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. 


  1. I am totally unfamiliar with everything and everyone you talk about in this article except the gist of it. I think this is fantastic and I look forward to reading further. On to the next on on the list... Well done. John

  2. Choosing "the best" by a jury of non-experts is one of America's most compulsive activities. Almost everybody is voting for something at any given time of day. I'm glad that came through. The particulars are, for the most part, interchangeable.

    How is remotest Africa? I would imagine each day is visually stunning, if troubled in other ways.

    I guess you've seen my countrymen jump up and down about the Bin Laden "kill". If a point was ever missed completely, this is certainly one of them.