Painting has died and been resurrected several times in recent decades. Challenged by theory-laden conversations about art’s “post-medium” condition and a welter of deconstructionist propositions, painting seems nevertheless to have thrived in the face of adversity. Some would say it remains as manifold and imaginative as ever. In order to take its pulse, Image asked four painters to reflect on the work of any of their contemporaries who interest them. The four artists—Wayne Adams, Alfonse Borysewicz, Catherine Prescott, and Tim Rollins—are a diverse bunch. They paint in a variety of styles and differ in their level of engagement with art theory. Yet without prompting, all four suggested that they regard authenticity of statement as the most valuable—if not also the most elusive—quality in contemporary painting: They share a concern for the integrity of the painting as the arena where material meets meaning. Our thanks to James Romaine for organizing this symposium.
The Problems of Painting
PAINTING is a problem. Or maybe it’s better to call it a series of problems. When you become a painter, you take on two simultaneous tasks: establishing problems, and addressing them within the work.
When I naïvely set out to paint for a living, I thought that all the other occupations seemed easy. Whether it was plumbing or surgery, all you had to do was figure out the answers to the set of problems belonging to your discipline. Then you just plugged in the formula and your problems were fixed. This certainly has been the case in the information tech jobs I’ve had: with the right code or tools, you can diagnose and solve almost anything. Painting, I thought, was a better challenge, because with painting you had to invent not only the solution, but the problem as well. Looking back, I could smack my earlier self for his arrogance and presumption. But let’s focus on the subject at hand.
Lately, a lot of painters seem to be addressing a similar set of problems. A new wave of artists are once again taking on the problems of society by addressing beauty, decay and destruction. I sense that the image is generally under attack, or at least being forced into major changes. Digital photography has made it easier to take more and better pictures, and roomier hard drives allow us to store the thousands of vacation photos we can’t bring ourselves to delete. This proliferation of images has taken its toll on the dear old picture.
While most of us would be devastated if we lost our laptops or our hard drives failed before we could back up our photos, the sheer volume results in something of a devaluing of the individual snapshot. If you have fifteen thousand pictures in your iPhoto library, the value of each is less than if you had only fifty or a hundred. In galleries and museums in recent months, the result of this photographic devaluing is a declining number of pictorial representations and an increase in abstract compositions of varying degree.
I recently had the privilege of seeing the inaugural show at the new building for the New Museum in New York, titled Unmonumental. The name is appropriate. My first impression was of the low-quality materials used by nearly every artist. Despite the dumpster-dive quality of the media, much if not most of the work addressed decidedly formal issues of beauty and composition. Much of the work was beautiful even while obviously and self-consciously consisting of trash.
The show featured collage, but the parallel to painting is easily made; indeed many of the so-called collages could fit within a broad definition of painting. Mark Bradford’s enormous Helter Skelter I (2007) covered most of an entire wall [see Plate 13]. It involves multiple layers of paper, posters, and magazine advertisements, but also contains areas of painted abstraction and imagery—calling to mind Robert Rauschenberg or Jean-Michel Basquiat. Nancy Spero’s The Hours of the Night II (2001) appears to include a mixture of techniques that could easily be considered painting, from the layers of thin, washy rectangles of color to mottled backgrounds that look loosely brushed. Throughout the show, imagery was appropriated from magazines, newspapers, and posters. It’s hard to walk through an exhibit of collages and not be aware of the effect on the pictorial image. When imagery was needed, it was usually borrowed from another context instead of being hand-drawn or painted. Images and photographs became another medium, like paint, to be manipulated and applied at will. Pictures were valued here for their parts, which were pulled out and combined with others to form new images. The artists seemed not to need to create new images, content to draw from the pool of pre-existing ones.
The lack of pictorial representation in paint was amplified by the physical and self-conscious nature of the work. When I say that a piece like Helter Skelter I is self-conscious, I mean that you’re immediately aware of its nontraditional and banal—even trashy—materials. Inherent to the piece is the fact that it’s made up of layers. It’s reminiscent of buildings and walls wheat-pasted with posters in cities like New York and Los Angeles. Though the materials are garbage, the effect is strangely beautiful.
The observation must be made that reconstituting detritus into paintings is not new. Indeed, it owes a huge debt to the pioneers who gave it legitimacy in the contemporary art world—most notably Robert Rauschenberg. Rauschenberg’s series of “combines,” a term coined by fellow artist Jasper Johns, popularized the use of nontraditional materials to create artworks that are neither purely paintings nor sculpture, but something in between. Works like the Rebus (1955) incorporate material from Rauschenberg’s own studio (paper, comics, political posters, drawings), as demonstrations of his idea that “a painting is more like the real world if it’s made out of the real world” Bradford and the Unmonumental artists are building on Rauschenberg’s tradition—a tribute made ironically poignant by Rauschenberg’s death during the run of the show.
The presence of painting as material in the exhibition was easy to find. You could see it on cardboard, discarded wood, Styrofoam, and magazines. It’s art gone shabby-chic. And it’s beautiful and interesting and decidedly not precious. This self-deprecation through materials reiterates the show’s title and also seems to point to an attitude of the artists themselves and, by extension, society at large (if I may be permitted a romantic extrapolation). According to the curators, “‘Unmonumental’ also describes the present as an age of crumbling symbols and broken icons.” The consideration of beauty and its reflection in a chaotic society provided these artists with quite a set of problems. In resolving these problems, decay and destruction are prominently displayed, but not without beauty’s hopeful and, I would argue, enduring presence.
On a recent trip to the various geographically separated art “neighborhoods” of LA, I couldn’t help but notice a similarity, especially in the younger galleries, to what I’d seen at the New Museum in New York. Time and time again, I encountered work whose ethos could easily have been summed up as “unmonumental.” This trend (if it can be called a trend) doesn’t necessarily mean the work is good. The inclination toward apparent sloppiness of technique and cheap materials may contribute to an influx of truly awful art, as artists try to cash in on what’s popular.
A handful of new artists, however, are working through the problems of an unmonumental ethos with notable aplomb. Though many established artists, from Rauschenberg and Johns to Sarah Sze and Jessica Stockholder, can claim to have influenced the trend for banal materials, assemblage, and the junk aesthetic, I want to highlight three young and emerging painters: John Bauer, Jered Sprecher, and Mike Cloud. Each approaches the problems of material, self-consciousness, and beauty in a unique way.
Bauer, who is originally from southern California, is a New York artist recently relocated to LA, whose striking, monochromatic paintings have recently received acclaim. His bombastic black and white abstractions call to mind punk rock or Japanese noise music. Where other painters like Robert Ryman [see Plate 24] and Christopher Wool explore the nature and significance of painting as a medium, Ryman through paint’s physical relation to its support and Wool through its flatness, Bauer draws the two explorations together by making works that simultaneously call attention to their material and depth. Chernobyl (2006) is a silver and black cacophony of spray marks, direct marks, serially repeated marks, splatters, bitmapped lines, and a digital grid [see Plate 14]. His material may be that of a more conventional painter, but his imagery boasts layers of scrawls, drips, and throw-away marks. Standing in front of it, you cannot escape the sense of a chaotic and destructive space created by the painting techniques and their combinations. The spaces Bauer creates may hint at empirical black-and-white realities, but they are resolved in the chaotic working out of beautiful and complex silvers and grays.
Jered Sprecher is based in Knoxville, where he teaches at the University of Tennessee. He recently participated in the Space Program of the Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation and held a residency at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Through his paintings, Sprecher captures and explores particular moments in his cultural environment. His works may draw from the myriad images he gathers—or the precise structures of crystals—but in all cases they demonstrate an acute awareness of their own materials while referencing (though not depicting) specific imagery. Of the three artists, he comes nearest to using actual imagery, yet for the most part his paintings would rather evoke than declare. To look at his work is to get a sense of things, rather than having things explained to you. His acute selection of references to beauty and perfection in diamonds and digital technology is balanced by the looseness of his brushstrokes and the beautifully awkward mixing of his color palette. Redux (2006) is a monumental vortex that recalls both 2001: A Space Odyssey and fake plastic jewelry [see Plate 15].
Mike Cloud takes a self-conscious awareness of materials to another level, leaving the structures and edges of his paintings exposed. Originally from Chicago, Cloud received his training at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and Yale, where he did his MFA. Now based in New York, he is represented by the Max Protech Gallery. Where Bauer and Sprecher use implied imagery and paint itself as a vehicle for dialogue, Cloud expands the conversation to the very frame and canvas. He sometimes goes so far as to build objects (namely toys) onto their surfaces. His Chicken with Two Stars of David (2005), an heir to Rauschenberg’s combines, is a bold leap from a conception of painting as a surface paralleling the wall to painting as a free-standing object.
These three artists walk a fine line between the gimmicky and the sublime, but feats this daring deserve all the more glory. I wouldn’t call their work universally beautiful, but it all has an inherent appeal. The three seem to acknowledge the effects of entropy while resolving their compositions with simple beauty.
So what? Is there any significance to the trash aesthetic? I would argue that this unmonumental work reflects attitudes that underlie American culture at large. Today the sense that there is beauty nearly everywhere in the world, even among our refuse, seems painfully balanced by the sense that we humans have nearly succeeded in destroying it all. You don’t have to watch An Inconvenient Truth to notice the world’s tragic condition. Just reading the news can suffice. The Unmonumental artists are tackling some of the most urgent problems facing our world. As the curators write, these artists “exploit the power of found images to communicate the unease, displacement, and anger peculiar to our times.”
While I don’t believe that the world’s moral, environmental, and economic solutions are to be found on canvases, I don’t think it’s grandiose to give artists a place in this conversation. There is an urgent need for artists to reiterate the power of transcendent beauty in everyday things—value in the valueless, hope in the hopeless. These expressions, whatever their form, are important for us to observe, contemplate, and perhaps act upon, for in them we have articulations, however abstract, of what the problems are and where (potentially) the answers lie.
And what does all this have to do with my digital photographs? Perhaps my feeling that the value of images is under attack through over-use is just a local reflection of a larger problem; perhaps my image of the world is under attack from over-use as well. I have been wondering if my degree of value for images (of my world) is somehow linked to how I value my world itself. If the image of a thing becomes devalued to the point that we do not care about it at all, how does that reflect on our attitude toward the thing itself? I guess I need to get painting and figure it out.
Wayne Adams is a Brooklyn-based artist who has exhibited throughout the Midwest and in New York and Vienna, including recently at Alogon Gallery in Chicago, the New York Center for Art and Media Studies, and Pole Position Gallery in Brooklyn.
LAST YEAR in Dublin I was fortunate enough to hear the poet Aidan Matthews speak on a panel on spirituality and the arts. In a profuse sweat, he told us about his bipolar life and these lost modern times (wonderfully recalled in his book According to the Small Hours). What I remember most was his warning against the “idolatry of our own narratives.” Through his Catholic faith, he had come to believe that God will fill in our narratives for us. Hearing this was a great liberation for me. In the art world, there is a constant pressure to frame oneself—on résumés, in blurbs, and at dinner-party talk. Worse, we often come to believe—personally and collectively—in these narratives. We want to control the flow of the story and define the ending before its end—and even Aristotle recognized the foolishness of such thinking. But God is the undertow. As the theologian Bernard Lonergan observed: “Just as man does not live on bread alone, so knowledge does not serve on certitude alone.”
I once wrote an extensive narrative of myself in these pages [see Image issue 32]. Looking back, I now realize what was missing: the abandonment of certitude, the willingness to give up on making sense of it all, and the honesty to admit it. When we let go of our certitude, as Samuel Beckett puts it, something happens. In a roundabout way, this has been the story of my own painting over the past ten years. I have walked away from a market-obsessed art world and recommitted myself to what God has offered me: a saeculum. One human lifetime. A time to live, a time to believe, a time to hope, and a time to reconcile. I have thrown my lot in with the community of saints and sinners. I have solidarity with the church and gratitude for the gift of life. Like many wounded moderns, I breathe the air of the present with an increasing sense of indebtedness.
Several artists have recently helped me release my certitude. By focusing on someone else’s hand and voice for a change, I’ve been able to give up trying to control the flow of my own story and allow something to happen in my being. Oddly, though I have been obsessed with the Christian praxis in my own work, there’s little direct engagement with Christianity among them (with one exception). Yet there is a common thread. We are all searching for an anchor that checks what John Lukacs calls the shallow, ephemeral, and near-fanatical spirituality of our times. These artists all avoid the guise of revolutionary genius that plagues our contemporaries. Rather, their genius is in their ordinariness.
I met Tadhg McSweeney last year in Dublin, and was able to visit his delightful and cluttered studio at Red Stables, where he was doing a residency. His small canvases seem to swim against the current. His warm, intimate palette is interrupted by familiar and menacing objects, as in Helicopter [see Plate 16]. Something is just not right in his paintings, and all these months later I’m still wondering what it is. There is a Paradise Lost element that seems to echo Ireland’s recent tremendous social, religious, and economic changes. Another work, Picnic, depicts a bear on his toes taking stock of an interior space. It looks to me like the bear of globalization peering in on the unsuspecting household of Ireland itself.
Matt Poindexter and Elisa Soliven, both young painters, are a couple. Each has a distinct vision, but they share a humility of approach as well as an innocence and excitement in their gushes of color and form. We tend to think of art as a solitary struggle, so it’s interesting to consider a case like this. When does one vision recede, the other expand? When do they merge? Poindexter works by floating oil paint on top of a pool of water like an ancient bath. The floating paint swirls, waiting for a sheet of paper to be laid over it to absorb the paint and capture the forms—waiting for something to happen. The finished work looks both archeological and modern, and seems to tease us with how ordinary we still are. Hell depicts not a Dantean circle of fire but one of those muddy pits we all played in once [see Plate 17]. This one is filled with some sort of biological hazard, and we kneel over it, stirring its multicolored chemicals. Soliven calms us down with works like Labryrinth and Checkers [see Plate 18], paintings that bring us back to the everyday, to living now instead of being consumed with lust for certainty about tomorrow. We are allowed to play, to be, to partake in something happening.
I like to imagine the painter Thomas Hardin sitting down for dinner with Samuel Johnson and John Henry Newman. An anglophile Texan, Hardin is a great conversationalist and a great mind, and could easily write a dictionary of his own. Now working in London, he is gifted in theology and the arts, and unlike the other three painters I’ve mentioned, he shares my obsession with Christianity. He is now working in design and architecture, but his true roots are in the church and the fine arts. From needlepoint to sculptural installations for liturgical celebrations to drawing, weaving, painting, and even ringing of bells, Thomas lives and breathes creative sacred space. His work also faces the present tensions in the Anglican Church between traditionalists and liberals. His Stations of the Cross make faith paramount, transcending our fixation with cultural and gender issues. Combining embroidery with pencil, canvas, paint, and more, they echo the grand tradition of all the faithful that—we often forget—makes us a community [see Plate 19]. Hardin’s delicacy and nuance is modern yet medieval, echoing those great cathedrals of our faith.
This spring in downtown Brooklyn I happened to eat my lunch in a grove of trees at the MetroTech Center. I was quickly mesmerized by what I saw in the branches overhead: organic nests of plastic bottles filled with watermelon-colored water and tied in clusters [see Plate 20]. This was installation art with a painting sensibility at its best. The arrangement used the trees and sky to frame our perspectives from below. I had a hunch about who the artist was, and soon found a plaque naming Tony Feher (the installation was sponsored by the Public Art Fund). Feher, who refers to his works as “tricks,” uses common, functional materials such as plastic bottles, light bulbs, and thumbtacks—all the artifacts of our disposable culture. He carefully chooses his material for its color, shape, and texture to draw our attention as he integrates the work into the landscape. Watermelon was the perfect color for the interior of this grove, which stands within one of Brooklyn’s priority security centers, where emergency fire and communication stations are cordoned off from the beautiful public space by ugly concrete barriers. The air is thick with a sense of waiting. In downtown Brooklyn, the calm and silent grove of jeweled trees stands on unsettled, even dangerous ground, a metaphor for our times. The coexistence of beauty and menace prompted me to utter the same prayer the disciples prayed at Emmaus: “Stay with us, Lord.”
Not until the tenth chapter of his Confessions, after pages of personal reflection, does Saint Augustine begin to question how much he can really know himself: Quaestio mihi factus sum (I have become a question to myself), he writes. So I have hinted here. Through circumstance I came across these five artists, and through their hands I glimpsed epiphanies both ordinary and profound. Something happened when I saw their work: I was pulled out of my own story and into theirs, and I saw myself anew. They are good neighbors.
Alfonse Borysewicz received a master’s degree in theology before studying painting at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He has received a Guggenheim Painting Fellowship and has had solo shows at Richard Anderson Fine Art, Yoshii Gallery in New York and Tokyo, and Francine Seders. He lives and works in Brooklyn.
A Painter’s Thoughts on the State of Painting
Art is in a race with its interpretation.
______ —Fairfield Porter, Art in Its Own Terms
IN THE GRAND, elegant reception hall of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, a massive nineteenth-century building with a façade marked by Beaux-Arts decorative detail and a new entrance that, at night, reminds me of one half of a gigantic flying saucer attached to the front of the building, hangs a nine-foot square painting of a black man riding a bucking white horse [see Plate 21]. The horse’s mane and tail, and a golden drape around the man’s shoulders, are blowing as if in a violent wind as the two climb a dangerous rocky outcrop. Both are looking at us, the horse straining with a wild-eyed sideways glance, for he is about to slip, and the man with his head calmly turned down toward our position on the floor. The rider wears a camouflage suit and Timberlands. The background consists of a flat space covered with red and gold wallpaper, the sort of design that might be seen in damask, covering the wall of a grand Victorian dining room or perhaps a castle somewhere.
The pose of the figure and horse imitates Jacques-Louis David’s 1801 painting Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Grand-Saint-Bernard. Indeed, the painting in Brooklyn is called Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, but even without the title and date (2005), and even if you had never seen the older work, you would know instantly that this is a skillful contemporary take on an old master portrait; and, if you knew anything about French history, you might be able to guess the original subject. You would also sense, without the benefit of art studies, that the painter knows something you don’t. Your instinct tells you something sly is going on here.
The painter is Kehinde Wiley, born in 1977. The museum’s wall text quotes him as saying, “Painting is about the world that we live in. Black men live in the world. My choice is to include them. This is my way of saying yes to us.” It goes on to explain: “Historically the role of portraiture has been not only to create a likeness but also to communicate ideas about the subject’s status, wealth, and power…. Wiley transforms the traditional equestrian portrait by substituting a young black man dressed in urban street gear for the figure of Napoleon. Wiley thereby confronts and critiques cultural traditions that do not acknowledge the experience of urban black culture….”
This explanation is a textbook definition of irony: there is discord and incongruity between the painting’s surface meaning and its underlying meaning. What we see first, the pose of animal and figure, temporarily convinces us that we are looking at something from an art history lecture, but the wallpaper assaults us almost simultaneously with a strong denial of that association. One by one we notice cues that this is about the present, yet here we are comparing this work to older paintings.
There is no doubt that Wiley intended all this. He has made an alluring fake. And the effect is to clarify for us that we have been left out of the picture. As we stand in the museum’s reception hall, we are literally beneath the painting. Apparently Mr. Wiley wants us to be corrected by what we see, to come to know what he already knows, something that we have been ignorant of. He is pedagogical. He assumes our position to be other than his. In one of the interviews on his extensive website, he says that he wants to make a place for himself in “all of this,” referring to the world of art and success. In another interview on YouTube, he tells us that “to be acceptable as a black man is probably the subject matter of this work in some way.” Even through the softening “probably” and “in some way,” we can see the single-mindedness of his painted codes and the direct hit on both the tradition of portraiture and the viewer who has accepted it as true history. His alluring fake is telling us we have been faked out.
Portraiture has come a long way in recent years. In November of 2006 I attended the annual Richardson symposium at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. The symposium, “Today’s Face: Perspectives on Contemporary Portraiture,” organized by associate curator Brandon B. Fortune was concurrent with the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, one of several shows celebrating the grand reopening of the museum after six years of renovation. The call for entries had been published widely in art journals several months before. Its tag line, “Let’s Face It: Portraiture is Back,” had the ring of a rising rebel cry, and hinted at the restoration of history itself. The appeal to portraitists, who were used to years of avant-garde art which didn’t have much place for them, and who may have hung onto the tradition of portraiture like a dog with a rag, was one of solidarity, a knowing brotherhood. It elicited a response from four thousand of them.
The symposium consisted of morning lectures by two art historians and a museum director about current aspects of portraiture. Even the notion that there might be more than one aspect was somewhat radical. In the afternoon were live interviews with three portrait artists, including power-point presentations of their work. Two had pieces in the competition. The third was Kehinde Wiley. He was forthcoming about his ideas. He had, as a Yale MFA candidate, seen portraiture as absolutely faux and been interested in deconstructing it. But at the Studio Museum of Harlem he developed a romantic idea of portraiture as pointing to something bigger. He wanted to work with portraiture as a sign and with painting as authority. And he wanted to “ham it up.” When the interviewer pushed him about the deliberate inauthenticity in his work, his voice took on a wistful quality. He wished he could make something that was not ironic, he said: “There’s a certain sadness…. We all wish for those soft, cuddly moments of authenticity, but we can’t do that.” I wanted to jump up out of my seat, wave my arms, and yell, “Yes, you can, Kehinde! You can do anything you want!” With all his self-described tricks, his skill, his business acumen (“Part of what I’m trying to do is imbibe the corporate model,” he says; and, “I create high-priced luxury items for wealthy clients”), and his academic theory, he seems trapped by his success, by how he got there, and by how he will continue to develop his career. And he seems trapped by irony.
Artists are generally full of self-doubt. We prefer to think of ourselves as being on our own track, yet no one is immune to trends and changes in the art world. Everyone asks the question, “Where does my work fit in?” I had a gifted painting student at Messiah College who transferred after his sophomore year to a BFA program. From there he aimed to go to Yale for his MFA, a top choice for any ambitious artist. After applying and being rejected, he told me that although he would never go far from painting the figure, he had decided to paint it ironically, at least until he was accepted at Yale. “After that,” he said, “I can do anything I want.”
Irony in painting is nothing new. Even in portraiture it has been around a long time: think of Goya’s nineteenth-century portrayals of the Spanish royals as morons. Last summer’s controversy over the July 21 New Yorker cover showing the Obamas as flag-burning Muslim terrorists bumping fists in the Oval Office brought irony in art to the op-ed pages. The question that editor David Remnick addressed in response to objections was not whether or not the Obamas are really like that, but whether or not the readership of the magazine, and the larger public, are capable enough, smart enough, to understand that the depiction of said lie exaggerates its absurdity. By the time my copy was delivered to rural Pennsylvania the controversy was over, but the picture on page 16 of Kehinde Wiley sitting in front of one of his portraits was a real surprise. The exhibition that had attracted such coveted attention was Wiley’s solo show of portraits of rappers at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Safe to say, Mr. Wiley has made a splash in the art world, a very unusual position for a portrait painter.
Wiley is not the only artist who has painted rappers in recent years. In March, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit exhibited Holy Hip-Hop! New Paintings by Alex Melamid. If the name rings a bell, it’s because he and Vitaly Komar were a famous Russian conceptual art duo for nearly four decades. The declared intent of their early work, beginning in the 1970s, was to examine social realism, but the irony of the paintings was so obvious that the two were branded as political dissidents. As they progressed in irony, they delighted the international (and commercial) art world in 1995 by adding a third partner, Renée, an elephant they met in the Toledo zoo, with whom they collaborated on abstract paintings. As Mr. Komar put it, “The elephant’s trunk is amazing…dexterous and sensitive. And, of course, elephants are extremely intelligent, so Renée had a really very impressive command of the brush.” They proceeded to establish several elephant academies in Thailand where, Mr. Melamid said, “We gave them an opportunity to have a second career, to become artists.” They later developed two other imaginary (literally invented) artists, and also brought a dog and a chimpanzee to the (s)table.
What is Alexander Melamid doing painting over-lifesize, dramatic, skillful likenesses of Snoop Dog and 50 Cent in a style that Carol Kino describes as recalling the court paintings of Velasquez [see Plate 23]? “I am repenting for my sins; I am a born-again artist,” he told Ms. Kino in an interview for the New York Times. These aren’t his first portraits. He and Mr. Komar did a series of ironic portraits (read kitschy in this case) of Stalin, Lenin, and George Washington after emigrating to the US in 1977. But the rappers are not ironic. The works bear the hallmarks of traditional portraiture: likeness, naturalism, evidence of training, and culturally significant subjects. Nor is this new venture into portraiture a flash in the pan. He’s currently painting monumental portraits of cardinals, priests, and nuns for an April 2009 exhibition in London and is planning a portrait series of contemporary Russian captains of industry. Where did this come from, and why now?
Melamid and Komar were born during World War II in Moscow, and were trained to produce social realist art in the official Soviet manner. The key word here is “trained.” For although they rebelled, joining the dissident underground, and later were expelled from the Moscow Union of Artists in 1974, they had developed traditional skills. The denial and rejection of those skills for nearly forty years has an obvious connection with choosing animals for painting partners. As Mr. Melamid put it, “Then, I wanted to paint as bad as possible. Now, I make as good as possible.” He calls his early paintings “horrible” and goes on to say, “My partner and myself, we were very ironic about art, but at a certain point, I realize that I just cannot go this way because it is totally ridiculous, the art itself. I lost my faith.” Apparently he had lost faith in the very world in which Kehinde Wiley wants to make a place for himself. With these new portraits, and what Kino calls his “sudden embrace of serious painting,” Melamid returns to a childhood conviction that painting is “a sacred and amazing thing.”
If an embrace of serious painting—painting that believes it might be sacred and amazing—has any place in contemporary art, then the current classical realist movement has staked out a large claim in that territory. Painter and teacher Jacob Collins is, if not the actual founder, the most prominent representative of the goals and ideals of the classical realists. His recent exhibit Rediscovering the American Landscape at Hirschl & Adler Modern was a tour de force of representational virtuosity and sincere love of nineteenth-century academic painting. The classical realists have taken on the task of training rapidly increasing numbers of students in their academies and ateliers to draw, paint, and sculpt traditional subject matter in the skillful and refined manner that was lost to art schools during the twentieth-century. Collins’ straightforward depiction of himself in the studio exemplifies many of the techniques that classical realists value and teach [see Plate 22]: the consistent use of light, which illuminates small details as well as larger forms to create a believable naturalism; the absence of intense colors or crisp edges that might stop the eye and get in the way of an illusion of atmosphere, or air; the layering of objects from front to back to make a deep space; and the extensive variation and repetition of hues within a very neutral palette, which unifies that space. One might guess that a movement which proposes to leap backward over modern art, land in the nineteenth-century, and pick up painting where it left off (and eventually ran its course and died) would not claim “freedom,” that battle cry of the American avant-garde, as one of its tenets. But freedom is exactly where these artists stand their ground.
I sat next to Mr. Collins at a luncheon hosted by the Newington-Cropsey Cultural Studies Center which publishes the American Arts Quarterly, and whose purpose is to “promote values inherent in the nineteenth-century works of the Hudson River School painters.” When Mr. Collins tossed out to the table a strongly worded comment about the superiority of an academic approach to painting over what he considered the indoctrination of modern art ideals, I took the bait. Although I know very well that originality was an unhelpful trap in modern painting, I found myself saying, “But surely you have to be careful not to move into imitation.” He shot me a look and said, “I can do anything I want. Who is to say I can’t imitate?” His question raises the problem of thinking of imitation as the opposite of originality.
When I first encountered the classical realists I thought that their paintings were ironic. One can’t help but compare them to earlier works; at first, one suspects some hidden commentary afoot, as in Wiley’s equestrian portraits. But this work, though imitative, lacks discord between its surface and underlying meaning. These painters are not trying to tell us something we don’t know. For many in their audience, traditional painting is a relief.
At the other end of the table from where Collins and I discussed which of us was more brainwashed sat the distinguished art historian and philosopher Donald Kuspit. A prolific and widely published author, Mr. Kuspit has been highly respected in contemporary art criticism for decades. Early on, his writing for Artforum and other conceptually oriented journals which eschewed traditional artistic values was sympathetic to the avant-garde. One might ask what he was doing at a Newington-Cropsey luncheon. If ever a man has changed his way of thinking, Mr. Kuspit is he. At a dinner in February honoring him as the recipient of the tenth annual Newington-Cropsey Foundation Award for Excellence in the Arts, Mr. Kuspit stated that he shares the foundation’s purpose of “re-enlisting art in the service of humanistic transcendence.” He was asked to speak on the current state of the visual arts, and began with this statement: “Avant-gardism has exhausted itself, however many interesting works it may continue to produce. I think this has to do with the fact that it never had a firm foundation in tradition, and thus remained inwardly precarious and insecure.” He believes that originality is not possible without tradition as a basis, and that what has happened to the avant-garde has been a process of trivialization, making trends and novelty take the place of originality. He cited the aesthetician Theodor Adorno who wrote (in Kuspit’s paraphrase) that the avant-garde has become “an instrument of mass entertainment rather than of psychological insight.”
The painter and film director Julian Schnabel is able to engage both these notions of art—instrument of mass entertainment and instrument of psychological insight—though not in the same medium. As a painter, the neo-expressionist of the 1980s who was known for attaching broken plates (inspired by his brief career as a New York dishwasher) to his massive canvases and then painting over them, has done a fascinating job appropriating (as opposed to imitating) what critics called an “old master style.”
Schnabel is known for his ability to keep one step ahead of art world trends. His 1997 exhibition Portrait Paintings at PaceWildenstein consisted of twelve oil portraits on nine-foot canvases in which decidedly and deliberately badly painted figures dressed in eighteenth and nineteenth-century costumes floated on a non-representational ground. In case we were not sure the portraits were ironic, several had expansive blobs of white paint dripping down, or splashing up, across the figure and the space behind. The canvases were framed in pinkish, putty-colored cast rubber that at first glance imitated the wide, elaborate molding of old master frames. The catalogue is bound in wine-red velour.
Julian Schnabel also directed the gorgeous, acclaimed 2007 film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a film that almost seems to have been made by a different person. I was stunned not only by its quality, but by its themes of interiority, human connection, and the inspiration of thoroughness—three qualities that could never describe the last twenty-five years of Schnabel’s painting. The film is based on the memoir of Jean-Dominique Bauby, who after a massive stroke was completely paralyzed except for one eye. Mentally undamaged and fully alert, Bauby developed a way of communicating by blinking, which he used to write his book. The film is not sentimental, nor does it bare its realism in the guise of toughness. Rather, it walks the line between the true mess of being human and the transcendent humanism of our love and longing. The art of Schnabel’s film was in giving us enough detail on both sides of that line to lead us into a deep connection with Bauby in all of his, and our, complexity.
The ever-savvy Schnabel is sticking with irony in his current series of badly painted commissioned portraits—including those of the lucky winners of a recent MasterCard “priceless” campaign that ran in the New Yorker. Does film allow him to move on to a kind of art that he knows won’t fly in painting at this point?
I agree with the art historian Garrett Stewart that the crisis of painting in modern art is related to a crisis of interiority, and I believe that interiority is a necessary component of human connection. What I like best about nineteenth-century writers like Thomas Hardy and Edith Wharton is not their style of writing or the style of life they describe, but their insight into human character, both its beauty and its flaws, as reflected in their interior life. I believe that Facebook, MySpace, and the general social networking frenzy are a manifestation of the slow drain of that insight. What I like best about twentieth-century painters like Picasso and Cezanne is not the style in which they paint, or the supposed originality and freedom of their work, but the direct connection and struggle they had with their subject matter, messy as that was, because they insisted on starting with their own convictions. As Kuspit puts it, I am looking for art in the service of human transcendence.
I suspect that portrait painting is a microcosm of painting in general, and that the current duality between serious and ironic painting is really a duel over whether, as Donald Kuspit said and Alexander Melamid dreamed, art in the service of human transcendence is valuable or not; and if it is, how does one keep it from being cheesy; and if it isn’t, how does one keep it from being a regrettable absence. I believe that the traditionalists, by starting where previous artists have finished, run the danger of making their subjects too perfect to connect with, and that the ironists risk separation by using their subjects to make themselves superior. Both are underestimating themselves.
Catherine Prescott taught painting at Messiah College for twenty years and continues to teach with Gordon College’s Orvieto Program and Andreeva Portrait Academy. She was awarded a 2008 Individual Artist’s Fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Her work can be seen at www.PrescottPaintings.com.
Only What You Do For Christ Will Last
Tim Rollins is the founder of K.O.S. (Kids of Survival), a South Bronx collective of young artists that creates collaborative visual responses to music and literature. A professor of fine arts at the School of Visual Arts in New York, Rollins began working with underprivileged junior high school students in 1982, reading aloud to them as they drew freely. In over twenty-five years of work, Tim Rollins and K.O.S. have had over a hundred solo exhibitions worldwide, and their work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Tate Modern in London, and others, and was featured in Image issue 45. Rollins is an active member in the music, arts, and HIV/AIDS ministries at Memorial Baptist Church in Harlem. He was interviewed in his studio in Chelsea, New York, by James Romaine.
Image: Adolph Gottlieb said that different times require different sorts of painting. What sort of painting do we need today, as we near the end of the twenty-first century’s first decade?
Tim Rollins: My spirit tells me that we need sincerity. We need painting that says, with sincerity, the things that have to be said and can only be said through painting. If you can make a sincere statement that stands up in a cynical age, that’s an amazing victory.
The art I make with K.O.S. is very soulful. If you don’t believe in soul, you won’t believe in us and our work.
Image: What do you mean by soulful?
TR: Being soulful is feeling materialized. That is the gospel of Jesus: spirit expressed in material.
Image: I asked just now about painting’s relationship to the world beyond art, but modernist and contemporary painting also has its own internal life. What are some critical issues for painting as it continues to evolve as a language, as a form of visual communication?
TR: My teacher Joseph Kosuth said that he used language to transcend language. In my collaboration with K.O.S., we use painting to transcend painting. That is what enables us to materialize something that, until that moment, had remained invisible. The great challenge for the artist is to make the invisible visible. Painting is the ultimate medium for that transformation, but we have to move beyond movements. Movements are essentially for academics.
Image: In the last several years, which contemporary painters have stood out for you as exemplifying significant developments?
TR: Without a doubt, Robert Ryman. His work is spirit materialized [see Plate 24].
Image: Is that because he principally works with a minimal vocabulary of white paint?
TR: No, his art isn’t minimal at all. His paintings are explosions; he is like Turner. His work is like the music of John Coltrane. Ryman has been a major influence on us.
In 1989, we had a retrospective at the Dia Center’s space on Twenty-fourth Street here in Chelsea. At the opening, I looked around and no one from K.O.S. was there. We had arrived together, but they had all disappeared. I found them all upstairs where Ryman was having an exhibition. They were entranced.
It was the same with Ad Reinhardt. Once we went as a group to the Museum of Modern Art. After that we went out for pizza, and I asked the kids what they remembered. Carlos Rivera said, “I want to go back and see the black painting about God.” He was talking about Reinhardt and the fact that his work has a cross in it.
Image: It sounds like he wasn’t thinking about Reinhardt’s theory of art. He just looked at the work and got the spirit of it.
Image: How is your work different from Ryman’s?
TR: Ryman is epicurean. To luxuriate in beauty is wonderful. Our art, on the other hand, is about accomplishing something in the world. Ryman’s paintings aren’t about anything; they are something. Our work, because we use works of literature, is more referential. We employ art as a medium of learning.
Image: Are there any others who, in your opinion, have had a notable impact on the trajectory of contemporary painting?
TR: Certainly Robert Rauschenberg had a colossal impact. He had a democratic spirit. For him, everything could be used in the creation of a work. His work was so open to the world. It was like a visual revival meeting in which material is infused with the spirit. Anything is possible.
Image: Rauschenberg’s Rebus, at the Museum of Modern Art, is a revival meeting?
TR: Yes, sir! You will be healed!
A Rauschenberg painting is like a giant, welcoming table where everyone is allowed to come and enjoy. It is not a New York Times crossword puzzle like a work by Jasper Johns.
Image: You were a student of Joseph Kosuth, who famously said, “You can paint if you want to, but it probably won’t matter.” What do you think he meant by that rather ruthless pronouncement?
TR: I know that essay well. For Kosuth, art was a form of philosophical discourse in a particular historical moment. In order to make space for conceptual art, he had to kill his father, like Oedipus. He had to kill painting. Of course it didn’t work.
Image: Kosuth made that statement in 1971, during the age of what Lucy Lippard called “the dematerialization of the art object.” What did that mean, and why was this “dematerialization” necessary?
TR: That was a pretty fat book to be about dematerialization.
Image: Yes, there seemed to be a transference of weight from the material of the art object to the material of the text.
TR: You have to admire the ambition, courage, romanticism, and radicalism of a project that tried to move beyond concepts of painting that had been around for centuries, really since the beginning of painting. Maybe their ideas didn’t have longevity, but K.O.S. and I as a group would not exist without Lucy Lippard and Joseph Kosuth. You couldn’t imagine us being around.
Image: Their ideas didn’t have longevity?
TR: Only Jesus has longevity. [He sings:]
You may build great cathedrals large or small,
You can build skyscrapers grand and tall,
You may conquer all the failures of the past
But only what you do for Christ will last.
Image: Against that paradigm of dematerialization, you and your students at Intermediate School 52 began a method of painting on book pages laid out on canvas. Why did you need to make paintings?
TR: That gave Kosuth a heart attack. It’s hard to make a collective work that is dematerialized. Painting was a medium that allowed us to do what we needed to do. I come from Maine, where we don’t theorize about barn building; we get together and build the barn.
Also, I was interested in history. I wanted an art that had a relationship to the Renaissance. I love the challenge of painting. To make a painting that is convincing is hard. Painting itself is easy. You can buy supplies at the store and get right to it. It’s not like some other forms of art that may require expensive or complex equipment. But to make a painting that has soul is hard. To wrestle, like Jacob, with the angel of history, that takes faith. It takes faith to believe that taking a stick with some hairs on it, dipping that in some paint, and making a mark has meaning.
Many people are oppressed by their personal or collective history. I gain inspiration from history. We transform history. We take our histories, personal and collective, and transform them into art.
Image: Many of your earliest works, such as Dracula (after Bram Stoker) and Frankenstein (after Mary Shelley), both from 1983, exhibit what I have called “abject expressionism,” that is, an aesthetic rooted in a modernist tradition, from George Grosz to Philip Guston, that combines raw aesthetics and graffiti or comic-inspired imagery. What did that history mean to you?
TR: Those were both so-called realist works. They were material visualizations of what things looked like and felt like in the South Bronx of 1983. The work attracted a lot of positive attention from people who were outside the situation, but for us, on the inside, they were not transcendent enough. I believe that painting is capable of transcendence and should be transcendent.
Image: Were these works engaging any particular contemporary dialogue about painting’s expressive capacity?
TR: I was really interested in the Mülheimer Freiheit, a group of neo-expressionist or neo-surrealist painters that included Walter Dahn, Jiri Georg Dokoupil, Peter Bömmels, Hans Peter Adamski, and Gerard Kever. It was off the charts. I think that they are underrated.
Image: Was this work indebted to artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat who were bringing street graffiti into high art?
TR: Absolutely not. I knew Basquiat when he was working in Anina Nosei’s basement, but K.O.S. and I would do anything not to make art like his. We were not fake primitives. We were elegant and sophisticated. We were more influenced by someone like Sigmar Polke and the way he appropriated imagery from everywhere and anything and put it on everything and anything.
We were expected to make outsider-looking art. In order to be subversive, we had to make the most elegant work possible. That is why we were attracted to the sheer elegance and economy of Robert Ryman’s work. Especially in those early days of the project, we needed to find a beauty that would carry us just to get though one more day. It was about the beauty of survival.
Image: Amerika I (after Franz Kafka) and the other Amerika-inspired works of 1984 and 1985 represented a significant aesthetic shift in your painting. What in the life of contemporary painting contributed to that evolution?
TR: I can’t tell you where Amerika I (after Franz Kafka) came from. It came from a Holy Ghost moment. People underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit. We don’t make this work. It is not like speaking in tongues. It is the Holy Spirit present. The golden trumpets in Amerika I (after Franz Kafka) are visual glossolalia. Painting is capable of rapture. Our paintings are ecstatic utterances made material and visible.
Image: In 1985 and 1986, you began making works that employ a minimalist-influenced, monochrome aesthetic, such as Black Alice (after Lewis Carroll), White Alice (after Lewis Carroll) and The Whiteness of the Whale (after Herman Melville). How did this come about?
TR: In developing new works, I have always tried to be sure that we are taking our cues from the art that the kids love. In this case, it was Ad Reinhardt. I don’t know why they connected with his work, and I promise you that I did not influence them.
Image: In the early 1990s, with works like The Temptation of Saint Antony (after Gustave Flaubert) and From the Earth to the Moon (after Jules Verne), you seem to have placed a greater (or at least a more noticeable) emphasis on material and process. Did anything in contemporary painting lead you to this shift?
TR: We were trying to move beyond painting. Our work didn’t really look like anyone else’s. Ross Bleckner thought that our work looked like some of his, but ours were not elegies. Our work was about hope. His works are romantic and beautiful but mournful. We were highly influenced by Arte Povera, but hardly any of those artists made paintings.
Image: In the mid-1990s, you made a group of works with a lighter, more open and colorful aesthetic, including The Frogs (after Aristophanes), The Birds (after Aeschylus), and The Clouds (after Aeschylus). Where did that come from?
TR: Those works came from a different place. They shot Christopher Hernandez [a K.O.S. member] in the back of the head. How do you paint after that? You can’t make art about that. I guess we could have but we didn’t. That would have been exploitative. We needed art to get our joy back. We had to fight for our joy. That was when I went back to church.
Image: As you were fighting for your joy, were you looking at any art?
TR: Yes, there was a Henri Matisse retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1992 and ’93. I think we went to it seven times or more. We would go to the Matisse show just to get through the day sometimes.
Image: Toward the end of the 1990s and the beginning of this century, you introduced several series of works, many of them based on musical scores, that have an organic abstraction, including The Creation (after Franz Joseph Haydn), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (after Felix Mendelssohn), and The Seasons (after Franz Joseph Haydn). What were the factors of contemporary painting that contributed to this evolution?
TR: Odilon Redon and other symbolists. Paul Klee was very influential.
Again, it is visual glossolalia. It is about being in a place that is not about you. You become an instrument for something that cannot be articulated any other way.
Image: I’ve been asking about the influence of contemporary painting on your work. I’d like to turn this question around. Can you point to ways in which your work has had an effect on other painters and contemporary painting overall?
TR: I don’t know. I don’t think about that.
What we did was, we took the ethereal motifs of minimalism and the esoteric theories of conceptualism and brought them into material manifestations in concrete situations.
We have influenced the way in which collective art is made. We offered a model that was an alternative to the mural-project approach of community-based art practice.
Image: What about an artist like Kerry James Marshall?
TR: I love his work and he is a wonderful man but his work is about community. Our work is a manifestation of community made visual. I could have done this painting alone, but I never would. [He points to a painting in the studio: Letter from a Birmingham Jail #2 (after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.); see Plate 25.]
Image: The work is a materialization of the spirit in action and the process of collaboration between yourself and K.O.S.
TR: In church we call that “call and response.” You say something, and they say something back, and you say something back that is greater than what you said before. It is glossolalia.
James Romaine is co-founder of the New York Center for Arts and Media Studies, a program of Bethel University. He has a PhD in art history from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where he wrote his dissertation on Tim Rollins and K.O.S.