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.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Pretty Satisfying Week’s Work

All right, here they are. They arrived last Monday. I started work on them on Tuesday, and I spent about 25 minutes making some final touches last night. All in all, a pretty satisfying week’s worth of work. If only I had come up with this whole painting on used Metrocards thing seven or eight years ago!

I’m going to put the paintings in the mail this afternoon, and that will be that. The next time I will see them will be on the wall in Alix’s gallery where they will be put to the work of paying for my plane ticket. If I write about this again, it will probably just be once more and after the show has opened.

[Edit: By the way, here are the show details.]

Opening Reception: Thursday, March 17th, from 6 to 9 pm

Exhibition: Friday, March 18 through Saturday, March 26, 2011

Gallery Hours: Noon to 6pm (Closed Monday & Tuesday)

Sloan Fine Art is located at 128 Rivington Street (corner of Norfolk) on the Lower East Side of New York City.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Numero seis.

On Saturday morning, I found an old Metrocard laying under some clutter on my dresser. It expired on Halloween 2007. It must have been one of the last cards either Sarah or I bought before we left the city the first time, just after Nate was born. The first time I remember finding it was last year not long after submitting the two cards I made for the first Single Fare show. Sentiment is probably what kept it with us for the first few years, like the scuffed up playing cards Sarah used to bring home to Brooklyn after finding them on the sidewalk or in the gutter. We still have a handful of those cards stuck behind a magnet on our refrigerator in Roswell. But is wasn’t sentiment that led me to set that Metrocard aside last summer. Whereas a week before, I may have looked at the thing and felt the twinge of nostalgia, when it turned up last year, all I saw was a painting surface. So I set the thing aside on my dresser, where it stayed unnoticed and all but forgotten for the better part of a year. But I found it, finally, the Saturday before the submission deadline for the second Single Fare show, and if all goes well, I will now have six pieces in the show as opposed to five.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

It's on.

Following the initial request I made for them to be sent last Tuesday, the Metrocards finally arrived in the mailbox Monday afternoon. It’s weird, too. As I’ve said, I initially hadn’t planned to participate. JP called a few weekends ago asking if he should send anything, and I pretty much responded with a flat “not interested.” I was a bit more tactful than that, but I believe that’s more or less what he heard. After a months’ long period of steady studio activity last year, it’s been an equally long or longer period of inactivity since, and that’s been okay with me. I haven’t even been thinking about painting, and really, I find that to be a relatively healthy place for me to be a lot of the time, i.e., the place where I can pass by my painting supplies daily, multiple times a day, without feeling the persistent, dull ache of regret.

I don’t know if I can put my finger on what it was that pushed me to recant and ask for the cards in the first place. I still hadn’t really been thinking about painting. I hadn’t suddenly taken up a sketchbook again. My head was not heavy with the weight of images needing to be released into the world. Even as I asked him, I’m not at all sure if I actually wanted JP to send them along, or if I was just saw the request as a friendly gesture (he found my earlier lack of motivation depressing). Still, as the days passed, I found myself growing more and more impatient for their arrival, so much so that I was even a bit distressed when I went to the mailbox on Saturday only to return with two (yes TWO!) Pottery Barn catalogues and nothing else.

In any case, the wait is over. The cards are here. JP sent two last year. This year there are five. It’s a dare. If he were really my friend, I'm not sure he would dare me to do these kinds of things. Anyway, started in on a couple of them yesterday. So far so good. And that's part of what worries me.

More later.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Doctor

My father is Tom Baker. Depending on how much of a nerd you are today or were as a child, or if you happen to have the misfortune of being British, that name may mean something special to you. Some of my earlier memories involve sitting at home watching Doctor Who with my brother and sister, who are both older than me by several years. At the time, the Doctor was played by a British actor with my father’s name (something which deeply impressed my brother and sister, but was lost on me). I don’t remember much about those series, but periodically throughout my life, somebody I would have recently met will learn my father’s name and their face will light up with recognition and nostalgia. Nerds.

When the BBC rebooted the franchise several years ago with Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor, a guy I know from England was very keen on it. He went to great lengths to explain why I needed to be watching it, and basically gave me a spoiler-rich synopsis of the finale, in which the Doctor regenerates into David Tennant. I was more or less sold on the idea that it was something I would probably like, but it took until the fall of past year for Sarah and I to actually sit down and commit to watching any of it. By that time, it was the fifth series since the reboot, and the Doctor had regenerated again into the personage of Matt Smith. We were thoroughly won over. Not long after we finished Series 5, we decided to begin a new subscription to Netflix almost entirely for the purposes of streaming the Eccleston and Tennant shows from the beginning.

Sarah is not a fan of Eccleston. I can’t imagine that he’s very many people’s favorite Doctor, but I think he did a noble job of recreating the character and his bowing out opened the door for David Tennant, who has probably come to embody the Doctor as much as Tom Baker did a generation ago. We’re near the end of Tennant’s run, but there are new Matt Smith episodes to come, which is nice. It’s good to have something to look forward to, but I don’t look forward to the waiting.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Electric Boogaloo

It's official, there are no new ideas. But this was a good one the first time around, so...


Single Fare 2: Please Swipe Again

Opening Reception: Thursday, March 17th, from 6 to 9 pm
Exhibition: Friday, March 18 through Saturday, March 26, 2011

Gallery Hours: Noon to 6pm (Closed Monday & Tuesday)

In May 2010, Artists Jean-Pierre Roy and Michael Kagan hosted an unusual exhibition in their Brooklyn studio. Open to all artists who wanted to participate, “Single Fare” placed one constraint on the creative process: all work had to be submitted on a used MetroCard. Inspired by the notion that the city’s subways and buses allow for a kind of creative interchange unmatched in human history, “Single Fare” sought to create a unique art event where art and artists could come together to form a monumental event made from a tiny, innocuous piece of plastic: The MetroCard! The resulting exhibition featured over 700 works of art – from artists as far away as New Zealand and as close as the studio next door.

Following the tremendous success of last year’s “Single Fare,” Roy and Kagan are pleased to team up with Sloan Fine Art on the Lower East Side for “Single Fare 2: Please Swipe Again.” The themes of last year’s show ran the gamut from moments of High Abstraction to Delicate Portraiture. Three-dimensional works, documentary photography and even a video installation helped to create one of the most cohesively diverse shows in recent memory while playfully challenging artists to show what they can do with seven square inches.

While serving as a democratizing vehicle for artists of all ages and disciplines, the Single Fare exhibition also served as a fantastic platform to introduce beginning collectors to an amazing array of work while inviting the committed collector to connect to artists that might normally fall under their radar. Sloan Fine Art represents an exciting step forward for the Single Fare experience and while the exhibition will remain true to its roots, it will benefit from additional exhibition days and regular gallery hours. Please swipe again, and join us as we take a ride into the city!

Sloan Fine Art is located at 128 Rivington Street (corner of Norfolk) on the Lower East Side of New York City.
Detailed submission instructions can be found at
http://single-fare.com/. For press inquiries, please contact Sloan Fine Art at info@sloanfineart.com.

I initially said no when M. Roy asked me if I wanted him to send me some cards. I've been trying to focus on writing, and a week ago I had no motivation or desire to go back into the garag...err...studio. But last night I decided that it might be a little fun. I took a look at plane tickets yesterday. I don't know if I can rationalize the expense, but I am looking. I still regret not being able to go up last year.

Assuming the cards are ever sent and they ever arrive, I might write a bit more on this later. I know, you can't wait!

Over and Out

[Originally Published on January 7, 2011]

Before this week, it had been a while (maybe two years) since I had been forced to organize my thoughts and actually talk about art in a casual but remotely intelligent way. One of the things I did to try and prepare was flip through and reread passages from The Journal of Eugene Delacroix at random. For a lot of the people I know, it's sort of a required text. I picked it up again last night and found the following entry. 28 July 1854:

I have been thinking of Voltaire's novels, of the tragedies of Racine and of thousands upon thousands of other masterpieces. Can we believe that such things are done merely so that in every generation men may ask whether there is anything fresh to divert them in the way of literature? Is not this incredible output of masterpieces, produced for the human herd by the greatest minds and most sublime geniuses, enough to terrify the more sensitive portion of our unhappy race? Will the insatiable search after novelty never give anyone the idea of seeing whether the old masterpieces are not newer and fresher than the rhapsodies that pander to our idleness, and which we prefer to the masterpieces? Were these miracles of imagination and wit, of reason, gaiety, or pathos, produced by geniuses at a cost of such immense labour and sleepless nights, and rewarded, so rarely alas, by meagre praise when they first appeared - were these great works, I say, created only to lapse, after a brief appearance and a few eulogies, in the dust of libraries and the unproductive, almost dishonoring esteem of so-called savants and antiquaries? Shall college pedants tug at our sleeves and remind us that Racine is at least simple, the La Fontaine saw as much in nature as Lamartine, and that Lesage portrayed men as they really are? Are the leaders of our present civilization, these ordinary schoolmasters, who have been raised to be ministers or shepherds of the people because they once had a quarter of an hour of inspiration according to present-day standards, the men who are to make a new literature? New indeed! A fine sort of novelty!

I think it's a strange sort of comedy that I should find this entry at the end of the week, and I think it works as a fine bookend to the Cloisters piece from Monday.

Delacroix would have been 56 when he wrote that. He'd be dead inside of ten years, and most the major work for which he's celebrated would have been 20 to 30 years old by then. Already collecting dust. And while there's an undeniably embittered tone to this, I choose to find some hope.

It was 1854. As the Great Master of French Romanticism was bemoaning the sorry state of literature and of art, Gustave Courbet was toiling away at The Artist's Studio. Frederic Church had just returned from his first trip to South America. Dickens was writing Hard Times. In 1863, the year of Delacroix's death, the Paris Salon rejected a painting called Le déjeuner sur l'herbe. Its maker found another venue to display it instead. And so it went. Delacroix died, but to no surprise, art and the world moved on. Year after year great work would continue to be made by great artists, and every year, some curmudgeon stepped up to echo Delacroix's condemnation of the fashions of the moment. I hope that I did more than to simply take up that old mantle this week. I hope that I conveyed something more than that.

Before I close, I want to thank the editorial staff at The Atlantic who did their best to make my voice as palatable for as many readers as possible, it's no easy task and there's no reason it should be a thankless one. Also, thank you to Sara and Jamelle, it's been a pleasure sharing the stage with the both of you. To the Battalion, because that's the way I choose to remember you, while I would like to believe that nobody really has to force themselves to read anything I've written, I know better. I've truly cherished every comment. And, if it's okay, I choose to read your silence as awe. I will soon rejoin the ranks.

And to TNC, thanks again. I hope it was all you hoped it would be. I had a good time, anyway.

And Another Thing

[Originally Posted on January 7, 2011]

When TNC first approached me about doing this, I knew I was going to say yes, but I really had no idea how the week would go. All things considered, I'm really pleased. I knew from the start that mine was not going to be the most accessible topic for all readers, but I tried my best to make things interesting and to keep the topics related but diverse. My hope going in was that my contribution would help to foster some good conversation down below, and I was very pleased when it did. I wanted to be more responsive to comments, but the week has been more hectic than I had anticipated, and I regret that my contribution to expanding the discussion has been borderline nonexistent. Now that we're at the end of the week, I want to try to follow up on at least a couple of things that some of you had said.From the
Cloisters post on Monday, muckelba had the following to say:

Since I'm reading the post as distinguishing between "art that's made for the work itself" and "art that's made in order to garner attention/fame," I'm curious whether or not we might want to complicate that distinction. That is, might we be able to read the "attention/fame" as simply a different (and perhaps more expansive) style of art. Not just a social, self-centered add-on to the work itself, but a shift of focus onto the cultivation of self, such that "the work" is as much about creating a persona for the "artist" as it is about the resulting "object." Hence, the fact that...say Warhol's paintings leave one "cold" might be because Warhol's paintings were merely part of the process of artistically creating something larger: a persona or character of "the artist."

While I talk about celebrity as a motivating force, I didn't intend for that to be the primary distinguishing factor between the groups I was discussing. My real point, or what I intended to be my real point, had more to do with celebrity being less of a motivator and more of a consolation prize. What I think most artists of ambition still want is to make something like an indelible mark, but we've come of age during a time when everything is either disposable or in the process of being made obsolete. Warhol, and all of the pop-philosophy for which he's credited, is a product of that and of the conceptual lineage of Marcel Duchamp, but I'm not sure to what degree artists are still following his example or even thinking about it. Although denying the lingering effect would be silly. Still, I'm more persuaded by the idea that we're just a few generations deeper into the crisis of our own stifling obsolescence, and that, starved for some recognition of self worth, we've lost sight of the greatness of art's potential or our ability to tap into it, determining instead, that it's best to consider ourselves lucky to grab from the lowest of the hanging fruit.
In the
second Moving Pictures post, the one in which I talked about Frederic Church's Heart of the Andes, a number of people drew a parallel I had, perhaps to the post's detriment, intentionally omitted. abk1985:

On a contemporary level, people who found the canvas vertiginous and sublime are probably the same who felt that way about Avatar.

A point repeated by cynic:

...almost all the same tropes were recycled in the public reception of Avatar—a record-setting, expectation-defying blockbuster in its own right, and the lineal heir to Church's Heart of the Andes.

It will probably come as no surprise that I had considered this comparison already. Not only does the presentation—a darkened room with an audience of viewers sat, entranced by the glowing light reflecting off of a big rectangle some distance away—seem to directly presage modern cinema 50 or 60 years ahead of time, there are distinct similarities in the language used to describe the effects purportedly caused by the Church and those attributed to 3-D films like Avatar. I had actually written a good amount on the subject for that post. Indeed, it was a major factor in the original conceptualization of the week and the choice to follow that piece with the bit on artists in film from yesterday, but for a number of reasons, I decided to cut it and replace it with the Lehrer/Stravinsky bit.

It's not that I don't believe it's an interesting discussion to have, but the similarities seem almost misleading to me, and I decided that I'm just not prepared to draw that conclusion, even when it seems so obvious on its face. Despite the similarities, I'm just not convinced the same words are being used to describe the same physiological response. More than that, I sort of suspect that they aren't. But when I attempted an explanation as to why, it turned into a convoluted tangent that, in the end, still wasn't very convincing. But my inability to frame a convincing argument didn't lead me to the conclusion that I was wrong. I freely admit that I may be wrong, but I feel as though I'm right about this, that we're talking about two distinctly different types of response. I'm just not sure I can persuade anybody else to feel that way, so I dropped that bit and went with the Lehrer which, ironically, I suspect has more in common Avatar than either have with Heart of the Andes.

Maybe it was a mistake on my part, but I was also wary of spending too much time and effort trying to draw an ultimately unconvincing distinction between the effect caused by a work of art and that caused by a new film technology. That's the sort of thing that leads people to infer that I don't respect film as art, which just isn't the case at all. But rather than leave that hanging out there, or preface anything with an obligatory, "I really like film, but..." I decided the post would be better served by a subtle tipping of the hat to the theatricality of the presentation of the Church and quickly moving on. Whether or not it was a good idea, I wanted to give some insight as to the though process that led me there.

Based on a True Story

[Originally Published on January 6, 2011]

I recently found the documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child on Netflix. It isn't great, but a good bit of it is pretty interesting. I particularly like the footage that was taken from an interview Tamra Davis, the film's director and a former friend of the artist, had shot with JMB a couple of years before his death. But Davis, like most of the talking heads and old acquaintances she interviewed for the piece, seems too close to its subject to create an honest portrait. Many of them, either for personal or professional reasons, seem too invested in the legend, too anxious to protect the idea of this angelic genius that, at times it feels as though they're not talking about a real person at all. Like he was less of a man and more of a china doll.

But the interview with
JMB, which Davis uses as the backdrop of the piece, is one of the more intimate portraits of the artist that I've ever seen. He's unguarded, and reveals himself to be a funny and thoughtful, but ultimately insecure...kid. He was 25 when it was shot (he died at 27), but he'd already been rich and famous for four or five years; his career was, for the most part, behind him. The interview really makes for a great foundation on which, I think, a much better film could have been made, but the final product leaves me feeling as though the whole thing is just another in a long line of exploitations of him. Maybe it would have made a difference for me had the film not been so overt in trying to hammer it home for the viewer that he was such an important historical figure. Even in death, it's like they can't just let this guy be the stupid (and yeah, pretty smart) kid that he was.

Anyway, I did like the bits with
Julian Schnabel who shows up now and again. That arrogant prick has a habit of making me like him when he's doing just about anything but painting, and it was no different here. Even if they didn't bring it up in the documentary (and they do) it would be nearly impossible to watch the The Radiant Child without thinking of Schnabel's 1996 biopic, which did the double-duty of not only revealing Julian Schnabel as pretty great filmmaker but also introducing the world to Jeffery Wright, who's just pretty great. The pretension of that film is palpable, but I still like it as much as any artist biopic I've ever seen. But I guess that's not saying a lot. Still, it's worth an embed.

In The Radiant Child, Schnabel, who knew JMB but was several years older and more established as an artist, explains the motivation behind his film as an attempt to tell the kid who always seemed so interested in his (Schnabel's) opinion that he truly respected him. I guess that's acceptable. It's kind of sweet in a condescending sort of way. (Oh, Julian! You loveable asshole!) Anyway, at least it's not all about hero worship. It helps that the film is pretty good. I wonder if Milos Forman had a good excuse for Goya's Ghosts. Not good enough, I'm sure.

I understand the impulse behind making these movies, but it so rarely works out for the best, even if it seems, at first, as though it should. Paintings may be visually interesting, but the act of making them, generally, is not, so the dilemma becomes how to force drama into a kind of boring existence. Generally, that's exactly how it feels: forced.One of the more peculiar artist films I've ever seen, and one of the better ones, decided to go in the opposite direction. It is the 1992 Spanish film: Victor Erice's
El Sol del Membrillo. While the title literally translates to "The Sun of the Quince Tree," when the film was released in the US it was called Dream of Light.

The film follows the remarkable Antonio Lopez Garcia as he takes on what becomes the Sisyphean task of trying to paint a quince tree in his back garden before the fruit begins to spoil. It contains all of the major trappings of a documentary, but as the American title may allude, as is the case in dreams, the happenings in this film may not be entirely as they seem. Along with Erice, Lopez is given a writing credit, and while the film never quite tips its hand, you soon become aware that, whatever the film is, it definitely isn't a documentary.

It can be a difficult film to watch and, even more so, to describe in an interesting way. There's an awful lot of screen time devoted to the artist's methodical process, full of meticulous (to the point of being idiosyncratic) measurements and cryptic markings, and as you become more conscious of the fact that what you're watching isn't a straightforward documentary, you may begin to resent the film, or the painter, for what you could infer as an incomprehensible self-indulgence. I remember that being my first response. I remember walking away from the film feeling deeply frustrated, but the film stayed with me long after those feelings had faded.

I don't know if I can easily nail down why the film stays with me still. I think it has something to do with the devotion I talked about on Monday. Without going too deeply into the plot, when the film begins, you get the sense that it may be little more than an extended metaphor on the fruits of labor, but somewhere along the way, the dream shifts, and the film turns almost tragic--well, as tragic as film about a guy painting a tree can be. While it's unclear how much, if any, of what the film documents is real, the Antonio Lopez we're presented with by the end of the film is almost a classic antihero.

After a while you begin to realize that he's set himself up for failure, and a pointless failure at that, one that could be averted if he weren't so stubborn. But he continues to plod along uncompromisingly, and near the final act of the film, you feel as though you're Sancho Panza and that you've spent the last hour watching Don Quixote joust with the windmills. You admire him, but at the same time you just want him to stop. It's more or less how I think my wife feels if she ever has the stomach to watch me work. I think of that film and I think of her. And I think of me, and I realize that I'm an idiot. I don't know how comfortable I feel recommending the film.

[I couldn't embed a clip with subtitles. YouTube has the whole thing available and split into ten minute sections: The first of which is
here. I think it's worth a shot; if you find that it grabs you, just click to the next and the next and the next. The Radiant Child is available to stream on Netflix, so it may also be only a couple of clicks away.]

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Moving Pictures: A Prequel, or Church Was a Neuroscientist

(Originally Published on January 5, 2011)
In the 1850s, Frederic Edwin Church was commissioned on two occasions by Cyrus West Field, of the Atlantic Telegraph Company, to travel to South America and to produce work as a chronicle of his journeys. Sometime after returning to New York, Church began work on Heart of the Andes, a monumental canvas of nearly ten feet in width that strung together elements from various sketches and paintings he made on the continent. Accounts of its theatrical unveiling and exhibition, in 1859, seem almost mythical.

The painting was displayed in an oversized walnut frame onto which curtains had been strung so that the unveiling would give the effect of a window being drawn open. The space was dimly lit with dark fabrics draping the surrounding walls to absorb the ambient light. The painting was lit by gas lights that were directed onto the picture by silver reflectors, and being the only object in the room receiving direct light, the picture reflected light back onto the audience giving the impression that the thing was being lit from within. Some accounts claim that Church filled the space with indigenous flora he had brought back from South America, but there is some discrepancy on that. It is known, however, that viewers were required to sit on benches and were provided with opera glasses to examine the painting's details from afar.

Among the first installation pieces in the history of Modern Art, the picture was a

Church's canvas had a significant effect on its viewers; a contemporary witness wrote:

women felt faint. Both men and women succumb[ed] to the dizzying combination of terror and vertigo that they recognize[d] as the sublime. Many of them will later describe a sensation of becoming immersed in, or absorbed by, this painting, whose dimensions, presentation, and subject matter speak of the divine power of nature.

For the three weeks it was on display in Church's studio, more than 12,000 people flocked to see it, for which they would willingly pay a 25-cent admission fee. The painting would soon thereafter go on tour, first of London then of the United States. When it reached St. Louis, it was seen by Samuel Clemens, who would rave that, "You will never get tired of looking at the picture, but your reflections--your efforts to grasp an intelligible Something--you hardly know what--will grow so painful that you will have to go away from the thing, in order to obtain relief. You may find relief, but you cannot banish the picture--it remains with you still." He was 25 at the time.

The thing eventually sold for $10,000, the highest price anyone had ever paid for the work of a living American artist. But that may be the least interesting part of the story for me. It's a story I think of so often when looking at art today, and while I can't remember seeing it then, or even before then, when I think back on that day and The Quintet of Remembrance, the moving image that in a dark room felt like a living painting, my thoughts quickly shift to the audiences who sat in the dark staring into the Heart of the Andes(a painting!) feeling themselves overcome by an emotional and physical response which they could barely even begin to classify, and I feel so fucking jealous. Not of Church, but of his audience, of their experience and, maybe more to the point, their capacity to have it. (And yeah, I'm probably pretty jealous of Church, too.)

It's not so much that I am jealous of their opportunity to view the piece in its original installation (although that would be pretty cool, and if anybody at the Metropolitan is reading this, just remember who it was that gave you the idea: Me that's who!), what I mean is that, even in the dark and with the assistance of tiny binoculars, part of me seriously doubts that I would even allow myself to be open to the kind of reaction the contemporary accounts describe. Maybe I'm too cynical, or maybe the opposite is true and I take the descriptions of the accounts too literally, but when I read phrases like "the dizzying combination of terror and vertigo" I can't help but look for that kind of reaction to a piece in my personal history, and I don't know if I can find it. And I really wish I could. I'd like to know that feeling.

There's a chapter in Jonah Lehrer's Proust Was a Neuroscientist that deals with the 1913 opening of
Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (Lehrer later retold the story to Jad and Robert for an episode of Radiolab). From the book, Lehrer describes the scene:
But spring, as T.S. Eliot pointed out is also the cruelest time. No sooner do lilacs emerge than the sweeping dissonance of Stravinsky's orchestral work begins, like "the immense sensation that all things experience at the moment when Nature renews its forms." In one of music's most brutal transitions, Stravinsky opens the second section of his work with a monstrous migraine of sound. Though the music has just started, Stravinsky is already relishing the total rejection of our expectations. Stravinsky called this section "The Augurs of Spring."
The "Augurs" don't go well. Within seconds, the bassoon's flowery folk tunes are paved over by an epileptic rhythm, the horns colliding asymmetrically against the ostinato. All of spring's creations are suddenly hollering for attention. The tension builds and builds and builds, but there is no vent. The irregular momentum is merciless, like the soundtrack to an apocalypse, the beat building to a fatal fortissimo.
This was when the audience at the premiere began to scream. The Rite had started a riot.

"For the audience," Lehrer claims, "Stravinsky's new work was the sound of remorseless originality." He goes on to weave this story and others into an interesting discussion on the topic of neuroplasticity and about the human brain's adaptability to new stimuli that may initially come as a shock. As proof, Lehrer offers that audiences did indeed warm to Stravinsky's new sound and The Rite, within a short time would be hailed a great success.

I bring this up because it's a great story, but also because I think it's analogous to the initial reactions toHeart of the Andes and how, today, I really question whether or not I could ever be affected in the same way. So much about seeing the Church would have been new to its audience. The scale, the subject, and the manner in which it was displayed, would have all felt distinctly foreign, even shocking. But the sad truth, if Lehrer is right, may be that our brains, or even our collective unconscious, have evolved beyond the point that we could even hope to will ourselves to see any of it as new again. Maybe it's not that we're cynical, but that we have become desensitized to the sublime.

But these stories, really whether they're true or not, remind us of what art can mean to us, of what it can be. They remind us that art itself can be a force of nature. They remind us of its bewitching power not simply to seduce or move us, but to shake and even startle us. To wield the disorienting force of spectacle, and to take us out of ourselves and will us to go in a direction of its choosing, often further than we would have ever been prepared to go on our own. And even today, there's got to be some hope in that.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Moving Pictures

(Originally Published on January 4, 2011)

The first time I went to The Museum of Modern Art was for a Gerhard Richter retrospective in the winter of 2002. It was my final semester of college, and a couple of friends and I had made the drive up from Greensboro to visit some grad schools, see some art, and to become better acquainted with the city. Looking back, the experience is a bit of a blur (rimshot). We had gone to MoMA at the end of long and exhausting day that we'd spent at the Met, which happened to also be a suggested donation evening. Unlike the Met , MoMA is almost always an unavoidably expensive place to go (currently $20 required admission), but for a couple of hours on Friday evenings the museum is opened up to a suggested admission price, and these are reliably the busiest times you will ever see the place. On that evening, for one reason or another, public access to the permanent collection had been closed off, meaning that all comers were being filed through the handful of galleries that housed the Richter pictures. It was a mad house; way too crowded to feel comfortable stopping to look, so nobody really did. We all just sort of walked through, giving each picture a cursory read and moving on to the next and the next and the next, until we were let out into the gift shop. I didn't have the money or the inclination to buy one of the books they were hawking, so today, it's almost as if I was never there.

There you have it. My first trip to MoMA was not a memorable one. But it wasn't a total loss. It was also the day I first saw Bill Viola's The Quintet of Remembrance.

At the time, I hadn't been exposed to a great deal of video art. I was an art student sure, but I had a sort of quixotic affinity for the handmade; plus I was living in central North Carolina in a period that predated YouTube, so there wasn't a great deal of opportunity. I had seen a bunch of stills in books and magazines and a few old black and white reels in college. Early William Wegman, some Richard Serra, Dennis Oppenheim, and a few others, but beyond that, mainly student work. I found a kind of adolescent charm in some of it, but I was never really a fan. I had never been pulled in, never felt as though I was in the presence of something that was worth the time it was asking me to spend looking at it.

Video sort of emerged as a viable artistic medium during a period when artists had really begun to fetishize the concept of the conceptual and place the idea behind a work of art so high above its execution that it's often difficult to discern the difference between the real art of the period and its numerous parodies. And while I have little doubt that it was an exciting time to be an artist, the art that it produced so often falls into the realm of an amateurish spectacle of self-indulgent excess which fails to connect on either an intellectual or emotional level to anyone living outside the cocoon of space and time in which it was made.

Video artists had chosen moving pictures, a genre that presents so many opportunities of which we're all aware, but in their urgency to cast off so many the format's conventions, they were unwilling, uninterested, or, so often, incapable of even beginning to harness its potential. And, if you ask me, a lot of bad art resulted. But the medium was young, and as you'd hope, with experimentation comes experience, and with experience most living things have a habit of coming of age.

The Quintet of Remembrance is one of four videos created between 2000 and 2001 that were inspired by the artist's study of late medieval and early Renaissance Italian and Flemish paintings and their iconography. In each, a group of five people undergo a range of emotions while the camera records every nuance of their physical reaction.

Here, Viola specifically references Hieronymus Bosch's Christ Mocked (The Crowning with Thorns) (ca. 1490-1500, National Gallery, London), Andrea Mantegna's Adoration of the Magi (1495-1505, Getty Museum, Los Angeles), and Dieric Bouts' Mater Dolorosa (Sorrowing Madonna) (1470-75, Art Institute of Chicago). Bosch's painting acts as the visual template for the composition of this work and the strong emotions conveyed by the five people that vacillate between compassion, shock, grief, anger, fear, and rapture. Although they share a close physical space, each person is fully absorbed in his or her own emotional experience. Shot with high-speed 35-mm film, the actors' performance, which lasted approximately sixty seconds, is extended in the finished video to a little over sixteen minutes, accentuating the power and depth of each emotion.

Viola embraced the visual, specifically the aesthetic, attributes of the medium in a way unlike any video artist I'd ever seen. He seemed intent on placing the work, and the medium, into a new or, rather, much older context, engaging in a dialogue with art history while seeming to turn a deaf ear to the solipsism that had plagued the contemporary dialogue for so long.

The installation space, which you can see in the link, was sort of a box of a room, not too small, but dark with two rows of benches facing a screen onto which the glowing image was being projected. The first thing you notice is how very much like a painting it is. Viola looked to the early Renaissance for his composition and inspiration, but he lit his subjects with the dramatic flare of the Baroque, and, if not for their contemporary dress, The Quintet may at first be mistaken for a group populating the work of one of the Caravaggisti. And the piece is quiet, like a painting. There's no audio track accompanying the video, just a very low electronic hum of the projector working.

But the longer you look, the more you realize how unlike a painting it is. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the piece is changing before your eyes. It moves. The figures, who seem frozen at first, are shifting, at a snail's pace, yes, but continuously nonetheless. Captured, the moment has been prolonged, so that each of its subtleties, every minute change of expression or posture can be seen, can be read, and can be felt by the viewer. No, this was not a painting, nor a photograph. It was something else entirely. And it had me mesmerized.

While there were people constantly filing in and out, I felt the uncanny sense of being alone in there beneath a shroud of darkness and anticipation, as though I had become so entangled with the piece with the experience of experiencing it, that everyone in the space had become part of it, as though we were all players, surrounded, but each of us lost in our own encapsulated moment. And something strange happened: I stayed for the duration.

I don't know whether or not it would be right to say that I was moved. I was surprised. Sometimes that's just as good. I left the space in silence, still not sure what I had seen, but feeling as though it had been something special, something that I would not soon forget.

We spent most of the rest of the day at the Met. I remember there was a really nice show chronicling the lives and work Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi, and that one of my friends was especially taken by an exhibition of small works by Paul Klee, of whom he was a much bigger fan than I. And there was, of course, the permanent collection: Van Eyck, Velázquez, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Poussin, Goya, Chardin, Manet,Cezanne, Van Gogh, and on and on. It's really far too much to see in a day, and it's no wonder that I could barely stand to look at anything for more than a moment when the day was done. Before we made the trek down to MoMA, I'm sure we found our way to the American Wing of the Met where we would have looked for Madame X or The Gulf Stream, or some other such thing that we would have known by heart, but when I think back on that day, on sitting in the dark and the feeling of being enveloped by the glow of The Quintet, what comes to mind is a picture I don't even remember seeing until much later. The story of which, I will get into soon.

Note: The video above is not The Quintet of Remembrance. It is clip from The Quintet of Astonished. A still of the QoR can be seen in the link accompanying the blockquote.

The Cloisters: A Good Place to Start

(Originally Published on January 3, 2011)
Several years ago, I was living with my wife and one-year-old son in a three-bedroom apartment we were renting in Queens. I used the third bedroom for a studio, which was actually more difficult than it may sound seeing as the entire apartment had been painted bright orange with green trim. It was not an ideal color scheme for a painting studio, but I made do as best I could. Every day I commuted to midtown, where I worked an entry-level job at an investment firm in the Chrysler Building.

It was early March 2008, when I met a friend, and painter, for a drink after work at a bar beneath Grand Central. He had just come from the
Whitney Biennial, which had recently opened. The experience had left him drained and a bit cynical. I hadn't seen the show, but I knew the feeling.

There are shows that leave you so invigorated that all you want is to be back in the studio, feeling as though you could work through the night without tiring. Then there are the shows that leave you empty, pondering the foolish choices and childish ideals that led you to choose the life of an artist. And you leave these shows knowing you're supposed to want to go back to work. But who can work when there's so much drinking to be done?

So we talked for a while over some beers about the things two painters talk about when they feel the world is backwards and that nobody makes art for the right reasons. And somewhere in there, we realized that though we'd both lived as painters in the city for the better part of a decade, neither of us had ever been to
The Cloisters. Finally, a problem that could be solved!

And so it happened that the following morning my friend and I met at Columbus Circle, and headed north seeking some form of creative purification or rejuvenation at a medieval monastery on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

If you've never been to The Cloisters, it's really quite remarkable. The subway lets you off outside the gates of Fort Tryon Park, which is a gorgeous patch of hilly green overlooking the Hudson just to the north of the George Washington Bridge. From there it's a bit of a hike through the park's gardens and wooded passes, and by the time you finally reach the abbey you're so taken out of your surroundings that it's almost a surprise to realize that you haven't even left the city. It's a feeling you rarely get in any of the other major NYC parks, and for this place, it's an appropriate sort of artifice. For it's there, hidden away at the northern tip of Manhattan, that you can find a museum that houses what is probably the greatest medieval art collection in the New World; including, most famously, the Unicorn Tapestries.

The building is a sort of amalgam comprising architectural elements taken from various medieval European abbeys and transported to New York, in the 1930s, by John D. Rockefeller Jr., for redesign by Charles Collens. The interior is stone, and a bit cold. In the heart of the building, there's a 12th century arcade (hence: Cloisters) surrounding an open-air garden, which is closed off during the colder months, as it was then. At opposing ends of the garden, there are two chapels, built centuries apart, lit by a cool expanse of ambient natural light. The tapestries hang in more dimly lit rooms adjacent to the arcade, but the bulk of the collection on display, e.g., illuminated manuscripts, ivory carvings, early Flemish masterpieces, can be found on the lower floors.

We walked through this space with thoughts of the Biennial and of the emptiness of its brand of celebrity still fresh in our minds. I stopped before an elongated glass case that held a small ivory relief. There were two panels with hinges in the center allowing it to open and close like a book. Opened, the piece displayed four miniature scenes carved into the ivory. On the left was the Coronation of the Virgin. On the right: The Last Judgment. In the lower third of both panels, souls were being lined up, the lucky being welcomed to Paradise, the rest were being banished to damnation. It had been carved by an anonymous Frenchman in the mid-13th century.

I've seen a lot of medieval art and artifact in my life, and I have little doubt that I've walked past similarly crafted works before without taking notice. And shame on me for that. But not on this day. I remember being struck by the scale of the thing. In a world where we can become so accustomed to the over-sized, to the pretension of the monumental, here was this thing, this tiny object that I could hold in my hand, smaller than a paperback, but carrying more weight than anything I'd seen in I-don't-know-how-long. And what was this weight? Whatever it was, it seemed to flow through those halls like lava: dense and slow, but hotter than you can imagine. And it filled those spaces with a power to preserve the old as new, and leave the new cowering in shame and in awe.

The diptych was but one object of many that made us stop and just look. But it's only one of literally dozens of ivory carvings and miniatures, each sharing many of the same attributes. It was the same with the Gothic sculptures adorning the walls of a crypt from which they looked down on a variety of gorgeously rendered sarcophagi. And it was the same with the paintings. Shit. The paintings!

The Merode Altarpiece by Robert Campin may be the greatest painting I've ever seen. Humbly displayed in a quiet room the color of limestone, it sits on a perch and whispers, "Come closer." I obeyed, and I found a picture I'd seen a thousand times before in reproduction, but as is so often the case, I had yet to really see it. Three panels: the Annunciation of the Holy Motherhood by the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin in the center, flanked on either side by devout onlookers to the left and Joseph the Carpenter in his workshop to the right. A technical marvel, it's masterfully rendered in oil from a time when the medium was still in its infancy. I have yet to find a reproduction that will do it justice, but the picture is revelation, both literally and figuratively.

I've heard stories of people breaking down before a Mark Rothko. Now, I like Rothko as much the next guy, but give me a break! You want a reason to weep, go stand in front of the Campin Annunciation for twenty minutes and really look. Afterwards, try to remember why you ever thought Mark Rothko was a painter of note. Maybe you can do it. Maybe a lot of people can. I sure as hell can't. I couldn't that day, and I can't now.

I don't mean to say that the Campin has no equal, or that the Rothko lacks the power to move. I've stood in the middle of a room full of Rothko pictures and bathed in the depths of his blues and oranges; I have stood there, closed my eyes, filled my lungs with air, and felt myself falling into those fields of color, and I have been moved. But on this day, as I stood before that gloriously crafted and unassuming triptych, I stared into its turbulent world of spatial anomaly, of allegory and riddle, of symbolism and iconography, and of blind humility in the presence of the extraordinary, and I was pulled in, and my eyes were opened. I've since found that I do some of my best looking when my eyes are open.

There's a terrace with a well-manicured garden upon which museum visitors can walk out and sit while enjoying panoramic views across the Hudson and into New Jersey. It was on the terrace, while looking at a peculiar shrub whose branches had been manipulated over the years to grow like the arms of a candelabrum, that my friend and I began to piece together what we'd been seeing. And why it was all so profoundly different from what we'd become accustomed to seeing.

Had either of us been religious, then we might have been tempted to look at all of these distinctly Christian masterpieces and attribute their power or pathos to some form of divine inspiration. We are not so disposed. Nor are we of the type to be persuaded that the Old Masters were endowed with mystical secrets or otherworldly abilities. They could not, as an eloquent professor of mine once put it, shit marble. They were not, in any objective sense, special. They were just people; people with an admirable level of skill, which was innate, and a brilliant technique, which had to be learned. But they had something more.

When I mentioned to my friend that I would be writing about this, he reminded me that the word-of-the-day had been "Devotion." We decided on the terrace that afternoon that, more than skill, technique, or inspiration, the current that reverberated through the halls of that abbey and those of so many of the great museums of the world, yet so few of the places where new art is still being made and shown is nothing if not the lingering vibration of the profound and unshakeable devotion of the makers. Not to God, but to the work itself.

Think of the nameless Frenchman who, with large hands and diminutive tools, more than seven hundred years ago peered through a primitive magnifying glass to deftly carve tiny Bible stories into a fresh block of ivory that had been harvested from a slaughtered elephant somewhere across the known world. He could have had no ambitions for museum exhibition. There was no such thing. The object he toiled over was not even meant for display. It had utility. It was small for a reason. It was meant to be held, to spend most of its time clasped shut, and to be opened privately by its owner who could then contemplate its lessons in solitude. That was its purpose.

It had a purpose! It wasn't even art in the modern sense of the word. Certainly no more so than a chair or a desk. But it breathes with life even today. Through a pane of glass it was never meant to be behind, it speaks. Christ! It has the power to speak to nonbelievers about life, about meaning and faith, and about devotion. It's nothing short of magical. That it is art is undeniable. But more than that, I've come to believe that it is what art, what all art, should be. What all great art has ever been. Not what it should look like or be about, but what it should strive for, and sadly what so much of art today fails to even consider. That it was made by, probably, a man with no ambition or even concept of fame only serves to underscore how far our expectations have fallen.

The art world, whatever else it is, is an insulated place. I spent the Thanksgiving prior at the home of a friend of mine who owns a gallery. Towards the end of the night, a conversation between the host and a guest I didn't know turned to an argument over who was more relevant: Jeff Koons or Matthew Barney. Koons, the host argued, was more relevant, and this was evidenced by his having had a float in that morning's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. I don't really remember the argument in favor of Barney, but it probably had something to do with the Guggenheim. "Relevant to whom?" I recall asking nobody in particular. After all, while it's true that, short of being the subject of a major motion picture, Koons and Barney are probably as famous as any two living artists can get, I couldn't help but feel as though I was watching two adults heatedly argue over the relevance of two people to a world that had never heard of them, had never seen their work, and could, consequently, never be expected remember either. Relevant indeed.

Artists today are, in a way, like the 13th century ivory carver. That is to say, we don't—or shouldn't—have any illusions about being remembered by history. But unlike the ivory carver, we live in the 21st century and have therefore been endowed with a very keen sense of celebrity, which, when historical relevance is out of the question, will do in a pinch. And this brings me back to The Whitney Biennial.

It should be said that there's nothing extraordinary about hating the Biennial. Indeed, almost everybody always does. The idea, if you don't know, is a large multi-floor group exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in which the curators take their best stab at defining that moment in the world of art-making and, theoretically, distinguishing it from the moments two, four, and ten years prior. The result is almost always a cacophony of the fashionably novel, a noisy mess of the superficially new.

But somehow nothing ever feels new. It's always the same things being said in slightly different ways. A grand creative dialogue, which began in earnest at some point in our distant past, has devolved into an exercise in which everybody sits quietly, waiting patiently for their turn to chime up in agreement, to take their brief solo in the endless chorus of "Me toos!" A periodical exposition of shabby cover tunes, a loud and over-hyped episode of American Idol every couple of years is all that remains of what used to be called the avant garde.

Devotion, in art as in other arenas, is a virtue to be cherished. And even if we assume at the outset that it's always been a rare commodity, it's hard to walk the halls of The Cloisters, filled as they are with centuries old masterpieces produced by human beings of whom history has little or no memory, and then find even trace amounts of that kind of devotion in the shallow pitch of "Me too." It's as though we as artists have forgotten what we are capable of doing. Or as though so many of us have simply stopped caring. But so often it seems to be that devotion—more than talent, craft, inspiration, or even time—is what separates them from us.

The work mattered to them in a way that it doesn't matter to us. Their work was precious, and their work had meaning. They had no concern for being remembered, yet their devotion moved them to create things that have bridged the centuries and can move us still today. For our part, we seem to have responded to the news that we will almost certainly be forgotten with the conviction to stop caring altogether. After all, if we can be reasonably certain that the day will come when our names will be uttered for the last time, where are we to find the motivation even to try to make something actually worth remembering?

For those who still have the energy to look, I offer The Cloisters as a good place to start.

BreakerBaker 1-9

(Originally Published on January 3, 2011)

First things first. I am of course obliged to thank our generous host. I am genuinely flattered by his invitation to spend the week up top, as it were. Like many here, I've spent the last couple of years finding my way to Ta-Nehisi's space most days, multiple times a day, and I deeply appreciate the vote of confidence I think he's given me.

Now, based on a handful of comments and suggestions I've made down below over the life of this blog, TNC's asked me to talk a bit about visual art. I spent a while turning it over in my head trying to figure out what that means, or what it should mean in the context of this space, and what I've decided makes the most sense for this blog and this readership is a sort of illustrated meditation on art, the act of creation, and the experience of looking.

There will be an unavoidably autobiographical element in this, and while I feel like I know a lot of you already, I think I should provide a bit of background on me. I have good amount of art history, but I come at this from the perspective of a maker as opposed to a scholar. I studied drawing and painting, first at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, then at the New York Academy of Art. I lived and worked in New York off and on for seven years, and I continue to paint today from my home outside of Atlanta, which is more or less where I grew up. Everything I say here is from my perspective, and it's not really meant to challenge your feelings, as much as it is to express mine. I hope I am able to keep your interest, and you'll forgive me when I go a bit long.

Also, I already have the week more or less mapped out, but I am open to suggestions.

The Atlantic

I had the opportunity last week to act as guest blogger at Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog on The Atlantic website. It was pretty cool, although after the second or third day I began to wish I had been allowed a bit more time to prepare. It was the first week after the holidays, after all. I was originally offered this week, but within hours TNC asked if I could take the week of the third instead.

My assumption is that Michael Chabon (who's one of the guest bloggers for this week) was too nervous about having to share the space with me. It's understandable. He's a Pulitzer Prize winner, but I'm a pretty intimidating guy. It's a shame, though, because I'm confident that we could have coexisted for the week and thus avoided this collision course he and I now find ourselves on. But I'm not going to focus on that now.

Right now, I am going to focus on reposting the stuff I did last week here. That way, when I begin to try to write more new content for this space, it will feel as though I've already started.