In an important personal essay on what it means to be Black in the American art world today – as an artist, a curator, an educator, a viewer of art – Lisa Corinne Davis challenges recent orthodoxies, calling for “a broadening of the visual dialog on race.” She questions whether it is “still necessary for black curators to primarily curate identity-based shows.” Earlier this fall, Davis answered her own question with “Representing Rainbows”, a diverse group exhibition she selected at Gerald Peters Gallery, New York, her dealers. (The Shinique Smith, pictured left, was included in that exhibition.) “Just as the aspirations of the civil rights movement were reflected in the attitudes of black art and the art institutions of its time, perhaps the political climate of today is pointing us in a different direction – one that begins to transcend identity, albeit with some difficulty.” Read the essay in full at artcritical.com
PAINTERS ON PAINTINGS
May 8, 2014
I love stories. I have always loved them more in pictures than in words — narrative events shown rather than told. All paintings tell stories. Perhaps it is the core of painting. A great painting finds a way to tell its story in a such a way that words completely disappear and the only possible telling is the visual one.
The Venetian painting of Saint Ursula and Her Maidens by Niccolo di Pietro that hangs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of those paintings. Upon seeing it for the first time, I found no words suitable to describe the visual solution for the story of Ursula, a 4th Century Briton princess who, at the request of her father King Dionotus of Dumonia, set sail to join her future husband in Roman Gaul. Traveling with 11,000 virgins (or maybe there were only 11, depending on a possible misreading of a stone inscription, where the 11 M may have indicated 11 Martyrs rather than the Roman numeral “M,” representing 1000; not that this really matters, as it is all unbelievable!) she arrived at her destination in a single day due to some wild storm at sea. Because of the rapidity of her voyage, Ursula had some time to spare and decided to see more of Europe. Traveling to Rome, she picked up the Pope and the Bishop of Ravenna to join her in traveling onwards to Cologne, where they were caught by the Huns, all the virgins massacred, and Ursula shot dead for refusing to marry their leader.
The story of Ursula is odd enough, unclear and perhaps untrue. In the manner of storytelling at this time, di Pietro portrays the celebrity and martyrdom with the usual symbolic attributes; some virgins; some martyr’s palms; a symbolic halo of sanctity; a crown indicating royal status; Resurrection banners, etc. As a painter, di Pietro is no Titian, but a Gothic artist with the unrefined awkwardness foreign to the perfect aesthetic proportions of the Renaissance. The embellishment and improvisation used to convey the events surrounding Saint Ursula express the decorative richness derived from trade with the Middle East and the import of Islamic textiles.
Stories often lead us to distortions, hyperbole and untruths. Unearthing the truth becomes a central preoccupation. The characteristics of narrative painting in the 1400s, with its reliance on symbolism and foreign cultural influences, do not begin to clarify the narrative of this crazy traveling fiasco with virgins. In the end, that is not what this painting is all about.
Unfolding within the painting’s rectangle is a figure that acknowledges the plane while suggesting but never becoming a volume. Ursula is unable to move forward or back, in or out. The banner poles, shoulders, arms, legs and 12 virgins, six on each side, function as barriers and boundaries to keep her fixed to the center. Pattern and shape assure her adhesion to the picture plane. All elements seem to function towards this end. The rendered textiles provide the use of geometric pattern that remains firmly flat rather than conforming to the spatial fold of the garments. The black and white patterns at the bottom of her robe have no connection to their Middle Eastern source at all, but instead exist solely for their own material density. Her embellished hood-cum-halo not only covers but also circles and firmly contains her head. Its visual weight alone assures her entrapment. Di Pietro’s formal decisions secure the painting’s position in grappling with the larger issue – the visual manifestation of martyrdom. Ursula’s depiction has pushed the development of the painting to a form that becomes the embodiment of the subject.
Saint Ursula’s adherence to the painting’s plane echoes her adherence to the saintly cause of the education of women and the patronage of young girls. The visual power of the vibrant color and patterning emboldens her as female figure. Composition, shape and texture have trumped iconography and historical narrative, allowing the meaning of the work to be contained within the form of work. As a painter, I believe in this form of storytelling for its ability to more comprehensively present a visual narrative as understood, not read.
March 17, 2014
THE BROOKLYN RAIL
There's no arguing with Rainbows. A rainbow is a fact of life. Pots of gold, Judy Garland, magic, and wonder are all encapsulated in the image of the rainbow. They recall childhood memories, folklore, and middle school science, while holding a firm place in legend due to their beauty and the impossibility of explaining the phenomenon. Venerated as god and goddess, dreaded as demon and pestilence, and ground zero for optical theories—the rainbow's image is woven into the fabric of our past and present. A utopian song by a socialist lyricist, "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" speaks subliminally to all of our longings.
From antiquity to the 19th century, the rainbow has played a vital role in both inspiring and testing new ideas about the physical world. And while scientists understand its optics fairly well, subtle variations in its nature have yet to be fully explained. Historically the rainbow has been seen as a symbol rather than as natural phenomenon: Greco-Roman mythology situates the rainbow as a path between Heaven and Earth; Chinese mythology, heralds it as the goddess Nüwa who sealed a slit in the sky with five different colors; in Armenian legend it is regarded as the belt of Tir, a Sun god; in Norse mythology, as connecting the realms of humankind and the gods; in the Dreamtime of Australian Aboriginals, as a rainbow snake, the deity governing water; and in Hindu philosophy, as a representation of the seven chakras with seven colors. The rainbow's comprehensive symbolic presence is worldwide.
Imagined, emblematic rainbows thrived in European art: from Albrecht Dürer's "Melancholia I" (1514), to the religious painting of Joseph Anton Koch's "Heroic Landscape with Rainbow" (1824); as fleeting effects of light in the Romantic landscapes of Turner and Constable; as a division between the serene elect and the frantic damned in Hans Memling's "The Last Judgment" (1467-1471); as a Christian symbol of peace and promise in Caspar David Friedrich's "Mountain Landscape with Rainbow" (1809-1810); as a biblical reference in Peter Paul Rubens "The Rainbow Landscape" (1636). Even though these artists' rainbows embody symbolism, science played a role in inspiring and testing new ideas about the physical world.
But this is not true of the crudely painted and videotaped simulacrums of rainbows cropping up, for example, in the work of my current MFA students. There is not a hint of science or naturalism to be found. These rainbows are more akin to Peter Coffin's "Untitled (Rainbow)" (2007), or Ugo Rondinone's "Hell, Yes!" (2008), or the multitude of rainbow paintings by Peter Doig, resembling various symbols in pop culture. Are these simulacrums visual, symbolic shorthand for peace, cheerfulness, and joy? As pleasing as this interpretation may be, its very agreeableness puts it on the road to trivialization, banality and the loss of any meaning. From visual shorthand to visual cliché, such maneuvers ultimately raise the possibility of future generations seeing the rainbow as trite rather than as archetypal.
Perhaps the power of the rainbow, as a symbol, provides a useful form of thought surrounding post-Duchampian visual art, which has existed within an aesthetic of wonder and has triumphed with its strangeness, novelty, and attention-seizing unexpectedness. As in theWizard of Oz, perhaps the rainbow has provided my students with a metaphor for escape.
• My work needs to be fun for me
• My work needs to feel like play
• My work should not look like "art"
• My work needs to toy with surprise and the unknown
• My work looks dumb but reveals intelligence
• My work reveals a deeper identity over time/closer inspection
• My work needs to reward/entertain/mystify the viewer
• My work is not poetry but has poetic threads
• My work embraces absurd beauty
Charlie, a current MFA student, has described these desires for his work. He and his fellow students are living and learning in a time of quasi-replication and near-duplication of works, made to satisfy the art market's need to have "one of these." Yet he wants his work to be "about distorting familiar objects into something unfamiliar, strange, and uncanny." He creates "seemingly goofy juxtapositions that transcend the objects' original identity, somehow revealing deeper truths and meanings." "I seek to disarm the viewers and present them with a unique individual experience," he continues. Charlie is not alone in being "drawn to mastery, magic, mystery, and surprise." His peers are seeking the same by depicting rainbows shooting from indiscernible painted objects—rainbows painted directly on an arched human body, rainbows arranged with Primacolor pencils on a shelf, rendered chromatically with all the gum chewed in a year, drawn on a van and then videotaped, depicted shooting out of a woman's ass, and much, much more. In the cultural context of these students, perhaps the rainbow serves as a stand-in for strangeness or newness—a perfect combination of visual pleasure and that "rare, sudden and unexpected event."
There are no rainbows without human observers—a fact that touches on the essence of aesthetic experience. Two people never see the same rainbow in the same way, for no two people can occupy the exact same place at the exact same time. The pleasure of its color, regularity, and geometric form lasts only briefly, and this precious transience is a decisive dimension of the experience of beauty. Philosophers and scientists from Aristotle to Descartes to Newton sought to describe and account for this alluring manifestation of light and water through the act of drawing, ultimately highlighting the limits and inadequacy of a visual explanation of the phenomena. The experience of wonder is at the core of the desire to represent a rainbow. Something between sensation and thought, between aesthetics and science. Wonder is a boundary line between the obvious, the ordinary, and the everyday, on the one hand, and the unknowable, the inexpressible, the unformulated on the other.
So perhaps this is what these students seek, but can it be represented? After all, there is an inherent complexity in trying to represent a rainbow, perhaps too much of a task for pictorial representation. When it comes to the rainbow there is nothing physical to be translated into a representation. There is no object you can walk around, view from the side, approach or touch. The rainbow is not an object but an image, albeit a wildly distorted image of the sun, a phenomenon of light rather than matter. This means that the rainbow has no particular position in space, unless that position is infinity. And how do you represent infinity? The pot of gold that is said to be at the end of the rainbow, rich with promise, but impossible to reach, is an optical illusion dependent on the location of the viewer. Walking towards the end, it appears to move further away. The rainbow's image is affected by time; the time distorts location; nothing is fixed; all is fluid and subjective.
My students's desire to depict the rainbow is an acceptance of a path of sensuality, stepping from pleasure to pleasure of color, shape, scale, order. Here they can find a way to a moment of not fixing a work of art, but trying to know it—getting acquainted with it, having it reveal itself, not as mass product, but as a singular poetic experience—leading them back to self reflection, placing themselves in the Socratic moment of knowing that which one does not know. Throwing themselves into the experiential world, they are embracing how wonder, as described by Descartes, occupies a phase of the alert mind, in the process of learning while willfully avoiding systematic knowledge.
"Somewhere Over The Rainbow" has been described as a celebration of escape and a hymn of the Elsewhere. It is the story of a young girl in trouble, navigating between the dream of leaving home versus nostalgia for her roots. My students sense trouble in an art world full of soulless manufactured objects and have embraced the rainbow as a symbol of the aesthetic experience and the artistic journey: the non-object that ultimately they have to reconcile with ending up as one.
September 5, 2011
THE BROOKLYN RAIL
In the face of such forceful female imagery in the work of the graduate women artists I teach, I’ve had to wonder if there isn’t a renewed discussion hovering around the subject of feminism. Cynically I think, “Here we go again.” As the French Existentialist Simone de Beauvoir aptly wrote more than 50 years ago in her seminal work, The Second Sex, “Enough ink has been spilled in quarreling over feminism, and perhaps we should say no more about it. It is still talked about, however, for the voluminous nonsense uttered during the last century seems to have done little to illuminate the problem.”
What is very much evident in my female students’ work is a prolific use of the visual vocabulary of the body, the goddess, the worker, the narcissist, the mother, the sister, the daughter, and the martyr—imagery that willfully echoes the visual language of feminism to address “embodiment” in all of its political, aesthetic, historical, and psychoanalytical manifestations. Surely these women know and have absorbed the lessons of feminist art history, which included a multitude of images of the female body and the politics of embodiment: women in popular culture; ownership of craft as it wafts amidst painting, design and architecture; eco-feminism and all of its connections to femininity, the earth, and the goddess. So why are these visual tropes popping up again? Could this imagery simply be an expression of what I would call “contemporary deficit disorder”: an amnesiac tendency in regard to history? Contemporary culture, born out of pop culture with its diminished attention and memory spans, is very much alive in the studios of my graduate art students. Is this the same short-term memory that celebrates the awesome superstardom of Lady Gaga as an original phenomenon, without any realization that there probably would be no Lady Gaga without Madonna, and no Madonna without Tina Turner? To look at the work of my female graduate students, one could assume that feminism would be found at the core of their thinking. But, in fact, I’ve found it to be more at the fringes.
While de Beauvoir refers to the problem as unilluminated, these students understand the whole point of feminism as creating a space where women were able to make their own way in the world, to make their own decisions about how to live their lives, to be able to think and act for themselves, and to be judged by their merits or lack thereof. So they get that the merit part is still problematic, and that there are issues that plague the military, and some large problems in the Catholic Church. But as far as these young women are concerned, the bulk of this work has been done, is done—in this country, at least, in their world. As a result, the great feminist causes and controversies—the awakening to the consciousness of misogyny in the ’60s and ’70s; the feminist preoccupation with postructuralism and psychoanalysis in the ’70s and ’80s; and the ’90s debate on essentialism—are seemingly nowhere to be found on these students’ minds. Have they taken a chapter straight out of October magazine, circa 1995, indicating that feminism and feminist theory have reached their final acts?
When I ask my students if they are feminists, a puzzled look appears. When pressing harder, I get responses like, “Of course I am”; “I’m not”; “I use the term lightly.” Despite this apparent ambivalence, I have not found that these young women, as some critics have suggested, are “losing the ability, will, and courage to look at societal structures critically … [forsaking] solidarity with other women” (Schor, Mira, “The Ism That Dare not Speak Its Name,” A Decade of Negative Thinking: 29). There is no absolute rejection of feminism at the heart of their puzzled expressions and vague answers, but rather an artist’s natural instinct toresist categorization-at-large, whether that be abstraction, figuration, or feminism. Instead what exists is the limitations of language and discourse, at war with intrinsic, anarchic artistic tendencies.
Just as the term “abstract” fails to distinguish anything useful between a Mark Rothko and an Elizabeth Murray, the notion of categorization grows even more fraught when the high stakes of gender politics are involved. There is no problem with having a bunch of disparate members in the “abstraction club,” no offense to the idea of inclusion. But with feminism, a club founded on activism and liberalism, it is hard to include a broad membership without redefining, or at least rethinking the criteria for membership. Should Sarah Palin be allowed in? Palin is to feminism asClarence Thomas is to civil rights. Based on the feminist criteria of women being able to do a man’s job, and the civil rights movement’s criteria of equal rights for all, well then, Palin and Thomas are in. But if you consider the policies and laws they advocate as having a negative effect on the promises offeminism and civil rights, they are out. The defining arenas of these clubs have to be rethought, expanded, and flexed in order to keep the doors open to a large, inclusive membership.
But, perhaps the idea of an “open door policy” is the exact reason these young women don’t consider membership to be important. At the heart of any political change is the impulse to find like-minded people to create a unified voice toadvocate for that change. Once the change has occurred, and in principle has been accepted, the various voices become independent shavings of the initial unified voice, since now there is room for those nuanced voices to also be heard. Slowly this unified voice loses power and meaning. Its impact becomes generalized, watered down—a cliché. The voice of solidarity gives way to the voice of individuality. For the young women artists in my classroom, the unified voice of feminism has yielded to their individual feminine voices.
Maria Barbo describes her paintings as a personal response to something that makes her feel “contained, small, patronized, or categorized.” She wants her work to have “an energy that is barely contained and trying to break free,” arising out of “a combination of gender, socio-economics, social-maladjustment, and a touch of ‘Don’t fence me in.’” For her, feminism is “inextricable” from who she is and from the body of her experiences: “totally ingrained—inseparable.” She and herpeers want to think of feminism as defined not by restriction, but by expansion; not by broad definition, but by individual experience. Feminism may be inextricable from their work, but the “feminist label is restrictive, threatening to overshadow other elements.” They resist the label for fear of sounding preachy and one-dimensional, and ultimately find themselves in the position of “Damned if they do; damned if they don’t.”
Or, as another student put it, “Maybe feminism’s role was not meant as a set of answers, but rather a method of inquiry.” She and her peersare defining themselves on their own terms, drawing on their own pleasures, their own interests, often with humor and irony. Personal experiences, some of them the source of personal shame, are seen anew as symptoms of larger political factors, and serve as the inspirations for their artwork. They still have faith in the possibility of change, even a belief in changing the world, but more often than not with their own individual voice, rather than a collective one.*
This individualized voice is evidenced in Sarah Young’s work, through a series of photographs that examine the power structures of social, cultural, and personal realities as they are played out in religious and secular societies. She does this by focusing on the individual stories of several women who have struggled in different aspects of Judaism. “Here the woman’s personal history becomes much more instrumental than any ‘feminist critique’ of biblical/Talmudic thought. … [Her] shift away from inscribed truths to nuanced interaction … marks [her] relationship with the tropes of feminism.” Sarah states that while feminism is “still valid and important … I would rather have an interaction, push back, look them in the eye (and sometimes punch them in the face), rather than just receive divine wisdom from my foremothers.”
When they first learned about feminism, these students found it was easy to get caught up in the feelings of “men and women at war.” They have since concluded that creating this kind of dualism is alienating for both sexes, and that ultimately their interest does not lie there, but rather in a need to speak about things that are intrinsically female. These young women are trying to find out what it means to be feminine, and to find their own answers to the question, as one of them put it: “Who or what decides? Hormones? Neurotransmitters? The media? One’s parents? Race? Ethnicity? Politics? Religion? Men?”
Despite the common complaint voiced by some originators of the feminist movement, there is in fact no complacency among these women, but rather a forceful, ambitious, and proactive sense of self, born out of an awareness of injustice. In their navigations of the art world, they are acutely aware of Linda Nochlin’s 1971 assertion: “The fact of the matter is that there have been no supremely great women artists” (Nochlin, Linda.“Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” ARTnews, 1971: 22). Here again, their response is not a collective political one, but rather a willingness to allow their individual work to be their voice. Just as Georgia O’Keeffe understood her work to be about color and form, and objected to her work being limited in its interpretation when linked to feminism, these students-cum-professional-artists insist that the breadth of their expression be understood as the force of their individual voices as women.
As their professor, what I have come to understand about my female students’ work is that it is not a rehashing of feminist tropes, feminist arts, or feminist discourse,but rather a presentation of their experiences as women, with all that entails in the world today—including, but not restricted to, the history of feminism. These woman have not “easily and quickly” lost sight of “recent, self-consciously historical contributions of women” (Schor, Mira, ibid.: 31). Perhaps the inclination of this generation of artists, or at least female artists, towards“contemporary deficit disorder” is not as pervasive as I originally thought. “I experience my life as a layered continuum,” my former student Rachel Budde observes. “Past, present, future are meshed; beginnings and endings are undefined; things seem to limp back like a long train of thought which comes back to its origin from another angle.”
For these women, the battle for women’s rights has not become any easier, though; it has evolved in more complex ways. And what are their hopes? They hope the sisterhood remains strong, bonded, and important. They hope there is a visceral understanding of shared struggles and experiences, while their individual voices are heard navigating the complexity of the fabric of women, of experience, of feminism, of life.
Feminism has “something yet nothing to do with me,” Tryn Collins tells me. “When in my studio, the fact that I’m a woman falls away. And I know I owe that luxury to the many women ahead of me. The hope is that I’m not making work as a woman or a man, just as an artist.”
December 11, 2009
THE BROOKLYN RAIL
I am a painter. I am also a professor in an MFA program where I hold seminars in which I talk to students about their work. I have done this for many years, and like many artists who teach, I sometimes rage against my role, frustrated by having to repeat the same theoretical, formal, and cultural issues each year. I am not a cynic. I want art to be important, and I want to talk about things that matter. Plato made the artist out to be a cheap forger of the real as well as the ideal, and perhaps there are too many contemporary instances that prove this to be true. Lately, however, I have noticed a shift.
I first became aware of it while watching the recent Batman film, The Dark Knight, and found myself struggling to follow a scene in which Batman uses sonar to track the Joker through an empty, multistory office building. The camera’s rapidly alternating movements—up and down, back and forth, micro and macro, aerial and perspectival—employed a manner of spatial navigation more akin to video games than to cinema. It was not the kind of action I had grown up on, yet the effect of this scene convinced me that something about the visual world had shifted. Even though I was ill equipped to navigate the change, I understood that it employed a new logic of form and space.
In 1914, the Austrian critic Hermann Bahr wrote, “The history of painting is nothing but the history of vision—or seeing. Technique changes only when the mode of seeing has changed.” Bahr’s insight is certainly apparent in The Dark Knight’s formal relationship to technology, but what I was noticing further revealed a more complicated shift in the ideas behind my students’ work—work that has become startlingly sincere, searching, soulful, and devoid of irony.
The students in my classes are busily doing performances of invented rituals, making staged photographs of their everyday lives, and painting abstract forms in, as one of them wrote, a “non heroic/low-tech way in order to take away perfectionism to get to the truth.” They are struggling to embrace history, the visionary, and above all, the romantic. Their work appears as an epic drama, rendered in personal, cinematic detail, completely lacking in the irony, appropriation, and banality that formed the core of the contemporary art world I have known. They write about being “aggressively concerned with things that I don’t fully understand: my mom, whales, the ocean…vocal harmony in a song, love objects. I’m concerned with how these clichés give me a genuine, indescribable, palpable, feeling.”
At first, all I could think was, are they kidding? I worried that my students were becoming unrigorous, sappy, and provincial in their artistic ideas. But after getting over my own artistic biases, I began to accept that perhaps the term “Romantic” could assume a role that would have renewed meaning for today.
One student’s video seemed to sum up this new Neo-Romanticism. Rebecca has never seen a Bernini in the flesh. She knows that Bernini is important. She knows Bernini is beautiful, and that contemplating his sculpture would be a moving experience—one she wants to have. Rebecca’s feelings of “ being overwhelmed by the powerfulness of things that I have never or will never truly experience” produced a tediously long video of Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne. You know the one: a life-size marble sculpture depicting the story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in which the beautiful nymph Daphne escapes the unwanted love of Apollo by turning into a tree.
Rebecca’s video was not of the sculpture itself, but rather of a bad photograph in an art history book, placed near a window so that the image grows ever so slowly lighter and darker with the fluctuations of the natural light illuminating the page. In the end, the video remains greatly removed from direct experience and devoid of any hint of the love and seduction of Ovid or the emotional ecstasy and intense imagination of the Baroque.
Despite its flaws, Rebecca’s video exemplifies how much my students are craving emotion and yearning for a real experience. They have been entrenched in Modernist self-consciousness and Postmodernist pastiche, with its hefty doses of parody, appropriation, and irony. They have studied and mimicked Conceptualism, but they don’t really understand why anyone would want to argue and debate about art and the function of artists.
Still, Rebecca’s problem with her desire for a direct, moving experience is that she does not know the first thing about having one. It is not just her—it is her generation. Let’s face it, she could get on a plane and go to Rome to see a Bernini, but she doesn’t. Instead, she and her contemporaries go through their days by texting instead of talking, posting to the masses instead of seeking out an individual; they update instead of contemplate.
In 1799 Novalis declared that “The world must be romanticized, that the original meaning may be rediscovered.” In 2009 my student Raphael states, “Everything begins with a conviction of mine, about how the world functions and exists (we know now that in such matters, convictions are wholly necessary).” The world may have shifted for me, but for my students, this is all it’s ever been: non-stop, disconnected, disjointed, very public, chaotic, mediated, and ultimately confusing. Their reaction has been to move away from narcissism, impatience, and iconoclasm towards patience, conformism, and good deeds. They are trying to make art that is firmly connected to the associative as opposed to the formal or conceptual, while postulating possible, probable, and preferable futures, wondrous worldviews and myths. They exist in a world where expansive information flows freely and consistently, removing their connection to any specific place or experience. Perhaps because of this they have intuited the value of transferring thoughts and feelings directly between individuals as a truly meaningful relationship: one that may give rise to an art that is not about art, but an authentic and individualized art about life, beauty, and experience. The desire could not be stronger, but the results remain to be seen. As another one of my students wrote: The current landscape of art is now confronted with what to do with all this overstock of irony, banality, and dumbness. How do we find meaning, and what do we do when we find it?