Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Postcapitalist Painting

"In America..." Published in Krokodil magazine, Soviet Union, 1953 (text translated from Russian)

Some 64,000 years ago, woken beings not too different from us scrawled upon cave walls with red ochre hand-mined from the earth. What connects that kind of activity to the contemporary art exhibited at today’s galleries, art fairs, and museums? There is a disconnect between the felt nobility and inherent good employed to describe learning about and fostering an appreciation for art on one hand, and the decidedly classist, sexist, and racist bias the ‘art world’ routinely demonstrates on the other. The current global economic system of hyper-capitalist, cancerous profiteering rewards such divisive strategies; these strategies arguably underlie the very structures of the current economic paradigm. If systems of health care and education that don’t rely on a profit incentive can be imagined, then a world of art that doesn’t can be too. Such imaginings, practically speaking, are to remain in the realm of thought experiment only. There is no indication that the tide of capital the high end of the art world is awash in will be rolling back any time soon. Even on the non-profit end, much of their funds are still frequently provided by global corporate capital: the lead funder of PST: LA/LA was Bank of America.

Despite this, here in Los Angeles and beyond, thriving communities of working artists exist with the support of artist-run initiatives and alternative exhibition spaces that operate outside the interest and influence of oligarchic wealth. In Los Angeles, the artists of this community produce relevant, grassroots contemporary art activity, and a great deal of that activity is painting. Such a great deal in fact, that some definitive currents and strategies have emerged among the painters of this community. By no means are the basic notions here restricted to the single medium of painting defined at its narrowest at the exclusion of other mediums, or artists who do not identify primarily as painters – ‘painting’ as it were, like all other medium designations, is approached here as one of several overlapping sets of issues and considerations more than as neatly defined classes of products. What the work of these artists has in common is a direct and human-scaled approach. Most of these works range in size from modest to minimally heroic, since they are not industrially fabricated by the alienated labor of technicians in warehouses but hand produced in the studios and studio spaces of artists who are more than likely maintaining a living that has little or nothing to do with sales of their art work. Many of these artists, not being products of brand name MFA programs, remain generally unknown to the commercial gallery world and its audience. Others have broken through to the larger art world stage embodying these notions intact. The exhibitions where you can find many of these artists’ work are frequently organized by artists from within the community itself engaging in extra-studio practice from within the community itself, and the information about where and when typically stays among the social media networks established by them. Exhibitions are often of an ephemeral nature with limited public opportunities to experience them. The audience for them is typically other artists. Some of the overlapping aesthetic and conceptual groupings that have emerged among the painters of these communities as I see them range from edge-to-edge intuitive abstract strategies (Daniela Campins, Rema Ghuloum, Stacy Wendt, John Mills, Max Presneill), to more materially-based pattern and grid riffs (Britton Tolliver, Mandy Lyn Ford, Nano Rubio, Ana Rodriguez, Jenny Hager) all the way to deconstructed investigations of figure-based elements and other represenations (Kristy Luck, Christina Quarles, Maja Ruznic, Ranee Henderson, Joshua Hagler, Josh Peters), to engagements with landscape notions (Christine Frerichs, Esmeralda Montes, Stephen Parise, Carl Baratta, Hung Viet Nguyen, Virginia Katz) as well as engagements with identity, relationships, and media representations (Loren Britton, Michelle Carla Handel, Kyla Hansen, April Bey, Casey Kauffmann).

The unapologetic embrace of painting by working artists of modest means has a larger corollary within our current cultural paradigm. The insatiable hunger for new, novel forms of art coupled with the dismissing or throwing out of older forms thought to be obsolete echoes the wasteful capitalist notion of planned obsolescence. A reassertion and reacknowledgment of painting’s development can be seen as part of a critique of this notion. Also, a connection can be made with regard to perceived notions of commodification of particular mediums. On the surface, a case is made that more conceptual, dematerialized practices challenge the market’s ability to commodify them, leaving painting, sculpture and other materially based forms as tainted with an inherent marketability. However, a deeper analysis uncovers a contrasting take. Indeed, it was a breakdown in financial markets for “dematerialized” and “conceptual” commodities – mortgages, stocks, bonds, debt, securities, derivatives, insurance policies, etc. – that nearly led to complete economic collapse in the previous decade. Indeed, some of the seminal figures of more conceptual bents are canonized market darlings with the “paperwork” relating to the art works becoming a fetishized commodity itself. Against this, the material character of painting and related mediums now stands as a document of the creative, un-alienated labor of working artists, as opposed to both the “administrative” aesthetic of many conceptual and project based practices and the anonymously fabricated designer works of artists like Hirst, Koons, Murakami, etc. This is not to say that there isn’t a hot market for painting, merely that its marketability is no less “inherent” than that of dematerialized forms, whose non-art analogs exist almost as pure commodities, financial products that are essentially shared fictions of government enforced ownership.

It would be a stretch to say the painters mentioned above share a common aesthetic concern. However, grouped together as such, commonalities bubble to the surface when compared to the more recognized artists and trends du jour. Each of the above-mentioned painter's works has a more idiosyncratic, individual characteristic when compared to the repetitive processes of zombie formalism, the last identifiable success aesthetic of the decade. No one wants their work to seem like it was mass-produced to be flipped on the market. No one is making the same painting over and over. This individual characteristic is analogous to and works in conjunction with the notion of indexicality, as defined by German art writer Isabelle Graw. The works directly refer to, and are therefore indexical of the actual artists themselves, and they evoke the artist’s presence when experienced by the viewer. This individualized indexicality can be said to be the result of the reaction to zombie formalism, retro-packaged by writer Chris Wiley as ‘Debt Aesthetics’. Debt Aesthetics refers to the paintings taking on the visual characteristics of currency itself and being traded as such in the wake of the crash of traditional, (barely) regulated sources of credit and markets. This being the case, the overall eclectic reaction to Debt Aesthetics/Zombie Formalism can be summed up as an attempt at a post-capitalist practice, in the case of painting, postcapitalist painting. It is not painting as an attempt to create value that can be used to pay off debt. It is not painting as a commodity that lies somewhere between Monopoly money and BitCoin. It is painting as art. So it speaks to the original question art poses – what is art – and it poses the question not in opposition to capitalism per se, but beyond it, over it, bigger and more universal as an idea than capitalism, speaking to a future that has moved on from it, in light of its increasingly inevitable unsustainability. In no way does the 'postcapitalist' designation imply anything about the above painters' own personal political beliefs. Their work, in my view, is what painting might look like in a world that doesn't revolve around financial profit. It is an initial attempt, a furtive beginning, at envisioning a future, as the great art of the past often attempted to do, if only in hindsight.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Memorial Day Weekend, NY, 2018 part 2

Day 3

First time at the Brooklyn Museum, we're here to see a show we missed at the Hammer Museum in LA – Radical Women: Latin American Art 1960-1985. This is not the first time this has happened. It works in reverse too – I was in no hurry to see last fall’s Laura Owens retro at the Whitney, since it’s going to be at MOCA this fall, assuming MOCA is still a thing this fall. The install of Radical Women greets the viewer with an amazing piece of film footage of Afro-Peruvian artist Victoria Santa Cruz. The film flickers and chants on a screen overhead in one of the main gallery spaces, part of the universe of history on display. That history includes the beguiling Envolvimento paintings by Brazilian artist Wanda Pimentel, highlighted by a sharp, striking flatness and ironic distance. Bonus round: Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party is permanently installed at the Brooklyn Museum.

From the Envolvimento series by Wanda Pimentel at the Brooklyn Museum
A Lyft driver named Quayvon takes us to Bushwick. Quayvon is about to have his first child with his opera singer wife. TSANY, Transmitter and Underdonk were closed, but Microscope was open. Therein lay an installation of works by Kevin Reuning that I was not particularly struck by while in its presence, but the memory of it now invites more consideration. The work employs digital technology and the clever byproducts of its misapplication. There is an interactive component that only requires more looking, which I appreciated beings that I am generally loathe to interact with art works and generally consider such conditions indicative of a weakness within the work (with some notable exceptions). At 56 Bogart St., some things were open and some things weren’t. The Border was open, and offered an inviting vision with a group exhibition called Intricate Neighbors, curated by artist and space founder Jamie Martinez. Through festoons of variable realness on the walls and underfoot, I find a ferocious orgy of color and material presence by artist Hyon Gyon. The Border’s mission is focused on immigrant artists, and was begun as a response to the current political climate. Also at 56 Bogart we see the work of Len Bellinger at David & Schweitzer Contemporary. Bellinger's is an interesting story, an insider with outsider habits, qualities the work seems to somehow inhabit. A painting called thug boggles with slathered layers of earnestness, completed over a 3 year period between 2015 and 2018. Down the hall and around the corner at VICTORI + MO is Meetinghouse, by artist Amie Cunat. Cunat has reimagined the works of the Shakers, an American religious cult known for their furniture and not having sex. The result places the viewer in a primary-colored cartoon environment, all lovingly hand-made out of paper, the functionality of the objects swapped for immersive vibrancy and chromatic surreality. 

Hyon Gyon at The Border
Thug, Len Bellinger, David &Schweitzer Contemporary

Meetinghouse by Amie Cunat at VICTORI+MO

Meetinghouse by Amie Cunat at VICTORI+MO
Day 4

Leon Golub: Raw Nerve explodes off the walls of the Met Breuer. Leave your bullshit at the door. Whether its a face, a dog, a skull, or an abstract form, Golub’s world is flayed and exposed. Every piece exists in a state of alert, unstretched shrouds throwing off the trappings of fastidious preciousness. Demonic, masculine golems of paint crowd the canvas of Giantomachy II, the central work of the exhibition. Golub both historically and prophetically channels the necromasculine urge – to war, to violence, to oppression, to subjugation – by slashing, smashing, scraping his figures together. They exude a weary, unidealized nakedness. That nakedness is present in his dictator portraits, where the scrubbed renderings of these men of death smolder against the banality of their expressions. A composition from 1994 titled All Bets Art Off gets down to the realness. A panting dog eyes death like a bone, face down and vulnerable. An old-fashioned tattoo graphic floats above, the unstretched linen and yellow ochre reading as skin. Our world is a hungry dog, hungry for death, salivating in its presence, more permanent than any tattoo, something for the maggots to look at, I guess.

It was the last day for Golub at the Met Breuer but right in the middle of the run for Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now), an ambitious, gobsmacking wallop of an exhibition. You think Westworld is creepy? I dare the Met to host sleepovers for this. Like Life reveals how in 700+ years, we still can’t reconcile with the revelation that we’re just haunted meat. We’re all “still life” someday, though perhaps not like Jeremy Benthem, I hope. 

Giantomachy II by Leon Golub at the Met Breuer

All Bets Are Off by Leon Golub at the Met Breuer
Day 5

Memorial Day. Brunch on 5th Ave at the Church of Heavenly Rest. Behind us is Central Park. Two blocks to our left is the Jewish Museum, one block to our right is the Guggenheim. Chaim Soutine: Flesh at the Jewish Museum rounds out the trip’s themes of corporeality, figuration, and death. Soutine is a name I recognize from every big museum with a room full of old European painting that I've ever been to. His paint handling anticipates Golub, Bacon, Guston, Brown, Lassnig and more. Anxious, searching, passages evoke sensations as much as associations in these works. Among the Jewish Museum's holdings on display, an early self-portrait of Lee Krasner gazes back with casual defiance. Krasner painted this work in 1930, age 22, in her parents backyard in Long Island. In tone and style, the work is somewhat reminiscent of Paula Modersohn-Becker. Despite the safe environs it actually represents, the effect of the background places the young Krasner alone in the wilderness, the wilderness of the path ahead, fixed upon by her scrutinizing countenance. 

Chaim Soutine at the Jewish Museum

Lee Krasner, Self-Portrait, 1930, at the Jewish Museum

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Memorial Day Weekend, NY, 2018 – part 1

Day 1

When we come to NY, we stay with friends in Greenwich Village. It’s a dream really. We walk to Chelsea because we’re from LA, and walking through a sea of humanity to get to where you’re going is sort of what we came for. There’s absolutely nothing comparable to window-viewing in Chelsea, but it’s good to have some specific targets in mind. We hit one right away, an exhibition of Inka Essenhigh’s paintings at Miles McEnery Gallery on W 22nd St. Essenhigh was an early influence of mine, she came to speak at the University of Houston when I was there, in ’02 or ’03. At the time I was still looking at contemporary art for ‘permission’; permission to paint this subject, or that way. Then and nowEssenhigh’s forms seem slick and precisely defined in reproduction, like animation cels for lost scenes from Disney’s Fantasia. In person, the paintings reveal Essenhigh’s hand and the minutiae of her decisions. Figures melt into floppy, suggestive forms, occupying a world free from the constraints of gravity, space, reality. The clarity of the enamel paint surface draws the eye into beholding ambiguous forms that tease with narrative possibility. 

Inka Essenhigh, Girls Night Out, 2017, enamel on canvas, 60 x 58 inches, 152.4 x 147.3 cm

Inka Essenhigh, The Shape You're In, 2017, enamel on canvas, 46 x 72 inches, 116.8 x 182.9 cm

Inka Essenhigh, Party of the Flames and Flowers, 2017, enamel on canvas, 48 x 55 inches, 121.9 x 139.7 cm

One street over from Miles McEnery is one of the tentacles of the Gagosian empire (there are 5 in NY alone). Within the gallery on this warm May day is Ancestors, an exhibition of new paintings by British artist Jenny Saville. This is as good as it gets for me. Opinion is divided, but for me these works offer a corporeal vision of a psyche dismembered and fractured by history. They seduce with amorous revulsion, weeping with paint and gestural fits. Bodies of diverse size and color are smashed together and placed on pedestals, daring the viewer to see them in a light that is still not bright enough – the light of a non-male eye. Historically, statistically, most images of women are produced by men. Correspondingly, it is not surprising to me at all that Saville’s “pyrotechnics” are dismissed by critics oblivious to their own biases, with repeated comparisons to Rubens, Salle, Condo, Auerbach. Gagosian’s roster is 79% male, and represents the penultimate stage of artist canonization before institutional enshrinement, where the gender statistics aren't much better. Art does not exist in a hermetic vacuum, divorced from the context of its time or the systemic oppressiveness that defines that time. The standards of formal analysis are not absolute Platonic ideals above issues of identity. Art, like scripture, often reveals more about the reader/viewer than the author/artist. 

Jenny Saville at Gagosian, New York

Installation view of Jenny Saville: Ancestors at Gagosian, New York.
Jenny Saville, Fate III, 2018, oil on canvas, 102 3/8 × 94 1/2 inches, 260 × 240 cm

Day 2

We head down to the Bowery to catch Songs For Sabotage, the 2018 New Museum Triennial, dubbed by Jerry Saltz the “I Am More Woke Than You” triennial. I didn’t feel that it was "strung out on privileged bullshit" but I am not totally unsympathetic to what I think he means. There was perhaps less of an electric air to it than the last triennial, Surround Audience, but 2015 was a different time wasn’t it? Bailing out on an attempt to process the concept of geontopower certainly helps maintain Saltz’s "folk critic" point of view (a "folk critic” with a Pulitzer Prize no less). But to dismiss Elizabeth Povanelli’s admittedly esoteric concept upon it’s first major exposure in the world of art feels a bit hasty. Were it used to justify distant, opaque, cynical, elitist gestures, perhaps I would dismiss it as well – art that dismisses the viewer should be dismissed by the viewer. Fortunately, the approaches and tactics present in Songs are familiar, accessible, and responsive, while at the same time remaining highly idiosyncratic and unexpected. As for geontopower, it is the New Museum after all, and new approaches to obsessively unpacking the unprecedented, cancerous monetizing of every aspect of life actually does feel like the right thing to be doing at this point in time. Like much great art, these works from all over the globe attempt to contend with content that defies cogent, verbal articulation. The heat of the hot button issues can be felt in many of these works without knowing specifically which buttons the artists are pushing. I give in to the urge to share images of the work of Los Angeles painter Janiva Ellis: riots of color and imagery, unabashed, hand-wrought, and immediate. Playing with the fire of faces, caricature and cartoons, Ellis's bold color and sunny skies are spoonfuls of sugar to help the medicine go down. 

In the Lower East Side we visit three galleries: Magenta PlainsCANADA, and yours mine & ours gallery. Our hosts in the Village recommend an exhibit at Magenta Plains, a solo exhibition of paintings by Alex Kwartler. Subjects and objects include tuna cans, popcorn, pennies and the titular snowflakes. I am drawn to a pair of Tuyman-esque paintings of pennies dissolving into grey, austere fogs, fading memories of money. Just my two cents. At CANADA, the paintings of Daniel Hesidence are close to hitting a moving target between imagery and effect. Recurring head-shaped forms force a tense reckoning with the other visual information. The strangeness is compounded by the swirling line work flipping over and under, trying to play at being recognized as something too. While walking down Eldridge St. I notice some work I recognize from LA, Mandy Lyn Ford at yours, mine & ours. Though the materials of Ford's work are paint, cardboard, glitter, canvas, wood, and the like, in her hands they read more along the lines of cake, frosting, sugar, sprinkles, etc. Abstract painting as decadent, over the top dessert. Those colors, that glitter, and the confection-like qualities combine with the ferocious material presence and sublime interior logic, both two-dimensionally and three, to create a more 'nutritious' tension.