Wednesday, May 9, 2012

39 percent. What did you expect?

On October 6, 1971:

John A. Wilkinson's marriage to Lorraine Mary Turner was officially recognized by the State of North Carolina. Wilkinson was black and Turner was white.
It was the first interracial marriage legally recognized by the state. It took a 1967 ruling from the United States Supreme Court to force the state (and 15 others) to revoke its anti-miscengenation laws. Last night was the way this was always going to go. But last night was never going to be the way this was going to end.

We all would have liked for the people of North Carolina to have given us an upset, but democracy isn't a fan of upsets. And it certainly isn't a fan of the civil rights of the statistically insignificant minority. Which is why it has never been the preferred instrument in doling them out.

Sign this.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


When I went to the Academy we didn’t have a Thesis Show. No, for some reason, we had something called a Diploma Project Exhibition; although, that’s not what my CV says. The first such show I saw was in 2003, at the end of my first year. The last show I saw there was in 2008, the spring before I left the city.

The place, by just about any reasonable metric, is an anomaly in the context of the 21st century American graduate art program. I used to have a spiel I would give if somebody happened to ask me about the school. It doesn’t really happen as often as it once did, so I’m out of practice. I’ll let Peter Drake, the school’s dean do it for me:

The conventional model for how an art school should be structured is so common now as to be virtually academic: offer a bit of this and a bit of that; don’t take a position because the art world is in a constant state of flux; whatever you do, don’t specialize. This has resulted in a jack-of-all-trades condition that makes most art programs indistinguishable from each other. If you travel from coast to coast, from one MFA program to another, you can enter their doors and become convinced that you haven’t moved at all. On the surface this seems like a good idea; the art world has been in a pluralist stalemate for over thirty years and shows no signs of ever changing. Why should an MFA program take a position?

The simple answer is that all art making takes a position. The very act of picking up a brush is a declaration. Choosing to make objects in a digital age is taking a stand. Believing in anything is potentially progressive. The relativity of pluralism has created a critical crisis where all things seem equal, but does anyone really believe that? The real joy of art is not found in watching someone make an acceptable version of a patented school, but rather it is in the iconoclastic, the anomalous, and the unexpected. In effect, it is doing precisely what you shouldn’t be doing.

The New York Academy of Art enters this critical crisis with a firm belief that when young artists are given the most extensive set of visual tools available and a complete awareness of contemporary culture, they will make important contributions to visual culture by doing what many people believe is no longer possible, making great art. It has been suggested that there are no more great movements to be had from art making, that the great contributions of the last century have been exhausted. This has an “end of history” ring to it that is both dispiriting and contrary to cultural evolution. Great art is being made and will always be made by artists who refuse to adapt to the accepted norms of their era and instead forge ahead with work that is masterful, critically aware, and deeply contrary.

We present the graduating class of 2012 as a prime example of what can happen when talent, intelligence and willful determination meet as a counterpoint to cultural relativity.

Peter wasn't the dean when I was there. He was a member of the adjunct faculty. I never had a class with him, which I've regretted probably since the day I graduated.  Hiring him as the dean is probably the best decision that school ever made.

The NYAA 2012 MFA Thesis Exhibition opens at 111 Franklin St. in Tribeca, next Tuesday, May 15. The reception will run from 6-8pm. The show will remain up until May 26.

Amendment I

I met Sarah Livengood in 1996. We were 17. At the end of the month, we'll be celebrating out 10th wedding anniversary. My brother Daniel and his wife Lauren were married in Raleigh a year ago yesterday (Happy Anniversary to them!).

When we met, Sarah's little brother Cory would have been 12. I guess he's 27 or 28 now--gee whiz, can that be right? He's my brother-in-law, he's the skinny guy in the video above. And today, the people of the state of his birth and mine will, in all likelihood, vote to amend the state constitution to be doubly sure that the state will not recognize any loving and committed relationship he may have with another man.

Gay marriage is already prevented by the laws of the State of North Carolina. As are same-sex civil unions. To say that this new amendment is an unnecessary piece of legislation is an understatement. If the amendment fails, nothing that is illegal today will be legal tomorrow. This is preventative legislation written to ensure that a discriminatory law that is already on the books will be all the more difficult to overturn. Moreover, it writes new forms of discrimination into the state constitution, disallowing even the creation of civil unions or any other state recognition of loving and committed relationships between two people of the same gender.

It is unconscionable. It is malicious. And it will probably pass. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't vote against it, if you are so able.

Monday, April 30, 2012


This is a new video from Hazmat Modine.

The first time I heard this band play, I think, was at some kind of Valentine’s Day party type thing in the Cast Hall at the New York Academy of Art, where I went to grad school. This would have been February 2003, just after the start of my second semester.

There had been chances to see them before. There were always flyers posted in the elevator advertising upcoming gigs they were having at Terra Blues a nice little venue on Bleecker, but I never really intended to go. Wade Schuman, the group’s front man, was an instructor at the school. I wasn’t in any of his classes that first semester, so these flyers were how I formed my first impression of the guy. And there was something I didn’t like about him even before I learned that he played the harmonica.

A lot of my stories set in that period could start that way, with me finding some (usually poor) reason to be suspicious of somebody whom I didn’t really know. It’s how some of my more meaningful friendships from that period began.

I did finally have a class with Wade that spring. I won’t gush. I found him to be a remarkably good guy. And he can do this, which I’d say makes up for the fact that he's kind of a weirdo who keeps a bunch of dead animals stored in a freezer at home.

And Hazmat Modine, a band that defies easy categorization, is a really good band full of an inordinant amount of wind instruments. They put on a pretty great show. Sometimes I hear a few bars of one of their songs before a segment on All Things Considered, and I feel immediately homesick.

Friday, April 27, 2012

This Should (Still) be a Photograph

So the other day, the Huffington Post had a piece on the work of Paul Cadden. The header was "This is Not a Photograph." Yesterday, my Facebook circle being what it is, there were a few friends of friends who were linking to it. Today, it's on Andrew Sullivan's blog, where "Sully" does a similar Wowzers! comment.

I've long since given up talking about being bored by this kind of photorealism, i.e., the masturbatory kind that exists solely to produce the reaction Cadden is getting from HuffPo, Sullivan, and their enormous readership.

I haven't quite given up on pointing out the silliness of people who look at something that was clearly meticulously copied from a photograph with a sort of "Can you believe this isn't a photograph???"

First: I can! 

Second: I have the suspicion that it would be much easier for all of you to believe it if you weren't looking at a photograph of a drawing of a photograph, and were just looking at the drawing of the photograph in person--although I am sure the illusion is still pretty compelling.

Third: Once you get past the initial Wow factor, what is it that you think you're going to like about this drawing in the future that you wouldn't have liked about the photograph? Why is this intrinsically better or more interesting than the photograph it could not have come close to existing without? Because, you know, if photorealist depictions of watery people is your thing, there is a precedent for people doing it in a way that, I think you can argue, actually elevates it above the source material.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Trouble with Alchemy

Late in the evening on May 17, 1966, around the time of the release of his seminal double album Blonde on Blonde, Bob Dylan was finishing up a set before an infamously antagonistic crowd at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. The year before, Dylan had released Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, and ever since, he had been touring the world playing loud rock music not-so-much-for-as-at auditoriums filled with jilted folk music fans. Toward the end of the Free Trade Hall show (recorded and later released as The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert), Dylan had an iconic confrontation with a heckler, which can be plainly heard on the record.

Just after Dylan and what would become The Band finished up Ballad of a Thin Man, a voice from the audience cries out, “Judas!” which is then echoed by a smattering of applause. There’s a pause, and then Dylan, who had only acknowledged the crowd once or twice before in the set and who must have found the whole situation a bit bewildering, comes back with a dramatic, “I don’t believe you.” Another pause, then Dylan growls “You’re a liar!” before counting off and breaking into the last song of the set: a loud rendition of Like a Rolling Stone, which in 1966, was probably the greatest song any in attendance had ever had the opportunity to claim they hated.

I don’t know what it says about me or my ability to empathize, but there are not many moments that more perfectly encapsulate the feeling I get all too often when reading art criticism. It’s not simply an issue where I don’t agree with what is being written—it’s that I genuinely don’t believe there’s much sincerity behind the words.

Case in point: Blake Gopnik’s recent homage to the self-proclaimed Painter of LightTM, Thomas Kinkade (hereafter, “the POL”), who died suddenly earlier in the month.

Kinkade’s garish pictures of bubbling brooks, flowering arbors, and quaint village life get at an important chunk of the American psyche that most museum art doesn’t. He captures, with chilling accuracy, a strangely American combination of blinkered nostalgia, blind complacency, and a ferocious resistance to change. And then he packages and sells that vision within a no-holds-barred consumerist culture that you wouldn’t think compatible with pictures of commerce-free townships twinkling by snowlight. There’s not a single Pop artist–not even Warhol–who got at this truly popular side of our culture, and its contradictions, the way Kinkade did.

For what it’s worth, Mr. Gopnik, I don’t believe you.

Nor, apparently, does he expect us to, or else he wouldn’t have begun the very next paragraph attempting to assure us that he means every word. He goes on to describe the POL, a godsend to the sect of art lovers who can’t get enough of the sound or look of the word kitsch, as an artist who “channeled a certain American vision and found the perfect way to convey it.”

In all, he spends nearly 700 words trying to convince readers that the POL was “a terrible artist who made important art.” Indeed, according to Gopnik, the main impediment to the POL being viewed as a maker of “high art” is the simple matter of where his paintings hang. Says Gopnik, all we have to do is remove the pictures from the context of QVC and of mall galleries and place them on the walls inside the white box, and voila! easy marks serious people will begin to think serious thoughts about them.

Implicit in the hypothetical Gopnik outlines is his (and his reader’s) acceptance that purportedly serious thoughts churning in the heads of supposedly serious, presumably well-informed Looky-Lous is a kind of overarching criterion that can turn literally anything into art. It’s a kind of post-structural alchemy, whose intellectual lineage stretches back to Duchamp’s Fountain. It places critical analysis of the object on a plane above the object itself and creates the illusion that the art critic is somehow something more than a glorified member of the audience whose very role in the process relies entirely on someone else making something they can react to. As though all objects are empty vessels waiting for somebody in the crowd to write some words about them, fill them with meaning, and transform them into something they could have otherwise never been: art.

For what it’s worth, Gopnik assures us, this isn’t like Fountain at all. Blake, may I call you Blake? I don’t believe you.

Nearly 100 years on, what Gopnik is peddling here is quite plainly the intellectual progeny of the ideas of Marcel Duchamp and his Dadaist compatriots. Ideas that, while once revolutionary, Duchamp himself seemed to show signs of having tired of later in life.

In 1953, a young Robert Rauschenberg handed an aging Duchamp his newly assembled Music Box:

A rough wooden box filled with nails of different caliber and intended for rattling to produce “clinks and thumps.” Invited to try it, Duchamp obediently shook the box against his ear; then, putting it down, quoted a familiar musical title: “It seems to me I’ve heard this song before.” [From Encounters with Rauschenberg: (a Lavishly Illustrated Lecture), Leo Steinberg]

It’s a familiar feeling. And you would think an inevitable one.

Despite the unmistakable charm of a urinal that’s been reappropriated for gallery exhibition, the forgotten truth of the readymade is that it was, at its heart, not much more than a wonderfully brutal brand of satire directed first at the artistic conventions of the day and later at those who would chose to use its example to establish a new convention. That’s the trouble with satire: give it time and its edge will cut both ways. And while Robert Rauschenberg and so many others were cut down trying to wield it, Duchamp’s blade has long since grown dull with over use. Today it’s not much more than an ornament adorning some rich man’s mantelpiece, which isn’t to say there aren’t scores of tin soldiers still lining up to feel its weight and make believe they are real swordsmen.

Regardless of his assurances to the contrary, what Gopnik is doing is holding the work of the POL up as a kind of 21st century readymade, a found object that new walls and new words will turn to art. Sure, it’s a lie. But it’s one he’s come accustomed to telling.

Before I go on, let me offer some assurance of my own. The origin of my objection isn’t a simple question of taste; it’s a question of honesty. I’m really not interested in whether or not Blake Gopnik and I agree about the value or virtues to be gleaned from this or that work of art. Nor do I mean to leave the implication that it’s categorically or objectively false to believe that the POL’s work has artistic merit or cultural significance. Just that, despite his cynical claims to the contrary, Blake Gopnik simply doesn’t believe those things himself—or that he didn’t right up until the moment after he decided, on a lark, to try to convince himself otherwise. And when it comes down to it, what kind of belief is that?

Though “Judas!” was the most easily recognizable outcry recorded from the audience at the Free Trade Hall in 1966, it’s actually not what prompted Dylan’s aggressively knowing response. Beneath the heckling applause, there’s a quieter voice, whose petulant rebuke is barely discernible on the recording. “I’m never listening to you again, ever!”

As the father of a five-year old, I’ve become accustomed to finding myself in a similar position. When things are not going his way, my son has the habit of threatening to take away all of the hugs he was going to give me in the future. To him, they represent his only commodity of any value to me, so withholding them is a rational attempt to gain leverage. What he doesn’t realize as he says it, is that I’m not five years old and whether or not he believes what he’s saying in the moment, I know it’s not true, and moreover, I know he doesn’t believe it either. Not really. And I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry at my sweet, silly baby boy.

That’s the feeling I have when I read Blake Gopnik tell me the POL made important work—or when I hear anybody tell me they liked Damien Hirst’s dots. Did you now? That’s sweet.

But I can’t say I blame anybody for taking these kinds of silly positions because, in the end, I’m just not sure if total honesty is a reasonable expectation of the person who’s chosen to spend a good portion of their lives writing about art at this moment in time. I’ve thought about doing it myself, but each time I’ve inevitably found myself running head long into the sense I have that art is only worth writing about when it’s the art you like—and that narrows things down quite a bit. Really though, the value of negative art criticism in 2012 is all but lost on me; although, I guess that barely distinguishes it from the value I find in most positive art criticism. Still, so long as it's based on an honest reading, I would rather chuckle through a positive analysis of an object or event that I never want to see and would just assume forget, than to bare witness to some writer's self-satisfied attempt at catharsis at the expense of somebody who, afterall, is probably only making the art they think we wanted them to make. Even if I agree that it's terrible, who really cares what we think? If you want to deny the undeserving an opportunity for success, then just shut-up about them. Odds are that nobody else is writing about them either. For most of the world it is already as though the thing you hate doesn’t exist. What’s the point in speaking up to shame the self-important or pretentious? Or the untalented? Moreover, once that becomes your game, how will you ever know when to stop?

Again, this isn’t a question of taste. While opinions vary regarding the merits of this or that, the fact remains that nobody likes most of what’s out there. Nobody. It’s not that most everything is bad. It’s simply that most everything is boring and that most of what’s left after you whittle away the boring stuff is terrible. Eliminate both and you’re left with maybe 10 percent that you can even begin to rationalize writing about and only a couple percent that you would actually want to write about. Not bad work, if you can find it. But can you find it?

I’ve always assumed the answer to that question was a qualified yes. It’s not like there’s nothing good out there. It’s just a question of finding something, anything, you would like to give a bit more exposure to. The question then becomes what you do when the well runs dry, as it periodically will. If you don’t want to write negative criticism, which by anybody’s measure is the easy way out, I suspect the overriding impulse would be to reach into the abyss of creative mediocrity and pull something from nothing. Or, to put it another way, to try turning lead into gold.

The trouble with alchemy, though, is that for whatever unintended advances it brings, it's just never going to do what you want it to, and after a while, you know it. And the curse of enlightenment is knowing we can never go back to a time before we knew. Sure, we can devote hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of words to why we’re never going to hug our father again, but why would we want to when we’re old enough to know that it isn’t true, but that one day it will be? Because silence isn’t an option, I guess, and the truth is often too depressingly uninspired to speak of, so if you’re gonna lie, you might as well make it a good one.

The truth we know is that Blake Gopnik doesn’t believe the POL belongs in a real museum any more than he believes Sam Butcher does. And we’re left to assume that Gopnik doesn’t believe Butcher’s work belongs anywhere near a museum, since he fails to garner even a passing mention despite being an objectively better parallel to the POL than Norman Rockwell, the only other artist (save for the above-quoted obligatory nod to Andy Warhol), that Gopnik even attempts to compare him to.

The Rockwell analogy is lazy, of course, but his work actually hangs in museums, so it serves the greater purpose of the piece while giving Gopnik an opportunity to remind the reader that he finds Rockwell offensive (because, in a nutshell, he was an illustrator in the literal sense, which in this case seems to be more troubling to Gopnik than being one in the pejorative sense). Rockwell told convincing lies. The POL told obvious lies that revealed an ugly truth about the people who would buy his work. Don’t let that nonsense use its magic on you. Let it simmer for a moment.

Rockwell offends Gopnik because Gopnik can only look at Rockwell through the lens that already knows that “Rockwell’s America,” which, despite some rather obvious exceptions towards the end that we won’t talk about, is a damagingly wholesome, white lie. This from a man who’s telling us to put the cottages of the POL up on the walls at MOMA. But what Blake Gopnik knows is that Norman Rockwell wasn’t being paid to tell the truth. He wasn’t even being paid to make art. He was being paid to sell issues of the Saturday Evening Post, which was something the illustrator was remarkably successful at doing for the better part of four decades. And in so doing, he managed to make dozens of singularly iconic images that are easily distinguishable from one another and from the work of any other artist before or since. Whatever stigma you want attach to him for being a commercial illustrator, Norman Rockwell was still a bad ass. If you want to compare him to somebody, compare him to Frank Frazetta or N.C. Wyeth. I have issues with all three of them, but I would never insult them—nor the reader by comparing what they gave to the world and to the medium with whatever debt it can be argued that we owe to the POL. But that’s because I respect you, dear reader.

Now, go look at any picture painted by the POL. Every time, it’s the same, disposable, mass produced, vaguely religious rendered chicken fat that you’re going to get from any given Precious Moments statuette. Not only is it a greeting card, it’s the same greeting card every single time. Now, I’m not sure, but I think the Germans used to have a word for that kind of thing. It’s times like this I wish we still lived in a world where words had meaning.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Single Fare 2: You can thank me later

I flew to New York last week for the opening reception of Single Fare 2: Please Swipe Again, the Metrocard-themed show organized by Jean-Pierre Roy and Michael Kagan (and Alix Sloan) and on exhibition for just four more days (Wednesday through Saturday) at Sloan Fine Art on Rivington in the LES. I will cut to the quick: It’s an incredible show. More than 2,000 pieces from hundreds of artists at varying moments in their careers, the show is eclectic and packed but somehow avoids the pitfalls of being an overhung mishmash.

Roy, Kagan, and Sloan all deserve a great deal of credit for putting the thing together, and I feel a great deal of gratitude to all three of them, particularly to JP and Michael who, for the second year in a row have used this experiment to pull me out of the Roswell doldrums, force a brush into my hand, and set me to work again. It may not have been their intent, but I feel as though it wasn’t the very last thing on Jean-Pierre’s mind. They also let me crash in their studio while I was up there, so that was pretty cool, too. Blankets would have been nice, but I hardly missed them.

Really though, the show is spectacular! If you have not seen it, the gallery is not open today, but the show will be up through Saturday. If you are a collector or are looking to begin a collection, this is a truly wonderful opportunity to pick up some stellar work for next to nothing. At $100, every piece in the show is going for less than the cost of a 30-day pass! But no purchase is necessary. Just see the show. I feel lucky to have been a part of it, and I feel as though I have done someone a favor every time I've told them about it. So…you’re welcome. You can thank me later.