The fact is, I entered the graduate program at AIB with no true expectations. This is not to say I was thinking the experience was going to be bad in hopes that it would be good, so I'd be happy in the end. No, this was not the case. Luckily, I was so out of my regular element, I had no idea what I was getting into - therefore, I had not formulated even an inkling of what I should expect. Truly, I was a naïf. And to be bluntly honest, I do not generally perceive myself as such, so this was a unique, not to mention genuine acknowledgement of my situation. It was this lack of the burden of expectancy that allowed me to approach the first residency at the Art Institute of Boston in a most pure way - that being one of complete objectivity. As grandiose as this may seem, one can see that it was a number of factors that organically mitigated the process. In other words: right place, right time.
Certainly, it was a rush. The sudden sweep into a 12 hour day, each one replete with canonical regimentation, definitely spun the heads of my fellow newbies and me (Group One students) around. Adhering to the bible that was our schedule packet mined one's personal stamina with its rigors - both intellectual and physical. In my estimation, it was exhilarating to be subjected to this total immersion. One could not help but ride the high of artistic endorphins released by such sudden and demanding activity. I suppose it was noticeable in me, as a Group Five (graduating) student warned me that sometime between Days 3 and 5 I would wipe out under the interminable weight of this big, beautiful wave. Forewarned, but heedless, I later blessed her accuracy (with a smile, I might add).
Speaking of assistance from my fellow students... Upon hanging my work in my assigned space, I was immediately aware of the consistently raised eyebrows of individuals passing by. Not a few seasoned students warned me that my depiction of the female form made me a target for the faculty to riddle with all kinds of critical darts. I came to understand that this was exacerbated by the fact that I was a representational realist, male and white. All told, this spelled big trouble for the little minnow stuck in his little current, surrounded by expert-class anglers.
Initially, I was pressed by more students in my crit group than faculty. I knew from general impressions and inside info who the more "hardcore crit" faculty members were (in other words, the people who can make you cry), and the nature of my early crits was merely due to a luck of the draw. At this time, I was unsure of where people were coming from, speaking of the "male gaze" and "gender mythologies." Regardless, I wasn't very defensive, taking in what the consistent reactions were and what kinds of opinions my work generated. One thing that did validate twenty-plus years of painting was the fact that, to a person (faculty and students), I was identified as a master oil painter whose skill was at least equivalent to not a few big names in the representational art world. Yes, that made me feel good, but as I came to realize, that is all that I had. That's nowhere near enough. Not for the program, and not for me, either.
My experience with Critical Theory 1 needs to be addressed at this point. The incomparable Stuart Steck, the professor of this class, happens to be my Advisor - a position of great importance in this program. He was a very unassuming Morpheus to my Neo, as it turns out (I had to kind of explain this allegory to him later - his "Matrix" recall was a tad fuzzy. He did agree with me, though.). In class, after the traditional beat-down of Bouguereau as the straw man for postmodernist thought, I began to see what I'd been missing as Stuart continued from there. I took the red pill. It was a big moment of clarity - one of which ran the gamut of emotions -- right there in class, day two of Crit Theory 1! When he stated that "culture builds filters at levels specific to the individual" as a way to explain/expound upon the heady "no act of the personal is truly personal," I got it. It was awful and totally liberating all at once. I was exhilarated to actually have a context for art in its evolution from the neoclassical through to postmodern/contemporary, but at the same time, I was almost in tears: I had not only missed out by failing to include such rich and relevant discourse in my work - I did not, at that moment, have a clue as to how to begin this task.
I knew now that my work was, when put up against 150 years of art since the Paris Salons, bereft of salient content. In a meeting with Stewart as my Advisor, I mentioned that I was now looking at my work through a sudden filter of nostalgia, knowing I could (and would) never work that way again. I think he found that terribly appealing, and I know he was happy about it - not in a mean way - just happy that he got through to me.
The crits, at this point, became very interesting, for my sudden "liberation" and awareness left me totally and utterly guileless with respect to defending my work as it now stood. I think it became a little difficult to crit my work for some people at this point. It became clear that I wasn't going to defend my choices, for I knew they were empty and indefensible. Ripping me apart would have been pointless. Some particular phrases and ideas became watchwords. "Smarter not harder" was one (despite the overused corporate connotations), the directive being: focus on the ideas and concepts with new reflectivity in mind, never mind the technique - it can take care of itself. Then came the notion that representational painting is - now - a signifier unto itself; it is self-referential. The languages of representation have changed, perhaps even become staid and bankrupt of power. The question kept rising in my mind: How might it be approached afresh?
Some rather serendipitous events gave this new tack some fresh wind. The first guest speaker happened to be Vincent Desiderio. Rather coincidental. I was fresh from seeing his Works on Paper at Marlborough (57th St.), and had seen the BIG show at Marlborough Chelsea at the very end of '08. His work has always been challenging, yet somehow irresistible to me. His writings were so abstruse as to be impenetrable; I could not negotiate his hyperintellectualism to save my life. But, there he was, moving through an abridged (still impressive) catalogue of his work, speaking with great authority and intellect, yet in a more layman-esque prose. His representational work, whose narratives seem so impermeable on the surface, is encoded from deep within, with the application of technique itself enforcing a hidden dialectic between the viewer and the artist. Indeed, that was something unknown to me as an existing device until this revelation. It is no mere sleight of hand, though. This sort of thing requires pointed and extensive research. Desiderio pulls it off with aplomb, since he is a veritable compendium of erudition and scholarship. At the end, I was far more informed about the capabilities of representationalism in a contemporary context. And I understood there is a LOT of work involved in getting to a place where I am capable enough to even begin to encode my paintings in such a way. Even his writing is becoming clearer to me.
But - beauty is not enough. It won't save the world, and it won't save painting. Not by itself. Sure, I'm fortunate enough to have a command of how to make things beautiful with slippery pigmented oil, and there is a value to that. It is mainly commercial value, mind. In an art historical context, it does little if nothing at all.
What is real desire - desire for beauty, desire for content, desire for painting (!) - and where does it lie? Through layered subtexts, there needs to be a mediation of the dialogue I wish to occur between the subject and the audience - whether it's about beauty or that the beauty of the execution points out other issues perhaps not so beautiful. My approach must have a more informed intentionality. Once I put brush to canvas again, it will. I can't NOT do it, now. It's like that old pictorial illusion of the two profiled silhouettes. Once you see that the negative space is the silhouette of a chalice, you can't un-see it. But this is just a vision of the Grail. Now begins the quest.
Books And Articles:
The Picture in Question: Mark Tansey and the Ends of Representation - Mark C. Taylor
Vitamin P: New Perspectives in Painting - Barry Schwabsky
Painting People: Figure Painting Today - Charlotte Mullins
Endgame: Reference and Simulation in Recent Painting and Sculpture - ICA
Vincent Desiderio: Paintings 1975-2005 - Bradway/Archer, eds.
The Expanding Discourse: Feminism and Art History - Broude/Garrard
The Endgame of Postmodernism - Matthew Nash (link)