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Painting in the 1980s: Elizabeth Murray

Elizabeth Murray: Painting in the 80s at Pace Gallery arrives at an interesting moment in terms of the abrupt shift of stylistic currents and tropes that characterize art history and it offers an opportunity to revisit the situation of women painters in the 1980s.

Brief study prompt: Painting in the 1980s–you weren’t supposed to do it–that is, if you were a woman, and especially a woman interested in discourse on gender politics. Different story if you were an American, Italian, or German man.

Or you could do it, although particularly if you were a male artist, but certainly not sincerely, there had to be an ironic twist. An appropriational basis in photography and language helped.

The title of the show implies the aesthetic tensions of that moment, that is, the title is not Elizabeth Murray: Paintings of the 80s, which would place the focus on her work alone during a certain time period of her working life, but Painting in the 80s, that is, her activity of painting in the 80s and, beyond that, the activity and the discipline of painting at a particular moment in Western art history.

Starting in the early 1980s, the art market experienced a huge surge after a decade of relative recession which had been, not coincidentally, marked by creative and political experimentation and which was, notably, the decade of Murray’s first fully mature work. In the new market boom, large Neo-Expressionist and appropriational painting, largely by male artists, was the dominant medium and of course the favored market commodity, with women gravitating (and being pushed, by both external and internal forces) towards photography and photobased media (with correspondingly lesser market value). While the language of the heroic history of painting could still be applied to the former, along with newer modes of criticism influenced by postmodern theory, or, even, one might say, despite the dominance of the anti-essentialism of such theory, the other–work by women artists including those peripherally or explicitly interested in gender–was drawn to and delimited by the same theory with an emphasis on an anti-essentialism that particularly targeted painting.

A so-to-speak mantraic recap of that period might be, Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, Foucault Derrida, and, when it came to women artists, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer…not forgetting Baudrillard and Mary Kelly, and more, but you get the idea.

Of course there were powerful women painters during that time period, including in addition to Murray, artists such as Susan Rothenberg and Ida Applebroog. But international exhibitions and biennials of contemporary art usually included very few women and of these the three mentioned above were ubiquitous.

And at that time, as I have observed elsewhere, it was useful for such painters to do work that could be parsed for their representational depiction of ideas about the female body, femininity, gender and feminism. Abstract artists–including women painters and sculptors whose work had been so influential and notable within feminist art discourse in the 70s–often felt left out of major exhibitions and texts devoted to women artists and feminism. In that moment Elizabeth Murray’s work was a beacon. To walk into Paula Cooper Gallery in the 80s or into Murray’s first major museum retrospective, at the Whitney, in April 1988, was a thrill and inspiration. To walk into Pace Gallery today is to experience that thrill anew.

Elizabeth Murray, “Making It Up,” 1986. Oil on canvas, 10′ 4 1/8″x7′ 11 1/8″ Image used by permission © The Murray-Holman Family Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 

The paintings from that period, now as when they were first created and exhibited, are bold, confident, powerful, intensely physical, courageous in their assertion of space on and off the wall, massive, inspiring in their use of color and paint texture and application.

But at some level the paintings operated and still operate beyond discursiveness. At a time when representation and enculturation of female identity was the issue at hand, feminist criticism couldn’t quite get a grip on a large twisted broken shield or heart like a shield working at a monumental scale, leaping out at you from the gallery wall, where you couldn’t directly address a feminist narrative by which I mean the narrow interpretation of what a feminist narrative might be where representation, figuration, and appropriation would allow you to speak of psychoanalysis, for example. Not that Murray wasn’t widely admired but the important feminist criticism of the day was focused on artists whose work could be discussed in relation to Freud, Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, Kristeva, and there were clear specifications of what work was part of that discourse and which wasn’t.

These theoretical references were also the lodestars of a dominant anti-essentialist discourse on how the female and the feminine were socially constructed and you couldn’t address Murray’s work without dealing with how engaged she was with the basic components of painting—figure and ground, oil on canvas and support, and this was in the dangerous territory of the essentialism of painting itself. And while in fact Murray’s work demolished Greenbergian tenets, at the same time her painterly ambition both embraced and reinvigorated the great tradition of New York School painting of which his philosophy were an important component.

Elizabeth Murray, “Like A Leaf,” 1983. Oil on canvas (6 parts) 98″x90″x9″ Image used by permission © The Murray-Holman Family Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 

And, finally, as I try to give a sense of what being an artist in the1980s was like, Murray did not use “the language,” as someone once used the term to me, “those of us who have the language.” Her references could be literary and philosophical, what she said about her work was deep but different than an academic discourse, as much rooted in daily visual experience as in popular culture and in direct transmutation into paint of such experience. In discussing her work she did not use what later became known at International Art English. Very much like Philip Guston, she was very eloquent about becoming an artist, the personal and cultural sources for her imagery and style, and about studio process.

I have a history of constructing vivid but sometimes revealed to be false memories of favorite paintings by artists I love: a painting will be a lodestar in my mind, and I will remember not just it, but the wall of the museum or gallery that it hung on, and perhaps at the core of my memory is my memory of myself at the instant of seeing it. It is the moment of the coup de foudre, love at first sight, but, more than that, of when an imperative and a challenge is revealed to you in one glance. As time passes, I try to find the work again, but often can’t find any trace. Sometimes it is eventually proven to me that it never existed as I had remembered. For example, for the longest time there was a Guston painting of cherries that I had seen at McKee Gallery. There are many wonderful paintings of cherries by Philip Guston and though I love them all, somehow that one painting was in my mind the best one. I remembered where it was installed the gallery, on the back side of the back dividing wall. But no reproduction matched my memory. Finally I asked about it at David McKee Gallery, Guston’s dealer for four decades, and they figured out the year of the show I was talking about and were able to show me the layout of the show and the images, and evidently I had constructed the painting. Strangely, once my memory was proven to be false, the image began to fade in favor of verifiable works, though the ideal persisted.

Another such painting that stood out in my memory in my personal archive of works particularly significant to me–was a large multi-part question mark I had seen at Murray’s retrospective Elizabeth Murray, Paintings and Drawings, which opened at the Whitney in 1988. I never forgot the work, or more specifically, its subject, its materiality, its scale. And, again, more specifically, I remembered myself seeing it, being struck by it: it was there and I saw it, in that way you remember seeing across the street or across a large room a person who you will later meet and fall in love with, but you already did at the first instant of vision. Over the years I always wanted to see it again, and I looked for images of that painting, without success. After the Guston cherries episode I understood that I was capable of inventing archetypal paintings by other artists. Had I made up Elizabeth Murray’s monumental question mark?

Lurking in the back of my mind when I went to see the current show at Pace Gallery was the hope that it would be there. Without seeing it I walked purposefully towards finding it. And, in the back wall of the back room, there was the painting, Cracked Question. Apart from being more askew than I remembered, less vertical, more horizontal, it looked like the painting I fell in love with but doubt set in when examination of the Whitney exhibition catalogue did not include it. Detective work and pestering of friends ensued and mention of the painting was found in a review of the show written by Rob Storr,

Like an interrogative sentence in Spanish, Murray’s show both began and ended with the same punctuation mark, but one whose significance vastly exceeded its simple editorial or grammatical function. Looming just beyond the brightly hued paintings of the 1970s that created one at the entrance, Cracked Question (1987), a mammoth multi panel, multi-faceted picture that dominated the central room of the Whitney installation, was at once the first image on which one’s eye’s fell and a tense conclusion to the chronological sequence of intervening works. (Storr, “Shape Shifter,” Art in America (April 1989), p. 275)

Storr’s description of the pivotal position of the work in the show filled in my memory of seeing myself seeing it. [Because such stories interest me, I think the solution of the mystery is that the show originated in 1987 in Dallas at the Dallas Museum of Art, and was surely planned before that. Cracked Question dates from 1987 and the Whitney show opened in the spring of 1988 so it must have been a late, but, as Storr indicates, central addition.

Elizabeth Murray, “Cracked Question,” 1987. Oil on canvas (6 parts), 13′ 5 1/2″x16′ 2″x23 1/2″ Image used by permission © The Murray-Holman Family Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 

The work is massive, sober, architectural, dramatic. In my notes I wrote that it is dispositive, it feel instinctively that it solves a problem, a conflict, although its subject stays at the moment of the question. It is sculptural and would be seen as such under any circumstances, but the dark grey and metallic silver paint emphasizes the segmented painting’s relation to steel and stone. Each part is as powerful as the whole, yet the whole embodies its existence as language–speaking of Murray’s relation to “the language,” Cracked Question is language. It doesn’t represent a punctuation mark, it is a punctuation mark. It does not only pose but it is a philosophical question and a philosophical text, that takes place in the languages of form and color and space and matter.

A friend spoke to me of the “ferocity” of Murray’s work. Cracked Question embodies and exemplifies that ferocity.

This show arrives at a moment when, after several years of the dominance of abstraction–much of it a variant of what has been termed “zombie formalism”—that is, constructions and deconstructions of established tropes of abstraction, usually very elegant, and often disconcerting, particularly for those viewers who lived through the “original” phases being sampled or replicated, because of the works’ lack of the historical content and the crucial trace of struggle for form and content that had characterized those earlier movements–there are suddenly dozens of exhibitions of figurative painting ranging in style from Alice Neel-like realism to a poetic fantastic that emerges from surrealism and can sometimes border on millennial pathos. So, right now, figuration is in, not in all cases with a overt political message, unless in terms of the racial or gender identity of the artist and the figures represented in the paintings.

So is this a case of bad timing or of good timing for this presentation of Murray’s great works from the 1980s? It is always fascinating to think about how sometimes museum retrospectives, though planned years in advance, open just at the moment when that artist’s work or that artist’s most controversial works look presciently fresh to a new generation. Often such works are revived precisely to give contemporary artists the historical buttress that will burnish their reputations: thus late figurative works by Picabia, previously seen as kitschy aberrations were first restored to critical favor in the 1980s at a time when it seemed to retrospectively offer an important patrilineage for and contribute to the historical buttressing of the work of a then emerging David Salle. Last year’s extensive Alice Neel exhibition at David Zwirner seemed perfectly keyed to the work of emerging art stars like Jordan Casteel. So what will young artists experiencing this moment’s stylistic Zeitgeist make of Elizabeth Murray’s greatest works, seen at this moment?

Elizabeth Murray, Interview with Sue Graze and Kathy Halbreich, “Elizabeth Murray, Paintings and Drawings,” exhibition catalogue, H. N. Abrams, 1987, p.131.

It should be noted that while the overall effect of Murray’s work is one of abstraction, and the artist described herself as an abstract painter in an interview included in the 1987 catalogue, there are many representational elements and references in her paintings, in a stylized style emerging from cartoons, comics, and graffiti as well as from pop artists like Claes Oldenburg: works are shaped like shoes or cups and contains stylized abstracted but identifiable figuration and still-life imagery. But her relation to representation is not in the realm of narrative or allegory, the thing itself is the important thing, the painting as an object that projects into our space carrying pigment on its surface. The importance of three-dimensionality is apparent when one compares her oil paintings from this period to related drawings: even when these are on several pieces of paper creating a shape or a broken field, they operate in a more conventional relation to form. The objectness of the shaped paintings from this period makes them always more than the working out of abstracted, biomorphic or geometric forms on a flat surface, since the form of the support itself is a biomorphic or geometric abstraction.

Elizabeth Murray, “Table Turning,” 1982-82. oil on canvas (2 parts) 8′ 10 1/4″x8′ 2 1/4″x4 2/4″ Image used by permission © The Murray-Holman Family Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 

That places them in yet another situation of appearing to be beyond language: how she declares space is different than Barnett Newman’s declaration of the equivalence between figure and ground: what is painted as form and shapes on the large shaped works may be securely within the realm of figure, but on the other hand the whole object itself is figure on the ground of the wall in a way that conventional easel paintings, even Murray’s own earlier works, are not. Thus, again, if the works can’t be incorporated or tamed into discourse of gender representation, nor to the terms of the new critical language of gender, racial identity, national identity politics, they also can’t be reduced to the purely formal terms of the earlier discourse that had characterized painting from the late 1940s to the 1970s.

 

The sculptural nature of the works emphasizes the sculptural nature of oil paint itself. One of the things I have always found the most inspiring about these works is how the three dimensional support allows me to really experience the physicality of pigment. This is one of the things that painters live for, the moments when paint comes alive in a generative fashion, so for me, how Murray allowed oil paint to dry unevenly–an area of color will be matte and then shiny, which in itself becomes sculptural. And it is never enough to look them frontally, you have to experience the surface from the side to really see the color and the brushstrokes.

 

A year after Murray’s show at the Whitney, which included, in addition to Cracked Question, a number of the works in the current exhibition at Pace, I wrote the essay  “Figure/Ground,” in which I confronted the critique of painting I have indicated as dominant in the 1980s with other discourses that were not usually brought to bear on it, including those of feminism and of feminist studies of the gendered, misogynist aspects and roots of fascism. In one of the last paragraphs of the essay, I wrote about some of what I love about painting:

For a painter there is certainly tremendous pleasure in working out a thought in paint. I tis a complete process in terms of brain function: an intellectual activity joining memory, verbal knowledge, and retinal information, is a given visible existence through a physical act. But the value of painting cannot rest of any individual artist’s private pleasure. Painting is a communicative process in which information flows through the eye from one brain, one consciousness, to another, as telemetric data speeds from satellite to computer, without slowing for verbal communication. Incident of paint linger in the working mind of the painter as continuous thrills, as possibilities, like words you may soon use in a sentence, and–in a manner that seems to exist outside of spoken language—as beacons of hope to any human being for whom visuality is the site of questions and answers about existence. The black outline of a rock in a Marsden Hartley landscape, the scumbled white shawl in a portrait by Goya, the glaze of a donor’s veil in the Portinari Altarpiece, the translucent eyelid of Leonardo’s Ginevra di Benci, the pulsing red underpainting of a slave’s toe in a Delacroix, the shift from shiny to matte in a passage of indigo blue by Elizabeth Murray, are only a few of a storehouse of details that are of more than professional interest to me.

 

Images used by permission © The Murray-Holman Family Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 

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“Certain reflections about art making and learning about art making” 1986

I have been teaching art since I was 22 and still a graduate student myself. Teaching is part of the way my mind is structured and I think that teaching includes learning, or continuing to learn. At this point I feel that learning might best be pursued without the pressures of teaching, but that is another story. The rest of the story is something I am considering putting into a book that would use my teaching archive as a starting point for short reflections that would situate the teaching ideas of past moments in relation to current ideas.

I recently went through my large file cabinet because I needed to find  a document with some important log-in information, which naturally was not in the file cabinet though I did eventually find it in a pile on the cabinet, which by the way normally I can’t open because of several overstuffed rolling file cabinets parked in front of it with piles of papers on top of them. Instead I went through folders of teaching materials, syllabi, but mainly all the essays that I have taught on feminism, painting, early modernism, minimalism, Fluxus, Debord, Space (exhibition space), and more, each grouping including the original xerox if a PDF version has not been found online or scanned yet, and my heavily annotated teaching copies.

In a folder of random material, I found a statement that I seem to have written for a class I taught at SUNY Purchase in the fall of 1986. I have no recollection of what the circumstances were, or whether I read this or handed it out. The statement is dated October 26, 1986, which I think is the day I wrote it, which was a Sunday, for a class at Purchase the next day.

Texts I wrote shortly after this one, such as “On Failure and Anonymity,” [Heresies 25, 1990] explore similar territory particularly in relation to art market pressures. Teaching is situational and interventional so I assume that this statement was written to address some issues that had come up in a specific class and, if written today, such comments would be less uniquely focused on material and formal production of art objects and less specific to painting. In fact ten years later I wrote and produced a videoscript to express my disgust at MFA students who were rebelling against reading the fairly moderate composite of classic modernist and postmodernist texts I was assigning to them. One point of my book would be to point to the extreme reversals that can take place in art and therefore in art education, necessitating for the teacher historical self-awareness and the ability to adapt while maintaining one’s core values. So on the one hand in the past years I have taught in a situation where political, theoretical, identity-based content is the primary line of instruction and where issues of form and style including the development of form in Western art history have been to a great extent reduced for the students to free-floating appropriatable photo images unrelated to any materiality, context, or struggle to achieve form. On the other hand issues of history, style, form and materiality still do matter in individual works and even in terms of achieving market success and my emphasis on these concerns made sense not only to my own work in the early 80s but also in the context of Purchase at that time more than to my own more conceptual and political graduate education at CalArts.

Thus despite completely different artworld conditions, educational philosophies, and theoretical discourses, a lot still resonates for me in this statement, and I can read through it my continued concern about how hard it is to continue to make art at all much less grow as an artist once one leaves school.

I wrote:

My few weeks here have led me to certain reflections about art making, and learning about art making.

My path into these reflections began by my trying to put into order what I learned about being an artist, about art and the making of it, and when I learned it.

Each person’s history is different, but there are beginnings of art life in each of your histories or you wouldn’t be here. In my case, my parents were artists and worked at home. I probably learned more than half of all I know about every aspect of art and the profession* of being an artist by the time I was 11 years old (when my father died) [*art and profession two different things]: about the role of art in daily life, about colors, brushes, work habits, art history–through art in the home, through books, weekly visits to the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan, also about the frustrations of trying to further a career, the financial problems, the difficulties and the humiliations of dealing with clients. I know that being nurtured in a home where art was the vehicle of all values is unusual. But I still had to come to my own understanding of this life and make my own decision to make it mine.

I learned and still learn and get inspiration,ideas, hope and encouragement from art that I see, mostly old, some new. A subcategory of influence not to be underestimated is art that I hate or am threatened by. Sometimes it is easier to steal from art you hate. And of course self-definition via contrast is sometimes more dynamic than self-definition via sympathy.

I also learned from hanging out with older artists, seeing how they lived, how art permeated their lives. I learned as much about their viewpoint in art from what they thought about movies, T.V., politics, how they dealt with daily problems in their studios, their small pleasures and pet peeves, how they liked their eggs fried, than from any direct influence or instruction.

In graduate school I learned how to gossip about art, art history and the art world as an insider. I learned about cynicism and politics. The most effective teaching, again, took place in incidental, anecdotal encounters with faculty and other students, after hours, in the cafeteria, in hallways. Talk of art was everywhere but at its least vital in group crits and organized seminars.

After graduation I learned about my own psychological stake in remaining an artist. I also learned slowly about my basic themes. In a battle for my survival as an artist I learned about how to get through work blocks, about what my work was in relation to myself and to other work. In my mid-thirties a lot has been learned but it is a process which I see, with happiness, as a lifetime of work.

What I feel is crucial to an art student is to begin to examine the source and the nature or his or her interest in making art. Every thing that follows in this statement must be understood as preceded by the question of why are you doing it at all? are you doing your work because you are an art student? are you doing something central to your existence? You cannot put these questions off until you are an artist. The path begins with such questions of identity and motivation.

I sense at Purchase and at other places I’ve taught in recent years a tremendous fear of content–especially emotional, psychological, but even political or theoretical. Part of the problem stems from the overwhelming domination in most art teaching of a formalist approach, in a degraded form.

Students are led to struggle with the mechanics of making art, and they expect that if they learn the mechanics, they’ll succeed in conquering the other, the who-you-are, what-you-want, the content. Whereas I think that it should be made clear than even the mechanics return to the who-you-are. the emphasis can only be on the mechanics that have resonance for you individually.

It is important to learn about materials and techniques, composition, traditions of pictorial representation, about space etc… but you can only learn from the elements you are compelled by. The others are a drag, and drag you and your work down to apathy, inertia, boredom and depression.

It must be understood that the mechanics of art making are in themselves content. They are vital only if they are seen as concrete things that are of real interest to you. They cannot function as impersonal tools. AS such they lead to deadened art. The issues of death, sex, love, hate, happiness, need, loss, attraction, repulsion, despair and exaltation exist in a 6B pencil, a stick of charcoal, in blue oil paint, in fluorescent orange, in the textures of canvas and burlap, in the square, the triangle, the cube, the sphere, the vector. There is no escape.

Don’t try to solve other people’s problems. Try to listen to yourselves and find which are your own problems. They are the only ones you will be interested enough in to spend time trying to solve. When facing a landscape, a still-life, a figure, a canvas, it is necessary to know of the conventions of representation and manufacture, but much more crucial is what it is in what you are looking at or thinking about that involves you. Studies have shown that when people see something sexually exciting in an image, their irises widen instantly and momentarily. Tune in to whatever it is in the landscape, the figure, int eh color, in the materials that make your irises widen. There are the potent details and clues of life and of art making. They are also the direction, the horizon, what my driving instructor years ago called High Aim Steer. Because if even briefly and incompletely you sense your own interest, your particularity, and trust it, you will teach yourself what you need to know to make what you have sensed.

This is what I meant when I said that I have no sympathy for boredom. I do not think that any visual experience, any experience at all, is indifferent. Meaning is masked by fear, but everything has meaning, everything has content, and only if yo make the effort to tune in to that content, can you begin to establish a discipline of self-criticism that will sustain you outside of school.

Mira Schor, Oct.26, ’86

*

Just out of curiosity I wondered what I was working on at the time I wrote this statement. Here is Walking Tuning Fork, dated November 10, 1986

Mira Schor, Walking Tuning Fork, 1986. Oil on 5 canvases, 80×12 inches overall dimension

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Pier 92

I usually start my annual obligatory (imposed on me by the society I occupy, would not necessarily go otherwise) visit to the Armory Show at Pier 92 (the more intimately scaled “classic” side) before venturing into the maze of the more vast and high-ceilinged contemporary side of Pier 94. However yesterday by chance I started on Pier 94. Early in my journey I was standing with my friend Susanna Heller at a booth of a respected gallery telling her about seeing a show last year where the paintings in reality were so boring and empty that I could not find even the most banal compliment to offer to the gallerist. There was simply nothing to say about the work except that there was nothing to say about it. Upon which Susanna say, “Mira, do you remember anything about what we were just looking at?”

Ghastly huge work, all 689 inches wide of it: AIDA Makoto, “Jumble of 100 Flowers” 2017-2017. Acrylic on canvas, 79 x 689 inches.

As a living artist I have to admit that I would like to see my work well presented and represented at such an art fair, but by the end of my rather incomplete tour of Pier 94, my friends and I felt terribly tired, and further and more dangerously, dispirited about the whole idea of being artists.

Handsome paper mixed media work by Peter Linde Busk, “Everything, Everyone, Everywhere. Ends,” 2016, at Josh Lilley. In a way a perfect fair work: large and visible, eye catching, handsome, done with quality, hip and very effective mix of materials from low, cardboard, to craft, ceramic, but presented without context.

Florine Stettheimer, Asbury Park South, 1920, detail

Florine Stettheimer, Asbury Park South, 1920, detail

Only one work shone out of the blur–Florine Stettheimer’s masterpiece, Asbury Park South from 1920 (a painting scandalously deaccessioned by Fisk University in 2012) in a group exhibition organized by Jeffrey Deitch that orbited and created a lot of visual noise around it in a manner both consistent with Stettheimer’s aesthetic of excess and disruptive of the ability to properly view her painting. Many artists, including myself, have been influenced by Stettheimer, for various aspects or characteristics of her work, the narrative, the etiolated figuration, the gay sensibility in both senses of that word, the beautiful color, but in addition the works are so beautifully crafted and patented, the most beautiful colors, the most extraordinary surfaces, scumbled, dry, sculpted. This painting gave us a lift but we were still oppressed and depressed by the whole situation. Or at least I was.

Then we left selfie land and we made our way up the stairs to Pier 92. First we came upon Kathy Butterly’s works, beautifully installed at Tibor de Nagy Gallery with Shoshanna Wayne Gallery. I envy Kathy, I love ceramics and porcelain and glazes and the way color works in such media, and thus I envy her because she makes beautiful things using these elements, things that give pleasure, that people want, which is something my parents who made beautiful jewelry also did, which I can’t say that I do–my work, critical, political, and intellectual,dreamy and personal, it appears that so far it is an acquired taste! I also relate to these works because they are modest in scale and invite the viewer into a relationship that is more intimate than most of the large shiny works typical of art fairs.

Kathy Butterly, Shoshanna Wayne Gallery and Tibor de Nagy Gallery

Kathy Butterly

Next we were drawn to a Native American painting on animal hide and discovered the most beautiful and engaging group of drawings by mostly 19th century and early 20th century Plains Indians, at Donald Ellis Gallery. The inventiveness of these drawings in the artists’ efforts to depict using very reduced means (am referring to the works on paper with pencil and sometimes ink, materials which appear to be what was available to them on reservations) what they were seeing and experiencing was absolutely inspiring.

SHield and cover, Crow, Northern Plains, c.1870, buffalo hide and paint, Donald Ellis Gallery

Shield and Cover, Mescalero Apache, Southern Plains c.1880, buffalo hide and paint, Donald Ellis Gallery

Plains Indians, drawing, Donald Elllis Gallery

Plains Indians, late 19th century, Donald Ellis Gallery

I discovered a few Jack Tworkov works in a couple of galley booths: his poetic elegance and measure always sing out to me. Next an exhibition at Jonathan Boos of Jacob Lawrence works from the 30s,40s, and 50s, beautiful color, tenderly observed details, jagged forms. A small richly impasto Jess vase of flowers on a thin panel, an intense Ossorio.

Jack Tworkov, oil sketch, Hollis Taggart Gallery

Jacob Lawrence, Interior (Family), 1937. Tempera on paper, 30 3/8 x 25 1/5 inches, Jonathan Boos Gallery

Jess (Collins), Petals of Paint, 1964. Oil on plywood, 16 x 12.25 inches.

Clearly when you see older work now, it is the product of a system of filtration and of intensification, the dross of the time period has been filtered out and the richness of meaning has intensified over time as more historical information has been pressed into the work by the passing of time, but I also thought that my friends and I are perhaps the last generation that can really understand this work in a living way rather than an archeological way: we were brought up with the values of materiality, form, style, process, search for truth (belief in some kind of truth or honesty), with the analogue, the handmade, the personally developed (not as recipes that are copied and reconfigured endlessly but without the struggle that went into the initial works, as in zombie formalism) — at time when artists sought within the work rather than researched before the execution of the work. It often feels that our knowledge sets us apart–in a bad way: we can’t put our knowledge forward in the current mode of the sampled and reprocessed–often done very very proficiently–because we absorbed the initial relation to making of these older works, made by our parents, teachers, older friends. [I should add that often I am led to rethinking this impression, because at the same time there is so much art being made by young artists all over the world, with after all as much desire and imagination as any other previous generations brought to their work, yet, as Susanna pointed out, that may be truer when you see the work online, then one sees the work in person (as opposed to on Instagram, for which so much work is now both unconsciously and consciously created) and its potentially alienating synthetic nature often reasserts itself.

I have often quoted my mother’s words upon seeing a show at the Whitney on Picasso’s influence on American art. She was then 95 and, as it turns out, only a few weeks from her death, and she found it hard to stand for a long time, but in the taxi home she said, “it’s the kind of work that makes you want to go home and work.”

I should say that over my life as an artist (and I include in this my work as a writer about art) I have often gotten as much energy from work I “hated” as from work I loved, because the antagonism pushed and liberated me to move forward and live in my own time: such a relation may still be operative, but I suspect that the depression my friends and I felt comes from seeing now in a lot of art fairs work we just saw five minutes ago in our MFA student critiques, and from the fact that even those significant challenges to our world view are by now kind of old as well, though they may not feel that way to the people doing them or the collectors fawning over what seems to be the latest thing, really just by the latest person.

So Pier 94 made us want to give up on art making, with a few exceptions (some contemporary + Stettheimer, who died in 1944), Pier 92 made it possible to want to go home and work in the studio.

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“Circle” by Benny Andrews

The first time after September 11 that my friends and I met in Chelsea to see some exhibitions which had had the misfortune of having their opening scheduled for that day, we were ecstatic to see each other and to be out in our city. We were, however, repelled by much of the art that we saw. It had all been done before. It looked empty and now we needed not art world stuff, fluff, what my mother used to refer to contemptuously as “merchandise,” but substance, art that showed some awareness of the world we were now living in, one totally altered from the one we had thought we occupied September 10.

Now as I write we are on the eve of a calamity perhaps greater. But for some reason, in some cases with forethought or based on some quick planning, there have been some powerful artworks on view in New York during this election season, artworks that really address the political moment while providing models of how one can do it, that most difficult thing, make an artwork, particularly a two dimensional static one, drawing or painting, that has an acute political narrative and a powerful aesthetic presence. Notable among such shows have been Philip Guston’s “Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975”, including his “Poor Richard” and Phlebitis Series, Kerry James Marshal: Mastry at the Met Breuer, and Benny Andrews’ The Bicentennial Series at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.

Benny Andrews (1930-2006), “Circle,” 1973. Oil on twelve linen canvases with painted fabric and mixed media collage, 120″ x 288″. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

I have wanted to write about one of these major paintings in Benny Andrews’ show, Circle, from 1972, since I first saw it earlier this fall. When I first saw it in November, even from far, from the narrow hall, I thought, oh, here is a masterpiece, a word I rarely use. I wanted to proclaim in writing, “there is a masterpiece on view in New York.” Circumstances intervened and now the painting is on view  for just a couple more days, extended through Saturday January 21.

Circle (1973) is one of a cycle of very large multiple canvas works Andrews completed the early 70s dealing with both racism and sexism done at an intersectional moment in American history when the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement and the Women’s Liberation movement reached a peak of visibility and even transformational effectiveness, as the nation approached its Bicentennial.  In 1969 Andrews, a New York based artist reared in rural Georgia, Korean War veteran, activist in the Civil Rights, anti-Vietnam War, and feminist movement, undertook a major cycle of works, creating one major work per year for six years building up to the Bicentennial in 1976, each work emerging from dozens of smaller paintings and drawing studies.

Benny Andrews (1930-2006). “Circle” Study #32, 1972. India ink on paper 12″ x 18″, signed and dated. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

Andrew’s project sprang from his concern that the African-American experience would not be included or addressed on its own terms, in its own voice, in the nation’s celebrations. Each work including Circle began with a few ideas, images, and memories, which Andrews worked through in dozens of drawings and smaller painting studies–a fact I note because often in recent years I encounter art students who think you can just do one thing, try an idea once, not realizing the kind of work that goes into working through ideas until you arrive at the most powerful form and thus also the most powerful metaphor.

Here was my first impression of the painting: Circle is a painting with collage elements of cloth, paper, and rope, on 12 linen canvases assembled to create one very large surface. At the center of the work a black man is crucified to a bed by real rope strung across the canvas. He is bound, naked except for underpants made of real stained rags, and his body is slit open with his bloody innards a split watermelon. The bed itself is a humble plain palette covered with blood stained mattress ticking. The crucified figure is held down by a circle of white women who hold the ropes tight, some scream, some are faceless, behind them their shadows are foreshortened into black silhouettes. The scene is framed by two older black women seated in rush chairs, impassively witnessing the lynching….Here is my second impression of the painting: A black man naked except for soiled underpants is tied to a bed at the center a large rectangular space, his body is slit open to reveal the inside of split watermelon, while a complex contraption above him is pulling three-dimensional watermelon like forms out of his gut. He is held down by real ropes held by a circle of mostly women and some men, encircled the figure, some very close to us the viewers, some farther back and above us in the picture plane. Each figure including the circle of torturers, the man, and even his bed cast black shadows, created by a light source that seems to come from our space in the gallery into the painting, implicating us in the circle. All the shadows fall away from us toward  the background, except for the man’s right hand which casts a claw like shadow in the reverse direction, reaching in effect towards us, the viewers.

When I first saw the work I interpreted some of what I saw in a manner that seemed narratively inconsistent: I read the two seated women in the foreground as black though that didn’t make sense, for what would two black women be doing seated impassively at a lynching? Yet it made some kind of sense to me, or I created sense: I saw them as tribal elders, archetypal matriarchs who had seen everything. One can build any interpretative narrative out of visual clues. Today the visual clues were the opposite: I felt that the circle of torturers including the two seated women all had to be white. I’m still not sure. In the gallery text on the exhibition, in the discussion on this particular work, it is noted that the images in this painting were interpreted in multiple ways, and that “in conversations with critics, Andrews stayed silent on the personal intent behind his symbolism.” Between common sense and instinct there is a range of possible interpretation. Either way these drawn, painted, and collaged, built up, seated female figures are powerful and eerie witnesses to a deeply disturbing event.

My description of the narrative does not really explain why I call this a masterpiece. Let me try to get at the core of it: the work is large and thus impressive because of that, but that would not be enough, there are lots of empty-headed large paintings around. So it is large and it depicts a powerful and disturbing event, it is in a line of history back to paintings depicting the martyrdom of Christian saints, the flaying of Peter, and of course scenes of the Stations of the Cross, the Crucifixion, Deposition, and Lamentation. But it takes place on a flat white ground, someplace that is very modernist in its flatness, and this place is a nowhere, bleached out of detail: only one exotic tree hints also at a biblical theme as a white woman hands some fruit to a white man who is clinging to the trunk of the tree. And it is not exactly a painting, as each figure and object that appears is composed from two dimensional and three dimensional elements. It is as sculptural as it is painterly.

The use of actual rope which we feel palpably as we look at the work–we see its texture and the shadows the rope casts on the surface–this binds up to the paintings as much as it binds the figure to his bed of suffering. Its reality enters our space and it implicates us.  The ropes do something else as well, they bind the painting, and they cross the lines created by the individual canvases that create the surface. The use of these 12 canvases to create one large work was in part the result of circumstance, the size of the artist’s studio could not accommodate one large work:

The idea of my new work is the expression of an individual, in this case, a black individual, in America, in the 70’s, using the Bicentennial as  focal point. throughout the work, I emphasize the history of this country over two hundred years. My new work forces me to position myself in that kind of arena. Though I don’t work on the idea of the spectacular, I did want to work on the challenge of bigness. I had to do the “big”work even though I had to do them small enough in sections, so they could get out of my door and down the staircase of the building.  So as I worked in my studio, I said I have to approach this honestly, and I made no attempt to hide or redesign the panels or the lines between them.

But that decision is part of what makes this such a brilliant addition to the grand tradition of painting: the lines of separation between the canvases undermine that tradition even as they build upon it and speak as an equal to it.

I think of this as a great American painting, because it depicts American history and emerges from the artist’s lived experience of Jim Crow in the South and institutional racism in the North. It should be as celebrated as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, or James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, or any song by Mahalia Jackson. But I think of it also in relation to the great tradition of Western painting, culminating as it once did in an installation in the Louvre of Courbet’s A Burial at Ornans and The Painter’s Studio, Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus and Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa. It should have pride of place in a major American museum.

Now as ever there’s a lot of talk about the effectiveness of art in or as political activism, particular the old art of painting, which is seen as static, and also as compromised by its association with the history of both Christian and secular capitalist Western power. And it’s very rare that a work of “political” art has made a difference in a specific political situation. In fact often such a work is not even widely seen at the time.  Edouard Manet prudently didn’t exhibit his work, The Execution of Maximilian for several years because it would not have been safe to do, similarly James Ensor rolled up Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889 and it wasn’t exhibited for thirty years and for all I know stowed it under his bed. Picasso’s Guernica is one of the rare works done in reaction to a current event that was known at the time it was done because of the fame of the artist.

And of course none of these works whether seen or not would have altered the course of history. Nevertheless when these works are seen at a later time, they hold within their visual and material decisions the power of the artist’s connection to the subject, which is power/powerlessness and injustice/justice. The works have a political effect: they give people courage, when they are seen, whether it is during the artist’s lifetime or a hundred years later. And speaking selfishly as an artist: the area where I feel the courage is not only the area of political activism, but as an artist That is, it is not only the subject, but the form, or it is the conjunction of the two, but if it were only the subject, it would most likely not have the effect of giving me courage, as an artist.

 

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M/E/A/N/I/N/G: The Final Issue on A Year of Positive Thinking-2

The first issue of M/E/A/N/I/N/G: A Journal of Contemporary Art Issues, was published in December 1986. M/E/A/N/I/N/G is a collaboration between two artists, Susan Bee and Mira Schor, both painters with expanded interests in writing and politics, and an extended community of artists, art critics, historians, theorists, and poets, whom we sought to engage in discourse and to give a voice to.

For our 30th anniversary and final issue, we have asked some long-time contributors and some new friends to create images and write about where they place meaning today. As ever, we have encouraged artists and writers to feel free to speak to the concerns that have the most meaning to them right now.

Every other day from December 5 until we are done, a grouping of contributions will appear on A Year of Positive Thinking. We invite you to live through this time with all of us in a spirit of impromptu improvisation and passionate care for our futures.

Susan Bee and Mira Schor

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Rit Premnath: The Day After

Dear 72% of non-college educated white men
Thank you for your overwhelming enthusiasm
I was following the polls
trace a mirrored line
dipping and rising
in anticipation
But when you filled your circle
the statistician’s needle shivered

You were the butt of our jokes
and we’d all but forgotten you
Now the clown has returned
shouting his white rage
With the tongue of a troll

Dear 62% of non-college educated white women
Thank you for tossing a grenade in our basement
My ears are still ringing from the aftershock
and I’m empty and sad
Like there’s been a death in the family

Dear 37% of white people
and 74% of non-whites
This morning the city was silent
and in the subway
we couldn’t bear to look at each other

I met a friend for breakfast
and we talked about this agnosia
How everything is exactly the same
but unrecognizable
cheaply built on closer inspection
like Mar-a-Lago

Dear overeducated friends
Thank you for your persistent paranoia
As you know well, the present is always Kali Yuga
The last phase of the crumbling cosmic order
The bull of dharma has lost three legs
and teeters precariously
hopping one-legged from calamity to calamity
Our angel of history zigzags

For you nothing is good enough
Until something is much worse
And even then you blame the foreclosed possibility
of that which will have been

Dear friends of various demographic categories
Thank you for being here tonight
I can’t speak for you,
but my emptiness is like a vacuum
that sucks all things into its gloom
I think we were silent because we recognized it
It has always been there
A hole at the center

We were talking yesterday
About how the art world is not for us
That we have always sensed an emptiness at its core
But we play along and service its white walls
fighting one another for its fleeting attention
Afraid that we have already invested too much
Afraid that we will disappear if we withdraw
Afraid that withdrawal is shameful
Ashamed that our politics rarely extends to action
Confused about who the objects of our politics should be
But as the ground cracks beneath our feet
we suddenly feel an orientation
A sense of possibility in this quickly widening trench

Dear teachers
Yesterday we realized that we knew nothing
Or at least that we must actively unlearn the knowledge
that has stopped us from knowing

We were silent because we were ashamed
that we didn’t even know each other
We said we must work together
But knew right away that the “we” we were talking about
is an idea that cannot be learnt
But must be made
And that none of us has the time to make it

I feel a sense of urgency
that this is a call to action
That we must try to capture and hold that feeling
of the moment before we fall when our knees have begun to buckle
Or the moment right after
When the force of gravity orients us
but we have not yet fallen
That feeling we felt the first night and the morning after
The soundlessness of that night
and the hum in our ears searching
A silence enveloped in a distant ringing
Every sound in its inverse, a listening
An ear for the mouthless

A being-with that is a listening and looking
Unlearning as directed possibility
A sensory orientation that stops the shuddering needle
We must make a new time of being-with
A time of learning through unlearning
And reorient this era post truth
Towards its looking-for
Towards its becoming by being-with

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A Lapche near Dharapuri, Humla District, Nepal. Photo courtesy Sreshta Rit Premnath, 2016

A Lapche near Dharapuri, Humla District, Nepal. Photo courtesy Sreshta Rit Premnath, 2016

“Chorten, Mani and Lapche are three kinds of sacred structures built with rocks that are found throughout the region of Humla in Northwestern Nepal and Southern Tibet. …Lapche, the third and simplest category are cairns–simple rock mounds that any passerby may add to. … Lapche are an accretion of nows that are each embodied in the intentional selection and placement of a rock….Unlike villages or monasteries that serve as destinations for a traveler, Lapche are always in between or at the threshold of such places. They are polychronic nodes that mark non-sites en-route to somewhere.”

“Rocks map scales of geological time that vastly exceed human time and indeed precede the very existence of humans and our conception of time. We are fascinated with things that exceed our ability to grasp, and so we literally grasp them, hold and touch them, to fill them with meaning and make them ours.”

(Photo and text excerpts from Premnath, “The Chronotopography of Mountains” courtesy Sreshta Rit Premnath, 2016)

Sreshta Rit Premnath is an Indian-born artist who works across multiple media, investigating systems of representation and reflecting on the process by which images become icons and events become history. Premnath is the editor of Shifter and teaches at Parsons.

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Beverly Naidus: Holding On

I’m out of breath, running down the sidewalk in a foul-smelling, factory town in Maine. My dad works at the plastics factory, as a research chemist, putting dead leaves, textiles and flowers in between sheets of acrylic to create new decorative plastics for home design – very 1950s. He’s grateful to have a job. He’s been blacklisted.

At that moment, I don’t know any of this. I only know that the air stinks, neighborhood kids are chasing me and I don’t know why. I am four years old, with dark, curly hair and olive skin. I look quite different from the locals. I am being pelted with grapes. They shout and then chant an unfamiliar expression at me, “DIRTY LITTLE KIKE.” It fills my ears like intractable glue that no anti-adhesive can remove.

Is that when I awoke? Perhaps. It was certainly one of the first seeds of awakening. I was being raised to assimilate, and the lesson that day was this: It’s not the difference that marks you. It’s the response of others to that difference.

I have learned that lesson repeatedly over the years. As the McCarthy Era drew to a close, my New Yorker parents, both children of immigrants, moved us closer to NYC, thinking we would all be more at home there; it did not help. Our new town had been the center of the New Jersey Nazi party during the 1930s. I don’t think my parents knew this. They were assimilating, and chose to live in a non-Jewish part of town deliberately. Trouble was, a few of the neighbors were unhappy with this choice and made their displeasure known.

I felt the pressure to fit in. I sang solos in the Christmas choir at school, read the Bible secretly in bed, joined the Brownies and attempted to straighten my hair. Somehow all these attempts to be accepted fell short, and this failure came with a sticky residue of shame. That I couldn’t pass was my fault. I grew wary. I began to identify with outsiders and oddballs. I began to write poetry and draw weird surreal images searching for a way out.

Thankfully there was an exit door with a neon sign that said “LIBERATION THIS WAY.” I came of age in the late 60s. Although the complex counterculture was not necessarily a place to find easy comfort, it offered an alternative to suffocating and destructive conformity. I found safety and acceptance among feminists, queer friends, activists, artists, mystics and communities of color. All residues of dissonance between the dominant culture and my new havens of solidarity went into my creative work. Years later, as I expanded into teaching what I had learned as an artist, I began to offer similar refuge for my students to tell their stories of shame, otherness, trauma and alienation. That, combined with some media literacy and anti-oppression training, became a standard recipe for shifting or strengthening values. I saw and still see the trajectory of my work as something expansive; eventually subverting the dominant culture and replacing it with a world where difference will be celebrated and where equity and fairness will be the norm.

But I am not a Pollyanna who thought the bullies had gone away. The daily brutality of ongoing white supremacy, homophobia, patriarchy, and corporate capitalism has been ever present and the manipulations of fear & economics have created an ongoing apocalypse for many.

Two nights ago, in response to the latest assault (our recent election), we attended a community meeting in a local church in our new hometown of Tacoma, WA. that was advertised with the appropriate name, “What Now?” Organized by the facilitators of the local Anarchist Discount Center (an online “buy nothing” group), they packed the room with eager, depressed, passionate, enraged, mostly younger, seemingly white folks. We made extensive lists of what concerns us the most; the panic almost bubbled over as each new item was added to the list. Small groups discussed strategies for resistance, solidarity, educating those who are feeling lost and vulnerable. It was a beginning.

Some people describe this bizarre post-election moment like a waking nightmare, like we are in suspended animation waiting for fascism to start. But those of us who have identified as activists for decades, once we have shaken off the disgust and frustration, have noticed an expanding cohort of awakening folks. It’s essential that we share our tools for processing the daily trauma and insanity, and get grounded for the long haul. Our work will likely be much harder now, but with more imaginations and muscles joining the cause, who knows what will happen. We’ll have to hold on to each other lovingly during this bumpy ride.

Beverly Naidus, Cognitive Dissonance #8, from the series “Wrestling with the Uneasy Present.” Digital photo-collage, dimensions variable, 2016.

Beverly Naidus, Cognitive Dissonance #8, from the series “Wrestling with the Uneasy Present.” Digital photo-collage, dimensions variable, 2016.

Beverly Naidus has been subverting within academia, museums and public space for most of her adult life. She likes to stir things up via art, writing, face-to-face improvisations, online interventions and within contexts where difficult questions can be raised, vulnerable stories can be shared and connections can be made. For more about her work and pedagogy go to her website.

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Christen Clifford: Instagram posts from @cd_clifford November 11 & 14

christen-clifford-image1-saved-for-web

Nov11
So grateful that our Jackson Heights and Flushing city councilman #DannyDromm voiced his resistance and his commitment to holding our legislature and government accountable. This was #queensrally for unity and diversity in #diversityplaza . Those “Let’s wait and see what he does” opinions—um, NO. He told us who he is. I have been thinking about the argument that “Some took him literally but not seriously, others took him seriously but not literally”  in relation to the capitulation of places like HuffPo and People magazine—taking off the warning about DT and the lavish photo spread of Ivanka’s family, respectively. This is not normal. I refuse to normalize this. I have been thinking about the connections between rape and war, about the very real #ptsd and #retraumatization happening for many people. I have been rereading Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman. I numbed out with Ativan for a few days. I understood why after picking up T&R and reading about “CONSTRICTION—a state of surrender where….the system of self-defense shuts down entirely.” Thinking about how Tuesday night was such a shock it was like an ambush. I didn’t see it coming. The surprise attack makes me remember “Oh, it’s Veteran’s Day” and my dad fought in WWII and he was at The Battle of the Bulge which was a famous surprise attack. Sortie. Invasion. Thinking how grabbing a woman by the pussy or groping someone on the subway is the new lying in the long grasses with a rifle all night long. Thinking about invasions of personal space, even the forced laugh and endurance of a hand that lingers a little too long, though no one else might notice it. And rape, forced intimacy, as a weapon of war. I felt crazy on Tuesday night <x-apple-data-detectors://11> . I thought the #silverlining of DT was exposing #rapeculture and I was completely ready to have our American society finally take #sexualassault survivors seriously- to listen and believe women. I was ready for a woman to be in charge so I wouldn’t feel like it was all in my head. We need more women in office. And then the rapist is elected. As if he’s my rapist. “Trauma isolates, the group recreates.” #strongertogether Some of my students fear for their safety. This is not normal. #TheResistance

Nov 14
#supermoon tonight. #lenorachampagne and I walked to see the super of our building who is in the hospital. He had a stroke. The nurse said his left side needed massage to get the blood flowing so I massaged his legs. I never thought I’d be that intimate with him but I know the healing power of touch and I grew up massaging my mom’s legs and feet so it felt normal to me. It was the first time I’ve been in a hospital for someone other than myself and I walked out thinking that I am doing really well right now and #fuckcancer like just fuck it and I just have to be in the present and enjoy my anger and take care of my anxiety. I have repeated to myself “Two steps forward, one step back.” But I know that doesn’t help the brown boys I know. Later we went on the roof and I tried to bathe in the magical power of the moon being so close #tommurrin s #lunamacaroona In my mind I am naked swimming in a lake bathing in the moon’s reflection drinking in some form of pureness that would protect those brown boys and girls. I talked to the kids about being an #upstander then obsessed over the NY Times weird letter to readers- are they capitulating or doubling down? Feel deep in my heart I can’t normalize this fascist elect but small good deeds helped. Walking, cooking, neighboring. Still thinking about feelings—how good it felt to think that HRC saw my issues and how good it feels to “other” someone else. Like middle school. Most of us grow out of it, right? We are all together under this big fucking moon, whether we like it or not.

chrsiten-clifford-image2

*These texts were originally published to Instagram @cd_clifford and then automatically posted to Facebook and Twitter.

Christen Clifford is a feminist performance artist, writer, curator at Dixon Place, mother and teaches at The New School. She is a core member of The No Wave Performance Task Force and the creator of The Pussy Bow, a feminist action disguised as a fashion accessory. She lives in Queens and online @cd_clifford

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Shirley Kaneda

Sadly, not only did we not see the first woman to be the President of the most powerful country in the free world, but we are also now faced with grave concerns of civil liberty brought on by the ultra conservative agenda of Trump and his coterie of advisors who blatantly support white male supremacy. Their reactionary views on everything from free trade which greatly aids the world’s poorest people, advancement of minorities, women’s reproductive rights, gun control, and least of all economic disparity can now be set back decades.

53% of white women voted for Trump. Even if traditional feminism may not be attractive to some women, it would seem to be a no-brainer to elect an eminently qualified woman candidate to a hate inspiring incompetent racist and sexist buffoon in 2016. Evidently, these white women put race over advancing the status of women at the expense of domination over liberation. At least, being white gives them the perception that they have power over everyone who is not.

I recently saw a video of a debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley that was held at Cambridge Union Society, Cambridge University in 1965. The topic was “The American Dream at the Expense of the American Negro.” Almost the entire audience except for a few blacks here and there was white. Baldwin was already a well-established writer and civil rights activist and Buckley was a young editor and founder of the conservative National Review. Baldwin was riveting. The exchange could not have been better made as a movie. Baldwin’s passionate, articulate oppression of American blacks was so intelligent, deft and moving that he received a standing ovation by the young audience when he finished. Buckley on the other hand resorted to attempting to strip Baldwin of respect by commenting that it was curious that Baldwin all of sudden spoke with a British accent. He did no such thing of course, but it is the white’s position to paint blacks as the barbaric “other” and incapable of becoming civilized. In the end the Society took a vote on the proposition and Baldwin won by 540-160 on the issue of “The American Dream at the Expense of the American Negro.”

Evidently the mostly white audience of this debate in 1965 was far more progressive than the 51% of Americans who elected Trump in 2016. The issue of the economy and the diminishing middle class were certainly factors in this election, but they are inextricably tied to the not so latent issue of race easily promoted by Trump’s embrace of xenophobia.

How do we break this cycle of bigotry and oppression? First we must divest ourselves from the notion of “other.” From my perspective, the mutual respect for difference must extend to oneself. The other must not be an extension of the notion of tolerance and non-judgment. It may be confusing to think of the dominant – subordinate relationship and the notion of other which were possibly and probably progressive at one time, but now must be disposed for no other reason than the fact that it is archaic and counter-productive. The concept of the other has to be abandoned and absorbed so it can produce independence. The other is now revealed as a myth that signifies anything that is not “I” and which does nothing to alter the dynamic of power.

Shirley Kaneda, Untitled, 2016, 30” x 34”, acrylic on linen.

Shirley Kaneda, Untitled, 2016, 30” x 34”, acrylic on linen.

Shirley Kaneda is an abstract painter, contributing editor to Bomb Magazine and a Professor at Pratt Institute.

The video that Kaneda refers to of the 1965 debate between James Baldwin v. William F. Buckley Jr. at Cambridge University on the question: “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?” can be viewed here.

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William Villalongo

My figures toil between various histories and an endless natural world conscious of painting as their condition of being. These new works meditate on the Black male presence in society as a figure shifting in out of visibility. It is a post-human existence in which the form disperses and recollects in various form like fallen autumn leaves, more subject to the conditions of nature than individual will. Yet, like nature it has the power of regeneration held within the substance of its decay. “Hands up” and “hoodies” become symbols of resistance as well as the figurative elements associated with body language.

William Villalongo, Seed, 2016. Acrylic, cut velour paper and collage 79" X 40"

William Villalongo, Seed, 2016. Acrylic, cut velour paper and collage, 79″ X 40″

William Villalongo, Speak No Evil, 2016. Acrylic, cut velour paper and collage, 40" X 39"

William Villalongo, Speak No Evil, 2016. Acrylic, cut velour paper and collage, 40″ X 39″

William Villalongo lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. Villalongo is the recipient of the Louis Comfort Tiffany Award and the Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters & Sculptor’s Grant. Villalongo is currently represented by Susan Inglett Gallery.

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Further installments of M/E/A/N/I/N/G: The Final Issue on A Year of Positive Thinking will appear here every other day. Contributors will include Alexandria Smith, Altoon Sultan, Ann McCoy, Aziz+Cucher, Aviva Rahmani, Bailey Doogan, Bradley Rubenstein, Deborah Kass, Erica Hunt, Faith Wilding, Hermine Ford, Jennifer Bartlett, Jenny Perlin, Johanna Drucker, Joseph Nechvatal, Joy Garnett and Bill Jones, Joyce Kozloff, Judith Linhares, Kat Griefen, Kate Gilmore, Legacy Russell, Lenore Malen, LigoranoReeese, Mary Garrard, Martha Wilson, Maureen Connor, Michelle Jaffé, Mimi Gross, Myrel Chernick, Noah Dillon, Noah Fischer, Peter Rostovsky, LigoranoReese, Rachel Owens, Robert C. Morgan, Robin Mitchell, Roger Denson,  Sheila Pepe, Susanna Heller, Suzy Spence, Tamara Gonzalez and Chris Martin, Susan Bee, Mira Schor, and more. If you are interested in this series and don’t want to miss any of it, please subscribe to A Year of Positive Thinking during this period, by clicking on subscribe at the upper right of the blog online, making sure to verify your email when prompted.

M/E/A/N/I/N/G: A History
We published 20 print issues biannually over ten years from 1986-1996. In 2000, M/E/A/N/I/N/G: An Anthology of Artists’ Writings, Theory, and Criticism was published by Duke University Press. In 2002 we began to publish M/E/A/N/I/N/G Online and have published six online issues. Issue #6 is a link to the digital reissue of all of the original twenty hard copy issues of the journal. The M/E/A/N/I/N/G archive from 1986 to 2002 is in the collection of the Beinecke Library at Yale University.

 

 

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