Thursday, May 1, 2014

Can an Artist Control Her Viewers’ Perception?: Bobbie Burgers, Flowers, and Two Burdens of Time

Once it leaves the studio, a painting ... acquires a social identity and a life of its own, being priced, bought, sold, loaned, shipped, stored, exhibited, evaluated, restored – an independent object, a possession now belonging to someone else, a commodity which can belong to anyone.  
--James Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, p.305

Mark Rothko and his contemporaries wanted their audience to see that abstract paintings were not haphazard daubs of paint; they were about something. Rothko, William Baziotes, David Hare and Robert Motherwell founded a school of art called “The Subjects of the Artist” in 1948.  The school stressed the centrality of the subject, a difficult thing for a mid-twentieth century audience to understand.  Many viewers, at the time, rejected abstract work as merely decorative.  (Even now, pricey furniture catalogues offer abstract prints for sale, together with rugs and sofas). But interior design was not the intent of the New York School

Robert Motherwell, the most articulate of the group that would come to be called the Abstract Expressionists, wrote that

An artist’s ‘art’ is just his consciousness, developed slowly and painstakingly with many
mistakes en route .... Consciousness is not something that the painter’s audience can be
given; it must be gained, as it is by the painter, from experience ....

Without ethical consciousness, a painter is only a decorator.

Without ethical consciousness, the audience is only sensual, one of aesthetes.
                                    (from “The Painter and the Audience,”  The Collected Writings of
Robert Motherwell, p. 108)

Reception: Ethical or Aesthete?
With this in mind, we arrive at the work of Bobbie Burgers. Her exhibition, “Suspended Between Sweetness and Sorrow,” has been at the Caldwell-Snyder Gallery in St. Helena over the month of April (there was some discussion of continuing the show for two more weeks) and Burgers will be showing in Stockholm, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver this year.

One audience for her work fits the description of Motherwell’s rejected aesthete. The paintings are lush, luscious, all over Pinterest and on designers’ and diarists’ blogs where delighted people repeat ... how pretty it is.  And it is so beautiful. Here is “Dismantling #3,” a diptych in acrylic on canvas, for a total size of 60” x 96,” from my iPhone (better resolution photographs may be coming from the gallery):

And here is a closer view of the joined canvases:

Full bloom and big enough (both in actual size and in conception) to surround the viewer with flowers at their peak. Burgers’ best work is like this, I think: big enough to, as she says, feel “intimate,” and in one range of colors so that the mind stays firmly in, say, whites, blues and purples and can really take them in. (“Fewer elements,” Picasso told Francois Gilot, ‘create s feeling of strength in reserve” – Life with Picasso).  Derek Stefan, the very kind and knowledgeable gallery attendant, says he always feels as if the flowers “move.”  There is background action here... but more on that in a minute. Stay in aesthete mode.

Consider an artist whose work is also beautiful: Mark Rothko. When we look at his oversized paintings, particularly when we are in a room filled with them, we may feel the softly delineating colors calm us, as here in “Untitled, 1950-2 (from the Tate Modern):

I have noticed that people tend to tiptoe quietly around his work. The rooms are dimly lit and very quiet. And yet we would, if we had been trying to guess the artist’s intention, be wrong. Mark Rothko said his paintings were “skins that are shed and hung on a wall” (Breslin’s biography, p. 306) and spoke of the “tension” in his work (p. 281) and its exposure of his “despair” (p. 286). Breslin’s biography delves sensitively and affectionately into Rothko’s depression and its relevance to his art. Skin in the form of paint.

The painter Robert Motherwell mentioned something that dovetails rather well here: “a remark of John Dewey’s ... sticks in my mind: We tend to think that we end with our skins, but actually we are always interpenetrating with reality .... That is where so many biographers fail. They think that if the ... [painter] is miserable that accounts for their miserable expression. It can be the exact opposite. In a depressed state an artist may produce the most radiant things...” (interview with David Hayman, July 1988, The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell, ed. Stephanie Terenzio, pp. 286-7).  And Rothko did just that. But we don’t see those shimmering colors as skin that has been shed – at least not until we hear that’s what the painter thought. (And then – is that too much information?)

Writers are not immune, either. In a 1988 interview, John Cleese said “If I pick up a book by Bertrand Russell, I find that he is dealing with insights and ideas that have got enormous comic potential, far more than if I start flipping through S. J. Perelman. Because, in a sense, I suppose as you get older you get more interested in the ‘Big Jokes.’ “ Probably not Russell’s plan.  But humans tend to find comedy and beauty where we can, the painter or writer’s intentions be damned.

Now to the second kind of art, the kind that attracts the second, more serious kind of audience. When an artist’s work is considered too beautiful, art critics begin to call the work unworthy.  And sometimes art can simply be greeting-card pretty. But the art that I love, that stays with me, offers a deeper layer of emotion or meaning. It’s something more than just a pretty face.  It is what that New York School wanted us to see: there is a subject, something for the audience to feel. And whether or not a viewer stops in front of a painting and responds to that subject? That is something that no artist can control. Either the depth is there or it’s not, and the difference... well, it’s pretty subjective. I have written about artist’s statements at length here, where artists try to help the viewer see that “something is created there all by itself,” beyond what is, at first, visible. (Here is one such entry: and there are others in the series. What can we say about our work that will resonate with everyone?

This artist, Bobbie Burgers, states that “my florals have moved from being portraits of flowers, to being portraits of time” (Foster White Gallery site, Seattle, 2013 show). I am not quite sure that I agree.  There have been many works of art about time, and my favorite is a four-minute video, “Still Life,” by Sam Taylor-Wood.  She filmed a basket of fresh fruit and then, using time-lapse photography, films its decays. Here are two stills from the process:

(the film can and should be seen at the Exploratorium Museum on the Embarcadero in San Francisco, on loan from the Fisher Collection, but is currently available at ). Film is wonderful, no? But ... it is more difficult to trap the passing of time in two dimensions

So let’s look at Burgers’ work more closely.  Here is “Dismantling 1” (again, iPhone):

Unbelievably FAT yellows, concentrated in the upper left corner, flowing down.  The flowers could not possibly feel more abundant, more filled with color and the blossoms are caught at the precise moment when ... well, you know.  But this doesn’t seem to me about time, except that she catches these flowers in full phase... because, in that sense, capturing a moment, all art is about time. No, I think it is something else.  Let’s find out what that something else might be

Motherwell has said that, to meet his standards (and I realize we don’t have to do that, but it is a good set of standards, so let’s go with it for the moment), a painting must reveal what he calls the painter’s “consciousness,” Part of the truth of a painting is not just the artist’s own expressed consciousness, but what she has absorbed, knowingly or not, over a lifetime.

The principle influence that I see is Joan Mitchell. Here is “Sunflower III, 1969,” (112 ½” x 78 ½”):

In an interview, Mitchell becomes positively inarticulate when asked about her public reception:
In France, I’m an ‘American gestural painter’ which is, the lyric on top of it, very pejorative ... and here [in the States] I’m a ‘Frenchie’  ‘cause I have color and the decorative ... ‘ooh, ooh.’  (You can’t win).  And on top of it all I’m a girl, a woman, a female....     (from Joan Mitchell, a film by Marion Cajori)

Joan Mitchell comes into Burgers’ work  in many forms: in that "decorative" first impression, the sheer size and reach of the paintings, in the lines etched here and there in the background, in the long, clear drips.  That same clustering of blossoms into an upper corner of the canvas, this top-heavy lush world, immerses the viewer... something about the weight of those colors as they spill off the top of the painting surfaces seems to bring the viewer into the world more fully than, say, a canvas completely filled with color. The spaces leave room for us to come in.

Burgers doesn’t concern herself with the fields or vases, the roots, stems, leaves or bowls of water that might su[port these flowers. It is color, drip, and the occasional clearly-defined blossom that defines the work. And I guess it is the drips, the background scratches, the sheer emotional weight of the pieces in a full-on exhibition that makes me feel that yes, this is a work about the artist’s “consciousness,” not about time, but about feeling. Again, with the low-resolution shot, but I think you can still see what I mean. The emotion is in the details. here, first, a detail of “Contradictory Emotions #2” and then a detail of “Sense of an Ending,”:

Think, too, of the titles. Again, it’s a question of the artist signaling her intention. It isn’t about time. It’s about that life experience, poured into the background behind the fullness of the flower.

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