Sunday, August 3, 2014

Jasper Johns, Agnes Martin, the Cathedral, and Regrets

The mind cannot always live in a 'divine ether.' The lark cannot always sing at heaven's gate. There must exist a place to spring from -- a refuge from the heights, an anchorage of thought. Study gives this anchorage: study ties you down; and it is the occasional willful release from this voluntary bond that gives the soul its occasional overpowering sense of lyric freedom and effort.  Study is the resting place -- poetry the adventure" 
(Wallace Stevens, from his journal, 1899).

I like it best when the lark sings at heaven’s gate... but, for whatever reason, it isn’t – it actually can’t be -- a constant thing. “And why not?”  you ask.  I can’t be in the studio for too many hours; I begin to make mistakes, because I need time away from the work, too. The “adventure” that is poetry or painting needs its preparatory and anticipatory phases, and needs to be remembered and re-collected so that it can be faced again, with new energy, another day. The “ether” is a demanding state of mind, and needs every artist to approach it ... with great care.

1. Gimme Shelter

One definition of being “ether” is to burn, or to shine; humans can remain in an ecstatic state for only so long. Our son sent us a lovely essay by John Le Carré on Philip Seymour Hoffman. Here is a short excerpt:

A lot of actors act intelligent, but Philip was the real thing: a shining, artistic polymath with an intelligence that came at you like a pair of headlights and enveloped you .... Philip took vivid stock of everything, all the time. It was painful and exhausting work, and probably in the end his undoing. The world was too bright for him to handle. He had to screw up his eyes or be dazzled to death .... Philip was burning himself out before your eyes. Nobody could live at his pace and stay the course, and in bursts of startling intimacy he needed you to know it. (

Le Carré suggests that Hoffman was all too aware of the dangerous pull of the dazzle. It would be very difficult, if Le Carré is right, for Hoffman -- or any truly empathetic receptor -- to shut down all the systems. It would be possible, I am guessing, to think that, once shut down, the senses may not -- ever again -- open back up. But it is a risk, leaving yourself so open to the brightest of lights; Nietzsche’s Zarathustra said “but this is my solitude, that I am girded round with light” (“Night Song”).  There’s a loneliness in being in the artistic avant-garde, and it can kill.

A lucky few can shut down the systems, and then they have learned the ways to open themselves up: one method is the choice of solitude. Agnes Martin finally settled into artistic isolation, finding her artistic voice in New Mexico.

you don’t have to worry
if you can imagine that you’re a rock
all your troubles fall away
It’s consolation
Sand is better
You’re so much smaller as a grain of sand
We are so much less
These paintings are about freedom from the cares of this world
from worldliness ....
Don’t look at the stars
Then your mind goes freely – way, way beyond  (Writings, pp. 39-40)

Martin was open, but open to her own mind, her own path. Martin saw herself as small, her art as the big thing. She wanted to find what she called “classic” truth in her art, an objective vision. For that, she says, she can only “turn to perfection as I see it in my mind, and as I also see it with my eyes even in the dust” (16).

Agnes Martin advised that “innocence” of the mind, of play, “must be protected as the source” of her art, of her life (139). Innocence is not something grown-ups tend to pursue, but Martin says that’s what there is, that’s all there is. She went into her mind so deeply to find that innocence and renew it -- in paint.

My husband is currently reading James Lee Burke’s Pegasus Descending, a well-written whodunit (with pretty tough villains). One of the characters says

You got to remember who you are so you don’t become like the people around you. Each night you tell yourself over and over you got a special place inside you where you live. It’s like a private cathedral no one can touch. That’s the secret to sanity... But you can’t tell anyone about your special place .... Because once they know you got that special place in your head, they’ll strap you down and kill your brain cells with electroshock (p. 171).

Maybe you don’t need to worry very much about “the people around” you -- and that little “electroshock” threat should be seen as perfect Burkean overkill. But the cathedral inside you that “no one can touch”?  It has to be there. That “place inside you where you live” keeps you happy in your own skin, and able and willing to face another day, as Burke’s character knows. We all look for that “secret to sanity.” Agnes Martin tells us it is in one’s own mind, if we can just hold still enough to find it. James Lee Burke -- whose art could not be more different from hers -- says it’s in there, too.

Here is a painting of mine that plays on the idea that "Everyone, Inside, is a Cathedral":

But then there’s an artist like Jasper Johns. He doesn’t talk much about his artistic sources, and people apparently see that as a challenge. A small book of photographs of Johns’s work was published by Rizzoli in 1997. The book’s only text is by Leo Castelli, who has known Jasper Johns since signing him in 1957 to his gallery and thus into art-world stardom. Here are a few excerpts from Castelli’s essay:

*”How else can we explain...” (7)
*” ...the artist seems to be...” (7)
*”... the artist places within our reach new, enigmatic elements... I believe that these elements reflect a sense of theatricality...” (12)
*”... they carry a message that we must decipher...” (13)
* “I am convinced...” (13)
*”the Mona Lisa that we find... can scarcely be anything but...” (italics mine; 14)

We can see only hesitation, guesswork and great distance from Jasper Johns in Castelli’s remarks. Over 40 years, and Johns has not let him in.

2. Must We Dig Straight On Through the Canvas?

In her book on Jasper Johns, teasingly called Privileged Information, Jill Johnston concludes that  John’s art,

considered as a whole ... can look like a giant collage of cross-references, of narratives inside narratives, or narratives completed by linkages from painting to painting, close or far in time – some guiding core story tied up secretly within (53).

There’s a story in there somewhere, Johnston insists; she wants to find that “guiding core story.”  Perhaps because of her dedication to tracking that “story” down, Jasper Johns refused permission for Johnston to reproduce any photographs of his art in her book about his work.

This limitation on Johnston leads her to talk about the images in the abstract, and, then, the artist in the particular. In one section, Johnston discusses Johns’s sexual partners, something no-one needs to do in relation to the art, and then moves on to link perceived personal loss to a series of works that Johns had begun in the 1980’s, works that included traced outlines of figures. Critics found the source, eventually; it was the amazing Isenheim Altarpiece. Johns says of his initial impulse that

‘I thought how moving it would be to extract the abstract quality of the work, its patterning, from the figurative meaning. So I started making these tracings. Some became illegible in terms of the figuration, while in others I could not get rid of the figure. But in all of them I was trying to uncover something else in the work, some other kind of meaning.’ ....  [And Johnston then asks] What ‘other kind of meaning was he after?’ (283-5)

The source of the tracings found, Johnston is now after a meaning. But look at what Johns has actually said:  he is moved to extract the patterns from Grünewald’s original story. That is, the pattern is no longer part of the narrative, because Johns pulls it out and it’s now free-floating. That’s the point ... a fallen soldier becomes just an outline, perhaps like the lines of a radiator. Let me explain.

Michael Crichton has written a very thorough book on Johns, with photographs, and quotes him:

Early in his career, he said people should be able to look at a painting ‘the same way you look at a radiator .... No special vision or knowledge was required (32)

But to Johnston, the idea that, sometimes, a line is just a line, is just not it. About the dead-end she has reached with the Grünewald figure, she writes

In his paranoia, Johns has emphasized the importance of the figures’ identity himself .... Feeling cornered, Johns cornered himself, threw a blanket over his head and yelled a muffled image from inside: ‘I know who I am, but you’ll never see or find me. Anyway the pattern on the blanket that covers me is really all there is. I’m dead, these are my remains’ (italics are Johnston’s; p. 285).

Jasper Johns is not speaking, there is no corner, no blanket, Johns is not dead, and there are no “remains.” Clearly, Johnston has run into a wall, and isn’t fond of the after-effects.

Back to our radiator-friendly critic, then.  Michael Crichton’s introduction to his book JASPER JOHNS, (first published in 1977, reprinted in an expanded 1994 edition), begins with a quotation from the psychologist Jerome Bruner:

There is a deep question whether the possible meanings that emerge from an effort to explain the experience of art may not mask the real meanings of a work of art (p. 6).

The effort to explain the experience can disturb the experience. The work itself is the thing. We might turn to the critics at our leisure, but should not before we have  encountered the work on our own and found our own responses.

Hasn’t Johns said – or not said anything but -- that, over and over? The work is the thing. And yet, the critics’ need to explain is palpable. The idea that they possess a set of insights about a given art work that only they can articulate constitutes the core of their art-world identities.  

Not Crichton, who offers process and a sight of the surface of the artist’s works. He finds leitmotifs, but leaves calmly: enough has been said. 

John Yau is similarly clear and clean in his A Thing Among Things: The Art of Jasper Johns. Yau quotes Scott Rothkopf, who says the critics embarked on an “iconographic truffle hunt” when faced with the paintings of the 1990’s (note 3, page 178).  Yau concludes that

Once we try to read Johns’s iconographically, we inevitably become lost .... The motifs are not symbols to be decoded, but, as Johns wrote in his ‘Sketchbook Notes,’ ‘things’ placed in a ‘continuity of some sort ...’  where there are no boundaries between the ‘space’ and the ‘objects.’  .... For Johns it seems that ‘continuity is reality, a realm of invariable change and transformation. Nothing is fixed or permanent” 
                        --A Thing Among, (p. 166)

Yau goes on to say that this sense of continuity is Johns’s ‘sense of life”: the absence of boundaries, change, seen through his eyes, and placed in his paintings, and seen with the visitors’ senses (166).  No absolutes. Yau says “we should resist” narrative as we look at these paintings (192).

3.  “Regrets”
New York’s Museum of Modern Art curators, Christopher Cherix and Ann Temkin, visited Jasper Johns last year in his studio, saw the body of work on the walls, and hastily arranged an exhibition of the work, “Regrets” at MOMA, showing right now. I’m on the wrong coast to see it, but I now do have the catalogue, with a splendid essay by Cherix and Temkin.  The title for the show comes from a stamp Johns developed to answer invitations: the word “regrets,” and a signature. He has silk-screened the original stamp to embed in the works of this series, and here it is from the upper corner of "Study for Regrets":

The curators begin their discussion by saying that “for Johns, the painting’s subject is the painting” (11).  It isn’t some abiding “guiding core story,” but changing approaches, and changing results.

This series of works begins with a photograph printed in a Christie’s auction catalogue. The photo portrays Lucian Freud as he turned awkwardly away, all angles, from the camera. Francis Bacon had commissioned the photograph from his friend John John Deakin, and it became the base for an oil “Study for Self-Portrait” – with Freud’s body and Bacon’s head -- before spending rather a lot of time on the floor of Bacon’s studio.

Johns apparently likes the idea of an upturned, overturned, caught-in-space body, because it gives him great lines to play with in his paintings. Here are the two astonished soldiers at the base of the “Resurrection” panel of the Isenheim altarpiece, followed by the Freud photograph:

And here is “Perilous Night,” with the red outlines of the soldiers’ bodies on the left, followed by “Study for Regrets,” which inverts the photo of Freud at left, and reproduces the outlines as they were photographed, at right, from the show’s catalogue, (Plate One, with my reading notes):

Some of the works in this series are “undeniably physical,” the curators tell us, as they reproduce “Regrets,” a charcoal, watercolor and pastel drawing, which should be studied “inch by inch” (27). Here is a detail:

This catalogue, and exhibition, give us Johns’s unfolding process over 18 months. But the curators say, “like all great works, they remain ultimately unknowable. They create a constellation of potential meanings as intricate as the very materials that compose them” (32).

Fun as the “truffle hunt” sometimes can be, this is as close as we will ever get, as close as we should get, to Johns’s cathedral.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Pablo Picasso, Michael Rich, and the Sense of Intimate Space

One Painting by Picasso, to start
I am reading T.J. Clark’s Picasso and Truth, based on the Mellon lectures he gave at the National Gallery of Art in 2009.  Clark wants to move his audience away from the “abominable character of most writing on [Picasso] .... this second-rate celebrity literature” based on a kind of “prurience” (Picasso and Truth, Princeton University Press, 2013, p.4).  Clark continues to say that, if we did look at the work itself with any care, if we did, we would know that...

Fixing on a Picasso painting at all directly -- not swiveling away to this or that fact of the love life or cult of personality -- and asking the question ‘What understanding of the person and situation depicted seems to be at stake here?’ most often leads to places we would rather not go (5).
So let’s go there.  Clark begins by analyzing Picasso’s “The Blue Room” (also known as “The Tub”) from 1901:

There are few paintings, I feel, more full of care and regret. The blue here is dominant without being portentous. Likewise the scale of the body in relation to the room  -- small enough for a hint of fragility -- and its placement quietly off center. And there is the inimitable drawing of the young woman .... Few painters have had more of a sense ... of how easily the human body might be destroyed .... Tenderness is everywhere .... [and surely, Clark continues then] the tenderness and definitiveness in Picasso has to do with a vision of space .... Space is intimate. The rug heads off abruptly into infinity, but the sheet on the unmade bed laps over it and leaps toward us and asks to be touched. Nothing important is far away. Space, if I can put it like this, is belonging ... something desired, vulnerable, patiently constructed, easily lost.  (26-7)

How perfect a discussion of a painting is this? and what a poetic description of the idea of space!  And Clark cautions that this isn’t really a full analysis; it is merely an introduction to his idea of Picasso and the space(s) he paints. We look back at the painting with a new sense of discovery. So, I say, let’s go with the idea of space, and tenderness. Let’s take Clark at his word, and look at a contemporary painter -- using his approach.

Turning To Michael Rich, at Adler&Co.Gallery (San Francisco)
When we walked into Art Market San Francisco, we fell immediately into the paintings of Michael Rich. Jim Adler spoke to us about the artist, who had been painting landscapes on a grand scale, the perspective my husband often calls “views from an airplane.”  The artist wrote that, in those works,

Spaces of color and light akin to the mountains and seas of my travels open up between tectonic plates of color and form .... the broad sweeping vistas of the Italian countryside or the New England shore ... [but now, Rich has changed focus to a much smaller patch of land,] my own backyard and garden ... [I am] looking more closely at the intimate forms of leaves, branches and lines in nature .... drawn lines of remembered and invented forms find their way from direct drawing observations to the abstract world of paint on canvas (

There is something about these paintings that feels like a discovery, as if we are heading towards a small garden doorway into a mass of color, flowers blowing scent on the breeze. Here is “Untitled, 2012” (all photos courtesy of Adler&Co):

This is moving in the direction of the small, the personal. The scratches and drips and layering of the pinks, oranges, greens, blues are alive because the painter’s touch is so very evident. Look at the soft, deep horizontal green marks (near the deep gray horizontal brush mark) in the upper left. These greens could be stems, but, because this is an abstract painting, they also can function like the shadows one sees passing over a flowering bush on a summer day. The fact that this work is abstract means that there is room for the viewer to enter and see ... as much as we can, for as long as we remain in front of the work.

Rich handles color with great ease and depth. I often find that white paint can function as a dead layer, so opaque, so stifling, that it can nearly kill a corner of a painting. And yet here, the white lifts the painting, is light as air, actually seems to bring more space into the work. Look at this close-up of the “busiest” part of this canvas:

Rich still paints immense works (this painting is 54” x 50”). Let’s go back to Clark’s question, the one that few have bothered to ask about Picasso, “What understanding of the person and situation depicted seems to be at stake here?”

I would say the understanding is that this painter is familiar with this space, and happy within it,  and the situation is fresh: these paintings offer the calming, yet uplifting, feel of an interior dream life.  Clark had written about Picasso that “Space, if I can put it like this, is belonging ... something desired, vulnerable, patiently constructed, easily lost.”  And I’d like to think about that, here. The other large work on show was “Canyons of Rain,” (68” x 62”):

This painting seems to have taken the direction of “Untitled, 2012,” even further. There are fewer small marks and more overall transparent layers, which, again, amazingly give the painting air.  It is a space of “belonging.”  I often think that all we want, really, is to belong in the space that surrounds us.

Thanks to T.J. Clark, Jim Adler and, of course, Michael Rich. There is news about "The Blue Room"; a painting has been discovered underneath by the curators at the Phillips Collection:

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.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Phillip Hua: "The Secret of the Picture"

It’s a little risky, judging paintings.  And Marin MOCA has presented one of the trickiest types of exhibitions: emerging artists (“Emerging Artists of the Bay Area,” through April 13, 2014). 

Sometimes emerging means only “new,” new technical discoveries, digital wizardry, explosions (akin to those in many of the newest movies).  Kenneth Baker has chosen five artists (Justine Frischmann, Al Grumet, Carl Heyward, Phillip Hua, and Jennifer Kaufman) who are each accomplished in their chosen media. But it is a combination of discovery and ... something harder to describe... that draws me to the art of Philip Hua.

Let’s talk about the technical bits first. Hua teaches Digital Media at the Academy of Art University (he has a BFA from AAU, from 2003).  On his website, Hua explains that he begins each work with a digital composition.  But it’s what he ends up with that takes your breath away.

Here is “Preparing for the Long Term,” one of the walls at Marin MOCA:

This is the picture as you see it from across the room. It coalesces into something that looks traditional, brushstrokes creating a natural world: a bird, blossoms, a branch, pale sky. But that isn’t exactly the first experience. We round the corner, and we see a detail:

We see the “branch” and the “blossom”;  close-to, these patches of color are not re-presenting the natural world at all. There is a beautiful sheen, and a mysterious grouping of soft colors; the picture changes as you move around it. This work does what every artist I have ever known wants their work to do: it stops you in your tracks. The labels tell us that these paintings are all composed of “pigmented ink and packaging tape on The Wall Street Journal newspapers, mounted on Dibond.”   These are simple materials, brought together, mastered. The work, Hua says, begins digitally, and then he prints that composition, and then paints onto the selected newspaper pages and pieces, and then covers that over painstakingly with packing tape (sometimes vertically, sometimes horizontally).  The bright white of the pages is meant to change into varying yellows, over time, the colors of the stock market graphs will shift to lighter shades. Art and commerce, ars longa, vita brevis: guess which Hua is betting on?

Hua has truly found a way of making art that is new.  But it isn’t just this, it isn’t merely the process, which is enough, by itself, it would seem.  It’s the way the results make you feel.  
And that’s what I mean, about it being risky to judge paintings.  So take a step back, for a minute from the technical to that less-easily defined “secret of the picture.” What is it, exactly, that makes us pause, that we cannot quite define? Is there such a thing, if we can’t define it? A terrific article published in The New Yorker in October 2012 --“Priceless: How Art Became Commerce,” by Rachel Cohen (10/8/12, pp. 64-71, and there is a new biography by Cohen too) begins to answer the question.  The connoisseur Bernard Berenson guided Isabella Stewart Gardner and other early twentieth-century collectors towards “authentic” works.  There were technical points, Cohen writes, but it’s that other thing that fascinates her (and now, me):

The reason Berenson was so good at authenticating pictures was that he knew their secret lives as well as their public ones .... In a letter from Florence, he described spending two hours before Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’: ‘It seemed so much greater than ever, and an everlasting rebuke to people who want to submit art to [trial by headlines?] newspaperology .... You can say that it is beautiful of course, you can call people’s attention to the transparency of color, to the half tints of golden cherry and olive green, to the flowers painted in low relief ... and a thousand other things, but you can’t “give away” the secret of the picture.

Cohen says that the “secret” of a painting, for Berenson, was that indescribable “aesthetic” value. The “feel of a Leonardo, what Berenson called ‘the vitality and vibrant energy of a Da Vinci,’” was the kind of thing Berenson would call attention to: it was his strength but, as x-rays and other pigment tests came into being, his weakness.  His eye was that indefinable “something” that the modern world increasingly de-valued. But feeling, and sensibility, do matter, don’t they? Look at this detail of Hua’s “Growth versus Income”:

And I guess that is what I would like to leave you with, here: go and see these works.  That “secret” of the painting will come to you, I know, when you are standing in front of Hua’s works.  Take the risk.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Space as the Object as Object: Damien Flood at Green on Red Gallery, Dublin, Ireland

“In art there is only one thing that matters: what cannot be explained.”
from the notebooks, Georges Braque

We were visiting Dublin in January. Green on Red is a fine experimental art gallery there, with a terrific curator and a great space, and I have written about it before: (  Through February 22nd, their newest show, Damien Flood’s Interior Sun,” is on view. The largest paintings, works such as “Interior Sun,” (150 x 125cm), will pull you in immediately,

and become your true love (at least, for the moment that you stand before them) offering clean, stark, fore-grounded heroic strokes of movement against quietly  complex backgrounds. The space is clear, the brushstrokes objects in themselves. The nobility reaches back to an Abstract Expressionist core. These paintings are the sons and daughters of Motherwell and Twombly. Flood calls these resolved works “‘pop songs’ “ (interview with James Merrigan, Afterworlds, 2013, published by Green on Red Gallery, Dublin; from here on, Afterworlds).  Flood on the “pop song” process: “when that painting happened, it was ‘bang!’ “ But he also says, “I know the pop songs work too well, and I know that curators will usually love them. I don’t get anything from them” (Afterworld).

Now, to be fair, Flood hasn’t said this about any of the works in this show. But I am going to go on record and say that the term “pop song” does indeed include “Interior Sun.”  So I am now going to break with “Interior Sun,” get the lovely, catchy, so-familiar, so-deep melody out of my head, and go for the Miles Davises and Keith Jarretts of the show.

I want to visit with the smaller, noisier paintings, the ones that are still moving and growing and changing, like living organisms.  Flood mentions that “the paintings that really work for me are the ones I really struggle with”  (Afterworld).  A painter’s hardest moments, I have always thought, are those where the painting is going along very nicely, behaving, it’s working, and then, suddenly, the damned thing rises up and resists the painter’s every move. When I am painting, this resistance, this sudden awkwardness on the part of the painting, can make me think “it’s over.”  But looking at Damien Flood’s show, I realized that, no, that’s when it’s all beginning!  Take a look at “Slouch” (90 x 75 cm):

In the notes for this show, the gallery tells us that we can see “the jostle of marks and strokes and lines” here. Just as we are often pulled in to paintings that are resolved, noble and clear, we should also be ready to be pulled into this kind of layered ambiguity. Here, there is a lovely little patch of blue a little north of center, falling lines of paint enclosing it, a just-a-bit-off grid upper left, a few drops of paint left, drips, a field of muddy green paint below.  This painting is an utterly lovely mess.  It shifts... it won’t be caught.... fighting the reasoned sense of space is that pattern in the back,  and the drips, and the colors, and the sheer effort the painting expends to reduce all your attempts at solving it ... to nothing. It won’t be catalogued, or boxed-in, or reduced to a mere thing. This painting has been given its own life. Because, as the show’s publicity says, “there is an unpredictability and courage here that is nerve tingling and alive.”  Yes.

So if this work isn’t the child of Abstract Expressionism, what is it? A new direction,  
a new voice. Pieces from art history, yes, but, as Ezra Pound wrote, “Art is a departure 
from fixed positions, felicitous departure from a norm....” 
I have thought about the felicity of clogged and unresolved and still-moving-in-space 
paintings, and I came up with two names...

The first is Elizabeth Murray, someone whose lithographs are on show at Stanford University’s Cantor Art Center.  In an interview several years ago, Murray said that abstract work is always difficult to see:

You’re confronted when you are looking at a painting where you don’t have specific images .... You’re confronted with something that you are challenged to resolve and unify in some way, because there is a unity there. I keep harping on this – and that’s what has to work. What has to work is it has to resolve in secret almost.
Murray has it right. The viewer needs to be presented with an unresolved work to keep thinking about; otherwise, we may as well all be painting daisies in vases, something to walk by quickly on one’s way to lunch. Take a look at “Down Dog,” a lithograph from 1988, 41” x 50 3/4 “:

Murray has been dismissed (without any analysis or reasoned interpretation, as here with Hilton Kramer: but she has been ably defended by Jerry Salz.  Why isn’t she accorded the respect due her? Salz writes that it could be due to several things:

First, her idea of beauty, while juicy, is dissonant, deviant, and brash. It is an unsettling, tempestuous beauty .... [and] There’s very little visual letup in her art, which can make looking at her paintings vexing .... Her iconography is domestic ...  [but] the vibe is cosmic .... Everything is replicating, shattering or turning into other things .... Her space is orgiastic and overflowing .... Murray has pulled painting apart, moved it around, made it physical.
                                    “Relentless Tempest,”

Murray herself has said that, when she went to Chicago for art school, she was no longer under pressure to be “ladylike” or conventional. She loved the students she met:  “As much as I wanted to be an artist, I wanted to be different the way they were different, because it felt like freedom!”   --pbs clip, as above
I find Murray’s work uplifting and brave, and I think she reaches out to her audience with a fresh, new iconography and a new eye for color. She and Flood are very close in their daring and their unexpected lack-of-exact imagery.  It’s about painting, but it’s also about living, fighting past the pop song to the stillness between the notes behind.

The second artist with a straight line to Damien Flood’s work at Green on Red is Georges Braque.  Flood admires him, as the conversation in Afterworlds shows. Flood’s Braque’s is not the man of the early Cubist discoveries, chained to Picasso. I think Braque’s later work, with its confounding inclusion of the “everyday” object (just given a glancing blow) is far more powerful. Flood’s objects float in the same kind of space as Braque’s and, while Braque’s everyday painted world gives us more recognizable, tactile “things,” there is a shared shadowy light and bent solidity in both artists’ work. Here is Braque’s “Billiard Table,” from 1944:

The corner of the room is almost three-dimensional, but shut off, in real representation, by a dense line that opens that corner like a book, with the billiard table springing out of it.  And just when the viewer sees that, the front-most pool cue resists it, because it is straight...

Now look at Flood’s “Armature,” 30 x 40 cm:

One could perhaps say that the title of this painting, one of Flood’s most descriptive (!), means framework, something to hang onto... but, no. The painted (apparently foregrounded) “object” here is uncertain, hovering, its colors muted, with an overlayer of hesitant blue and yellowed strokes. The longer one looks, the more the “object” recedes ... and then comes forward.  It is open, it is closed, it is floating, it then becomes deadly solid and pulled down by gravity. It won’t be readily resolved. The painting has won.

(Thanks to Jerome O Drisceoil and Martin Rochford!)