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.
What You Should Have Noticed in June, 2014
Welcome back to this month’s edition of What You Should Have Noticed, wherein I try to sum up this month’s happenings from around the art world with a little extra special attention paid towards events here in Chicago. June has been a relatively quiet month, more pretty and foggy and full of football and mass executions than big art news, but what action we’ve had is certainly noteworthy. So come aboard this ship of blog highlights and retweets and lets blast off together.
We Wanted to Believe: Marilyn Monroe Sculpture Found! in Chinese Dump
Permit me a little editorializing: Seward Johnson’s Forever Marilyn was a piece of shit sculpture that should never have happened in Chicago. Absolute trash. Bad sculpture. Bad bad bad. However, even and especially in times of great emotion, as when dealing with evil as great as Forever Marilyn, we must keep in mind that social media is, ultimately, probably, a search for truth, and that even the surge of joy we felt imagining Johnson’s sculpture literally rotting somewhere in art hell (a Chinese dump in Guigang) shouldn’t distract us from this higher calling or lead us to make rumor out of fantasy.
The pictured sculpture, which made its enthusiastic rounds on Facebook this month – drawing more attention than even the America student trapped in a German vagina sculpture – is a knock-off, a Chinese fake, some sad weird copy of the original, which is still festering on view in Palm Springs, California. Too bad, but too true too.
New CTA Art Announced for Red Line Stops
On Monday, June 23rd, the Chicago Transit Authority unveiled the results of the Red Line South call for artists, which began last year. The winners include: Indira Johnson, who will paint Overlapping Connections, a set of Chinese characters at Cermak/Chinatown; Paula Henderson, whose window mural Game Day is a kind of psychedelic cross-town baseball game at Sox/35th; Andrew Hall’s Portraits in Time: From Bronzeville to Back of the Yards at 47th street, a mural of portraits and architectural collage; a text and image window-piece by Cecil McDonald Jr., titled Presenting the Pictures You Wanted to See at Garfield; a garden-friendly mural at 63rd Street, Growing Englewood…, by Emmaneul Pratt & Olalekan Jeyifous; a watery mural titled Sanctuary at 69th Street by Doug Fogelson (hey, I know him!); McArthur Binion’s Seventyninth:Street:Shuffle, a Jasper Johnsy work at 79th Street; and a painting grid at 87th Street by Thomas Lucas, titled Time Traveler, Part 1 and Part 2.
Want more? The next round of public art on the CTA will feature Bad at Sports friends Edra Soto and Dan Sullivan, who will join Patrick McGee and Benjamin Ball/Gaston Nogues in placing new artworks at Blue Line stops.
Lucas Museum Coming to Chicago
Despite some weak minute pressure from San Francisco and a challenge from Friends of the Park, it looks like the $1 billion, 17-acre George Lucas Museum of Narrative Art will go ahead as planned and join the city’s museum campus sometime in 2018. The site will also soon include the Barack Obama Presidential Library and Museum. Museums and libraries were all the rage this month: the Atlantic reported on statistician Justin Grimes’ discovery that the nation’s 17,000 public libraries and 35,000 museums outnumber both McDonalds and Starbucks locations combined, though none of those feature backlit Star Wars storyboards or interactive Norman Rockwell paintings.
Jeff Koons Ass Opens at the Whitney
This month the Whitney Museum opened its retrospective of the virile titan of art Jeff Koons, supported by a popular butt-based social media campaign which, if you haven’t seen it, well, now you have. The critical response has been complex, with most writers seeming to like the show while simultaneously mourning the cultural environment that could produce an artist like Koons. Andrew Russeth reluctantly celebrated the retrospective in Gallerist, Jason Farago questioned the dire consequences of Koons’ relevancy for the Guardian, Jerry Saltz obviously cited his Facebook feed when describing Koons in Vulture as the opposite of an artist’s artist, and Carol Vogel at the New York Times gave the Whitney Museum a nod for going out with a brilliant, problematic bang. Spectacular!
Abstract Painting, Still Crazy After All These Years
Today’s art world still can’t make up its mind about abstract painting. Is it complete market-driven bullshit, ready to flip and turn from season to season, with a produced popularity existing at a level above and apart from cultural relevancy, or is it a paradoxically enduring form of radicalism? Does the tossed-off, rapidly consumed, quick and sorta-challenging semi-abstraction even need justification, or is it all about making a democratic form of DIY abstraction?
This month saw lots of discussion following Jerry Saltz’ article on the resurgent form of abstraction variously titled Modest Abstraction, Neo-Modernism, M.F.A. Abstraction, Chickstraction, Dickstraction, Dropcloth Abstraction, or Zombie Formalism. Meanwhile, today’s artists continued attempts to make sense of post-provisional painting – now too popular to ignore – by exploring a historical basis through the Supports/Surfaces exhibition at Lower East Side gallery CANADA. It’s a serious show.
Because these issue may bring on a creative crisis for some of our readers, and since this monthly feature is all about saving you some time, I’ve gone ahead and done the thinking for you. Here’s the takeaway: revolutionary fuel burns fast, so don’t let changing political or aesthetic history be your reason for getting into the studio. Whether we like it or not, our culture has carved out a cozy complicit place for aesthetic rebellion in painting, and I promise you that the familiar, collectable kind of shock brought on by a tastefully sloppy painting will never, never, ever wear off. Does this make today’s abstract painting’s “revolutionary” or “anti” critical position a complete sham, closer to avant-garde marketing language than political commitment? Absolutely yes, though the paintings can still be great. Let this be a reminder that the function of art – especially painting for Christ’s sake – is not to bring on a revolution of taste or politics, but rather to create something interesting for fellow human beings to think about, appreciate, and maybe enjoy in one way or another.
So chill out, dear abstract painters! and cheer up too – keep giving us something to look at. Hey, Molly Zuckerma-Hartung won a Tiffany Award this month, and just look at how much fun Lucian Smith is having! See?
And anyway, that’s really about it for this month. As always, I’ve probably left out a good half of what’s interesting (I refuse to link to that our-brains-are-wired-for-art story), but read this blog entry again and I’m sure you’ll agree that I picked some winners. Have a swell summer, wear that sun block, and check in next month for What You Should Have Noticed in July.
Guest Post by Lise McKean
Tom Denlinger, When Worlds Collide: The Kingdom of Monera @ 710 S. Highland
Terrain South, Oak Park
June 1 to June 29, 2014
Victoria Fuller, Nature2
Packer Schopf Gallery, Chicago
June 6 to July 12, 2014
Current shows by Tom Denlinger (Terrain) and Victoria Fuller (Packer Schopf) bring to mind the opening scene of Blue Velvet. At first glance, their works seem friendly with their eye-catching colors and curious configurations. But on closer look the viewer senses something more menacing.
Let’s start outdoors with Denlinger’s installation, When Worlds Collide: The Kingdom of Monera @ 710 S. Highland. The work consists of two panels (acrylic and paper on canvas), one larger than the other with a swathe of grass between them. The panels are stretched across the lawn of an empty lot between two early 20th century houses. The installation measures 12 ft. x 19 ft.
Denlinger covers the canvases with large, layered forms, shaped like capsules or bacteria. The layering hints at perspectival space. But flatness prevails, especially since viewers look down to see the work. Just as scientists use fluorescent dye to study bacterial activity with fluorescent microscopy, Denlinger uses yellow-green fluorescent paint to distinguish a subset of the forms. Other elongated oval forms are painted taxi-cab yellow and emergency orange, or are black and white photographs affixed to the canvas. What’s more, the intense colors trick eyes into seeing the white as purplish, as if under black light.
Chicago’s residential streetscapes, i.e., parkways, sidewalks, front yards, and lawns intrigue Denlinger. On and off over the past couple decades his work has explored this Möbius strip of public and private space. With his Terrain show he occupies the very space that fascinates him with a work whose dimensions replicate the front yard of Terrain founder, Sabina Ott.
The concept of umwelt, local or surrounding environment, developed in the 1930s by Jakob von Uexküll, a biologist and pioneer of biosemiotics, figures in the thinking behind Denlinger’s When Worlds Collide. Umwelt is the totality of an environment as subjectively perceived and experienced by an organism. Since it’s subjective, another’s umwelt whether familiar or not is essentially foreign territory. But von Uexküll proposes that it’s possible to better understand alien environments by inventing “images” of them through art or photography.
Of the many umwelts Denlinger might have chosen to image, his work brings us the human and the microbial. In fact, the Kingdom of Monera isn’t a legendary land, but rather the taxonomic realm of one-celled organisms, of bacteria. The collision between the umwelts of bacteria and humans sprawls across his installation. Discarded cucumbers fill the black and white collaged photos, Romanian scapegoats of a lethal outbreak of E. coli in Europe.
When Worlds Collide is a skewed reference to the expansive, energetic, and frequently optimistic space of modernist abstraction. Denlinger’s is a distinctly twenty-first century umwelt. Splayed next to the sidewalk in living color, the work can’t but grab the attention of passersby. And in exchange, Denlinger’s installation—staked to the ground and speckled with dirt, crawling with ants, fading under the June sun, and changing hue in the long twilight—evokes a lifeworld all its own.
Fuller is known for work that uses everyday objects, e.g., electrical cords and outlets, doorknobs, faucets, books, and shoes, to create sculptural works that can be metaphorical, allegorical, and whimsical. For example, her 2001 exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center included Bad Plumbing (2001), a sculptural installation made of copper pipe, mop, gourd, suitcase, rope, books, horn, microphone and sound.
Nature2 diverges from this established practice in that Fuller combines everyday objects, and particularly pipes, faucets, and hoses with representational objects of her own creation. Unlike Bad Plumbing where she used a large coil of real rope, Rope Trick (2014; resin, epoxy clay, and acrylic; 18 1/4″ diameter x 8 1/2″) looks like real rope—except the coil’s start and finish morph into the front and end of a snake. It’s Fuller’s twist on Ceci ne pas une pipe.
In contrast to Denlinger’s exploration of perception and subjectivity, Fuller investigates complex systems invented by humans with processes and effects that permeate our daily lives. She explicitly takes on the behemoths of industrial agriculture, food production, and resource extraction—and their collisions with nonhuman creatures and systems. For example, Everything Is Connected (2014; wood, acrylic, plasti-clay, artifical plants, chain, and gas pipe; 24″x30″x6″) is the first sculpture inside the gallery’s entrance and could be the show’s subtitle. From its subterranean fungi to the dandelion popping up on top with spewing smokestacks in between, Everything Is Connected offers a 3D portrait of global warming.
Deep Down (2014; carved wood, epoxy clay, wooden cube, gas pipe, and acrylic; 16″ x 8″ x 8″) can be seen as a riff on cubism, using five faces of a cube to reveal multiple perspectives on life above, on, and beneath the ground. A chipmunk is curled up and cozy in its burrow and ants carve their passageways underground. Plants shoot up and their roots reach down while snake and earthworm straddle above and below. There’s no sign of human activity and nothing seems amiss or at risk.
Fuller draws on the visual languages of the educational diorama, mechanical schematic, and flow chart, as well as a host of materials and a lot of ingenuity and wit to create the show’s nine mixed media sculptures. With its solitary bee and empty honeycomb cells, Spelling Bee (2014; craft fur, epoxy clay, acrylic, resin, mylar, and chloroplast; 33 3/8″x 19″ x 2 1/2″) combines organic form with tactility, fuzzy and smooth, and an ecological reference to complete colony collapse, an epidemic afflicting honeybees.
Factory Farm (2014; wood, epoxy clay, wooden cube, gas pipe, acrylic, resin, found objects, paper, and metal tube; 45″ x 34″ 17″) is particularly apropos for an artist based in Chicago, the corn belt’s metropole and profit center of what environmental scientist Jonathan Foley calls the corn system. Fuller creates a compelling narrative of the system’s moving parts, complete with feed lots, pigs behind bars, colony collapse, GMO-corn, and a molecular model of high fructose corn syrup. I’m grateful to Fuller for prompting me to learn more about the corn system. For example, large-scale honey producers maximize profits by feeding honeybees high fructose corn syrup, and bacteria and fungi are two of the enzymes used by industrial bioscience to manufacture high fructose corn syrup, the gooey backbone of processed food.
Fuller’s work brings to mind Margaret Wharton, another immensely inventive artist whose posthumous show recently closed at the Riverside Arts Center. From the craft fur on the giant bee to the erector set fracking rig and plasti-clay mushrooms, Fuller’s artistry ranges across a wide repertoire of media and adroitly melds form and content. What’s more, her assemblages accomplish the rare feat of being at once playful and polemical.