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.

Misgivings

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.

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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.”

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

New Media is a Problem We Need

Never failing to catch me unawares, there are instances in my marriage when the trivial quickly becomes profound – when an argument about wiping the ketchup bottle top transforms into a token of my fundamental nature as a person.  While at times these may be unfair extrapolations, admittedly, they often can be dead on.

Artie Vierkant, Image Objects, 2011

Artie Vierkant, Image Objects, 2011

Art World: I’m giving you the forewarning I would like to be given.  The conversation on New Media is about much more than just New Media.

Said conversation gained some volume with Claire Bishop’s article Digital Divide in last September’s Artforum.  The article along with its resulting firestorm (or as much of one that art bloggers can muster) revealed a lot about the state of New Media in relation to the larger art world.  Regardless if you think Digital Divide betrayed a Bishop’s personal ignorance or a collective one, it’s clear New Media has some challenges yet to work through.

The difficulties and questions surrounding the medium are easy to infer:  (1) How is New Media best exhibited and (2) how is it best ‘collected’ and/or ensured artists are paid for their work?

Bring Your Own Beamer events and exclusively New Media galleries such as Fach & Asendorf are definitely a start at addressing those two challenges.  Perhaps even more promising, though, is New Media artists’ near hyper-awareness of the challenges they face.  Though from from being resolved, the way issues such as gender inequality are being addressed, for example, give reason to be optimistic.  Art F City recently reported on Charlie Sofo, an artist that withdrew from an Australian BYOB show due to a “lack of gender diversity”.  I like to think that it illustrates a tempered progress toward larger art world recognition.

Petra Cortright, Sickhair & Sickhands, 2011, Video Stills from petracortright.com

Petra Cortright, Sickhair & Sickhands, 2011, Video Stills from petracortright.com

This all may seem like the unremarkable rites of a young medium – similar growing pains perhaps last endured by performance or video art.  However, reconsider those two challenges mentioned above: contemporary art as a whole has never entirely met them.  Rather than being peculiar to New Media, they’ve really been some of contemporary art’s primary concerns for the past several decades.

Conceptual Art, the surge of alternative spaces in the 1970’s and 80’s, groups such as Occupy Museums and W.A.G.E., the current backlash against mega-art-fairs (and the art market in general) – these are only small samples of contemporary art working through the challenges of how best to exhibit art and ensure artists are paid fairly.  What does make New Media peculiar, though, is that it actually seems poised to meet those challenges.

I don’t want to presume exactly how this will happen (or that it will at all).  However, there seems to be a general feeling of inevitability within the New Media community to resolving the challenges of exhibiting and compensation.

The basic thought is this: The content of New Media’s dialogue and the way it works through these issues is relevant to more than just the artists and curators working in the medium.  For instance, if New Media can find a way to fairly compensate artists independent of physical art objects it would be wise for the general art community to take note.  The way this new(ish) medium works through its peculiar set of challenges may lead the way for the contemporary art to face some of its unresolved issues.  The smaller scope and fresh eyes of net art and digital art may uncover sought after solutions that have other wise eluded the art world.

More than a medium, it is an experiment  in building a responsible, ethical, and progressive art community.

A Canvassing Primer – Allen Leper Hampton

By guest blogger and St. Petersburg artist Allen Leper Hampton.

 

So you’re an artist!

If you’re reading this, there’s probably a pretty good chance that you consider yourself an artist, or at the very least you have a few artist friends. You’ve been to (or possibly even a part of) art exhibitions. So let me be the first to congratulate you on your nominal jaunt into the shallow world of the deep thinker! Soon you will be up to your ears in the genitalia of the gender of your choice! The local community will respect you as a forward thinking social leader, and support your creative endeavors both financially and intellectually! People will foam at the mouth to hear you speak, to see your creations! They will cherish your ideas, your attempts at progression, and your selfless endeavors to obtain an unattainable utopian ideal!

BUT FIRST!

Let me explain a few things:

1. Being an “artist” is one of, if not THE easiest self-appointed personal descriptor. One must simply speak the word aloud in the mirror, or at the local pub, for it to be true. Post modernism has taught us that there is no real definition of art, that anything and anyone can be art. The logical extension of this, of course, being that anything and anyone can also be an artist. And this I will not argue, not because I agree, but because there is nothing to be gained from that debate. So keep in mind that simply being an artist makes you no different from the rest of mankind. Artists are simply people with the potential to create and communicate.

So what does make you different? It’s the work you make right? The way you draw that bird, or that skull. The materials you use to paint the portrait of that girl’s face, or the way you photograph that gritty street scene. It’s your personal style that makes you different. An individual artist in a world of 7 billion other artists.

It’s not. I assure you.

It’s not even your concepts, your ideas, your communicative abilities. It’s not anything.

The sad truth is that YOU ARE NOT DIFFERENT. And being an artist, making drawings and paintings, will never change that. There is no piece of art that you or I will ever create, no idea or theory, that will not come in part from some other preexisting thing. The best we can hope for is to re-sort that which already exists in a more succinct, understandable manner.

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The most distinct and vital line is drawn between what I call the Entertainer and the Educator.

The Entertainer is the most common genre of artist. An Entertainer creates pieces that they hope people will find attractive. And most (or all) of their visual, stylistic, and material choices are based on that hope. Their end goal, their best case scenario, is to create a beautiful work of art that will be popular and will sell. The Entertainer creates a wallpaper for a consumer populace. Art as decoration.

The Entertainer is a businessman, someone who focuses on the possibility (or actuality) of making a living off of the creative process. Art is their business, a commodity to be utilized to provide a specific lifestyle outside of the creation of art.

The Educator, as you can probably assume, is focused primarily on the transmission of ideas. The art of the Educator focuses on aesthetic beauty (as most art does) but it does not hold aesthetics above content. Form merely follows function. Communication is paramount, and the work simply looks like what it needs to look like in order to be able to most efficiently communicate the chosen concept. The Educator’s best case scenario is to provoke thought. Their work is created to pose questions, to make assertions, and most importantly, to attempt to progress intellectual culture.

The Educator is a committed hobbyist, someone who focuses on building a life that enables them to create the work that they NEED to create, in their free time. They assume little to no financial compensation for their work, as it is not seen as commodity.

As a new artist, you get to decide where on this imaginary scale you and your work will fall. And remember, you can always shift in and out of any and all types.

2b. Pricing your work will be one of the defining characteristics that will dictate to your audience where you fall on the afore-mentioned scale. Now I’m not going to say that art work should never be expensive, but it’s important to consider all the factors that went into production as well as how you view your work. If you feel like your work is worth a far greater amount of money than the amount of money (and time) that you put into it, then you are probably an Entertainer. If you value your work for its intrinsic intellectual significance and are more concerned with sharing the work and spreading ideas at any cost to yourself, then you are an Educator.

And the viewing audience is not ignorant. We have all walked through a gallery and positioned each piece next to its title card, judging how much the piece cost to make and how long it took to create against its typically exorbitant price tag. Just know that this affects the way people view your work, whether or not they trust the sincerity of your work is based primarily on whether or not they respect you as a human. And that respect, in part, is determined by whether you view your audience as a group of intellectual peers, or as a pool of potential buyers.

I have been told that you should price your work at what you think you can get for it. I see this as a relatively immoral practice, and an attempt to take advantage of supporting patrons. As an artist, you should be honest with yourself, with the work, and most importantly, with your audience. Price the work at what it is worth.

But no matter which category you fall into, consider this: art is a luxury. It is not something that mankind NEEDS, it is something that mankind WANTS. The service we provide, though it can be remarkably beneficial to society, is not NECESSARY. You should keep this in mind when determining the price of your work based on how important you think it might be.

Ideas are free, and should be shared as openly freely as is possible.

3. Now that you know what kind of artist you are, and how you will price your work, there’s only one more thing to do: decide what you want to make. Now most artists tend to do what comes naturally. Their particular style is one that flows out of them rather easily, something that they just DO. And sometimes this makes for some of the most intense and incredible viewing experiences imaginable. But, unfortunately, most times it simply creates artists that use their “style” as a crutch to keep them from having to visually and conceptually progress as an artist. Magazines like JUXTAPOZ and even ARTFORUM have taught us that in order to “make it” as an artist, we need to find our stylized niche and milk it until everyone knows that whenever they see a painting of a big-eyed girl with an animal skull, it’s OUR painting of a big-eyed girl with an animal skull. We’re taught that our work is not about content, but continuity of visual iconography. We are only as good as THAT ONE THING that we’re known for.

REFUSE THIS.

This is not fame, notoriety, or worth as an artist. It is comfortability and stagnation. It is a rut that, at best, will make you someone’s favorite big-eyed girl artist (for a short while), and at its worst, will make you a has-been who couldn’t make something different and new to save their life. So rather than this, I suggest a much more bold attempt. Try to be someone’s favorite artist EVER. In every genre of art imaginable. Be their favorite painter, but also be their favorite sculptor, their favorite video artist, and their favorite photographer. Shun the niche in exchange for the WHOLE.

Not only does this have the ability to make you well-respected, but it also helps with the much more crucial task of teaching you how to be a better artist and human being. Force yourself to learn new mediums, new ways of producing, new imagery and iconography. Surprise your viewer and you will gain their respect and their trust. Surprise yourself and you will learn more about who you are. This style of production will teach you about yourself and about the world. And what is art if not the most direct means of self-progression?

* * *

Allen Leper Hampton was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama.  In 2005 he moved to Tampa where he received his Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of South Florida.  He is an interdisciplinary artist whose work focuses on the analysis of the negative aspects of life.  He currently resides in St Petersburg, Florida.  www.allenhampton.net

5 Art World Trends Yet to Roll Through Tampa Bay

Trends rise and fall in the art world, each (hopefully) a step toward the best art we can collectively make.  Some, though, don’t seem to have stopped by our little art world by the bay just yet.  I’ve listed five here and some of their inevitable (and awesome) exceptions.  I honestly don’t intend this piece to deride my beloved art scene.  Rather, it should serve to highlight those that are pushing our envelopes for us, and let’s say a personal wish list of the kind of art I’d love to see even more often.

1. Smaller, Subtler, and Subdued

If there is one actual overarching trend generally making its way through the art world at the moment it’s this.  This ‘trend’ was detailed by Jerry Saltz in his survey of the Whitney Biennial last year.  Perhaps it’s in reaction to the post-2008 market collapse, or maybe it’s a response to the swelling art market.  Regardless, a lot of artwork seems to have pulled itself inward, scrapped the factory staff, and scaled down its dimensions.  The sell-out show stopper pieces are just a bit fewer.  Also, as Saltz points out artists are more frequently looking for routes around irony and cynicism without relying on sentimentality or over simplification.  The best of this work is a refreshing respite from the out-of-control market hype of the past few years.

In terms of scale, most local work is relatively under control.  However, I suspect this is more closely tied to limited resources and venues than aesthetic concerns.  Subtlety, though, is a virtue rarely praised, often passed over for gimmicks and quick reactions.

Exceptions:  A notable exception is perhaps one of favorite local artists (I’m still considering her one of us though she’s now based in NYC): Ryann Slauson.  Slauson created a piece that I’ll always regret not purchasing.  On a pedestal sat a deflated basketball constructed from paper mache, each dimple carefully painted on.  The ball sat there lonely and perfectly useless.  Much like this particular piece, her work generally has a peculiar way of being earnest without being sentimental, smart but not cynical, and serious but not stuffy.  Her understated work asks for time, and returns on what you give it.

2. Net Art/New Media

Computer art has arguably been around since the 1950’s – even Andy Warhol joined the party as early as the mid-1980’s.  It’s at this moment, though, that it is growing out of novelty and into respected form.  Considering the amount of time that we spend on the internet and the profound changes it has made to the way we live we may rightly say, “About time.”  GIF’s, Tumblr, social networks, interactive sites, among many other forms are becoming standards of the heady fringes of art and are poised to enter the mainstream.

The reasons Net Art and New Media have been virtually absent from the Tampa Bay scenes are most likely practical ones.  Locally, artists that can also code are a bit of a curiosity.  Also, there are the complexities of exhibiting and selling work that is typically confined to a computer monitor.  Though, I’d like to see this trend roll through more than the others, I fear it may be one we won’t see for a while.  Somebody prove me wrong!

Exceptions:  Artist Hunter Payne is an unapologetic fan of the interwebs.  I realize that sounds absurdly vague but there honestly isn’t any better way to say it.  He’s produced several new media pieces, GIFs, and “games”.  Further, he curated the exhibit TRU_RL: Tight Artists Offline at Studio@620 – an amazing group exhibit featuring the work of artists from the Net Art quasi-collective known as Tight Artists.  This was one of the area’s rare exhibits that would’ve even been too hip even for the Chelsea white boxes.  I’d pay money to see a show like this again.

3.  Contemporary Art Fairs

2012 seems to have been the year of the art fair – oddly both for the art world’s unabashed revelry in and simultaneous hating on the institution.  Regardless of where you fall on the opinion spectrum, these fairs act as more than just a venue for the obscenely rich to relieve themselves of wads cash.  Contemporary art fairs serve as a time for the art world to gather together and figure out where this crazy thing called contemporary art is headed.

I realize it is unrealistic for Tampa to ever be home to anything the size of Miami’s Art Basel and its satellite fairs.  Still, I don’t think it’s unrealistic for us to host a quality Contemporary Art Fair.  Consider relatively similarly sized cities.  Washington D.C. has Emerge, Houston has Texas Contemporary, San Francisco has artMRKT.  I hate to say it but the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts (Tampa) and the Mainsail Art Festival (St. Petersburg) don’t count.  They are frankly little more than temporary art flea markets (though, I suppose in a way, the same argument can be made of Art Basel.)

Exceptions:  I debated whether or not to even include this ‘trend’, because this is the single trend I could not pair with an exception.  Perhaps we can take a page from the playbook of the Anti-Warpt music festival.  That is, could a fledgling Contemporary Art Fair could coincide with the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts or Mainsail Art Festival to act as an alternative event?  I’d love to see that happen.

4. Shocking Art

It’s difficult calling this a trend or even using the word shocking.  Regardless, it came and went back in the 1970’s.  That’s forty years ago – I’m not sure if I really care to see it roll through town anymore.  In a way, at that time art stretched itself to lay claim to all it could be.  It sought to provoke moral sensibilities, upset ideas of art’s relationship with the market, and upend all assumptions about what art was and could be.  It was nearly a time when art could be shocking simply for the sake of shocking – at the time is was something the art dialectic needed to pass through.

Our scenes produce very little truly shocking work, and perhaps that’s alright.  It would be difficult to present that kind of art now without it appearing adolescent.  Maybe its time to make peace with the possibility that we’re just going to skip this important phase in art’s progression.

Exceptions:  Last October’s drama on the 600 Block and his recent dual exhibit Strange Fruit set artist Allen Leper Hampton apart as one exception.  His work has been some of the most shocking to local sensibilities.  Beyond that, though, I like to think his work teaches people to critically read art instead of simply reacting to it.

5. Post-Modern and Post-PoMo Concerns

There are several interesting topics and concerns that seem to receive scant attention in the Bay area – feminism, post-colonialism, Neo-Marxism, modern identity, immigration, and so on (and on and on).  These concerns address the most basic and important ways we interact with each other and how we process our environment.  They encourage us to question complacency, to ask if things can and should be different.

I realize these topics can sound terribly academic and deathly boring.  However, good contemporary art is much brainier than it has been in times past and demands its audience dedicate deep thought to it in addition to romantic feeling.  Further, these themes are much more relevant and less played out locally than themes of generic self-expression.  In a way, this kind of art is much more easy to relate to than the adolescent confessional work that seems to have acquired a strong foot hold locally.  I suppose it is the difference between artists talking about themselves and artists talking about all of us.

Exceptions:  Tempus Projects‘ recent exhibit, Piracy Redux, applied some of these concepts locally – the POD installations touched on topics such as Post-Colonialism, Marxist Historicism, Private Property, and power relations among others – it urged revisiting our local heritage and ideas of our collective self.  (Disclosure: I was a participating artist in Piracy Redux) Also, the work of artist Becky Flanders has addressed feminist issues in a way that’s been poorly lacking locally otherwise.  Her art often demands us to be confrontational with ourselves, in reconciling women with our deeply held archetype of woman.  Her work is a great example of art that can be very moving without relying on sentimentality.

The Conversationalists: Local Art Writers and a Serious Art Dialogue

[I should begin by saying that I don’t somehow hold myself exempt to the following diatribe.  I write for two reasons: for the love of art and to pay my bills.  Each bears its own writing, the two rarely intersecting.  This post is borne out of a frustration with what time and money will allow me to write as much as the state of local art writing generally.]

ye olde bad reviewI’ve written and deleted this article twice – this is my third crack at it.  Alternating between sounding like a sanctimonious scrooge and a feeble sycophant, I can’t seem to hit a rational middle ground.  I’m going to try to be as plain as possible: Underestimating the potential purpose of local art writing has rendered it generally impotent.

The bulk of Bay area art writing seems to be little more than event listings, rewritten press releases, and Instagram dumps.  This type of writing is informative, yes, but for the most part superficial.  It is like continually being introduced to someone but never moving on to a conversation.  We’ll consider a few important reasons local art writing needs to move beyond this superficial function.

The Art Deserves It

This purely informational type of art writing is well-intentioned – it strives to attract the largest possible audience for art exhibited locally.  However, it misses the mark for what art needs.  A large(r) audience is good – it raises awareness and generally increases sales.  We’re not talking about movies or scarves, though – sales and attendance are incidental benefits, and focusing on these is missing the point.

Arguably, the “point” of art is to stimulate thought and encourage meaningful conversation.  With that “point” in mind, art writing should not work to blanketly promote art as much as it works to promote conversation about art.  Art writing should help the reader unfold a work of art – not just point them to where it is or what it looked like.

To this end, my plea to myself and other art writers:

  • Don’t be afraid of having and expressing an opinion.  If you can thoroughly defend it, state it confidently.
  • It’s your job to stimulate conversation about art and the politics of art making.  This may include questioning your own and other’s opinions that you already agree with for the sake of adding depth to the dialogue.
  • Good art deserves to be discussed.  Its better to intensely investigate a single good piece of art than quickly glance over several exhibits.

 

For Better or Worse it Sways the Scene

It’s pleasant to think of art as roguishly independent from outside influence, unswayed by overarching trends.  It’s pleasant, but naive.  Even the most romantic survey of art must admit that art as a whole attempts to live up to the standards that collectors, gallerists, and critics hold it to.

Local art writing that emphasizes attracting attendance (rather than critical discussion) implicitly holds art and their galleries to those standards.  That is, if writers promote and praise popular exhibits, galleries will strive to produce popular exhibits.  This type of standard esteems novelty over concept and reaction over reflection.  Conversely, if local art writers/bloggers deeply engage art, artists and gallerists will follow suit producing exhibits that encourage that deep engagement.

I realize that art writers are only a small portion of the players in an art scene – they couldn’t possibly will a new local culture of art exhibiting into existence.  Still, local art writers are charged with culturally enriching the community with their work, not working as unpaid promoters.

Now, I’m afraid I’ve wandered into the ‘sanctimonious scrooge’ end of the critic pool.  What I’m attempting to get at is this: Our art scene (just as every art scene) could stand to engage its art on a deeper level, and our artists deserve us to give their work a deeper more thorough consideration.  Art writers have a responsibility to jump-start this conversation and maintain its potency.  Let’s get to work!

NYC Doesn’t Want You as Much as We Do.

tbny

It is an eventuality nearly as certain as death: artists end up in New York City.

Most art events outside of Kings and New York counties (save for fairs and biennials) are like trees that fall in a forest.  Alright, that’s a bit hyperbolic, but only a bit.  Art critics seem to enjoy detailing the downfall of NYC to make way for the nebulous dominance of the internet.  However, Art critics also enjoy being contrary just for kicks.  Be assured, New York is still the fulcrum on which the art world turns and the final resting place for most talented artists.

Many MFA grads seem to quickly jettison themselves toward the Big Apple the moment the thesis exhibit is taken down.  With hopes of Chelsea representation and a relatively livable wage, New York dreams are difficult to resist. The rolling exodus of Florida artists to a New York Promised Land is a major reason our scene may seem comparatively stunted.

The pro/con list for artists to move to New York admittedly sags heavy on the pro side. Its easier to get paid as an artist in New York.  Artists are likely to get paid more in New York.  Granted, it is difficult to garner attention in a city saturated with artists.  However, the only thing more difficult than getting attention as an artist living in New York, is getting New York’s attention living elsewhere.

I had intended this article to be a convincing argument filled with reasons to call Tampa Bay’s art scene home.  The fact is, I could hardly come up with any beyond “It’s the right thing to do”.

Our art scene is small.  To be clear, I don’t mean it’s small compared to the New York or LA art scene.  Rather, it’s small compared to how large it should be.  I realize the numbers of artists and galleries in the Bay area have leapt in recent years.  However, the number of gallerists and artists relevant to the national contemporary art discourse has largely stagnated.

Don’t fret: it’s not our fault, this is just an economic reality.  Minor art markets, such as ours, need to bow under commercial viability just to stay afloat.  I like to think that any scene will make the best art that it can insofar as that it will sell.  Unfortunately, in the Bay area, little sells beyond decorative substanceless work.  Fortunately, there are artists and gallerists that are exceptions to this: they make and exhibit work without the hope of ever selling much or even any of it locally.  These ‘exceptions’ are also the type of artists that generally tend to migrate to a market in which they’re no longer ‘exceptions’ i.e. New York.  This pool of ‘exceptions’ is precisely the population we need to grow.

Further, an artist’s cultural value, like monetary value, is variable.  Whereas a major arts center such as NYC may dilute the cultural value of each artist, a smaller center such as Tampa Bay would inflate it.  That is to say, good artists are worth more to us because we don’t have as many of them.  Perhaps the conclusion is obvious, but it is this: quality artists do more good here than in NYC.

However, my intention is not to chastise those that choose to move to New York.  I understand your position: I haven’t decided to remain in Tampa Bay out of a sense of art-scene-virtue as much as the fact that I simply don’t want to move away from my awesome family.

Rather, for those with any sort of personal investment in our art scene: I’m only encouraging you to continue investing.  I’m not saying that we need to get all ‘Desperation’ on these artists and gallerists, but it is in our best interest to keep them in town.

How to Make Art and the Gallery For It

J. Alderiso, Untitled, Charcoal

The aesthetics of artwork in any exhibit carries the burden of an art critic’s reckoning.  This reckoning, though, generally glosses over the endless business of art: lighting, insurance, contracts, pricing, delivery, labels, publicity, refreshments.  Further, artists are independent thinkers by nature, and organizing them into a group exhibit can be a challenge in itself.  It’s not unlike Moses leading the exodus… if the Israelites were feral cats.

This underscores the importance of student galleries.  Many, perhaps even most art students never grow up to be artists.  Rather, a great number somehow muster enough rationality to opt for a more level-headed career such as curating, consulting, dealing and so on.  A student gallery not only shows how to produce gallery-worthy art, but also a gallery worthy of art.  While student galleries are standard on most University campuses, they are often conspicuously missing from junior and community colleges.  Thus the opening of MAZE Gallery, Hillsborough Community College’s new student gallery, is especially welcome.  Further,  EMERGE – the gallery’s inaugural exhibit – seems to suggest that the students are getting the lesson.

Stephanie Julianna Wadman, untitled, mixed media encaustic

In regards to the art: as with most student group exhibits, artists still in development, the offering was a bit of a mixed bag compared to typical commercial galleries.  However, a number of pieces stood out as especially mature.  For example artist, J. Alderiso exhibited work in charcoal as well as video.  Though two very different mediums, the style was consistent and well thought out.  Her untitled abstract charcoal pieces particularly display a familiarity with the medium as well as composition.  The pieces use a mix of abstract and figurative styles that is beginning to get tired in painting but feels fresh in charcoal.

Another example are the prints of Jeffrey Agno Chin.  The work seems to reference maps or diagrams which in turn feel to lend a spacial-temporal anchor…or maybe I’m just a map-nerd and couldn’t stop staring at them.  Seriously, the prints carry some sort of attachment to a time and place that communicates itself effectively.

It’s telling that I nearly forgot to ask if the students also set up the gallery for the exhibit.  It takes a considerable amount of work to build something as meticulously unobtrusive as a gallery setting.  Selecting work to include and where to hang it is an art in itself.  When done well, these things aren’t conspicuous.  Rather, as was the case, they only make themselves plain when sought out.

Mixed media print/drawings by Jeffrey Agno Chin

EMERGE was a good exhibit and MAZE Gallery a promising venue.  What’s particularly significant is that the exhibit and gallery are also a reason for optimism.  While at times artistic talent can be had naturally or by self-instruction, the practical skills needed for an art-world career are a bit more scarce.    Real life experience in making art as well as preparing a gallery around it is invaluable.  Public praise to HCC for making that opportunity even more accessible.

Drama on the Block

The manifold levels of irony have certainly peaked at WTF levels: an artist compelled to cover over the image of Martin Luther King Jr. in a Klan costume with white paint in order to quell reports of complaints.  Likely you’ve heard of the rumpus and voiced your protest of “racist” or “censorship” as a Facebook/Twitter comment/tweet.  A shortened version of the events (in haiku form):

Allen’s mural of/Dr. King as a Klansman/caused a huge ruckus/with a store owner/and the landlord so he was/forced to cover it.  (In case you still need to be filled in, though, check out these articles at Art Taco and Creative Loafing).

Now let’s unpeel the ?! one layer at a time.

Curatorial Hijack

Creative Loafing reports that property manager Gary Burnside requested “the mural’s removal two days after the opening, telling Collective that the gallery’s lease would be in jeopardy if the image were not taken down immediately.”

Would Gary Burnside’s curatorial hijacking have been tolerated in any other major arts city?  Consider, what surely would have happened if this drama unfolded in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Wynwood, San Francisco, L.A.  The idea of a property manager imposing his views on art on his tenants would rightly be considered absurd.  Likely, a stronger gallery community would have largely denounced Gary Burnside and developer Tom Gaffney as well as dismissed the neighborhood as unfit for serious galleries.

In our mounting, but still fledgling art scene, however, galleries can be bullied without recourse.  The camaraderie of the St. Petersburg visual art community is impressive.  However, we don’t have the strong collector base that would give our galleries the financial leverage needed to defend themselves or move on.  Rather, in lieu of any real options, Collective Tattoo and Gallery is left to bow to the personal impositions of its landlord, and we’re left to wag our heads in disapproval.

Civil Discourse

As the above Creative Loafing excerpt mentions, the mural was only displayed for two days prior to being covered.  Because I haven’t spoken to all parties involved, I can’t say with total certainty that no alternatives were offered (e.g. a window covering) and no civil discourse was had.  Considering, Allen Hampton painted over his mural and Burnside resorted to an ultimatum, it seems unlikely that any rational conversation took place.

My gripe here, is not that Burnside (and perhaps Gaffney by association) were being mean – it’s unrealistic to expect otherwise in business.  This is my gripe: The apparent lack of any real discourse suggests that the property manager’s decision was an emotional one rather than a pragmatic one.

True concern for the property would logically lead to the utilization of realistic alternatives which would satisfy all parties.  Exacting an ultimatum in which the only realistic option is for the gallery and artist to destroy the mural seems to betray a leverage of authority in order to satiate a personal offense at a work of art.  That would be morally wrong.  Further, for a block that purports to be a creative neighborhood these types of managerial tactics are terribly disappointing.

Culturally Myopic

I’m not going to bother trying to explain how to critically deconstruct art (as opposed to blindly reacting to it) – if you’re reading an art blog, you probably already know how to do this.  However, I thought it would be prudent to at least address Burnside’s quotes in the above mentioned Creative Loafing article.

“This artist is nothing. For him to disparage Martin Luther King’s legacy — give me a break” – The legacy of Martin Luther King Jr isn’t so fragile as to be irreconcilably sullied by a mural in a tattoo parlor.  Further, the mural isn’t even ‘about’ Martin Luther King.  Instead the mural is concerned with his image in our visual lexicon and the power we invest in it.  This is obvious by the way Hampton juxtaposes the image of MLK with a similarly powerful (albeit hateful) image.  The same effect could have been achieved by contrasting any two loaded but diametrically opposed images.

“Some people don’t think. They just think they’re an artist and they can say and do anything they want to.” – Actually, artists can do almost anything they want – it’s the fundamental nature of art.  However, that doesn’t mean the result will be good and/or tasteful art.  There are lines to be drawn, though.  Two lines, that is – a personal line, and a collective line.  We must determine what we permit to be art personally and as a society.  Burnside can draw his personal line where ever he pleases.  However our collective line, our standard of what we as a community permit to be art, should be drawn but not here.  It should be drawn, not by an individual (and certainly not by a landlord), but by the creative community.

* * * * *

The 600 Block helped revitalize St. Petersburg as a whole and establish the city as an arts destination.  There are great artists and galleries that work and exhibit on the block.  The music venues are some of the best in the Bay area.

However, this kind of drama is unacceptable.  Gallerists should expect to not be micromanaged, bullied into ultimatums, forced to cede curatorial control, or be treated like children.

Indeed, this kind of administration could drag the 600 Block through a cultural regression and right back into artistic irrelevance.

7 Bad Habits of Highly Ineffective Artists

The MoBA!

While I’m generally pretty positive when I write for other arts blogs, I like to think of Art at Bay as a buffer to the unconditional positive reinforcement we’ve grown up with.  If you’re a fledgling artist hoping to  (or already) exhibit your art publicly here is some straight advice from an art critic: avoid these habits like a swarm of killer bees.

On the other hand if you’re an artist and hope to not be taken seriously by respectable galleries, artists, and dealers consider this your to-do list.

1. Self-indulgent self-expression

Contrary to what your middle school art teacher taught you, self-expression is not the whole point of art.  Please save that for your diary.  There’s nothing wrong with art being rooted in personal experience.  However, art that is intended to be seen by the public should be made like it was intended that way.  For professional artists, what other people think does matter – without the audience to look at your work, there would be no reason for you to exhibit it.  Thus, (unless you’re a living master) the only people interested in your personal life are likely the people actually in your personal life.  If you’re attempting to drop this habit, try to zoom out on your life and focus in on a bigger picture that encompasses not only you but also your audience.

2.  A weird painting is not a surrealist one

Weird and surreal are not synonyms.  Also, surreal and Surrealism are not the same.  If you have a difficult time telling the difference, it’s likely an art history deficiency.  Here’s a one question quiz:  Name three surrealists.

If all you could come up with is Salvador Dali (and/or Magrite) you have some reading that should precede your painting.  Get to know how the movement was influenced by Dada, Marxism, and psychoanalysis.  It’ll not only leave you more informed (and likely less enchanted with Dali and Magrite), but should add some depth to your art as well.

3. Abstract as an excuse

Perhaps my most common complaint about bad art is that the artist is producing abstract work only because they lack the skills to produce figurative art.  You use Photoshop, right?

Think of abstraction like a Photoshop filter.  You don’t begin with the filter.  You add the filter to the photo.  Painting abstractly has little to do with making a mess on the canvas.  Doing it well entails knowing a thing or two about composition, color, rhythm, perspective, etc.  In short, to bend and break the rules, you should be very familiar with them first.  Otherwise you can look foolish thinking your newest piece is a real envelope pusher, when in reality it would look terribly passe by 1960 – fifty years ago!

4.  Skull=death; I get it, I’m not a moron

Much like bad writing is full of clichés, bad art is often filled with visual clichés.  Thus, let me take this opportunity to let you know that I understand skulls=death, globe=world, clock=time, heart=love.  This type of overused symbolism is the aesthetic equivalent of baby talk.  Making use of these visual clichés gives me the impression that the artist thinks I’m an idiot that can’t understand the piece unless it’s chewed for me and spit into my gullet.

Try putting to work more obscure or specific symbolism.  Also, be comfortable with the fact that sometimes art doesn’t mean anything.  At times a work of art is only a work of art – it doesn’t stand for anything but itself.

5. Good artists are hard workers, not delusional psychotics (usually)

Hopefully this comes as a relief – it turns out you don’t have to be so emo or eccentric.  The myth of the “tortured artist” is just that – a myth.  While some great artists have had serious mental issues, the majority were clear thinkers with a rigorous work ethic.  Real mental illness stifles creativity.  At times I suffer from serious depression.  Nothing kills my creativity like a bout of depression.  Worse, nothing incites someone to ignore an artists mental illness like belief in the so-called “tortured artist”.

If you enjoy thinking of yourself as the “tortured artist” type, please drop the act, and get to work.  Good art deserves hours of thought and hard work.  If you seriously are “tortured”, please don’t write it off to being a “tortured artist” and get some help.

6. Depictions of sunsets are like real sunsets…but much more boring

There are a few reasons why taking photos of/painting sunsets as fine art are a waste of your time and ours.  First, though they are beautiful, sunsets are unremarkable.  If you want to take photos of a rarely seen tribe of people – awesome!  I already see a sunset once a day.  With a sunset painting added to the mix, I’ll be seeing sunsets more than I see my wife.  Also, photos/paintings of sunsets are like funny stories that require you say “I guess you had to be there” after you tell it.  Basically, a sunset photo is a much more boring version of something that’s extremely easy for everyone to see for themself.

7. Ego-tripping is counter productive

Many scams in the art world play to artist’s egos and their desperate desire for recognition.  Seriously research  juried exhibitions: there are some legit ones out there, but many are not worth it.  Also, avoid pay-to-exhibit galleries: they’re not only expensive but a sign that your art could use some maturing.  Paying a gallery to exhibit your work is like paying someone to go on a date with you – if you have enough self-respect you’d rightly expect it to be free.

I’ve watched successful artists closely; I’m an art critic, after all.   There are two specific things they do that many struggling artists neglect. 1.  They work hard at making highly original, informed, and creative art.  2.  They constantly support other artists, people, and organizations they believe in with their time, knowledge, and funds.

I really don’t mean to be a grouch.  It just irks me to see publicly displayed bad art, made out of ignorance, or worse, out of egoism.  Perhaps when I’m in a less snarky mood  I’ll actually post a list of helpful habits.  Suffice it to say for now that continual work, learning, and supporting are the most helpful habits of an effective artist.

If you wish to further dwell on bad art check out the Museum of Bad Art.

Why Bad Art is More than Just Boring

With the death of Thomas Kinkade still being recent news I’m reluctant to disparage his work…reluctant, but not entirely unwilling.  The “Painter of Light”, a moniker he snatched and trademarked from J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851), is admittedly very technically proficient in a style that would have been relevant about 200 years ago.  Retreading conceptual ground a couple of centuries late, the paintings are as heavy on sentimentality as they are light on substance and use Christianity as a marketing tool more than a religion.

What may be most troubling about Kinkade’s work, though, is the type of culture that it condones and promotes.  Bad art, boring art values saleability over substance.  Art enthusiasts become “target audience” and prefer a feeling of  pseudo-populism over work that challenges held beliefs.  Rather than advancing the dialectic,  the ongoing conversation of art, the culture of boring art lets the discussion regress and degenerate into a pool of verbal and visual clichés.  Bad art creates a bad art culture; bad art culture, in turn, demands bad art.  I believe experts call this a “Kinkadian feed-back loop” or a “crap maelstrom”.

Florida has been dealt more than its fair share of kitsch – it’s the nature of being a tourist destination.   And Tampa Bay in particularly is susceptible to succumbing to the tug of the crap maelstrom.  It isn’t difficult to imagine an art scene that deals only in bucolic pastel seascapes.  Bad and/or boring art is a lot like pollution: it looks bad but that’s the least of the trouble it causes.  Bad art stops the visual conversation and kills a scene’s momentum.  A conservative art scene teaches its audience to settle for the results its given and expect more of the same.

Breaking the Kinkadian feed-back loop as an arts audience is surprisingly easy, though.  Visiting an exhibition, praising an artist, purchasing a work of art – these are all active endorsements.  And endorsements are the stuff that an art scene is made of.  So…who and what are you endorsing?  Graphic design pretending to be art?  Home decor disguised as art?  Easy to read, pretty to look at, collect ’em all art?

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t trying to influence your taste in art.  The fact is, if you’re an active member of the art scene your taste in art is relatively important – it plays a part in steering the art conversation.  To keep the conversation progressive everyone needs to challenge themselves.  However, if you’re pleased with a good quaint cottage painting or your photograph of a sleeping baby, just order it from QVC – no need to steer the conversation backwards.