Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Plein Air: The Exciting, Not-To-Be-Outdone, Gloriously Scenic Second Chance

What's to be done?  Two of the sub-minor league art world's most unflappable players have spawned a tired old magazine that served us best when dead.  It was - and is - called Plein Air and must, besides plutocracy-butt sniffing publications like The Robb Report, be American's most complacent. 

Where do I start?

How about the look of it?  It's not unusual for magazines to tempt readers with a slickly smiling presentation, so I'll acknowledge it and go on.  But the image it wishes to present is clear; it's new, it's irresistibly gorgeous, and it's for Republicans!

Or is it?  I mean, is politics necessary?  As I understand it, however, Republicans want to corral all the money and, if possible, keep it to themselves – which means not including anybody else.  If I had to describe the magazine in a single sentence, it would be something like that.  Plein Air is about painting, but it's also about getting.  And (this one is never far behind) spending.  Its key players get to out-of-the-way places your hooded citizen cannot reach and spend their social capital along the way.  According to its unspoken agenda - which is fairly audible if you train your ear for it - painting out-of-doors involves the sort of travel that's not within most job holders' budgets.  Come to think of it, plein air paintings don't seem to get done in the old Rust Belt.  Nope.  America just isn't beautiful enough in places where unemployment has soared to thirty percent, the crime statistics are more terrifying the farther away you go - which is always the best place to contemplate crime statistics - and the overall mood is one of carefully calibrated despair.  People'll serve you at a restaurant, but you can never tip them enough.  You can go to the potty in a public building, but you'd better bring some hand-towels with you.  And if you get hurt, maybe your economic profile will zing you into triage before you bleed to death.

Best not to do your plein air paintings in bad places.  Somebody might come up and steal your stuff.  Or jump into your minivan and give it a nice little, mininum-wage style test-drive.  And who can say what'll happen to you when, staying on some godforsaken highway, you leave the hotel?   You want to see how America really lives?  Go ahead, then.  The farmland’s still fertile, but there aren't as many farmers on it as there used to be.  Do some painting there and you might start identifying with the people.  And you don't want that.  Plein air painting is about happy times, particularly happy times that are fueled with sound investments and getaway cars that can be started remotely if things get out of hand.

But don't let me prejudice you.  Let's look more of less objectively at what the magazine has to offer.

First: the ads.  Pretty posh.  Plein Air has got dead painters supporting it right off the bat.  What better insurance is there?  Then a few live ones who can afford it, then some more dead ones.  No, I'm sorry; these people are alive too.  Just couldn't tell from the stuff they’re painting.  Or how they’re painting it.  But why quibble?  There's going to be a lot more where it came from, so we might as well get used to it.

Here, then, is the unflappable Eric Rhoads, the publisher of this mighty juggernaut, painting in his boat.  He's certainly sending the right message.  It’s not enough to talk about something; you’ve got to go and do it.  But he’s about to say something.  It had better be pithy; as the magazine’s overseer, these are his very first words.

After telling us that the secret of painting well is to do "100 paintings in one hour apiece", he admits that learning is an "ongoing process" - which I hope is a disclaimer.  Doing those 100 paintings sounds pretty rough.  I'd pull back a little.  When you work from life, you've gotta pace yourself.  And must it be a hundred?  When you’re really into your work, seems like half of that will do.

Then he goes on to tell us that he longs for the sort of connection only a convention of plein air painters might give him, so he plans to have one in Las Vegas so that he can paint something called "Red Rocks" with a bunch of other plein heirists who can clearly afford to meet with him.  Here we have our first indication of a monetary bias, which prompts the question: "Aren't there any poor plein air painters - or are these people just the help?"

Then, after another big, splashy ad, there's the editor, who's also painting. 

He starts off by telling us that artists "love to use Italian and French terms to describe their materials and techniques." 

I just skimmed after that - and found a misspelled word.  Not a hard one either.  Minding its business amidst the multi-lingual splash, it was an unostentatious word of four letters – though it needed one more letter to finish it off.  Oh, well.  When you're dealing with so many languages at once, how can you bother with an Anglo thingy that sounds so plain anyhow?

I will only say that I don't particularly care to use French and Italian words to describe anything aside from sexual positions.  And not even then.  I mean, what if one’s girlfriend or boyfriend isn't bi?  You'll have to translate, thus spoiling the mood.  Just say what you want and have done with it. 

But let's try to enter into the spirit of things. 

A “pochade box” – which painters apparently love to say they have – is an easel from which you make sketches.  (Hence the word “pochade”, which means “Just do it!”)  “Plein air” is a way of telling people you like to do it outside – though en boudoir will do in a pinch.  And why not just say it?  I repeat: artists love to use French and Italian words.  Haven’t you been listening?  The editor ends up affirming that there's a community of plein air painters out there and hopes they can all get together and have a swell time. 

And as we browse the magazine, we see that they are!

Because I enjoy contemplating murder and mayhem, I know that plein air events happen all around the country - particularly in those places where rich folk can watch people doing it.  Wait a minute!  Why did I say murder and mayhem?  Well, I've always had this secret urge to go to one of these plein air events and pick off a few painters with an illegal weapon.  I won’t do it, of course, because if I’m going to kill somebody, it’ll have to be Somebody Big.  These are small fry who are just trying to keep their heads above water.  But it doesn’t hurt to dream.

In any case, there are plein air events all over: from sea to shining sea, as a matter of fact.  A lot of them seem to be in California, where I guess they’ve got the most paintable landscapes as well as a per capita income that suits the business-minded approach of plein air folk.   To be inclusive, however, somebody staged one in rural Georgia.  And in Connecticut too – though Connecticut’s like California in more ways than Georgia is and doesn’t count.  For the Connecticut event, actress Christine Baranski gave out the awards.  (Hey, I’d take a ribbon from her.)  As if that isn’t enough, there’s an article about how to make such events successful. 

I want to say something about the nature of painting outside with a bunch of people.  For one: why would you want to do that?  Isn’t painting solitary?  I mean, isn’t the opportunity to commune with nature on a one-to-one basis the appeal of painting en plein air?  Even in art colonies of the past, the paintings were done by people who felt they could be most effective by themselves.  When they were done, they came into the dining-room with all their buddies and showed the result.  Because it is both companionable and contemplative, this arrangement is a tolerable one.  When you throw a bunch of people at nature, you’re going to get a free-for-all.  Furthermore, when you’ve got an event, you make it competitive – at the very notion of which nature, if it had a voice, would laugh.  And perhaps it is laughing as it wonders to itself about all of these nature worshippers worshipping so conspicuously.  Fracturing a solitary activity into a gab-fest or trophy-hunting expedition is quite irritating.  Hence my initial observation about murder and mayhem.  You see these people and you just wanna shoot ‘em.

I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t get so ad hominem.  I guess I get riled when I think about how easy it is to access “beautiful scenery.”  When old-timey painters wanted to reach them, these kinds of places were fairly remote and accessible – after the train or boat-trip was over – on foot.  No Hudson River painter stumbled over a colleague to get to a desirable overlook or pleasing coign of vantage.  If he went out into the wilderness, he had it all to himself.  And he’d earned it, by God!  And, after the sun’s rays declined and he started to pack up his little paint box, he knew he wasn’t out of the woods.  I consider the pursuit of a landscape honorable.  If you can drive up to one and drink out of a plastic bottle – then sleep in a comfortable bed – you’re not really getting the experience about which every plein air painter clamors so much.  Nature is uncomfortable.  If you’re comfortable in it, you’re not there.  You’re in Nature At a Second Remove; Nature with Miles Per Gallon; Nature With a Plastic Hotel Room Key.

But never mind.  These people are having a good time and not hurting anybody.  And some of their paintings are fresh and lively.

Let’s move onto more upsetting things.

I must, in fact, return to my original premise: about Republicans running the joint.  One of plein air’s most self-regarding practitioners – whose landscape paintings are full of dash and skill – staged a “sporting event” at Lazy Triple Creek Lodge in Newdale, Idaho and posed the participants outside of a log cabin which, in truth, doesn’t look big enough for them all.  If you squint your eyes, you can almost fetch yourself back to the fin de si├Ęcle (of the previous century) and substitute the people in the photograph – who are decked out quite fabulously – for the industrialists and robber barons who typically utilized such photo-ops.  But, no, these are just painters in riding costumes and tweed jackets.  In a more private photo, the organizer of the event poses, with a shotgun in one hand and a young lady in the other.  What’s he gonna do with that thing?  (I mean the shotgun.)  Or is it something I wouldn’t understand?  

If you envied people who have everything, you’d be pretty pissed off by all of this.  People are just hanging on in Wisconsin and all of these plein air assholes are frolicking – albeit genteely – in fuckin’ Newdale, Idaho.  Don’t revolutions start this way?  I mean, if these guys exemplify the stingy, I’m-keeping-it-all spirit that has divided our country so – and they do! – why shouldn’t we visit Newdale, Idaho and give them a run for their money?  Or run them off and grab the money for ourselves?  (In this context, my murder and mayhem scenario doesn’t sound so far-fetched after all.) 

But never mind.  America is a big country and should have room for everybody – which is why so many people who are offended by the stench of poverty are inspired to investigate its most pristine places.  Our mountain majesties, our mighty rivers, and our blue-green forests beckon the well-heeled as few other things can.  And if these folk can hear their ruby-throated cries, why shouldn’t they leave an already-swell looking place and go to them?  At least somebody’s enjoying the country!

The magazine does not shirk its duty to teach and features articles by artists about their techniques.  These are the most useful and least irritating of the magazine’s “contents.” 

Given their bona fides, these artists aren’t particularly interesting.  Most merely try to imitate people who did what they’re doing with greater skill and panache.  The artist profiles are useful up to a point, but same thing.  The artists aren’t that hot.  There is an analysis of a Sorolla painting that attempts to liken its resonating color to music.  A rather enervated conception, considering that Whistler tried it back in the day and sounded, then as now, like a pretentious weenie.  ("You conduct, I’ll play the violin, and we'll sing it all the way to the bank.")

But at least it's a Sorolla painting - and it’s pretty good for what it is.  Sorolla was, however, doing what these people are doing: going to the nice places and making little designs with them – albeit superbly.  I often wish Sorolla had a little more of the tragic muse to incite him.  His paintings are gorgeous, but they’re almost content-free.

So, let’s wrap up.  What is Plein Air about?  For me, it’s about the capacity for privileged people to roam to their heart’s content and feel good about it.  It’s about relinquishing social and economic problems to mirror nature – but in a way that asks no new questions.  It’s about making a life out of intellectual abnegation.  It’s about being sociable, but unengaged. 

Plein air painting has seen an astounding explosion, which is not surprising.  It does dramatize the have and have-not nature of our world.  The haves go somewhere nice while the have-nots send in applications.  Or they work some shit job that keeps them handily in debt until they can find something better.  Or they jolly well forget about finding something better and watch porn on the computer. 

In no plein air painting does one get a sense of doubt.  Plein air paintings are little performances that bid the viewer to be astonished at the painter’s capacity to reproduce “reality” in a series of tidy – or anarchic – strokes.  It's performance art that is snug, safe, and friendly.  Hence plein air “events.”  Such a social construct suits the plein air philosophy.  And with that, I will leave plein airists to their mini-vans and ten-week vacations.  I just hope I don’t go crazy someday and actually shoot some of these people. 

Go and get irritated personally at:

Be a glutton for punishment and check in on:

And at:

I'm sorry, but you've gotta see this too:

An Appreciation Of George Tooker

I was saddened to hear of George Tooker's death, which, as such things go, was a peaceful one.  Tooker can be credited with some of America's most iconic images, in which the spectres of anonymity and paranoia played against the starkly functional architecture of our offices and subways.  But he was also a compassionate interpreter of intimate relationships.  And his color - which can be drily aseptic in the works of his fellow egg tempera painters - can be joyously sensual and profoundly luminous.

I'm just familiar enough with Tooker to want to remember him for a moment.  I write, not as a scholar, but as a dedicated browser. 

Longevity is a double-edged sword, particularly for artists.  The world moves so fast that a single figure can be eclipsed many times over a long and productive life.  When Tooker began, his work dovetailed into the prevailing zeitgeist enough for it to seem palatable.  Having rejected modernism for a spell, artists were re-examining the vast and lonely spaces, the Depression-haunted journeys, and the palsied appetites of an America that had turned in on itself.  Only the well-remunerated could reflect the old orders, which turned on bromides The Crash had set aside.  Artists were not looking for America the Beautiful; they were content to show the textures of survival.  The only Depression-free art-form was in Hollywood, which employed art directors, scene painters, and sketch artists by the dozen.  Yet Tooker was not so tempted.  He preferred to look inward, as so many of his contemporaries did.

His circle was small, but nourishing.  He gathered around him a highly accomplished, but self-effacing group of artists who had similar aims.  Paul Cadmus had already ventured into the teeming squalors of weekend pastimes - and made a reputation for himself as an elegantly unvarnished interpreter of American mores - or at least such mores as were likely to turn heads.  Jared French was another contemporary who was unabashedly surrealist.  All of these men were homosexual at a time when such a love spoke at its peril.  It was good for them to be able to support one another, not only in their aesthetic proclivities, but in their lifestyle preferences as well.  The Thirties were bleak for everyone and, as a result, people found kitchen communities of their own.  As with segregation, many good things came of it: a sense of shared values, unconventional social habits, and the solidarity of the rejected.  And while Tooker's image-making capacities were his own, I'm sure they were helped along by the example and practice of his friends.
Tooker seem to have disappeared from the mainstream after WWII, to emerge forty years later with books and retrospectives devoted to work I had never seen.  He had moved beyond the Orwellian imagery for which he's best known to a sort of paganistic awe.  He was painting figures for their own sake and bathing them in the sun-warm tonalities of his mind - which seems, as I look at these astonishing pictures, newly minted.

Writing as an outsider to his career, I have no idea what inspired this new direction, but it should be a source of hope for any mid-career artist who, like Dante, has lost his way.  Tooker exemplifies the notion that life cannot be static.  It must either shrivel up or find some happy re-awakening.  Given Tooker's decades-spanning career, perhaps he realized that the bitch goddesses were well-named and could have power over him only if he let them.  Perhaps he had wandered those subterranean vaults long enough to peek behind them for a moment.  Perhaps he had found the humanity that lurked behind the buttoned-down coats that were Everyman's uniform.  Perhaps he'd had an ephiphany that could only happen to someone who didn't believe in such things - like a spinster discovering love for the first time. 

Whatever the case, Tooker turned a corner at a certain point in his career and, after having created images that represent man at his most alienated, went on to create a body of work that was serenely joyous and humanly irresistible.

I thank and bless you, old man.