Thursday, November 22, 2007

Art Mutterings

I had all kinds of things I was going to write about today, but all of them were political rants and, y'know, I just don't want to spend Thanksgiving bitching about Bush again. So, instead, I'll share some thoughts on art and artists. Much more enjoyable to everybody who cares ... all two of you ...

When I get my new issue of Art in America magazine in the mail each month, I'll go through it and flag pages that show something worth taking a look at. Most are gallery ads, occasionally there might be an article. Actually, their articles are usually blather about installations in Shanghai or the tone of ArtBasel Miami or other such things that have absolutely no connection to me or my work, so I rarely read much. No, in the current issue, I have a total of ten pages flagged, out of 240. Here's what grabbed my attention.

Ben Brown Fine Arts, in London, has an interesting painting by Martin Mull. A quick Google check revealed that he's also the actor/comic who's been on TV and in the movies for several decades. Normally I'd be quick to dismiss anybody who's famous in one field for thinking they can produce quality work in a completely different one. But Martin actually does good work. You can see his "The Pursuit of Happiness" show here. He takes a photorealist's approach to painting: even in the low-quality jpegs, you can almost see the grain of the original photograph, even though it's in oil on linen. But the photos are juxtaposed in startling, disturbing, ironic, and funny ways. Going through the online images made me think of how I can use some of that creative combination in my own work. Yes, I've done it before (like in Pleasantville and the rest of the Bush League series), but mine are about as subtle as a sledge hammer. Mull's have more ambiguity that give you a lot to think about. This show is one I'll go back and spend some time with.

Next up: Kim Jones at Zeno-X Gallery in Belgium. Another Google search showed that he's active in a lot of different types of art, including performance work. This show, though, is 2-D. There are a lot of drawings on paper or photos. This one is Untitled (War Drawing) in acrylic and ink on canvas. The image on the web site is much clearer, and in person I bet I could stand there for ages, soaking it all in. These works are like maps with the insides of buildings and mazes shown. This one has what looks like depictions of firefights, with troops moving around and places getting destroyed. Reminds me of some of the drawings I used to do in about third grade: I'd draw cutaways of multistory underground bunkers with stick figures charging around shooting at each other ... then I'd erase parts of it and move the action on to another area, then erase that part and keep going until the whole bunker was destroyed and everybody was dead. So that's probably why I like this work, too. Actually, it reminds me a bit of Cy Twombly's work. I'd always thought his scribbles were crap until I saw an exhibition in Italy that just knocked me out. This work looks to be on the same level. What can I take out of this for my own paintings? Probably nothing. But I think it's cool, just the same.

A few pages later is an ad for Ann Strassman at Kidder Smith Gallery in Boston. This image of Abe Lincoln caught my eye - it reminds me of Larry Rivers' work. So I looked at the web site, and it was composed of a bunch of oversize portraits of iconic faces (Jack Nicholson, Dick Cheney, George Washington, Muhammed Ali, and so on), most of which are painted on used, flattened cardboard boxes. The boxes still have their labels for whatever was shipped in them (like refrigerators), plus old shipping labels. Strassman has a bravura style of painting: very loose, with slashing paint strokes that give a lot of vitality. But the more I looked, the more the whole thing bothered me. For one thing, her use of famous faces ... Andy Warhol used Liz Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, but he was making a statement about their commodification. Strassman's not doing that. Her use of familiar faces reminds me more of sidewalk portrait artists who post Sly Stallone pictures to show what they can do. And while the collage work underneath the Lincoln portrait was interesting, it wasn't repeated anywhere else. After about the third painting on old cardboard boxes, it seemed like she found herself a gimmick rather than something that added meaning to the works. So to me, the famous faces said nothing, the use of cardboard said nothing, and all I was left with was an impression that she can paint pretty well. All in all, a disappointment.

On page 64, an ad for Leonard Dufresne at OK Harris caught my eye. There were only a few paintings on the website, but they're jewels. He struck me as a cross between Wallace & Gromit and Edward Hopper: suburban scenes with an unaccountable tension, done in a kind of claymation appearance. And they're small: 11"x14" or so, with some studies on the 4x5 inch range. I mean, the image on my screen was bigger than the original painting! The guy must use a magnifying glass and a brush with only one hair. I really like his work. Edward Hopper was one of my big influences, and Dufresne has certainly caught something of Hopper's themes of isolation and sexual tension here. And I think the small size adds a lot: it's like whispering, which makes people lean in and listen.

One more artist and then I'll stop. On page 92, there was an image of a painting by Hassan Musa, a Sudanese artist who now lives in France. It's great to see some brilliant satire get some recognition. Musa took a provocative figure from a Francois Boucher painting (which was really just a soft-core porn image for the French aristocracy in the 18th century) and combined it with the head of Osama bin Laden. The flag image comes from any number of flag paintings (Jasper Johns, for example). And the title comes from a Tom Wesselman painting. I love this work. Often, I'll use an old (or new) master painting as a jumping-off point ... for example, my Pachydermian Portrait of King George II, Pope Karl, and Lord Cheney had its origins in An Equestrian Portrait of King Philip by Velasquez. I find that it often adds a lot of depth to the piece, or a certain twist. Musa did a great job with this one: it's funny, biting, and extremely well done.

Okay, that's enough for now. This is pretty much how I go thru my art magazines and discover new (to me) artists. I just wish I could find more than ten per issue.

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