Misgivings and Reassurance in Contemporary Painting

We had been driving through Alligator Alley for about an hour suffering just a bit of art fair hangover and reviewing everything we had seen.  After relating a series of paintings at NADA that I had especially liked, my wife asked, “So what in particular did you like about it?”  I found myself fumbling for words and muttering something about composition.

I suppose a lot in regards to personal taste and judging art is intuitive.  It’s difficult to always be explicitly conceptual.  This line of thinking, though, spared me from needing to articulate my opinion save for when it came time write.  For some time I’ve had some nagging thoughts in connection with contemporary painting, and this line of thinking spared me from the need to articulate them.  Well, it’s come time to write.


It’s unclear whether the bias is personal or professional, but for the past several months my preference has leaned heavily toward painting.  I feel the need to say that plainly; I’m not picking on the medium.  Really, it is difficult to find a medium that has had a more caustic relationship with critical theorists and post-modern thought.  At its best it seems painting is perpetually on the cusp of being declared dead.  At its worst it is the receiver of outright rejection familiar to neo-expressionism.  Almost fundamentally the medium seems contrary to a post-modern sensibility.  Thus its current popularity (both personally and generally) is a bit surprising.

Miami’s 2013 NADA and Untitled Fairs definitely made clear that an increasingly expressive painting style is gaining traction.  Each booth seemingly showcased individual styles and characteristics unique to a single hand.  It is difficult to imagine that somehow the art will be separated from the artist.  Will we see critical praise of artwork double as personal praise of a singular talent?  Essentially, I wonder if a more expressive style of art and medium will be accompanied by a return of emphasis on authorship.  Though it would seem unavoidable, I honestly hope not.

It’s tricky severing the brushstrokes from its gesture and the gesture from the mind of the artist.  I don’t want to be presumptuous but privileging one would seem to privilege them all.  Admittedly, a lot of post-modern thought on hegemony, hierarchy, privilege, authorship, and the individual is severely overwrought.  However, I do appreciate the way in which it drastically shifted attention away from the artist and instead toward the artwork.  This shift was seriously overdue and an idea I believe it would be unwise to part with.  Superficially at least, it would appear this new sort of expressive painting could work contrary to the relatively balanced view of authorship achieved over the last three decades.

Rebecca Morris
Untitled (#05-13), 2013
oil on canvas
79 x 79 in.

This painting style, so-called New Casualism orProvisional Painting(depending on which publication you read), is more than just expressive.  It is a sort of anti-aesthetic, but not quite in the irreverent vein of Dada.  Rather, these artists presumably explore value in imperfection, incompleteness, the meta-narrative of painting art history, and anything really outside the bounds of typical 2D training.  In the Brooklyn Rail article lending the style its name, Sharon L. Butler says, “The idea is to cast aside the neat but rigid fundamentals learned in art school and embrace everything that seems to lend itself to visual intrigue—including failure.”

Raoul De Keyser
Crossing, 2010
gesso and oil on canvas mounted on wooden panel
12 5/8 x 12 4/5 in.

However, this idea presents two troublesome possibilities.  First, perhaps the shift in painting accompanied by New Casualism doesn’t carry the weight it hopes to and is merely the ugly becoming attractive, or not breaking the rules but just playing by a different set.  This would be like the sudden shift of 1990’s fashion from ugly to chic.  I suppose what I’m suggesting is that it may be that this sort of painting is not exploring new conceptual/theoretical territory but superficial aesthetic nuances – an art ‘movement’ operating more akin to a fashion world on canvas.  It is an especially Tumblr-friendly aesthetic.  This particularly makes me uneasy with the thought that despite what the artist statement may say there maybe little depth beyond the work as a simple image/commodity for the info-economies that is social networking.

The second troubling possibility is this: the only difference between bad painting and New Casualism may be an MFA and a well written artist statement.  I’m familiar with the trope that one must first know the rules before breaking them.  Still, I can’t help but suspect that too much value is being allowed to piggyback an MFA into New Casualist painting.  Both bad practice and New Casualism disregard conventions of painting and one might comment that the artist’s intention separates the two.  However, I feel a frank inspection would reveal that, in reality, working from within a system academicizing art is really what privileges the painter here, not intention.  An “outsider”/self-taught artist intentionally disregarding painting conventions and art history will hardly be considered a New Casualist and somehow this seems wrong.

In the October 2013 Artforum article Pardon My French, Thierry de Duve speaks about an idea which arrived with the 1960’s that “if anything and everything can be art, chances are that anyone can be an artist.”  While this sort of optimism may have since waned, its legacy may be an inclusivity that largely characterizes contemporary practice.  I won’t go so far as to say that a New Casualist style of painting threatens this inclusivity.  However, it does seem to work contrary to it.  Perhaps the relatively recently increased emphasis and value placed on MFA programs is partly an Apollonian swing away from this 1960’s utopian inclusivity.  Still, it seems paradoxical for a style to disregard convention yet still privilege an intellectual class.

Another post-modern precept that much of contemporary painting seems to operate in opposition to is the idea of the art object.  Arguably, the increasing commodification of art led to a reaction from many artists to create work that is less…commodity-ish.  I suppose it seems a lot of a commodity appears to be tied up in its physical objectness – an object that can physically be obtained, owned, sold, and bought.  Thus, perhaps naturally, a popular reaction was to eschew the physical nature of art in favor of its conceptual one.  Culminating, of course, in conceptualism, much of current painting seems unconcerned with this aspect of contemporary art.  Little else embodies collecting, the art market, and capitalism in art than painting.  Its small size, though I do like it, only seems to add a “collect-them-all” appeal to the art form.  It may be recalled that perhaps a small reason Neo-Expressionism faded as it did was that the movement was partially perceived as a sort of market manipulation by Charles Saatchi; he was at least thought to have believed the medium lent itself well to it.  Perhaps, this should serve as a cautionary tale to New Casualism.

Finally, I should mention Jerry Saltz’ scathing article on the same style (which he curiously calls ‘Neo-Mannerism’).  Of course there was the expected rancor from the painting community, in which I can be included.  We may both have misgivings about the same painting style (though I’d characterize Jerry’s misgivings as ‘complaints’), we have misgivings about very different aspects of that style.  Saltz takes issue with the aesthetics of New Casualism, which I admittedly like.  Thus, I was disappointed that he didn’t offer visual examples of his visual criticisms.

I suppose the bulk of my misgivings are rooted in the feeling that a great deal of contemporary painting may be ignoring some of the best thought to come out of art and theory over the last several decades.  I really don’t mean for that to sound so heavy-handed or dramatic.  I don’t reckon that if my misgivings are in fact true this is some sort of regression that perhaps may have been the case with Neo-Expressionism and the Transavantgarde.  Rather, hopefully, may it merely be a temporary conceptual laziness.  Still, perhaps my misgivings are just ill-founded and badly interpreted.  Contemporary painting – New Casualism and Provisionalism – offer several reassurances.


It’s tempting to tie moody dramatic brush strokes to ideas of modernism too often.  Contemporary painting is characterized by a similar stroke.  However, it’s very unlikely there is any considerable amount of Greenbergian thought behind it.  Really, “expressionistic”, a term I used earlier, could be wholly inaccurate.  It may be that such a brush stroke doesn’t refer to the singular vision or experience but to the physical body itself.

The painterly, the “expressionistic” brush stroke in contemporary painting is likely more often a documentation of the hand that left it.  This may signal a return of interest in the body.  Of course this should be expected.  In an increasingly virtual world, the function of the physical body within it is becoming increasingly murky.  Painting lends itself especially well to exploring physical concerns, specifically through such brush strokes that suggest the bodily mechanics that create them.

Regardless, it might not be so bad for painting to return to considering the individual.  Maybe not the artist as individual, but the collective idea of the individual in general.  Art has been preoccupied with its own market and politics for so long that a change of scope may be in order. I can’t tell if I’m getting bored with it or just emotionally tired, but a more intimate subject matter could definitely be welcome.  It may in turn lead toward the elusive balance of a personal artwork that steers clear of sentimentality.

Another apprehension with contemporary painting that I mentioned earlier is its objectness, a worrying regression to the art object.  The multitude of available pieces, the ease of display and exhibition has always made painting ideal for art collecting, contemporary painting perhaps especially so.  The fear of painting’s descent into a simple economic commodity is understandable.  However, the 2010’s are very different from the 1960’s.

Originally, Conceptualism was partly a reaction to, or at least immediately preceded by an art market that reveled in high-priced and highly collectible Abstract Expressionist painting.  New Casualism, however, is partly a reaction to, or at least immediately preceded by a bloating art market reveling in often ostentatious and enormous ‘Neo-Conceptualist’ art.  In their own ways, Conceptualism and New Casuaulism are each, in part, push-backs against the artwork and art market of their respective times.

Barbara Rossi
Black Rock Top, 1972
Acrylic on Plexiglas with printed satin, oil on wood frame
41 x 33

It should also be noted that, to some extent, by the year 2014 artists seem to have largely made peace with the idea that regardless of intent or form, their art will likely (or even hopefully) wind up as a commodity for sale.  In the rare exceptions in which artwork does not fit in as a commodity (e.g. net art), it is usually seen more as a problem than an accomplishment, even by some of us staunchest anti-capitalists.  Today, the question isn’t so much whether or not one’s art should work from within the art market, but how it should work within that market.

The work that dominated fairs such as Basel leading up to the 2010’s (and arguably still do) were often perceived as imposing, gaudy, and glossy tokens of wealth.  It would require a considerable fortune to simply care for some of whatever formaldehyde dipped object a collector liberated Damien Hirst of.  Eventually, in light of the housing market collapse of 2008 such work could hardly avoid seeming garish.

Jim Nutt
I’m All A TWit, 1969
acrylic reverse painting on vinyl window shade with enamel on wood

Contemporary painting perhaps reeled itself in partly as a reaction to this recession of wealth – literally as art supplies were more difficult to afford and figuratively as a reflection of a more modest market.  It may be that New Casualist/Provisionalist painting also tired of the cynicism that characterized preceding work and opted for a more intimate practice.  Further, contemporary painting appears ready to take up issues in the medium set aside since the 1970’s, but from a new vantage point.  Though it’s composed of considerably more figuration, it may be little coincidence that  artwork from the late 1960’s and 1970’s such as Funk Art, the Chicago Imagists, and “Bad” Painting visually resemble much of contemporary art.  Thus, though it may not be conceptually perfect, contemporary painting is an appropriate, even welcome, response to much of the dominant artwork that preceded it.

* * *

After reviewing my personal misgivings and reassurances with contemporary painting, a sort of convoluted pros and cons list, I’m left with no substantial judgements.  Really, I’m only left with what was perhaps always obvious: to judge and experience art individually with their larger “-ism” serving as nothing more than context.  Perhaps New Casualism’s and Provisionalism’s most glaring fault is simply the name that, for better or worse, bundles the artwork of many to be summarily judged as one body and sold as one style.

Misgivings and Reassurance in Contemporary Painting

ART AT BAY Best of 2013: Top 5 Things I Didn’t Care About in 2013

Epson_QX10_Sep1983I realize, now that I’ve actually written this article, that I’ve basically made a list of things that don’t deserve to be on an end-of-year list and the effort on a whole may be counterproductive.  But it ends here.  Though I personally lost interest in these five topics over the course of 2013, they nevertheless seemed to continually fetch art news headlines and even found their way onto my own Twitter/Facebook feed (I’m powerless against reposting this stuff.)  Thus, I’m getting it out now and leaving it here in 2013.

5.  Art Review’s Power 100

Art Review Magazine annually produces the Power 100, “a ranked list of the contemporary artworld’s most powerful figures.”  With this year’s omission of any art writers and critics, I thought I could muster some passion over this one.  I couldn’t.  Like many people, I gave it shot and still don’t really care about the list.  In the end, perhaps the worst thing for the Power 100 isn’t for people to disagree with it, but for no one to pay attention.

In some sense the list may be entirely accurate.  However, it seems to often come across as a cheat sheet of people to whom you should suck up.  In a field especially preoccupied with power dynamics, post-colonialism, race politics, and gender politics a list of the “artworld’s most powerful figures” seems like a horrible idea.  I suspect many give it attention because of its list and ranking format (who can resist a good list? Hence the format of this series).  Maybe the ranking’s name should be more specific: “The Power 100 for Dealers and Collectors”.  Personally, I’d rather see a list of people making the best most exciting contributions to contemporary art.

4.  Banksy’s New York Residency

“Better Out Than In”, Street Artist Banksy’s month-long New York City “residency”, took place this past October.  For the duration of the month, Banksy would create a street art installation and announce it on his website the next day.  Despite the hefty press coverage (you know it’s serious when CNN calls in Jerry Saltz to explain the matter), my attention level hardly rose above ‘bored’.

Banksy’s work invests itself with little more than empty wit.  Satisfied with good intentions and little forethought, his street art pieces are conceptual one-liners.  They are funny or interesting at first but offer little beyond an initial reaction.  There is a lot of street art with substantial thought and concept behind it (e.g. check out the work of Mata Ruda) – Banksy’s isn’t it.  For all of the finger-poking at art-world-economics, Banksy seems to ignore the fact that his work is worth tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars.  He essentially leaves a fortune in public and politely excuses himself from the inevitable feeding frenzy – it’s either naive or irresponsible.  This doesn’t make me angry as much as it informs me that Banksy is not an artist worth taking seriously.

3.  ArtPrize

ArtPrize is a city-wide art fair held annually in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The fair is a giant competition with two main prizes: a popular prize and a critical one.  It’s easy to foresee what kind of art typically wins the popular vote prize: like politics, it’s hardly ever the most deserving and almost always the easiest on the sensibilities.  The juried prize feels like an afterthought, a last-ditch effort at salvaging credibility.  Indeed, the prize monies seem to reflect this.  The total juried prize is less than half the size of the total popular prize. Maybe ArtPrize condones a short-attention-span-coddling sort of art.  It definitely makes for a boring fair dominated by gimmick and kitsch.

2.  Celebrity Art

2013 seems to heretofore seen more celebrities involved with art more than any other year.  I’m not blanketly condemning celebrities practicing in fine art.  But a rapper rapping at a gallery?  A movie star sleeping at the MoMA?!  I don’t call my day job performance art.  It’s a sad day when one can accurately call James Franco the hardest working celebrity in art.

I suppose the point is that all of this art is interesting because these “artists” are famous.  However, their fame is minimally to never addressed in the work.  Thus, these “pieces” are robbed of the very little they had going for it in the first place.  It’s a waste of time, attention, and exhibition space; it’s a regression in fame and class; it’s boring.  Please, celebrities: really give art the ol’ college try or just stick to your field of entertainment.

1. Art Auctions

Despite all of the price tag record-setting, self-congratulatory press releases, and art news headlines, 2013 is the year I stopped caring about high-end art auctions.  I’m not saying this out of some anti-capitalist sentiment.  Not entirely.  Sales for a single work of art reaching into the tens and even hundreds of millions is meaningless to a middle class person like me.  My daily life provides me with absolutely no points of reference that shed light on what $142.4 Million dollars means.  Saying that amount is about the same as 783 of my mortgages doesn’t help very much.

Further, when it comes to art auctions the conversation is typically limited to topics such as ‘who is purchasing the piece?’, ‘how much are they paying for it?’, and ‘where is the piece going?’  These may possibly be the most boring and trivial aspects of a work of art.  I’m also concerned that continuing to tout these absurdly high auction earnings only ensures that the art world will be the first against the wall in the upcoming homeless revolution.

ART AT BAY Best of 2013: Top 5 Things I Didn’t Care About in 2013

Sarasota Art Events: 2013 – 2014 Season

SRQThere’s a lot to look forward to in the Sarasota art scene these next few months – here are a few notable exhibitions and spaces to consider visiting for your viewing pleasure:

Art Center Sarasota

Art Center Sarasota has a lot of new and compelling exhibitions in store for the community this season – from public sound installation art, to international art from their sister city: Tel Mond, Israel.

CUBEMUSIC and Sun Boxes are ongoing projects created by the artist and musician, Craig Colorusso. As you enter each space (either indoors or out) you are transported to a realm that heightens your senses and awareness of your surroundings, through Colorusso’s exhilarating use of space, time, light, and sound.

Pulp Culture is an exhibition curated by Emma Thurgood that highlights art pieces that are created out of paper in a non-traditional fashion. It’s a light and playful exhibition that is sure to delight each of its viewers, and offer new perspectives on how to utilize paper as an art form.

You can view more information about Art Center Sarasota and its current exhibitions HERE.

Two Columns Gallery and Crossley Gallery

Two Columns Gallery and Crossley Gallery primarily consist of artworks created by students from the Ringling College of Art and Design Fine Arts Department. Viewers should attend each show with an open mind, and not expect to see “art” in a traditional sense. Instead you will find “art” redefined and expanded upon. There is a lot of young creative energy within each show and you’ll experience insight into the direction artists are headed. Also, be sure to keep an extra close eye on these galleries because many of their shows are short-lived. Recently Two Columns Gallery had a one night only show, titled Mapping a Site: In and Out of Context consisting of artwork created by faculty, Ringling students, and exchange students from Aalto University, Helsinki, Finland and Sint Lucas and Royal Academy, Antwerp, Belgium as a collaborative effort. The show was phenomenal and I am so glad I got the chance to see it! So again, keep a really, really close eye on these galleries.

Ice House

I haven’t been to this space, as I believe it’s not open yet, but it looks to be an interesting endeavor. Ice House’s first show will be November 14th and it promises contemporary 3-D art… we shall wait and see what kind of impact the Ice House will have on Sarasota’s art scene – Looks promising.

Sarasota Museum of Art

Lisa Hoke

Lisa Hoke installation (detail)
Lisa Hoke installation (detail)

Installation artist, Lisa Hoke, will be coming to Sarasota to install a large-scale installation made of a variety of recycled packaging materials. The installation will be created from January 15th – February 4th and the community is invited to visit SMOA to watch Lisa’s creative process!

The John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art 

The Ringling is a huge asset to the Sarasota community and there is indeed something for everyone to enjoy:

Josephs Coat, by artist James Turrell, is one of my personal favorites. Viewers can walk into the space, lie down (or sit), and view the sky through a square shape in the ceiling. At night LED lights illuminate the space, altering our perceptions of colors that are present in the night sky.

Art of Our Time – nowHERE is filled with exciting events to look forward to! It’s sure to keep us all stimulated for the next couple of months!

Ringling Underground is an art and music event that takes place in the evening, once a month. Several bands entertain visitors as they view contemporary art displayed in the courtyard. Exhibitions within the Museum are also open for visitors to peruse. The next Ringling Underground takes place February 6th, 2014.

Are there any other events or exhibition spaces I’ve missed that you feel should be brought to my, and readers, attention? Please let us know in the comments below!

Sarasota Art Events: 2013 – 2014 Season

Fragile, Thin Lines, Substantial Life Metaphors: Labauvie’s Most Recent Exhibition

Let’s face it, Labauvie’s WIRE.PAPER.STEEL is not for everyone; if you are one of those that take offense in modern art, then Dominique’s modern references and influences may come to a complete turn-off to you. Romanticism and lyricism are the heroes of this exhibition – without them on your side, Labauvie’s work will have little to no effect on you.

Gallery221@HCC is incredibly small – however, the monumentality of these works make you forget that you are in front of a group of students on library study desks reviewing for their exams. It is a space to get lost in and ponder about life and art, humanity and its condition.

Sounds terribly pretentious, doesn’t it? Well, I could say yes, but the truth is that the very particular choices, of material and placing, that Labauvie makes in these works are intriguing and thought provoking – they do indeed bring these kinds of questions and thoughts to mind.

DSC_0280Labauvie’s Flying Buttress (2012) on the up-front center, and charcoal drawings, Magnetic Fields (2013), on the left-hand side. Photo credit: Victoria Casal-Data

The protagonist of the exhibition is ‘Flying Buttress’. The Carnegie steel sculpture is hard to miss since it stands before you as you open the clear doors to the exhibition room.  The Giacommeti-esque ‘legs’- about eight of them – hold the upper part of the sculpture – a long oval-shaped figure with tiny holes of the contouring line. Its thinness and fragile, trembling outlines are strange – and may evoke variations of this question: how can steel be so fragile and thin, when it is synonymous with strong and indestructible qualities?  The paradox is eminent in most of Labauvie’s work.

Flatness is up next.

This is what becomes a point of curiosity in most of his work in this exhibition. Why does ‘Flying Buttress’, a three-dimensional sculpture, appear to be ‘flat’?

primarystructuresInstallation view of the exhibition “Primary Structures” at the Jewish Museum in NYC, 1966: works by Donald Judd (left side) and Robert Morris (right side)

When we speak of sculpture vs. paintings – we often reference back to the radical 60’s when artists like Frank Stella and others were on the verge of modernism and something else by creating paintings that had the ‘look’ of a sculpture (given that they looked three-dimensional). For instance, lets take the work of Donald Judd, the minimalist. His famous cubes, and geometric wall installations are sculptural in essence, but can we truly say that the viewing experience is different as we walk around it?  Can we still think of this type of work as a two-dimensional piece of art work?

stellanuncaFrank Stella: Nunca, Para Nada, 1967 (metallic powder in polymer emulsion on canvas, 9’2 x 18’4)

“To see letters in their correct form of reading, and then looking at them in their reverse, they are illegible, but they are still the same letter”, Labauvie says in the show’s brochure.

“To make a sculpture that we can walk around is relatively boring to me […] it’s about frontality”. He then says, “ contemporary society works with two-dimensional imagery-most of our information is shared through screens of some kind.”

DSC_0268Labauvie’s Wire Sculptures (1986-2013). Photo credit: Victoria Casal-Data

This is exactly his intention.

Found behind the detached walls behind ‘Flying Buttress’, his smaller sculptures, a series of 44 minis called ‘Wire Sculptures’, work more-or-less the same. They appear to be three-dimensional but in turn are fully frontal as the display choices doesn’t completely allow for the spectator to view the tiny sculptures from several different angles. The material – the wire surrounding a champagne’s cork, is an interesting choice, as this reveal the weight of the work in an interesting way. Labauvie refers to these works as ‘doodles’ – insignificant drawings – a pastime. These turned out to be a great addition to the exhibition as it further shows Labauvie’s interest in turning the three-dimensional into the two-dimensional ‘images’ that are a staple of drawings.

Repetition comes as an important characteristic of the series, as it creates a sort of lyricism, a musical staff with its many components with a beginning and an end. Its fragile lines, and quasi-readable forms keep the viewers guessing as to what they are looking at – and what it all means. A wonderful metaphor of life indeed.

The two charcoal drawing sets, ‘Magnetic Fields’ and ‘Notes de Silence’, are evocative of abstract expressionistic works – perhaps Gottlieb’s, or even Motherwell’s black and white circle paintings. The black and white drawings were done in-situ with charcoal and white pastels. The white rectangles and trapezoids are connected by the black diamonds that float, descend, or ascend depending on how you look at them. Like AbEx’s works, these drawings work on scale.They take out a pretty good chunk of the wall, a bit overwhelming as you stand before them. Thin and fragile lines, and a balancing act are once again the main components.

So what about all of this frailness, thinness, flatness, and repetitiveness? What about the referential quality of his work (references to Gothic architecture, to Giacometti, and the modern masters)?

How can something so substantial in history still be so superficial in matter?

This is up to you to decipher.

Dominique Labauvie’s exhibition will be on view until September 26th, 2013 at the Gallery221@HCC on the HCC Dale Mabry Campus.

lat_squares081813_11300913_8colNotes de Silence (2013). Photo Credit: Edward Linsmear

Fragile, Thin Lines, Substantial Life Metaphors: Labauvie’s Most Recent Exhibition

How to Defend Modern Art

I think I can safely surmise that you’ve been pushed into that familiar position before: defender of modern art, champion of the new, experimental, and avant-garde.  Modern and contemporary art is lobbed various attacks pretty often (Tilda Swinton’s recent nap at the MoMA didn’t exactly help).  A while back on another website, I published a series on defending modern art against its most common complaints – below you’ll find the tips republished as a single article.  Feel free to put them to use.  If they don’t work for you, you’ll find a dance-off to be the most sensible way of settling the matter.

“My kid could make that!”

“Yeah, well they didn’t.”

Woman V, Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning, Woman V, 1953

This is likely the lament the modern artist most often endures. If it’s your own parents making this remark about your work the argument should be short.

Really, at the root of the problem is that the complainer is using a set of ideals that values things while modern art values ideas. Paintings and sculptures are things after all. Also, it’s easy to judge a work of art by its “thingness” – how realistic it is, how painterly it’s not, which colors are used, how it pretty it looks. Perhaps, that’s why this way of measuring art’s worth has stuck so stubbornly.

I know this’ll sound simplistic but you can think of 20th century art history as a giant shift from things to ideas. This found its logical conclusion in Conceptualism in which many works of art were purely idea and only consisted of written or spoken descriptions. That isn’t to say you necessarily need to dig Conceptualism. However, it is unfair to judge Conceptualism with Baroque’s standards (and vice versa).

So could my kid paint a Pollock? Arguably, it’s a possibility if they had one to copy. That fact that Pollock was able to create his painting, though, isn’t as remarkable as the fact that he thought of painting it that way in the first place. Really then the question should be this: Could my kid be the first to anticipate the full realization of Abstract Expressionism in a single style of painting? Probably not.

“That’s not art!”

“Yeah…it is.”

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917

Though this protest has likely been flung by high-strung squares since the time of cave paintings, it’s never been as popular as it is today. This may all be Duchamp’s fault – since his submission of an inverted urinal as a work of art, the issue of what constitutes art has been a leading one. Finally our leading issue: What’s wrong with the “That’s not art!” complaint? People who generally make this protest missed out on a couple of art world memos.

The first is that art can be self-referential. For hundreds of years the one thing a painting should not look like is a painting. Techniques like foreshortening and perspective have been used to create the illusion of space and to disguise that the painting is just that, a painting. Thus, it’s easy to see why if you ask most people what art is “about” you’d likely get responses such as “love”, “death”, “beauty”. The fact is that much of art, perhaps most contemporary art, is about itself. The foremost issues of art today are questions like “what is art?” and what are art’s responsibilities?” With the knowledge that Duchamp’s urinal wasn’t necessarily about beauty or love, but rather was a comment on art itself, most anyone should begin to understand what Duchamp was getting at.

Artist's shit, Piero Manzoni
Piero Manzoni, Artist’s Shit, 1961

The second memo is that art became awfully rebellious in the 20th century. A great deal of the development of modern art is an attempt for art to establish itself as something independent of the institutions that have historically defined it. That is to say, a considerable amount of modern art is an attempt to be art independent of museums, galleries, and collectors. Many artists sought to shed the idea that they were the maker of commodities, items for sale and dictated by the market. Naturally, the most efficient way to do this is to make art that is difficult to sell, to hang, display, archive, and define. This corresponds with the rise of performance art, video art, conceptual art, and so on.

Inform your hater of these two memos. Let them know a lot of modern art is funny and is intended to be that way – chill out. An informed and easy-going hater is often a hater no more.

“That costs how much?!”

Prices that read like a GDP

Frankly, modern art can’t be defended against this complaint as much as merely explained. The gripe with art prices has been especially popular with the recent sale of Edvard Munch’s The Scream for nearly $120 million. So is there a good reason modern art costs so much when it appears to take such little work to produce? Not really. However, modern art shouldn’t be thought of as being like any other commodity. And despite what some collectors might say, it shouldn’t be thought of as like any other investment.

Edvard Munch
Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893

In the vast market of everything, fine art is a bit of an anomaly. Unlike most products on the market, fine art is generally one of a kind. This is where the bulk of the zeros on an art piece’s price tag come from. With this, the scales of supply and demand become absurdly lopsided. Further, in the case of iconic images such as The Scream it seems to stop using what little capitalist common sense there is. Other than uniqueness, there is one other factor that inflates an art object’s price.

Many might say that art collecting is like investing – buying a painting low and selling it high. This is generally true in terms of emerging artists or artists that haven’t fully matured career-wise. However, for the crazy-world prices that we’re referring to, these works of art are in no way investments. Art that is sold in the double and triple digit millions can’t be sold again at a profit – at least not this century. Rather, buying a painting like The Scream is a grand and intentional way of wasting money. A work of art expresses a person’s nauseating amount of wealth like no other purchase – it has no use-value, it can’t be resold at a profit, the costs of taking care of a masterpiece are enormous.  These prices are mostly affirmations of wealth, and the work of art a small symbol of that affirmation. This idea of art work as status symbol bloats the price further.  The economics of the high-end art world are clearly morally dubious. Naturally this explanation may not satisfy your complainer.  That’s alright – they should probably be a bit upset with the art world anyhow.

How to Defend Modern Art

Art to Check Out Friday

Start up the Segway and double knot your shoes – there’s a lot of art to check out this weekend on both sides of the Bay.  Here’s your guide to Friday, 1/13.

C. Emerson Fine Arts – Have Your Cake and Eat it Too…Remix Edition       Fri. 1/13  6pm-9pm

Disclosure (and/or self-aggrandizement): I’ll be showing a piece in this exhibition.

January is proving to be a busy month for CEFA.  This Friday they’ll be hosting the opening reception for Have Your Cake and Eat it Too…Remix Edition celebrating, the galleries 6th anniversary.  The exhibit highlights the gallery’s reputation for experimentation, unconventionality, and play.  There will be quality work from some CEFA regulars like Kim Anderson, Daniel Mrgan, Jason Snyder and your faithful blogger as well as artists Caui Andeson, Gil Demeza, Neverne Covington, Lew Harris, Regina Jestrow, and June Kim.  I was able to sneak a glance of June Kim’s work while setting up my piece –  her series of photographs I Wolf is touching and powerful.  I’m also particularly excited to see the textile work of Regina Jestrow.  She produces the type of  amazing crafty art one would expect to find down the street at the Craftsmen Gallery but fits in well with this exhibition.  Florida State University’s Working Method Collective will be performing Friday as well.  Little specifically has been said about the performance art of Working Method Collective but it sounds like it’ll be particularly interactive with the audience.  The exhibition runs January 13th through February 25th.

USFCAM – Mark Dion: Trouble Shooting      Fri 1/13 7pm-9pm
Mark Dion, The South Florida Wildlife Rescue Unit: The Uniforms, 2006 Two mannequins, clothing, custom patches, assorted gear; Dimensions variable Collection Miami Art Museum, gift of Lin Lougheed

If you’re spending your Friday evening in Tampa, the USF Contemporary Art Museum is throwing its opening reception for the upcoming exhibit Mark Dion: Troubleshooting from 7pm to 9pm.  Prior to that, at 6pm-7pm in USF Theatre2, will be a discussion with Mark Dion, Miami Art Museum Curator Rene Morales, and USFCAM curator Jane Simon.

I know what you’re wondering, and the answer is ‘yes’.  In case you didn’t know, you were asking “Is that the same Mark Dion from the PBS series, Art21?”  Again, the answer is yes.  Mark Dion, known for building incredibly detailed politically conscious installations, will be exhibiting work that address particularly Floridian concerns.  USFCAM has done an impressive job bringing an important contemporary artist and ultra-relevant issues to the Bay area.   With that in mind I’m going to shoot straight with you here: If I don’t see you in St. Pete Friday, I’m going to assume you’re at USFCAM, because you are abundantly awesome and an exemplary arts citizen.

Art to Check Out Friday