Thursday, November 06, 2014


For the better part of the past fifteen years I have been pushing around on paper the importance of quality to art.  To be sure, I haven't worked on it everyday, and sometimes haven't written anything about it for months, even years.  Still, I've thought about quality continuously.  Half the time I don't even do so consciously anymore, but every time I see a piece of art, somewhere in my brain, quality excites a neuron and jumps across a synapse.  After all those years, all I have to show is what is below.  After all those years I've also realized that I could be at this forever, as much more of forever as I've got left, so it's best not to wait any longer.  I might as well show what I have and continue from there.              

Post-Mortem and the Neo-Supine

Of all the things that are of which I can be certain, no one thing is more certain than this, quality matters.  If you can't talk about quality when you're talking about art, you're not talking about art.  You may be talking about life, but that's not art.  You may be talking about politics or ethics or personal history, but that's not art either.  Or at least that's not quality.  Quality is not only the ability to make value judgments of the good and the bad, but the basis on which these judgments are made.  We are well beyond the need of any intelligent debate about what is or is not art.  After being bludgeoned, in New York, with a plumbing fixture, by Mr. Duchamp and his ilk (Alphonse Allais, for one), that treaty was signed almost a century ago.  Let it all be art.  That's proved an empty concession.  We are left with the much harder question of good and bad.  Bad art should be worth just as much of our time as if it weren't art at all.  But in the case of the non-art object, at least it has something else (its utility if nothing else) to fall back on.  
In 1999 I was still living in New York and working at Dia, and this is what I thought:
It’s a melancholy object looking at art some days.  Galleries, especially in Chelsea (but also in so many of the look alike galleries Chelsea has spawned all over the world), often resemble morgues.  With their white walls, cement floors, and cold clinical light, the only thing missing are drains in the floor.  On a good day you can almost smell the formaldehyde, it smells like art.  In this environment it's no wonder that artists, curators, gallerists, and gallery goers seem like morticians sprucing up a corpse for another public viewing.  Where are the shaking canes and black eyes that art used to be able to engender?  Where is the vitalness?   Its loss is the loss of the convictions, the assurances, and the expectations of art.  It’s the inevitable running down of the clock.  Death of art?  No.  That would be a relief.  Too dramatic.  It’s worse than that.  It’s simply stagnation.  
In the years since, nothing has happened to change my mind.   
Nothing affirms the vitalness of art more than its supposed death.  Every time an artist has tried to kill it, every piece that is supposed to be the last piece, every declaration that art is dead has only produced one more great piece of art and added another chapter to its history.  It's a distinguished list.  Rodchenko and Malevich tried.  The Futurists tried.  Mondrian tried.  Reinhardt tried.  All failed.  Contemporary artists should give it a whirl.  Instead a concerted effort is made to fill art with life, and nothing kills the vitalness of art more surely than the addition of life.  Like the nightmarish world of Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron, art continues to be expanded to make room for everyone no matter their ability, and everything no matter its quality; an attempt at inclusiveness that puts a perverse, arty twist on the phrase popularized by Karl Marx.  Now that Communism is dead, the contemporary art world has decided to reinvigorate it in an obscene manifestation.  After decades of chipping away at the corners, the red flag has finally been turned into the red dot and found its final resting place in museums and galleries.   
I’d like to make a modest suggestion, call it a proposal.  No, not what you’re thinking.  I don’t want to talk about eating at all.  If you want to think of Jonathan Swift that’s fine, but don’t think of the cannibal Swift, think rather of the scatological Swift, the swift kick in the ass.  

What I'd like to propose is a reinvigoration of... No.  I can't say it.  Not yet.  Let me say something else first.  

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Al McWilliams: Stone Drawings

Stone Drawings, Installation View, Equinox Gallery

After an unexplainable absence of over ten years from the Equinox Gallery's exhibition schedule, Al McWilliams returns with a quiet vengeance.  Standing in the center of "Stone Drawings" the predominant experience is of harmony, a coherent, beautiful totality.  

Seen as a single sustained gesture, "Stone Drawings" revolves like the expansion and contraction of the lungs, the continuous cycle of inhalation, exhalation, and the beginning of a new inhalation of breath.  From in the round, through relief, to flat, and back up to relief, the ease and naturalness with which one set of works leads inexorability to the next, it's easy to end up walking the exhibition in circles following the endless round of rising and falling.

Stone Drawings, Installation View, Equinox Gallery
"Stone Drawings" begins with Sculpture #1 - Sculpture #5, five identical aluminum casts of a small, biomorphic sculpture, set in a line on a long, thin, steel table.  They are the fullness of sculpture in the round, akin to that momentary holding of breath just before the contraction of exhalation.

Stone Drawing #5

Big Paper #7
Next they are squeezed through the marble slabs of the Stone Drawings, to the single sheets of paper of the Big Paper drawings, to expand again, transformed into the stacked offcuts of the Stacked Paper (Heads).  Each of the Stone Drawings is made from a single line drawing of the cast which is then used as a template to cut the marble.  Two overlapped Stone Drawings are the template for the cuts of the Big Paper drawings.  Finally, the offcuts from the sheets of 400 pound paper of the Big Paper drawings are stacked to make the Stacked Paper (Heads).

As the work in "Stone Drawings" is progressing from in the round, through flatness, and up to relief, it also makes its way between multiple and single views, and from "head" through abstraction and back to "Heads."  Through these simultaneous movements, McWilliams makes "Stone Drawings" a brief history of sculpture of the past six hundred years.

From the fifteenth through the sixteenth centuries, even though sculpture was being finished in the round throughout this period, debate arose on the fundamental point of sculpture being either single or multisided.  Opinions divided between sculpture being essentially flat and pictorial with a single privileged vantage point from which a passive viewer regarded the sculpture, versus sculpture having multiple sides with views of equal value and an infinite number of vantage points with the viewer an active participant in the life of the sculpture by having to walk around it.  Not surprisingly, debate extended to the number of studies needed of a subject to produce a convincing sculpture in the round.  Leonardo da Vinci was of the opinion that if properly executed, two would suffice, one from either side.  Others, like Benvenuto Cellini, believed in the necessity of multiple studies depicting a subject's multiple views.  By the second half of the sixteenth century the debate was settled, Mannerist sculpture was the vogue, and multifaciality the dominant practice.

The gradual compression of the work from sculptures #1 - #5 through the Big Paper drawings reflects the movement of sculpture from object to idea in the twentieth century.  The early part of the century was characterized by the Cubist distillation of three dimensional reality to simultaneous, multiple views flattened to two dimensions.  By the late 1960's, sculpture had been pressed so hard by Conceptualism that the object was squeezed out altogether and replaced by "idea."  In an odd way, sculpture in the sixties saw a reemergence of Leonardo's belief in being able to fully understand an object from only two views.  An idea with great currency amongst many of the founders of Minimal sculpture (and seen in the predilection for cubes and rectangular solids) was "sculptural gestalt;" the ability of grasping the entirety of a sculptural form from a single view.
Sculpture #1

After the aesthetic severity of the two preceding decades, the eighties saw a general reintroduction of the figure into progressive sculpture, and the Stacked Paper (Heads) reintroduces the figurative into "Stone Drawings" after its own progression through abstraction.  I say "reintroduces" because as much as sculptures #1 - #5 look nonrepresentational, their feeling is of more than a record of something squeezed in McWilliams's hand.  For me it's a head (specifically Boccione's Futurist sculpture, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space), a feeling reinforced, I think, by the cycle of "Stone Drawings" finally being complete only when McWilliams recognizes a head in the Stacked Paper (Heads).  References to other artists and their work, both representational and abstract, continue and include Arp's biomorphic sculptures and flat, painted reliefs in wood; Noguchi's flat marble sculptures; Matisse's paper cut outs; Brice Marden's loping lines; and finally, allusions to the contorted heads of Francis Bacon.    

Stacked Paper (Heads) #13

In an exhibition that otherwise proceeds in clear, rational steps, McWilliams has mysteriously chosen not to show the plasticene original from which the rest of the exhibition flows.  His decision breaks with the transparency he establishes, but also signals that what is unseen (or maybe just not usually paid attention to) plays as large a part as what is seen.  Sculptures #1 - #5 are each turned slightly, giving simultaneous multiple views similar to the overlapping views used to make the Big Paper drawings.  The grayish veining of the marble Stone Drawings echoes the aluminum of #1 - #5.  The sinuous, meandering cuts of the Stone Drawings contradict the veining, and the rigidity that we know the marble possesses.  The edges of the Big Paper drawings are subtly discolored from the heat of the laser used to make the cuts.  The offcuts from the Big Paper drawings were stacked until McWilliams recognized a head. 

As programmatic as McWilliams has made the generation of one work from the next, the works themselves are not.  Evocative and complex, they demonstrate that the tighter the restrictions, the greater the potential for subtle individual expression in their interpretation and execution.  "Stone Drawings" is what might be called an artist's exhibition.  It shows that appreciation of restraint and economy of means that comes with experience, and the knowledge of how small a gesture can be and yet still be meaningful.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Gerald Janssen: The Mythic Mind

Barcelona, 1998

In the winter of 2002 I had the pleasure of writing about the work of Gerald Janssen.  It was refreshing, and a relief, to see a contemporary artist, especially a photographer, so unlike his contemporaries.  Janssen’s photography defied the then current genre of “here are my friends or here's what I did on my summer vacation;” the type Dave Hickey referred to as “another giant photograph of two German tourists standing beside a mailbox.”  Revisiting those photographs now, I find it no less so.

In "The Mythic Mind," Janssen turned to photographs of his dark suited and masked self in the landscape as his modus operandi.  Ubiquitous and enduring, the mask expresses something fundamental about our grasp of visual reality; that there are other realities just beyond its veil.  Staring into a mirror we are all transcendentalists. Confronted by the physical reality of our faces, we acknowledge the lurking insubstantiality of the mind's presence.  The gulf that separates these creates in Janssen a kind of terror that is palpable.

South Africa, 2000

The mask and the mirror (the self-portrait), show us that only by masking can we see ourselves.  When looking in a mirror we immediately compose ourselves into the self we want or expect.  We rarely if ever see the person others do.  Witness our dismay at photographs taken when caught off guard.  When masked we don't look at ourselves, but search through our eyes and into the minds which are the seats of ourselves.  This is one of the things which distinguishes Janssen's work.  While others are concentrating on the outward appearance of how things look or are manufactured to look, Janssen is trying to catch glimpses of the inward and how things are or may be.  This gives to his work a necessity, and necessity is crucial.  Taken early in the morning, just after sunrise, a fleeting performance is caught in 1/250th of a second.  It's about furtiveness, of light, of time, of identity, of the moment.  Contrasting the furtiveness and the glimpses and the momentariness, the compositions make the light and the action solid and immovable, a momentary stillness of a mind in flux.

Venice, 1998

At heart it doesn't matter who Janssen's strange character with the shifting face is because the photographs are compelling and evocative.  Their scale is right.  There is a modesty about it just as there is a modesty in Janssen's choice of black and white film.  The scale of spectacle to which so much contemporary photography has been reduced is both bigger than, but less than the scale of the mythic.  The mythic is human, spectacle not.  More than anything, it's about the light, the way if flows and pools and eddies, making the real visible, but intangible.  It's always been about the light.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Lyse Lemieux: Shaped Drawings: something wrong about the mouth

Red and Yellow Figure with Orange Fabric
Red with Open Mouth

When John Singer Sargent said, "A portrait is a painting with a little something wrong about the mouth," he made a complex, puzzling statement.  Was he simply making a neutral observation, or was he talking about their relative value as art?  Was it that a portrait is a slightly degraded form of art from a painting; or that a portrait is the more accurate picture of reality, and a painting a corrected, hence idealized, abstracted version?  What he definitely did was identify how minute the distinction could be between representation and abstraction.  On a continuum between the two, Sargent would be at the representative end.  Lemieux plays in that small space where abstraction, process and materiality leans into representation.  Helped along by suggestive titles like Red with Open Mouth, and Red and Yellow Figure with Orange Fabric, what look at first like large abstract shapes slowly resolve themselves into loose figuration.   

A collection of drawings, most from 2010 and 2011 and mainly framed, show where Lemieux's current drawings come from.  The restraint of the earlier work in size and material is dramatically changed in the new which are generally increased in scale, out of their frames, colorful, and partially peeled from the wall, making their backsides accessible.  These are either painted or covered in various fabrics, the colors mixing with the shadows on the wall behind.  Partially revealing the rear teasingly accentuates the fact that there is another side or view, and is given to producing the same sort of frustration as trying to see the backside of sculpture in the round when it's pushed to a wall or placed in a niche.
Lyse Lemieux, Installation view, REPUBLIC gallery
Philip Guston and Louise Bourgeois are two strong influences on Lemieux and both are represented.  Two versions of Guston's large, roaming head of the artist (HEAD LINES: Looking left at P. Guston and HEAD LINES: Looking right at P. Guston) come right off the wall and stand propped up like signboards in the middle of the room.  Both sides are readily accessible, but there is no mistaking which is the dominant view because one, the subordinate, is painted a single color and is partially obstructed by the support.  The material thickness of these drawings is the same thin foam core as the large drawings on the wall, but the props are made of angle-iron.  Using so unnecessarily robust a material to support something so light makes its discovery comical and Gustonesque, the more so if it's the weight of metaphor that they're carrying.

Upside Down Spiral Woman (LB), acrylic and fabric on archival foamcore, 41 x 81 inches

Lemieux's tip of the hat to Bourgeois is her Upside Down Spiral Woman (LB) drawn from the many variations Borgeois did of her Spiral Woman.  Like most the rest of the new drawings, aside from the suggestion of eyes on the HEAD LINESthere are no internal figurative indicators, just outlines; and in the case of Guston and Bourgeois, unmistakable.           

Lemieux's use of fabric on the backs of some drawings (Upside Down Spiral Woman (LB) has a pale blue chenile with fuzzy, raised polka dots), and as connective tissues between others (gauze connects the circular front with the rear plane of Red with Open Mouth), introduces a physicality and tactility that is slightly at odds, and hence creates a tension with, the rather flat, graphic, nature of Lemieux's painting.

Though the show makes the round from drawings that are framed and flat, through unframed and peeling from the wall, to freestanding on the floor, the feeling is not one of a strong impulse towards sculpture on the part of Lemieux; that impulse remains resolutely in the field of drawing.        

The cuts of the knife which define the outlines of the shapes are lines in space, the same as drawn lines.  Where drawn lines give definition against a two dimensional background of paper, for instance, the cut lines give definition against the background of the physical world.  This might be splitting hairs, but they're hairs that Lemieux wants to split, as seen in her consistent reference to her work as "drawings."   
Giving support to her new drawings as drawings, and not paintings, is Lemieux's application of materials which is more graphic than painterly.  The color is broadly and briskly applied, and her overlay of heavy black strokes of ink give the effect of illustrations of giant brush strokes.  

Lemiux describes Bourgeois's work as helping us "travecomfortably between what we know, what we think we know and what we think she wants us to know."  Lemieux's new drawings do the same for the gap between figure and abstraction, and drawing and sculpture, but with a pleasant frisson that I'm sure Bourgeois would appreciate.

First published with