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.

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