Magic Mountain 11

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

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.