Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Lunch With a Proper Artist


It is always a welcome opportunity to cut through the cultural garbage with my former professor N-, a very successful painter who taught for decades and whose work is collected like free drinks at a heartbreak hotel. His work is keenly observational and yet almost wholly invented, a bit like the Yale artist William Bailey and his deceptively simple but deeply mysterious still lifes.

I particular appreciate his what you might call millennial perspective on visual art, art rolling in ribbons of rhyming cycles through history, far more coherent and conversational -over centuries- than the present fashion's interpretation, which assumes that context is so complex and powerful that art appears as a mere illustration of a certain ephemeral nexus of deterministic cultural factors. Well - duh. If I may be allowed (and I am) a caricature of contemporary art interpretation, it feels like there has been a long campaign among intellectuals to regard artists as globs of clay, their work wholly formed by cultural, economic and political circumstance, and that as that circumstance changes, their work cannot be understood except with a complete accounting of those circumstances. The implication is that the work has no particular value without historical interpretation.

Fine analysis, if you are getting paid for historical interpretation.

By contrast, N- reads art history as more of a dynamic conversation among artists living in different times, a multi-sided conversation until someone dies, and even then, there is an unending visual multi-lectic. I find myself much closer to this view - I start off every drawing class with the 70, 000 year old image from the Blombos cave in South Africa, which has soaked into compositional structures in my work. But the real point is in his phrase - artists speak to each other across centuries.

It's interesting that in such a technically skilled painter, he makes an absolute distinction between art and rendering, rendering, in my phrase, simply being the grammar of visual art, which like English grammar must be mastered but never confused for the end itself. It's fun hearing him on Bouguereau, the brilliant but endlessly cheesy villain representing the 19th century French Academy, sort of the Evil Empire compared to the liberating rebels of the Impressionists: N- points to the absolute technical genius: maybe the best in all of painting history in painting light on flesh, and in spite of this, it will never really be rehabilitated as high art. Yet even here, the Impressionists desperately wanted the validation of the academy, and the academicians were adopting techniques from the rebels; John Singer Sargent, the powerful American portraitist of the aristocracy, did impressionistic, cutting edge works of breathtaking gestural power and saturated color, while his portraits veered from obsequious money-makers to among the most brilliant.

What capitalizes art as Art is a serious philosophical ambition combined with the technical mastery and imagination to uncover and execute it. Far, far from a complete definition, but that element is true anywhere, at any point in history. Good work is rich, essentially inexhaustible in its viewing. There are any number of strategies to get there, but what makes artwork powerful, interesting and irreplaceable is incredibly fragile; a flat note in it's symphony can erase all that was done. This is why 90% of the stuff in the galleries lays there like a lump (worse, a pretentious lump) and even the greatest artists have piles of terrible work.

One of N-'s essential points is that the driving principles of effective artwork are remarkably simple, and they tie together artists as diverse as Andrew Goldsworthy (N- once essentially called this stuff Design 101 with sticks) and Damien Hirst (the half-a-cow in formaldehyde guy). The push and pull of attraction and repulsion, the conscious manipulation of spatiality, a practiced but straightforward understanding of color and line, an understanding of the difference between what is and what people see (there are no lines as such in nature, but we see lines everywhere, symbolic boundaries between intrinsic natures of things perceived.) People are fascinated, have always been fascinated, by the juxtaposition of geometric forms on organic forms, and vice versa. Simple, like the 12 musical notes. Infinitely complex, like arranging 12 musical notes.

It would be very easy to dismiss all this conservative; that would be a red herring. N- says"the avant-garde is a very crowded place," and in the contemporary art world, with a genuine and truly unprecedented flourishing of all art forms, in all kinds of media and all their intersections, enormous, grant-drunk, gate-keeping institutions are camped on that line like Star Wars fans in tailored grey Channel suits, waiting for the next new opening, and usually getting "Attack of the Clones" for their trouble. That's what you get for dismissing authorship as essential to art-making. Now the simpering Soho dandies will have to live with their BX Haus 211B art robots.

But N-'s last observation cut through. He just drove to Alaska last summer, primarily in the Interior around Fairbanks. What left the greatest impression on this landscape painter , the unreal majesty of Denali, the foraging grizzly bears, the mighty Yukon?

"I think those must be the fattest people I've ever seen."