Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Pan Review of Books: 33 Artists in 3 Acts

Robert Boyd

Sarah Thornton's Seven Days in the Art World was published in 2008. It was a success for two reasons, I think. One, it treated the art world as its subject rather than particular artists or exhibits. Of course she wasn't the first to do this. Art Worlds (1982) by Howard Becker looked at the art world in a broader sense than Thornton did, and in pain-staking detail. Gary Alan Fine examined the world of outsider art in Everyday Genius: Self-Taught Art and the Culture of Authenticity (2004). All three writers are sociologists, which makes their interest in art more than just an interest in aesthetics--they want to know about the range of activities and people involved in this space.

But Thornton wasn't writing an academic text. What she also brought to it was a sharp-witted, first-person journalistic writing style. She is a good writer. I admit that's a highly subjective judgment, but what I mean is that I would probably find her writing entertaining even if she were writing about something I have no particular interest in. How many art writers can you say that about?

After writing Seven Days in the Art World, Thornton became the art correspondent for The Economist. This gave her a platform to write about the art world without having to become an art critic. This being The Economist, a lot of her writing was about the art market. Not having any particular need to suck up to that world, her articles could be quite cutting and revealing. (I think writers like Thornton and Felix Salmon who write about the art market occasionally for general interest publications are for more interesting than professional art market observers like Marion Maneker because they are disinterested--and better writers.)

But writing about the art purchases of ultra-rich can leave one feeling pretty dirty, and Thornton swore it off in a grand and glorious way in her article, "Top 10 reasons NOT towrite about the art market." This was published in 2012 in Francesco Bonami's Tar Magazine. Among her reasons not to write about the art market were that "Oligarchs and dictators are not cool" and "It implies that money is the most important thing about art." She also told readers that there were many scandalous stories she could tell about the art market that couldn't make it past the Economist's lawyers. However bad the art market seems based on her reporting, she implied, the reality is far worse.

That was a good way to end one stage in Thornton's multi-year exploration of the world of art, but the question was, what next? 33 Artists in 3 Acts is the answer. When I heard the title, I was worried that Thornton had abandoned her sociological background and was going to write just about a collection of individuals. But she has placed them to various degrees in a world of friends, colleagues, helpers and family--in short, she is not doing Art 21-style profiles.

The book is divided into three sections: Politics, Kinship and Craft. The last is a bit cheeky--although many of the artists display high degrees of craft in their work (such as Isaac Julien, Grayson Perry and Christian Marclay), the craft she is most interested in is the crafting of an identity as an artist. This is why she wants to interview artists in their studios, because she sees them as places where the artist practices this identity.

Sometimes she is heavy-handed, as when she juxtaposes a chapter on Jeff Koons and a chapter on Ai Weiwei--both similar artists in some ways, but Koons is described as something of a phony in a sharp suit compared to the politically active Ai. The way Thornton splits up the chapters in interesting, too. There are several chapters each for Koons and Ai, reflecting different encounters Thornton had with each artist. This means we see time passing. This doesn't mean much for Koons--his life is on an even keel. But for Ai Weiwei, Thornton interviews both before and after his arrest and detention by the Chinese government. Thornton's admiration of him (and her disdain of Koons) is evident. She writes, "Many Western artists squander their freedom of speech through convoluted forms of self-censorship. It is hard to resist Ai's elation that he is not one of them."

Act II, Kinship, contains two large interlocking sections about Maurizio Cattelan and his friends, curators Francesco Bonami (who published Thornton's essay about quitting the art market beat) and Massimiliano Gioni, and about the family of Laurie Simmons and Carroll Dunham (and their two daughters Grace Dunham and Lena Dunham). Her interviews with the Dunhams are especially interesting because they start when Lena Dunham is filming Tiny Furniture (which stars herself and Laurie Simmons as her mother, but which Carroll Dunham chose not to be in). This film would establish Lena Dunham's reputation and would lead to her being given a TV show in HBO, Girls, which would shoot her into stardom. Some critics have suggested that Lena Dunham's success is due to some kind of nepotism, which is absurd. No one watches a TV show because of who the star's parents were, and more important, who outside of the art world has ever heard of Carroll Dunham and Laurie Simmons? Still, the chapters on the various family members do show how much Lena Dunham's upbringing and family background shaped her career path. Not least, it showed her an artistic path she didn't want to take--the elite world of contemporary art where only a privileged few will ever see your art.

One chapter deals with two artists, Jennifer Dalton and William Powhida. I think Thornton included them perhaps to counteract the way the rest of the book deals with so many of the glitterati of the art world--Dalton and Powhida's work together has been specifically critical of the art world. Much of the book deals with artists who operate at the higher levels of the art world which is where the money is. So when she writes about Cattelan, she has him on the phone with mega-collector Dakis Joannou, while writing about Powhida, she refers to his famous critique of the vanity show of work from Jannou's collection at the New Museum.

But the artist Thornton seems to admire the most is Andrea Fraser. The performance and video artist is profiled over several chapters in Act III, which deals with "craft." Fraser is depicted as being simultaneously canny and reckless in crafting her own identity as an artist. The first chapter on Fraser is description of a performance. Fraser is provocative and takes on many personas in the course of the performance, which makes her see a little hard to get a handle on. Her work is based on psychology and psychotherapy, and she looks at other artists' public performance as artists through that lens. But Thornton also mentions how Fraser is a high school drop-out with no university degrees who prior to being hired as an art professor at UCLA lived precariously on little income and carried debt. Part of the work of being an artist may be crafting one's identity as an artist, but being an artist also means living in the real world.

Fraser's most infamous work deals with this--Untitled (2003) is a video of Fraser having sex with an art collector who has paid $20,000 for the experience. The collector also got one copy of the video, which was produced in an edition of five. It feels like a piece of stunt art in some ways, but it's blunt analogy: being an artist in the high end art world is not unlike prostitution. Along these lines,  Fraser also wrote an essay for the 2012 Whitney Biennial called "L'1%, C'est moi," a brutal condemnation of the art market and the extreme inequality that has feeds it. It's worth quoting:
Rather than turning to collectors to subsidize the acquisition of art works at grotesquely inflated prices, European museums should turn away from the art market and the art and artists valorized in it. If this means that public museums contract and collectors create their own privately controlled institutions, so be it. Let these private institutions be the treasure vaults and theme-park spectacles and economic freak shows that many already are. Let curators and critics and art historians as well as artists withdraw their cultural capital from this market. 
I think Fraser's willingness to issue such a full-throated denunciation is part of what Thornton admires. Thornton issued her very public "I quit!," but she still is interested in the world of blue chip art, and that world includes collectors and the market. There is an ambivalence in 33 Artists in 3 Acts. Thornton is not quite willing to go as far as Powhida, Dalton and Fraser in her rejection of the ethical and moral pit of the high-end art market, but she gives them ample space to say how they feel. Meanwhile, she writes about many of today's bluest of the blue chip artists like Koons and Damien Hirst and others, sometimes with disapproval but not always.

I'm not condemning her for her ambivalence, because as ethically screwed up as the big-money art world is, it is fascinating! That's a good deal of the pleasure in reading this book. Thornton is an interested interlocutor, who wants to like the artists and their activities but who approaches most of them with at least a little skepticism. I would say that in this book, the sociologist part of Thornton recedes somewhat in favor of the journalist part, but the sociologist is still there. I've said it before--we need more people with backgrounds in the social sciences writing about art, and if they can write as compellingly as Sarah Thornton, all the better.

In Review: Urban Theater: New York Art in the 1980s, at the Modern, Fort Worth

Paul Mullan

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (I shop therefore I am), 1987, Photographic silkscreen on vinyl 111 5/8 x 113 1/4 x 2 1/2 inches

The artists included in Urban Theater: New York Art in the 1980s were major figures during the decade itself. Moreover, with a few exceptions, selections are arranged in the galleries according to then-predominant critical categories. For example, works by Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, and Robert Longo are in one room, exemplifying the “Pictures Generation” strategy of appropriating popular culture images. In this sense, the exhibition, at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and organized by the Modern’s Chief Curator Michael Auping, eschews revisionism.

Robert Longo, Untitled, 1981, Charcoal and graphite on paper, 96 x 60 inches

Relegated to the rear gallery are the most explicit politics. Numerous posters by the Guerrilla Girls critique the under-representation of women in the institutional artworld. Extra-artworld politics are exemplified by vitrine displays of material artifacts from ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. Mass movements around AIDS and feminism, and around queer communities and government censorship as well, were only one emphasis of the era’s art. Nonetheless, that art as a whole, and the sometimes vitriolic arguments around it, is better understood by way of the larger, political context.

Among the decade’s theoretical disputes, Benjamin Buchloh, Craig Owens, Douglas Crimp, and others challenged either painting’s contemporary tendencies – e.g. neo-expressionism – or the medium tout court. An ideology critique of art’s role in burgeoning political reaction, especially in western Europe, was fundamental in those debates; however hazily, the question of art’s positive valence for future progressive political upsurges was, as well. (That some of those claims no longer apply, given shifting historical conditions, is obvious.) Oil-on-canvas was regarded skeptically.

Julian Schnabel, The Jute Grower, 1980, Oil, plates, and Bondo on wood, 90 x 120 inches

In Julian Schnabel’s huge “plate” painting The Jute Grower (1980), crockery projects boldly from the picture plane, and the board’s diagonal sides, into the exhibition space. Some pieces are almost whole; some semi-circular, remaining identifiably part of a shattered dinner plate, saucer, teacup, or bowl; and some random shards. Most visual characteristics other than shape, such as decorative patterns, are obliterated by naturalistic midnight-blue slathered on each piece. The boards are only partially filled with dinnerware; there are “empty” areas of craggy white, metaphorizing earth or vegetation. The surface barely holds the roughly modeled image of a man and (presumably) jute stalks, readable from only a medium distance or further back. This painting is more object-like – and less the flat picture screen so crucial for artists elsewhere in the show.

Surfaces through which images have to “fight” are even more variegated in other Schnabels. Dinnerware can saturate an entire board, intensifying the abex, all-over effect. Ornamented crockery – unbroken and unpainted – can demand to be read as such. Palettes can be diverse and multichromatic. Even real tree branches or antlers can be included. The broader works’ heterogeneous materiality is attenuated in The Jute Grower.

This base materiality is surely related to earlier, lauded 1970s post-minimalism, with which neo-expressionism supposedly ruptured. Nonetheless, longstanding critical neglect of Schnabel’s painting is only now being overcome.

David Salle, Clean Glasses, 1985, Acrylic and oil on two canvas panels, 105 x 100 inches

In a work, David Salle frequently juxtaposed highly divergent styles: photographic reproductions; industrially produced, decorative fabrics and other found objects; hard-edged geometric abstraction; and imagistic representations. Clean Glasses (1985) attenuates that divergence, with its consistently imagistic idiom and thin, sketchy application of paint.

Classic dichotomies in painting are visually articulated. The top panel’s recessive, artificial reds versus the bottom panel’s more-dominant earthtones refer to modernist contention around surface and depth. The former’s cool, photographic source versus the latter’s expressionistic handling gestures toward further modernist debates around artistic creativity’s source.

These formal dichotomies are, problematically, recoded in terms of a traditional masculine / feminine duality. This arises from pornographic conventions such as the headless woman, rendered in soft-focus, red grisaille (Salle had worked for Stag magazine). Shadows cast between the woman’s legs, spread and centered before the viewer, indicate a sexualization of spatial concepts of “depth”, as figuratively a woman’s body to be penetrated. “Depth” is further gendered as a domestic interior – paradigmatically feminized in patriarchal society – vis-à-vis the residential building’s exterior and laundry hanging from the balcony. The impression of “domesticity” is strictly derived from these latter sign-relations, as the cloud of red in the top panel does not actually resolve into a room or rear wall.

The active subject to which all of this is counterposed is implied by the wall’s agitated brushstrokes, moving in all directions, and the perfunctory modeling, particularly of the left window and exposed bricks at right. In arguments around abstract expressionism, such subjects had been paradigmatically masculinized.

Hal Foster wrote of a concurrent work: Salle’s “Brother Animal (1983) is … a formulaic display of dead, dispersed images with charge enough only to damp out any connection or criticality”; “[t]his is fragmentation at its most entropic, most cool” (Recodings 1985, 134). This was a not-uncommon response to the artist’s “postmodern” stylistic diversity – and its rupture with a self-critical, self-referential trajectory a la Clement Greenberg. Conversely, feminist Mira Schor blasted Salle, dismissing notions that such heterogeneity evacuated meaning itself. That meaning was identified as precisely the works’ noxious, anti-woman approach and its inextricable entanglement with his critical perspective on painting’s history.

Graffiti artists in the show include Coleen Fitzgibbon and Robin Winters, both part of the important 1980 Times Square Show, as well as Jean-Michael Basquiat, Kenny Scharf, and Keith Haring. The latter was an effective communicator and wanted mass audiences for his images. Haring’s ubiquitous work appeared in mass media outlets like MTV and was sold at his Pop Shop retail stores. This populist vibe and commercial stench led to – once again – critical neglect in the US.

Keith Haring, Untitled, 1982, Sumi ink on paper, 107 x 160 inches

Haring created widely distributed designs for political movements: against the white-supremacist apartheid regime in South Africa; around the AIDS crisis; and against nuclear weapons. Outside those hopeful movement contexts, his large-scale drawings in Urban Theater have ominous undertones. Untitled (1982) depicts a seven-headed hydra before which multiple figures are fleeing. A central figure holds another aloft; as indicated by short lines emanating from the prostate body, and similar to Haring’s famed Radiant Baby, the latter is “glowing”. (Is this a sacrifice, or a rescue?) The hydra heads spew fire or smoke – suggested by wispy lines analogous to vertical, abex-styled ink-drips elsewhere on the paper, and unlike the artist’s usual thicker, homogeneous line. The creature’s outline is full of Xs or crosses, signaling its surface and hinting at the Christian fundamentalist base of the Republican Reagan administration – which, not coincidentally, supported the apartheid regime, aggressively deployed nuclear missiles throughout western Europe, and turned AIDS into a global crisis through its criminal neglect.

Peter Halley, Glowing and Burnt-Out Cells with Conduit, 1982, Acrylic, Day-Glo acrylic, and Roll-a-Tex on canvas, 64 x 96 inches

Well-known essays by critically valorized Peter Halley stressed how geometric abstraction – specifically the grid – reflected the rigid, repeatable, serial order of modern life: from suburban developments to office cubicle to shopping malls. That is materialized in his Glowing and Burnt-Out Cells with Conduit (1982), with its square, red and black “cells” of roughly textured Roll-a-Tex, similar to standardized treatments for walls and ceilings in cookie-cutter housing. This, again, departed from postwar, western modernist perspectives in which medium specificity, opticality, or geometry’s “transcendental” nature was key. Such perspectives rejected using geometry as linguistic signs, whether critical or not of everyday life and its alienations. Abstraction-as-sign is, of course, integral to appropriation-based postmodernism elsewhere at the Modern.

Philip Taaffe, Brest, 1985, Linoprint collage on paper mounted on canvas, 78 1/4 x 78 1/2 inches

The artworld umbrella of “simulationism” encompassed Halley, Philip Taaffe, and Ross Bleckner. The latter’s Sanctuary (1989) addressed the then-raging AIDS crisis, which was killing tens of thousands every year in the US, with no end in sight. As if the imagined walls and ceiling had been perforated, a darkened interior is punctuated with hundreds of shimmering “lights” – that are, indeed, negative space on the canvas, exposed areas of golden-bronze underpainting. As with Halley, conventions of geometric abstraction and the grid are connoted. The “lights” are positioned in rows at regular intervals; rows are almost horizontal, as in minimalism, towards the bottom; and higher, rows’ upwards curvature increases with mathematical uniformity. Contours of what appears to be a domed vault, its top centered, are traced; the brightness increases, by way of strengthening hues in the underpainting, towards the dome’s center. As with Halley, all of this points outwards to the social, each equivalent light signifying a loss from mass death.

Ross Bleckner, Sanctuary, 1989, Oil on canvas, 84 x 60 inches

The painterly medium of Sanctuary was “conservative”; its status as a unique object, proper for galleries or museums; and its tone reflective rather than militant. This was quite unlike the politicized practice of other artists who engaged with AIDS activism and, out of urgency and necessity, prioritized photography, prints, and similar mass-reproducible media. New anti-retroviral therapies for HIV began dramatically reducing mortality rates in the late 1990s, and Bleckner’s poetic work of mourning seems more apropos today.

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Your body is a battleground), 1989

Distant from painting, Barbara Kruger’s vibrant polemics were routinely adopted by progressive publishers and journals; public awareness campaigns around issues like domestic violence against women; and political events. Untitled (Your body is a battleground) was used on posters for the 1989 March for Women’s Lives, focused on abortion rights, in Washington, DC.

However, Kruger is solely represented in Fort Worth by Untitled (I shop therefore I am) (1987). Proportions suggest near-square aspect ratios of analog, tube televisions, although the sheer size suggests an advertising board. The hand presents a business card shape on which the text is printed, reinforcing that it’s all about commerce. This riff on Descartes is a (now) banal ideology critique of the construction of identity through consumerism and commodification, a critique imagining passive, mass audiences apt to wander a shopping mall. Kruger’s genuinely political graphics closely target audiences more conscious and engaged, on the ground, precisely by identities and their material foundations.

In limited selections from Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Series featured at the Modern, she performs women’s roles associated with Hollywood movies of the 1950s and early 1960s – such as the femme fatale and damsel-in-distress. Denotative elements include period design, such as hats, hairstyles, and early-modern skyscrapers.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #55, 1980, Gelatin silver print, 30 x 40 inches

Readings of Sherman over the years have proposed that the series takes a critical perspective on performativity: of femininity; of other gender positions, such as masculinity (a widely unacknowledged presence within some of these works); or of gender itself. This occurs via the multiple roles’ random, non-narrative appearance throughout the series; and via the photographs’ ostentatious theatricality – as in the artists’ brightly lit face, set against a dark backdrop, in Untitled Film Still #55 (1980). As well, the black-and-white photographs evoke an era before color cinema; and the calculated treatment of Untitled Film Still #5 (1977) creates an effect of grainy, low-resolution film stock. The material medium’s latter two properties can formally connote the 1950s and thus – when Sherman made these works – the roles’ sense of historical artifact and changeability.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #5, 1977, Gelatin silver print, 30 x 40 inches

Feminist movements, a product of the 1960s’ upheavals, were in the 1980s still expanding their influence in broader culture, gaining political and legal victories, and maintaining optimism about the future. Reactionary politics around women and gender could be understood as substantively in the past, the 1950s. That is no longer the case, of course, with a roaring right-wing offensive underway against abortion rights, contraception, and women’s gains generally.

Gender is thus posited as de-essentialized, a social construct. These readings were influenced by disputes within radical feminism, in which “woman” was allegedly determined by natural, biological characteristics: for example, the ability to birth children. The current, relative weakness of the women’s, and other social, movements – and the relentless commodification and consumerism addressed in Kruger’s Untitled (I shop therefore I am) – means these readings and Sherman’s canonical series now lack that critical energy. The multiplicity of social roles no longer signal “performativity” or “gender” as such, but rather the individual, empirical positions themselves – more straightforwardly assimilable to the shopping mall.

The decade’s art, particularly painting, could be exuberant. This is a minimal aspect of the exhibition, though, Scharf’s work aside. The weight, across different media, is unmistakably on the linguistic and conceptual, enabling visitors to better grasp the burning questions of that time.

“Urban Theater: New York Art in the 1980s” is on view at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth until January 4, 2015.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Rewriting of Art History, Again

Robert Boyd

Many rock nerds (such as myself) can easily construct an alternate history of rock music, one that foregrounds hitless acts like the Velvet Underground, Love, Big Star and the Ramones, and erases many of the bands you are likely to hear on a classic rock station (AC/DC, Styx, Journey, Dire Straits, etc.). Partly that's because Big Star (for example) is utterly great and Journey (for example) is utterly dreadful. (And if you disagree, well, that's just your opinion, man!) But it's also because we rock nerds tend to excessively value discovering something for ourselves that wasn't easy to find--bands that were never played on the radio, for example. Classic rock, for us, was a metanarrative imposed by a power structure (as described in part by such books as Hit Men--see, we rock nerds are such nerds that were read books about rock music) that seemed arbitrary and unfair. There is a degree of ressentiment here--that can't be denied. But the idea that a metanarrative or a "grand narrative" is an inescapable (and oppressive) system is an idea that has been the source of many alternate histories and systems--including the rock nerds' alternative history of rock.

Dan Nadel's exhibit, What Nerve!: Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present, collecting together art by H.C. Westermann, Jim Nutt, Peter Saul, Ken Price, Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, Jim Drain, William Copley, Elizabeth Murray, Jack Kirby, Gary Panter and many more, is an equivalent to the rock nerds' challenge to the accepted history of rock. The grand narrative Nadel is challenging is the canonical history of art from the 60s through the 90s. You might think of this history as appropriation and assemblage paralleled by minimalism, post-minimalism transitioning to conceptualism, installation and performance, heavily undergirded by French theory as filtered through Artforum and October. Establishing a counterhistory to that seems like a worthwhile thing to do, right?

Except that in real life, it's really hard to come up with a cohesive history of art during that period. The idea that there actually is a metanarrative to be in opposition to seems suspect, especially in 2014. This is because the period covered in this exhibit was one in which in which Modernism went off the rails and a thousand flowers bloomed. Modernism was a real metanarrative that was slain (or at least crippled) by Post-Modernism, which is to say by the myriad challenges from many directions to its seeming hegemony. Art history was reclaimed and reframed as women, members of racial minorities, formerly colonized people, and LGBT people asked why art history and Modernism in particular seemed so white, so European/North American and so male? Specifically they were asking if the ideological underpinnings of Modernism, which hitherto had seemed so neutral and formal, masked hidden sexist and racist tendencies.

Compared to issues like those, the ones addressed by Nadel's exhibit seem far less consequential. And I hate the defensive title, What Nerve! The desire to showcase the work of overlooked or undervalued artists is a laudable one, but this title suggests that there was an elite NYC cabal looking down their noses at these provincial artists, saying "How dare they do this?" and holding them back. When an exhibit includes work by Mike Kelly, Elizabeth Murray, Ken Price and Peter Saul, this is a questionable premise.

Jim Falconer, Morbid Sunshine by a Miner Artist, 1966, oil on canvas, 78 x 78 1/4. Falconer was a member of the Hairy Who.

Nadel in his introduction writes, "With the recognition of modernism as the dominant art mode and the critical emphasis on theory, artists who were unable or unwilling to adopt to crisp rationales found themselves at loose ends." I think this can be reasonably said in regard to, say, the Hairy Who, a group of Chicago artists whose manic figurative work is a major part of the show, but is it true of Forcefield, the late 90s collective of RISD art students? They may have been rebellious, but not against Modernism, which was a corpse by the time they became active.

Forcefield (Jim Drain, Mat Brinkman, Ara Peterson and Leif Goldberg), various costumes and objects, 200-2002

Judith Tannenbaum, in her essay for the catalog "Outside the Looking Glass," writes more directly: "By bringing [the artists in What Nerve!] together, we hope to right this wrong, and to flesh out a history of representational art that has largely been submerged by the canon of Minimal and Conceptual art to which it runs parallel in the second half of the twentieth century." One can certainly say that these artists haven't been given their due (although with Mike Kelley and Elizabeth Murray, that is patently untrue), and that alone is a good reason to put them in an exhibit. And to say that they represent a certain tendency running through the past few decades is reasonable. But to posit an alternative art history that exists against the accepted narrative is an over-reach. For one thing, it ignores many figurative artists who were very successful, respected, etc., from the 60s forward. For example, Red Grooms, Alex Katz, Larry Rivers, Alice Neel, Richard Lindner, Mel Ramos, John Wesley, Tom Wesselmann, James Rosenquist, Wayne Theibaud, Philip Guston, Neil Jenney, Malcolm Morley, Ida Applebroog, Jean-Michell Basquiat, Eric Fischl, Leon Golub, David Salle, Julian Schnabel, Robert Colescott, Jacob Lawrence, Kerry James Marshall, Raymond Pettibon and Kiki Smith. Tannenbaum at least makes a nod to them--and to the general pluralism of art starting in the 60s (undermining her own argument about the "canon"). (Ironically, when I saw What Nerve! at RISD, there was a small but choice exhibit called She: Picturing women at the turn of the 21st century up at Brown University's David Winton Bell Gallery, featuring figurative art by Glenn Brown, George Condo, John Currin, Yayoi Kusama, Chris Ofili, Jenny Saville, Lisa Yuskavage and others.)

Jack Kirby, Tribes Trilogy 3, 1976, ink and Dr. Martin's dyes on board, 15 x 20 inches

So if forming a counternarrative to canonical art history isn't a reasonable organizing principle for this show, what is? The work in it appears to have a family relationship, after all. The obvious connection is a kind of cartoon figuration. This is a little more specific than figuration generally. There are elements of caricature in much of the work. There is a good deal of humor. There are direct references to comic strips, comic books, magazine cartoons and animated cartoons. And many of the included artists--Mat Brinkman (of Forcefield), Gary Panter and of course, Jack Kirby--have significant bodies of comics art under their belts. Kirby, of course, is known primarily as a comics artist--Nadel includes in this show nearly all of his "wall art." I wish they had made this--cartoon figuration--the explicit theme of the show. It would have been a smaller statement than the counternarrative to art history idea, but one much more defensible and, to me, more interesting.

The other organizing principal could be "the obsessions of Dan Nadel." Nadel is an editor, publisher and curator. I first became aware of him in 2000 or so when I saw the first issue of his beautiful squarebound journal The Ganzfeld. The Ganzfeld dealt with comics in a new way. It looked at the intersection of comics and art. And within its pages were articles and features on many of the people in this exhibit--Peter Saul, the Hairy Who, Gary Panter, members of Forcefield and maybe some I'm missing. Nadel spun this magazine into a publishing concern, PictureBox (2000 to 2014), which published many art catalogs and comics featuring the artists in this show, including Return of the Repressed: Destroy All Monsters 1973-1977 and Gary Panter, a massive two volume retrospective in book form. As a curator, he has put together shows by Jack Kirby and Hairy Who member Karl Wirsum. And he edited two books of overlooked and underappreciated comics--a counternarrative to the accepted history of comics, if you will-- called Art in Time and Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900-1969. What Nerve! brings together a lot of artists who have long been objects of fascination for Nadel as well as the idea of an alternate to the canon.

Whether you see this show as dealing with cartoon figuration or if you see it as a gathering of several of Nadel's artistic obsessions, the stated thesis in the catalog doesn't really hold water. Does the mean this is a bad exhibit? No, it just means that you should take its claims, and some of the claims made for it (for instance in the review "Here Is Your Nasty, Glorious, Freewheeling Alternative History Of American Art" by Priscilla Frank), with a grain of salt. Concentrate instead on the art itself. And to be fair, the big claims are only a small part of the scholarship in the catalog--mostly the essays deal with the specific artists and collectives and their work. They are, for the most part, informative, useful and entertaining.

Peter Saul, Dogpatch, 1961, crayon and collage on paper

It was pure pleasure to see early work by Peter Saul. Dogpatch is quite early, before his style tightened up. You can see some expressionist brushstrokes, which would mostly disappear from his painting later. It reminds me a bit of Richard Diebenkorn and Larry Rivers.

Peter Saul, Man in Electric Chair, 1966, styrofoam coated with plastic and enamel, 55 x 24 x 42 inches.

Saul's large sculpture, Man in Electric Chair is like a living underground comix image, but the textures and patterns in the paint feel ahead of their time. This is the kind of artwork I think of when I use the phrase "cartoon figuration." Whether Saul was consciously influenced by cartoons or comics, it's impossible to see Man in Electric Chair without thinking about them.

Kenneth Price, Red, 1961, ceramic, paint, wood, 14 7/8 x 17 x 16 3/16

Saul was lumped in with several other artists, including Kenneth Price, in a group called the Funk artists. Unlike the Hairy Who, Destroy All Monsters and Forcefield, these artists didn't call themselves Funk artists. It was the coinage of curator Peter Selz who showed a group of Bay Area artists in a show of the same name at the UC Berkeley museum in 1967. The catalog essay by Nicole Rudick relates the amusing history of the term, including the rejection of it by many of the artists to whom Selz applied it.

But is easy to see a visual relationship between the works. Even though Kenneth Price was never a figurative artist (which begs the question of why he's in the show except one never needs an excuse to include Kenneth Price in an art show), his curvy, colorful ceramics have a cartoony presence that relates them to other "funk" artists like Robert Hudson and Peter Saul.

Robert Arneson, Typewriter, 1965, earthenware with glaze, paint, 6 1/8 x 11 3/8 x 12 1/2 inches

One of the great things about seeing What Nerve! is that I got to see many works I had only seen in photos before, like Typewriter by Robert Arneson. At a time when his peers (including Ken Price) were making work that was sleek and minimal, Arneson was mining a deliberately grungy aesthetic. In a way, he is close stylistically to assemblagists like Wallace Berman, George Herms and Ed Kienholz despite his use of ceramics.

Jim Nutt, Now! Hairy Who Makes You Smell Good poster, 1968, offset lithograph, 21 1/4 x 16 5/8 inches

The Hairy Who were more self-directed and self-defined. Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Suellen Rocca, Jim Falconer and Art Green had been classmates at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. They proposed a show to Don Baum, director of the Hyde Park Art Center, and he suggested that they add Karl Wirsum to the line up because Wirsum's work seemed similar to what they were doing. It turned out to be a perfect fit--the six artists worked closely together and forged a collective identity for a few years. Not that the work was collective--for the most part, they did solo work. But some aspects were collaborative--the comic-book-style catalogs they produced and the design of the shows.

Jim Nutt, Wow, 1968, acrylic on plexiglass, 30 x 25 inches

I have a special affection for the Hairy Who. When I was an undergrad in the early 80s taking an "art since the 1940s" art history class, the professor showed a single slide of Jim Nutt's work one day as representative of what was happening in Chicago. (I think he may have also showed Roger Brown and Ed Paschke.) It immediately grabbed me, and I wrote my paper for the class on the group, scrounging up information from old art magazines. In the early 80s when I wrote that paper they were still underrated, but since that time they have been rediscovered and reevaluated. Nutt always had success as a painter, but recently we've seen major gallery exhibits in New York for Karl Wirsum and Gladys Nilsson, as well as museum shows. Still it's nice to see some of the art from the original group of shows gathered together, as well as the ephemera (posters, comics) that accompanied the original Hairy Who exhibits.

Karl Wirsum, Baseball Girl, 1964, acrylic on canvas, 39 x 31 inches

When I wrote that paper back in the early 80s, I fell in love with the above image (reproduced quite small in the glossy pages of a mid-sixties art magazine) by Karl Wirsum. Unlike his later work, in which human figures become quite monstrous, Baseball Girl is an appealing and erotic image.

Karl Wirsum, Gilateen, 1968, oil on canvas, 24 1/2 x 21 1/2 inches

More typical of where Wirsum's art would go is Gilateen from 1968. The way Wirsum outlines flat areas of color may remind viewers of comic books, but the images themselves seem completely original. They have more the idea of a cartoon rather than a specific reference to a comics or cartoon image. And they anticipate what cartoonists from the 80s to the present would be doing. Wirsum was an artist who fell through the cracks for a while before being rediscovered, but it's easy to see why his work was dismissed (wrongly, I might add!). It seemed wacky and low brow and adolescent and just not serious. I think the lack of apparent seriousness was what kept many of these artists from getting their due. Maybe 60s and 70s-era critics like Michael Fried or Rosalind Krauss have exceptional senses of humor in private, but their public critical posture was dead serious. But as we've seen (and will continue to see), much of the art in What Nerve! was meant to be funny. And "funny" was hard for certain important critics to process.

Art Green, Double Exposure, 1969, oil on canvas, 36 x 24 inches.

In retrospect, much of the work of the Hairy Who appears dated. There is something inherently "60s" about Art Green's work, particularly paintings like Double Exposure. But the psychedelic colors and juxtapositions shouldn't prevent us from enjoying it today any more than they do with work by, say, James Rosenquist, whose work Green reminds me of.

Gladys Nilsson, Phantom Plus, 1966, watercolor on paper, 21 5/8 x 14 1/2.

Gladys Nilsson's soft forms remind me of any number of somewhat psychedelic 60s-era cartoons, ranging from Tom Wilson's Ziggy or the Heinz Edelmann-designed movie, Yellow Submarine. Her choice of watercolor is unusual for its time and lends her work a somewhat whimsical air. (Her more recent work, some of which is on view through December 6 at Garth Greenan Gallery in New York, has more sharp edges.)

H.C. Westermann, See America First plate 8, 1968, 18 lithographs, 21 3/4 x 30 inches each.

The Hairy Who were from Chicago, which had a long tradition of figuration while New York artists and critics championed abstraction. New York tastemakers seemed disdainful of the Second City's art scene; Chicago said "so what?" and went its own way. What appeals to me about this local history is that there is a continuity--older artists influenced and taught younger artists. I think this kind of lineage can be found in any sufficiently large and robust local scene. What Nerve! featured not only the Hairy Who, but three other artists with roots in the Chicago scene, including H.C. Westermann (above). Westermann is best known for his three-dimensional works, but See America First, a cheeky series of satirical lithographs, is quite nice. It shows Westermann, a blue-collar war veteran, approaching the somewhat more genteel territory of Saul Steinberg.

Christina Ramberg, Probed Cinch, 1971, acrylic on masonite in painted artist's frame, 13 x 13 inches.

Christina Ramberg was one artist in the show with whom I was almost completely unfamiliar. The name was familiar--it is often mentioned when people write of Chicago artists of the 60s and 70s (along with Philip Hanson and Roger Brown). Like Hanson and Brown, it has an appealing combination of precision and mystery. In the three paintings included in the show, we see these women's bodies in somewhat old-fashioned lingerie but no faces (facelessness was also a feature of most of Brown's paintings). The viewer is pushed right up close to these bodies.

Elizabeth Murray, Truth, Justice and the Comics #1, 1990, oil on canvas on wood, 50 x 53 x 4 inches.

Elizabeth Murray was born in Chicago and studied at the School of the Art Institute in the late fifties and early sixties. She seems to have picked up some of that town's attitude toward figuration and humor. She spent most of her career in New York, and that fact might account for her relative success compared to many of the Chicago artists. She got lumped in with the neo-expressionists in the late 70s and 80s, which was apt. But she avoided most of those painters' bombast and pretension. One thing she is well known for are her elaborate shaped canvases, such as Truth, Justice and the Comics #1 above. Her work always has a slightly grungy, hand-made physicality. Her work, like Philip Guston's, embodied a kind of expressionist approach to cartoon figuration. It recalled in its way the old comics of the 20s and 30s like Barney Google and the Bungle Family--comics that, to paraphrase Robert Crumb, smelled of boiled cabbage. Her own tough Chicago childhood (which included periods of homelessness) might have fed into that, but her work never feels morose. In any case, she doesn't qualify as overlooked artist like Christina Ramberg might--I just saw an enormous Elizabeth Murray hanging over the ticket table on the ground floor of MOMA two weeks ago.

Cary Loren, Jim Shaw as a Spaceman, God's Oasis, 1975/2011, photograph, 24 x 20 inches.

Destroy All Monsters was a band/commune in Ann Arbor in the mid-70s. It consisted of four members, Cary Loren, Niagara, Jim Shaw and Mike Kelley.  Kelley and Shaw left to study and CalArts and became very well-known contemporary artists. Indeed, Kelley is considered one of the key artists of his age.

The four of them did a lot of art while they lived together but perhaps more important is that they embodied their art in the way they lived. Their house, God's Oasis, was mostly a reflection of Jim Shaw's scuzzy collection of the lowest-brow pop culture possible.

Mike Kelley (foreground) and Jim Shaw in Shaw's bedroom at God's Oasis.

I was amused to come across the photo of Kelley in Shaw's bedroom standing by Shaw's comic spinner rack. You can see a copy of Katy Keene, a comic that featured paper dolls for its titular model protagonist, in the bottom left. The one time I met Mike Kelley was during the 90s at San Diego Comic-Con. He had just come from the auction, clutching his prize and grinning with pleasure. I asked him what he got, and he pulled out an original Bill Woggon Katy Keene paper doll page. In other words, the things that obsessed them as undergraduate weirdos continued to be an important part of their work as mature artists. For Kelley, it was abjection, as seen in his quasi-sexual installations and performances using well-used stuffed animals. It was also almost worshipful depictions of Kandor, the bottled city from Krypton in old Superman comics. For Shaw, it was his endless explorations of adolescence and cults. It all started here.

Mike Kelley, Political Cartoon (In the Clutches of Evil), 1976/2011, pigment print on paper, 32 x 45 3/4 inches

But that doesn't mean that the work done by these four artists in God's Oasis was all that good. Kelley's underground comix-influenced Political Cartoon, for example, looks like the work of an ambitious, snarky college student, but doesn't compare in power with Kelley's mature work.

Niagara, The Key, 1974, watercolor on paper, 17 x 14 inches.

The same is true of Niagara's drawings and watercolors, which was among the least interesting art in the show. The life they lead at God's Oasis and in the "band" Destroy All Monsters (which at the time existed to deliberately annoy its listener/victims by making godawful noise) was the real art--art as life. What we have left in this exhibit are relics of that life, but they are far less interesting than the personal accounts in the catalog by Cary Loren and Niagara. (After Kelley and Shaw headed west, Destroy All Monsters became more of a "real" rock band.)

Forcefield, Slice Print, 2001, silkscreen print

Forcefield was similar to Destroy All Monsters in that it was a collective, a band, and a group of people whose life was as much a work of art as was their music, graphic art and costumes. But compared to Destroy All Monsters, the relics of Forcefield's existence are much more interesting. Forcefield consisted of four members, Jim Drain, Ara Peterson, Mat Brinkman and Lief Goldberg. Drain, Brinkman and Goldberg lived with several other artists in Providence, Rhode Island, in a warehouse structure they called Fort Thunder. Fort Thunder was packed with stuff--even the high ceiling was hung with random garbage. The walls were all made of slapped-together plywood, and every inch was covered with drawings, graffiti, stickers and glued-objects. The artists who lived there had bands (in addition to Forcefield there was Lightning Bolt), put on shows for other bands, made costumes, had a silk-screen studio (Fort Thunder silkscreens are highly prized), produced comics, etc.

Nadel could have chosen any aspect of Fort Thunder to include in this show, but chose Forcefield, which was perhaps the most focused part of the sprawling activities associated with Fort Thunder. But what is ironic is that he includes this band/performance group in a show devoted to figurative art. Outside of their Forcefield work, Leif Goldberg and Mat Brinkman have done tons of figurative work in drawings, comics and animation. Drain and Peterson's non Forcefield work has been mostly abstract and installation-based. The only aspect of Forcefield that could be considered figurative (and this stretches the term) are the knit costumes they made.

Forcefield (Jim Drain, Mat Brinkman, Ara Peterson and Leif Goldberg), various costumes and objects, 200-2002

But even if calling them "figurative" stretches the definition of the word, so what? They're amazing. Initially the costumes were pieced together out of old afghans found in local thrift stores, but when Jim Drain joined, he started knitting them from scratch. (Knitting has remained a part of Drain's artistic practice.) The patterns and the way they cover the wearer's face give them an alien, slightly threatening appearance, but the fact that they're knit makes them simultaneously seem cozy and inviting. 

Jack Kirby, Dream Machine, 1970-1975, ink and watercolor on board, 18 x 52 inches.

In 2003, the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston mounted a show called Splat Boom Pow! The Influence of Cartoons in Contemporary Art. It was notable in that among 34 artists included in the show (which included Elizabeth Murray and Peter Saul), only one had actually produced comics. Thankfully, What Nerve! avoids this. Perhaps Nadel's most radical curatorial move is to include several works by Jack Kirby. Kirby wasn't a fine artist who dabbled with comics on the side. He was a lifelong comics practitioner who did a small number of stand-alone painted artworks. Nadel collects almost all of them. They each reflect Kirby's unique techno-psychedelia that characterizes some of his finest comic book work.

Jack Kirby, Dream Machine detail, 1970-1975, ink and watercolor on board, 18 x 52 inches.
This is the key to the exhibit in my view--the idea of cartoon figuration and its possibilities. Unlike much Pop Art which was holding a kind of mirror to pop culture (and comics and cartoons were a part of that), these artists were attempting to work within that vocabulary--and were willing to show that that vocabulary permits a wide variety of expression. Jack Kirby, working for hire in what was widely considered one of the cheapest, most low-brow forms of pop culture, came up with a highly personal form of expression.

It's not about "influence" (as in Splat Bang Pow!) or appropriation--it's ultimately about expression. That's what connects all the artists in What Nerve!, whether they practiced any sort of cartoon figuration or not. And despite the somewhat overblown claims made for the art here, the work here adds up to something greater than the sum of its parts. It's an interesting, unexpected show.

What Nerve! runs at the RISD through January 4, 2015.

Gary Panter, Austin Corbin from the series The Near Extinction and Salvation of the American Buffalo, 1981, acrylic on paper, 22 x 30 inches.

Jim Drain, untitled (bench), 2010, powder coated stainless steel and aluminum. These weren't part of the exhibit--they were right outside the gallery. 

William Copley, The Seven Year Itch, 1973, acrylic on linen, 58 x 45 inches.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Some Minicomics. etc.

Robert Boyd

So I was in New York a couple of weeks ago at Comic Arts Brooklyn, a small festival devoted to art comics. I bought a lot of comics there, among them comics I'd class as minicomics. Minicomics used to be a pretty specific term--it referred to comics produced by folding a sheet of 8 1/2" x 11" paper twice until it was 4 1/4" x 5 1/2". You would trim and staple it and then you had a tiny 8-page pamphlet. So it was a very cheap format for someone to publish their own quickie 8-page comics on a xerox machine.

Of course, artists being artists, this was just the starting point. They played with formats, they added silkscreen covers on cardstock, they published each others' work (moving it from the realm of self-published to small press), they used different printing technologies such as print-on-demand, offset litho, risograph, etc. And, of course, they overlapped with the world of 'zines, so the content wasn't always strictly comics.

Given these caveats, here are a few modern minis.

 Sorry I can't come in on monday i'm really sick (2014) by Jane Mai. This mini was published by an established publisher of high-quality comics, Koyama Press. It seems to consist of diary excerpts from the girl on the cover, along with drawings of her sitting around in her panties depressed. Some of the thoughts are suicidal and self-deprecating. Some are funny, though: "i'll show you mine if you show me yours but also if you give me $1000 and also no". It's the bored thoughts of one person on a somewhat bad day. It works perfectly as a minicomic--you wouldn't want it extended much longer than it is, but for what it is, it feels truthful and revealing.


Devil's Slice of Life (2014) by Patrick Crotty. We follow a little devil, Barbatos, as he spends his day playing pranks on humans. This may remind you of many of the activities of the devil in the great Peter Cooke/Dudley Moore movie Bedazzled. In Bedazzled, Peter Cook's Satan character was pranking people to provoke anger, one of the seven deadly sins. In Devil's Slice of Life, Barbatos gets paid for his work. I'd describe it as a cute-brut-style comic--Barbatos (and his victims and fellow devils) are drawn in a deliberately rough style, but it maintains a kind of manga-influenced cuteness. Devil's Slice of Life was printed in three colors on a risograph, which is a popular printing platform for small-press and self-published comics. Crotty is a member of a Dutch artists' studio called Peow Studio. CAB is surprisingly international, which is wonderful.

Lil' Buddies Magazine, issue 1 by Edie Fake. This is a bit of a cheat, because it's not a comic and I didn't get it at CAB. This was by the cash register at Printed Matter, the venerable New York bookstore devoted to artists books, art books, art zines, self-published stuff, etc. Edie Fake is a Chicago cartoonist/performer, but Lil' [sic] Buddies is about found cartoon art--specifically quasi-vernacular anthropomorphized images used in advertising. The examples he and his correspondents have found are excellent.

from Lil' Buddies Magazine, issue 1

These two are not even close to the most insane anthropomorphic cartoon things in Lil' Buddies.

Greys by Olivier Schrauwen (2012). I've reviewed Belgian cartoonist Olivier Schrauwen's work before, so I expected to like this, which I did. The narrative here is much more foregrounded than in his other work that I've seen, but there is a degree of distancing and irony that flickers in and out, making you question what you are reading. Of course I see it as fiction (Schrauwen is relating an alien abduction experience), but the deadpan way of telling the story begs the question of whether Schrauwen is trying to create a convincing tale or if he is playing with the form of abduction stories for ironic purposes? And does it matter?

The spread above depicts the future of humanity as depicted by the aliens. Greys was published by Desert Island Comics, the great Brooklyn art comics store. Check it out the next time you're in Williamsburg.

Wastezoid by David Waterhouse. The loser stoner genre has always seemed very American to me, but the brilliant work of Simon Hanselmann proves that it's an international genre. David Waterhouse, from Brighton, England offers up an amusing English take. Especially fun is "Thorven, Invisible Black Metal Bestfriend," in which an unnamed wastezoid takes relationship advice from an imaginary friend spouting phrases like "Resuscitate my dying breeze into the dreams of tangled living corpses behind sigils made of flesh and trees!!" The drawing is rubbery and fun. It appears to be published by Rad Party.

Blindspot no. 3 by Joseph Remnant (2013). This is another comic published by a comic shop--in this case, Kilgore Books in Denver, Colorado. All the stories here are autobiographical (I think), and Joseph portrays himself as a dyspeptic, depressive individual. The comics are well done, and I can take this kind of story in small doses (33 pages is just about right). The stories are solipsistic--mostly Remnant and his thoughts and reactions to the world. Indeed, the one story where he interacts with friends, "Elevator", turns out to be a dream! But the drawing is beautiful, and Remnant constructs his stories well. I found myself enjoying them a lot despite the somewhat grim and depressing subject matter.

Mothership (2014)  and The In Between (2012, I think) by Esther Pearl Watson. Esther Pearl Watson is an artist who deserves a lot more consideration than a drive-by review of some minicomics. Watson is a painter, a cartoonist and an illustrator. But these two works don't slot easily into any of these categories not least because they are both heavily photographic. Mothership seems to conflate mothers (in general) with flying saucers (apparently, flying saucers have an important part in Watson's personal history, but not how you would think). She collages (I think) fuzzy photos of objects that could be UFOs over fairly generic landscapes, while describing the "soaring sisterhood" of the motherships.

The In Between mixes more straight-forward comics narrative with photos. The "in betweens" are places and situations--for her, it's art school (she went back to school to get a MFA at CalArts in 2010), and for her grandfather, it's  a "healthcare facility". I read this in between place as between his life and his death, but I may have been jumping to an overly bleak conclusion.

Combining paintings, comics and photos, this small color zine seems like a "mini-Gesamtkunstwerk," if such a thing could exist. Art school is on her mind--she compares her grandfather's constrained existence to minimal artwork and artwork dealing with nothingness, blankness and the void. But for herself, the opposite seems true. She is inspired by Robert Rauschenberg's "combines," which really were Gesamtkunstwerks.

You come to realize as you read it that a lot of the paintings and photos you have been seeing are parts of Watson's own combine.

Has she continued to make large scale installations? Or was that just an art school detour, a product of being in an in between place? Both Mothership and The In Between are examples of minicomics that are really on the edge of the category, which has never been well-defined anyway. Their existence makes me feel that the form has continued vitality. She sells them on a site called Funchicken.