Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Art as ruse: Bruce Sargeant (aka Mark Beard) at ClampArt

One day I wandered into ClampArt and saw the walls covered with large homo-erotic oil paintings that seemed to be a strange cross between realism and expressionism.  The young male bodies were intricately detailed (as only a true lover of male flesh could probably accomplish) but the skin tone was often a not-so-subtle blending of flesh tone and grayish green.  Looking at the name of the artist and the date of each painting, it seemed that they had been painted by someone named Bruce Sargeant before his death in 1938.

It was such a unique style of painting for that time, with such over-the-top, seething love for the male body, merged at the same time with an apparent pessimism toward the flesh, that I was amazed I hadn't seen this person's work in various museums.  When I asked the owner of the gallery why Bruce Sargeant was not to be found in museums as an example of how German expressionism might have influenced American realists, he let me in on the "secret." 

Apparently Mark Beard (a contemporary artist) has created his own "dead artist" series. He paints in four or five different styles, purporting to be fictional artists from the past. In the show I saw, there were 'new' paintings by the 'dead' artists Hippolyte-Alexandre Michallon and his disciple Bruce Sargeant.

I'm featuring work by Sargeant today.

A young man, in the blossom of youth, muscles rippling, the moment before he commits suicide with a shotgun.

Well, you get the picture. 

Why is Beard doing this?  I can be somewhat cynical, and so my first thought was, you know, these paintings can't really stand on their own, outside of their 'conceptual' function.  As paintings from the 1930s they would be remarkable (as examples of a certain bizarre type of 'dark' style - not normally found in US art at that time), but as paintings now, they, obviously, don't work (but, of course, they are not meant to work as contemporary pieces, they are parodies). So, in any case, I initially felt this artist should be creating his own work, and not falling back on a conceptual gimmick. Well, that was my first thought. Actually, now I think the gimmick works, it's pretty funny and it's pretty thought-provoking too. Indeed, it's brilliant.  It has changed the way I look at a lot of art now, so that's an amazing thing for an artist to accomplish.

Superficially, Beard seems to have created a type of parody of trends in art, or the process which I've written about before - how do artists become famous, how do they get 'selected' to be great artists? Having done a little research, it seems that all of Beard's fictional artists stick to one style of painting and this style becomes their 'brand.'  You can recognize a Michallon from a Sargeant easily.  Branding your art becomes essential to success.  People need to look at a piece and immediately say, "That's a Koons!" or "That's a Pollock!"   Beard seems to be pointing out (from what I've read) that, in the past, artists often went through various developmental stages and experimented with various styles. Now, to feed the needs of the art buyers, you develop until you hit something new and then that's that - that's YOUR style.  There's no further need to develop - you are at the place you need to be. Now produce, produce and produce some more of the same stuff and start smoozing it up to promote yourself.

Interestingly, from what I've read online, Beard is in some major museums.  He's in the museums, however, because this ruse of his is felt to be so clever. Could he have gotten into the major museums without this little ruse? Possibly, if he had wanted to, but the reason he's in the big places seems due to the 'joke' he is playing in regard to art. 

The irony, of course, is that if Beard is mocking artist 'branding,' this mocking is now Beard's own 'brand.'  If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

Of course, there are deeper levels of parody in this art work as well.  For instance, it could be that Beard is poking fun at how an artist's inner obsessions or anxieties can be so readily transferred to the canvas.  Why have there been so many female nude paintings in the history of art, for instance?  OK, a naked woman might represent something symbolically and one could even argue that the artists were experimenting by drawing the human figure.  Or it could be that there have been lots of horny dogs among the great masters.

Walking into ClampArt for this show, I immediately realized I was looking at art by a gay man.  Indeed, there was no denying that this guy was flaming  (the fictional artist was flaming).  Beard goes way overboard (I can see this now that I know the joke/secret) in conveying this.  Indeed, the pessimism reflected in the greenish tones or in the paintings of young men attempting violent suicide might be interpreted as a response to the lack of understanding and outright hostility toward gay folks during that time.   Beard, like a type of novelist, creates a gay artist working during a time when homosexuality was considered a mental illness and when you could probably get lynched for being gay.  We see the work of a conflicted person - he cannot help but express his true nature, but it is expressed dolefully. 

So here's where I think I get Beard's "joke."  When we go to an art museum, we don't think, 'Oh I'm going to go see the sensual obsessions of the socially-repressed and anxious homosexual Michaelangelo.'  Nor do we think, "Ah, I wanna go see the unresolved sexual conflict that artist x lived with his whole life."  You expect to see 'art' but sometimes the artist presents something a little more (or less) than art on the canvas and he (she too?), apparently can't help it. It just pours out.

So you've got sexual conflicts, concerns, obsessions and anxieties on canvases all throughout the history of art (Guido Reni's St. Sebastian?  Any St. Sebastian!? Looked at anything by Caravaggio lately? Munch's women as 'vampires?' Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon? etc.) and people often don't even recognize this.  Indeed, if Sargeant had been a 'real' 1930s artist, unknowing, non-gay-friendly critics of the time might have missed the obviously gay orientation completely.  The focus on virile, rippling young men would have been interpreted as the artist's emphasis on American strength of character or the virile, male brawn that will pull us out of the Depression.  Or, maybe Beard is pointing out that you are only going to get this type of art during periods of oppression for gay people. If folks could openly experience their sexuality and represent it freely, you wouldn't get it in such a sublimated form on canvas. 

We don't think of some of the German expressionists or the surrealists as working out their heterosexual and/or sado-masochistic demons on canvas, we consider this great art. I think that's the big joke Mark Beard is telling.  Art has always been a canvas for the exploration of the artist's own sexual inclinations, anxieties and development.  Sure a lot of art is meaningful in a non-sexual manner.  But there's an awful lot of sex stuff that people are not catching.

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