The atmosphere's been awfully negative around here lately. Stephanie likes to warn me that it's okay to let loose with some negative thoughts now and then so long as I eventually get back to the positive, what she calls "the good stuff". And it's been noted by a few people in my vicinity -- most notably Piri -- that art critics aren't remembered for the bad artists they savaged but for the great artists they championed.
After the past couple of weeks on this blog, then, I was thinking that I really need a winner. I really need to find a show of art I truly love so I can get some positivity out there. But it's hard to call that up on order. It's just not possible to look over the shows on One Art World and say, yes! That one's a surefire quality show! It doesn't work that way. Of course the fairs were in town but I have a four year tradition of not going and I'm not planning on changing that any time soon.
Something I'd been thinking about anyway was making a list of the artists I'd want to show if I had my own gallery. I would never have my own gallery, but if in some imaginary parallel universe I were to have one, I was thinking of which artists I'd want to show. It occurred to me that I could do this virtually by putting together a blog post showcasing my favorite artists and explaining what they do that works for me.
One thing I'm not doing, however, is just listing artists I like. That would be a long list because there are lots of artists whose work I've seen that I simply like. There are museum-level artists, dead artists, artists whose work I've only seen in reproduction, and so on. Such a list would serve no real purpose.
I'm going to be more specific than that. What I'm going to do is make a list of artists who I not only would but conceivably could show in my fictitious gallery. These are living artists, still working, still creating. Granted that some of them -- most of them, probably -- are out of my league, or anyway the league of this imaginary gallery I'm running. It's not realistic. Some of these artists are people I consider friends; some I've exchanged e-mail with; some I've met; some are blue-chip artists. I own works by some of them; some I couldn't afford if I won the lottery.
Above any of that, these are artists whose work has done more than make me think, "Oh, I like that." These are artists whose work I've experienced in person, and their work has affected me. Each artist has created at least one work which moved me in some way while I was standing in front of it. The feeling is indescribable and inexplicable, something beyond words, something that cannot be fully understood, only known.
To me, that's what art's all about.
[Note: This has taken me longer to write up than I imagined it could. So I'm splitting it into two parts. This is part one. Part two will be following soon.]
Inka Essenhigh, In Bed, 2005, oil on canvas, 68x62 inches
Inka Essenhigh's In Bed, painted in 2005, is an excellent example of why art needs to be experienced in person. Looking at a reproduction of this painting, computer-monitor sized, reduced, flattened, it looks like a pretty obvious take on insomnia, or nightmares, or anyway of someone being tortured while sleeping or trying to sleep. There are the window blinds, the bed wheels, some grinning critters twisting someone's guts. There are the sheets flapping and the sleeper writhing. It looks kind of literal, actually.
But in person it's another thing entirely. Standing in front of it you can only just get the painting between your outstretched arms, and then only if you're pretty tall. The painting completely dominates you and your field of view. And you're confronted immediately with a frenzy of activity, a swirl of moving lines, a sudden, shaking blast from the brass section. You might not notice -- I certainly didn't -- the literal elements of the work, which are actually small parts in relation to the structural elements. What takes over your vision isn't the strings marking those wild stripes as venetian blinds or the delicate curl of the sleeper's kidneys. What you see is a violent maelstrom of flapping calligraphy. Only if you stand in front of it for some time -- or walk away and come back to it, as I did -- do you start to focus on the individual, more recognizable, parts of the painting. Of course if you see the title of the work before standing in front of it you might catch on sooner. But if you're open to the pure visual experience of In Bed, it's like being washed away by a sudden cold ocean wave.
I haven't seen anything from Ms. Essenhigh in the past few years, not since I reviewed her 2006 show at 303 Gallery. Researching for this I discovered I only just missed her most recent show there and now I'm kicking myself. I haven't seen anything in the rest of her work to match the power of In Bed but a couple of them have come close; and I'd really like to see more reach this level.
Eric Fischl, Ten Breaths: Damage, 2007, resin, patina, and cloth, 57x93x124 inches
It may not be entirely obvious that a painting needs to be seen in person but everyone can agree that sculpture needs to be experienced. Until you're actually walking around it, seeing how the light changes against the forms with your viewing angle, you're not seeing sculptural work at all. So I can't really expect you to look at photos of Eric Fischl's Ten Breaths series and get even an inkling of the feelings I felt when I saw them in Mary Boone's cavernous space.
That's a shame because the whole installation should be seen by anyone with a love for humanity. Each figure radiates tenderness, sorrow, pain, pity, and loss. Each one is infused with the fragility of being human, the essential brokenness of every person. Of course we can say Mr. Fischl communicates this through the surfaces of these sculptures: They're all corroded, lumpy, unfinished. Fingers melt together, legs trail off into nothing, anatomy is distorted, barely human. Individual features are indistinct. But that's just surface and it's superficial: Simple ugly half-forms aren't what makes these sculptures great. What makes them great is something ineffable Mr. Fischl infused into each one, a feeling of great empathy and love, a sadness for the weakness and suffering of each figure, and a palpable desire for transcendence.
I felt all that as I walked around the figures. The angel being blown out of Heaven, the frenzied dancers, the fleeing man, the tumbling woman just striking the floor, the Samaritan helping someone from where they've fallen, a small child standing helpless as another fallen person is attended to. It's easy to read all of this as a recasting, possibly an allegory, of September 11th, and that may be what Mr. Fischl was thinking and what he intended. But I believe great art transcends intentions, even the intentions of its creator; great art embodies more than anyone can possibly intend. That's what makes it great. And Ten Breaths is great art. I went in with no idea of its connections to anything -- no idea of the reception Tumbling Woman received when first displayed, no idea of Mr. Fischl's ideas behind the piece, no idea of what the gallery had to say. None of that is necessary because the sculptures tell you everything you need to know by being themselves.
I hope that one day Ten Breaths will be displayed permanently somewhere. It deserves to be experienced by many, many people.
Tracy Helgeson, Horizon Lines (One), 2008, oil on panel, 4x4 inches
Tracy Helgeson, Horizon Lines (Eight), 2008, oil on panel, 4x4 inches
I feel a need to defend the paintings of Tracy Helgeson and at the same time I feel a little bad about that. I personally try to say how I feel about an artist without making excuses or apologies. But Tracy herself would probably admit that she has a bit of a difficult time in the art world because of her subject matter and her success. Her paintings sell, and they're mostly landscapes, mostly of barns. The problem is that seeing her work in reproduction, and knowing what there is to know about it -- woman painter, living in rural upstate New York, doing gauzy paintings of rustic exteriors, sells well from non-New York City-based galleries -- one might be inclined to dismiss her and I think she's been dismissed many times over the years. It's too easy to say what she's doing is arts-and-crafts, not fine art, that it's kitsch (and not in that acceptable ironic way, either).
I feel bad about wanting to defend Tracy because her work needs no defense from me. All it needs is to be seen in person. When you have one in front of you all the words attached to the paintings drop away and you're left with the painting itself and all its wonderfulness. How Tracy gets so much into what is, really, a simple subject -- well, that's the mystery of art, isn't it? That's why people enjoy art, why they keep coming back to it. Because there's something there that can't be explained by biography or subject matter, something that can't be described by sales figures or encompassed by the address of your gallery.
These two tiny paintings are probably not what I'd choose to represent Tracy, and I doubt she'd choose them herself. I put them here because they're the ones I happen to own. You can see more of her work at her site. Again, I insist that looking at a Website isn't enough: If there's some way you can see Tracy's work in person, do so.
Tracy's paintings have a marvelous depth to them. Her darker underpaintings slip in and out of perception, hidden to varying degrees by her lighter, more realistic upper layers. She never reaches a level of full reality but instead maintains an almost dreamlike quality. The blue of a sky is never a solid cerulean but instead waxes and wanes across the painting, as the deep maroons and fulsome pinks of the underpainting peek through. Her vegetation is never a pure viridian as you'd find in an amateur landscape, but always tinted through with purples, blues, yellows. Her paintings always shade off at the edges with a hint of Rothko. And she usually finishes them with a varnish that saturates and unifies everything into one lovely jewellike whole.
I firmly believe that art isn't about its subject; in fact art isn't about anything. Art is how you feel when you stand in front of it. Tracy's paintings show us the truth of that.
J.T. Kirkland, Untitled, 2007, acrylic on canvas, 20x20 inches
Once again I'm representing an artist with a painting they'd probably not choose for themselves, and once again I have to plead that it's one I happen to own. In this case J.T. offered this painting free to a good home on his site and I was lucky enough to volunteer to adopt it before anyone else. He was giving it away because it's a direction he attempted but never followed up on, leaving him with a work nothing like anything else in his oeuvre. So using that painting here is a bit wrong of me, but I'm going to do it anyway, because, as I keep saying, the reproductions don't matter. What matters is the actual work. If you want a more representative idea of his work, go to his site, or, better yet, see it in person for yourself.
J.T.'s work is especially difficult to discuss because it's so minimalist it makes Donald Judd look positively extravagant. J.T. has pieces which consist entirely of a single piece of wood coated with slightly different textures of clear polyacrylic varnish. Yet in person his work doesn't seem minimalist, it feels rich. How this happens is, yes, the mystery of art.
The work which I've seen most is J.T.'s work with wood and holes, where he arranges pieces of various species of wood and drills holes into them in some pattern. It sounds cerebral, cold and distant, but in practice it's none of these things. J.T.'s sensitivity to his materials is such that in choosing them, arranging them, and arranging his holes, they all come together in a harmony greater than the parts. His work is subtle -- no one's going to faint from the sensuousness of it all -- but strong, like the insistent pull of a slowly flowing river. Or like the growing of a tree itself. Most artists, I think, have a love for their materials, a sense of their innate beauty, but few artists would allow their materials to stand so wholly on their own. Wood is itself beautiful, of course, but J.T. leaves us looking at the wood, his additions to and subtractions from it, and the whole combination as different levels of beauty.