The work of Chanel Von Habsburg-Lothringen speaks of violence and abjection through the trauma of abandonment. Using photographic collage, she creates claustrophobic spaces to intensify painful experiences. Memory blends with filmic reference, blurring reality so the viewer temporarily loses their footing within the works, leaving them floating briefly like the figures collaged in the print. Focusing primarily on She’s Not a Eunuch! (Re-Birth of Venus) and Postpartum depression – I don’t want to do the nurturing anymore, one can see several correlations in the works, with an overall sense that what protects us most from pain and suffering may be the walls we put up.
Regarding the images at face value, we are presented with collaged compositions of the female body in actual, idealized and costumed states. The figures are denied a concrete spatial relationship, existing in expansive close ups of skin and hair. These images are further flattened through the lack of strong shadows, the abundance bright lighting and a minimalist color pallette. Impossible to ignore above all else is the repeated use of a plastic mask found at an arts and craft store that has been painted to match the model’s skin tone. This mask, in conjunction with two different wigs, disturb the scenes. While somewhat humorously, they are overall menacing, evoking terror in the domestic space. In Postpartum depression, the cheap wig spills all over the image, its wild yet fragile acrylic locks evoke Bridget Bardot or Jane Fonda after a restless night’s sleep, as shimmering cornsilk flows everywhere. She’s Not a Eunuch! features a shorter wig, which combined with the mask, immediately calls to mind Christine (played by Edith Scob), from the classic Georges Franju thriller Eyes Without a Face.
The title reference to eunuchs is not just of physical castration, but of a lower social status. As the Re-Birth of Venus, the role as goddess of divine beauty, responsible for both sexual and spiritual awakening, the denial of castration is met with a new order in sexual and spiritual awakening, one that may ultimately challenge a traditional viewpoint, yet may be more inclusive. A contrapposto stance with cream sneakers as a clamshell, floating over a sea of skin, caught by the current — the trail of stocking — adds visual correlation. All eight of the four figure’s feet float in space in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, denying their grounding as in Chanel’s photographs. Likewise, a significant flattening of the work is evident: from Venus overtop the clamshell, the other figures appear right next to her in a line, the water extending upwards behind them instead of extending back, and the unreal meeting of the land to water, where the land attempts to recede awkwardly in two directions. This nod is not merely to one painting, but to an awkward and slow move towards full spatial perspective, one that acknowledges a transition in understanding as well as tastes, that insists on a certain adolescent stage that is crucial to development that should not be ignored.
The flatness of the image, coupled with the extreme close ups, are confrontational, brightly lit and without strong shadows to help distinguish contour, space or form. In this we are unable to look away or deny the abuses on the child by the parent, or ignore that baby does see, that the future self sees, recognizes and is still shocked. In this tightening of space there is little room for anyone, and so the child gets pushed out; they hide behind a mask to create a private space for themselves that aims to protect them and hide their pain, as pain is often punished with more pain.
Trauma is often revisited by the victim through some sort of reenactment. Often in photographs and film, we view restaging of events both real and fictional. Our ability to imagine an event that we have no knowledge of can be shaped through filmic events. As I correlated one filmic character to Chanel’s figures, another can be drawn from Lee Geum-ja (also a victim) in Park Chan Wook’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005), and again, Scob can be seen in Chanel’s photo Postpartum depression, as the limo driver inLeos Carax’sHoly Motors (2012), where Scob briefly reprised her famous role in Eyes Without a Face by donning a similar mask. A reenactment from a scene from a film could allow one to try to live out a situation, making it real, though it remains an encapsulated fiction within reality. If one cannot relate to the trauma depicted through events in their own life, the filmic knowledge of it may step in. It may be that the events we live sometimes seem so surreal that we correlate them to a film, possible to remove ourselves from them. Perhaps also are the ways we remember events, taking on nuances from various filmic scenes collaged together. This is one example of universal trauma, though it is imagined through the viewing of film. In this way, Chanel allows another entry point into her work, while at the same time calling to mind elements of art history. Which is why the relation to Eyes Without a Face is not just perfunctory: Christine was a victim of her father’s abuse, repeatedly inflicted on her physically and mentally, all the while claiming he was helping her, and that the abuse was love. She was a monster, but only through the eyes and actions of those who claimed to love her.
A second universal trauma, one that is directly experienced, is the abjection of the body. As the body excretes, exudes and decays, it fails our perception of the perfect human, one that is young, beautiful and immortal. Abjection is inherent in trauma, as the traumatic deteriorates and degrades its victim, lowering their understanding of themselves within the world. Trauma can displace the victim as to radically change the perception of the self, especially due to the severity. The lack of ground in the photos is a displacement through trauma and abandonment. Abjection in the photos also takes place in the skin, not merely through the nude body, but also through its whiteness. The mask, the baby, the stockings, cream shoes and blonde wigs are signifiers of whiteness: blending in, the status quo, innate privilege and authority; but whiteness is also demented, sinister and anxiety-ridden. Coupled with nudity, it seethes into a sticky underbelly, one guilty by association. It suggests a malevolence in how it swallows the space of both photographs, consuming the figures.
The Gaze is represented fairly straight forward in She’s Not a Eunuch! — she gives it right back to the viewer knowing she is being watched, coyly playing the part in a humorous way. In Postpartum depression, abuse is acted out for the viewer, but as the abused is the abuser, the gaze is also directed inward towards the self. The cycle of violence spins around forever within the claustrophobic picture plane, to be revisited again and again. The gaze stays within the image, and travels around it in a triangle, from the large close up in the background, down to the self with child, they shoot their eyes to the larger baby whose hair has been cut, whose eyes we can’t see, but its positioned towards the background close up. The format recalls countless horror movie posters from the 1960’s, both classic and cult, foreign and domestic. It is a language of conflict within the individual; the individual made outcast by the family or society. Beyond a lack of understanding, we create monsters through unconsolable differences.
To live new and become another is one possibility within the mask. Sometimes it merely hides one from themselves. In Chanel’s work, the most space offered in the images is between the mask and the wearer’s face. If there is any breathing room, it is here, in the gasping humidity of hurried breath where the world is contained, as everything outside of this is an ever tightening space of abject horrors replayed.
Chanel Von Habsburg-Lothringen is a recent recipient of the Toby Devan Lewis Fellowship. Her work described above was featured in “Tools of the Trade: Cranbrook Academy of Art 2014 Graduate Degree Exhibition”. She received an MFA in Photography from Cranbrook Academy of Art in May 2014.
Work by Lise Haller Baggesen and Noelle Allen.
Terrain Exhibitions is located at 704 Highland Ave. Reception Friday, 4-8pm.
Work by Luftwerk (Petra Bachmaier and Sean Gallero).
The Franklin is located at 3522 W. Franklin Blvd. Reception Satruday, 6-9pm.
Work by Gordon Hall.
Night Club is located at 2017 W. Moffat St. Suite 1. Reception Saturday, 7-9pm.
Work by Sara K., Tim’m West, Dirty Grits, Mary Fons, Cruel Valentine, Partic Gill, Chris Knowlton, and Nic Kay.
DfbrL8r is located at 1136 N. Milwaukee Ave. Performances Saturday, 7-10pm.
Work by Xenz.
Vertical Gallery is located at 1016 N. Western Ave. Reception Saturday, 6-10pm.
By Kevin Blake
Painting is alive and well. Thriving even. The number of young artists working with the medium continues to grow, and there is seemingly no apex in a market that places a premium on painting. Today, younger artists are finding ways to assert themselves within their communities at the onset of their artistic careers, and are maneuvering to situate themselves in a global art discourse. Andrew Holmquist, a recent graduate of the MFA program at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago, has hit the ground running. While he continues to develop his painting vocabulary through a plethora of mediums, the same old painting questions remain the thrust of his explorations. This is a good thing for painting–these questions could still use answers….or maybe there are no answers.
Kevin Blake:The figure plays a prominent role in almost every work, whether it be a painting, a performance, or a sculpture. Sometimes the figure is presented representationally and other times the figure is merely alluded to through a title of a more abstract image. Can you talk about your interest in the figure and how your multiple formats allow you to address this interest?
Andrew Holmquist:The figure can be a structure–an organization device that helps dictate where things poke out and hang from. I tend to get lost or bored or maybe uncertain about making a pure abstract image. Having the body in mind guides the decisions while still allowing for limitless variations.
Like you said, sometimes this results in a clearer depiction of a body and other times the body is implied more through a title than a limb. In those cases I still want the attitude and gesture of a figure, such as gasping, twisting, or strutting to be in mind. It’s more a personality than a person that is represented. Again, this is useful to guide the piece to a point where I can say it’s done.
The figure can ground the events of the composition and locate that action in relation to my body and in turn, the viewers. This should feel tactile–like you can feel it in your shoulders and toes. The events on the canvas start to glom onto your body and you can feel these slithering gestures touch and envelop your limbs. I want there to be a tension between the body of the viewer and the painting.
There is this powerful physical relationship with painting, however in painting, much of the event takes place in the viewer’s head. You animate it with your imagination. Sculpture activates the viewer in a different way in that it makes them participate in the experience by moving their bodies around in relation to its structure. In performance it’s no longer proxies for the body but the real thing. The trick for me is suspending this reality enough so that it’s not a specific person but another compositional element.
All of this sounds pretty formal, however, the body is not a neutral territory and it can bring with it political or narrative content that I am more or less interested in depending on the piece.
Also, sexy bodies motivate a lot of my thoughts and they help motivate my art too.
KB: When you mention getting bored with making a “pure abstract image,” what do you mean exactly? Do you see abstraction as an antonym for representation and thus, find yourself working in the “gap?” What constitutes pure abstraction in your opinion?
AH: I would have to think about it longer to give you an etched in stone definition of what constitutes pure abstraction, but what I meant is basically: as much as I love Sol Lewitt’s work I don’t think variations on the grid is going to be enough for me as motivation to make my own work. I would say something like pure abstraction comes from a system of formal rules where the resulting work points back at these rules rather than out to the world. Maybe there is another word that is more appropriate. When I think about “abstraction” it seems to imply the reduction or extrapolation of something else, something of the world into some otherworldly, plastic form. I think my interest in abstraction from representation comes from the slippage I feel between my bodily experience of the world and my mind or spirit experience, and how they muddy each other’s waters.
That being said, as much as I am interested in the figure I am also interested in playing with space, form, weight, balance, line and color – all of these things that in and of themselves are much closer to the “pure abstraction” territory.
KB: If Minimalism–or the products of those artists motivated by the parameters of formalist structures and the eradication of the author–most accurately resemble your definition of pure abstraction, do you think the insertion of the figure both literally and metaphorically creates an alternative category for what you are doing? Is there an emergent thematic movement happening in painting today that is yet uncovered or unnamed that you feel akin to? In your work I see the likes of Charline Von Heyl and Amy Sillman as locutors of a specific methodology for dealing with figurative abstraction. Do you feel an affinity to this type of work?
AH: I think for there to be an emergent thematic movement there would need to be some clear “father” that we were all trying to kill, and I don’t think that really exists anymore. There are so many influences and lineages at our disposal these days, and yes I am certainly influenced by the work of Charlene Von Heyl and Amy Sillman, as I am sure many people are these days, but the spectrum is too far-flung to ever get a clear through line. So because the figure mixes with abstraction in my work may or may not be the reason the figure mixes with abstraction in the work of other artists. I think it would be a loosing battle and an unnecessary one to rally for a movement.
KB: I would agree that rallying for a movement is an unnecessary effort and I’m skeptical that any effort toward such an endeavor would be fruitful. I think movements are identified by those who write the history of time, and when there are artists working with similar trajectories in the present, it is simply conditional. What are the conditions of contemporary painting for you and how do you situate your work within those discursive parameters? Or is painting so pluralistic that there are no clear conditions?
AH: I am tempted to say there are no universal conditions for contemporary painting, but that might be its own kind of condition. The choice to make paintings doesn’t have much pushback right now, which allows for so many people to do it without defensive energy wasted. I think what results instead is the need to differentiate your work from the rest, which is maybe another type of defensive position. How do I do it that you don’t?
I have found that addressing painting concerns in other mediums can be an effective way to chart a position on painting. To be able to make sculpture flat and paintings dimensional, videos static and paintings animated – exchanging the expectations of mediums can enhance the awareness of those expectations. It can be an opportunity to get perspective and more clearly articulate what it is I am after in painting than when I am down in the mud. What comes along with this is a self-consciousness of the label of painting and how it is being applied.
Certainly right now a condition for any art is acknowledging the image quality versus the experiential quality of the work. So much art is seen through the computer screen, and it is the work, no matter what the medium, that translates into a potent graphic image that will get noticed. An artist like Wade Guyton makes work that looks great online, which is essentially the only way I have experienced it save for one piece, but it also has a physical presence due to its scale and position. It transforms from an image experience into a painting experience. I think a condition painters face today is finding an effective and meaningful relationship between the image quality of their painting that can be experienced by many, and the physical quality that will only be experienced by the few bodies that track it down in person. In what way do you make people tremble?
KB: The way you address painting questions through multimedia seems like a generative process that feeds one another. This necessity, or compulsion, for artists to be multiplicitous in their practices is becoming more and more common. Most painters today are also dabbling in other fields-from sculpture to animation and everything in-between. Maybe this is a condition of art which affects painting. Can you elaborate a bit about your studio practice and how you bounce around from one project to the next?
AH: I like to have multiple projects in progress at the same time. I get going on one thing and notice that the grass looks greener on that other thing, and after a while the first thing starts looking green again. This started a while back with working on paper rather than canvas as a way to loosen up. Paper didn’t have the same pressure and seemed more receptive of funky material choices. Grad school got me playing around with this material exploration off the wall entirely, working in installation at first, and then more discrete sculpture. This ended up turning into sets, props and costumes for videos that looked like my paintings. All the while I was also working on comic books and prints, which took the themes of my other artwork but presented them in a more direct way.
There may be different audiences for different mediums, which I think is a strong potential of working in this way, but I also feel that there really is unification between these seemingly disparate forms. Seeing the same content take different shapes helps me and I think would help the viewer stay interested and surprised. I think the honest benefit of working in this way is that I get to leap into realms like video and performance that I have very little grasp on and force things to happen. I don’t get to rely on elegant tricks that I’ve picked up in painting. What I’m excited about right now is bringing a little bit of that ham-fisted but excited quality back into my paintings.
KB: I’d like to hone in on the idea of painters having a bag of tricks or particular sets of learned painting behaviors. I too believe that it is important to eradicate those behaviors as soon as they become too familiar. It sounds like your leaps into other media help you to identify those repetitive decisions, but also to forge new modalities in painting. Where do you think this need to constantly challenge the familiar comes from? I think of Morandi as maybe the antithesis of this idea-an artist who saw the merit in a mastery of a singular vision.
AH: One possibility is that it is the drama and excitement of discovering something new. Some of my most successful paintings had a “oh shit I just ruined this thing” moment to them, only to be salvaged miraculously by some unexpected move. What I love about this is the messed-up final product that has traces of what I had in mind but is so unlike that initial vision that it takes on a life of its own. Maybe the need to constantly challenge the familiar come out of the desire for this shock of what just came out of you. I’m sure Morandi felt this shock too, but his dynamic range is much more narrow and the surprises are more subtle.
I think a part of it is also the fear of being pigeon-holed. I have a repeating brushstroke that’s larger than life and ribbon-like in many of my paintings. I like it because it suggests so many things at once–the gesture of my hand, illusion of speed, illusion of form and space, and can stand in for a myriad of things–but it might loose it’s interest for me. I would hate to feel pressure to keep making something that doesn’t feel right anymore just because it’s what people assign to my name.
I think this fear can be productive. In my case I am thinking about making work that is clearly mine that doesn’t have that key ingredient, but I think it would be a mistake to get rid of something that I like just because it shows up often. Or maybe it would be better to eradicate it like you suggest for the sake of letting new leaves catch the light. For me right now it’s easier to eradicate these comforts by leaping to other media where the familiar tools are no longer at my disposal.
KB: What’s on the docket for your immediate future and where will your work pop up next?
AH: This is probably the worst question to ask a recent grad student leaving art school. I say that with a laugh because I had very little empathy for friends in this situation in the past, but now that I’m living it I wish I could turn back time and slap my former self in the face any time I naively asked someone this question. And I don’t mean to turn this on you at all, this is a great question for most anyone, just not someone who just graduated with their masters degree in fine art. That’s mostly a joke, seriously though…
This is a transition period that is equally exciting and terrifying with very little grey in between. I do have some art projects on the horizon, which I’m looking forward to. My work is currently being featured in a new program called “Open Office,” a biannual group exhibition at United States Artists new headquarters in Chicago that was facilitated by Gallerista. I will have copies of my new 24-page comic book “Connections” for sale at Bergen Street Comics in Brooklyn and on my website in the very near future. I am in talks with Carrie Secrist Gallery to put on a casual summer show featuring my video piece from the SAIC MFA Show as well as an artist talk, which will take place in July. I was just asked to be involved in a group show about abstraction from Chicago which will be at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln this October and has a killer lineup of artists that I’m honored to be listed among. I will also have work in the Carrie Secrist Gallery booth at EXPO Chicago this September and in Miami in December. Besides that I am looking forward to making work with fewer voices in my head that is as selfish and indulgent as I can imagine.
My relationship with representational painting must be a common one: drawn in, as a child, by the painted illustrations in books about dinosaurs, in particular. Who hasn’t been awed by the “gee whiz!” factor of an impressive piece of realism? As much as we are taught that photography is a form of abstration from reality, “It looks just like a photo!” remains synonymous in common usage with looking like reality.
Howard Ikemoto is famous for the anecdote in which, after telling his daughter that he teaches people to draw, she replies, “You mean they forget?” It’s adorable, and certainly there is something to be said for the childlike sense of wonder that comes from drawing without fear, without self-consciousness, but drawing for the pure pleasure of it. Thinking back, maybe when I was very young I had this. I still have a few of my early drawings, almost all of prehistoric life: “a caveman daddy building a fire,” a prehistoric whale I knew as Zeuglodon (since I learned of it in the early 1980s, its name has reverted to Basilosaurus, a name dating to when it was mistakenly believed to be a reptile, but proper according to taxonomic rules), and an Apatosaurus guarding a nest of eggs.
I was inspired in this early drawings by the magical ability of paleoartists, through their paintings, to bring extinct animals back to life. The realism of the paintings made, in a very literal sense, their subjects real. Without life restorations, who would really believe in dinosaurs, and who would care about them?
In early adolescence I felt a precursor of John Berger’s notion (from Ways of Seeing) that to possess a painting of a thing was to possess in effigy the thing itself. I built an army, an empire, by drawing warriors and their weapons. My archetypes here were defined by the illustrations in Martin Windrow’s Soldier Through The Ages series, and by the airbrushed sihlouettes of airplanes in the works of Bill Gunston and others.
This interest in military history and technology led, through an interest in medieval combat, to an interest in fantasy. I bought Dungeons and Dragons sourcebooks, not to play the game, but to look at the illustrations. Keith Parkinson and especially Larry Elmore were my heroes. As with my early interest in paleoart, I admired their ability to drag, by brush and pen, unreal worlds into reality. Related to the illustrations in this role-playing sourcebooks are the work of other fantasy illustrators, among them Boris Vallejo, Wayne Barlowe, and Tim Bradstreet. These artists formed the core of my artistic interest in my mid teens.
The recurring theme with the representational painters and drawers whom I admired in my childhood and adolescence was that they were all illustrators. One doesn’t imagine Vallejo and Elmore debating semiotics. Questions of meaning, of significance, of the role of their work in society, simply do not come up. The artists content themselves with honing their craft, with creating original compositions which tell the story that they want, or were hired, to tell.
There is nothing new about this. Medieval and Rennaissance painters working for the church weren’t expected nor allowed to take liberties with the Biblical narrative. It wasn’t part of their job to provide a new perspective on religion. Later artists working as hired portraitists were similarly expected to play it straight, though in some cases, such as Goya’s painting of the royal family, they may have slipped in some subtle criticism.
In technical terms, prior to the invention of the camera (Vermeer’s camera obscura notwithstanding), realistic painting reached its zenith in the Baroque era paintings of Rembrandt. In the years after Rembrandt, representational painting slipped into a state of what could be called decadence. Braoque became Rococo, and Fragonard took the place of Rembrandt. About two hundred years went by before anything new truly appeared under the sun.
As Monet and the Impressionists were changing our understanding of what art was and of what it could be, the sort of art beloved by the Academy (which has in hindsight become maligned as a backwards, short-sighted, atavistic institution) continued to be made, and beloved by the public. In particular Bouguereau is known for his playful scenes of frolicsome nudes. There was no Salon de Refuses for Bouguereau; his work sold exceptionally well throughout his life, and while intellectuals in Paris might have rooted for the underdog of Impressonism, collectors loved to adorn their walls with Bouguereau’s tits and ass.
It was this fork that consigned realism to the ghetto where it now finds itself: for decades, criticality become synonymous with the apparently unstoppable march towards formalism. The purity of abstraction was seen as a prophesied messiah, an inevitable goal towards which art had always, unknowingly, been striving. Artists who rejected this direction, who failed to march in lock step in Greenberg’s army, found themselves marginalized. Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish (whom Rockwell described as “my idol”), and the aforementioned Bourgereau achieved commercial success but have been pushed to the margins of art history.
The idea of the abstract expressionists that one could find God through painting may in hindsight seem painfully naïve, but for those caught up in its fervor it must have felt very real. What those its sway should have seen coming, but of course never do, is that like any movement, abstraction was doomed to hit a high water mark, to buoy up a generation of painters and then break on the shoals of something new. Pop art carried us through a couple of decades, but it was the last of the major -isms, and it was followed by the new pluralism within which we now find ourselves. One might bemoan this pluralism as constituting a lack of direction, but in this openness is infinite opportunity. As they say in Fight Club, “It is only after we’ve lost everything, that we’re free to do anything.”
Abstract expressionism had been a might castle, and Pop art had assaulted it by mining under its walls. When the supports were burned away, the mine and wall collapsed, leaving a great breach, into which rushed a vast army of would-be successors. Figurative representation counted itself among these, and in several forms.
“Photorealism” is what many in the laity say when referring to any work of particularly accurate representation, but in saying so they generally miss what is most obvious. As revealed by the name itself, Photorealism isn’t a direct representation of reality: it’s a representation of a photograph of reality. The differences between how the eye sees and how the camera sees are inherent to Photorealism. This is not to say that the camera does not remain a valid and powerful tool for the representational painter. Working from source images offers many advantages over direct observation, as well as many disadvantages. These concerns are entirely separate from the practice of Photorealism, which focuses on these process artifacts, rather than working around them.
If figurative representation had a rock star of the 20th Century, it was undeniably Lucien Freud. Freud’s earliest known work dates from 1940, but he really hit his stride in the 1990s, expanding his distinctive style of impasto figuration. Freud’s influences (acknowledged and otherwise) include Medieval Flemish painting, German Expressionism, and his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries in the mid-20th Century. In auction at 2008, his 1995 painting Benefits Supervisor Sleeping set a world record price for a work by a living artist, selling for $33.6 million. Freud died in 2011. Other representational painters who have cut their way into the heart of the contemporary art world include Eric Fischl and Neo Rausch.
Odd Nerdrum, born in 1944, was the next generation figurative realist darling. Represented by Forum Gallery in New York, collected by museums the world over, Nerdrum is hardly ignored by the art world, but his reception has always been mixed. Defining himself as a painter rather than as an artist, his manifesto On Kitsch was a response to his feeling of weariness at seeing a Rauschemburg combine including a goat and a spare tire. Unlike Freud (and other painters like Eric Fischl), Nerdrum seems to have intentionally positioned himself in an adversarial relationship with the art world. When he says, “If I were an artist I would not paint,” it is less a declaration of intent, and more a tautology: if, as Nerdrum believes, artists don’t paint anymore, then if he paints, he is not an artist, and conversely, if he were an artist, he wouldn’t paint.
Nerdrum was a pivotal figure in my education in painting. In school, we learned that realistic representation wasn’t cool anymore (though there were many of us who stubbornly persisted in doing it), but Odd Nerdrum gave us hope. He showed us that there was at least one person out there in the art world, with a gallery and a monograph and everything, who was still using the realistic painting techniques of Rembrandt and his kin to tell stories. Nerdrum was better for us than Freud, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Freud was of an older enough generation that we always sort of suspected that his figuration was a kind of legacy. Secondly, Freud’s imagery was pointedly mundane: a woman on a couch, a man in bed with a dog, etc. Nerdrum’s apocalyptic landscapes reminded us, or at least me, of the sort of fantasy illustration that had drawn us into painting in the first place.
In graduate school, our knuckles were bruised as we were taught that no, Nerdrum wasn’t a good artist, wasn’t someone to emulate. The problems were never clearly elucidated to us, but in hindsight I think they were twofold. In both cases, what we loved best about Nerdrum was exactly what was wrong with him.
Firstly, Nerdrum’s technique was too well-established. Even Freud seemed to innovate technically, beginning in the 1950s with a sort of retro-Flemish, sable-brush pointillism, and moving by the 1990s towards a knife-thick impasto. Nerdrum’s technique seemed to say, “Rembrandt nailed it; why look for silver if you’ve got gold?”
More importantly, though, Nerdrum’s theatrical melodramas clove too closely to the illustrative fantasy end of the representation spectrum. While Freud and Fischl, like Leipzig painter Neo Rausch, painted people in open-ended environments loaded with psychological tension, Nerdrum’s scenes approached the same objective but created too specifically literal of an alternate reality. This, again, is part of what we loved about Nerdrum: that he had created a plausible world, a bleak apocalyptica in which we could imagine each painting being just over the horizon from the next. But in the era of semiotics and theory and all that, it was too close to the lowbrow world of comic books and role playing game covers.
Jenny Saville’s recent work (judging from the advertisement in ArtForum for her upcoming show) seems to have drifted away from her earlier, meaty depictions of surgery and obesity, and towards Cecily Brown’s drippy, linear, erotic cartoons. Saville’s adaptation is indicative of the sort of change figurative realists are adopting in order to survive in today’s “cult of the new” art world. Another example can be found in Walton Ford, who has continued for decades now to paint Audubon-style depictions of wildlife enacting human dramas. Saville and Ford provide us with examples of how figurative realism can remain relevant.
Chicago’s art scene is as pluralistic as any, but in between the queer performances, feminist videos, conceptual abstraction, and sound art (just to name a few), traditional techniques of representational painting endure. Laurie Hogin, Stephen Cephalo, Julia Haw, and Rory Coyne are just a handful who leap immediately to the forefront of my mind. Each strikes their own unique niche in the spectrum of figurative representation, showing that realistic depictions of people, animals, and spaces remains a potent force for expression.
If you think the regular art crowd can be critical, spare a thought for Najia Bagi. The Manchester based musician and artist has been making work for babies. Now that’s a tough gig.
Baby Art Club is a collaboration with Naomi Kendrick at Manchester City Art Gallery. The duo have prepared multi-sensory installations based on current exhibitions. Lots of work goes into these and the audience may fail to respond at all.
“The first time I did baby art club was really difficult,” she tells me via phone. “They don’t do anything. They don’t really move around very much and they don’t want to create anything.” The audience were, as she says, “Incredibly challenging”
“I just thought, What do you do with these tiny little creatures who don’t want to make anything and don’t understand words!” And where verbal communication isn’t possible, received ideas about art go out the window.
Yet Bagi and Kendricks have perservered, creating stimulating environments which, thanks to their strong aesthetic sensibilities, rightly belong in a gallery. “Then you just watch what the babies do and whatever they do is right.”
If times get tough, Bagi has musical talents to fall back on. “I’ve twice played my guitar and sang, and had these really magical moments where tiny babies sing with me, making noise,” she tells me.
“But I felt like I had a lot more to learn from them than they did from me.” It is soon clear that Bagi is “genuinely interested” in child development. And the gallery treat her and Kendrick as artists, rather than educators.
So when the progressive Manchester venue wanted sound art to accompany a show of paintings of the Scottish Highlands, one half of Baby Art Club was right in the frame. “I was surprised at how well it worked,” she says of her evening event.
“One woman was in there for 45 minutes and people were standing in front of each painting for a really long time. They were allowing themselves to be absorbed.” One happy visitor described the experience as painting in four dimensions.
Thanks to mics, headphones and 150 objects (mostly spoons), the busy sound artist is currently adding an extra dimension to the family space at Tate Liverpool. The benefits, unlike most of those in art, are tangible
“In terms of being in an installation or in an art gallery with sound, you know that the other person in the same space is hearing what you’re hearing,” she points out. “And that creates a form of human connection which is really good for wellbeing”.
Next on the agenda could be a public artwork in the form of an interactive sound sculpture. Bagi has been inspired by the Scandinavian origins of the adventure playground, which, in the 1940s, were called Junk Playgrounds.
“It’s completely unthinkable now. You couldn’t do it because of health and safety but it was amazing. There were hammers and nails and tyres and nails and wood and saws and bricks”.
Bagi’s art playground will, of course, be a much safer space but she is still excited about the chance for kids to respond to the landscape buy creating sound. She envisions this project being realised in a central outdoor space in either Liverpool or Manchester.
“In my head they’re creating sound art and I would say it like that, but in their heads they’re just having a great time.” And that’s how to make art for people who have no interest in art.