Sunday, August 31, 2008

Bohemia: A Love Letter

I didn't want to let August end without a brief acknowledgment of the 20th anniversary of the Tompkins Square Park riots (August 6th and 7th, 1988). Yes, I was there and got hit with a nightstick by a crazy cop, etc., but that's not what this post is really about. It's a little love letter to something I caught the briefest glimpse of.

The inexorable gentrification of the East Village had already been underway to be sure, but those berserk cops who rampaged through the neighborhood made it clear that the party was over, and all the broke artists and punks and drag queens and other undesirables should hurry up and go away. New York City as post-war Bohemia was more or less officially at an end.

I missed Ab Ex and Be-Bop, the Beats, The Velvets, Dylan in the 60's, the Factory, the Dolls, and CBGB's in the 70's. But I did catch the last gasp of the East Village scene in the late 80's, already under siege by AIDS and real estate developers. At the time I scoffed at a lot of the characters on Avenue A as silly posers, but looking back, I must say I miss them quite a bit.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Woodward Stakes, Saratoga, 8/30/08

Just another day at the office for the Champ. It was extremely cool of Curlin's connections to let him race as a four-year-old; most horses of this caliber are hustled off to stud after their three-year-old campaign. I know I keep saying this, but I would really like to see Big Brown v. Curlin in the Breeder's Cup Classic. That polytrack at Santa Anita might very well scare away one or both teams, though.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Paintings I Like, pt. 23

Don Voisine, Ava, 2006. Oil on wood panel, 50" x 40."

Every now and then I see a show that gives me a boost just in the nick of time. "Progress" at the Whitney was not such such a show. As I stood in front of Paul Sietsema's 2002 dollhouse diorama of Clement Greenberg's living room, complete with Paintings I Like, I thought: "Wow, like, fuck. How many more years do you think it will be possible to have the main part of your artistic practice consist of sneering at Modernism? Wasn't this settled, oh, about thirty years ago? Or more?"

I left the Whitney with that singular feeling of the blues that I get when I've seen yet another show of murky, aesthetically neutral art. Then I cut over to Fifth Ave. and ambled uptown to the National Academy to see their 183rd Annual Exhibition, which I had heard good things about and which comes down in a week. This is where I got the boost I was needing.

There it was, painting after painting, without apology and mainly sans ctritique, and much of it quite marvelous. David Reed's #528 from 2003-'05 showed his characteristic razzle-dazzle: the unexpected color combinations, the weirdly photographic transparency, and that freewheeling gesture which paradoxically never looks like it was made by a person. It was especially nice to see that he doesn't require big scale to make a painting fully engaging. He's a modern master.

Don Voisine's Ava from 2006 used black on black to create a constantly flipping figure then ground then hole-in-the-support type of space which refused to give a stable account of itself. It yielded up a surprising amount of surprises given the wholly Spartan vocabulary the painter employs. David Leka's highly disciplined use of color and geometry was balanced beautifully by a painterly depiction of warm, swelling light in Placid Motion from 2005. A Google search of the artist indicates that he's a young guy, and this is always a good sign - the health of any creative activity can be pretty accurately gauged by the number of talented young people who want to participate in it.

And the list goes on; there were nice entries from David Collins (Klaxon Call, 2008), Jeanette Fintz (Turnabout #1, 2006), Andrea Champlin (Huddle, 2006), Bill Scott (Winter Garden, 2008), Leah Montalto (two untitled canvases from 2007), Melissa Meyer (Klothko, 2008), Barbara Takenaga (Angel [Pink], 2008), David Berger (Sky Over Roses, 2007), Lisa Hamilton (Wrapped, 2007), plus others that I'm sure I'm forgetting. So much to like.

I think that the reason painting survives despite the near-constant drone that it's dead is its unique ability to synthesize whatever ideas are in the air at a given time. The digital obviously loomed large over this particular show, which is not surprising since much computer generated imagery bears a strong resemblance to geometric abstraction but without the baggage. But that's not to say it was all glowing color and masking tape, either; there was gesture, representation, impasto, and many of the other enduring motives and techniques associated with ordinary painting materials. As long as there are good painters, painting will keep reinventing itself, and none of the funereal chants will matter a bit.

It was really great to see all this stuff together, especially after the Whitney. I'm tired of crummy-looking art, and I think a lot of other people are, too. The National Academy show stays up until September 7th, and I highly recommend it.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Travers Stakes, Saratoga, 8/23/08

It was in large part a battle of the Triple Crown also-rans, but I must say Colonel John looked rough and tough running down Mambo in Seattle in the lane. Poor old Da' Tara got no respect at the windows, going off at 13-1 after beating Big Brown in the Belmont Stakes. Pyro, my sage pick to win the Kentucky Derby (ha, ha) finished a respectable third after being pinned on the rail.

It's a pity Big Brown didn't come to the party after his nice comeback run in the Haskell, but many are still hoping for a Curlin v. BB showdown in the Breeder's Cup Classic at Santa Anita in October.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Thelonious Monk, "Solitude," Berlin, 1969

Here's Monk doing Duke Ellington. Sometimes when he takes a solo it sounds like there's a little tiny drunk man walking around on the piano keys.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Thelonious Monk, "I Mean You," Paris, 1969

I've been listening to a lot of Monk and Mingus in the studio lately - those guys were far beyond brillliant. And they also proved that art can have a sense of humor without being a joke.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Perception, Politics, and the Day the Sky Turned Green

In Paintings I Like, pt. 21, I quoted Barnett Newman on visual art's potential to affect political change, even (and perhaps especially) if the art in question has no political subject matter. I added that if people could be made to see form and space in a new way, in a way that was substantially different than they were accustomed to seeing, then other things in their lives which seemed permanent and intractable might also be viewed as fluid. The easiest target for this reevaluation, I reasoned, was the state, whose legitimacy often rests on the silliest and flimsiest of pretexts (i.e. "family values," and so on).

A close friend read the piece and questioned me on my logic, so I quickly came up with a metaphor to illustrate my point. It was hot and we were jogging, so the scenario I described was a little rough around the edges - I thought it might be worthwhile to try and flesh it out a little more fully. But first I need to backtrack a bit.

My larger point was about the profundity of seeing, which some say is the way we receive 90% of our information about the world, leaving linguistic information a distant second. I know the semioticians will disagree vehemently, but sign systems tend to break down when the specificity that coincides with concentrated looking emerges. What I mean is that generally people do not really look at the things they are confronted with in their day to day life - they quickly take in their surroundings and categorize things in terms of threat (mean dog), desirability (ice cream cone), utility (subway station), etc. People seldom really examine the specific contours, colors and textures of the dog, ice cream cone, or the architecture of the subway station. When one is able to really look at things in an aesthetic light, divorced from the objects' meanings, uses, or threats, the results are generally quite surprising; entire lists of attributes begin to appear that were before essentially invisible. When meaning is then reintegrated, it will necessarily be altered by the visual discoveries from the previous step. If you doubt this, look at an utterly familiar space (like your bedroom or living room) in a large mirror. Many of the things that had become virtually invisible due to their familiarity look suddenly alien and command a scrutiny you would generally never afford them. Then turn around and look at them again in real space, and, at least for a little while, you can see them anew.

Art is uniquely suited to the encouragement of this type of concentrated looking for an obvious reason: to be looked at is its primary reason for existence. You can't wear it, eat it, or use it to pick winning horses - all you can do is gaze upon it, and the very best art will reward that gaze with wholly new visual experiences, as well as new perspectives on the familiar, much like in the mirror experiment.

On to the metaphor:

Imagine if tomorrow morning the sun rose at the usual time, but instead of its usual yellow-orange, it was a brilliant emerald-green, and gave an emerald green cast to the sky, clouds and everything on the face of the earth.

The first reaction would be terror. But if the fear could somehow be allayed, and it could be made clear that it was simply a change in the color of the light and not a an eco-disaster or nuclear attack, then people would start seeing familiar things very differently, and looking at them harder than before; the entire world would command attention in a similar fashion to the objects in the mirror experiment. Grass would seem impossibly verdant, and stop signs oddly grey. Yellow cabs would turn yellow-green, and white shirts would turn the color of a lime popsicle. And people would be looking at the all these ordinary things with interest and wonder, inadvertently becoming aware of the number of buttons on the popsicle-colored shirt, or the shapes of the houses on their block, and a million other things that were right in front of them the day before but that they never saw. People would look at each other in an entirely different way, too, if everyone's skin and hair was tinted green; indeed, one of the most reliable indicators of ethnicity would be radically changed, and new classifications would need to be drawn by those who insist on drawing them (say, light green versus dark green). All the familiar things, things that seemed so fixed and permanent and ordinary would seem marvelously interesting and subject to flux, even though nothing had actually changed in terms their material or biological composition. They just looked different.

And let's say that after a period of time, a month, or maybe a year, the sun came up one day and it was back to its normal color. Things would look the way they used to look, the way that they looked in memory, but again would look new. And probably as profoundly new as they looked when they turned green. And at least for a while, and maybe for a long while, nothing regarding permanence or stability would be taken for granted. If everything in the whole world looked different for a time, even though it smelled, felt, sounded, and tasted the same, then it would seem that little is fixed and all is subject to change. This could be a cause for great anxiety, but could just as easily be viewed as an opening for the embrace of new possibilities. Either way, the experience would necessarily change people's world view.

So why do I think that an altered perception could lead to political change? Because political systems are by far the softest and most vulnerable target, even as they present themselves as massive, powerful, and permanent. Politicians obsessively read poll numbers, constantly taking the public's temperature for the slightest signs of unrest. Societal mood swings cause politicians much anxiety, but large scale changes in outlook cause hysteria. Why are they so nervous?

I recently read an interesting piece by the anthropologist David Graeber, in which he talks about the basis for and maintenance of political power. In the article, Graeber points out that "if you could convince everyone in the entire world that you were the King of France, then you would actually be the King of France." He goes on:

"This is the essence of politics. Politics is that dimension of social life in which things really do become true if enough people believe them. The problem is that in order to play the game effectively, one can never acknowledge its essence. No king would openly admit he is king just because people think he is. Political power has to be constantly recreated by persuading others to recognize one’s power; to do so, one pretty much invariably has to convince them that one’s power has some basis other than their recognition. That basis may be almost anything— divine grace, character, genealogy, national destiny. But 'make me your leader because if you do, I will be your leader' is not in itself a particularly compelling argument."

Graeber's point is that political power's main basis is perception. If the general public's perception became dynamic instead of complacent; if people expected and sought and welcomed meaningful change, then the smoke and mirrors game that Graeber outlines above would be difficult if not impossible to maintain. Art, it seems to me, tirelessy aspires to the expansion and alteration of perception, and does so via the medium of seeing - the sense through which we do the vast majority of our perceiving. Art needs no political subject matter, or any subject matter at all, to excite and influence perception. Stalin (who imprisoned Malevich) and Hitler (who hung the "Degenerate Art" exhibition) squelched early modernist painting, even though, on its face, the work generally had no subversive content. It simply presented a new way of seeing, which is anathema to entrenched power.

When I was very small, I would naively question my family about why some people had so much and others so little, or why there was war. The adults repeatedly told me: "that's the way of the world," and would look at one another with knowing, sad smiles. These injustices were put in the same category as the weather, instead of their actual category, which is a set of priorities imposed upon the many by the few. But the many are, by tacit agreement, allowing the few to perpetuate these things, and the few are trying desperately to present these things as natural and necessary occurrences, when they are in reality a matter of perception. Articulating new and open pictorial spaces might not have the same life-altering power to change perception that a green sky would. But within the metaphor, the entire environment took on the character of art, and the inhabitants had no choice but to look at it. If people could be made to really look at art with the same intensity, then some measure of those changes in perception, and hence in outlook, would obtain. And then anything would be possible.