Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Artist-Writers Part I


As noted in my review of the
7th Annual National Self-Portrait Exhibition
at the Zhao B. Art Center in Chicago,
the above painting caught my eye.

Because even though it's a self portrait,
it steps back to be about self regard in general,
a much more frightening psychological subject
and suitable for Classical poetry

The artist was Brian Curtis who is
something of a classicist.

Perhaps if all of the other 149 artists in the self-portrait show
were as well,
he would not have been so remarkable.

But indeed, he was the only one offering gem-like quality and wry wit
instead of crude self expression and a clownish sense of humor.


As a professor,
he also goes around
to academic conferences
where he delivers papers on
topics like:

* "De-nuding the curriculum"
* "why n'art aint art"
* "a generation without studio training"
* "an ecosystem of interruption technologies:
the internet as a distraction, numbing, mind-altering substance"
* "Duchamps legacy"

.... and, of course :

* "A Voice Crying in the Wilderness"

where he tells us that:

I am an academic-leaning artist who was educated by modernists and who now finds himself teaching in a world that privileges contemporary anti-art practice. The pedagogical habitat that once supported the goal of fostering visual sensitivity, talent, craftsmanship, and creativity is fading rapidly from college level art school programs. This goal is being displaced - and increasingly replaced - by the de-skilling and dematerializing promotion of something called artist's attitude.

Truly a scholar
worthy to share the purple mushrooms
of those who live on Mount Shang.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Artist-Writers Part II

"One Up", Farm west of Saskatoon, 2011

I've recently run into some very impressive artist-writers
so I thought I'd pay tribute to their paintings
and cogitate their ideas.

Terry Fenton (b. 1940)
makes me love a landscape
in cold, flat, dreary Canada
that I'm never going to visit.

His paintings are like plays with two actors,
the prairie and the sky,
and remind me of the Jeff Aeling paintings
I've seen here in Chicago.

Interestingly enough,
he has also had a 25 year career
as a Canadian art museum director :

1993-97 Director, Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
1972-87 Director, The Edmonton Art Gallery, Edmonton, Alberta.


But despite that pedigree,
and even if he's the best living landscape painter in the world,
he will never be displayed in a Chicago museum
(at least in my life time)
because of the same categorical exclusion
triumphantly espoused
by Fenton's hero,
Clement Greenberg,
for whom Fenton has organized
a very handy website


Five years ago, I sent a letter to James Cuno,
the incoming director of the Art Institute of Chicago,
asking him why "you don’t expand your notion of the “encyclopedic museum” up to contemporary times – and attempt to present the diversity of today’s cultures – including our own – in which contemporary landscape, wildlife, and portrait painting seems to be categorically excluded from display at the A.I.C."

He replied that this work "was not of our time",
an explanation that could have been lifted directly
from "Avant Garde and Kitsch"
reflecting that :

"superior consciousness of history -- more precisely, the appearance of a new kind of criticism of society, an historical criticism"

(i.e. Marxism)
that distinguished the "high level" avant garde culture
with its "imitation of imitating" from the"vicarious experience and faked sensations" of the"debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture"where the half-educated peasant
"recognizes and sees things in the way in which he recognizes and sees things outside of pictures -- there is no discontinuity between art and life"

a distinction that was re-affirmed
21 years later in his essay, "Modernist Painting"
with the presentation of the notion of "purity":

"It quickly emerged that the unique and proper area of competence of each art coincided with all that was unique in the nature of its medium. The task of self-criticism became to eliminate from the specific effects of each art any and every effect that might conceivably be borrowed from or by the medium of any other art. Thus would each art be rendered "pure," and in its "purity" find the guarantee of its standards of quality as well as of its independence. "Purity" meant self-definition, and the enterprise of self-criticism in the arts became one of self-definition with a vengeance."

"Realistic, naturalistic art had dissembled the medium, using art to conceal art; Modernism used art to call attention to art"

23 years later,
in a lecture about "taste"
Greenberg would remind us that he was using scare quotes around the word "purity"
and he was only noting it as the report of a journalist
rather than as his own, critical ideal.

Indeed, there is much to be admired in that
entire discussion of "true taste":

"True taste, genuine taste, develops, expands, grows. It changes only insofar as it corrects itself, true taste."

So now he is the wise sage of traditional aesthetics, rather than the firebrand prophet of the avant garde; but it's nothing more than the shallow, self-serving rant of a careerist responding to a different situation.

"datedness is not a valid aesthetic judgment. It doesn't say whether art is good or bad. Dated art can be as good as up-to-date art. (There are qualifications there; but I won't go into them.) You can't dismiss a work of art because it's derivative. There may be a certain degree beyond which derivativeness does hurt art, but derivativeness as such, doesn't, isn't crucial to the quality of a work."

Do you hear that, James Cuno?

No, of course not, because by 1983 Greenberg was no longer a prophet who was calling the winners,
he was just a nice old codger covering the tracks
that led right into the disaster that is the contemporary artworld.

"Where do I want to see art go? I want to see art go back to the kind of realism that a minor Impressionist, like Caillebotte practiced or that Fantin Latour practiced in his still lifes, not in his figure compositions. But it's very unlikely it will go that way, but I'd be overjoyed to see major art go that way. And I'm talking about major art."

Doesn't that sound good ?

But alas, he's as phony now as he was in 1939 when he first turned his then fashionable, left-wing critical writing over to topics in art.

If he really wanted to " see art go back to the kind of realism that a minor Impressionist, like Caillebotte practiced", why didn't he actually promote and review it?

But, Terry Fenton has written about
many other topics as well,
including Giovanni Bellini, "St. Francis in Ecstasy" ,
one of my favorite paintings of all time.

As Fenton concludes "Within a complex landscape, bathed with morning light, St. Francis steps forth to greet "Brother Sun" and a new day rendered in loving detail by a very great artist. At once naturalistic and visionary, this is one of the world's perfect pictures."

(BTW - Here's what Norris Kelly Smith had to say:

The old balance between self and world depended in good part upon the conviction that all things, human and nonhuman alike, are God’s creations, a conviction we see most beautifully expressed in Giovanni Bellini’s painting The Stigmatization (or Ecstasy) of St. Francis now housed in the Frick, in which the artist avows that St. Francis, Moses, and the rocky bluffs of Mt. Laverna have all been created by the same hand and in the same style.)

Fenton also has some interesting things to say
about the "disequilibrium" of one of my favorite sculptors, Tilman Riemenschneider


That's usually how I feel!

(especially while writing this post)

so maybe that is why I love him so.


And finally, you should take a look here
at Fenton's web museum of fellow Canadian landscape painters.

They almost make me wish
I had sought asylum across the border
back when Selective Service
was on my heels.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The White Goddess in Chicago

Seward Johnson's 26-foot "Forever Marilyn" has been provoking some controversy upon its installation last week in Pioneer Court, just northeast of the Michigan Avenue bridge in Chicago.

Abraham Ritchie blogged that:

"it caters to cheap titillation, titillation that is in itself pathetic. By making Monroe's panties visible, Johnson encourages voyeurism. When I visited it recently there were no less than three men taking pictures of Monroe's rear. If a clumsily rendered giantess puts wind in your sails, you have issues."

... then, demonstrating his higher education, he added:

"In artspeak, this piece reifies (makes real) the male gaze (dudes scoping out women"

Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune picked up the ball, adding that:

What's most disturbing about the sculpture, though, is not that it's mediocre. It's the fact that Marilyn Monroe was real. She wasn't a sci-fi amazon. She was more than an image. She was a real woman who died at the age of 36 of a drug overdose, perhaps by suicide. Inviting people to leer at her giant underpants is just icky.

While Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun Times dittos both of the above sentiments: it's a poorly done sculpture and we should be ashamed of ogling those panties:

" It’s not that the sculpture is shocking or sexist or obscene — but it’s definitely bringing out the juvenile goofball in many of us."

... and here are some other digs:

*This is not art that could be described as "making people think." Not by a long shot.

*It's creepy schlock from a fifth-rate sculptor that blights a first-rate public art collection.

*as tawdry as a peep show

*The original image is coy. Marilyn on the Mag Mile is crude.

Which is to say,
that even if "taste"
is irrelevant to contemporary art,
this sculpture
is in very bad taste.

But as "The Queer Guy" responded on Ritchie's blog:

"And as far as being replicated to death, it's for good reason! This is not only a symbol of sexual freedom, but for that of personal expression.

While I would add that the statue is also the dramatic emergence
of the White Goddess" ,
in this, her full moon, sexually active phase
(after virginity, and prior to the crone)

And it's only fitting
that people want to touch her

and connect to the fullness
of her sexual energy

especially young women themselves,
as they enter that period of their life,
and, of course, old men
who still stare upwards with wonder
at the great mystery.

Devotee that I am,
I have walked around the statue
with a camera
to offer people from around the world
views of our amazing statue,
as she was being worshiped
late Saturday afternoon

Isn't it delightful
how the forms of a monumental standing figure
can humanize the severity of the steel and glass boxes
of modern urban architecture?

Doesn't this look so much better than
the bent pipes and naked steel bars
of contemporary minimalist sculpture ?

Is this a great statue?


Thanks to half a century of iconoclasm
followed by irony-ridden pop art,
American figure sculpture is at a low ebb,
and this piece is
only really fit for
an amusement park.

As with the joke art made for Jeff Koons,
the artisans who actually modeled this piece
remain anonymous.

Incompetent modeling
has left these facial features feeling harsh,
so inappropriate for
the beloved triple-goddess.

While the hair looks like
lumps of gloppy vermicelli.

It's a little toy made big,
and nowhere is that more painful
than in this distant view.

But still,
it's a step in the right direction,
as this piece replaces this one ,
that was nothing more
than a joke twice removed.

Even without the references
to Marilyn Monroe and the Billy Wilder movie,
this is a meaningful pose.

Pushing down on her thighs,
(is she touching her crotch?),
the figure is lifting her head in ecstasy
while a strong wind from behind
is blowing up between her legs.

It's as if she's just discovering,
and delighting in,
her own sexuality
as she feels it
and others admire it.

Her innocent naughtiness
seems to epitomize American consumer culture
and the advertising that stimulates it,
so what could be a better place for her
than on the Magnificent Mile?

Like statues of Lincoln,
every American town
should have one.

If only sculptors as good
as Daniel Chester French
were still around to make them.

Once again,
Americans need to be reminded
that there is nothing wrong
with sexual energy
and the forms
that visually arouse it.

It's an appetite
that does need to be managed with discretion
in our daily lives,
but what doesn't?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Buddhist Shrine in Chicago

After visiting the "Movie Mojo" exhibit
at the Chicago Cultural Center,
I had to pay a visit
to Primitive Gallery in Chicago
who sponsored it.

With four floors of furniture, sculpture, fabrics, and odd stuff
from around the world,
it's quite a fascinating place,
or actually,
a collection of places,

my favorite of which was the
Buddha Room

Stooping down
to enter through a short,
antique doorway,
you're surrounded by scenes from the life of the Buddha
as painted by a young, contemporary
artist from Nepal.

And he's very good,
though not great.

But it's the sculpture that mostly
interested me,
specifically the two pieces
that I'm showing here.

No date was given for the above,
but it's so much better
than most contemporary Buddhist or Hindu sculpture
which, even if large,
never feels more profound than
knick-knacks at a gift shoppe.

This piece is attributed
to a mid 20th Century sculptor
named Raj Bhai,
but I couldn't find
anything more about him
on the internet.

Unless it's been done by famous Italians ,
all religious art of the 20th Century
is practically anonymous,
especially in the third world.