Magic Mountain 11

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

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.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Notes on the Charles Burchfield Retrospective

Charles Burchfield's retrospective at The Whitney Museum of American Art affords a rare opportunity to see one of Americas most under appreciated artist. Burchfield's always had a special place in my heart. He's a strange figure that refuses easy catagorization. Part iconoclast, part visionary and part kook, he's an artist who seems at once anachronistically romantic and vigorously contemporary. But, regardless of these distinctions there is no denying that the work is beautifully weird. It's as though someone slipped Casper David Freidrich a couple of tabs of acid before letting him loose in the Hudson Valley with a set of watercolors.

Burchfield committed himself to a personal vision of the world wholly at odds with the current trends of the day. It's a vision of ecstasy mingled with mortal dread. For Burchfield, nature personifies spiritual interiority that is visionary in nature. As with Friedrich, the contemplation of the natural world is seen as a religious experience ultimately leading to self awakening. 

Indeed, both artists would paint cathedrals in the forest, Friedrich paints an actual structure surrounded by mist and ancient oak trees. Burchfield paints a forest whose trees form the open windows of a stained glass facade, giving way to a vision of the four seasons. In each case the most important thing for the artist is not simply to communicate an idea, or even convey an impression but to wholly immerse the viewer in a vision. To put the viewer in a state of contemplative wonderment giving way to a sense of temporal transport. 

Themes of life, death and re-berth predominate and one ultimately gets the feeling that, for Burchfield, these are not just themes but heartfelt truths he struggles his whole life to communicate. In fact, this very earnestness is perhaps the  one attribute which most clearly betrays Burchfeld as a painter of an older generation. There is no irony here, no cynicism, just a kaleidoscopic intensity that at times is almost too much to bear.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Alfred Leslie's Declarative America

Alfred Leslie's abstract work from the early 50's to the mid 60's is characterized by bold, splashy brushstrokes that were so irresistibly popular at the time. But, in almost every painting, collage and mixed media piece Leslie created during this period, he adds an element that seems to have an almost defiant relationship to the tradition of gestural abstraction he is working in. Two vertical bands of color usually made of a single thick brush stroke each, invariably appear prominently placed somewhere within the image. These vertical bands are Leslie's distinguishing gesture, a kind of brand he repeats over and over again. The redundancy is so consistent that, one can argue, these marks constitute a form of signature, Leslie's private rebus with which he stakes a claim to a slice of the Abstract Expressionist Pie.

There is something uniquely American about these marks that I think bears discussing. Abstract Expressionist painters may have aspired to a purely American vision yet always seemed to have one eye turned towards Europe. Either formally or conceptually there is a preoccupation with the elaborate, the refined and the virtuosic. Even Pollock, the most brash and cowboy member of the group is ultimately betrayed by a lyricism that owes much to Picasso and the Surrealists.

Which isn't to say that Leslie does not, I think he is a kind of bridge figure, offering both a summation of the recent past and a protean augury of the immediate future. Pop art was In Utero, but before we could get all giddy for those stacks of soup cans and blown up comic strips we had to travel through the smoke filled landscape of the Beat Generation. This is where Leslie comes in, his paintings are both an urban alarm clock and a European lullaby.

They are atmospheric and undeniably beautiful, full of the kind of heroic gusto that was believed to authenticate a true work of art. What could be more European than the need for such overt proof of vitality? Leslie provides this proof, and then inexplicably he cancels it out with those two vertical bands. Like a schoolboy using two lines to cross out a misspelled word in a notebook.

And, this is what I think these marks ultimately are, a negation of European refinement. They make no claim to virtuosity, quite the opposite, they are declarative and blunt.  Anyone can make them, and that’s exactly the point, virtuosity is obsolete, direct statement is what matters. It's a shift in emphasis that has remained central for most artists to this day.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Florescent Enlightenment - Wayne Thiebaud and the Baroque Ideal

And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.
John 1:5

Wayne Thiebaud is usually considered a pop artist, and like Hopper (who clearly is not), much has been written about the comment his work makes on the spiritual isolation in post war America. There is a loneliness beneath the surface of all those rows of confectionary goods that belies their cheerful appearance. There is also light, Thiebauds paintings are suffused in it. It permeates his backgrounds so completely that his subjects appear trapped in its glow, like flies suspended in chips of amber. They are on display, but the stage is an abstraction and light is the world made featureless.

Light has always been the secret subject of painting, it is immaterial but fecund with symbolic and metaphysical content. In Baroque paintings this is especially evident. Figures appear out of the darkness as though materializing from a deep, inky abyss. It's not just a physical illumination that we are witnessing, but a spiritual and intellectual one as well. Here, darkness is a manifestation of ignorance, Godlessness, and even madness. It is our primordial past. Light on the other hand is knowledge, civilization and God. On the cusp of the Enlightenment, the artist is depicting the awakening of civilization . Man leaves the darkness of his past through the light of rational thought and spiritual faith. An artistic aspiration mirrors this humanistic one. The painter is staking a claim to his own part in this process, no longer content to be considered a mere craftsman he moves in to the light of recognition as a culturally important figure.

So, Baroque painting, in all of its chiaroscuro, candle lit drama is actually about the coming of age of both mankind and the artist. Both are moving from darkness to light, from ignorance and obscurity to knowledge and recognition. Light is not shining on them as such, instead the subject and by implication the artist, are actively entering in to its glow. Rationality and faith are fused in to one as mankind transcends his ignorance.  We are witnessing a tripartite alchemy of the soul, the subject, the artist and lastly our own.

These are deeply hopeful paintings, they assert a trajectory of human development that would be elaborated upon for the next 2 hundred years. If light is knowledge leading us to progress,  then it was assumed each successive generation would increase the aperture of illumination. It's a breathtaking journey, one that came to a swift end with the 20th century.

Like the baroque painters before him, Thiebaud places his subjects in the center. As far as he is concerned nothing else exists in the universe. Thiebauds figures are in the light completely, but, there is no conquering of the elements, instead of transcendence there is a blank objectivity. These paintings are not hopeful, they are remorseless, oddly happy on some level, but mostly aware that the ideal of progress is an empty promise..

Thiebauds paintings  aren't so much the natural extensions of their Baroque predecessors as their dialectic opposites. Looking at this work is like looking at a negative image of a Rembrandt. Where there was darkness there is now nothing but clear, featureless, light. This "all over" light is unprecedented in painting and is not just a visual device. The Baroque painters painted by candlelight, the impressionists by sunlight, Thiebaud on the other hand, working in post WWII America, is painting the light of the  florescent bulb. A democratic light unique to the 20th century that privileges nothing and at the same time makes a commodity out of everything. In Thiebauds paintings the world has been made in to a giant display case.  There is no active relationship between the subject and the environment. One no longer feels that the figure is moving towards or away from a light source. The figures are static, the light is static, time is static.

So one can argue, Thiebaud's paintings are about failure. The failure of progress in the 20th century. Prosperity and knowledge have led us to a world illuminated not by the Divine but by an artificial, ceaseless machine. It is a strange and oddly still dead end.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Remarkable Esquilache

I was reading a book on Goya when I came across this interesting anecdote, which oddly enough has absolutely nothing to do with Goya.
Late 18th century Spain was not a happy place. The country, having spent the last 200 years expelling all the Jews and Moors, mismanaging its South American colonies and participating in a variety of dubious military engagements, now found itself in the midst of a terrible economic slump. On top of this there was a country wide drought that rendered food scarce, people were becoming alarmed, the pueblo was not happy. In to this scenario enters a man who would become a lightning rod for public frustration and in the process come close to causing a nation wide revolution through one unlikely bit of misguided sartorial legislation.

His name was Esquilache, a former governor of Naples and close friend of the Spanish king Charles III, Esquilache is brought to Spain to be the minister of the interior with disastrous consequences for all parties concerned. In a time of Nationwide  panic over the rising price of common food like bread, eggs and cured meats, Esquilache first gains public attention for the extravagant parties he throws with what seems like alarming frequency, parties which quickly become notorious for their debauchery and luxurious excess. This perception is exacerbated by the fact that Esquilache is not even a Spaniard but a foreigner living on the beneficence of the Spanish crown which is itself supported by the sweat of the common people. Yet, years of profligate autocrats, inept governors, venal public servants and aristocratic sinecures had to some extent inured the population to the excesses of the elite. The eye may not be completely blind but it is turned none the less. The public can begrudgingly put up with aristocratic negligence, even out right despotism, but Esquilache crosses a line that nobody expected to have even existed.
To be fair, for once the minister of the interior had his heart in the right place. Economic decline is always accompanied by a rising crime rate and the cities of Spain, including the capital Madrid, were becoming hotbeds of criminal activity. Streets were no longer safe to travel at night without armed escort, murderous bands of brigands patrolled the roads often killing the passengers of the coaches they robbed. The situation was becoming alarming if not all together untennable. Esquilache with the aid of his advisers diagnoses one facet of this problem that if rectified could, if not halt the crime wave all together, at least help deter the ease with which it was perpetrated. The Spaniards of this time were particularly fond of wearing long black cloaks and large wide brimmed hats (a la Zoro), in fact such is the strange power of fashion that they saw this outfit as an essential part of their Spanish identity. One of those things that is unique to their country and helps to set them apart from those other Europeans. This is a fact that Esquilache failed to perceive, instead what his practical if not particularly intuitive mind realized was that the long black cloak that the Spaniards so adored was perfect for concealing any number of lethal weapons. Swords, knives, pistols even a heavy blunderbuss could all be carried around beneath the cloaks protective cover without the criminal attracting any more attention than the common blacksmith on his way home from the shop. In addition, the wide brimmed hats (Chambregos), concealed something all together entirely different, something that in the world of the criminal is almost as important to keep hidden as any weapon, the face. Draped in this outfit the criminal was afforded a degree of anonymity and Esquilache decided to put an end to it in the only way that a bureaucrat with little direct experience with the public knows how, he issued an edict outlawing, by threat of imprisonment, the long cloak and the hat.  

It seemed like a perfectly plausible idea at the time, the citizenry would be asked to make a sensible exchange, their native costume for an increased sense of safety, however as the jails began to accumulate dissident cloak and hat wearers a degree of outrage began to seep it's way through the already exasperated masses. With jails overflowing and the resistance mounting the Spaniards decided they had had enough. They saw this as an attack not on the criminal underclass but on a carefully cultivated Spanish heritage, made all the worse by the fact that it was perpetrated by an Italian. Palm Sunday marked the beginning of the first riots which would grow with alarming intensity, gaining momentum as well as a grass roots fervor that began to take on a revolutionary aspect. Government soldiers clashed in bloody, street fought battles leaving numerous casualties on both sides.

Fearing for his safety the King fled the capital in a state of panic. As the rioting threatened to become a nationwide revolt the King had no choice but to send his embattled minister in to exile while simultaneously repealing the cloak and hat ban. The jails were open, and the riots quickly subsided. Calamity was averted and as though to emphasise the point, a Spaniard was appointed in place of Esquilache, the Count of Aranda. 

If the story ended here it would be interesting though perhaps not entirely remarkable, but the new minister had other thoughts. Realizing that his predecessor had erred not in concept but in execution he quickly set out to figure out a way to do away with the hated cloaks and hats without arousing the volcano of anger that rocked the country the first time around. His solution was brilliant to say the least, the public administration version of Sir Walter Ralaighs method of weighing tobacco smoke. Like Esquilache, Arnada also issued an edict, one that was not to ban cloaks and hats but rather to make them the official uniform of all jailers and executioners in the country. Within a year the outfit had become so unfashionable that no self respecting Spaniard, criminal or otherwise would be caught dead wearing it.