Monthly Archives: August 2010

Teaching Contradiction: Reality TV and Art School

This is the first of a number of projected posts I hope to weave into A Year of Positive Thinking, on the theme of “Teaching Contradiction.”

Poised as those of us who teach or are students are between the last episode of the reality show “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist” on Bravo Network and the beginning of the academic year, this seems like a good time  to examine how some of the contradictions enacted in the final episode of that show replicate contradictions that exist within the expectations placed on artists studying in MFA programs around the country.

The final show of what is currently being described as the “first season” of “Work of Art” established a contradiction in its own narrative premise: each episode but the last was structured around a “challenge.” The artists were given an assignment and either alone or in collaboration drawn by lot had to produce a work in about 24 hours with sometimes deliberately limited materials (you know something is wrong when A. you get only $100 to spend at Utrecht, whereas many decent old fashioned art supplies such as a tube of good quality of cadmium red oil paint can cost $50 and B. a lot of artists don’t use the kind of materials carried at Utrecht).

This seemed to be an entirely unrealistic depiction of creative work, since that brief time had to include coming up with an idea, shopping for supplies, dealing with all kinds of production demands, and doing the piece. This pace is more suitable to Bravo’s Top Chef series, since every day in a restaurant kitchen is a nearly 24 hour cycle of shopping for fresh produce and preparing dishes on demand under theatrical conditions of intense pressure with due speed whereas the time frame of the “Work of Art” challenges precluded both the kind of contemplation (reflection, research etc) or craft (here understood as refinement or finish) that are generally considered an essential part of artmaking (and since $100,000 –one the biggest individual artist grants in the world– was at stake you’d think that would matter but I digress…only  slightly). The artists who did best had some basic skills –traditional craft skills such as carpentry and mold-making seemed particularly useful–and were quick to come up with a concept, though often these were extremely literal and illustrative, a problem shared with much contemporary art.

However, to the contrary, in the last episode of “Work of Art,” the three finalists were given 3 months and $5000 to produce a body of their “own” work for a show (the fact that anyone would get $100,000 for mostly not doing their “own” work is …again, I digress). For the most part this allowed them to produce more polished work in terms of materials and surface finish though their conceptual apparatus seemed remarkably unchanged by the relatively more expanded time. Strangely the person most gifted in the short time-frame, Miles Mendenhall, who under pressure was quick, slick, and clever, knew how to make things, and how to occupy space convincingly, did not fare as well with more time, losing spatial energy while revealing the weaknesses in his conceptual frame.

Much discussion on Facebook, Jerry Saltz’s much awaited weekly recaps, and various blogs pondered how much this particular reality show with its for the most part silly assignments, awful art, weird costuming, and lack of articulated critical and aesthetic discourse or criteria even when compared to Project Runway and Top Chef  had to do with the “real” artworld. Sorry Jerry, but, perhaps because of editing, the uninformed viewer would get little background on the various contexts and references that make up the aesthetic criteria used by the judges.

In this contradiction between premise #1, pressure to produce art work in a short time within a group situation and premise #2, longer time frame for private production, “Work of Art” did bear some resemblance to one of the basic contradictions operative in two-year MFA Programs: in the equivalently short amount of time given to get an MFA degree, students experience an overwhelming exposure to a bewilderingly vast amount of diverse new artists, ideas, theoretical languages, art styles, aesthetic and political criteria (many of these contradictory), they are given lots of theoretical texts to read and are expected to see exhibitions and go to every art event they are told about, and yet they are expected to produce work regularly for critiques and discussion with teachers and visiting artists, (while, to name another contradiction, often limited to tiny studios with little privacy while implicitly expected to compete with works in museums and galleries produced with enormous yet mysteriously obscured budgets).

As a teacher, I enact the demands of this contradictory situation yet at the same time I am particularly sympathetic to its stresses because in the last 10 years a curious split in my work practice which has its roots in my earliest years as an artist has become acute: my deepest, most meaningful and most productive immersion in studio practice takes place during barely two months of the summer and away from New York City, and the much longer months of the academic year are spent in New York working on jobs (including teaching), working on my work (which may involve working with my works in digital reproduction, archiving + all the editorial, secretarial and social work that goes into even a modest career), and immersing myself in the multiple influences of current thought and art. All that uses up a lot of “bioRAM” as a friend of mine terms it, which in the summer goes entirely to the immersion in studio work and thought. Writing is the only activity that is continuous because it is an extension of thought and is stimulated equally by discourse and debate within the artworld and by time alone inside my mind.

The city mouse/country mouse dichotomy extends to my teaching itself: just as I paint and write, just as I imbricate written language into the language of paint, I approach the development of the artist in the classroom through text and history and in the studio through a variety of more formal and also more intuitive approaches and vice-versa: I’m committed to the artist as a historically produced thus educated to history, culturally contextualized person who should have as much control of theory as possible so it won’t have control of her–but at the same time I love the development of working–call it studio practice even when it isn’t what that used to mean or what I do–and I know that creative work needs to occasionally be unmoored from overdetermination.

In this city/graduate school environment, the upside of constant interaction/confrontation with people, work, and ideas that you have to understand, absorb, react to, sometimes defend yourself against, yet often allow to transform you, is that complacency is hard to come by. The downside is that there may not be time to process everything and all the outside voices can drown out the interior ones or, even, according to certain theoretical outlooks, deny that an inner voice exists inasmuch as it might be associated with autonomous art practices which have been deemed obsolete. And you are constantly having to put yourself forward, which for the MFA student means constantly talking about what your work means leaving little time for either doing it or for doing work whose meaning you might not have a ready explanation for, work that is transitional, even work that is a “failure.” You become all outside speech and less inside voice until you are running on empty.

Mira Schor, Voice and Speech, 2010, ink, gesso, and rabbit skin glue on linen, summer studio snapshot

Since I have always reaped tremendous energy for my work and my writing from work that at first and sometimes finally at last, seems antithetical to my own, these encounters produce my work, they are an important part of it. Dealing with the “real” world of “winter” battles is absolutely necessary. Yet so is the uninterrupted and intimate availability to my work that I feel I need in order to really paint. It’s always hard to come by, hard won, and even hard to recognize as it is happening. It relies not just on aloneness but even on loneliness. It can come out of a desperation that makes you take chances –like the Diver on the postcard at the top of my studio wall array of postcards or like the demon of fear of failure that Agnes Martin discusses in her visionary essay about creativity, “On The Perfection Underlying Life.”

In recent years debates have intensified over the the possibility of alternatives to institutionalized graduate school, as degrees proliferate and tuition costs rise disproportionately to the earning power of most artists. Thinking of this split between information and critical discourse on the one hand, and studio/post-studio/post-post-studio practice on the other in relation to the usefulness of graduate school, one could truthfully state that the knowledge one is exposed to in school is available in the world at all times, especially in urban centers: museums, galleries, books, art magazines, internet sources, panel discussions, artists’ lectures all abound, though graduate school intensifies, categorizes, and filters that knowledge through the  interpretive structuring lens of the school’s ideology and its faculty’s strongly held viewpoints while insisting on disciplined and timely engagement and response on the part of the student. But critical responses to your artwork by individual artists and critics is much harder  to come by outside the academic structure, people are just too busy and will certainly not be able to give sustained attention, so if you don’t do the work when you’re in school, you lose out on the unique opportunity to get concentrated and sustained feedback, when you want it and even when you don’t.

In a couple of diary entries from 1924, Virginia Woolf discussed the duality of work environments in her life –London/discourse/data input/sociality, and the country/solitude/introspection: “the country is like a convent, the soul swims to the top,” (August 2nd, 1924). I read this sentence when I was in my twenties and just beginning my city/country split work life and the sentence stayed with me. I found it just now through a Google search in 30 seconds, since evidently she is the only person who ever expressed that thought in those words:

Virginia Woolf, from A Writer's Diary, August 2nd, 1924, page 62

Yet the isolation and solitary confrontation with her work also brought on depression which the bustle of London dispelled. May 26th, 1924 she had written:

No matter whether it’s a reality TV show, graduate school, or the  everyday life of the working artist, it is always a matter of constant negotiation between world and self, the art itself and the making of it.

Note in the sand, 2010

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My Whole Street is a Mosque

I live on Lispenard Street just south of Canal Street in Lower Manhattan, fourteen blocks North of Ground Zero. From my corner I saw with my own eyes the second plane hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center and I lived downtown through the scary nights and the many rough months after September 11, and I am here to say that my whole street is a mosque. Several times a day, small groups of Muslim men, mainly African street vendors who peddle carvings or fake Vuitton bags and Rolex watches on Canal Street, pull out prayers mats, often just rolls of cardboard they store in the nooks and crannies of the buildings around, they take their shoes off in all weather, wash their feet with water from bottles, kneel towards the East and pray, fourteen blocks from Ground Zero, on ground they’ve spontaneously “hallowed.” And the only thing one can say, in the words of my Holocaust refugee Polish Jewish mother, is “Only in America.”

Or, at least, only in New York, where these outdoors rituals take place on the street surrounded by crowds of Chinese vendors, NYPD cops, business men, rich men’s children and their nannies, and busloads of women tourists from the American South who have come to buy those fake Vuitton bags from those vendors (nice Christian ladies who have no problem breaking New York City’s tax laws by buying fake label merchandise). Every day I pass these men praying on my street, across the street from my front door, and on corners throughout Lower Manhattan. It is an example of the religious freedom and tolerance that makes this country truly great.

Politicians like President Obama should be wrapping themselves in the American Flag, waving the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights and hollering about Freedom of Religion, the Mayflower, the Founding Fathers, Ellis Island, Land of the Free, at the top of their lungs, throwing every righteous trope in the rhetorical book of the myth of America at those who would destroy “the better angels of our nature,” not getting all wimpy and conciliatory in the face of people who pander hatred and bigotry and who are cynically manipulating Ground Zero Families and using the “hallowed ground” of Ground Zero as this week’s battering ram against America’s true greatness.

The first 10 Amendments to the Constitution, commonly known as the Bill of Rights, as important a document as the writing is faint

Abraham Lincoln's draft of The Gettysburg Address, delivered Thursday, November 19th, 1863, "in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract."

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Postcard post

It is customary to send postcards to your friends when you’re on vacation.

My “vacation” consists, if I’m lucky, of my working in the studio as intensely as possible in all too short a time frame, like a squirrel madly trying to making sure there are enough nuts to last the long winter during which other aspects of the artist’s life prevail and overwhelm.

I always begin by putting up a group of postcards which I then take down at the end of the summer to help preserve their color and because I value the ritual of annual re-installation with gradual changes to the grouping and the order as part of my work process. Once I covered entire walls with hundreds of postcards, with major sequences of thematics interwoven.

Postcard wall view, Skowhegan studio, 1995

Postcard wall view, Skowhegan Studio, 1995

Detail of diagram of postcard wall, 1990s.

Over time I’ve pared down to a small, metonymic grouping of a few postcards taped to an attic door near my painting table. I hardly look at them once I’ve put them up yet each one represents something significant to me and each day in passing I may catch the eye of an image, so to speak, and a familiar connection is reignited.

Roof Slab of the "Diver's Tomb" (Tomba el Il Tuffatore), Paestum, c.475 B.C.

At the top is an image of a diver from Paestum.  (I have never seen this work in person). I love the schematic simplicity of representational detail, and the strange mixture of the mundane — someone in 475 B.C. doing something that people are doing around the world right now– and the mysterious — what is he diving into and what does it mean that such an image is on a tomb? Again the mundane: maybe the guy buried there liked to dive and swim, and the mysterious: maybe this is symbolic of death itself, the ultimate leap into the unknown oblivion. As the first image at the top of my postcard wall it represents the imperative of leaping into the unknown of intense engagement with my work after a long interruption.

Herge, Tintin, from Le Sceptre d'Ottokar, 1947

Nearby, at the top of another vertical row is the image of Tintin falling. In my childhood I appropriated my older sister’s copies (this in itself already gave the images some of the exoticism of the slightly ancient, an impression fostered by the  French hardcover volumes’ patina of well-loved wear and tear, even though they couldn’t have been more than 10 years old ). I pored over them, appreciating the bold outline and color, and the weird plots. I loved le Capitaine Haddock’s amusingly child-friendly and weirdly antiquated swearing, and the dear deaf Professeur Tournesol blissfully unaware of the perils he wandered in and out of. I still treasure them and this postcard image of the unflappable Tintin tumbling down a mountain.

But I hadn’t realized, until I started thinking about this post, to what extent images of figures falling through space was one thematic of my postcard wall arrangement. Towards the bottom of the vertical row of cards below the Diver are two radically different images of women who are in some way toppling through space with abandon,elegance, and terror:

"Lounging," Vintage Chrome Postcard, c. early 1970s

Giotto, Inconstancy, detail from the Scrovegni Chapel, Padova, 1303-1306

Details from Giotto’s fresco cycle in the Scrovegni Chapel (or Arena Chapel) were among my favorite images long before I finally was able to go to Padova to see the frescoes. This turned out to be one of the most terrifying artistic experiences in my life in that finally in the presence of works I adored, I found myself totally disoriented by the totality of the work, the amount of scenes, the location of many important scenes in the narrative cycle well above eye level, and above all by the absolute irreducible flatness of the work: everything that I loved in the reproductions I had pored over and put up on my wall,  not just the narrative cycle and the deep emotion of the figures but the sculptural nature of Giotto’s figurative depictions, the magnificent drapery, the miniaturized architecture: all of this was the wall, not on the wall but the wall. Imagine seeing every painting by Picasso, Manet, or Cezanne, all as images on one continuous flat surface without even a trace of impasto to distinguish one from the other.

In the Scrovegni Chapel, the figure of Inconstancy occupies the lowest of four major levels from ceiling to floor and so it ‘s closer to eye level. Thus when I visited it was possible to have a more intimate viewing experience where I could peer closely at the figure instead of jostling with the crowds while wishing I had binoculars to see details of the major painting scenes in the rows above. This figure is such a perfectly balanced depiction of imbalance, so still within the sculptural grisaille while tumbling through air. I identified with the topsy-turvy figure, knocked off her feet by the sin of inconstancy as I was by the aesthetic shock of finally seeing such revered images and finding it nearly impossible to know how to experience them.

On every studio postcard wall I’ve installed are three black and white postcards from the North Portal of Chartres Cathedral.

Postcards, detail of portal sculptures at Chartres Cathedral XIIIth Century

In a drawer in my parents’ room when I was a child there was a bundle of postcards from their years in France before the beginning of World War II: among these I believe were black and white postcards of Chartres. When I was 8 years old, they took me to Chartres Cathedral during their first visit back to Europe after they had escaped to America in 1941. I have been back since but that initial experience was formative, even foundational in its resonance for my work. I have a haptic memory of my entrance into the Cathedral, of touching the cold grey stone of a small chamber and my memory of that first experience of being in the main nave combines color, cool temperature, and the thrill of verticality into something that has a smell and even almost a taste that I cannot quite describe. I’m not sure if these black and white postcards are from that original pre-War group, or from our trip in 1958. What I do know is that I so imprinted on these black and white reproductions and they are so imbricated with my physical memory, that I find the more recent color postcards I have of the same figures to be crass and inexpressive. For all intent and purpose, these photographs could be from the Thirteenth Century and in looking at the face of John The Baptist, I feel I am looking upon the face of the sculptor who carved it.

Chartres Cathedral, XIIIth century, North Portal, John the Baptist

Buster Keaton, 1939 (unidentified photographer)

The face of John the Baptist haunts me, its elongated form, the expression almost too humble and touching to bear. It picks up in the face of Buster Keaton, whose films I saw also in my childhood. I always felt a deep allegiance to Keaton. I am drawn to the spareness of the sets as to the complexity of the sequences of motion and transformation. The General, The Navigator, Sherlock Jr. — a favorite of the Surrealists — The Cameraman, Steamboat Bill Jr. are all wonderful. And above all I am drawn to the impassivity of Keaton the actor’s face, as the world deconstructs around him (a deconstruction that is the result of Keaton the director’s artistry and immense technical imagination, skill, and daring).

The faces of John the Baptist from Chartres and Buster Keaton belong to a category or a quality of many of the images I chose that I would describe as stillness, as a deep seriousness, often profound piety. It is a quality of artwork that is sculptural yet also has a calm clear musical tone which imparts a sense of justness. It is often also, formally speaking, minimalist, at least in the key detail or underlying emotional core, a quality of profound reticence. I find this quality in popular culture as much as in high art:

Spock

My students can attest to the fact that I use Star Trek (all versions except the last prequel series and film) as a major source of wisdom and in all iterations I have always identified with the character whose capacity for emotion is sometimes tragically (Spock), sometimes humorously (Data), and always fascinatingly (Seven of Nine) encased within a rigorous intelligence, and none more so than Spock.

Andrea Mantegna, The Dead Christ in the Sepulchre with Three Mourners, Pinacoteca de Brera, Milan

Below Spock and Inconstancy, at the bottom of the vertical row that begins with the Diver from Paestum is Andrea Mantegna‘s The Dead Christ (c.1500) which I saw at the Brera Museum in Milan in 2001 and wrote about later that summer as a painting I had fallen in love with:

The Dead Christ was painted by Mantegna in about 1500, towards the end of his life and is thought to have been intended for his own tomb in the Church of Sant’ Andrea in Mantua. It hangs in a simple frame, unostentatiously placed among many other paintings in a corridor lit by natural light but it has been positioned so that it is visible from a great distance framed by a series of open doorways of a side set of small galleries. You feel that thrill of “there it is” since it is one of the most famous images in the history of Western painting because its virtuoso use of foreshortening but also because of what it is and how it relates to your own space and body.

Once in front of the painting I was struck by several things all at once:

First of all it is a small painting only about 68x81cm, or about 2 by 3 1/2 feet. So it has a kind of modesty of size but at the same time it is immediately intensely radical, all the more so because it’s small and subdued in color. Christ’s body is indeed dramatically foreshortened but immediately it is obvious that the foreshortening is wrong, the face seems big in proportion to the feet. Mantegna must have been aware of the problem but both the basic premise of the painting and the basic error in its realization are what create the emotional impact of the painting. There is something profoundly uncomfortable about it. The perspectival error in itself creates a sense of discomfort and disquiet and the result of the error is that the viewer’s eye propels directly to Christ’s massive chest and handsome face. You are allowed no emotional distance from what’s going on and the intensity of religious emotion is accentuated by the three mourners whose faces are crammed in the upper left corner of the painting.

This is the most surprising part of the painting, perhaps more than the abrupt foreshortening. At first I thought the painting must be a fragment, a cropped image from a larger original because it is such a strange and in a sense a very modern, photographic type of composition, but the original linen is visible all around the edges of the painting, so this is the original composition, again an incredibly radical aspect of the painting.

Those faces are part of the appeal of the painting for me; they are very much like the limewood sculptures by the German artist Tilman Riemenschneider that preceded this work by only a few years (1494). I generally prefer the mindset of Northern Renaissance painting because I prefer the sense of piety as it is embodied in stylized, sober forms characteristic of Northern Renaissance painting and I prefer the North’s more tormented, less Hellenistic view of the body over the idealism and narcissism of much High Renaissance Italian painting– and in fact what is interesting about the Dead Christ is that it combines elements of both traditions. It’s a mixture of the two value systems: the idealization of the human body and the search for scientific realism, and the Northern non-hierarchic realism, its emotionality and severity, sharpness and starkness of form and painterliness, the combination of large clear sculptural forms, linear elements and careful attention to humble detail.

This is a very sculptural painting and one of the characteristics of many of my favorite paintings are that they are sculptural, even architectural as they are painterly. From the stylized simplified forms in Seurat to the ample folds of clothing and the houses and rooms of Giotto to the piles of stuff in a Guston. They could be turned into a sculpture, they could be built or carved or accumulated, which is not something that one might say of a Rubens, for example, unless the sculpture was made of butter! It is the miracle of paint’s capacity to be a thing in itself and represent a thing or a place, even in an abstract painting, that is so exciting to me.

The material qualities of the painting are as important as the image, utterly uncompromising and not particularly oriented towards sensual pleasure. There are no frills, and everything propels toward the subject, the death of a man who is a God: the size of the painting accentuates the realism: looking at it is exactly like what it might be like to be at eye level with a refrigerated drawer at the morgue.

At first it seems as if he painted it on patterned damask because the pattern of the cloth looks imbedded in the painting but no, the pattern is painted because natural linen is visible at the edges of the painting. You can see the edges of the linen, which makes you more aware of the paint surface resting on the flat surface, which makes it a very modern painting as well: the painting is tempera, very thin and dry. It looks intact and original, with no varnish or restoration evident. The subdued color and tonality, which verges on grisaille in keeping with the sculptural setting it was intended for, emphasizes the death of Christ’s corporeal body. The wounds in his flesh, feet and hands are both very convincing as wounds, they also looked like chipped wood, and like tears in the cloth of the painting, so they are wounds of God, man, and art. There is one drop of blood on his left forearm. Because of the way the paint is applied, flat and plain, this one tiny detail really stands out. The subject of the painting and its thinness, the way the image is so lightly resting on the surface and yet so much part of it that it seems imbedded in it, makes it like a more articulated and consciously done version of the Shroud of Turin, just the most fundamental, bare bones trace of the corporeality of Christ. The dryness too is part of the emotional quality of the painting. Also as a painter I am struck by the fact that the medium of tempera is unforgiving of mistakes. I would be interested to see an x-ray of the painting because it doesn’t seem to have any changes or repainting, and that again hits you in the face, the sense that he conceived it, drew and did it.

Each painting that I love gives me something I can use in my work and something that supports me as an artist. This painting is utterly uncompromising, it is almost brutal, its emotion is as unvarnished and understated as its surface, and it is profoundly serious which is a great gift at a time when the culture at large just wants entertainment.

But on the other hand, on the wall behind me:

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, film still from "Wrong Again" (1929)

And finally another image of falling, or at least teetering, tottering (just below Tintin):

Ida Applebroog

or, this year, the last word:

Ida Applebroog, God Never Sends Postcards, 1975. Ink and rhoplex on vellum

Have a great rest of the summer, and I may slip one more post in the mail before I return, I hope with a few nuts and less frayed, to the fray.

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