Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Elusive Big Idea

Bruce Nauman, 1975, serigraph (copyright may apply).

My new friend Nina (who I met in Barcelona thanks to Facebook), writes to ask if I’ve read Sherry Turkle's Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other or Jeron Lanier's You are not a Gadget—which I haven’t, but I did read Neal Gabler’s “The Elusive Big Idea” in Sunday’s New York Times (which I found out about when it was posted on Facebook), where the author moans that the result of social technology is that we care more about bytes of information and daily trivia, and less about ideas than we once did. It’s yet another article about what we’re losing due to change, but I have news for him and all the other Chicken Littles out there—change happens! And with change, we both lose and gain, and I like to think we gain more than we lose. For instance, when I hear mothers complain that their daughters are going around dressed in “next to nothing,” I think teenagers have always wanted to show off their bods—and isn’t it great that society has advanced to the point that they can wear those teeny shorts without fear of the harassment and worse that would have been inevitable years ago? I do lament that writing in cursive is no longer being taught, and school playgrounds are being phased out, but change is not always permanent; maybe we need to build schools without playgrounds to learn how necessary they are.

The big thinkers Gabler cites as having been “crowded out by informational effluvium”—psychologist Steven Pinker and biologist Richard Dawkins—are hardly obscure, and he forgets the popularity in recent years of “idea” books by authors like Malcolm Gladwell and Alain de Botton.

The problem is actually more cultural than technological—Americans have always been suspicious of intelligence—and I’m here to tell you that ideas are alive and well and living in Europe (which also has the Internet and Facebook, BTW), specifically England and Spain from which I've recently returned. While I’m guessing that 999 out of a 1000 Americans (and I could be being generous here) can’t identify Jasper Johns, arguably our most famous living artist, in England every cabbie can name the winner of this year’s Turner Prize. Used as I am to the American media’s constant ridiculing of art and artists, I was blown away by the coverage of the exhibition I went to see in Spain of Àngels Ribé, a conceptual artist. Every day there was a major article in another publication, each more intelligent and respectful than the last, and while I don’t understand Catalan, the lengthy television news presentation I saw was so beautifully shot it could have been a documentary.

Just to prove my point, I offer this quote from de Tocqueville (found on Facebook in a discussion of this article):

The practice of Americans leads their minds to other habits, to fixing the standard of their judgment in themselves alone. As they perceive that they succeed in resolving without assistance all the little difficulties which their practical life presents, they readily conclude that everything in the world may be explained, and that nothing in it transcends the limits of the understanding. Thus they fall to denying what they cannot comprehend; which leaves them but little faith for whatever is extraordinary and an almost insurmountable distaste for whatever is supernatural.

---Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835

If Gabler thinks we don’t care about ideas anymore, maybe he just needs smarter Facebook friends.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Studio daze

After I read, along with poetry, portions of my blog at the Berkshire Museum Thursday evening, I thought these would be fun to repost, as they never appeared consecutively:

Bad studio day

This latest painting is just bad, a mishmash. I was on such a roll, now sent to the depths. I think it’s because I started it before the last one was finished. There was just picky stuff to do, with lots of drying time in-between, so I thought, start another one, why not? Except that for me, good paintings come from wanting to see something realized so badly that I’ll do whatever it takes. To start one too soon is like starting a new love affair before the old one is finished.

Richard, who I went to see to console myself, said—without having seen it—that the problem with this painting is that it’s green. He’s right. How often do you see a good green painting?

Better studio day

I got up this morning and the painting didn’t look so bad, although it was still green.

A friend, a personal trainer by profession, wanted to know what it meant to have a “bad studio day” and I found it hard to explain, which got me wondering if there’s any other field where you can so often feel as if you’ve never done this thing before. I asked Scott, who's both an artist and chef, if he’s ever experienced it in the kitchen, and he said, “No.” Do trial lawyers ever suddenly feel as if they’ve never been in a courtroom? I doubt it. Roberto describes it as one of those moments when he begins to wonder, “How did I get this job, anyway?”

So there you are and you know nothing. And even though other artists are aware of how profoundly depressing it is, they’ll gleefully tell you—and you’ll tell everyone else as long as you’re not going through it—that it’s an exciting place to be and means your art isn’t stagnant, but growing and developing. Thanks a bunch.

So Richard came over and declared the painting “a good beginning” and pointed out where it “needs work”—i.e. most of it—although, of course, he couldn’t be specific as to what that work would look like. He described painting as “an accumulation of accidents,” and suggested that whether they turn out to be happy ones or not is sometimes just a matter of luck. I still think it's all about degree of interest, of how invested I am in seeing the final image, but now that it's become a challenge, I'm getting more interested.

Not so bad studio day

The painting is slowly, painfully, improving, but it’s still GREEN—even though I’ve spent all day adding lots of other colors to it. That’s because green swallows every color that touches it. Painters, take a look at your once-white bristle brushes. Have you ever noticed that they’re all GREEN? If they aren’t, it’s only because you were smart enough never to use green in the first place.

Ridiculous studio day

I couldn’t stand the green, so I stained everything alizarin yellow . Now there’s a color you really can’t get rid of. I must be out of my mind. And what am I doing with a giant tube of alizarin yellow anyway? Did I buy this thing? It’s like having a bomb in the bottom of my paint drawer.

Grey studio day

I don’t know if it’s a talent, like perfect pitch, or an acquired skill, but I can easily mix any color I need—except grey, which is the color I’ve wanted this painting to be all along. "That’s because," Ann said this afternoon, "there’s no such thing as grey; there’s only green, blue or violet." Now she tells me! Is this one of those things, like Santa Claus and snipe hunts, that everyone else found out about in second grade, and no one clued me in on? Obviously all those labels on paint are just a joke, and when someone comes into, say, Pearl Paint and actually purchases a tube of Holbein Grey of Grey, the salespeople are cracking up behind the cash registers. Well I’m nothing if not determined, so I looked up “mixing grey oil” on Google, and up came a bunch of sites that are obviously perpetuating the myth. But I fooled them! I took all of the colors mentioned on all of the sites and mixed them together and got...GREEN.

Tough love studio day

Have I been whining a lot? I guess so, because today Roberto came over and said he didn’t think my painting was as bad as he'd expected. He said the color was good, that the alizarin yellow turned out to be great as underpainting—but that I’m painting what I want to see rather than what’s really there. His exact words were, “It’s naïve, but not in a good way.” Only a true friend would say that. Of course, I knew he was right; I was just hoping that I could fool him the way I was trying to fool myself into thinking this painting was Gerhard Richter-esque when it’s really more like Maurice Sendak, minus the Wild Things.

I’d hoped for a happy ending—I was committed to the idea that a painting blog should be inspirational—but instead I’m going to take Roberto’s advice, retire this thing for a while and start another. And this time I’ll try not to be so histrionic about it.

Meanwhile there’s Jeanette and Erica’s wedding and an article to write for Art in America on Marisol The great thing about having two vocations is that it makes for very productive procrastination: I do some of my best painting when I’m supposed to be writing and, conversely, having a deadline gives me a great excuse not to paint.

Satisfied studio day

I've been working on my GREEN painting for an hour or so this morning--after months, it's almost finished--and I love it so much I can't stop looking at it. I was about to write, "Isn't life weird?" until I remembered my old boy friend, Claude, saying, "Compared with what?"

Carol Diehl, Isla de Encanta II, 2007, oil on panel, 17" x 25"

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Pink in San Francisco

Another photo from Nina Zurier (see post below), now back home:

Photograph: Nina Zurier, 2011

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Blue in Barcelona

Often, as a guest artist, I meet people from far-flung parts of the country who want to know how they can have an art career if they live in, say, Akron (apologies to Akron, if it has a vibrant scene I don’t know about). They often look startled at the suggestion that they could perhaps move, when, in any other profession, normal procedure would be to go where the opportunities are.  It’s possible for some people, I suppose, to make great art in a vacuum, but most of the time when artists aren’t actively part of the bigger conversation, the work lags.

There is, however, another option: make your own scene.

Artist-run galleries, publications, coops that convert industrial buildings for studio space, or even pop-up exhibitions, are just some of the ways artists can band together and take charge of their own environment. This summer, in out-of-the-way places—Folkestone (England) and Wassaic (NY)—I bumped into a couple of art-related events that didn’t exist just a few years back. And in Barcelona…well Barcelona’s hardly a backwater, yet for an artist of a certain sensibility who’s not Spanish, it could present challenges. There are, of course, a number of galleries, but their focus is either on Spanish artists or those 25 or 30 American or European artists whose work is shown in every city on the international circuit.

Jack Davidson, a Scotsman who came to Barcelona by way of New York, has chosen the pro-active approach, starting a gallery with his partner, Miquel Rodes (hence the name, JiM Contemporani) in the vast apartment they share on the Rambla de Catalunya, where Jack also has his studio. What a surprise and pleasure it was to leave the bustle of the street, walk up the wide stairs in this typically baroque Catalan apartment building with its cool, dark hallways, go through the heavy wooden door, and step into white-walled, light-filled rooms hung with spare, blue, photographs and watercolors, the work of Nina and John Zurier. This more informal, less commercial situation also provided San Franciscans Nina and John (who shows with Peter Blum in New York), the rare opportunity to exhibit together and make public their private aesthetic dialogue, here based on their mutual attraction to the indigo color used in traditional Japanese textiles.

Nina Zurier, Sleepwalking, 2011, inkjet print, 34" x 18".
John Zurier, Iceland (loft), 2011, ink on paper, 11.6" x 8.2".

Jack in his studio.
And then I just couldn't resist taking a photo of what has to be the most beautiful bathroom in the world, which echoes the blue theme:

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Malevich and me

In preparation for my reading at the Berkshire Museum (August 18th at 7:00 pm), my first in about 15 years, I’ve been revisiting the trove of poems I wrote between 1990 and 1995 when, for whatever reasons, the outpouring abruptly ceased. At the time I blamed it on no longer being able to breathe the cigarette smoke that enveloped the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and Steve Cannon’s informal poetry workshops. No matter how personal my poetry was, it was something I did for, and with, other people. The fun was in writing for performance—the immediate feedback that painting doesn’t provide—and, most importantly, the critical response of the other poets in our tight little group.  Since then my poems have remained buried in a box in the basement, paper copies encased in plastic sleeves in a three-ring binder (also saved on a floppy disk somewhere, as if that will do me any good). Unearthing it was like opening an emotional time capsule from a time of tortured love affairs with people whose names I may or may not remember, recorded by someone much more cynical than I am now. Also this, from 1995:


I’m ushered into her office and it is announced that I am going to review the show. “So do you know about Malevich?” she asks from behind an ornate desk with curvy legs. Two very tiny, very ugly, snob-nosed dogs are chewing on the remains of a pink stuffed rabbit at her feet. “So do you know about Malevich?” My mind races over what I do and do not know about Malevich. Maybe there’s some hideous secret I haven’t been party to. Perhaps he’d had an affair with his sister, or swindled other artists out of thousands of rubles in some turn-of-the-century pyramid scam. I realize I know nothing about his sex life, or even if he’d had a job other than artist. I also realize I’ve forgotten how rude people in the art world can be. I want to say I don’t do this for the money, you know, I do this because I love the art. I want to say fuck you. Instead I say something totally meaningless and defensive that I know, the minute it leaves my lips, I’m going to regret. What I wouldn’t give to be the master of the snappy comeback, the Lily Tomlin of the art world! Of course, like always, when I get into the elevator, the perfect response pops into my head. What I should have said was, “I don’t know about Malevich, but I know what I like.”

Untitled, ca. 1916. Oil on canvas, 20 7/8 x 20 7/8 inches (53 x 53 cm). The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, Acquisition confirmed in 2009 by agreement with the Heirs of Kazimir Malevich  76.2553.42