Group 1: January-June, 2010
Looking back at January's residency summary, I found this passage in the conclusion of the essay: “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.” At the time of that writing, I was exceedingly unsure of just how to fulfill such a need in my work. Nonetheless, I stayed focused on the idea that this was a huge key to my evolution and growth as an artist. Lucky for me, both my advisor and mentor also agreed that this was the correct priority.
In many ways, I was led down this path by some very skilled hands. Kurt Kauper, as my mentor, is not only highly skilled as a representational painter, he is also immersed fully in the tenets of critical thinking and its relationship to the contemporary, not to mention his role as an artist and teacher. It surely gave me a sense that I was in capable hands, and I allowed that comfort to keep me focused yet objective. Upon my early forays into allegory and narrative multipanel concepts (a la Vincent Desiderio), Kurt directed me towards the criticism of Benjamin Buchloh, of whom I was unaware. Clearly, an encounter with Buchloh's arguments against allegory - especially allegory as regards representation and painting – created in me a heightened sense of insecurity about what I was doing. It was debilitating to feel such hard-line antipathy towards what I had originally perceived to be a thoughtful method of constructing a pictorial idea. Yes, Kurt put forth the caveat that it was a bit too over-the-top on Buchloh's part to suggest that every allegory engenders a sort of closeted fascism, but still, I need to be aware that this argument is the sort of thing that will be brought to bear should I keep to a neoclassicist's diet of pure allegory.
But, what was next? My artistic narrative language had been weaned on all things allegorical to this point. Thankfully, Stuart Steck, my advisor, had established a rigorous schedule of reading/critical analysis for me over the semester. The genius of this assigned agenda became clearer to me with each paper I wrote. Stuart had devised this series of tasks in such a way as to gradually acclimatize me to a more informed method of seeing painting (as well as other art forms) within the context of the contemporary. Moving from the more familiar (comparative essay on Desiderio and John Currin) to the unfamiliar (analysis of essays from the 1986 Endgame exhibition), I was able to develop a working knowledge of the modern historical drivers that suffuse painting today.
By the time I reached the final analysis, a critical look at the artists of Vitamin P, I was, to use Stuart's term, “on a roll.” Indeed, it was a fine choice of material with which I could test my newfound skills of rigorous scrutiny, as it is a recently published tome of contemporary painting. On one hand, it was heartening to see this medium so prominently featured, since it had been long declared “dead” by many theorists and practitioners of postmodern craft (such as video/ installation/performance work). The proliferative quality and variety of painting currently happening surely countermands such unnecessary cynicism. There is a pluralistic motif in the atmosphere of what is likely an era in which the axiomatic bombast of postmodernism has outlived its relevance to art objects, and merely addresses the aesthetic de-materialization of conceptualism. There is a down side to all this freedom, of course. It may well be that in this “expanded field” of art production, the seeming lack of boundaries could make it more than difficult to gauge how one's work has a clear sense of meaning and purpose.
In fact, despite this widened discursive realm of late, painting has not broadened in proportion to the greater context of contemporary culture. Realistically speaking, it has merely come out from under the radar due to the fading relevance of modernist conjecture. The postmodern world has moved on - much to the chagrin of some who would consider themselves craftspeople - and most information is consumed through electronic means via a video monitor. Somehow, though, painting has not been rendered “ineffectual,” as Buchloh would have it. It is still here, which must count for something. There is no doubt that the appeal – the very purpose – of painting has changed, and that its audience is far more modest and exclusive, but this does not leave it valueless. Truth be told, this precise state of limitation may allow for more clarity and import to enter one's art, once the artist can “see the walls,” as it were.
For me, there is clarity in this situation: I cannot go blindly in either direction. I cannot produce art that is rooted in a naïve, umproblematized past, nor can I blithely eschew all context and assume a mantle of auto-legitimatization. Neither of those things hold any real meaning. Perhaps the latter is reserved for a certain kind of kitsch, but I have little interest in expounding upon the mimesis engendered therein. What must be maintained is an awareness of the history and semantics of painting, and this must be addressed in such a way as to hold to a definitive thematic and aesthetic position. And the theoretical question that is still propounded - “How and why is painting still viable?” - must also be addressed. One part of the answer is in my belief that it is a more aesthetically engaging conveyance of the visual. The very “object-ness” of a unique, crafted artwork calls direct attention to itself on a humanistic, visceral level, vastly different than the response generated by a video or performance/installation piece. This remarkable idea has yet to be dismissed from the art-world vernacular, and it is this very staying power that emboldens me.
It has taken the length and breadth of this semester to do so, but my ability to concept within the “new order” of painting (with a more knowing eye on the past, mind you) has shifted. Rather than straddling a middle ground between a full-on baroque quality and an allegorized single icon – which is where my initial round of concepts led me – I began to simplify. With dual support and agreement from both Kurt and Stuart, I have stripped my concepts down to a simplified, “base” image from which both the viewer and I can derive a broad thematic. I have learned that the discursive nature of the image manifests itself far more definitively and – if I may say – poetically through the full inclusiveness of the viewer. Too often has the painter carried on a conversation with themselves, coming to their own conclusions and consummating all discourse long before exhibition. This leaves the viewer to parse out the conversation as a third party. Perhaps it is a very interesting and even stimulating conversation, but the viewer's own ideas and reflections are cast aside in the midst of such an exclusive colloquy. If I am to speak to a contemporary audience – be it however narrow - I should not leave them out of the dialogue. This give-and-take makes it far easier to expand and change my thematic in concord with the quickly shifting evolution of our current culture.
A final note on that idea --- At different times, my advisor, mentor and I have discussed at some length the solipsistic nature of recent cultural trends and the bolstering of such by instant gratification through high-speed electronic information. The cliché of “fifteen minutes” of fame has gone beyond Warhol's worst cynical thought: there is a sense of entitlement to being famous now. A pointed and challenging question was asked: “Do viewers still have an interest in looking at work that focuses on another person's experiences?” That is – do people care about art anymore? Even the most intellectual and studied young person coming through the artistic ranks today is hampered by the very way instruction, statistics and data are transmitted. All things are at their immediate disposal and are, to that extent, disposable. I contend that painting can transcend these things.
My goal in the coming months is to continue to evolve as not merely a representational painter, but as an artist. My hand skills are honed well enough, and this has shown itself to be useful in the crafting of an image, but that is through mere repetition and practice. The greater challenge is in the nature of the content and my intentionality. I must strive to delimit my artistic province with a definitive nod to the character of painting's strengths while acknowledging the history of its limitations. Ultimately, I hope to challenge myself to re-enter the realm of the narrative with multi-panel works without seeking allegorical crutches, opening up those very subtexts that allow for the presence and input of the viewer to incite and sustain discourse.