Saturday, April 30, 2011

O For the Best To Come Among Us!

On April 27th, Richmond's Style Weekly - which has come under attack in these pages - published its annual "Best Of Richmond" catalogue - the result of a popular election in which every man-jack and woman-born can vote for dog-groomers, hair-trimmers, head-shrinkers, sundial-watchers, and other useful folk who enhance their daily lives and contribute to the overall quality of life in what Style Weekly characterizes as "the most midsized city in America."

Being a sort of grassroots contest, a “best of” is going to be populist in its orientation and not interested in grey areas.  Style Weekly's pundits were directed to restrain themselves, taking a hands-off approach that is, in all other matters, anathema to their get-in-there sensibilities.  I will quote from its "Reader's Survey" introduction.

"Journalists, by and large, are curious skeptics.  So anyone who claims to be the best at something sets off our internal buzzers.  But for a key element of this issue, the Reader's Survey, we turn that buzzer to mute and hand over the judge's gavel to you."

Well and good.  It's not them, but us.  Or "those people."  Or the "other" them.  So rather than take Style Weekly to task - at least not with the single-minded ferocity that appeals to me the most - I'll write with an asterisk.  It isn't Style Weekly what did it, but 'dem peoples who flip through it for concert dates, restaurant locations, or recent lapses of thought and taste among their local legislators.  So I suppose I will address the following criticisms to the public-at-large. 

My subject is the elevation of Ed Trask, a man who has made his living and reputation on a ladder.  It is Trask who has, over the years, oversupplied good and ailing restaurants with mural-paintings people have come to identify with the places themselves.  Whether this is good or bad - or, rather, best - depends on how much you care for the imagery itself.  (And, once you’re inside, what the mural got you to slurp or chew.)  I consider all but one of these murals clunky in the extreme and have long wondered how a sober restaurateur would care to commission one.  Perhaps most restaurateurs are not sober when Trask chooses to meet with them.  Or perhaps they like the guy and want to keep him off the streets - or, rather, above them.  Perhaps they really think he's talented.  That would appear to be the case among these restaurants' patrons, who have voted him to be Richmond's best artist.

Ed Trask not only does murals, but easel-type paintings that "ground" him, as it were, in his subjects to a greater degree than his murals do.  In these paintings, he shows himself to be occasionally interesting.  He is not coy - a fault common to journeymen.  Nor does a sense of history weigh him down and defeat attempts a more history-conscious person would not dare to make without bothering to become more historical.  He has had lots of exhibits.  He's done portrait commissions that unintentionally drive a person inward, as if to say: "I know that's not what I look like, but perhaps he's painted my soul.  Now where is that gun I bought in Prince George's County?" Richmond Magazine has offered - and may still be offering - a print he's made of the James River.  In this print, he has shortened his name to "Trask".  Never trust a one-name painter.  Picasso is the exception who proves the rule.  (I said, in another essay, that I didn’t like Picasso, but I never said he wasn’t talented.) 

Here are some others:


Look these people up if you want to reflect on the disparity between taste and money.

I don't think artists’ musical/show business counterparts have much gravitas either.  Here are some of these:


Last names are different.  In "Sinatra", we have more, rather than less, of the man.  "Olivier" represents great acting of a timeless sort.  And when we say “Ruth” or “Mantle”, we not only invoke great New York Yankee traditions, we celebrate the enduring power of the homerun – though both men have been outstripped in the numbers column.

But I digress. 

I have admitted that Style Weekly’s “Reader’s Survey” is likely to be populist in nature.  Yet readers were asked to weigh in on things that are considered far more serious than artists or bartenders.  Richmonders chose the best physicians and psychiatrists; the most superior day-care centers and veterinarians.  They weighed in on whom they would prefer to bury them; to keep them fit so that wouldn’t happen until it absolutely needed to; and to save their souls so they’d be shovel-ready.

You can say any such contest is trivial, but we live in a world in which the trivial is exalted.  To be trivial, among us, is to be ever so much more.  

To therefore judge Trask - or even Ed Trask in his entirety - as artistically superior to all other painters, sculptors, muralists, mobile-turners, maquette-lovers, and wall-treatment specialists is to under-serve more talented, but clearly less visible, folk.  It pushes to the margins such painters - whose fabrications I know best - as are concerned with negligible properties like sensitive draftsmanship, subtle color vocabularies, and imagery that makes an impact if you're willing to approach it quietly and let it seep into you.  The public that voted for ET, as I will henceforth refer to the man, seems to have voted with its palate rather than its eyeballs; its sense of comfort and not its curiosity; its comfortable ignorance of a wider and more complicated field.

Here are some better choices.  I'm sure somebody voted for them, but clearly not in force.  The rest of you should be ashamed of yourselves - though I have found that those whose sense of shame should be the most highly developed have less of it than even the average person.  Mark Twain said: "Man is the only creature who has a sense of shame.  Or ought to."  I agree with old Sam on almost everything, but I think here he was wide of the mark.  Yes, we ought to have it, but that sure don’t mean we're gonna.

Three Good Choices, Among Others

Thomas van Auken’s first attempts at landscape are vastly superior to anything ET has ever done.  Van Auken is living proof of an inconvenient reality pigeon-holers detest – which is to say, if you can make a good picture out of one thing (Van Auken’s reputation has heretofore been as a painter of the figure), you can make a good picture out of another.  His take on shut-down restaurants and convenience stores on Richmond’s South Side make ET’s ham-handed poetics look very thin indeed.  Van Auken’s exceptional sensitivity to the forms of nature should evoke a sense of shame in ET – for putting his on sale before he understands them.

David Rohrer is another artist whose work has been celebrating Richmond’s native landscape and architecture for years.  Rohrer’s textural nuances and daring use of space trumps (and trashes) ET’s crudely applied globules and half-assimilated modernism.  Even in his smallest paintings, Rohrer manages to create an aesthetically satisfying glimpse of a cul-de-sac or street-corner.  And he does it with far more panache than ET may ever know. 

Melissa Burgess is another artist whose deeply personal vision – born of folk painting on the one hand and gimlet-eyed realism on the other – is far more genuine.  Her distortions, unlike ET’s, are not conscious contrivances.  They come from a real place and, as such, have more of a claim on our imaginations than all the whooping and hollering ET can do.

Stopping Traffic Is Not Necessarily a Virtue

ET-lovers will make a case for the man’s ubiquitous murals, which are exuberantly present, but clumsily executed and conceptually near-sighted.  (Incidentally, the blurb says ET’s style is “deceptively simple.”  Au contraire, mes amis!  Most of ET’s murals are horribly cluttered, with focal points aplenty and planes colliding en masse.)  Adjacent to the blurb Style Weekly wrote about Richmond’s best image-creator and visual artist extraordinaire, is a photo of a mural that was fortunately painted over.  The caption says: “Mural We Miss the Most/Princess Diana”.  To bemoan the loss of this wretched portrait is to wax nostalgic about “Heroes Of the Bible” or “Wrestling Gods Of the South” – done in styles that are commensurate with their subjects.  There was a kitschy quality to Diana, but its pre-art foundation course draftsmanship (many professional mural painters draw wonderfully well) and plodding photo-realism are hardly the stuff of an irreplaceable icon.  If you want to wring your hands about superseded wall-decoration, think of the woman-in-the-swing that graced the eastward-facing side of a building that stood on the site of the new courthouse.  (If I remember correctly, Style Weekly had an urban signage guru write something about it.)  I not only think of that, but of a nearby structure on whose granulated brick wall I discovered, back in 2000, a flowing-script style advertisement for a defunct Richmond newspaper.  It had been tucked away between buildings for over a century.  When a neighboring structure came down, there it was.  A site-improvement specialist painted over it that week.  ET’s only passable wall-painting represents a person’s face in almost three-quarter.  It’s hardly a stunner, but it looks pretty good and probably doesn’t hurt business.  Yet one out of twenty – the alleged number of ET murals throughout Richmond – won’t get you out of the minors, where you’re not hitting so well either.

Popularity is a fickle thing.  ET may get the nod this year, Happy – a superior draftsman by several magnitudes – might get it the next.  However, the bestStyle Weekly’s word – is not measured by how omnipresent it might be, but by its range, substance, and artistic merit.  By this yardstick, ET falls way to the bottom, where he dwells happily with the vision-impaired.

Why Write Such Nasty Things?

Go ahead.  Say I’m a contrarian who has “issues” with the public will.  Go ahead and attribute some sort of personal agenda to a purely justice-oriented thesis.  And, if you really want to disavow any complicity, O Style Weekly and your minions, say mine is just one man’s opinion.  You’ll be right insofar as that goes, but I hope it doesn’t spare you – when you cast hasty judgments about other things – a nagging sense of having spoken too soon, given something too little thought, and confounded minor celebrity with fundamental worth.  If you want to support – and chime in with – such decisions, pick another word.  Popular would do it.  ET does seem to be popular.  I’ll buy that.  And I’ll think you’re really swell for admitting that you’ve staged a popularity contest and nothing else.  You sorta do, but you don’t. 

One More Thing

In this case, Style Weekly and its minions should have never brought the following to a vote.

The Virginia Museum Of Fine Arts is big now, what with its bangy Picasso exhibit and a brand-new airplane hangar in which to put it – or, rather, shove it into the cubicles that exist beneath its absurdly vaulted infinitude.  But, whatever else it may be, it is not an “Arts Gallery” – for which it was awarded a first place. 

VMFA does a lot of the things arts galleries do, but it is a state-supported institution that gets private donations out the. . .I will allow you to choose the word.  It does NOT take commercial risks, it does NOT sell artwork, and it CANNOT close because people stay away.  Ergo: it is NOT an “arts gallery” and shouldn’t be so rated.  To say it again: to offer VMFA as an “arts gallery” was Style Weekly’s doing – even if 4,800 people went along with it.

*I grew up – insofar as I could – with old Sivad, who moderated “Fantastic Features”, a horror film-fest that ran every Friday (or was it Saturday?) night in pre-integration Memphis.  “Sivad” was a made-up name that sounded creepy. 

Sunday, April 10, 2011

John Sloan: a Political Man First and Second

Note: the subject of this article is very dear to me.  He exemplifies not only what an artist, but a public figure, ought to be.  Not only that: I'm writing a novel about him and his colleague, Robert Henri, so I have a vested interest in getting excited about him again.  If you don't know Sloan's work, there's a pretty good biography about him called (you guessed it!) John Sloan, Painter and Rebel by John Loughery.  I used to think it a great book.  It's not.  I can't, in fact, stop copyediting it.  But it is generously insightful and the primary source for my novel. 

Many of us have forgotten about the political ferments of fin de siecle America.  To re-engage them, I want to introduce a single figure: John Sloan.  In addition to dredging up home truths about city life, he was a fighting firebrand.  His images of strike-breaking and courtroom chinacery stand alongside of Daumier and Gavarni.  He was, briefly, a politician, running for city council on the Socialist ticket.  As no socialist was ever elected, Sloan's candidacy - like his mentor, Eugene Debs' - was symbolic.  But it sent a message that was dear to socialists' hearts, and it hit home.  In later years, it would be increasingly dangerous to subscribe to the party platform.  By the Thirties, American socialists gravitated to the Communist Party, for which they paid dearly when Joe McCarthy decided they were not the Americans they ought to have been.

Sloan's political activities ranged far and wide.  He participated in parades and rallies.  He wrote fiery letters.  He provided journalists with copy they could take to the bank.  All the while, however, he was painting pictures that were devoid of political content.  He even said that art and politics don't mix and practiced what he preached to a degree that is rare in art or any other field.

Among his more significant contributions are the exhibits he, Robert Henri, and other "ashcan school" artists organized as a way to challenge the supremacy of the National Academy of Design.  It is hard for us, in the second decade of the 21st century, to conceive of the possibilities that were available to artists in the early 20th.  As in France, the way to official acceptance was through the academy whose semi-annual exhibitions were an open door that could also shut.  Sloan, Henri, and their colleagues, William Glackens and George Luks, submitted to these exhibitions routinely.  Yet their rowdy populism - as their commitment to reflect the lives of ordinary people was thought to be - grated on the nerves of jurors.  For the most part, their pictures were given short shrift or rejected outright.  After losing out so much, Sloan and Henri - who was an Academy member - broke away and mounted exhibits of their own.  In a relatively short period of time, the balance of power started to shift.  Sloan and Henri had sparked a revolution which culminated in the Armory Show of 1913.  It was here that the so-called  "Ashcan School" - now in capital letters - was unseated by European modernists, who became the rage of collectors who wanted to break with what was "merely" realistic.  In less than a decade, Sloan and Henri fought, came to power, and were de-throned.  The new kids - whose hothouse creations few people understood - were the ones to look at now.  Press stories lampooned the new stuff as much as it ballyhooed it.  In fact, if you compare its cartoons to the ones that ridiculed the Impressionists, there's hardly any difference.  They both highlight these new paintings' incongruities, they marvel that any of them would pretend to be art, and they conclude that anybody who could think so was a lunatic.

Then the war came and, for a time, that was that.  

A period of reassessment followed, during which Henri dug in his heels, Sloan relented somewhat, and the rest of their colleagues went their separate ways.  Never again would a band of artists be as unified as Sloan, Henri, and their fellow renegades.  By the time Henri died in the late Twenties, he and Sloan had drifted apart.  Still believing in Velasquez, Henri was disillusioned by the new gauds and fineries, which had, in effect, replaced the old ones he and Sloan had been trying to overthrow.  Art had become so splintered that there was no central focus - which, for better or worse, the National Acadmy had provided.  For Sloan, teaching became a bully pulpit - so much so that he would eventually have to resign from the Art Student's League, which had made him president. 

It might be said that controversy happened wherever John Sloan happened to be.  Having found the Southwest, he became an advocate of Indian rights.  He watched wealthy tourists study Indian rituals with no love lost for his fellow Americans.  He did a painting of the old civilization he admired performing for the new one that he didn't.  It is a scathing document - and a lively little canvas that gives the native population its dignity.  In all things, Sloan was a humanist who gave himself unstintingly to the notion that everybody was worthwhile.

It is Sloan's New York City phase (or phases) most of us know best.  This was the Haymarket period, during which Sloan eased himself into the night-life genteel artists might enjoy privately, but would never show in their paintings.  During this period, Sloan watched the election returns like everybody else, but did not quite rejoice - as his people do in Election Night - in the choices of his fellow citizens.  In the Chelsea neighborhood where he lived, his friend and mentor John Butler Yeats held court at a little restaurant, where Sloan painted him surrounded by admiring colleagues.  And when people came home from work, he was there to greet them, as one can see in Six O'clock.  Sloan was frequently characterized as the "American Hogarth" and there's some credence to this description.  In Sloan's work, humor and pathos combine to show how ordinary people face what one might call "interesting situations."  Where Hogarth showed the upper classes getting their comeuppance, Sloan was content with his shopgirls, who sat back in their chairs at restaurants or tempted the "house cat" with a sardine.  Hogarth's satire was about class and its dehumanizing effects on people who rose above their station or plummeted beneath it.  Sloan liked the collision of the high and low, but his treatment was more subtle.  His Fifth Avenue matrons are there because they own it, but they still have to walk among the canaille.  Politics do not appear directly in any of his paintings, but they hover just outside.  Some of us take life as it comes.  Sloan's appreciation was double-edged.  He took genuine pleasure in the city's heartbeat, but he was aware enough of its underside to flip it over now and then.  When a penniless recruit faces a military officer, he looks tired enough to sign.  If he were doing better, he might have moved on.  And if a young prostitue can snap on a pair of white gloves, we know what where she's been and what she's been doing.  Those white gloves come at a price few "respectable" women were willing to pay. 

When I lived in New York, I found political contexts myself.  In no other place is the dichotomy between rich and poor played out so visibly.  As a broker gets off the train, a homeless guy will stagger behind him.  Every day folk from the outer boroughs come to work for people who essentially own them - and are, considering their servitude, astonishingly good humored.  (Sloan's painting of washerwomen in the Astor Library comes to mind.)  Lord and peon can ride an elevator, but disperse forever afterwards.  A guy who's been off his meds can run crazily down Upper Broadway - and be followed by somebody who's asked his limousine driver to slow down.  And all over there are people asking for spare change.  They wouldn't be doing it if it wasn't in circulation.

Sloan teaches us to see these paradoxical relationships and, if we do nothing about them except notice, it enriches our sense of polity.  We become conscious people for whom the world is by turns, infurating and wondrous.  And if we get angry about it, that's all right.  Sometimes anger is the only appropriate response.  Yet Sloan has also given us the opportunity to be amused - as when a group of onlookers watch a hair-color specialist perform her magic.  Or when a man watches some good-looking women who are aware he's watching them.  He allows us to notice strangers we would otherwise ignore - and glimpse in these strangers the humanity that is common to us all.  Just because his people work for a living, it doesn't mean they don't dream; nor does it mean that they'll stay exactly where they are.  Sloan celebrates the path we're on, which can mostly meander.  He celebrates triumph against a backdrop of despair.  He says that wonder is our baseline mood, but it's often interrupted by the obligations we can either meet head-on or postpone until they kick us in the rear.  Humor, pathos - and, lastly, politics.  Sloan has all of them and we, as observers from a faraway land, ought to remember - and thank - him for reminding us of our common destiny.

Monday, April 4, 2011

In the Real and Now: an Analysis of an Article From: Style Weekly, March 9, 2011

Some weeks ago, I promised the editor of a Richmond magazine that I'd try to look after his prose a little more carefully than he does.  Well, not his prose, but that of his charges.  However, if you believe that a fish stinks from the head and affects the entirety of its body-parts, then you'll have to accept, acknowledge, and possibly even relish the fact that it is this editor's prose because he is captain and whatever fishiness there is emanates from him.

I probably shouldn't be so harsh.  Writing is hard.  And art criticism is writing - or should be - so it is at least as hard as everything else.  In order to do it at all, you have to be engaged with the work at hand, know a little something about it in advance, memorize - or have absorbed - the arcana of its conception as well as its historical resonance and overall aesthetic.  The more I write, the more I pity the poor fellow (I'm not being sexist - at least not here; the writer in question is a man) who has to write something and try to get everything just so.

In the case of the article in question, my pity is well-placed.  The poor fellow just barely got everything into his head - and it was a lot too!  And I'll betcha he knew nothing about the subject before he had to confront it head-on and make something of it. 

So let us temper our criticism with compassion.  Let us not cast stones - at least not big ones - from the git-go.  Let's allow him to settle into his work and see what he does.

I might as well say who the writer is and what he was writing about.  Without context, I'm just "acting out."

He is Mike Dulin and the title of his article - a kind of double-whammy - is: "Two stirring exhibits explore the art of simplicity at Reynolds."  (Lower case is a Stylistic choice, and I guess, if titles are lower case in other places – which they appear to be – it’s all right.)

Over-crowded as they are, the first words out of his mouth get me to where he wants me to be.  But some of the subsequent ones make me watchful.  Here they are.  Incidentally, the author is talking about "simplicity." 

"Movements withheld and processes pared down to the necessary offer - not slim options of experience - but concentrated visions of the real and now."  (The italics are mine.)

Sounds all right, but. . .no, it doesn't!  It's not even a complete sentence.  And what are "slim options of experience?"  Let's say it again: "slim options of experience."  Nope.  Thought if I repeated it, some sort of meaning would emerge.  But I have no idea what he's getting at.  Do you?  I know what the individual words mean, but scrambled together, well, they’re elusive.  I’ll keep repeating the phrase to see if it isn’t me. 

Let's move on to the "real and now."  Is the writer coining a phrase or did he forget the real one and wants to slip a new one past us?  The “real and now” expresses a slightly different reality than the “here and now”, and it sounds like somebody’s trying to incorporate a second language into a first and getting it all mixed up.  The invention of words and phrases – or even the re-shaping of an existing phrase – should probably wait for the right opportunity – or a few stiff drinks.  In something as presumably straightforward as art criticism, a newish phrase stops the action and makes us wonder whether the writer knows his English first, second, or not at all.

When the next lulu comes along, I’m inclined to think the latter.  But I’m getting ahead of myself – though not by much.

Let’s let him state his subject and then we can think about egg-throwing.

“In concurrent shows at Reynolds Gallery, artists Richard Tuttle and Cindy Neuschwander reach out to the audience in a paradox of simplicity and complex conceptual physicality.”  (Again, my italics.)

Told you it was a doozy.  No, lulu!  I’ll get to the doozy later.

First of all, what is “the audience”?  Did he see one?  Or is this a hypothetical audience he has been assured will arrive at some point and start looking?  That’s probably what he was thinking, but the use of “the” suggests that the audience is already there and, well, I don’t think so.

But I’m quibbling.  And perhaps unnecessarily.

What I really wanted to chomp on is these two artists reaching out “in a paradox of. . . yaddayaddayadda.”

He’s coining again!  When you reach out in a paradox of simplicity, what exactly are you doing?  And can it be done when both sexes are in the room?  Let’s say it again and see if it’ll make any sense.  No, I don’t want to do that anymore.  It didn’t make sense the first time and it doesn’t now – unless the sense is hovering somewhere just out of sight.  In which case: why hasn’t it come down after all this time?  We need it – and now!  And in the real and now especially! 

Having found the lulu, let’s get to the doozy.

So, the artists have reached out in their funny way, but they’re not finished!  They’ve caught their breath and they’re going to continue to reach out with “complex conceptual physicality.”

Wait a minute.  Is that allowed?  If you don't mind, I think I’ll keep my distance.

All right, let’s move on.  We can come back to this and see if some shred of meaning has appeared in-betweentimes.

A little farther down, Mr. Dulin sums up the impact of a piece called “Pulling the Line” by Cindy Neuschwander.  Here’s how he does that:

“In a single motion she attains depth, movement, distinction and narrative – whether in the figurative or literal sense.”  (I'm not italicizing anything because it's all so juicy!)

She does, does she?  That’s a lot even for a mid-career artist.  I think Ms. Neuschwander is pretty young and might be capable of half.  Let me give her the depth and movement and hold back the distinction and narrative – in part because these things are not analogous and, in part, because I'm having a hard time keeping track. 

Nor does our word-crusader stop there.  He adds a little something that throws the whole thing off so much, I have the image, as I contemplate his prosy archipelago, of something listing horribly and falling down.  (Sorry to mix metaphors, but that's how it came out and, if this guy's can throw spitballs all the time, I'm gonna sneak a few in when I wanna.)

Whether in the figurative or literal sense.  So it’s all up for grabs?  And why drag in those Red Sox twins, figurative and literal?  And how does it apply to what's been going on?  Does figurative refer to one thing and literal to another?  Or just one thing?  Or maybe it’s shadowing depth and movement on one side and distinction and narrative on the other. 

I’m afraid he’s got me there.  And he’s done something rather difficult: he’s written a completely opaque sentence.  The others were opaque just here and there, but this one’s ironclad.  It’s incomprehensible from start to finish.  From A to Zed.  From the Real to Now.

I must admit that I’m big on redundancy – by which I mean that I’m big on toppling it.  When you say something that’s sufficient unto the day – or even the minute – best to leave it alone and go onto something else.  Cluttering it up just muddies the issue and takes away the freshness – or what’s left of it.

I’m alluding to a very minor error, but it permeates all bad writing.  And it’s this:

“Comparatively, Richard Tuttle’s series of work, ‘Metal Shoes,’ maintains the strength in post-minimalism that he’s shown throughout his long career.”  (Had to go back to the italics.  They are kinda fun.)
What is a series, I ask rhetorically?  And I’ll answer in the same way: it’s an interconnected body of work that is best appreciated as a whole.  So why say anything else?  Work is implied.  But Mr. Dulin goes and ruins it by saying a “series of work.”  It’s just a series, man!  The work’s already there. 

Here’s another error bad – or at least careless – writers make.  I’ve made it myself and winced – or been bullishly ignorant and didn’t wince until it was too late.

In fact, let me re-write the sentence to demonstrate what I mean.  In doing so, I don’t necessarily endorse a point of view (if there is one); I’m just trying to make it clear.

“Richard Tuttle’s series, ‘Metal Shoes,’ maintains the post-minimal feeling he’s shown throughout his career.”

Whether it's true or not is neither here nor there.  But it's easier to read, ain’t it?  And clear enough to get the writer’s point – which was buried in his sentence – across.

I’m terrible, aren’t I?  Telling this editor and his minion how they should put things.  Why don’t I write something of my own and. . .oh, I’m doing that.  AND in the real and now.   Because I'm in the trenches myself, I'm going to give myself permission to keep going.

Now that I’m at it, I want to underline another common bad/careless writer error. 

Here’s what he wrote.  I’ll follow it up with what I would have written if I’d wanted to waste my time on *twaddlesome paintings that aren’t twaddly enough to get excited about.

"Through repetition, he returns to the essence of each piece, asking the viewer to consider again the relationship of very identifiable formal elements."  (Yes, I've italicized the whole darned thing.)

“Though repetition, he unmasks the nature of his inspiration and asks the viewer to ponder the relationship between one formal element and another.”

My version isn’t really that much different, but it does try to make what Tuttle seems to do a little clearer.  I suppose you can “return to the essence” of a piece, but, if you’ve done the piece, why are you going back?  Guess I just don’t understand this fellow’s process.  So rather than say something I don’t understand, I converted it to terms I do.  And I didn’t use the word “reconsider” instead of “consider again” because I think any artist who asks that much deserves to get skunked.  The average viewing time a person will lavish on an individual painting – even one he or she likes – is about fifteen seconds.  In a roomful, it could even be less.  I’ve seen people do road-races through galleries that are picture-crammed.  In any case, I don’t think an artist should ask a viewer to “consider again” – or, rather “reconsider” - any sort of relationship, even if it’s hot and heavy.  I used the word ponder because it has a first-time sort of quality and it’s also sincere.  I generally don’t like sincerity, but it has its place.

Finally, if you have a bunch of elements and they’re pushing each other around, sparks fly between them.  With many of anything, you’ve got a between situation.  In the original, the writer asks us to consider a relationship without a between – which isn’t a relationship.  I separated the relationships and stuck a between in the middle.  Only thing I could do.

I think I’ve unconsciously saved the best for last.  I love it so much that I’m sitting here hoping that I’ll be able to “return to the essence” of it in order to capture the bubbling hilarity of the thing.  Here it is:

Mr. Dulin is still talking (and talking) about Tuttle:

“Upon close study, as if continually disappearing from existence, these forced impressions remain muted.  While the copper marks might be the least attentive of each piece in the series, they’re by far the most necessary for these works to transcend the visual horizon from object to thought.”  (I won't use italics again.  I promise.)

Doozy doesn’t even begun to cut it.  The thing's so richly erroneous, so delightfully fractured, so deliciously unlettered!

And here it is – the most richly. . .well, I’ve said all that already.  Let’s get to it - yes, in the Real and Now!

“Upon close study, as if continually disappearing from existence. . .”

God, am I excited!  This is the kiss every grammatically exercised curmudgeon like me waits for.  It’s the sultry tango his mind wants to dance, but one synapse won’t hook up with another for a date.  It’s the most obscenely desirable moment his tweaky little brain can imagine, but must imagine carefully because the pleasure will just about kill him (now I’m being sexist) if he doesn’t.

What happens when you disappear?  You’re gone, right?  There’s no more of you.  People look for you in vain.  Or, to put it another way: you don’t exist.  You could disappear from existence, but why?  You’re already gone.  Why fool around with an extra condition?  Existence is the condition from which you have disappeared – though who in his right mind would say that?  When you’ve disappeared without anything in front or behind you, you’ve done all you need to do.  To “disappear from existence” is not only to gild the lily, it’s to make an unholy mess of it.  It’s to exit verbosely, gratuitously, and maladroitly - which is about as undignified as you can get.

I think I’ve just achieved as much pure bliss as a nonsense-fighter can.  Allow me to pause for a moment and wipe my brow.

We have just reached a sort of climax here, but there’s at least one more big thing and a few little ones.  I’ll get to the big one and see how much energy I’ve got left.

I’m just going to write the whole passage out.  It’ll save time:

“While the copper marks might be the least attentive of each piece in the series, they’re by far the most necessary for these works to transcend the visual horizon from object to thought.”

You’ve probably figured out what’s bothering me. 

How can copper marks be “attentive”?  Dunno.  I would describe copper marks, variously, as “deeply gauged, well-cut, nicely aimed; confident, tentative, blustering; off-the-mark, lazily stabbed, poorly essayed.”  And that’s just for starters.  I could go on and on.  So why “attentive?”  Does Mr. Dulin know more about copper than I do?  Possibly.  I only know that people don’t like pennies – which are made of copper – and that, if left in the weather, copper turns a greenish color - or, as the French say, verdigris.  Perhaps he knows of situations in which copper can be “attentive.”  I’m sorry: copper marks.  But still: it doesn’t seem that marks can be any more attentive than copper itself – which is all right as it is and doesn't need to take on extra duties.  So I must take the writer and his editor to task for having made an outlandish statement neither man would, in all likelihood, be able to defend.  If copper marks are attentive, or even aspire to be, they should cut it out.  There are all sorts of other words that can describe them.  Attentive should be put away and used for something else.

Y’know?  I’m tired of all this.  I’m not really finished, but I don’t want to say any more.  However, I think I’ve given you, the reader (unlike Mr. Dulin’s “the audience”, I’m not presuming your existence; I’m, rather, thinking that you are likely to disappear) a taste of what a writer and editor are up against.  One has to assign and the other has to cover something that is terrifically complicated.  And they’re under a lot of pressure, not only to get everything right, but to hand it over to the printer before he or she starts the presses.  If that isn’t hard on you, I don’t know what is.  And I’ve read that, in the throes of tension, one’s intellectual capacity declines precipitously.  If you’re really tense, you’re functioning at half-capacity and that isn’t really good enough for art criticism.  Art criticism requires the full monte of a man's mind.  Anything less and he’s going to trip up badly – as we have seen here.

Uh oh.  Sexism (". . .the full monte of a man's mind.  Anything less and he's going to trip up badly") has finally reared its ugly head.  Well, I'm tired and that's what happens when you let your guard down.

So pity these poor fellows.  They’re up against it.  And I mean in the real and now.

*And twaddlesome they are - but that's a different story.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Loves Of Thomas Van Auken, Part Two

An old friend of mine was telling me how Athol Fugard directed his own plays by means of a psychological trick whereby he could gain distance from them and thereby free himself up to operate as an objective interpreter rather than a worried dad.  What did he do?  He put 'em aside for a six-month period and thought about something else.  When it was time for him to go get the plays, their contours were fuzzy, their characters not as well-loved, and their core values forgotten.  Following that six-month period, Fugard became a director.  Before it, he was an anxious playwright with a chip on his shoulder.
By the same token, I'm glad I let a month elapse between parts one and two of this article.  The interval between them has allowed such thoughts as I have had to assume an attractively fuzzy aura - which can always sharpen up on the page.

Thomas Van Auken has been a painter of the figure.  (I loathe the word "figurative" as arts professionals apply it to the genre of figure painting.  It has always struck me as heavy-handed - a way to extend a word that is perfectly all right the way it is.)  In any case, he still is.  But painters are painters and, if they're worthy of the name, they're always seeking ways to adapt their vision to fresh - or at least adaptable - subject matter.  Even Lucien Freud - who doesn't seem to change very much - likes to find a new model and screw him or her into positions heretofore unexplored.  Change isn't always Upper Case.  Nor is it necessarily conscious.  When a new direction is actually pursued, it can be the result of interior motivations.  Perhaps Van Auken has always wanted to do landscapes.  Perhaps a personal experience dragged him away from the studio and onto the sidewalk.  Perhaps he saw an image that inspired him and. . . he was off.
The decision-making process doesn't ultimately matter.  All we, the viewers, see is that this artist has something new to show us.

I'll have to say that Van Auken's "new" direction didn't startle me - in part because I expected him to draw something uniquely personal from the landscape and was not, in this regard, disappointed.  What did surprise me was his mastery of a space that must have seemed virtually infinite - by which I mean the outdoor space which all of us claim in one way or the other.  The studio can be claustrophobic.  Spend enough time in one and your vision can shrink to its dimensions.  Once outside of it, however, Van Auken found a way to be as big as it is.  And the result, while somewhat mixed, is fascinating. 

I'm willing to give talented artists the benefit of the doubt - which some of them don't need at all.  Van Auken is one of these.  If I found bits of his paintings to be spotty - which I did - I found his overall treatment masterful.  Breadth of vision isn't suddenly found.  In Van Auken's case, it was there already.  Once he stepped outside, he knew what to do with what he saw there.

I'd rather not cite individual paintings because of the overall unity of this series.  To isolate a few would mininize an effect that may not have been planned, but has happened anyway.  In the best of them, Van Auken has summoned up the terror and excitement of a startled visitor.  They are essays in edge and value.  They evoke the strong emotions that occur at the intersection of the familiar and fantastic.  He seems to be telling us that, if we could only see it, there are are spatial nuances after sunset.  There are stories to tell about gas pumps and lotto tickets.  He wants us to know that we can immerse ourselves in the midnight hour and get as much out of it as we dare.

A great many artists have taken on the urban landscape.  A photographic approach - which alienates viewer and subject - snags so many of them.  That this is deliberate does not excuse anybody.  Some rely on the signifiers of the "open road" and result in bathos.  Some are cannily allusive and want us to check into another Bates Motel.  Very few paintings, of night or day, have the quality of something one might see for the first time.  Yet for whatever reason, Van Auken achieves this first-time response.  He finds his subject, he gives it a fair appraisal, and he walks away.  It is "interpreted", but authentic as well.  It has sophistication, but it is also surprising.  It can only be a painting and, as such, it is a carefully improvised thing with attendant perils and satisfactions.   

On a formal level, Van Auken teases us with designs that capture just a bit of something - though "what's outside" is palpably present.  He'll come up to an architectural shoebox and throw foliage behind it.  It's a rather disconcerting view that forces our attention, first to the interior of the building, then to a terrifyingly abbreviated sky.  But it works because we've walked into a such a place and felt its strangeness.  He'll park his easel at the edge of a pumping station and show us that asphalt reflects as well as it absorbs.  He'll pass along an ordinary street and make a chilling pronouncement about the condition of man.  His color is true to his electric sources, which bathe his subjects - or leave them in the dark.  Lesser painters use black to describe the absence of color.  Van Auken remembers that light permeates even the darkest corners of a subject and doesn't necessarily "black them out."  To encounter the absence of light or color is extremely rare and he knows it.  Van Auken's "darkness visible" is colorized.  Even when it's subliminal, color isn't
 thrown away.  You don't notice all the choices he's made, but you are affected by them.  A duller palette would relax the tension - without which it is impossible to communicate visually.  Finally, Van Auken's confidence allows him to press one heady volume into another.  He knows what to emphasize and what to leave alone.  His paintings have protagonists - though it is up to us to decide what they are. 

A Kind of Epilogue

Richmond collectors gravitate - as they do in other places - toward such trophies as give them bragging-rights.  As they accumulate their wall decorations, they consider who their friends are and what parties they might be giving.  And, as in most places, collectors in Richmond are rarely willing to venture out on the limb that would stretch their capacities and gratify them the most.  By this yardstick, Van Auken is undesirable.  He is showing us something familiar, as transmitted through a fresh and original sensibility.  That's very bad for your average collector, who must make a self-made decision about Van Auken's quality.  If his or her friends aren't buying, how can he?  There just isn't precedent enough.  Or vision.  Or guts.  Or anything.    

An art collection is, like the objects in it, a work-in-progress.  If you buy a lemon, trade it in.  If you're not sure of yourself, go home and think about it.  If you're in a state about an objectionable choice, take heart.  Good paintings will not kill you.  In the long run, they'll tell you a story worth talking about.

In Thomas Van Auken's work, as well as some of the other Schindler artists, collectors have a unique opportunity to choose an original vision fortified by years of practice.  That strikes me as about the safest thing one can do.  Why, then, are so few people doing it? 

That's not to say he isn't selling.  But given Richmond's collecting spirit - which never hesitates to promote itself - the exhibit should have sold out.

Whoever ends up collecting him, Thomas Van Auken will keep up the good work - in spite of going farther afield than the rich folk might want.

For images from this series, go to: