November 2007 Archives

November 16, 2007


I like being invited places. I'm still unknown enough as an art critic -- I'm still an amateur and all -- that I get excited when someone goes to the trouble to invite me to their show and I always try to go. It doesn't always work out, but I do always try. Jerry, Roberta, Peter, Charlie, I'm sure they get buried by so many invitations they just drop them right in the trash (certainly they've never shown up for anything I've invited them to), but hardly anyone asks me anywhere.

I think this is because I don't actually exist for other people unless I'm physically in the same room with them. As soon as I leave the room, I'm convinced, people forget I exist -- I vanish from their minds just as I vanish from their sight. I have no sticking power. That's what I think.

But contradicting that I was invited to Brooklyn to the Like the Spice Gallery by its director, Marisa Sage. Apparently David Gibson of Realform suggested that she invite me. Which I found really strange because I don't personally know David Gibson, meaning that for him, at least, I seem to exist even though I'm not in the same room with him. Cognitive dissonance!

So despite the fact that I rarely go to Brooklyn for any purpose, I slated Like the Spice for a visit. Also -- and this is important -- my wife's started working late on Thursdays so I was looking for an opening on another weeknight, and Like the Spice's opening was on a Friday. Thus Jason Bryant's show fit pefectly.

Jason Bryant, 2007

Jason Bryant, 2007.

Jason's show immediately presents itself as smooth. The paintings are smooth, the content is smooth, all the textures are smooth. Dirt, grit, brushstrokes, hairs, all hint of texture has been removed to the best of the artist's abilities. Even the subjects together form a smooth, regular series: People, from the bottom of their noses to just below their chests, over and over. Because everything is so uniform, so unvaried, the details that stand out are -- probably not purposely -- the aberrations. A few of the paintings show lapses of technique -- misformed lips, maybe, or an oddly rendered passage of flesh -- which are slight but glaring in this context. And the smaller oval black and white works -- listed as colored pencil but I'm certain I saw some gouache or ink in there -- are really striking because they are the least polished, most lively pieces. And Jason's handling of his media in them is much more assured than in the larger oil works, which struck me as somewhat immature.

I see echoes in his paintings, too, of both Eric White and James Rieck. Maybe not coincidentally the gallery has a Rieck in the basement. What Jason shares with James is a coolness, a distance from their subjects; also their processes are similar. Both start with tiny JPEGs they've found on the Web, making their final paintings partly photo-based and partly filled in by imagination -- they're realistic extrapolations. And both are interested in closely cropped images of people. James is more accomplished technically but Jason is clearly capable of working his way up there, if he keeps practicing.

A good question is whether or not he should. We have realists aplenty, especially vaguely ironic realists. Do we really need another one? I'd rather see Jason embrace the mistakes, the aberrations, and take the smoothness out of his style. I'd rather see him, instead, work with texture. Maybe make a mess. Play some more. I think there's playfulness in there -- you don't paint an Andy Warhol Rolling Stones jacket without some sense of fun -- but it's stymied by an over-literal reliance on smoothness and the boundaries of the chosen composition. If Jason can break out, make a connection with his subjects, maybe, and have some fun, his work could be, I think, really extraordinary.

Anna Druzcz, 2007

Anna Druzcz, 2007.

Any gallery looking to move product has a back room where they keep other work they're interested in selling. In the case of Like the Spice, their back room is their basement. Down there, in addition to the Rieck painting, I found a few works by one Anna Druzcz, and she blew me away.

I've gone on record any number of times claiming to dislike photography, or anyway saying I don't consider it art. I still don't. But Anna works within the realm of photography in a way I find really fantastic. Her works are hung inside welded steel frames and appear to be printed on metal themselves. In fact Marisa assured me they're C-prints made with a suspension with a high silver content, so they look like they're emulsions laid down on steel. The prints are made from digital composites of photos into poetic, phantasmagoric works of surprising power. In a sense these are just photo collages; but Anna has put the images through her own unique eye and created images that hang together as shattered wholes -- as if a landscape has been smashed and the pieces put back together and then photographed. Unlike most photographs, which tell us about the world, or which clearly relate to our world in some way, Anna's works create their own world.

Upstairs the regular old world continued on. Marisa and her assistant kept the music going, playing Madonna, Prince, and Michael Jackson. I talked with Jason for a few minutes and buttonholed Marisa for a while. I told her that sage isn't a spice, it's an herb, which a lot of people tell her, she said; she also noted that Like the Herb doesn't sound very good. She invited me to some more events in Brooklyn, trying to sell me on coming out there more often. It just might work.

Unless, of course, I don't actually exist.

The Blogger Show: Opening


What can I say about the opening of the Blogger Show? As Stephanie said to me a few days before, it was an awful lot of trouble to go to just to hang a bunch of useless objects on a wall and throw a party about it. But it was a good party! Or anyway what I consider a good party, which is probably boring as all hell for almost everybody. Basically it amounted to meeting a bunch of people who, by the selection criteria of the show -- artists who write, or writers who art, or however you want to express it -- are more expressive, articulate, and conversational than most. Which made it perfect for me: I could finally meet some people I'd only known online; I could introduce people to each other who had never met; and I could stand around and listen to myself talk for three hours.

I would list all the people I saw there but it'd pretty much be the list of participants, so you might just as well go read that. Instead I'll tell you about my disappointments at the people who didn't show up. I wish Charlie Finch had been there. I hoped Jerry Saltz would show, although I didn't expect him (I personally sent him a hand-painted postcard inviting him); and I really thought Ed Winkleman would be there. Another disappointment was seeing Christopher Reiger there but not getting to talk to him. Somehow by the time I remembered I wanted to snag him, I couldn't find him.

The opening was packed but almost entirely by people who were in the show or somehow related to them, like my wife (who you can see sitting Sphinxlike next to the door in the opening shot of James Kalm's video) or Tracy's husband Doug. Very few people wandered in off the street, with the striking exception of the woman in the paint-stained bathrobe. Oh, and Mark.

Mark was standing outside the gallery when I got back from getting some air.

"I'm Mark," he said, extending a hand.

I shook it and asked, "Which one?" I assumed he was one of the Marks in the show.

"Just Mark."

"Do you have a last name?"

"Yes, I do. Are you going to tell me your name?"

"I'm Chris. Chris Rywalt."

"I'm Mark [some name I'd never heard and can't remember]."

Aha. Not Marc Snyder or Mark Creegan, then. That explains his cagey attitude.

Mark was very interested in people's clothes, although he claimed to be a freelance journalist. Nancy Baker came up and introduced herself to him and he complimented her coat.

"Cashmere," she said.

"I'm a terrible dresser," I interjected. "Maybe I should have you dress me."

"Burlington Coat Factory, baby!" Nancy enthused.

Mark pointed at her with a flourish. "Two hundred dollars!"

"Exactly! One ninety-nine!"

"And I bet it was originally five hundred!"

"I wouldn't know."

Meanwhile Mark was rubbing my shirt fabric between his fingers. "This shirt is very nice," he said.

Luckily we were interrupted -- conversations at art openings rarely end properly, they just get suspended indefinitely -- and Mark moved on to discuss other people's clothing.

Danny Scheffer was at the opening. He blew me away by being the only really honest and thoughtful person that I spoke with. Under my painting he leaned in and said to me, "So what made you choose this piece? Because you know it's not your strongest work."

Which it isn't, I suppose. But given the pieces I had to choose from -- this was a small works show and my best work recently has been large -- this one struck me as a good representative. Also, it's a sentimental favorite, since it's based on a drawing I like so much I've drawn it three or four times.

The opening was over very quickly, or felt that way. Afterward a number of us repaired to Two Boots for pizza, generously paid for by Tracy. If I'd known beforehand she was buying, I'd've suggested sushi.

I'm the Next Charlie Finch


When other people read what Charlie Finch wrote about art bloggers they were very happy to express outrage -- our own controversy, compared to which a tempest in a teapot is an extinction-level event. But I steadfastly refused to say anything bad about Charlie because I could see how easy it is for an art writer to end up in a perpetually defensive, angry, sarcastic crouch. I've only been writing for two years or so to an audience of about fifteen people and already I've had a couple of people angry at me in a way I consider unreasonable.

I didn't start writing this blog to be nasty to people. I wrote it, and I continue to write it, for one main purpose, and that is to keep myself going to see art. It's easy to walk by a work of art and dismiss it; it's much harder to stop and explain what you don't like about it. Developing and expanding your opinions is a journey of self-discovery, of exploring yourself. And that's what this blog is all about: It's me, exploring myself. I knew if I started writing it and gained an audience -- an audience of six or even an entirely imaginary one -- then I'd keep writing it, which would keep me on my journey. Otherwise it'd be too easy to stop. I set myself an assignment, in other words. And part of that assignment was -- is -- that I'd be as honest, open, and truthful as I possibly could. I'd write down what I truly felt and thought without editing it and without trying to water it down. I'd be true to myself.

I knew, if anyone noticed me, that I'd probably make some people angry. As long as I was being true to myself I didn't mind. Curiously, though, the people I've heard from have not been the people I've reviewed badly; they've been people I thought I was friendly with. Not to exaggerate: I didn't think we were friends, but I thought, when I'd met them, that we'd gotten along and enjoyed each other's company for a bit.

I've been of the opinion, for a while now, that everyone speaks their own language. Any linguist will tell you that every language has a number of dialects, some of them mutually unintelligible. For example, early in 2007 it was officially recognized that Venetians speak their own language distinct from Italian. What I think, similarly, is that every individual speaks their own dialect. Whenever you meet someone new, then, both of you need to learn each other's language. You may both appear to be speaking English, but you're actually speaking two different versions of English, and it can take a little while before you can really communicate. Until that happens you may misunderstand each other because one word may mean two different things in your dialects, or a turn of phrase might have wildly different interpretations.

The closer your dialects are when you meet, the easier it is to communicate. People with whom you "hit it off," then, are just people speaking dialects very similar to your own. People who "rub you the wrong way" or who "make a bad first impression" are people whose dialects differ so much from your own that clear communication is difficult.

People who speak different languages meet and manage well together all the time, partly because, I think, when your languages are obviously different you both understand that neither of you understand. The trouble comes, not in misunderstanding people, but in being certain that you did, in fact, understand someone. The trouble comes when you talk to someone and you think you're speaking the same language when you're not.

So I've been contacted by a couple of people who I completely misunderstood. I thought we were friendly but we were not. I thought things were going well but they were not. I thought the things I'd written were acceptable but they were not.

It's easy to extrapolate from this to imagine what it might be like if I had a large number of readers and this was my job. I can easily see myself becoming very cranky and doing nothing but sending out screed after screed attacking everyone. Because how many times can you go out there being open and honest and truthful and friendly when what you get back is anger and unhappiness?

And I admit I'm sensitive about these things. If an artist was angry with me for a bad review, I can understand that. We're speaking the same language as far as that goes. But when someone is upset about something I consider trivial or amusing or friendly, that I take badly. I can dish it out and I can take it, but I don't deal well with ambushes from people I thought I liked.

I'm not sure that anything's going to change around here -- I'm still going to be as open, honest, and truthful as I can be. I'm not sure I know how to be any other way. I'm not saying here I've never lied, cheated, or stolen -- I have -- but I'm not good at those things, they're not in my nature, and I don't want to be that way. I want to continue to be open. And so I will be.

And if that turns me, eventually, into Charlie Finch, so be it.

The Blogger Show: Hanging


Today my wife Dawn and I helped in the early stages of hanging the Blogger Show at Agni Gallery. We got the kids off to school and drove through Manhattan over to Brooklyn to Stephanie's place, carried about forty boxes down from her fourth-floor apartment, loaded them into our minivan and her SUV, then carted it all back to Manhattan to the gallery. During this trip I learned that a) I should always, always, always bring clear directions, even if I've been there more than once before and think I know where I'm going, because driving aimlessly around Red Hook (the completely incorrect area of Brooklyn) while thinking I know where I am isn't a good use of time; and b) that E. Houston Street splits to become Houston Street and E. 2nd Street, which, amazingly enough, was exactly where we needed to be. As a lifelong resident of New York City and environs you'd think I'd know this already, but I'm pretty much entirely ignorant below 14th Street until you get to the Staten Island Ferry.

At the gallery we were met by John Morris and Agni Zotis, John being the driving force behind the show and Agni being kind enough to loan us her space for it. Agni finished moving her stuff around while we unloaded everything.

We were worried that, considering this is a small works show, the boxes seemed awfully big. We hoped they were simply over-packed, which mostly they were. After we'd cleared away some space we began taking boxes apart.

"It's like Christmas!" Stephanie enthused, although it was only like Christmas if instead of really cool toys when you opened your gifts you got incomprehensible, obtuse objects. Which, come to think of it, is just like my Christmas in those years when no one could figure out what to get me.

Lucky for us only one artwork arrived with slivers of glass in the box. Note to any artist sending framed works through the mail: Use Plexiglas. The artwork wasn't harmed but figuring out what to do with the glass pieces was entertaining, since the gallery doesn't have much of a trash can. (I ended up taking them home with me.)

While we were unpacking, Libby Rosof and Roberta Fallon arrived to deliver their pieces. Shortly after that some guy started filming us from outside the door, then came in to greetings from John. The cameraman turned out to be James Kalm. With the camera rolling he asked me and Stephanie for a quote regarding Charlie Finch, which we gave; James found our statements unexciting and noninflammatory, which seemed to disappoint him, but he stayed to help unpack boxes and reframe the work from the glass debacle while he told us many, many times that he'd been at this for 25 years.

While unpacking I found out something curious. I didn't check the names on the boxes before I began, but every time I was impressed with a good packing job, the piece turned out to be from someone I knew, liked, and respected. Every time the packing job was bizarre, confusing, or just covered with a ton of pointless tape, I had no idea who the artist was -- I hadn't met them, don't read their blog, have no contact with them. So for example I opened this one box from which the painting slid effortlessly and flawlessly, and I exclaimed, "Now this is some great packing!" only to find, as I removed the bubble wrap, that it was from Nancy Baker.

And now to let you in on a little secret. The absolute best part of helping to hang an art show:


This is so awesome I can't even express it. Dawn had laid a box on the table and called to me, "Hey, isn't this some guy you know?"

"Who is it?"

"J.T. somebody."


J.T. Kirkland, Woven, 2005, aromatic cedar, 9.25x13.25x1.5 inches

J.T. Kirkland, Woven, 2005, aromatic cedar, 9.25x13.25x1.5 inches

She had unwrapped J.T. Kirkland's contribution to our show. Dawn handed me the piece, which is pretty small -- it's a small works show! -- a little smaller than ten by fourteen inches.

"I'm holding a J.T. Kirkland piece," I said, amazed. I brought it close to my nose to smell it. Aromatic cedar. "Smell this." I held it out to Stephanie.

She closed her eyes and leaned forward to take a large breath. "Reminds me of my gerbil," she said dreamily.

I held it out to Dawn. "Smell this."


"Come on, smell it."


"Smell it!"


"Smell it?"

"Fine," she surrendered, and gave it a perfunctory sniff.

Dawn, as she never tires of telling me, is not an art person.

"I smelled a Pollock once," added James.

"That sounds cool. What'd it smell like?"


A little while later I was opening another well-packed box, following the directions carefully written on the sides, and as I removed the painting from its protective wrapping I was Tracy Helgeson's. The very first painting I'd ever seen by her -- I'd only seen JPEGs before. And here I was holding it in my hands.

Tracy Helgeson, Out in Front, 2007, oil on panel, 16x20 inches

Tracy Helgeson, Out in Front, 2007, oil on panel, 16x20 inches

Oh, oh god, Tracy -- I almost cried. Chills ran up and down my back. My arms broke out in goosebumps. Oh, Tracy, I had no idea. No wonder you're one of the few artists I've met who's really selling. The JPEGs just don't -- compared to your paintings, the JPEGs are nothing. Like looking at a photo of a violin compared to listening to a virtuoso play one. I just -- my god, Tracy. A barn, and some trees, and how could it be so fantastic, so deep? I'm tearing up again.

And I got to hold it. Move it around. Bring it close and then hold it away. What a privilege! What a rare gift!

Nancy Baker, Backstroke, 2007, oil on wood panel, 15x25 inches

Nancy Baker, Backstroke, 2007, oil on wood panel, 15x25 inches

Shortly after that I unwrapped Nancy's treasure. It was especially wonderful to hold because I'd seen her work in a show on a wall where I couldn't change the lighting or squint really close at it or check out the texture (not that I ran my hands over it or anything -- I angled it to see how the light hit it). Dawn was suitably impressed by it, too.

Steven LaRose, 09/24/07 a, 2007, vinyl acrylic on wood panel

Steven LaRose, 09/24/07 a, 2007, vinyl acrylic on wood panel

And a little while later found me holding Steve LaRose's contribution. Funny, I didn't expect it to be on a panel. (I know some of my surprise seems silly since you can read sizes and materials in the descriptions, but I didn't really look over the Website for the show that carefully, so most of the pieces were new to me.)

Once we had everything out, we began to lay them out leaning against the walls, whereupon Stephanie began to work her magic, which mostly seemed to involve pacing back and forth and muttering. Dawn and I found we had nothing much to do while John kept up a steady patter of what can only be described as Johnspeak, seemingly random musings between long stretches of almost inaudible humming. Stephanie finally began putting things on the wall in a preliminary way and John and I applied ourselves to figuring out how to mount some of the pieces; most notably two unframed works on paper. Ordinarily these kinds of things are pinned to the wall -- one even had pinholes in it -- but the walls of this gallery are made of some rock-hard plaster into which pins cannot be pushed. Our final solution -- which John suggested -- was to drill 1/16-inch holes and put archival cloth tape over them, then pin through the tape. This seemed to work very well, although I had to operate the drill (which was mine) because apparently John is under orders from Susan Constanse not to touch power tools.

Everything seemed well under control when Dawn and I left -- kids, you know, they get out of school eventually. I'm expecting the opening on Saturday night to be a lot of fun.


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