After the Disasteroid
Here was a qualified Nothing, a Nothing of such
deep despair, I could not be absolved of my
aesthetic responsibility - a nonhope Nothing, a
non Nothing - and yet, also before my eyes was
the evidence of a dedication to artistic expression
so unyieldingly vast in its implications that my
mind - at least at first - bluntly refused to accept
Charles Willeford, The Burnt Orange Heresy
Some look around and see the triumph of the ages.
The same prospect can as easily offer a view of
the debacle of time. It all depends on who you're
Anonymous sightseer at the Grand Canyon
The physical landscape is a language of mounds, depressions and meanders that can be read as a series of dramas, comedies and tragedies not unlike the artistic landscape. Geologist and art critic become fellow excavators searching their respective topographies for clues to their formation. Deformation of these landscapes is common, the result of powerful, often hidden forces.
While on a recent trip to the Grand Canyon, standing at the rim looking into a popular section called the Abyss, my mind drifted to Robert Smithson and his essay An Esthetics of Disappointment, "Futility, one of the more durable things of this world is nearer to the artistic experience than excitement. Yet, the life-forcer is always around trying to incite a fake madness. The mind is important, but only when it is empty. The greater the emptiness the grander the art." I yelled this into the Canyon, but the echo came back as the words of Lancelot Law Whyte in The Next Development of Man, "To think is to confess a lack of adjustment which we must stop to consider. Only when the human organism fails to achieve an adequate response to its situation is there material for the processes of thought, and the greater the failure the more searching they become." From between Smithson and Whyte it occurred to me that perhaps the entropy which preoccupied Smithson and of which he was so enamoured had finally engulfed the art world. It wasn't the rundown of energy, but of belief in art as capable of doing or meaning. The extinction of the belief in art, if not art, had become complete and with it came the end of authenticity. The unfortunate thing for authenticity and for all late coming artists is that in the 1970's as the last of the magnificent dinosaurs roamed the art world a disasteroid of terrible proportions struck causing an earthquake that opened a chasm between the artist, and authenticity and belief. As authenticity and belief receded, self-consciousness oozed forwards to take its place. Truly, self-consciousness, failure and impotence have always been present in the history of art, but before the disasteroid there was still the possibility of also making an authentic gesture. In De Kooning's work it is possible to see when self-consciousness first leaked in. The moment comes early in his abstract career. Very suddenly the bold and confident brushstroke became a stroke with pause.
After the disasteroid inner world was replaced irrevocably by "inner world" and the utopian, transcendent, and utilitarian aspirations of art were exiled to a lost world. As a result it is just too simple for the artist to wake up in the morning and decide that, "today I'll be an abstract expressionist," and the next morning, "today I'll be a minimalist." Without conviction, artists developed commitment without duration. Though a jejune example, something that might be found in a block of text by Sean Landers, it is as easy and as hollow for the artist to change styles as it is to change socks. Most artists continue to make art ignoring this loss or unaware that the rug has been pulled out from under them, or in a doomed attempt to turn back the clock. Some artists, however, make it the unavoidable motive or motif of their work. The background of these artists is the Modern Dilemma of the artist wanting to continue, but not being able to continue and continuing anyway. Self-consciousness is the grand concept. Failure and impotence are subsumed under it - I think therefore I cannot. The only authentic gesture left to them is the authenticity of their self-consciousness and to make that the catalyst of their work. In an odd way the self-conscious mark is the only mark that can be made authentically. All others can be faked. It's possible to make an expressionist painting with no feeling. It's possible to make a minimalist sculpture while being a romantic maximalist. It's possible to make propaganda without caring. But it is impossible to make any self-conscious gesture without being aware of both the gesture and the self. The prototypic artist of self-consciousness, failure and impotence is the fictional painter Jacques Debierue of Charles Willeford's Burnt Orange Heresy. Unlike Debierue who sat daily in futility waiting for an idea that never came these artists don't just sit around waiting. Theirs is an active rather than a paralyzing impotence, a sense rather than a fact. Though this is not an easy position to be in they are using it to make interesting art.
While lost in these reveries a storm blew in. Huddled against the rain with the pygmy pinon and juniper trees that grow on the rim I watched the Canyon change color as the soil soaked up water and turned to mud. Soon miniature mud flows, and slumps, and avalanches began. Their frequency increased until the entire side of the Canyon looked as if it were sliding into the river below. With this abundance of moisture and motion I naturally began to think of painting. In particular the painting of Julian Schnabel.
It's all like a movie: the outfits, the
surfboards, the picture perfect wife, the rustic
house, the giant open-air studio, the barefoot
children. What does it mean to try to be an
artist, even a great artist (I'm as close to
Picasso as you're going to get in this fucking
life," Schnabel has said), in a time when
people think in cinematic rather than painterly
terms when, in fact, almost everyone is far
more interested in movies than in painting?
James Kaplan, from "Lives of the Artists", New York Magazine 12.August.1996.
In James Kaplan's essay on Schnabel he asks the right question - the crucial question as far as Schnabel is concerned - but never answers it. What does it mean to try to be an artist? Whether people are thinking in cinematic, painterly or any other terms is irrelevant. The question is simply, What does it mean to Julian Schnabel to try and be an artist? His entire career is an answer to this question; failure. This isn't to say that Schnabel is a bad painter or an uninteresting artist. Undeniably a strong painter, he can move it around with the best of them, but that has nothing to do with what makes him significant or interesting. Schnabel is absolutely right when he says that he's as close to Picasso as you're going to get in this life. It's impossible for him to get close because it's impossible for anybody to get closer. It is, in fact, impossible to get very close at all. The gap that separates all contemporary artist's from Picasso, or from any of the other strong precursors (Guston and Pollock in Schnabel's case), is the swamp of self-consciousness into which authenticity has vanished. Bubbling up from its depths are the twin miasmic plumes of failure and impotence. Getting across is a donnered expedition that Schnabel never tires of. He seems entirely devoted to the impossible task of recapturing the Modernist myths that cripple generation after generation of succeeding artists, and the belief in art that accompanied and supported those myths. The massive and aggressive use of paint and materials that Schnabel employs no longer signifies the expression of the artist's authentic inner world as it did for his strong precursors, but rather only an overwhelming desire and dedication to paint. It is precisely the earnestness of the attempt and the monumentality of Schnabel's failure to recapture anything that constitutes his grandness.
As with most forms of description, the classification of self-consciousness, failure and impotence contains a fundamental dualism; in this case the classic Cartesian split of mind and body. There is then Failure of the Body and Failure of the Mind, or in other words Gestural and Conceptual Failure. Schnabel's work is an example of Failure of the Body; Jonathan Lasker's, Failure of the Mind.
What does a painter paint when there's nothing left to paint? What to do with desire and ambition? For Lasker, it looks like paint the paint and paint the painting of paint. Ground. Figure. Line. There's supposed to be a ground, there is ground. There's supposed to be a figure, there is figure. Then there's the line. A line that goes nowhere and describes nothing, but a dedication to painting frustrated by self-consciousness, failure and impotence. With no emotion, no passion, no action the line is slow, and deliberate, and dumb. The kind of noodling line one makes while passing time waiting for an idea. Even so, Lasker's work distinguishes itself as Conceptual Failure as distinct from the Gestural Failure of Schnabel in its clear lack of painterliness. The self-consciousness of the gesture is so complete that the gesture disappears, revealing the mind behind it.
"Language" and "doodle" are the most frequently used terms to describe Lasker's work. Formal language is pitted against formal language until a series of civil wars is produced that leaves the viewer a witness to a visual babble. More entertaining would be to think in terms of All Star Wrestling. The result, if a language, is one which has been emptied of content. It's an absurd language. If I have to think of a Lasker as language I prefer to look at the blank spaces between the letters from which another Lasker is waiting to emerge.
And Watt's need of semantic succor
was at times so great that he would
set to trying names on things, and on
himself, almost as a woman hats.
Samuel Beckett, Watt.
The first time I read this I was reminded of the work of René Magritte. I'm thinking of those paintings like Swift Hope, The Living Mirror, and The Tree of Knowledge, which show abstract shapes apparently labeled, at least associated with, words or phrases such as: cloud, horse, leaden road, figure bursting out laughing, or bird calls, as well as paintings like Dream Key that depict recognizable objects together with words which are associated, but not descriptive of the objects. With the paintings of Lasker the passage echoes to mind once again.
Magritte's abstract shapes are just that, abstract shapes. Their relationship to the accompanying text seems gratuitous at best, a simple trying on of hats that illustrates the tenuousness of meaning, the impotence or words to describe, and the failure of language to communicate. With Lasker on the other hand though there may be an idea behind the image as he asserts, the language that would help prop up that idea has abandoned the image. The image is stranded. Left alone to fend for itself. And it's not talking. Why should it? After all, Lasker's a painter, he's not a postman.
More so than the paintings themselves, it's their titling that shows the affinity that exists between Magritte and Lasker. But whereas Magritte's use of titles is surreal, Lasker seems to really want to say something. There is in Lasker an overwhelming commitment to content and meaning. He says it, it is said about him, and it is clearly read in his titling of paintings.
As with all artists of self-consciousness, Lasker's paintings are portraits. Portraits of the artist as ambiguous figure. As absurd gesture. As subversive mark. As antithetical language. Lasker is that deliberate meandering line that more frequently than not is the last mark added to a painting. The gesture sits on top of and suppresses all the preceding languages of paint. He is the last word. The finishing stroke. The final kick in the pants.
Follow Lasker's line that goes nowhere far enough and you end up on a patch of highway by Michael Ashkin, another artist of Conceptual Failure. Ashkin's sculpture shows the empty, desolate, entropic landscapes that so absorbed Robert Smithson: construction and industrial sites, pipelines, parking lots, abandoned vehicles, and high voltage lines - the heroicism of landscape and progress eroded by a deluge of failure. In many of the works there is a marked resemblance to the Monuments of Passic. Like Smithson, one expects Ashkin to be a proponent of J.G.Ballard's dystopic aesthetic: the "beauty of the car crash, excitements of the deserted holiday beach, elegance of automobile graveyards, mystery of multi-storey car parks, and poetry of abandoned hotels."
Most frequently featuring highways which are commonly thought of as conduits of travel or direction, these highways are failed. Rather than a way to someplace they are roads to no place. One can imagine Tony Smith on his famous midnight ride that helped pave the way for the development of art as place and the experience of art as journey. Instead of helping to remember where you have been they make you forget where you are going, leaving you on a lost highway. These are the side roads and disused state and county roads, the access roads and service roads good for dumping and joy riding and the romantic notion of driving across country on the scenic route of an America that doesn't exist anymore.
Overall, the work of Michael Ashkin seems to ask where there is to go. By the looks of his sculpture the answer is nowhere. With no beginning and no end the artist is stuck in the middle, cut off in both directions and stranded on a fragment of highway. Ashkin's sculpture No. 60 is a good example. An isolated section of highway and an isolated section of land are separated and surrounded by murky, milky, "water" that has a toxic look. I hedge to call the land an island because it and the highway are the same size and in the past the scale in Ashkin's work has been consistent. They lie in a straight line with one another. An equivalence is being make, similar perhaps to Ballard's Concrete Island. Like Robert Maitland the story's protagonist, in the present climate, surrounded by self-consciousness and buffeted by failure and impotence, the artist is marooned beside a lost highway on an island that time forgot.
Debierue was a slave to hope. He had
never accepted the fact that he couldn't
paint a picture. But each day he faced
the slavery of the attempt to paint, and#
the subsequent daily failure. After each
day of failure he was destroyed, only to
be reborn on the next day - each new day
bringing with it a new chance, a new
opportunity. How could he be so strong
willed to face this daily death, this vain
slavery to hope? He had dedicated
his life to Nothing.
Charles Willeford, The Burnt Orange Heresy
More so than any of the others, Sean Landers is most obviously an artist of self-consciousness, failure and impotence. Discernible in almost all of his work, they are absolutely unavoidable in his text pieces. Like Lasker and Ashkin, Landers is an artist of Conceptual Failure. But whereas Schnabel, Lasker and Ashkin might confront their situation, Landers wallows in it. Even "inner voice" has been so skewed that it almost returns to its pre quotation mark state. By transcribing it, Landers reveals the tectonics which have formed and deformed him. Coming later than the others he has the most to lose because he has the least to work with. Even so, he continues. His hope and desire and dedication may be as great as those that came before, but he has even less place to go; authenticity and belief have receded further still. But he goes on.
The text works like Self-Something are like small, brightly colored jaw breakers. Sucking from layer to layer, the color changes as the text teeter totters from authenticity (blue) to self-consciousness (green) to delusions of grandeur (red) to impotence (white) and on and on until it dissolves and nothing is left, but to pick up another and start again. In the text and landscape works there are mountains of failure, seas of self-consciousness. Stand in front of a Landers long enough and the whole thing dissolves leaving the epic emptiness that Landers so persistently addresses.
In the November-December 1997 issue of Flash Art Wolf-Gunter Thiel developed the category of Synthetic Abstraction and the centrality of artificiality or simulation to it. Artificiality and simulation are germane to self-consciousness, failure and impotence too, but I would differ with Thiel and say that the history of art is not the history of simulation, but of failure. Every simulation is a tacit acknowledgment of both failure and secondariness. The recognition of being too late and therefore unable to recapture what has come before, results inevitably in the self-consciousness from which failure and impotence spring.
When the storm cleared I was once again at the rim of the Abyss. Directly across I could make out the layers of rock of the opposite wall; from the 1.7 billion year old Vishnu Schist to the pale caprock Kaibab Limestone deposited 250 million years ago, to the 1 million year old black lava flows, and onto the mud that covered my shoes. Nearly half the earth's 4.6 billion year history was on display there. It took a mere 4 to 6 million years to cut through it. The 6,000 foot deep, 10 mile wide gorge that is Grand Canyon is the result of the inability of materials to withstand the lapping assault of the Colorado River and maintain their physical integrity. Even the Grand Canyon is an epic monument to the grandness of Failure.
Dion Kliner New York 1998
First published in Flash Art, Summer Issue, Vol. XXXI, number 201.