Saturday, March 26, 2011

Christian Eckart and the Sublime

By Robert Boyd

A couple of weeks ago, I went over to the McClain Gallery to hear Christian Eckart speak. He is an extremely articulate describer and defender of his art, which is a bit unusual. After all, artists are no more required to be articulate than engineers are. Talking about their own work is not their main thing. In this room ful of fans, collectors and at least one other artist, Jonathan Leach. Eckart indicated that he had given this talk before, but it sounded casual and off the cuff.

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Christian Eckart standing next to the Absurd Vehicle. (photo by Robert Boyd)

Eckart got his start as an artist in the late 80s and was sort of lumped in with that movement of artists that includes Jeff Koons and Peter Halley. But he's lived in Houston for the past eight years. (Naturally I am curious why he moved to Houston, even though it's none of my business. While he has taught here and there around town, he is not a full-time tenure-track professor. So I can only imagine he moved here for his wife's job, whatever that may be. Correction: Eckart emailed me and said that he moved to Houston because he believed it to be a first class art town. Amazing! Pat yourself on the back, Houston. Perhaps my incorrect guesses are a reflection of my inferiority complex about Houston, an example of "cultural cringe."

He spoke up about what New York was like in the late 70s going into the 80s--he called Neoexpressionism "pretty retrograde." He places himself with the "Neo-Conceptual" artists. At this point he was asking himself "What is a painting?" and his work reflected it.

"I found myself being very attracted to the work of [Mark] Rothko and [Barnett] Newman." In short, he was attracted to painters whose work dealt with the sublime. He refers to the sublime as "a first principle." He describes the sublime as being related in some way to "one's finitude in relation to infinity or of nature." He locates the sublime as a kind of post-enlightenment artistic goal, where artists who were able to express those feelings of the infinite by painting God had to turn in this new rational, scientific age to new conceptions of infinity. So in the 19th century, it was landscapes--breathtaking, terrifying landscapes and seascapes. J.M.W. Turner, for example.

Then it takes a turn in the 20th century with Malevich. Eckart calls his paintings empty gestures, and says Malevich is "super-interesting" because with his work, you  "could consume the painting, but you had to earn the art." That statement struck me as a good description of much art in the 20th century and beyond.

Eckart spoke of this kind of a work as a "zero project." "To me, the void is the twentieth century version of trying to identify the sublime. Ultimately, the white monochrome [painting] is the single most important artistic artifact of the 20th century. The white monochrome could only have emerged in the 20th century as an important artifact."

"My work has always been about locating the intersection where a painting may become an artwork. Paintings are paintings. Rothko paintings are art. One of my theories [when you take] all the words I came up with for the sublime, those are all words you could use to describe the experience of a fetus in the womb. In fact, when people break down and cry in front of a Rothko, different psychologists have suggested that the reason why people have that very emotional thing is that the light in the Rothko paintings might be reminding people of the prenatal experience. The kind of light you see through your eyelids when you close them tight."

"There is a drive in the human organism towards metaphysics [and] spirituality which is really important. The only thing we can quantify as a metaphysical experience might be that prenatal experience."

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Christian Eckart, The Absurd Vehicle, wheels, metal, fiberglass, autopaint, lacquer, chrome, 2010

So much of Eckart's work is about paintings (without actually being painting), which makes this nutty construct stands out as, well, absurd--both on the face of it but also within his oeuvre. But in his mind, it all fits. "This started out as a painting that became a sculpture that became a time machine that became and oracle." But he can step back from the sublime when talking about it. "Anyway, it's just a crazy machine. It's really the first time that the impact of moving to Texas sort of asserted itself in my work." He speaks specifically of the influence of choppers and hot rods and air travel. (The doubled wheels are meant to recall a jet's landing gear.)

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Christian Eckart, The Absurd Vehicle detail, wheels, metal, fiberglass, autopaint, lacquer, chrome, 2010. (Photo by Robert Boyd)

His ideas about the history and lineage of the sublime, and his place in it, put him at direct odds with Thomas McEvilley, whose critical work has been largely about repudiating the sublime in art. Yes to Duchamp, no to Malevich. I plan to write at greater length about McEvilley one of these days, but it was fascinating to hear an artist take a position that, as articulated, both describes his own work pretty well and stands in opposition to McEvilley. I'd love to hear a debate between Eckart and McEvilley.

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Action shot of Christian Eckart and a bystander. (Photo by Robert Boyd.)

Eckart didn't just talk about theory. He talked about how the works were made and the high-tech fabrication methods used in producing them, which were fascinating. Artists are always using the latest technologies, whether it is the Impressionists using paint in tubes to do plein air paintings of Christian Eckart using a computer controlled lathe to fabricate a metal wall sculpture.

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Eckart showing the back of a computer-designed and fabricated piece. (Photo by Robert Boyd.)

You can see a lot more photographs of the art in this exhibit at the McClain Gallery webpage--it's worth a look if you didn't get a chance to see the work in person.


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