Monday, December 28, 2015

Thank you, John Seed

"Altus" - 2015, R. Sullivan

[This is a rather rambling “response” to the John Seed essay, “So These Three Artists Walk Into a Jeff Koons Show…”  It doesn’t address all of his topics, but I selected out a few that I thought bore further discussion.]

I appreciate the sentiment that John is addressing in this article, if not in toto, then at least over the more foundational points. Nevertheless, even though it is tons of fun to use Koons as a straw man for the argument over “what’s wrong with the contemporary?” - it reminds me exactly of contemporary art theory classes in which Bouguereau is similarly burned in effigy for the sins of painting’s representational past. Neither of those tactics sit well with me. If you get scholarly types from both sides of this artsy coin together in a room, it’s akin to putting a dehumidifier and a humidifier in the same room together: a lot of energy is spent, and nothing changes.

Deconstructing the validity of the manufacture of Koon’s “goods” guarantees tumbling down a rabbit hole into which I’d rather not descend. I, too, studied under Steve Assael with some of the very same people who have worked/are working at Jeff’s 29th and 11th facility (as well as the Broadway and Houston facility some years back). I know what happens there — I’ve seen it firsthand. The phrase I can ascribe to the goings on there is as apt as it is appropriately banal: it is what it is. Anyway, this isn’t necessarily about the issue at hand. Pun intended, I guess, because the idea of skill and its ties to a kinesthetic relationship to the hand is really what should be addressed more thoroughly. This topic inhabits a slippery slope too, but acquisition and exposition of skill seems to be the defining factor for a lot of artists who identify as “post-contemporary” (AKA “classical realists.”).

I’m not going to address Daniel Maidman’s article (most of my argument here deals with a lot of what he discusses), but rather the selection that Seed cites in regard to skill. Maidman’s phrase “unskilled genius” is a ridiculous oxymoron — unless he’s being purposefully cheeky, which, contextually, I doubt. How can one ascribe genius to one who (supposedly) has no skill with which to exhibit said genius? Does he mean idiot savant? If not, then the genius part lies somewhere where such content is knowable, so perhaps the concept is enough. If that is the case, then the visual that accompanies it clearly does not have to be coeval with high-level conceptuality in order to be read. In fact, in the contemporary, the visual often serves as a juxtapositional foil to the high-mindedness or cleverness of the concept. Sometimes it is couched in irony, or may have some codified meaning in its formal structure. At any rate, the better works of this kind get you to think, regardless of the hand skills involved, or lack thereof.

But, again, this is not what we should be addressing, is it? Every critical analysis of contemporary artwork that the “post-contemporary” congregation sets out to scrutinize always ends up in fetters over the lack of formal substance. I’d rather address the idea of having skill, the work that results from employing said skill, and see how this may or may not fulfill the criteria of what it means to be a skilled artist. This is a subject that I am fully qualified to tackle, as I am one of those artists who possesses excellent hand skills. I’ve spent 20+ years honing them, and I think I’ve passed that 10,000 hour mark. This is nothing particularly special, mind you. Of course, I do not take it for granted, but neither do I feel that this alone will ever be enough to be a quality artist.

In some ways, it’s fun to be an artist with “Traditional Skills” (Seed’s term). You always get positive reactions from those outside contemporary spheres, that’s for sure. Hand skills often make your work that much more accessible. As a professor of studio art (as I am), it’s also handy to be able to demonstrate a logical process towards good drawing and painting through the traditional methodologies (you know, those ones that have been tried and tested over 6 centuries..?). If you know what you’re doing, this works pretty well. And, that’s just it: these skills can be taught. Some folks get the hang of it faster than others, but, if you’re interested (and you practice), you will eventually have something of decent quality coming out of your brush/ pencil/ Wacom tablet/ etc. It’s easy to say, hard to do, but then again, so is a marathon, and how many people run those annually?

Here’s a little anecdote: Even though I had a quality undergrad studio art education, I was never really given the full lowdown on the landscape. Sometime after obtaining my BFA, I bit the bullet and got myself a french easel and went down to the shore. It was a disaster. I clearly did not know the first thing about how to paint en plein air. My studio practice was of little help in the great outdoors. I made a point of studying the Hudson River School masters, as well as the American Impressionists (my grandmother was from Old Lyme, so I had an inherent draw towards that bunch), and after a LOT of failure, I became pretty good at plein air painting, eventually. It was a good experience, and it taught me how to be far more efficient in my picture-making process, and I realized that there is always something more to be learned in painting. However, it still felt like a means and not an end. It was a new tool; a new skill, if you prefer. Were my predilections set on being an outdoor painter, it would not have been that hard to elevate my game with more specific practice and dedication. But, as I noted: to what end? To be the next Church or Bierstadt or Childe Hassam? Were they not themselves already? I would be merely tracing the contours of a mountain already built by giants. I would just end up engaging in a kind of history painting, when it comes right down to it. (I should mention that Rackstraw Downes has done something amazing in this arena, but it's taken him my entire lifetime to do so.)

Frederic Edwin Church, "Sunset across the Hudson Valley" 1870

That in mind, I want to bring up the neo-atelier movement, which a lot of “post-contemporaries” seem to be 100% behind. Is this not merely an historical reenactment of the 19th century European painting schools? I’ve walked through the studios at a particular NY ‘academy’, and I did indeed think the work quite excellent in terms of skill-based standards. Yet, aside from various modes of the students’ outfits, I felt the place was a direct and reactionary throwback to antiquity. The work could have been produced by one student or many different students. Even with my trained eyes, it all looked the same. To what end? To acquire traditional skill? These students already had it in spades. What exactly were they doing with it? It was all treadmill work with no road time, to use the running analogy once again. Oddly enough, it made me think of Koons’ studio: busy bodies producing quality, workmanlike products. The difference in the atelier works were that these lovely figures on toned paper had no conceptual basis, they were just pictorial placeholders for the models that had stood on the now-empty dais. How were they any different than, say, the shadow tracing done by the daughter of Butades done in 600 BCE?

There is a strong push from the classical realism cohort that a deep conceptuality is inherent in perceptual work. The engagement of a skilled artist and their labor over a piece is seen as somehow quantifiable: a heartfelt encounter with something ineffable, accessed only through mastery of perceptual painting. It’s a position explicated in a most earnest fashion (in a variety of similar forms) in the essays of “Slow Painting: A Deliberate Renaissance.” This is a highly arguable point on many fronts. However, the one I’d like to focus upon is the hermetic nature of this engagement and how that affects the theory. The maker of these works, and artists of like mind, are the only audience privy to this concept. The non-artist and those not interested in skill per se are left out of this conversation. In a few of the essays mentioned above, this argument often extends beyond the perceptual into studio-crafted works, again espousing the ideas of a time/labor-intensive engagement. In truth, an overabundance of time spent on a work might actually point up a certain lack of skill — a struggle with the medium as opposed to a mastery of such. That’s not an unfair position to take, if one looks at this from outside the exclusivity of the theory.

I liken the kind of hermeticism inherent in this “traditionally-skilled-painter ideology” to attending a cocktail party full of rocket scientists. You think rockets are cool (they are!), and you like space, but the conversations of the scientists are full of physics jargon. Ultimately, you can’t contribute, and you come away empty and bored. This is academy-painting in a nutshell: it looks great, but the only conversation beyond, “It looks great!” is either one of painting geekery or one that revolves around how good it goes with the couch.

Jacob Collins, "Reclining Nude, Morning" 2006

Speaking as one “on the inside,” I feel like this sort of proto-phenomenology of engagement is terribly reaching. Sure, there are moments of “zen” in the act of drawing and painting as it were, but the nature of Zen espouses a kind of no-mind or nothingness. The very absence of mind allows for better engagement. That's a lot more to the point, but such an idea is certainly not the purview of perceptual painters alone, as they seem to insist. Maybe if the essayists of “Slow Painting” had been a little more rigorous in their assertions, they might have co-opted some of the theory behind Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow,” but I’ve yet to see such an intellectual tack. At any rate, even “Flow” does not underscore skill as a necessary tenet; it’s primarily about creativity. Skill and creativity are very much mutually exclusive concepts. Same goes for the phenomenological: at no time does Merleau-Ponty (or Heidgegger, for that matter) set aside hand-skills as the mandatory tool for mediation of perception. What an intensely empirical philosophy that would be! Yes, I can personally attest to the deeply felt zen-factor in engaging in perceptual (and other) work — BUT — that phenomenon does not exist solely under the umbrella of classical realism or its peripheral offshoots (those with traditional skills). It’s a highly uncritical theory.

So, what of Seed’s category of “Idiosyncratic Skill?” I like the premise very much, but, his short exegesis is fairly broad. I feel like it should do an end-around and be pointed directly at the “Traditional Skill” crowd to see where, if, and how it fits. How many current practitioners of Traditional Skill employ Idiosyncratic Skill? Based on what is coming out of the neo-atelier scene, none of those people. There are some incredible painters, do not get me wrong — but the top 10 are the ones who run the ateliers themselves. This is not the 17th, 18th, or 19th Century. Jacob Collins does not have a studio full of apprentices. And, in a far different (yet similar!) vein, neither does Kehinde Wiley, for that matter — he just has, like Koons, workers. None of these laborers have any shot at moving into the position of Master. That is indeed the part of history that both ateliers and contemporary studios do not emulate. Even the best of the aforementioned top 10 still produce work stuck in ancient modalities. It is a misuse of such high skill. Or, perhaps a disuse of other skills.

I’ve written about overuse of allegory in my thesis (q.v. if you care to), and that seems to be the go-to for a lot of the classicists who feel like that is the idiosyncrasy that will set them apart. But, like academic painting itself, it is a poor mode of conveyance. Even the most politically charged events pictured by some of these incredibly trained painters devolves into an overwrought op-ed cartoon, haltingly delivered by the antiquated vehicle of allegory. I have seen surrealist tactics put to use, but without the inherent strangeness of actual Surrealism. At best, these works are fantasy-illustrative. At worst, they are decorative “put a bird on it” space-fillers. What is missing in these types of works? Simple: a discursive element.

Graydon Parrish, "The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy" 2006

Now, that is also a broad term - but, when applied to representational work (note, I did not use the term “classical” or “realistic” — ossified terms, ossified ideas), this becomes fantastically problematic. Again, I have written about representation and contemporary modalities (“Representational Painting After Richter”), and this is where the rubber meets the road these days. What can one say in a representational image that your phone cannot after a quick search? Not only does it have to say more, it has to point out painting as a self-referent, as well as its very history. It has to show paint, show object-hood, show an acknowledgment to photography, smart phones, photoshop, film… In other words, it has to acknowledge its place in the discourse of representation, but as a painting. That is a highly delimited space, and to uncritically paint pictures of things without understanding the very nature of how the world perceives “pictures of things” shows up a lack of intellectual (idiosyncratic) skill. In the face of such a deficit, any traditional/ technical skill employed is merely wheel-spinning.

Again, if you read my thesis, I list numerous artists who engage in the proper practice of representational painting with the contemporary world in mind. I continue to align myself with them, although I am carving my own discursive niche in my own explorations. That is how it should be. As a result, I find myself on the outliers — no fan of the Richard Princes of the world, but certainly not a follower of the Graydon Parrishes, either. Richter had it right in pointing out the dangers of ideological thinking. Those who celebrate and capitalize upon the “low-as-high” zeitgeist of celebutante art are as circumscribed as those who worship at the altar of the Munsell System or Reilly Palette with no thoughts outside formal practice. These are narrow world views for those who would call themselves artists. I subscribe to neither of these, but I do not discount them, either. They are part of the system, as rebellious and reactionary as today’s political climate.

Gerhard Richter, "Annunciation after Titian" 1973

I am fully aware that my opinions on this matter do nothing to ingratiate me to those who would like to co-opt me into the traditionally-skilled sect. But, my possession of similar hand-skills does not automatically align me with like artists. I prefer to associate myself with those who would think outside such narrow pathways. I’ve never thrown my skill sets under the bus for the sake of intellectual pursuits, and even in the critical theory-heavy crucible of grad school, I found a way to say more with less and still develop as a representational painter. Perhaps that is my idiosyncratic skill. Whatever it is, I’m still, and will forever be developing it along that path. Representational painting has been with us a long time, it has been with me a long time, and it will go on without me. It takes care of itself.

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