Magic Mountain 11

Magic Mountain 11
pen and ink on paper, 32 x 40 in.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Notes on Robert Smithson

"Nature is a sphere whose circumference is nowhere and whose center is everywhere"
Blaise Pascal

Over the past few months I've sat sat down and attempted to write something on the artist Robert Smithson on roughly half a dozen different occasions without much success. Smithson was never an artist that I payed much attention to in large part because his work (what little of it I knew) never held much kinship to my own artistic practice. I was aware of "Spiral Jetty" and admired it, kind of, and that's about it. So, when I came across a book of Smithsons collected writings, interviews and conversations at a thrift store for $2, I saw it as an opportunity to learn more. 

Over the next 5 to 6 months, as I slowly made my way through Smithsons  fascinating and at times difficult ideas on everything from pre history to crystalography (the study of crystal structures), I became increasingly impressed by the depth of Smithsons thinking and the degree to which his concerns still resonate in todays art world, a world that exists roughly half a century after his untimely death in a airplane crash.

Smithson work came out of the minimalist milieu and shared many of that groups theoretical preoccupations, but he was too willfully independent, too much of an iconoclast to ever fully invest in any one movement. 

"Everyone who invents a system and swears by it, that system will eventually turn on the person and wipe him out. Its the way with everything in the sense that anything you make is basically going to turn on you, and you'll find that essentially wrong"
This declaration is as close to a mission statement as Smithson ever had, and its the reason why writing about him is so maddening. Smithson was intensely weary of certainty, a fact that is reflected in his thinking as much as in his art. Earlier in the 20th century the artist John Graham summed up the attitude of most modernist  when he wrote that "art is a problem posed and solved". For Smithson, working in the late 50's and early 60's, this couldn't be further from the truth. Smithson saw his art not as a search for solutions but as dialectic in a constant state of engagement with the material world. He was not interested in problems but in relationships, none more so than the way in which the material world relates back to our mental construct of it. 
To this end Smithson deployed a number of  strategies often centered on elemental oppositions; inside-outside, structure-chaos, accumulation-dispersal, whole-fragment, creation-destruction, mind-matter. Out of this grew a variegated series of projects. Everything from maps, photographs, gallery installations and site specific art made all around the world. During the apotheosis of Pop, Smithson declared that he was for a "heavy, ponderous kind of art". Art that defied not only aesthetic categories but was often impossible to collect. 
This last point was one of the more interesting discoveries for me.  Smithson was keenly aware of the way art was being appropriated as a status symbol by the upper class and the complicity he thought museums and galleries shared in this promotion. He felt that artists should retain control over the value of their work, weather that value be expressed in economic or symbolic terms. Site specificity was a way to achieve this ideal, an attempt to throw a monkey wrench in the gears of fine art commerce. After all, how can one attempt to own a site specific piece of land art like "Spiral Jetty"? How can one display it, send it to museums for traveling exhibitions, bring it out for cocktail parties, that is to say that, without such trappings, how can one hope to increase the works value and in turn have that value increase ones status. At the end of the day one can not even hope to preserve it, "Spiral Jetty" like most of Smithson's art is meant to self destruct, to disappear in to the world that gave it birth in a slow burn  of entropic erosion. 

In the end, Smithson wanted to make work that existed outside any system of value, whether monetary, cultural or historic. He saw all values as ending in judgements of good or bad which in term implied moral perspectives he believed wholly incongruous with the concept of art. "Once you start seeing objects in a positive or a negative way you are on the road to derangement. Objects are phantoms of the mind, as false as angels." Smithson's art was meant to self destruct, to break apart and disintegrate back in to nothingness. This impermanence was both the essence and the real subject of the work. The aim for him was not to create something final but to engage in an open ended process whose outcome was, like all natural phenomena, in a constact permutory state of creation and collapse. The material world offered smithsom a world outside ideals of purity and systems of logic, a world that, like our minds, was always crumbling from one state of impurity in to another.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

George Condo at the New Museum

Like currency, novelty is subject to the laws of inflation, loosing value over time in proportion with the amount of "it" in circulation. Perhaps, no other New York institution is as keenly aware of this fact as the New Museum. Inside its walls, the depreciation of the new is not a problem but an operating premise. This sensibility is echoed by the interior which reminds one of nothing so much as any number of anonymous Chelsea art galleries stacked atop each other like a heap of windowless shoe boxes. Complete with white walls, high ceilings and the ubiquitous concrete floor, even the rectilinear proportions of these spaces seem to echo their gallery world counterparts. It's as though the museum is really just a larger extension of the commercial art world that exists on the west side of Manhattan between 18th and 28th streets. A highbrow wormhole that connects Chelsea and the Lower East Side through the dubious conduit of meretricious art. One wonders if a better name would have been the "Now Museum".

In light of this, it's no wonder that the current George Condo retrospective feels less like a major survey than three gallery shows conflated in to one exhibition. Never the less, Condo is perhaps the ideal artist to show at the New Museum. His work looks forwards and back in equal measure always reminding us that, as Nabakov says, "the future is only the past in reverse".

It is this slippery relationship with the past that serves as Condo's primary point of departure. His paintings are self conscious in the best possible way. Mocking the very sources they pay homage to, then satirizes this very mockery as being derivative while all the while implying that there is really no such thing. It's a highly literate game of "I know that you know, that I know that you know...". A nod and a wink that one feels Condo can continue ad infenitum. I'm reminded of Frederich von Schlegel's concept of romantic irony, which advocates self-parody and artifice as a way of achieving the spiritual buoyancy needed to overcome the absurdity and chaos of life. Brecht's theater of the real also comes to mind. In an online interview conducted for the opening of the show, Condo invokes another influence when discussing his work. "A thing is everything it is not" he quotes Heidegger (who is himself discussing ancient Greek philosophy). Condo continues to explain that what really interests him is the way things are individuated, those messy areas that separate one thing from another and the perceptual systems we use to turn those distinctions in to historical canons. If a thing is everything its not, then how can you possibly know everything its not in order to know it. Or, as Condo puts it;

"To try to find a way to define the appearance of a singular thing through the presencing of numerous other things, other variations of things, other metamorphoses of images"

But what is Condo "defining", what is the "thing" he is trying to presence? Is it the character creatures that populate his paintings like the cast members of some deranged sitcom? Is it the idea of style, a thing like any other that exists more in concept than in actuality? Is it the notion of the gestalt that, like some magic taboo, once broken releases primordial energy that renders the very idea of history obsolete?

I'm not really sure one way or the other, and I'm not a hundred percent certain that Condo does either. This is not a criticism, on the contrary, I think Condo is an aesthetic polyglot who operates out of a compulsion to create. His multivalent sensibility finds apogee around ideas of collapse, distortion, mutation and fragmentation. It's a tragi-comic playfulness that works best when seen together, as in the salon style hang of over 40 paintings that dominate the first room of the show. As a group, these works are a force to be reckoned with, (in subsequent galleries the paintings hang side by side which makes them appear conventional, denuding their uncanny weirdness). I'm drawn to the heedless abundance of energy that these works presence. It's an infectious creative outpouring. But, I don't know if I completely buy in to the wall text's claims that the paintings, "conjure a world of decayed beliefs, failed mythologies and anomie".  This sounds a bit grandiloquent. These paintings aren't lugubrious, and I don’t think their aim is to make some grand statement about life in the 21st century, or to try and show a crumbling society how it has lost it's way.

Instead, I think they are what much contemporary culture is becoming, a mash up of memes, swirling patterns, desperate agglomerations. Masses of cultural flotsam caught in a perpetual state of synthesis and collapse. For Condo history is not some ossified remnant seen inside a bell jar, but a fountain of youth. A giant, nutrient rich kombucha mushroom that, when properly fermented yields a potent, mind altering elixir. At their best, Condo's paintings make this elixir seem like a nostrum, at their worst it feels like just another batch of contemporary snake oil. Luckily, most of the works in the show are of the former variety.


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Art Fair Confidential

 New York's annual art fair week has just completed with the simultaneous staging of the ADAA and the Armory fairs, along with a host of smaller fairs that, like remora fish eating off the algae covered skin of their shark hosts, combine to form what often feels like some deranged carnival of conspicuous consumption, if not mass hysteria. The ADAA use to be the perennial big dog on the scene until it was eclipsed some years back by the Armory as the pre-eminent destination for both ambitious collectors and art tourists alike. A realignment of schedules has brought the two fairs, one ascending one descending in to congruent run times. 

It appears, that over the last few years the fair organizers have become increasingly aware of each other and the traditional lines that have divided the two events along contemporary vs. modern art classifications have become blurred. Beginning last year the Armory designated part of its exhibition space to galleries that focused almost exclusively on blue chip modernists, while walking through the more subdued isles of the ADAA fair one now sees an increased presence of a younger generation of gallery owners trafficking in contemporary works by artists who only a short while ago were seen as part of the cutting edge vanguard of the international bue monde.

Its odd to see artists like Richard Pettibone and Richard Artschwager relegated to the velvet wall status of old masters. I found myself looking at the  plethora of Klines, deKoonings, Gorkys and Chamberlains, next to Pettibone these guys looked beyond old master, beyond the 20th century, they were down right ancient. Like artifacts that belonged better in the museum of natural history along side  the petrified clumps of dinosaur droppings. Which isn’t to say that there's anything turd like about these artists, on the contrary they hold a very special place in my heart. Its just that I remember the thrill with which I looked at them while still a young school lad, there was a visceral excitement verging on giddiness, like looking over the edge of a waterfall and feeling the wind cover you with mist. Now, 15 years later, the experience is closer to visiting a vintage car show. The ache of beauty is still there but it's completely removed from day to day reality. Perhaps this is as it should be, unavoidable entropy, only art fairs have a way of accelerating this process. Commerce strips things bare, it erodes the embroidery of experience and replaces it with a mythology of wealth. It's hard to find sublimity in something seen inside a shopping mall display case, no matter how sweet the sales pitch. 

The irony is that, in the case of galleries, the sales pitch is that what they are selling is nothing short of than a stake in the cultural history of a particular epoch. Yet, the very act of comodification irreparably undermines the integrity of this premise. It's an unresolved and ultimately irresolvable tension, one that’s palpably felt in the arena of the art fair. As has often been pointed out, after drugs, the art market is the worlds most unregulated marketplace, but unlike some, I don’t ascribe to the notion that this creates only a fetid output of shallow work made by and marketed to a society slavishly devoted to the worship of wealth.  Instead I like to think of George Kublers quote:

"the history of art resembles a broken but much repaired chain made of string and wire to connect the occasional jeweled links"

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Excerpt: Dialogue between Allan Kaprow and Robert Smithson

I came across this dialogue between the artist Robert Smithson and the critic Allan Kaprow in a book of collected writings by Smithson. This conversation took place nearly a half century ago, yet seems like it could have occurred last week at any one of the contemporary art venues that also serve as symposium spaces around New York. It's rare to find a facet of contemporary art practice summed up so succinctly that it remains prescient after all these years.


What is a Museum?
A dialogue between Allan Kaprow and Robert Smithson, 1967

Smithson: I think you touched on an interesting area. It seems that all art is in some way a questioning of what value is, and it seems that there is great need for people to attribute value, to find a significant value. But this leads to many categories of value or no value. I think this shows all sorts of disorders and fractures and irrationalities. But I don’t really care about setting them right or making things in some ideal fashion. I think it's all there_independent of any kind of good or bad. The categories of "good art" and "bad art" belong to a commodity value system.

Kaprow:  As I said before, you face a social pressure which is hard to reconcile with your ideas. At present, galleries and museums are still the primary agency or "market: for what artists do. As the universities and federal education programs finance culture by building even more museums, you see the developing picture of contemporary patronage. Therefore, your involvement with "exhibition people", however well meant they are, is bound to defeat whatever position you take regarding the non-value of your activity. If you say it's neither good nor bad, the dealers and curators who appropriate it, who support you personally, will say or imply the opposite by whatever they do with it.

Smithson: Contemporary patronage is getting more public and less private. Good and bad are moral values. What we need are aesthetic values.

Kaprow: How can your position then be anything but ironic, forcing upon you at least a skepticism. How can you become anything except a kind of sly philosopher - a man with a smile of amusement on your face, whose every act is italicized?... the minute you start operating within a cultural context, whether it's the context of a group of artists and critics or whether it's the physical context of the museum or gallery, you automatically associate this uncertain identity with something certain. Someone assigns to it a new categorical name, usually a variant of some old one, and thus he continues his lineage of family system which makes it all credible. The standard fare of novelty is to be justified by history. Your position is thus ironic..

Smithson: I would say that it has a contradictory view of things. It’s basically a pointless position. But I think to take some kind of point right away stops any kind of possibility. I think the more points the better, you know, just an endless amount of points of view.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Sexy Time on Shutter Island

I'm not a huge horror film aficionado, in fact, being a primarily visual thinker with an overly developed graphic imagination, I realized from a fairly early age that by and large the horror genre was not for me. This had nothing to do with any native squeamishness, on the contrary, I looked upon those bright fountains of crimson viscera spouting recklessly and chaotically as somatic equivalents to the choleric outbursts of tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes, and like those larger phenomena, the violence perpetrated on the body filled me with a mixture of awe, curiosity, excitement and dread at both the repugnance and the beauty of wounded flesh. The problem for me was never the watching, it was everything afterwards, once the lights were turned off and I fell in to an endless loop of reflective anguish, an echo chamber of carnage that I had no ability to turn off or mitigate. For the most part, I've outgrown these dreaded nocturnal episodes, though the sight of blood and guts (what Burroughs refers to as "flesh juice") still fascinates and repulses in equal measure (I still think the lyric "there's a body oozing blood" in the song "Mac the Knife" is one of the greatest things ever written).

Not long ago I read something interesting about how horror movies, made by and large for a teenage audience, serve as expressions of barely controllable, sometimes physically uncomfortable libidinal urges. The simultaneous sense of arousal and guilt that accompanies teenage attempts at lovemaking gives birth to a new dimension of anxiety that the Horror genre seems particularly adept at exploiting. Blood, after all is a kind of ejaculate, and death the ultimate climax (not to mention the blood that accompanies the loss of virginity in women). The hapless teenage couple cut down in the midst of a secret moment of coital bliss has become so familiar a trope that, like a piece of flan without its burnt underside, no horror movie would seem truly complete without it. The frantic woman running through a dark and thorny patch of wood is another cliché that seems indispensable and oddly satisfying. Sex and violence have always been linked in an assaultive embrace, one that the horror genre has adroitly evolved in to a succinct formula of stylized blood letting. The killer, almost always a male, is both romantic suitor, parental figure, jilted lover and avenging angel, by turns pursuing, seducing, trapping and ultimately punishing concupiscent teenagers for their bodily indiscretions.
The fact that the horror genre has so successfully codified these anxieties speaks volumes about our need to sublimate our fears even at the risk of creating new ones.

I recently watched the Scorsese film "Shutter Island" (which strictly speaking isn't a horror movie, its more of a suspense thriller, though it shares some connective tissue), and was struck by the realization that the way these films are constructed is as perverse as the subject matter. Most horror films aren't so much a streaming narrative as a quilt work of 5 to 10 minute episodes. These segments build up to a final moment of catharsis, but they can also be viewed individually as short films. Following a classic three part story structure, each segment has its own dramatic arc that builds towards its own moment of release. The beginning introduces the setting, the middle braces us for impact, and the end provides the prerequisite drama, some event that acts as both climax and coda, releasing our anxiety with a violent jolt. We are given a few moments to recover before the whole cycle begins again, and again and again.

Shutter Island is a perfect example of this, the entire movie is a series of short episodes. Each is succinct in its own way and can be isolated and viewed individually with little diminishment of enjoyment. The setting for the film is a mental institution located on an ominous island. As the story unravels, the setting is opened up for us like a puzzle, links and segments are presented, chambers are explored, each new setting becomes the fulcrum point for another point of action, another little story within the larger whole. In this sequential way the movie works it's way closer and closer to the end, ratcheting up the suspense with each successive place marker. There is a rhythm to Shutter Island as there is to most horror movies that is unmistakable. Its relentless yet utterly predictable, stimulation through repetition. These movies don't just confront physical desire metaphorically, they structurally embody the sex act as a series of brief, scary but ultimately exciting encounters. 


Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Currency of Change

Brands are engineered to have a powerful effect on the mind, like semaphores they point to deeper realities hidden beneath an instantly recognizable simplicity. Money, perhaps the oldest brand of all, is also one of the most elusively direct. Elusive, because it has to be both simple enough to trigger instant recognition yet elaborate enough to create an impression of rarefied mystique. This illusion serves many purposes but perhaps the most important is to make one believe, however briefly, in the notion that these flimsy pieces of paper actually contain some inherent value. It's as though the belief that phantom labor was exerted in the creation of money makes it more palatable for one to exchange ones actual labor for it.

Which brings me to some belated observations on the recent (well not so recent, it's been something like a decade now) redesign of American currency.
The redesign of all the American bills follows the same central strategy but for the purpose of simplicity I'll focus solely on the 5-dollar bill.. So here we go...  Observe the old 5-dollar bill, and boy does it look old, like something Buffalo Bill would gamble with on the set of Deadwood. Comparing the anachronistic, old world ornament of this bill to the new 5-dollar note, a few thoughts come to mind about American re-branding efforts in the 21st century.

The old bill is an elaborate affair, it's filigree borders have a floral arrangement completely absent in the new note. But, more importantly, the function these borders serve has drastically changed. They don't so much provide a frame for the image as create the appearance that what we are looking at is a stage, a theatrical enclosure reminiscent of the grand opera houses of the past. We are not merely consumers but witnesses to a great and sacred drama, the timeless theater of wealth, patriotism and politics. It's a seamless blend, a pageant of sorts with Lincoln filling the role of both leading man and grand marshal. Though, it should be noted, that it is not Lincoln himself that is depicted but his likeness, his official portrait enshrined amongst a bouquet of laurels. We may be in a theater but instead of a performance we are presented with a static, devotional arrangement like the kind found in a museum or religious temple. Lincoln's oval portrait is elegantly framed and takes center stage, resting atop a pedestal that announces the value of the note. From this central "alter" the remaining information is distributed in accordance with the rules of balance and symmetry. It should be noted that Lincoln's framed portrait is the only element that feels two dimensional, everything else, the curvy number 5, the banners, the elaborate writing all imply a 3D volume. This is a tangible space, one we are meant to enter in to through our gaze, an amalgamation of  theater, museum and temple meant to evoke historic certainty and inspire faith through worship. The back of the note makes this point more explicit. The Lincoln memorial is presented in a frame within a frame giving it the appearance of a magical place and, like the Parthenon for the Greeks, one we are encouraged to spiritually identify with.

In contrast, the new note employs none of these devices. Lincoln is large and in charge, no longer merely a portrait he is a living breathing leader of men. His self assured image dominates the picture plane. Rather than being set on a pedestal like a bust in a temple he actively advances towards the viewer breaking the plane of both the top and bottom banners. This point is emphasized by the asymmetry of his placement which is to the left of center. Whereas before he was a 2 dimensional object installed within a 3 dimensional space, he is now a fully realized incarnation surrounded by a flat space that serves to heighten the realism of his depiction. The borders at the top and bottom are simple and direct, evoking less a turn of the century theater/temple/museum and more the electronic banners at the bottom of a cable news broadcast where information moves swiftly and dispassionately from left to right. The purpose of the banners here is not to inspire awe, or place us inside a historical space, but to communicate information clearly and concisely. This approach is emphasized on the back of the bill where a simple, unadorned number 5 dominates the bottom right corner. The other fives may retain an old world charm, but they are an after thought to the declarative bluntness of their larger companion. Likewise, the Lincoln memorial is once again merely a memorial, to be sure it's still grand but this grandeur is not over emphasized with multiple borders and frames. Front to back this is a presentation that privileges clarity over ornament, motion over stasis and immediacy over mystique.

I'm not an expert on design but I think to a large degree these changes are in keeping with the overall tendencies in the graphic arts over the last several decades. We are living in the information age, and products have striven to reposition themselves as generally more dynamic, proactive participants in a world that is constantly beset by change. It stands to reason that the product that is the US economy would likewise want to appear to keep up. The new bills certainly make a case for this. The American obsession with leadership via the cult of personality is more than an attitude, it's a cultural export, one that has proven highly profitable in the past. Whereas the old notes communicate stability and historic certainty, the new ones emphasize a direct, streamlined simplicity meant to give the impression that ours is an agile economy alert to the challenges of the future. Lincoln is a dynamic force ready to take on the changing world, and by implication so are we. It's a significant shift in the way America wants to be perceived by the world. No longer the economic juggernaut, no longer as admired as it once was, there is a defiance in the new notes that contrasts sharply with the contentment of the old.  Ironically, as the years pass and the recent financial collapse takes on the clarity of a survived event, the heady, imperious swagger of this design may ultimately appear more anachronistic than the old.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Process is More Important than Fact: William Kentridge in "Anything Can Happen"

The recent screening of a feature length documentary on William Kentridge at MOMA was eye opening. I'd always liked Kentridge from afar without having seen too much of his work in person.  To tell the truth I liked his work enough to respect him as an artist but not enough to actively seek it out. Coming from this ambivalent point of view, "Anything Can Happen" was a perception changing experience. The movie is filled with clips from Kentridges early cartoons, his Box projects and his resent forays in to theater and opera (he spent several years designing and directing Shostakovitch's "The Nose").

Stop motion is the most obvious thread that ties all of these endeavors together and
Kentridge uses it to rare expressive mastery. Kentridge's cartoons swirl out of a charcoal dust cloud, composing themselves amidst a chaotic uncertainty of smears and smudges that all too often mirrors the historic uncertainty of South Africa's troubled past. The only sense of resolution seems to be found in the act of erasure which is never fully realized. A penumbra of afterimages remain as both surface stains and temporal reminders that the movie might exist, but the original drawings that once comprised it have been destroyed in the birthing process that gave it life. A document survives but, like much of history it's a document whose very existence is made possible only by the destruction of the evidence that created it in the first place. It's a kind of post apartheid "Dance Macabre". A low tech waltz of life, death and perhaps at some point redemption.

However. as haunting and poetic as these cartoons are, its Kentridge's overall approach to the creative process that I was most impressed with. He spends most of the time talking not about the meaning behind his works but about the intuitive process that is so central to it's creation. He sees everything as a process, a long intervention, the outcome of which is determined less by intent than by accident. Early on in the film he says that for him "process is more important than fact", one could also say, engagement is more important then product. Indeed, the studio is presented as a kind of laboratory for ideas, perhaps even a playground. Judging by the copious interviews throughout the film, this is an association Kentridge would gladly welcome. It's as though his primary role as an artist is to develop the conditions in which his creativity can best flourish rather than itinerize the ends towards which it is deployed. 

I'm reminded of something Francis Bacon once said about seeing himself primarily as a human transmitter, picking up signals he knew not from where.  For him it was a kind of free association that he dared not question for fear that the act of inquiry would forever sever his connection to its source. I don't know if Kentridge shares this particular misgiving but he certainly shares the intent that motivates it. At one point he declares "I believe that if you work persistently, whatever is of interest inside you will eventually come out". I think a strong  corollary can be drawn between the ability to dedicate ones life to persistent work and the mental attitude that  privileges creative  process over specific outcome.