Thursday, August 26, 2010

Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar

Dennis Bellone is a painter for whom I have a great deal of admiration, and has also become a welcomed guest columnist here on No Hassle at the Castle. Below is his response to my post on Carl Andre's Equivalent V from 8/21/10:

It is hard to believe looking back on the heady 60’s that Carl Andre’s work would have existed without the benefits once again of Clement Greenberg’s ideas about art and the work of Frank Stella, particularly his black paintings. It would be false to attribute Duchamp’s readymade concept as a prime source of conscious thought in the bricks of Andre, but it is also hard to imagine the bricks being exhibited without the readymade as an available concept.

The ‘primary forms’ of Andre are just that, primary forms. It can’t be reduced more beyond that without it becoming, and it did, the work of Joseph Kosuth.

The problem I have with this, I didn’t when I was a younger artist as it informed my education and background, was that this assumes a belief in art as having an evolutionary growth. This is a problem inherent in what I call Modernist Ideology, that society is moving towards some kind of utopian fictional future where all forms of the social, political and personal will somehow iron themselves out into a utopia wonderland. For Greenberg the emptying of art of its non-essential was part of his narrative description of modernism, this movement towards the picture plane being just that or as Frank Stella said “what you see is what you see.” What American post-modernists in the mid 70’s and 80’s reacted to was this narrative as the word of god that imbued the artworld and academies that Greenberg’s narrative posited. It was damn seductive and well packaged, meaning that Greenberg wrote a very convincing, compelling and descriptive prescription. To understand Greenberg and the narrative, though, one also has to ‘deconstruct’ his past. Greenberg was originally a Marxist and the theme running through the intellectual circles that predates him, and is rampant in modernist utopian thought, is that (western) societies are/were developing towards a future state of liberation, equality and fraternity. Were that it be so simple.

But then let me backtrack also, there is an evolution of art but not in the terms in which we think. The evolution is just the natural progression of a generation responding to the works of the previous generations and taking from them what it is that excites them. Where that evolution goes is anyone’s guess. The problem inherent in post-modernism is that it is the opposite side of the coin, modernism being the obverse. The coin in fact needs to be jettisoned as it provides inadequate support for the future and in my opinion, the reality of what art is. As an educational tool both sets of theories and those adjacent to it provide an entry point into understanding the development in western culture of arts function and place. Now what is left is art and marketplace economics, and this is not just arts problem, it is a societal illness that pervades every aspect of American culture in particular. If it can’t make money it has no value. We, as a culture are so bankrupt that even being ‘green’ is a marketable tool to make money. But that is another discussion regarding society, the future if there is one, etc.

Back in 1993 or 94 there was a show at Sonnabend Gallery on West Broadway of Fischli and Weiss. Upon exiting the elevator I was stunned to see what looked like a gallery in the middle of an installation of the upcoming show. Pieces of sheetrock, paint pails, paper cups, etc littered the gallery. I was tempted to get back in the elevator. Upon closer examination I realized to my surprise was that every ‘artifact’ was fabricated, from the ‘paper cup’ to the sheetrock, every last detail had been cast in rubber and then painted to look exactly like the model. It was, for me, a stunning tour de force. By replicating the reality to be reality and not be reality was such a supreme dislocating force that it made me hyper-aware of the day to day things I took for granted like the ubiquitous coffee cup with the classic greek motifs to the paint pails in my studio. Now Andre certainly isn’t playing within this realm to make us look at bricks (or steel plates, etc) as bricks. His is the endpoint in a Greenbergian modernist game of sculptures limit.

What fascinated me then and still does as an artist is wonder, is dislocation and suddenly seeing the world as it is, warts and all, as a mystery. Not some mystical wonderland but just a sudden being in the moment and seeing with fresh eyes, even if only temporarily, the world like a child, wow this cup is cool, it’s a cup and isn’t a cup a wonderful thing.

I think that most young artists in school have a liberal bias and want to change the world and challenge it, the academy supports this as most of the teachers were of and from the ‘post-modern’ era or late modernist era and the folks in the museum world also come from this milieu. Art though as political tool or weapon though is usually awful and preaches to the converted. It is no different than going to church and hearing the priest or minister rail against this that or the other to the congregation that is already in complete agreement. The museum is their or our secular church to a degree. The “institutional critique” as art is dead and has as much relevance as Andre’s bricks or a picture of the Madonna and child. The art going cognoscenti go to the museum to have their world confirmed and their sins absolved.

Ok, I am being a bit hyperbolic but what fun is writing without trying to be somewhat provocative? Art for me opens me up. Breaks down my illusions. It destroys briefly myself as separate from my reality. Going back to Duchamp and the aesthetic echo and eros, such is life; given Etant Donnes in Philly, one gets to look through the peephole and see something (life) that arouses us. We are being and becoming in the act and the circuit is complete when the artwork is received as such. This infrequent and brief experience is what I think excites us when we see something in an artwork that works, that makes us remember it, go to our studio and make something or to our journal and write about it. This moment is what can excite the bricks in the gallery or in the street, or can be in a Franz Hals or the trees glittering in the breeze. It takes a moment to suspend the disbelief and just see without blinders or thought or culture or….

Perhaps for that reason of late I find myself thinking about Cezanne in Aix or Van Gogh (not the arch romantic supposed paint eating stereotype), their independent search for an image of something that could embody that moment of clarity. Their thorough knowledge of art history of current art trends and their withdrawal to their private domains to seek what they felt was the ‘eternal essence’ in the world. But then call me romantic.