Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Contemporary American Trancendentalists: Max Razdow and JJ Manford at F + V

Cartographers by Razdow - Paintings courtesy of F + V
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Charles Burchfield, an amazing American artist from the past, once wrote: “An artist must paint not what he sees in nature, but what is there. To do so he must invent symbols, which, if properly used, make his work seem even more real than what is in front of him.” This echoes, to a great extent, Arthur Dove’s belief (acquired from Henri Bergson) that an √©lan vital pervades nature and this can be discerned and will lead to a greater understanding and engagement of the world than science might provide.  A couple of artists at Freight and Volume – Max Razdow and JJ Manford – follow in this American transcendentalist tradition (Burchfield and Dove are, in fact, listed in the gallery notes as influences on their work). 

Indeed, Razdow and Manford were also, apparently, influenced by a group of visual artists from England in the 1800s who formed a type of fraternal society around the vision and work of William Blake.  The group called itself “The Ancients” and, like the Romantics, they looked back on what they perceived to be a better time.  Practical applications of the scientific revolution had lead to the industrial revolution, which was altering natural landscapes as well as relations between people. Science also meant that nature was to be controlled and exploited for profit. Science also replaced the ‘ancient’ belief in transcendence with the belief that what was useful about nature could be grasped with good math skills and this shell of nature would suit our purposes just fine. The ancients believed that a union with nature was possible and this union might even lead to greater acceptance of what underlay perception, which would then lead to greater spiritual development. The mind was not separate from nature but a part of nature to be influenced and changed by nature.

Early On by Manford

In the work of both Razdow and Manford we see that a direct attempt at a union with nature leads to the types of symbols and visions Burchfield alluded to.  Manford’s work looks like some of the drug-induced paintings I have seen by shamans done for western anthropologists. Yet, Manford, unlike the shaman, is not necessarily claiming to depict  a journey to a spirit realm. This is more of a super-heightened experience that has broken through a type of painful longing into a complete, unmitigated awareness comparable to what Teilhard de Chardin called a universe on fire.

Manford - On the Hill

In the Romantic landscape tradition it was said that English artists favored ‘color’ while Germans favored ‘line’ and this seems to be a big difference between Manford and Razdow’s work. Razdow seems to be more detail oriented and uses ‘line’ to distort perspective and to establish a contrast with more organic forms.  The line seems a remnant of the conscious mind which becomes superseded by the vision born of greater engagement. Razdow also seems to use those tubeworm creatures that live at the bottom of the sea as important symbols in his work.  To me these creatures represent sentient life at the most extreme form of survival mode. If a creature ever should have been named after Schopenhauer, it should have been one of these sea worms. It’s as if the deep plunge into direct and unfiltered nature leads to our confrontation with this creature and a challenge to determine what can elevate us above it.

Razdow - 7 Headed Serpeants

Both artists, coincidentally, use the human figure in an interesting way.  I’m reminded of how Caspar David Friedrich would use silhouettes in his landscapes to, basically, welcome a shared experience between those inside the work and those viewing the work.  Both artists seem to do something similar yet we are not engaging an outer landscape in their work, but a new vision of nature and our possible transformation within it.  The artists seem to assume we will engage the world in a way to make this vision recognizable to ourselves or that we have already done this.  

 Razdow - 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Photo-realist paintings at The Curator Gallery in Chelsea

Mary Ellen Johnson - PBJ
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The Curator Gallery, in Chelsea, invites various folks to curate shows on a periodic basis. The gallery was initially underwritten by Ann S. Moore, a retired Chairperson of Time, as her way to contribute to the arts scene in NY. The current show “Verisimilitude” was curated by Ethan Karp, of the now shuttered but immensely influential OK Harris Gallery, and features 6 photo-realist artists.  

Photo-Realism seems to be more of a technique than a type of content.  The paradox of it is that artists often use this technique to tweak or reposition aspects of perceived reality to make reality reveal more than reality itself normally does. So the choice of ‘Verisimilitude’ as the title for the current show is clever and ironic. The title of the show seems to buy into the concept that the artists are just approximating real things as well as they can.  However, each artist seems to be choosing and enhancing aspects of reality to convey a greater insight into the interface between perceived reality and inner experience.

Gina Minichino, for instance, does something interesting with the types of inexpensive, brand-name food and candy you see at and consume from the grocery store. She either portrays these products in their original consumer packaging or as ready to eat. From this contrast, we see that the packaging does not necessarily enhance our desire for the food: the need to preserve and sell the food requires a compromise. The Wonder Bread wrapper and the Tic Tac box are merely reassuring signifiers and do not engage you at the level of epicurean want that the food itself engages you at. Yet, the packaging seems to employ transparency and design in an almost titillating manner. 

You see glimpses of the product, through the wrapping, to get the juices flowing a little, but the design itself merely adds an element of visual attraction. Minichino captures how the advertising folks are trying to catch the eye and the gut at the same time.  In “Kiss”, however, we see a Hersey’s kiss stripped bare of its wrapper and engaging the viewer in a way that one might almost say pornography engages one. This chocolate looks extra succulent. And, am I crazy, or is this ‘kiss’ beginning to look more and more like a stylized clitoris in a stylized vagina? If I took a Rorschach test I’d probably be committed to an institution.

In any case, this is candy ‘stripped bare by her bachelors, even’.  It is painted as an object of desire and like pornography the goal is to stimulate a craving as a hedonistically pleasant emotional response. Yet, Minichino also reveals desire as being composed of the painful and pleasurable at the same time.  We anticipate the pleasure of consuming while feeling pangs that require some type of effort toward fulfilment when looking at this creamy dark chocolate. Don’t worry, the gallery has a bowl of kisses waiting for you so that you don’t go nuts looking at this stuff.

Mary Ellen Johnson helps further explore what exactly the components of our sense of ‘desire’ are, in her food paintings.  In Berries and Cake we see an object of desire comprised of three distinct elements. We are attracted by the memory of the discrete tastes of the syrupy chocolate, berries and cake itself, and the cumulative delight of combining these tastes in an infinite number of combinations.  Yet again desire is revealed as beginning with pleasurable memories and sensations which morph into a painful goading to possess and consume.  I see the cake, remember the tastes of the components and suddenly I am whipped and goaded by something to get that object.

Turning away from food, Arthur Miller brought back some pleasant memories with his various depictions of movie and entertainment posters of days gone by.  When I grew up in Chicago there was a weekly TV show called Creature Features, during which famous old horror films were shown.  Here those folks from the Universal Studios were – especially Bela Lugosi and Boris Karlov.  Just seeing these guys made me smile and evoked so many memories from my youth, when I was able to vicariously live through hellish horrors in the comfort and safety of my parents’ bungalow, instead of enduring my contemporary hellish horrors of Queens roommates and other assorted NYC terrors.  So we have super-realistic depictions of these famous monsters of Hollywood – why?  These monsters were allegorical figures presented to the masses. By depicting them Miller shows how, perhaps, mass media dilutes meaningful content in its desire to entertain and profit.  The vampire was a potent symbol of oppression and spiritual depravity for generations, but now I smile when I see Bela Lugosi.  

To me Romaine E.’s work shows the sense of permanence and transition that characterizes every city.  You see the Highline Park looming like an unmovable behemoth while ant-sized people move about.  100 years after I’m dead this tourist trap which has helped ruin the Chelsea gallery district will still be there while I’m being dined on by the worms.  In all of his paintings at this group show you seem to see large, permanent structures through which our ephemeral lives flow.

Roger Watt focuses on the reflective qualities of highly polished metals. To me this type of metal represents our desire to fight and conquer the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  We live in a universe of decay and decomposition and this metal seems pristine and timeless and resistant to corruption.  Shiny metals are part of the myth upon which we build our lives and societies.

Finally, speaking of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, there are those that value it.  Ron Weis paints leaves which have changed color due to the drop in temperature which precludes the development of green-giving chlorophyll in plants.  Basically these leaves are dying and in the process represent their most amazing colors.  Is mortality a curse or an opportunity to seek meaning and contribute to those around us in a sense of mutual empathy and consideration? Weis seems to suggest that the aging process and the process of ‘decay’ can be a thing of beauty and lead to a sense of acceptance and equanimity instead of dread.      

I mentioned Creature Features above. Here is the opening theme from WGN-TV Chicago:

Friday, July 11, 2014

On Kawara is no longer alive

(For several years On Kawara, a Japanese artist, painted the date for each day that he woke up.)

On first sight many might feel that the work of On Kawara was a kind of a conceptual art gimmick.  It could also be argued that his art was pessimistic - it seemed to reduce everything to a type of very Schopenhauer-like scheme.  If we see a date, we assume we ate, worked, did whatever we had to do to survive.  What is the common denominator of each date, after all?  The common factors are that we ate, drank, slept etc. each day.  

I think, however, that Kawara’s work was more than a gimmick and was, in fact, highly optimistic and positive. The significance of his work could be in the fact that just by representing dates we have to focus on what the mere sequence of dates cannot convey about our lives. His work becomes a type of 'via negativa.'  The 'via negativa' is a theological term - we don't know what God is, but we know what God isn't.  These individual dates do not measure or record inner growth or development or meaningful experience, but they point to these experiences. 

For example, let's say I am much more insightful and more humane than I was in 2004.  That didn't happen on a particular date.  My inner change was due to a process, probably not an event.  These individual dates, therefore, perhaps, point in a negative sense toward this type of process. Instead of the dates pointing toward mortality and demise, we can believe they point toward everything that made life livable and worth living on that date.

It is, however, such an unusual experience to look at a date we lived through and just stare at the date not having any idea what we did or what happened to us on that day.  We’re left, however, with a type of confidence that we did not ‘waste’ that day – that we did as well as we could have to engage ourselves and others in a good process, despite everything. For each date that we stare at, we may just have a vague idea of what we were doing those days or a vague idea of the sort of people we were back then, but the feeling of our sense of self-worth and engagement with others is readily apparent.  

To me the paintings call attention to how we conceive of or measure individual progress or feelings of success and failure.  Kawara's work always made me focus on how interesting but glacial my own individual change has been and these dates from the past always pointed toward possibilities for even more enriching experiences in the future.  

Saturday, July 5, 2014

"A Dialogue with Nature" - Morgan Museum show concerning landscapes from the Romantic Era

Samuel Palmer, Oak and Beech Trees
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The artists of the Romantic Movement could see science coming, and it wasn’t pretty.  Science seemed to bring an ideology along with it (sort of a technocratic justification and amplification of the worst forms of capitalism) and, schematically, it divided the world into two.  There was the outer world (stuff to be perceived, measured and used) and the inner world (perception, thought and emotional responses).  Science meant our minds were separate from nature and were to be used to control nature, as if we were secular wizards.  

Casper David Friedrich, Moonlit Landscape

The Romantics, however, believed the mind to be a part of nature and connected to nature.  Everything was, in fact, ‘spirit’.  Friedrich Schelling went so far as to say that nature was visible spirit and spirit was invisible nature.

So how did this outlook affect the arts and how was it revealed in the visual arts? Well, you can get an idea from the current show at the Morgan Museum. 

Here’s a piece by Turner called The Pass at Faido, St. Gothard (1843). 

In this watercolor we cannot see a differentiation between perceiver and perceived – the viewer is caught up in the dynamic aspect of nature which is being depicted; there is a fusion of observer and natural process in an overarching spiritual awareness.  This painting, in fact, shows a mountain pass in the Alps during the thawing season.  We see nature in a type of transition, forceful and uncontrollable but benign or even benevolent.  The artist does not paint this realistically, but infuses the painting with his sense of engagement. This painting is all about engagement and union between the mind and nature.

I love John Robert Cozens’ work A Ruined Fort near Salerno(1782).

The Romantics liked contrasting human works, which are easily destroyed and fall into ruin, with seemingly eternal natural processes or structures.  Here we see an ancient fort in the foreground. At one time it served some strategic importance which has been utterly forgotten to history.  It is dwarfed by the magnificence of a mountain – a type of natural structure which has always held spiritual meaning as the place where one can ascend closer to the ‘spirit realm’.

We also see a similar sentiment here in Karl Friedrich Lessing’s Landscape with a cemetery and a church (1837).

The tree represents something eternal contrasted with the crumbling tombstones.  A tree, symbolically, can also be considered a type of bridge between the earth and the sky or the ‘lower’ and the ‘higher’.  Its roots dig deep into the earth and its canopy stretches up into the sky. The tree has been a traditional spiritual/religious symbol which the Romantics relished.

All in all it’s a small show but I’m glad that I saw it since it forced me to think about our world vis a vis the world before the scientific and technological revolution took place. It also compelled me to think about my own attitude toward the relationship between mind and nature.  I’m leaning more toward the Romantic conception now. It’s actually kind of shocking how we just go along with the belief that the mind is separate from nature or the world.

I think a visit to the Morgan to see the show would be worthwhile within the context of the whole museum.  I was knocked back, for example, by the amazing collection of ancient cylinder seals at the Morgan Museum.  Please remember that this museum does have a free Friday viewing time from 7 to 9pm.

Info about the Morgan Museum

The Morgan Library & Museum
225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street
New York, NY 10016


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Jesus is the good guy with a gun: RRRGGHH!!! by Jerry Kearns at Mike Weiss Gallery

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Images courtesy of the artist and Mike Weiss Gallery

What’s your favorite western?  I’ve always been partial to The Man Who Shot Liberty ValenceShane is up there too, along with High Noon and The Big Country (Gregory Peck and Chuck Heston in one huge, wide-screen, 70 millimeter epic). Western actors?  My favorite is Randolph Scott – he exuded integrity, strength and compassion. I also liked Joel McCrea and Slim Pickens a lot.  But what about that Jewish guy?  You know, the very serious looking guy, very Brando, kind of a hipster, long hair, funky head gear…strong but vulnerable…guy was born in Nazareth, moved to Hollywood to get work…he did some good flicks too.  In fact, his career seems to be commemorated at the Mike Weiss Gallery these days in Jerry Kearns' show:  RRRGGHH!!!  

In fact, Kearns paints Jesus as one doleful looking gunslinger. I guess he’s kind of like Shane – he wants to hang up his guns but when you’ve got some aggressive, two-bit, red-neck peckerwood in your town, why, women and children can’t walk down the street safely. This calls for a Marshall, or a good-guy with a gun to take care of the bad-guy with a gun. 

Actually I think Kearns is pointing out something really interesting.  They did a psychological study a while ago where two groups of people either had to read passages from the Bible or sections from the daily newspaper.  After both groups were finished they were tested for levels of aggression.  The group that had read parts of the Bible was measured as more aggressive than the news readers.  Why is religious literature so violent and bloody?  

It seems that we like to use bloody allegories as symbolic tales of spiritual evolution.  There’s something corrupt inside of us and it has to be confronted and violently rooted out for inner peace to reign – that seems to be a big formula for spiritual evolution. This lends itself perfectly to stories of good guys blasting bad guys to smithereens. In fact, sometimes you get the good guy, killed by the bad guy, who is then killed by the friend/son/brother of the first good guy. You see this from Osiris, to Agamemnon, to Macbeth, to the Lion King. This seems to be the allegory of allegories – the absence of goodness can only be filled again after the evil which removed it is killed. So we get a lot of revenge killing movies/stories throughout the ages.

Of course it’s completely paradoxical.  The goal of spiritual development, from what I can tell, is a type of inner peace.  When you get real religion, you don’t get frazzled anymore.  Somebody can call you an SOB and you can smile at him.  They slap you, you turn the other cheek.  Yet, the idea of establishing ‘peace’ and kindness as a response to malice as your ultimate goal, but accomplishing this peace by embracing stories of violence and revenge …well, something is wrong there.  If you are spiritually complete you will probably not believe in revenge any more, yet you embraced a story of revenge killing as a guide in your spiritual quest?  What? So I think this is one thing Kearns might be highlighting.

It might be argued, however, that Christianity was kind of a way (originally within the Jewish tradition) to eliminate this type of paradox.  We’ve got lots of righteous, allegorical killings in the “Old” Testament (sometimes whole armies or cities are destroyed) but Jesus tries to attain his goals relatively peacefully to the point of self-sacrifice in the “New” Testament.  Maybe it’s the same with Buddhism and Hinduism.  You’ve got lots of cool wars and kidnappings and revenge killings in Hindu religious literature, but Buddhism, which sprang from it, is all butterflies and peace signs. In Hinduism you decapitate a demon or two and gain spiritual enlightenment, in Buddhism you sit under a tree.

In any case, Kearns’ work is so engaging it speaks for itself. Please check out his hilarious paintings of Jesus as a gunslinger at Mike Weiss.  Kearns seems to be poking fun at our tendency to visualize the process of human development in violent terms, regardless of the fact that this is so counter-productive.  Even within the Christian tradition, built on the self-destructive ethical behavior of a pacifistic Nazarene whistle-blower, we still love watching the bad guy get his cahoonas shot off.  This is probably not a good way to visualize the path to enlightenment. 

The Byrds - Jesus is just all right with me...