all. That’s right. The subsidized crowd favors assemblage as a form, and are a cinch to approve of anything fearlessly confirming current social complaints. Turns out they’re the ones who control access to those well-lit non-profit galleries the city maintains for its citizens. They all share a mission, edifying the community primarily by pretending conceptual art is a thing. Area artists look to hang elsewhere, in salons and restaurants, in bakeries and coffeehouses, any wall space where their work can be seen. 

Dreams of solvency have to wait for the moment some unsuspecting customer at the five and dime looks up to suddenly recognize the true humanity in the little painting there by the gum machine, and then reaches in their pocket to pay for it. That’s a first improbable step toward one day feeling relaxed in the studio, content with a day’s work, justified in the sacrifice and respected for the journey, instead of harried by bills, ridden with guilt for meager provision, and being labeled a ‘dreamer’ by family and friends. It’s pretty slim. In the end all they want, old artists, after long struggle with the medium itself, finding a voice and singing their song, is ‘a clean, well-lighted place,‘ preferably with small halogen spots, pure white light, above each work of art, retrospective of where they’ve been and how far they’ve come.  

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Plato’s cave -- passing notes

So what if Plato’s cave turned out to be our own skulls, with only flickering shadow images projected on the wall to discern what’s really going on out there? These flickering images arrive via electrical impulses back the optic nerve to be sorted and deciphered by nearly half the brain’s mass, and it’s there meaning arises. From all the stimulation coming down the pipe, how do we pick and choose what to see? The senses conveniently come with filters built in, and if it isn’t dangerous, good to eat, or worthy of romance we might not notice it at all, a feature of all nervous systems down to flatworms. Beyond that, what you’re able to see is mostly limited to the sum total of everything you’ve seen before, the walls of the cave we live in, by the cultural constraints and imperatives in place at the time, and lastly, by individual character and appetite. These components in equilibrium contribute to the way the world looks to each individual, an inevitably unique landscape, person to person. 

Works of art represent notes passed back and forth by those who live in the cave, guessing Plato meant just about all of us. Painting is an eloquent medium, a conduit of coded messages, reassurances in the darkness. Maybe we could find each other that way, the painting that catches your attention will probably also appeal to someone with similar views on more than just art, and both of you not too different than the artist. In any case, a painting provides a new template for seeing the world, and the thoughtful rendering conditions the eye for seeing more, noticing more, simply following the artist’s example.

Art will surely test what you’re willing to see, and what you’re able to see. For years the art establishment, and all who subscribe, refused to see representational art at all, good or bad, didn’t matter. Painting instructors, confronted by the occasional student who insisted on producing representation art, switched gears entirely, and with derision trivialized and discouraged their efforts. When referential images returned, they were based on commercial packaging, cartoons, the flotsam of visual background noise, boiled down and monosyllabic. Incentives have been upside down, and maybe that explains it, but the hour is late. Is there art around that pushes back the walls of the cave an inch, a low-impact visual trainer that helps its owner to see more, to see differently, one that actually works?

I can’t see your shadows, and you can’t see mine, but we can compare notes when some artist strikes a match, plants a flag, claims some slice from the of the daily flow of images out of context, and reconstructs it on canvas. There we can consider it against our own experience, perhaps even catch a glimpse of what we’ve been taking for granted, and subsequently see everything better just a bit. Art could do that, has done that, is doing it all the time. Boring windows in the cave, that’s a lot to ask, but the spot illuminations of art expands our interior, broadens the sensual world, and relieves the claustrophobia of ever tighter digital caves, so much more important these days.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

most people art -- paintings of stuff

Do ordinary people care about art? It’s possible they might be curious about art and artists, could be interested in representational painting, and would like to see more, although painting in general doesn’t warrant much regard these days. Social elites don’t like painting unless it’s bona fide master class, price-tag prominent trophy collectible. Contemporary culture mavens agree, give us social relevance, make puns that amuse us and make us feel smart, and we’ll support you using other people’s money, museum purchases, international exhibitions, all such as that. The truly rich have rising stars, black-tie galas, and sip cocktails around large, refuge assembled, hugely forgettable art -- they move on. Not surprising most people across the land find themselves disengaged, unmoved, and just can’t be bothered to play along, thereby officially qualifying as dullards, cretins, sports fans destined to live with department store prints on the wall. They have no taste -- close the door, leave them out.

Bye and large, sorry to say, big art is a racket. The civil servant emeritus winks, the uptown merchant proffers the plumped pedigree, and the newly rich, desperate seekers after inclusion and social status, are their easy marks. At least, that’s how it looks from the outside, where most people are. This thing about art is simple, really. People like painting, an art form they can own and see on their walls every day. The annual ‘nude‘ show, mentioned a couple of posts back, was quite popular the first few years, and as a fact was the single yearly well-attended event that begat the modern art league, paid positions and copy machines. It gradually morphed as the years went by, becoming each year more conceptual, and the public, even the art league, eventually lost interest.

Was it the titillating notion of undress that drew the crowds initially? The public, some significant portion, seem to be just interested in painting, and a thematic show on a subject they know well proved an excellent opportunity to learn, not about nakedness, but about the art of painting, itself, along with the opportunity to compare and assess the skill level and vision of artists from across the territory. From this experience, along with others, it seems perfectly plausible a significant portion of the public has an interest in, even an appetite for an art that’s both accessible and obtainable. Oh sure, there are international accolades for the quasi-literary reference to injustice in the abstract, gender, race, and workplace issues, and it’s bound to trickle down, but beyond the art establishment’s velvet rope tribalism, with their hyped, visually impotent superstars, who cares? Not most people.

Monday, January 29, 2018

subject subjective -- realer than realism

North of town on the old highway a derelict truckstop has recently been reopened by an in-town restaurant with essentially the same menu but with rural accents, liberal use of corrugated galvanized, such as that. There’s a fair amount of animal art, mostly whimsical and good-natured, baby pigs racing, kid’s book cows. One piece is framed and under glass, a historic reproduction of a bovine in a barnyard, but the depiction is grossly distorted and strange. I’ve seen paintings of cows like this before. 

More peculiar than bug-eyed aliens, the portraits farmers commission of their prize animals present an odd view of reality, realism with certain biases baked in. This particular cow has an almost pearlescent luster, satiny and underexposed, lumpen and bulging. Four little spindles support its great bulk, while the head is impossibly small, like a doorknob on a suitcase. The farmer, you see, doesn’t care about the head or the legs, but lives by producing beef, rectangular and ready to ship as a boxcar. Did the itinerant painter of bygone year learn by trial and error what would look real to a wealthy farmer, somehow even 'realer than real' to his inner heart of hearts? Maybe.

Cows don’t look that way on a holiday drive in the country to people with no personal interest in the cattle industry. They see everything proportional, you know, real. Horses, bred as pets of the aristocracy, have been idealized on canvas around here from time to time, and no one seems to notice. The tiny muzzle, the dreamy eyes, the great arched neck of the painted arabian would be impractical out in the barn, but convention allows it, all romance with blood untainted. Seems safe to say what’s painted is never really ‘there,‘ and the notion of ‘realism‘ is a myth. Even the painting made directly from a photograph, sector by sector, still yields a product more revealing of the artist and their thought process than whatever was in the picture.

Painting is full of mystery, representing a mental code beyond language, creating images that are open and inviting to some, while opaque and unseen by others. A word of caution -- original art contains elements discernible directly that are simply lost in reproduction. Look at all original art, since somewhere an artist is bending what they see to fit your sight too, a friendly warm feeling when you find it, realer than real.