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Category Archive

The following is a list of all entries from the criticism/theory category.

The Dram-edy of Art School.

I’ve been watching Six Feet Under on Netflix (Note: Don’t worry about spoiling it for me. I accidentally saw the series finale when it aired. I was in a hotel and saw “Oh hey, Six Feet Under, I’ve heard about that show.” and half-way through the episode I thought “Gee, this feels awfully… final.” Lo and behold. So, now I’ve started from the very beginning.) and I’m at Season 3 now.

At this point in the show, Claire is in art school and her storyline involves a lot of her somewhat outrageous professor and being acquainted with the “art world” and whatnot. Watching it, I feel like watching a distillation of my college career, except with more platitudes and a deeper sense that somehow, there has to be some kind of “meaning.” There’s a big theme of “Why make art?” going on and hell, if 6FU can answer that, they’ll be doing a better job than my $120,000 education.

It kind of makes me squirm to watch. It’s what you would expect from a television version of art school. Claire’s professor, Olivier, asks her why she’s an artist and she answers “Because I have a lot of pain.”

Squirm, squirm, squirm.

“That’s good. Pain is good for an artist.”

Squuuuiuiiiiiiiirrrrrrrrmmmmmm.

He moves on to ask her friend, Russell, the same question.

“Because I have to. Because if I can’t make art, then life has no meaning for me.”

Now, I know a lot of great artists who would agree; but these are not great artists. They’re 19 year old college kids. Anyone who, at 19, declares that art gives their life meaning kind of makes me want to barf. Including myself at 19, when my favorite quote was Ani DiFranco saying “art is why I get up in the morning, but my definition ends there, y’know it doesn’t seem fair that I’m living for something I can’t even define.” I make myself queasy just thinking about it.

Olivier objects over and over again to art that’s “pretty” or made in another artist’s style – encouraging his students to see with their “inner eye.” Squirm, squirm, barf, squirm. My professors never advised me to see things with my own eye until I had first mastered the “formal concerns” of art (composition, color, form, line, etc.) and explored other artists’ “vocabulary” to find elements of their styles that “spoke” to me – encouraging me at every turn to rip off other artists as much as possible. (As Picasso famously said: “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”)

Of course, my own professors advised me to sacrifice beauty in favor of meaning. To which I have to ask, what’s wrong with beauty? What’s wrong with art in the service of making life more beautiful? I will agree that art on the basis of pandering the lowest common denominator or art that is made on the basis of being “sell-able” isn’t the kind of art that is worth spending time on – but I don’t agree that art has to spend 24/7 being challenging in order to be worthwhile. Sometimes, we don’t want to be challenged. Sometimes, we want to be comforted. Sometimes, we want challenge to come in the form of challenging us to see the ordinary as beautiful – and not challenging us to change our political beliefs or even our definitions of art or beauty.

Olivier at one point says that great art is felt in the liver and in the gut – that he knows when something is good if it makes him want to puke. That this sort of visceral response is what great artists should strive for.

That makes me want to puke.

We can’t spend our entire lives surrounded by art that turns our stomachs. It’s too exhausting.

My favorite piece of art, the painting that made me want to be an artist is Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles. What I love about it, and what I want to re-create in my own work is that it feels like home. It’s someplace I’ve never been, it’s just an artist’s depiction of his room and it feels like a world that I could inhabit. I want to make more inhabitable worlds in hopes of making my own world a little more beautiful.

So what if I’m not wiping my butt on the American Flag, I think that beauty is a worthy goal in and of itself. Just because art school challenges us as artists to expand our view of beauty doesn’t mean that they should render beauty completely unnecessary – though unfortunately, that seems to be the trend. And it makes me squirm.


On Forgery.

I spent a good chunk of my day hunkered down in Borders with ArtNews and a muffin, trying valiantly (and succeeding) to ignore the outside world. ArtNews is the Elle of the art magazine crowd – a quality publication, for sure, but essentially very mainstream and predictable. This issue had its interesting moments scattered amongst the usual stories concerning lawsuits regarding paintings of dubious provenance that may or may or not have been sold under duress during the Nazi regime, and a digression about the performance art aspect of SecondLife & YouTube.

What interested me was not the meta-wankery of imitating Vito Acconci‘s Seedbed in which he masturbated under a ramp by having a Second Life avatar, well, masturbate under a ramp, but a number of articles that dealt with various issues of forgery in the art world. First, a cunning family of forgers was discovered as having passed off an impressive number of forgeries to some top-notch museums and galleries. Most notable among the Greenhalgh family, Shaun was responsible for such works as a bust that fooled even Egyptologists as having belonged to the Armana period. If by “the Armana period” you mean “three weeks ago.”

What I found most interesting was a recreation of a lost Gauguin statue that was sold to the Art Institute of Chicago. Clearly, the forgery was very well done as it convinced museum experts that this was indeed the lost piece that had been described in previous catalogs of the artist’s work. There was no lack of skill or craftsmanship in the piece and it certainly served a special function filling in a gap in Gauguin’s catalog that had been lost.

Really, where is the line between art and forgery? Art students copy old masters all the time. Even established artists are copying and ripping off other artists left and right. How can it be completely valueless to create a convincing copy of another artist’s work? If the issue is attribution, then yes, it does devalue the original artist to have fakes masquerading as their own work – especially since in the economy of the art world, a larger supply drives down demand and devalues all of the other work in circulation. However, as an object, is a forgery inherently worth less than the original?

This comes up in another article on terra cotta statues in China from the 3rd century B.C.E., wherein the government substituted “authentic replicas” for the original statues in an overseas exhibition. The original statues were deemed too fragile to travel – and being as they are over two thousand years old, one can hardly dispute that – and the replicas were on display in Hamburg for weeks before the exhibition was shut down on the basis of fraud. If the replicas were indeed authenticated by the government for use in the exhibition, what is the real qualitative difference between the copies and the originals? Economic value isn’t the question here, no one would be buying or selling the statues in question. What, from the viewer’s standpoint, would be the difference between viewing the replica and viewing the original?

This is very interesting to me. What would be the difference between having a traveling exhibition of museum-authenticated replicas creating greater public access to the work of masters, and an exhibit of the originals? If the exhibition were labelled as such – as replicas – and it was sponsored by the museum or collectors that owned the originals, would it be somehow disadvantageous to them to get publicity for showing copies? I suppose then anyone could show replicas of anything, thus destroying the need to specifically go to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, but people still do it even though they can buy a poster of the Mona Lisa (with or without moustache) online. Reproduction hasn’t destroyed the demand for art, what would the effect of replicas be?

Lastly is an article about a collection of Jackson Pollock paintings that were “found” in a storage unit in Long Island. The unit in question belonged to friends of Pollock, the Matta family. The paintings that were recovered and attributed to Pollock have been in dispute since their discovery as scientific analysis has shown that several types of paint were used that were not available until long after Pollock’s death. So, on the one had science says that these couldn’t be Pollocks. However, analysis on the artistic level on the style and working process that went into making these paintings indicate that if they were not made by Pollock himself, they were made by someone intimate enough with his process to duplicate it exactly. This is no small feat, especially in an artist with such a well-studied and idiosyncratic working method as Pollock. If these paintings are not, in fact, authentic Pollocks, aren’t they still works of art for being such convincing copies? To get into another artist’s head is no small task – to do so convincingly enough to fool experts, or at least cast doubt on scientific results that dispute their provenance – is a monumental accomplishment. Certainly, to display these along with bonafide Pollocks if they are, in fact, knock-offs would be disingenuous, but for the artist to made them, a little credit would certainly be due for having mastered the technique so flawlessly.

Andy Warhol once said “Art is what you can get away with” and in the end, I think that’s the crux of the issue. Artists have ripped off and copied other artists since time immemorial and it’s only ever a “forgery” if they get caught. Forgeries are discovered all the time that fooled experts for years – previous to their unmasking, they were just as much art as the originals that they had copied. Once discovered, their value has disappeared. To me this is very odd – art one day, trash the next. So it goes.


MoMA Highlights: Part 1

Since it is logistically impossible to actually live in the MoMA, I will try and at least document what I found most compelling, since I can at least live with a computer with internet access most of the time.

Dan Perjovschi: Right when you enter the galleries, there is a large wall that is being gradually covered in black marker drawings – small little commentaries on life/media/art that are really spot-on.  This is an installation being done over a period of time by Romanian artist Dan Perjovschi [this link features a large image of the MoMA gallery as it looks recently], and it’s incredible. If I could afford to, I would go back to the museum near the end date of the exhibition to see how it’s evolved.

 

Joan Mitchell: This is the only picture I took in the museum, and then my camera battery promptly threw in the towel, knowing it would be unable to compete with greatness. This piece – “Wood, Wind, No Tuba” was by far my favorite of Mitchell‘s works on display. I could live in this painting. [Click on image for original view – very, very large. Opens in new window.]

Jasper Johns: One of the most talked about artists in the art department at my Alma Mater, and seeing his work in person it’s easy to get why. (You always have to see things in person to really grok them, I believe, but for some artists this is more true than others.)

Robert Rauschenberg: Rauschenberg‘s work is the most compelling mixed-media work I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing. I find myself continually stumbling upon his work and being awed and inspired, not knowing the artist, and of course, it’s always Rauschenberg who makes my spine tingle.  I am deeply saddened that I didn’t get to New York for the recent Rauschenberg retrospective at the Met.

Terry Winters: His work reminds me of cellular structures, it’s deeply organic and presses against all sorts of nerves in my meager carbon-based body.


The Tempest/Bedroom at Arles

In Mysteries of the Rectangle, Siri Hustvedt writes about the first painting she saw that she really truly connected with – Giorgione‘s The Tempest, which she first viewed in a college art history course. It’s a truly marvelous and fantastical (both in that it is truly excellent and dreamlike) painting, and its meaning is still unclear to critics and art historians.

For me, I can also pinpoint the first painting I saw that truly sparked something inside me – the first image that made me say “That. I want to do that. I want to be an artist,” though for me it’s much more mundane than strange nude ladies breastfeeding in a thunderstorm. For me, the first artist whose images truly grabbed me was Vincent Van Gogh and the first image I saw that made me want to create art was The Bedroom at Arles. More than the more dramatic paintings or the more direct self-portraits, it was this little interior, a self-portrait of space, that sparked the artistic fuse inside me.

I am continually captivated by interiors. I have whole boxes full of rooms cut out from various home decorating magazines that are just waiting to be filled with strange and exotic elements.  I enjoy creating rooms wherein odd figures play out their stories.  I remember first seeing this painting in art class sometime in elementary school – I couldn’t have been more than nine years old, but it stuck with me. The colors, to repeat a cliché, spoke to me. It looked like a room that was truly lived in, a room with a life and a story of its own. And something about that room made me want to tell my own stories – visually. Something about this room made me realize that I had, even at that age, stories to tell.  I remember being twelve and declaring that I was going to be an artist when I grew up and being roundly mocked by my peers because I couldn’t even draw very well.

I still can’t draw very well, but that doesn’t stop me from telling these same stories over and over again.

 

[This one is mine and it’s called “Flight From the Bedroom”]


Mysteries of the Rectangle – introduction.

I was lucky enough this weekend not only to have dinner with Siri Hustvedt and Paul Auster, but also to receive from Siri a copy of her book, Mysteries of the Rectangle, which I promptly dove into as I am in an art-devouring mood (even more so than usual – my trip to New York seems to have jump started my art engines). There is so much of this book that I identify with and feel strongly about that I had to break my vow for shared books with my husband and start scribbling in the margins, underlining paragraphs, generally making a well-loved mess of the page. I have always done this with books, whereas my husband prefers his pages to remain pristine. I have compromised in our shared library by writing down quotations and thoughts in my journal, but in this case, I would have had to transcribe entire pages to get down everything that was important to me.

From the introduction:

Painting is there all at once. When I read a book, listen to music, or go to a movie, I experience these works over time. A novel, a symphony, a film are meaningful only as a sequence of words, notes, and frames. Hours may pass but a painting will not gain or lose any part of itself. It has no beginning, no middle, and no end. I love painting because in its immutable stillness it seems to exist outside time in a way no other art can. The longer I live the more I would like to put the world in suspension and grip the present before it’s eaten by the next second and becomes the past. A painting is an illusion of an eternal present, a place where my eyes can rest as if the clock has magically stopped ticking.

I feel like a lot of Siri’s (this is weird, I usually refer to authors by their last names, but in this case since I’ve met and hugged the author in question, it seems a bit pretentious, and yet, my inner college students still wants to write “Ms. Hustvedt”) statements about painting can be applied to any two-dimensional art, and some – especially the bit about “gripping the present” seem to be more appropriate to photography than to painting. One could say that with photomontage, the artist is reconstructing many present moments to create an amalgamation of moments, a summation of a whole that never actually existed. Whenever I think of art that perfectly captures an instant of the present, this photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson immediately springs to mind.

More from Siri:

Visual art exists only to be seen. It is the silent encounter between the viewer, “I,” and the object, “it.” That “it,” however, is the material trace of human consciousness. The artist, who is missing from the scene, has nevertheless left us a work, an act of pure will, which has no practical purpose. The painting carries within the residue of an “I,” or a “you.” In art, the meeting between viewer and thing implies intersubjectivity. Despite the fact that I would run in terror if a painting actually talked to me, I am alert to the human presence that is part of the object. Common parlance makes it clear that most people feel this way about art. “That really spoke to me” has become a gallery cliché.

The intersubjectivity inherent in looking at art means that it is a personal, not impersonal, act. I have often thought of paintings as ghosts, the specters of a living body, because in them we feel and see not only the rigors of thought, but the marks left by a person’s physical gestures – strokes, dabs, smudges. In effect, painting is the still memory of that human motion, and our individual response to it depend on who we are, on our character […].

This, to me, especially rings true for self-portraiture (both painted and photographed). Here we have not only the work of the artist, but the artist’s reflection of hirself. (Yes, I am using clunky gender neutral pronouns. You can take the art-fag out of Hampshire, but you can’t take the Hampshire out of the art-fag.) You, the viewer, are looking into the artist’s view of the artist. It’s an endless reflection – looking at the image of the artist looking back at you.

Frida Kahlo

 

 

Diane Arbus

To me, it isn’t painting, but music that is the most ghostly of arts – especially the vocal recordings of musicians who are now deceased. To hear the songs of, say, John Lennon, is to hear an encapsulated moment when he was truly alive. That moment is lasting forever and ever, replayed to infinity. The moment when the artist created the image has passed, and now the image is traveling through time alone, but the moment when Elliott Smith recorded “Miss Misery” is intact and transmitted over and over again from listener to listener. I suppose in a way, this also holds true for photography, but I feel it more intensely with music.