Monthly Archives: April 2010

Looking for art to love, day one: Chelsea

I started my search for art to love in Chelsea, April 20

(see my first post, immediately below, for some general thoughts about falling in love with artworks)

“Talk Show” at Ed Thorp Gallery: is the title a sly way of hinting that the show is all women painters? (talk show > The View > all women???)  A show with many good small paintings, with the slightly funky, folksy, even fey quality that Thorp has favored over the years: representational, slightly surrealist or fantasist. There are aspects of several artists’ work that I like [category: je l’aime bien]: I was interested in Clare Grill’s paintings, particularly Close Our Eyes and Go to Bed, a small painting of a group of shoes at a door way or threshold. The painting surface style is sketchy and relaxed, rich and with small pleasures in some of Grill’s decisions about paint transparency and the trace of an under-drawing, as well as the subject: the shoes suggest a family, but they are not all pairs, which, with the shadow that flows up towards the door, creates a subtle undercurrent of disquiet.

Clare Grill, Close Our Eyes and Go to Bed, 2008, Oil on linen on panel, 20h x 17w in.

Also I spent some time with E.T., a delicate painting of a girl’s translucent blouse disrupted by a red spot over her left breast.

Clare Grill, E.T., oil on linen over panel, 18"x13", 2010

This brought to my mind the first small paintings I saw by Portia Munson when she was still a graduate student at Rutgers. These represented simple yet startlingly potent aspects of a woman’s life in a style of painting that was just as good as it needed to be to get the image across: either totally plain but curious still-lifes, such a pair of cotton panties rolled up from being just taken off and left on the floor, or the body transformed with a feminist perspective, as in Munson’s Lipstick on Tits, a close-up of breasts smeared in red lipstick.

I don’t think that Grill and Munson are working exactly the same corner of gender representation. The oozing red stain on Grill’s delicately painted blouse suggests illness, mutilation, or defilement while Munson’s bold image speaks to the social necessity of duplication of gender identity: having tits is apparently not enough to inscribe a female body as a woman in society, lipstick must be applied. Also, in Munson’s work, the woman painter begins by literally painting herself. Nevertheless I think it’s important to bring these works together: many important artworks from the near past are not as well known as they should be, often because the artist was not positioned properly in relation to the center of the art world, either by circumstance, content, age, or location. These gaps in history are particularly important to address when women artists are concerned, despite the many advances of women in the artworld.

Portia Munson, "Lipstick on Tits," oil on linen, 16"x22", 1986

Of all the works in “Talk Show,” one painting has stayed in my mind past the Ninth Avenue barrier of Chelsea: Little Boy in Bed, a watercolor on canvas by Bettina Sellmann. It keeps drifting back into my mind as it drifts in and out of visibility even when you are right in front of it, a sweet little baby in a small ornately carved bed, all limned in a few strokes of watercolor on a scumbled grey stain on canvas. This painting seems old fashioned in a way, in terms of art style, it could be from the 1940s, never mind, it’s a haunting work [perhaps a sub-category: je l’aime bien + bonus points].

Bettina Sellmann, Little Boy in Bed, 2010, Watercolor on canvas, 30h x 36w in.

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Looking for art to love in all the right places

I’ve fallen in love with many more artworks than I have men and without giving anything away I’d have to say that I’ve had better luck with the artworks I’ve loved and even the ones I’ve hated. No painting I’ve ever seen was married or loved someone else, or got in the way of my need for independence or solitude, and if I’ve tired of a work, having taken from it all that I needed and then outgrown it, the parting has always been amicable with the possibility of hooking up again always open to me. Meanwhile, and you can fill in the personal analogy or not, I pay a lot of attention to works I really dislike and get a lot of energy for my own work as a result.

Because the basic premise of A Year of Positive Thinking is to counterbalance my proclivity for “negative thinking,” I decided that for my first posts I would set out in New York City to find art that I love. I can’t be any more sure that I’ll find an art work I love on any given trip to galleries and museums as I would be to find a person to love at a cocktail party. But seeing art is always useful to something that I do: teaching, writing, or some aspect of studio practice. Bottom line, if I remember two shows I’ve seen in Chelsea by the time I get back to the E train or to coffee and a pastry at La Bergamote Patisserie on Ninth Avenue, I’ve had a good day. If I remember it the next day, better. If I find it useful in teaching a week later, the person’s up to something.

But here I should step back and try to tease out some of the categories of “falling in love” with an artwork.

There are many ways of falling in love with an artwork, or many gradations. When I first entered the artworld as an adult, I realized that I had to have two scales of judgment: one for the great artworks of history that had made me want to be an artist but which I didn’t have much expectation of ever equaling and the other for artworks of my workaday current artworld by whose rules I had to function and might be judged myself.

There is another relation to art that is not exactly the same as love, but has inestimable value, and I’m not sure it is something a human relation can give me: some works contain something in them that stops me in my tracks and propels me back to my studio. I see something, something clicks in my mind and I think, OK, I can work, in fact I must work (I sometimes literally shield my eyes as I get out of the gallery or the museum so that nothing mediocre or hideous will erode the generative impulse).

It can be a whole work or it can be a detail in a larger work. The most extreme example in recent years because it was the most minimal was a drawing by Philip Guston at the Morgan Library which I saw in the late spring of 2008. Among a group of very simple charcoal line drawings, this one consisted of a single vertical charcoal mark about a half-inch wide coming down about an inch from the middle top border of the sheet of otherwise blank paper. That was it. A whole summer of my own work in the studio was spurred and enabled by that one stroke. It was enough for Guston, and that was part of the gift to me: he knew it was enough and left it so. It was more than enough for me. Was it a great drawing? Did I “fall in love” with it? No, not exactly. But its justness and lack of compromise spoke one word to me, an empathic “Yes.”

Unfortunately for me as a writer, the nature of this experience is largely beyond words and words are unnecessary to its instrumental effect because what I feel impelled to do is work, not write. Not that writing isn’t work but when I say my work I mean my painting and drawing – even more curious because it is the one thing in my life that I do for myself and with total pleasure – I really knew that my mother understood who I was when, one summer as we were settling into our house in Provincetown, I overheard her telling Wally Tworkov on the phone, “Mira is very busy, she hasn’t started working yet.” That pretty much sums it up.

So in sum:

Falling in love with an artwork:

1. pole-axed by an artwork greater than me. Hugo Van der Goes, Giotto, Chartres, the Stendhal syndrome, one can weep: their ambition, piety, brutality, beauty, form, matter, is a cause for wonderment, gives you food for the arduous journey of  a lifetime of artmaking and being a person.

2. creative energy generated by work you dislike strongly: why do you dislike it? It must have something to do with you (there’s a lot of bad work that doesn’t bother you). Work that seems antithetical to my practice and in the end may still be so but because I don’t care about hurting it, gives me a lot of freedom to answer it.

3. the distinction the French make between je l’aime – I love him – and je l’aime bien, I like him well enough. There is much art you can like well enough: it doesn’t rock your world, still one must respect it for the valiance and integrity of its effort.

4. uncompromising works or even moments in a work to which you respond, instantly, deeply, “yes,” that make you want to go home and work. Maybe this is a form of falling in love, because the response to some people is also simply, yes, that’s it.

Mira Schor, notebook sketch of Philip Guston's drawing, "Clearing the Decks", 2008

The next 2 or 3 posts will be on art currently on view in New York.

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