May 2011

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Jessica Straus at Boston Sculptor’s Gallery

I am sharing a few highlights from my recent visit to some Boston gallery shows. Without intention, the majority of work that I saw that spoke most directly to me was 1) 3D and 2) made by women. I have no explanation for either.

(BTW, I made this trip last week, so unfortunately some of these shows have already closed. For those that are still open, I’ve made notice of the dates.)

At Boston Sculptor’s Gallery, Jessica Straus and Hannah Verlin have filled the space with work that consistently demonstrates a deft-handed mastery and a signatory flair. I am a long time fan of Straus’ exquisitely wrought works (one of her pieces is in my personal collection) so this show is just one more chapter of work to be excited about. In addition to her signature wood pieces, Straus has incorporated glass bottles found in a river bed.

Hannah Verlin is a young artist and new addition to the coop gallery’s impressive roster. She is ready for prime time. A must see show, on view through June 26.


Straus makes wood seem pliant.


One of Straus’ bottle pieces


Hannah Verlin installation view

At Kingston Gallery, another pair of artists created their own kind of enchantment. Susan Scott and Linda Leslie Brown are witty, wily and sure handed. Both of these artists make viewing work fun. How can anyone not love these works? Brown’s structures feel organic, as if they might be growing while they sit or hang in the space. Scott’s structures are endearingly friendly and welcoming, as if they might strike up a conversation with you at any moment.


Linda Leslie Brown at Kingston Gallery


Susan Scott, also at Kingston

Adria Arch’s show at Danforth Museum featured both 2D and 3D works. Inspired by the doodles of her son, Arch’s work is full of glyphs that take on a life of their own. They feel enchanted, alive, mysterious.There was lots of magic in these pieces for me.


Painterly 3D works from Adria Arch


These pieces seemed as if they might wiggle right off the wall

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The way I prepare for a show is to go into hermit mode: Sequester yourself in the art cave and don’t come out until the work is ready.

That also means that most of the conversations I am having these days are with non-sentient beings (i.e., my paintings). It is in a small way like being in a gravity-free chamber with tiny porthole windows and filtered sound. A world out there? Could be, but I wouldn’t know for sure…

The extreme stories you hear about Jonathan Franzen’s elaborate methods for achieving a distraction-free zone to write make sense to me. Maybe the world is divided (once again) into two groups: Those who can write a novel in a coffee shop, and those who cannot. As for me, I know I need silence and privacy.

My cone of self inflicted silence did not block out Tom Ashbrook’s worthy interview with Frank Stella last week however. (You can listen to ithere.) Don’t you love when an elder still thinks and talks fast (and still drives that way too), is excited about exploring new forms (like digital media) and isn’t a solipsistic bag of hot air? Stella was charming, ingenuous and thoughtful. Worth the listen for sure.

A few highlights for me:

He started the interview by quoting Mario Andretti (Stella has a well known passion for car racing): “If everything is under control, you aren’t going fast enough.”

When asked about teaching art, his answer was simple: Be encouraging. Limit constraints. Keep enthusiasm alive. That is a kind of art pedagogy I can stand alongside.

Regarding the distortions of pricing seen in the art auction space, Stella was gentle. “Art world pricing is an illusion.” He graciously described the art world in all its many facets as “a complicated community.” And who is an artist’s audience, he asked? First and foremost, says Stella, you make art to please yourself. You are your own most important audience.

That’s a mantra for any studio wall.

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Melamid in front of his “Art Healing Ministry”

An article from the New York Times provocatively titled Can a Picasso Cure You?, went viral as soon as it was published. References to it were appearing repeatedly on Facebook and Twitter all day.

First of all, the title is just too delicious to not stop and take a read. Charles McGrath is reporting on the latest undertaking of Alexander Melamid, certainly an artist and personality with an extremely checkered past. McGrath’s tone is tongue in cheek and his approach is more novelty than newsworthy. Melamid has opened up an “art clinic” where art is used to heal whatever ails you. Sometimes it is just viewing a Monet, or buying an art candle. The process isn’t described in detail.

Here’s a taste of McGrath’s point of view:

How the art-healing process works is not entirely clear, but it may involve invisible particles called creatons. “The creatons are everywhere, and they go into the human body,” said Mr. Melamid, who is small and animated and has a nimbus of white mad-scientist hair. “If the creatons are used properly and nicely, they can enhance your body functions. They will help you to live happier and will also get rid of impurities. They enter through your kundalini and also into your eyes.”

Reading about creatons in the New York Times is a novelty of its own and yes, just a bit preposterous. But there is some poetry in this “mad-scientist” scheme that brings a sense of delight to me. Creatons! Who knew? And even without any required scientific backup, Melamid goes on to offer up some recommendations that are actually right in line with my own beliefs and practices. For example, there is no question that art heals. How that works is a mystery to me, but it shifts my moods and state of mind. Like magic.

And then there is the issue of limiting your exposure, particularly when you visit a museum or Chelsea:

He [Melamid] went on to explain that a lot of visual information was bad for the patient. “So when you go to a museum,” he continued, “you have to be very discreet. You don’t want overexposure — that’s as dangerous as to take too many medicines. Art needs to be taken in moderation and according to a specialist who can prescribe the right dosage.”

I’ve been doing selective viewing at museums for years now. I highly recommend this approach.

And who knows where this will go? Here’s Melamid’s thoughts on his own role:

“The question is whether I will step over and become real,” Mr. Melamid said. “Whether I will stop being an artist or a conceptualist and become a real healer. That’s what I want to do. I know I’ll never do it, but that’s what I want to do.”

Speaking of his clinic, he said: “Besides being a great idea, it’s something everyone can relate to. It takes art a little bit off the pedestal. You can art-charge your water or your vodka, you can buy an art candle. And it’s funny. I discovered five years ago that the truth is funny. Not everything that’s funny is true, for sure. But whatever is not funny is not true. That’s why truth has never been revealed, because scientists don’t understand that the end product needs to be funny.”

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Installation shot of works by Jacob Kassay

Trends, fads, instant celebritism, hype and its own version of insider trading, the art world (seems silly to call it a “world”—I would prefer a name that is more in line with drug trafficking or a proper noun like Wall Street) has always had its version of the tulip bubble running somewhere. Art world high jinx has been with us for some time. One of the latest hypings is a young artist named Jacob Kassay. A year or two ago he was an unknown, but now his work is selling at auction for outrageously high prices. His technique and pieces are not without charm and intrigue, but the hype is deafening. Too much too quickly. It just can’t be a good thing for Kassay’s organic development as an artist.


A welcome note on the front door to the Dark Room, by George Wingate

It is also a story that is in high contrast to an extraordinary experience I had this weekend. George Wingate, an artist I have known for most of my adult life, was offered the use of an empty storefront in Marblehead Massachusetts by a friend for a one day installation. What he assembled— paintings by himself and others, words on 3 x 5 cards, blue masking tape, found objects and even a video loop—was breathtakingly elegant in its simplicity and deeply moving to me personally. Simply called the Dark Room, this pop up installation offered a gently considered nod to the works of a few Wingate-aligned artists like Richard Tuttle, Yoko Ono and Henry Pearson. But George’s installation was as elemental and authentic a homage to his mysterious and complex journey as an artist as you can get. It was funny, it was poignant, it was sobering. And it brought a singular polyphony to his many parts—artist, thinker, seeker, reader, humorist, poet, seer. They were all there to be acknowledged, those disparate parts that have consistently informed and enriched his work over the many years I have known him.

It is hard to adequately describe why the Dark Room succeeded in being both deeply personal and yet larger than life. Without a whiff of manipulation or self-conscious posturing, George offered anyone who was lucky enough to have been invited a fascinating tour of his deep inner life as an artist.But this tour completely sidesteps the over-sharing, confessional, tediously TMI proclivities of our current culture. George takes you down deep with just a few simple objects and some words on a card. That brevity and essentiality is rare because it is hard to do. Very hard.

The number of people who saw the Dark Room is small. No artfanistas were milling around, and there will be no auctioning off of George’s blue masking taped words any time soon. But as for an unforgettably moving, extraordinarily authentic experience of how visual language operates in deep consciousness, this was a hit out of the park.


George Wingate (on the right)

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Soul

What am I doing inside this old man’s body?
I feel like I’m the insides of a lobster,
All thought, and all digestion, and pornographic
Inquiry, and getting about, and bewilderment,
And fear, avoidance of trouble, belief in what,
God knows, vague memories of friends, and what
They said last night, and seeing, outside of myself,
From here inside myself, my waving claws
Inconsequential, waving, and my feelers
Preternatural, trembling, with their amazing
Troubling sensitivity to threat.
And I’m aware of and embarrassed by my ways
Of getting around, and my protective shell.
Where is it that she I loved has gone, as this
Sea water’s washing over my shelly back?

David Ferry, local luminary and recent winner of the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for lifetime achievement, brings me face-against-the-glass with the experience of aging in this wonderful short poem. The sensations he describes start to appear while we are still mid-lifed and vital, but slowly they become steady features. The metaphor of the waving claw, inconsequential, is haunting. That is a sense I know something about already—motioning, maddeningly, to no avail.

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Boston Globe art critic Sebastian Smee was written a fresh and engaging review of the Fluxus show currently at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth. Generally known in the US through the work of artists and musicians like George Maciunas, John Cage and La Monte Young, the Fluxus movement capitalized on the high jinx, random access, playfully questioning approach that characterized the Dada era of the 1920s. Like the furtive and often transgressive ideas that had a significant impact on cultural development described in Greil Marcus’ book, Lipstick Traces, Fluxus has had its own leaky margins, spilling over into many contemporary visual art and musical forms.

My favorite passage in Smee’s piece came near the end:

The American writer Janet Malcolm once wrote that the spell of any work of art can be shattered by the sound of the nasty little voice in one’s head saying, “But this is ridiculous.’’ She meant, I think, that the reception of all art demands a suspension of skepticism. It demands whole-heartedness, sincerity.

Why? Because from the standpoint of life, art is at a disadvantage. It is artificial. It is not strictly necessary. And therefore it is never far from redundancy. The values we assign it are imaginary — that is to say, a great credit to our imaginations.

Fluxus artists made work that deliberately turned up the volume of that “nasty little voice in one’s head,’’ as if wanting to test our willingness to tune it out.

I like them for this. Not because I think the art world on the whole needs more silliness (most days it seems awash in silliness), but because such tests can have a salutary effect. They threaten our complacency. They yank us out of tired habits of seeing and thinking. They return us to first principles. And they underscore the provisional, fragile nature of the strange and extraordinary edifice we call art.

I am always interested in what can yank us out of tired habits of seeing and thinking. The importance of finding the fresh view is true for art makers as well as art viewers. So yes to first principles, yes to remembering the “provisional, fragile nature of the strange and extraordinary edifice we call art.”

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Photo: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

The proliferation of memorials and remembrances of Robert Rauschenberg has begun. Michael Kimmelman’s obit in the New York Times and Michael McNay’s piece in the Guardian are both well wrought, describing this man who lived an extraordinary life and left an enormous and unforgettable body of work.

But I can’t not take a moment to contemplate the influence of Bob Raushenberg on my artistic development. It would be harmful to my personal sense of justice to not acknowledge who he was for me as an artist.

For most of us who came of age in the 60s, Rauschenberg was the harbinger, the bold marauder. His paintings and prints were visceral, muscular, retinally rich and completing seductive. But it was the relentless swing of his hand that kept knocking us out. Paintings became blends—2D, 3D, photographs, found art, montage, printmaking, technological explorations. His eye went everywhere and his hand followed. He did dance, performance, environments, collaborations. The resourcefulness, the inventiveness, the invitation to keep looking and find new ways of seeing was unending. He was a fire hose of creativity, and that energy lasted for a lifetime.

From Kimmelman’s review:

No American artist, Jasper Johns once said, invented more than Mr. Rauschenberg. Mr. Johns, John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Mr. Rauschenberg, without sharing exactly the same point of view, collectively defined this new era of experimentation in American culture.

Apropos of Mr. Rauschenberg, Cage once said, “Beauty is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look.” Cage meant that people had come to see, through Mr. Rauschenberg’s efforts, not just that anything, including junk on the street, could be the stuff of art (this wasn’t itself new), but that it could be the stuff of an art aspiring to be beautiful — that there was a potential poetics even in consumer glut, which Mr. Rauschenberg celebrated.

For me as a young art student, Rauschenberg was the paragon of Bloom’s concept of the anxiety of influence. I tracked his output with a tenacity for years. Over time my passion for his work changed. As often happens with authors who deeply inform a writer’s early phase, my connection with his work shifted as my own work evolved. I continued to pay attention to his ongoing explorations, but the intensity of my youthful exhuberance for anything Rauschenberg waned. But the memory of a sharp awakening to visual experience that he brought to me and many of my cohorts is for all time.

And what a great line from a 74 year old Rauschenberg: “Screwing things up is a virtue. Being correct is never the point. I have an almost fanatically correct assistant, and by the time she re-spells my words and corrects my punctuation, I can’t read what I wrote. Being right can stop all the momentum of a very interesting idea.”

Oh yeah.

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A moment of light revelry in the Dale Chihuly exhibit at the MFA, Boston

This following is an excerpt from an old (1997) Atlantic interview with Charles Baxter whose recently released collection of short stories is called Gryphon:

Atlantic: In your essay “Against Epiphanies” you argue that a “character’s experiences in a story [don't] have to be validated by a conclusive insight or brilliant visionary stop-time moment” and go on to assert that “radiance, after a while, gets routine.” Yet the characters in your short stories often do experience moments of startling revelation — and, in fact, many critics identify your graceful use of epiphanies as one of your unique talents. How do you reconcile the thoughts expressed in your essay with instances of revelation in your fiction?

Baxter: I can’t reconcile them. Or maybe I’m like Huck Finn’s father, who has perfected his denunciation of alcohol during the day and his back-alley binges at night. I disapprove of epiphanies and their phony auras but I am besotted by them—can’t get enough of them in life or elsewhere…Seriously though, as a person who was brought up with religious faith and then got out of it, I’m always looking for secular manifestations of the sacred. At the same time I know that when these moments are arranged—particularly at the end of short stories—they acquire an absolutely formulaic quality…If you’re trying to write a story with a beginning, middle, and end but haven’t found a way of tying it up dramatically, an epiphany will do the job. But it often ends up feeling like a shortcut, and besides, as I wrote in the essay, I’ve had so god-damned few epiphanies in my life that I’m suspicious of them. And most of them have been wrong anyway!

I am taken in by the dilemma he describes—disapproving of epiphanies but besotted by them nonetheless. And even though he is focused on fiction forms (he teaches creative writing to MFA students), there are parallels that exist in other art forms as well.

I was also engaged by his description of his proclivities: “As a person who was brought up with religious faith and then got out of it, I’m always looking for secular manifestations of the sacred.” That is an impulse I know well.

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Pyrre, from a new series of paintings (Graphite, gold pigment, wax medium on wood panel)

Thoughts worth sharing by two artists I admire:

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Art is a guarantee of sanity. That is the most important thing I have said.

–Louise Bourgeois

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What gets an artist out of bed is the possibility of actually making something with infinite meaning.

–Richard Tuttle

Thank you to Nicole Page-Smith and Jerry Saltz for bringing these up. They are two worthy mantras for the start of any day.

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Warren Burger, by George Augusta

My friend Carl Belz has written about his encounters with portrait art while heading up the Rose Museum at Brandeis a few years back. He was asked to recommend a portrait painter for the retiring chairman of the University’s Board of Trustees. ” I immediately suggested Andy Warhol,” Belz writes, “who was laughingly dismissed as inappropriate, and then found myself briefly stymied. The art world I knew—the art world of the 1970s, that is—didn’t include boardroom portraitists.”

He eventually finds his way to George Augusta, a Boston-based portrait painter. Stepping out of his contemporary art world view, Belz liked what he saw:

George Augusta’s signature look, a descendent of Impressionism, blended confident and airy brushwork with a perceptive eye for likeness that felt everywhere natural, allowing easy engagement with his subject, and clearly indicating he worked from direct observation. With appropriate modesty, he allowed his pictures to be about his subjects instead of about himself. Relying on neither technical virtuosity nor the trappings of class—both of which plagued the portrait genre as I had come to know it—he comfortably partnered form and content while respecting in equal measures the full energies of art and life alike.

So began a long and fruitful relationship between George Augusta and Brandeis University.

But there is a larger arc of meaning for Belz that emerges from this encounter. Anyone who has “discovered” an artistic enclave or tradition existing in isolation from a contemporary art world that is high profile, elite, detached, controlled, and carefully artificed knows that startling moment of revelation that there are other ways of making art far afield from those confining constructs.

I had my version of that aha! experience when I first encountered Australian aboriginal painting 20 years ago. Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Gloria Petyarre, Kathleen Petyarre, Johnny Warrangkula, Rover Thomas and Barbara Weir are just a few of the extraordinary artists who emerged after art supplies were first brought to the aboriginal population in the 1970s by Geoffrey Bardon. With no exposure to Western art or tradition, these artists used their own cultural heritage to produce work that, while varied and self-defined, shares an approach that is painterly, authentic, mysteriously spiritual and completely captivating. I was immediately engulfed by it, and that encounter changed my life as an artist. (An image by Kathleen Petyarre is at the bottom of this post.)

Belz describes his experience with thoughtful graciousness:

Through my association with George Augusta, I encountered a first-rate, highly successful artist working in an art world that orbited in tandem with the art world I knew but never intersected it. Had I not been assigned my unusual task—a task I admit to undertaking with reluctance, as I tacitly subscribed to the conventional wisdom of the time and so regarded boardroom portraits as mere shadows of a once noble ancestry—I would have missed entirely the rewards I discovered in George Augusta’s pictorial world. Which got me to thinking about other art worlds that might be out there, unknown and/or unrecognized by members of my art world, but the specter of what I might be missing never haunted me. I realized that I could never see every picture painted everywhere in the world at every current moment—because that kind of cultural access was as unimaginable as it was unrealistic—so I contented myself with having learned to think twice before presuming an equation between the parameters of my world and the parameters of the world at large. What did haunt me when thinking about multiple art worlds was a vision of art itself, of its vastness, of its breadth and depth, of its ability constantly to sustain and renew itself, while we—we curators, critics, art historians, and sometimes even our artists—regularly did our best to cut it down to size, bring it within our reach, and squeeze it into our theoretical constructs. I know, we’re just the messengers here, the go-betweens linking art with its audience, and I know I’m not supposed to shoot the messenger. But I also know that the messengers don’t always do justice to the message’s meaning.

Great piece Carl. You can read it in its entirety at Left Bank Art Blog.


Kathleen Petyarre

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