November 2006 Archives

Art. Depression. Crap.


Recently Nancy Baker posted to Anonymous Female Artist -- not so anonymous, definitely female -- about women, depression, and art. Someone (ml, whoever that is in this wonderful cacophony of aliases what be the Internet) wrote, "My attitude about depression changed when I read Rilke: Banish the demons, the angels flee as well."

For some reason this sticks with me. Because my immediate reaction -- which hasn't dimmed in the days since I read this and went looking for the original quote (I'll even take it in Deutsch) -- my immediate reaction was this: FUCK THE ANGELS. If depression is the price to pay for being creative, then I don't want it. I'd trade a normal life for this crap in a fucking HEARTBEAT.

I mean it. If the demons would leave, I'd tie the angels up in a little package for them to carry with them.

I don't happen to think mental instability of any kind -- depression, substance abuse, mania, any of it -- I don't think any mental disorders at all help art. Ask any real artist and I think they'll say having a brain which doesn't work right won't help you make anything worthwhile. Bill Maher recently asked Stephen King if his addictions didn't help make his writing better in some way: King's answer was negative. That crap gets in the way.

Beethoven wasn't crazy. He went deaf and lost contact with the world, his bowels made him suffer terribly, he became cranky as all hell -- but he wasn't crazy. He worked until the very end.

You know who was crazy? Henry Darger. He was stone cold nuts. His art ain't worth shit. Unless you, too, are schizophrenic squirrel bait, in which case his work probably speaks to you.

This isn't fun and games. This is like cholera. The end is never easy. Think of Jackson Pollock wrapping himself around a tree. Arshile Gorky hanging himself. Mark Rothko slashing himself to death. Van Gogh going out into the fields and shooting himself, then crawling home to spend three days dying. Sylvia Plath with her head in the oven. Ernest Hemingway with his gun in his mouth.

This isn't romantic. This isn't art. This is LIFE and this is DEATH.

But then I think, what are we saving ourselves for? It's not as if we get to snap the tape across our chest as we cross some finish line. We don't get a medal or a trophy. Are we saving ourselves so we can end up like Willem de Kooning, so demented we can't even remember what happened five minutes ago? Maybe we can go like Charles Mingus, with the cruel, crawling paralysis of ALS. Or in pieces like Ella Fitzgerald. We can wait until our prostate rises up to engulf us like Frank Zappa. We can be slowly crumpled and crushed like Renoir.

Because there's something waiting for its chance to devour you. And it will get that chance some day.

Demons. Angels. Bullshit.

Lisa Hunter's Book Party


I haven't been updating my Plan Ahead sub-blog because I haven't been planning ahead. I've been doing whatever strikes me at the moment as a good idea, which mostly means staying in bed as long as possible and then getting back into bed as early as possible. So when I heard, nearly at the last possible moment, that Lisa Hunter was having a book launch party at Winkleman/Plus Ultra, I decided to go and I didn't warn anyone I was going. And almost just before I left Stephanie Lee Jackson wrote to me to ask if I was going to be there. Having her show up was good news for me: I find it's impossible at these things to really talk to the host or the guest of honor for long, so if you don't have anyone else to talk to (and I usually don't) you stand around awkwardly for a bit and then go home. No fun.

I met Lisa for the first time, then, which was nice. I don't read her blog as regularly as I might -- I'm not an art collector because I don't have enough money for art supplies half the time, let alone other people's art -- but I do drop in from time to time and I like her writing. I didn't even get to buy a copy of her book for her to sign because on this particular day I was so short on funds if I didn't have EZPass I wouldn't even have been able to pay the Lincoln Tunnel toll.

Meeting Lisa was good and I also met John Morris of Digging Pitt, another blog I'm sorry to say I don't read much. Not that I don't like him, just that Pittsburgh is a million miles away and I have enough to keep up with around here. I'm probably going to read both of them more often now, though, since I tend to care more about people I've met in person. John was very talkative and interesting and quite intelligent, which is a nice change of pace from most art world people I meet. If Ed's gallery was more encouraging of good conversation it would've been a great time; Ed really needs to get something on the ceiling to improve the acoustics. I hereby volunteer to help with installation, and if I ever have money again I'll gladly pitch in funds, too. Maybe he could just glue up all my failed paintings (face to the ceiling, of course).

Lisa and Sara Jo also opened up Schroeder Romero next door as a show of solidarity with their neighbor, so I got to see the show they had up. Stephanie and I were looking at the work and chatting when Lisa tossed in from across the room, "He'll probably write something bad about it on his blog."

I feel bad about that. The fact is, I almost feel like the little connected spaces of Winkleman and Schroeder Romero are a home away from home for me. Ed and Lisa and Sara Jo never fail to make me feel welcome. They're always nice and willing to talk and listen and I love all three of them dearly. Every time I see Lisa I want nothing more than to hug her.

But. You could hear the but coming, couldn't you? But we just don't have the same taste in art. I think we're all fine with that -- gallerists understand, more than a lot of people, I think, that it takes all kinds. They don't require that you agree with them to be their friend. Which is wonderful. At the same time, I really wish I did agree with them. I just don't. I've had to accept that they are going to regularly put up shows that I not only don't like but sometimes think should be put out with the garbage.

Lordan Bunch, Marker #9, 2006, oil on Ouija board, 15x20 inches At least that wasn't the case this time. I saw Proof of Mary by Lordan Bunch. The paintings are immediately striking; they're realistic portraits and that tends to stand out. Something is slightly off about the images, though. Part of it is technique: Lordan just doesn't seem quite up to the style he's using. There's an uncertainty to it, a slight amateur feeling. Part of it is the images themselves, which are somewhat confounding in their mix of color and black and white, the range of archaic hairstyles of the sitters, the variation from Hollywood glamor to immigrant hausfrau. A number of the portraits are done on Parker Brothers Ouija boards.

I might have just been mildly confused and curious if Stephanie hadn't been with me. I mentioned that I thought the paintings were pretty good.

"So he just took portraits from gravestones and painted them," she said.

Aha, that's it! (And if I ever read gallery verbiage, I would've known that, because they explain it there.) I admit to ignorance here: The cemeteries I've been in (not that I frequent cemeteries) never had those little gravestone portraits on them. In fact I'd never even seen them until a couple of years ago when my kids insisted I take them on a walk through a nearby cemetery; most of the markers there have photos on them. It's an Eastern Orthodox cemetery and I was brought up Roman Catholic. I don't think Italians are big on gravesite photos, and I found them a little creepy. Although, thinking about it, it's kind of nice to imagine what these people were like in life, rather than thinking they're big blocks of granite with angels on top.

In any case, I didn't realize all the paintings were taken from grave markers. I wish I had, because I'd even considered a project using photo grave markers. I had this idea -- which I shared with Stephanie there -- of painting little grave markers, but instead making each one a vulva portrait.

"We're going to have a little talk, you and I," Stephanie told me.

Well, it wasn't a serious project. Just a goofy idea. And those grave markers are expensive! I mean, I guess I could just paint some by hand and fire them like regular ceramic pieces....

Right. Little talk. Not a good project. Moving on.

Lordan's repurposing of the grave photos makes them mysterious -- in fact, adds a mystery they totally lack in their original context. The mystery is, what do these photos (or paintings) mean? Once you know what they are, the mystery evaporates. I found myself wondering what could take its place. There's a feeling of empathy for these women; and also a feeling that Lordan has robbed their graves, if not literally then symbolically. He's taken someone's desire to remember their loved one and twisted it for his own ends. In fact it feels a little shallow and contemptuous: "Here's what ignorant people use to try to contact their deceased loved ones, and here's the dopey photo they chose to remember them by."

But then my feelings shift. I think that maybe Lordan has treated these women with some respect. We wouldn't know or remember them -- wouldn't care at all -- if he hadn't lifted their images out and placed them in a new context. And the images, like the Ouija boards, are really just expressions of the human desire to maintain some connection to the people we've loved.

My feelings about the show ended up being the same as my feelings about the paintings in the show: I liked them but didn't like them. I guess you'd say I am ambivalent. Which I'd say means the show is a success: I'd rather a show make me think than a show simply please me and leave my mind immediately after I walk away.

I will say this: The fact that my friends and I have such different tastes in art has helped me to clarify what I do and do not like. Writing about it and talking about it has done wonders. It's turned art appreciation into an active project for me, and that's well worth the discomfort of having to tell someone I like that, no, this show just isn't for me.

I wish I could say more about The Intrepid Art Collector: The Beginner's Guide to Finding, Buying, and Appreciating Art on a Budget at this point because the party was for Lisa, after all. But I haven't read it and so I can't say much. I like the cover design. I do recommend you buy a copy because I want people I know to be successful and happy and all. I'm sure it's an excellent book. Buy a copy for a friend while you're at it.

Sara Eichner


I've been formulating an idea -- it's still percolating, so I haven't fully thought it out yet -- but I've been formulating this idea that art, true art, should be the creation of beautiful objects. This is in contrast with the great flow of 20th century art, which is mostly about the creation of desirable objects. That's a fine distinction but an important one. It seems to me that one of the things we can take away from Duchamp's Fountain is its assertion that art is about creating desirable objects, and that any object can be made desirable through the thoughts of a magician, in this case someone given the title of "Artist." Conceptualism even does away with the object, leaving only the desire.

More on this later, as I work it out. In the meantime, I ask you to think about Sara Eichner, and how she has created some beautiful objects.

Sara Eichner, red hexagons, 2006, oil on panel, 40x82 inches I wrote about Sara very briefly as part of a group show I saw at McKenzie Fine Art. I said that I liked her paintings but I'd like to see her work larger. Sara found my review and sent me e-mail to let me know that she had started working larger and inviting me to her solo show at Sears-Peyton Gallery.

I was momentarily horrified that Sara might have followed my advice. I strongly advise against following my advice. But upon re-reading her message I found she told me she'd been working on the paintings in the show for a year and a half or so. I was relieved: This was just a case of two great minds thinking alike, not a case of someone doing what I suggested.

Sara Eichner, fence, 2006, oil on panel, 47x65 inches Sara was willing to meet me to take me through her paintings, so we got together for an hour or so on November 3. (Perhaps now would be a good time to read this side note on my working method.) While there I met Gaines Peyton, one half of the gallery's partners, and some of their staff. I also got taken through the door labeled "Private" and into the gallery's back room which, oddly enough, is bigger than its front room but mostly empty, except for a big flat file cabinet. Sara's work has been flying out the door so quickly she only has one painting in the flat file, and it's a small one, so it looks very lonely and sad in there.

Sara's paintings definitely look better in the company of each other. All together they transform the space of a room into a funhouse of crazily angled surfaces. Most of her current work involves apparent surfaces which are tilted away from the picture plane; any one might induce vertigo if you're not careful, and a bunch of them at once is a little like being stuck in the middle of an Escher etching.

Sara Eichner, red floral wallpaper, 2006, oil on panel, 47x72 inches These paintings occupy a wonderful space in art, too. They're fantastically accessible but there's a lot of painterly subtlety in them. Sara told me she found herself at this point, painting these akimbo fields of tiles or wallpaper patterns, by going from figure painting through landscape painting and out to these simplified, abstracted, seemingly infinite surfaces. Each one seems recognizable because each painting is inspired by a real surface. They are, really, very particular landscapes.

And Sara builds them with the techniques of landscape painting. Particularly she's looking to invest each painting with a sense of air between the viewer and the painting surface. So she might add a little blue to the otherwise plain white of the spaces between the tiles -- an old landscape trick to fool the eye into seeing an object as more distant than it really is.

Sara Eichner, green shingle siding (detail), 2006, oil on panel She uses a computer to help her play with the perspective before she lays it out, and then marks off a grid on her panel to guide her painting. But after that it's a manual process and it shows. Looking at her online reproductions you might think she could simply print these out from an inkjet, but when you see them in person it's clear how handmade these really are. The whole surface is wonderfully alive with the imperfections of oil painting: Differences in paint thickness, slight alligatoring here and there, a drip and a spatter maybe; maybe a spot where two adjacent colors don't quite line up. It's interesting because I can see where a less talented painter might have chosen her subject but tried to paint it as flat as possible; or where another painter might have chosen her less-than-perfect style but used it on entirely different subjects. The brilliance of Sara's paintings lies in her combination of the two; they vibrate and change the air in front of them.

And the larger paintings definitely work better. There's a certain twee charm to the small ones, but I think these subjects are better when they're big and have room to breathe, to make you breathe with them.

Sara Eichner, blue damask wallpaper, 2006, gouache on watercolor paper, 30x22 inches In addition to the paintings Sara also has some gouaches up. They look curiously flocked and remind me strongly of my Aunt Joan's wallpaper, only hers had gold veins and red velvet flocking. I'm not sure I like Sara's wallpaper designs as much as I like her tilings, but they're the flip side of each other: As she makes explicit when she titles a diptych inside outside, her tilings are the outer walls and her wallpaper the inner.

Steven LaRose, obverse of drawing, 2006, pencil on illustration board One thing I had to ask Sara was whether her paintings had a definite orientation. I was thinking about this because just a couple of days earlier I'd gotten a couple of drawings in the mail from Steven LaRose and he'd written on the back "Make sure you flip the orientation every couple of months." Sara assured me that her paintings did have an up and a down because, again, she's trying to put the viewer into a real space, to have them feel they're standing in relation to an actual surface.

Sara Eichner has certainly created some beautiful objects. They are also desirable, as evidenced by the number of sales. I think her paintings stand at the perfect confluence of art and accessibility: Anyone can enjoy her paintings and be moved by them, but they're not kitsch and they're not simple. I expect to see a lot of Sara in the future.

Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg Auction Catalog, 2002.05.14 It so happened the last time I was in Chelsea that I wandered by Gallery Henoch -- rapidly becoming one of my favorite places -- and found they were clearing out several years' accumulation of auction catalogs. I grabbed a couple, just because they were free and seemed neat. Also, one had a photo of a nude woman nursing a baby on the front, and I just love moms when they're naked.

The first thing I noticed was that these catalogs were hilariously well-produced, considering they were given away to be thrown away. The cost of printing one run of these catalogs would probably keep a mid-level artist in paints and beer for a year. I understand that, given what auction houses make, this sum is simply a tiny drop in a very large, very full bucket. But still, I can't help but wonder how it would change the art world if, instead of giving these vast sums out to printing companies, auction houses gave them out to artists whose work they're not selling -- not yet, anyway. Well, for all I know, auction houses support arts grants and organizations to the tune of zillions of euros every year. For all I know.

Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg Auction Catalog, 2002.05.13 The next thing I noticed was that one of the catalogs, to my surprise, was for an auction including 14 of Marcel Duchamp's readymades. It seems that Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg sold Arturo Schwarz's collection of Duchamp back in 2002. Well, most of it. Not every piece sold.

I've made it clear in previous posts that I am a philistine. A largely uneducated philistine, at least where art is concerned. I've never had a formal class in art or art history and everything I know I learned on my own. Therefore I was in the perfect position to learn something about Duchamp's readymades, which have been so influential in late 20th century art.

What I learned was this: Half of the auction entries begin, "The original, produced in 191x, was lost; the present lot was produced under the artist's supervision from photographs of the original."

The original was lost. In other words, the original was treated as a regular object by an unwitting person, not as the work of art into which it had been magically transformed, and thrown out. And, in point of fact, it was probably treated like a regular object by Duchamp himself, or someone he knew. His Bottle Rack he left behind in Paris. He wrote to his sister from New York telling her he would cause the rack to become art at a distance; she, showing far more sense than an entire generation of artists and critics, apparently knew he was full of crap and tossed it in the 1916 Parisian equivalent of a dumpster.

Now, because half of these readymades were "lost" -- Duchamp's two most famous, Fountain and Bicycle Wheel in particular -- and the others already owned by other people, he had to have each one of these "readymades" carefully crafted as entirely handmade reproductions. Yes: The urinal you can see in any one of several museums is, in fact, not a urinal at all, but a sculpture of a urinal. That is, it's a mass-produced item reproduced as a one-of-a-kind sculpture. The catalog shows the detailed schematics drawn up for each item, and there's even a photo of the urinal-in-progress.

Duchamp himself writes about his readymades: "A point that I want very much to establish is that the choice of these 'readymades' was never dictated by aesthetic delectation. The choice was based on a reaction of visual indifference with at the same time a total absence of good or bad fact a complete anaesthesia."

One of the readymades on the block, Trebuchet (Trap), wasn't even originally bought to be a readymade. It was bought to be an actual coat rack. But Duchamp never got around to putting it up and he kept tripping over it in his studio. Finally he nailed it to the floor. That made it art. Except at some point he must have chucked it in the trash, because the original is "lost."

So to sum up, Duchamp would take an object he found somewhere -- without regard to whether it was pretty or utilitarian or anything at all -- maybe write some gibberish on it, keep it around his studio for a bit, then throw it away. And then in 1964, he had a bunch of new ones made. Which for some reason now reside in museums.

I'm willing to accept Duchamp's work as a large practical joke, except it seems no one has gotten it. I thought Fountain was a fairly obvious jest, and that was before I'd heard its full story. Every time I hear another detail in the Duchamp saga, I find it even more blatantly ridiculous, and I end up even sadder than I was.

Do you think this essay makes me look like an idiot? A rube? An uneducated bozo proud of his ignorance?

Good. Then I succeeded.

By the way, I've declared these two catalogs works of art. Anyone want to buy one? I'll even sign it.


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