Sunday, October 28, 2012

Dave Hickey tells it

Ah, to hear the sweet sound of splitting seams and rending cloth.

Dave Hickey gives us another nail in the coffin of contemporary art of our time.

Friday, September 21, 2012

This review by the recently-late Robert Hughes (He died August 6 of this year) that I grabbed wholesale from the blog of Nathaniel Meyer, a painter and student of mine from Portland ME.  It reminds me of the particular Orwellian cultural ocean in whose tide we painters (many of us anyway) felt we were submerged when we were ourselves students, and probably accounts for my sometimes strident tone.  Things are much better now, in a sense, if only from the great population explosion in the art world, which has permitted what had become a reviled niche (figurative art) to at least populate itself enough to produce it's own interesting microculture.   

So thank you Nathaniel and thank you Mr. Hughes- your criticism kept me sane.  

A Fiesta of Whining

It is an axiom that next to running the National Endowment for the Arts, curating the Whitney Biennial is the worst job in American culture. Every two years, the dread summons to represent the most vital and interesting currents in American art looms before the museum. Its curators do their stuff, and the result is nearly always the same: abuse from the art world and the fanged calumny of critics. "Every time I award a state commission," some 19th century French Minister of Culture was heard to sigh, "I create one ingrate and 20 malcontents."
During the 1980s, the Whitney was content to take dictation from dealers and collectors, so that its Biennials tended passively to reflect the fashions of the art market without showing more than an occasional glimmer of independent judgment. The 1993 version is different and scaled to a chastened art world. The sour taste of the collapsed '80s star system has galvanized the "new" Whitney, under its new director David A. Ross, into a veritable transport of social concern. This Biennial, assembled by a team of curators under the supervision of Elisabeth Sussman, is not a survey but a theme show. A saturnalia of political correctness, a long-winded immersion course in marginality -- the only cultural condition, as far as its reborn curators are concerned, that matters in the '90s. The aesthetic quality (that repressive, icky word again!) is for the most part feeble. The level of grievance and moral rhetoric, however, is stridently high.
Instead of the Artist as Star, we have the Artist as Victim, or as Victim's Representative. The key to the show, the skeptic might say, is its inclusion of the tape of the police bashing of Rodney King taken by George Holliday, a plumbing-parts salesman not known for his artistic aspirations before or since. The '93 Biennial is anxious to present all its artists as witnesses, just like Holliday. Witnesses to what? To their own feelings of exclusion and marginalization. To a world made bad for blacks, Latinos, gays, lesbians and women in general. It's one big fiesta of whining agitprop, in the midst of which a few genuine works of art and some sharp utterances (mainly in video) manage to survive.
The bulk of the show is video, photography, installations, a few sculptures and words on the wall. It contains enough useless, boring mock documentation to fill a small library. There are only eight painters out of 81 artists (Holliday brings the count to 82). But that's because it's more or less given that painting is a form of white male domination, implying "mastery." Indeed, the catalog presents quite a riff on this subject when it reflects on what might strike the unprepared visitor as the wretched pictorial ineptitude of such artists as Sue Williams, Raymond Pettibon, Mike Kelley and Karen Kilimnik. (Williams can't draw at all, although her installation The Sweet and Pungent Smell of Success includes a dandy splotch of plastic vomit.) Their work, says the catalog, "deliberately renounces success and power in favor of the degraded and dysfunctional, transforming deficiencies into something positive in true Warholian fashion." Presumably if they weren't vigilant with themselves, they might turn into teensy Titians, engorged with mastery.
No sodden cant, no cliche of therapeutic culture goes unused. If we are at the point where any attempt at aesthetic discrimination can be read as blaming the victim, is there any use in choosing anything over anything else -- or in holding a Biennial at all?
Much of the art on view conforms to the recipe for postmodernist political utterance set out, with lapidary accuracy, by the art critic Adam Gopnik a couple of years ago. That is, you take an obvious proposition that few would disagree with -- "Racism is wrong" or "One should not persecute gays" -- and encode it so obliquely that by the time the viewer has figured it out, he or she feels, as the saying goes, included in the discourse.
An example is the collaborative piece by Hillary Leone and Jennifer Macdonald, which fills a whole room. It consists of a few canvases (actually bed frames covered with muslin) adorned with elegant arabesques burned into them with hot irons. The branding irons, 55 of them, hang from the ceiling. The squiggles they produce, one learns from the wall label, are in fact Gregg shorthand symbols, by which means the artists have filled the canvas with replications of multiple-choice answers from a survey on sexual behavior -- "More than once a week. Once a week. Two-three times a month . . ." Rarely has such a prolonged setup been followed by such a dim punch line.
Some work, but not much, gets above this level. Kiki Smith's sculpture Mother -- a pair of ghostly, transparent feet, before which lie scattered dozens of glass drops, large and small, which might be tears or babies -- has an unforced and melancholy poetry. Charles Ray specializes in weird dislocations of scale; his 45-ft.-long red toy fire truck parked outside the museum is an arresting street presence, while his naked nuclear family inside -- father, mother, daughter and son, all exactly the same size -- is distinctly spooky in a way that derives from Magritte. Byron Kim's Belly Paintings, 1992, representing six different hues of skin, each a gracefully swollen sac of solid color, are beautiful metaphors of the human body.
The found-object assemblages by the Cherokee artist Jimmie Durham -- parodic weapons made out of rusty gun parts, salvaged wood, plastic pipe -- deal with race and cultural resistance, but do so by imaginative, not merely rhetorical, means. Even Janine Antoni's sculptures -- a big cube of chocolate gnawed by the artist and a fairly repulsive mound of lard chewed up by her, flanked by a vitrine or mock reliquary displaying chocolate cases and lipsticks made from the residue of both (link between bulimia and beauty cult, get it?) -- have a sort of Monty Pythonish looniness that makes them almost endearing as traces of obsessive effort.
Of course this show isn't the end of civilization as we know it, but it's glum, preachy, sophomoric and aesthetically aimless. Indifferent to pleasure, it becomes college-level art for college-level thinking about civic virtue. Part of the trouble is that the Whitney, like a swimmer clutching a spar, still clings to the romantic avant-garde idea that visual artists get to sense things before anyone else, that they are uniquely equipped with social antennae that tell us what's wrong with the world before other folk can cotton on to it. Apart from a small number of gifted exceptions, all dead, there is very little evidence for this piety. What supports it? Picasso's Stalinism? Josef Beuys' mystagogic vaporings? Certainly nothing in this Biennial, whose political messages contribute nothing fresh, and little of intelligence, to America's quarrels and complaints about gender, race and marginality.
The catalog confirms the academic bent of the show, with essays of such jargon-filled obscurantism that they go beyond parody. Thus Avital Ronell: "What impresses itself upon us is the fact of finitude's excessive nature, not only because of the inappropriability of its meaning but, as the experience of sheer exposition, because of the way it refuses to disclose itself fully." One would bet $5 that neither David Ross nor anyone else connected with the Biennial could say what such gibberish might mean or translate it into clear English. But that would be a hegemonic transgression on the integrity of marginal language, right?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Our Discussion

Without wanting to preempt the conversation that I hope will take place sometime next month within the hallowed walls of the BFAC, I'd like to offer the beginnings of it as it occurred in some email exchanges between a few of us.  Jon Nix proposed a question last night, as we were winding down our discussion, that he feels is at the center of our lives as artists, and that he particularly joined the group in order to answer.  The question is some form of "Why do we bother, want to, insist upon painting people?"  There are so many reasons to not paint and draw people.  After all- they're hard to do, they don't sit still, people don't like to buy them, or at least not hang them in contemporary homes and certainly not in business or corporate settings where the lowest common taste denominator needs to be soothed. So why bother?

Here's our exchange, to serve as a jump-off for a discussion next month:

Jon- As for the topic(s) I raised, at first I thought it could be distilled down to one question: "Why do we paint the figure?" But reflecting a little further on the drive home, that seemed unsatisfactory. Since what I'm looking for is a theoretical underpinning -- or at least justification -- for this aspect of my work, perhaps the question should be more pointed: "Why SHOULD we paint the figure?" Or even "Why MUST we paint the figure?" I defer to your judgment as to which of the latter questions would make a better jumping off point for discussion. The blog piece you wrote last year was one of the clearest and most edifying essays on art that I've ever read, which is what drew me to BFAC in the first place. I'd love to see us come up with a manifesto. I think I've always secretly wished for an "ism" to paint under -- what the hell, maybe we'll end up with one. "Vernonism"? The Sixist School?

Damon- Hey that's great- I so much appreciate your close analysis of things,
and your last question I think is the strongest, and nearly serves as a
manifesto by itself.  It includes a kind of moral feeling, which I
think can really animate our pursuit.  We paint figures to some degree
because it's the hardest, most direct, and least susceptible to the
fraud and chicanery that infuses the art world (where opaqueness and
incomprehensibility are allies of the art con-job).  We want to offer
something absolutely valuable, a direct line to the viewer without the
intervention of would-be priests of art (the dealers and theorists who
make money on our backs).  Alright, I'll stop- I'll try not to get too
dogmatic yet, and after all we need dealers and theorists.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Quick news

Hi to our blogging public- this is by way of announcing that we will be moving our studio down a floor to a larger space October 1, and renting out our upper floor space to some members of the crew.  If anyone is interested in taking 200 sq. ft of space for $200/month, please get in touch with me at  As our online group continues to grow, we'll have better space for larger groups with models and for events (look for a fundraiser with art and live music in conjunction with open studios in early december).

That's all the news for the moment, next time perhaps we'll muster a more intellectually stimulating post.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Nature of Paint - Jason Cheeseman-Meyer

Years ago, a conceptual artist I rather like personally, and respect professionally, was giving a talk about 20th century art movements.  

She talked about the Abstract Expressionists rejecting the "illusions of painting."  Paint had been lying to us and pretending to be three dimensions.  Abstract Expressionism instead, was letting "paint be paint." Paint could now be true to its nature, and be honest about it's two-dimensionality.  Paint could throw off the yoke of illusionist, realist depiction and revel in the honest beauty of paint. 

And many Abstract Expressionists DID find an honest beauty in paint.

But if anyone's going to talk about the true nature of paint, they need to keep in mind that paint is not a natural phenomenon.  Paint is not a living being.  Paint is a human invention. Early man didn't invent paint to make their cars bright red or their houses a homeowner's-association-pleasing shade of beige.  They invented it to create depictions.  People, animals, scenes.  Life.

Look at the cave paintings of Chauvez-Pont-d'Arc, which Werner Herzog captured cinematically.  Or even older caves, now dated around 40,000 years old, so old they were probably painted by Neaderthals rather than Homo Sapiens   They've been preserved in the depths of the earth, but think of how they must have painted everywhere, in places time has wiped clean eons ago.

Mark-making, symbolic strokes, magical depictions, life-size buffalo for target practice.  Handprints.  All depictions of life.  Of thinking, living, interacting, striving, loving, hating, celebrating, mourning.

THAT's the true nature of paint.  That is its honest beauty.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Hip Hop ally in truth telling

A better way to critique the emperor:

Hennessy Youngman- check it out as he takes Damien Hirst to task for his glasses and his poses:

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Radcliffe Bailey at the Davis Museum, Wellesley College, reviewed by Damon Lehrer

Radcliffe Bailey, “Memory as Medicine,” at the Davis Museum of Art, Wellesley College, February 15- May 6, 2012.

My problem with Radcliffe Bailey’s work is his craft. The ideas he alludes to are grand, sweeping historical memories of the middle passage and of slavery in the new world, and the beauty and austerity of the museum space enshrines these ideas quite effectively, especially in the large room where his ocean of piano keys lies, punctuated with a lone, doomed man. That piece is a lovely and succinct (as much as the keys from 400 pianos can be) evocation of the despair and lonely pain I associate with the subject. The strong smell of sandalwood or cedar given off perhaps by the wood of the keys, or perhaps pumped in for yet another sensory experience layered onto to the visual art (there’s also a soundtrack) helps to capture the imagination.

But in his other pieces- wall mounted box/collage/painting objects and more traditionally matted gouache/collage pieces on paper- there’s just a dearth of craft that for me fails the flea market test. That’s the idea that I like to subject art objects to: if I saw it in a flea market unframed, would it announce itself as a special object? The works on paper in the “Elmina” series- gouache and collage on sheets of music- fail this test. They have the haphazard feel of high school projects. The only visual information specific enough to make meaning comes from collaged on magazine images of African sculpture, but absent the context of the show, even this addition of imagery would simply be too general. These pieces epitomize a sense of impermanence in the work that seems unintentional, and that left me wanting.

There were a few pieces that grabbed me, and they grabbed me because of the transformation of materials that is really at the center of the crafts of sculpture and painting- “Self-Portrait” in encaustic and sugarcane was viscerally engaging before I knew the title or the materials used. It is a kind of Pompeian entombment in thick black wax of sugarcane stalks, matted together and suggesting internal mysterious spaces behind what we could see, inside a black box.

I’ll close with the observation that perhaps art is related to dating in this way: the concepts and ideas in an art piece are akin to a “good personality” in a first date, while good craft is akin to physical attractiveness. In art as in dating, while it’s not really acceptable to admit it, we are as seduced by beautiful craft as we are by attractive people. In both instances the quality of the idea, and of the personality, is something that will ultimately be necessary to a meaningful relationship. But visual art is of course not a human relationship; and is in the end a lot simpler. In a great piece of visual art, the visual experience is nearly everything- the place where both beauty and meaning magically coexist.

I’d like also to mention a coda to my experience at the Davis- and it was due to the remarkable way that the museum is laid out. The mixing of time periods and genres, which seems to be the curatorial intention, is a great and daring way to allow for more direct comparisons between diverse objects, objects that might share little besides the fact that they are considered art by someone. Daring because it empowers the viewers, risking that objects will seem weak or strong in new ways in comparison to one another. On the other hand, placing a Cezanne painting in the same small room as a Joseph Beuys assemblage also tends to falsely equate the two, particularly for someone new to looking at art.

In any case, walking down the stairs that bisect the museum from top to bottom and side to side, I briefly passed two vastly different paintings in the identical spot, separated by one floor. On the third floor was a Dutch or Flemish painting from 1500 of a grimacing man with the title “Laughing Fool,” which felt like the distillation of an artistic era, a mix of the bawdy, clerical, and comedic spirit that flowed most famously through the work of Bosch and Bruegel. On the second floor, a painting just about the same size by Jackson Pollock- also representative of an era, the quintessential abstract expressionist artist, potentially the “greatest living painter” of his time according to Life Magazine. For me the comparison is summed up nicely as I try to recall what I can about the two paintings. I remember the title and content of the Flemish painting but not the artist’s name, while the most distinct thing in my memory about the Pollock is the name “Pollock.” For me, it too is a painting that nicely sums up an era of artists-as-brands, to be bought for the status that owning or prizing them conveys, an era which we still occupy.

Damon Lehrer

Monday, February 27, 2012

Radcliffe Bailey at the Davis Museum, Wellesley College

This is a post sent in by BFAC member David Williams-Bulkeley, some of whose lovely work you can see on, in response to a BFAC suggested visit to the Radcliffe Bailey exhibition at the Davis Museum, Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA. The visit was made on Sunday, February 26, 2008, the exhibit is up for another month or two:

What a collection and what a fabulous space, one of the very best we agreed. Having not heard of Mr. Radcliffe Bailey we went in with an open heart and mind as you do with such exhibitions and as often as not came away with mixed emotions. Beginning with an installation artist's dream scenario of a Romeo and Juliet parapet from which to view your large artwork we thought we were off to a good start. From Juliet's perspective we were greeted by a writhing, moving striated mass of chair legs which at once reminded us of river logging, one of man's great but controversial natural production lines. Being our maiden visit and with stairs either side of us going both down and up to other galleries of art, we were pulled with excitement to move further down and investigate. We are always loathe to read an artist's description of their pieces not through idleness but for the fear of spoiling our own deluded imaginations. So saddened that we had actually lost the feeling of movement in the work on Romeo's level we were this time forced to swallow some complacency and actually read the description. We discovered that the piece was about music, the African slave trade and that the wood used was from over 400 pianos. If he wanted to dismantle the sound machine and reinsert it into his art then where were the ebony pieces ? Yes, we were reminded of the terrible tragedies that hurricanes and tsunamis can create but what else could this now be about ?

Hoping that some of that music might flow through to other pieces we were encouraged by the breadth of materials used but were eventually let down by the relentless textbook art college approach to each subject which culminated with a model ship that had been coated in black crystals and had a jaunty top hat perched on top. The collages took us back to the theme of African heritage but surprised us with their similarities to the collages of Peter Beard.

Typical painter's reproach you might say, but it is hard to make a truly arresting piece of art !

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

As nothing has been written

As nothing has been written here in quite a while, I thought it might be nice to summarize the progress of the center over the past months, for the shareholders, as it were.

The organization has grown moderately and when the ups and downs are smoothed out, consistently. My heart is warmed to see that what I hoped would happen is happening- a dedicated group of smart people are making a community out of the fabric of the BFAC. People who did not know of one another now do, people who thought the landscape for figure work in Boston was a lonely and barren one now feel differently, and a camaraderie is forming though the practice of drawing and painting and drinking and talking and being together, and knowing that we'll see each other again. has been a godsend- a great funnel for gathering people who want to find something like what we're doing, and a way to extend the community experience during the days between physical meetings. Seeing what each of us chooses to upload for images, and having feedback on those efforts, is really rewarding and nourishing.

We took a big risk, after cutting way back after our summer hiatus to only our Monday night drawing session; we're back up to four sessions per week- now thankfully hosted by members other than me. Much appreciation for their work is due, they are really embodying the spirit of service in the pursuit of community. And George Ratkevich's work keeping up and remodelling our website is something I'm really grateful for.

I have been offering some "classes," which I had not intended to do but suddenly felt like doing, and those have been encouraging experiences. First, figure drawing from imagination, in which I try to explain the concepts that help me to think about the body when I draw. Those concepts came out of many experiences- Paul Rahilly's early streamlining of my drawing, my own anatomy study, particularly my attempts to simplify the connections and complexities of anatomy when preparing to teach it at B.U in 2003. The videotaped lectures by Robert Beverly Hale that B.U. had copies of in its nice little art library were so very helpful in this regard. Serious and comedic both inadvertently and intentionally, they were great fun to watch for someone like me, an enjoyer of the spectacle of nerdy and self-consciously elitist expertise presented by the double-breasted, pin-striped Brahmin figure of R. B.

Linen stretching workshop followed by a still life class, now extended by popular demand, and soon maybe a figure painting workshop or string of classes, requested by the folks last week. Nice to feel that what I do is valuable to someone.

So onward we go, not knowing if enough interest in the endeavor will last, and understanding that every one of us has twenty things that we probably ought to be doing other than this, and yet we choose this. No, I take it back- I really think someone ought to be doing this, and that someone is probably us and whoever cares to join us.