Sunday, January 18, 2009

Andrew Wyeth: Farewell to a Pariah

On Friday, January 16, the world bid farewell to one of the most popular American artists of the twentieth century—Andrew Wyeth. Many people would be hard pressed to name off more than a few Modern artists (I am using a narrow definition of Modern Art here, in which many concede that it was initiated with the creation of Picasso’s painting Les Demoiselles D’Avignon). Aside from Picasso—and people would simply associate him with some vague notion of abstraction much more than any specific images or the concept of Cubism—the general population is often at a loss when it comes to Modernism. Yet there remain two mid-century American paintings that are easily recognized by the masses. Grant Wood’s American Gothic is one and Wyeth’s Christina’s World is the other.

But familiarity breeds contempt. Such is the case with Mr. Wyeth. His realism flew in the face of the Modernist movements that were desperately seeking validation and acceptance within the American art establishment of the mid-twentieth century. Modernism had moved past representation and that, after all, was Wyeth’s chosen style. He was to some another version of his father, N.C. Wyeth—merely an illustrator.

It is almost unimaginable that Wyeth’s widely recognized image, Christina’s World, is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). MOMA is the great white cube; the quintessential home for elite art. It stands for the epitome of high art and is the repository of the iconic images of the twentieth century. Granted, when the museum acquired the work, Surrealism was just making inroads to the U.S. and Abstract Expressionism’s New York School was not yet the loose grouping of tendencies and persons that it would eventually become. Today, MOMA is nearly embarrassed to own the work, yet it is one of only a small number of pieces—Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory is another—that the majority of visitors readily recognize and want to see on their tour of the galleries.

This iconic status is somewhat of a black-eye for the art establishment. One would be ridiculed in certain circles for having any affection for Wyeth’s work. It is seen as a sign of an undeveloped aesthetic sensibility. It might even be consider facile, sentimental, or nostalgic.

The artist is difficult to place within the timeline of Modern Art History and is summarily deleted from many art history texts. His work isn’t even placed alongside Regionalist artists such as Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. And so he floats around as a recognized figure, both praised and dismissed.

Wyeth’s own behavior in the art world has damaged his reputation within that sphere, to be fair. We may never know exactly what happened during the Helga Hullabaloo of the 1980s. When the nearly 250 works—many of them nude—representing Wyeth’s neighbor Helga Testorf were exhibited, there were rumors of an affair between artist and model. This only added to the hype generated from the sale of the entire suite of paintings and drawings to a single collector for the amount of $6 million. The collector later sold the works for over $40 million, total. The affair may or may not have taken place, and Wyeth’s wife may or may not have known, but the Wyeth’s did gain both a substantial income and increased notoriety at the time.

Aside from all this, why is Wyeth’s realism so appalling to the contemporary critics? I expect we will never know for certain. No one can bring serious accusation against his technique. At a time when practically no American artist used the early renaissance medium of egg tempera (though Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and George Tooker soon took it on within their own particular form of Magic Realism), Wyeth was creating some of his best known works with the archaic medium. Dry brush, another obscure technique utilizing watercolor, was Wyeth’s other medium of choice. Among his contemporaries Wyeth had no equal when it came to his facility with these mediums.

My hunch is that Wyeth’s subject matter is equally as problematic as his realism for some of his critics. His landscapes and portraits lack obvious evidence of critical theory and exploration of newer modes of art making. But this is on a first glance. The images seem familiar but these are not simple portraits and they are not typically commissioned portraits. Wyeth chose his subjects, not the other way around. The landscapes and figures epitomized the artist’s keen sense of the laborious life of the common person. His paintings are peopled with characters that, like their ancestors, struggled for generations to sustain life on unforgiving plots of land. That conflict is reflected in their eyes and written on their faces. In that reflection the average viewer sees herself.

While the specific struggles of these figures may not be those of the average Manhattanite, let alone the contemporary art historian, the basic strains of life remain the same. It may come down to class conflict. The critics believing that the unenlightened masses can enjoy nothing but simple representational art, while their own sensibilities have far surpassed that lowest common denominator. That would truly be unfair. Enjoying and appreciating certain Modern and contemporary works may be contingent upon the viewer being educated in the contemporary idiom, but it does not mean that traditional formats and techniques are inferior.

New art does not negate the significance of work from the past. There is no set number of masterpieces that requires one work to lose that distinction if a new work is conferred with the title. And the pluralism of the 60s, 70s, and 80s actually gave rise to sub-movements like Photorealism. If these works could be honestly assessed by art critics why could Wyeth not receive the same treatment?

I think all can agree that we have, at the very least, lost a master craftsman. Perhaps one day Wyeth will be re-evaluated in a more favorable way. For now, I will be one of those who claims that Andrew Wyeth and Damien Hirst actually have sought to answer (or at least ask) some of the same looming questions of life with their work. There is room for both at the table, if we only allow them.

Santos: An Unlikely Case for Veneration

My formative years were spent in the bosom of the conservative Protestant Midwest. It is a land and culture essentially devoid of any mixing of art and religion. Save for the occasional and obligatory portrait of Christ by Warner Sallman (and the one at my church had an incandescent glow from a light bulb located behind the frame), the only matrimony these two shared was in the kitschy figures that populated the Sunday School flannelgraph board. I expect there was an underlying fear we might be breaking the second commandment’s prohibition on idolatry. At the very least, we didn’t want to be accused of being papists.

A lot of artistic and religious water has passed under the bridge in the intervening decades. I have arrived at the other side with some rather divergent conclusions. It would certainly prove difficult to work as an artist if I held the view that the creation of any and all images is an affront to God. And while some still hold that view or struggle with it—for them I recommend the novels of Chaim Potok: My Name is Asher Lev and The Gift of Ashe Lev—a clear understanding that God wishes for us to place nothing in this world above him allows much freedom in the creation of images. Graven or otherwise.

But back to the derided Catholics, and the Orthodox for that matter. There is no doubt an allure to these traditions for those who have existed in a visual vacuum. A large percentage of the art produced in the Western world for the last thousand years was made in service of these traditions. But with the birth of the Protestant Reformation, countless statues of various saints were obliterated. The clear message was that Christians were not to be in the business of this image making. And for almost five hundred years that was the sole message that some Protestants received, as misguided and unbased in actual scripture and history as it was.

The tradition of creating these statues of saints to supplement religious contemplation and devotion did not end with the Reformation. On the contrary, Rome redoubled its efforts with the Counter-Reformation. The far ranging effects of this initiative shifted the Catholic faith into and throughout the New World. Without a common language in these new territories, it was the artwork that revealed the story of Christ to the indigenous peoples. In Christ and the saints they found the archetypes and personalities already represented in their own religious systems.

This transplantation of the Christian saints to new cultures is where my interest in the santos figure began. In the American Southwest these figures abound. Natives of the region now known as New Mexico were naturally drawn to a religious experience that incorporated ritual. The veneration of saints, aided by statues depicting them, provided a palatable transition.

Here I must delineate the difference between veneration and worship. This is, indeed, at the root of the iconoclasm that sprouted in the Reformation. For Christians, worship is given unto God alone. In some traditions, veneration is permitted when it comes to canonized saints, through their icons and relics. To the casual observer, it might appear that the person venerating an icon of a saint is in fact worshipping a painting—and there can be a fine line—but something else is really taking place. He or she is actually honoring those Christ-like qualities present in the life of that saint, worthy of our consideration and contemplation.

The santos figures themselves are based on prototypes of saint sculptures created in Catholic Europe. With the dynamic expansion of the Catholic faith in the New World the demand for religious art surpassed the supply. The Church eventually relented and allowed craftsmen in these "new" territories to create religious art for use in their new missions and churches. These New World santos often have a bit of a folk art sensibility that comes from an overflow of the traditional art of the original cultures.

The image above is a type of mass produced and generic santo. I found it at TJ Maxx in the home decor section. I felt that, with a little alteration, this could easily be incorporated into one of my altarpieces. I am still figuring out who this little figure will represent and what the scheme of the rest of the altarpiece will be. It is a logical progression, however, to add such a figure. The concept of veneration was an essential element of the first series of altarpieces.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Edward Kienholz: A Study in Interaction

If the mid and late twentieth century saw an increasing trend toward conceptual art, where even a traditional medium like painting was expected to behave more as an object of pure contemplation, how could an artist get the average viewer to engage his or her work? This was somewhat complicated because the imagery—if there was any—might not always be what it appeared to be. The coded visual language of postmodernism became an instantaneous barrier for many viewers. Bypassing the work was a far simpler option than expending the time and energy to unravel some inner mystery.

Some artists found that placing the viewer in a role where he or she was required to physically interact with the work was an appropriate solution. Western art was even steeped in a tradition of this very kind. Christianity, in both the East and the West, had a productive practice of interactivity within the arts. Music and theatre (mystery plays) were highly interactive. The Mass itself is set up as a call and response. And participation with the visual arts could be found in the veneration of saints through icons and relics, as well as the comprehension of biblical stories through the presence of mosaics, murals, and stained glass within churches and chapels. However, by the mid-twentieth century these participatory traditions had been lost to only but a handful within the larger society.

Edward Kienholz was one of the pioneers who chose interaction as a defining element within his work. The scope and scale of his work was such that it transformed how future generations would conceive of and produce artwork. While Kienholz’s name is not well recognized outside of the closed circle of the high art elite, understanding his impact on his art world progeny provides great insight into the current state of art production.

Surveying current gallery exhibitions in New York’s Chelsea district, Beijing, or London on any given week will enable one to see that nearly half the exhibits are likely in the form of what is called an "installation." Those not accustomed to this format might find it perplexing. Many shows will appear to be a gallery room full of junk. I mean this literally. It will seem like piles of trash and cast-off objects, haphazardly piled and scattered within the space. You may ask, "Where is the artistry? The talent? The toil?" Admittedly, these installations may simply be trash in another context, but one must understand the evolution of the form to properly engage the work. And it is in the output of Kienholz from the 1950s and 60s where we must begin.

Kienholz did not refer to his early experiments as installations. He called them tableaux. The term environment was often used by his contemporaries in those early days, and that is a rather apt term that offers a good starting point. Kienholz created small room-sized spaces that the viewer often actually needed to enter to fully experience. Once inside, the viewer was surrounded by the elements that the artist had carefully selected, crafted, and arranged. It was not simply viewing work but being subsumed but it.

Among the most famous of the early tableaux is The State Hospital. While viewers did not enter the space of this work, it did lay the groundwork for future pieces. Kienholz had spent some time in 1947 working in a state-run mental facility in Washington. The impact on him was such that he was compelled to create a socially conscious work about the inhumane treatment of the patients.

The viewer unsuspectingly approaches The State Hospital perplexed by the casement. The exterior is similar to a large metal freight container except for the inclusion of a locked central door with a barred window. The entire exterior structure is covered with a coat of institutional white paint. Peering through the window the viewer is confronted with the scene of a mental patient’s cell.

One finds two identical, emaciated, and naked male figures lying on a less-than-sanitary metal framed bunk bed. In fact, the whole room is conspicuously filthy, including the bed pan cast to the side. Closer investigation reveals that the heads of the figures have been formed from fishbowls, in which swim a couple live goldfish each. The figures are duplicates—they are the same person. A neon "thought bubble" proceeds from the fishbowl head of the lower figure and envelopes the upper figure. This patient’s pathetic self-image exists no further than the confined space in which it lives out its endless days. From within the space the fetid odor associated with nursing homes and hospitals is emitted.

A social and moral conscience was the foundation of all Kienholz’s work. Another early, seminal work, Roxy’s, was comprised of multiple rooms of a brothel. The prostitutes were part mannequin and part machine. One, Five-Dollar Billy, was laid out horizontally with a sewing machine treadle at her base—apparently for the client to pump with his feet to make Billy "work." The vulgarity found in Roxy’s was evident in many Kienholz tableaux. It was through the scandalous qualities of the works that he could most successfully express his concepts.

However, the interactive quality, while still theoretically present, was rarely enacted after exhibitions premiered. The insurance value of the works has caused exhibition venues to disallow full interaction. By that time, actual planned interaction was minimal anyway. Kienholz had begun to incorporate another key, though often overlooked, element within his work. The television set began appearing as singular sculptural works or within larger tableaux. Kienholz was not engaging with video elements but was again making social commentary.

The television is a passive form of communication and entertainment. Kienholz recognized how easily people believed what they saw on the television. His televisions were typically non-functioning—or at least not functioning in the expected sense. Some were simply other items, the detritus of everyday life, that the artist fashioned into something that resembled a TV. One made from a cinderblock comes to mind. Kienholz had purposely negated the interactive quality by enhancing the passivity.

With this shift, the interactive quality had not actually been eliminated but transformed. Instead of bringing the viewer into immediate physical contact with the work, Kienholz was prompting the viewer to make connections between the various physical objects placed within each environment. He was giving viewers the raw visual materials and requiring their mental interaction to connect the dots. This concept is still what drives the installations of many contemporary artists.

To bring this process of interaction full circle, it seems appropriate to consider Kienholz’s early years. Though he never graduated from college, Kienholz did attend two colleges in the Northwest for brief periods of time. The second institution, Whitworth College, is a Christian liberal arts college in Spokane, WA. Some would find this an odd choice since a segment of Kienholz’s mature work appears heretical, at best. As Eleanor Heartney points out in her book Postmodern Heretics: Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art, early religious fervor later transformed to nearly blasphemous art is not uncommon among contemporary artists. There is a residual interactive connection between Christianity and art.

In his final year, Kienholz (along with his wife Nancy, with whom he collaborated for much of his career) produced a wall mounted work entitled 76 J.C.s Led the Big Charade. The work consists of seventy-six crucifixes fashioned from the cast-off elements of toys, with kitschy printed images of Christ crowning each. Some included small doll hands and arms at their extremities. The title gives the indication that this is yet another social commentary.

The expected reading of the work would be an indictment against Christianity. I find that far too simplistic of a reading. From the first, Kienholz’s work brought attention to injustices and incongruities. Just as he was skeptical of government and politicians, he was skeptical of organized religion and clergy. It is entirely possible that, like many artists nearing the end of their days, he was increasingly consumed with the ultimate questions of life. He had consistently produced work that considered existence and the motivational power of death. And, in the end, he would also be pleased to have viewers filling in the pieces to his puzzle.

Repurposing Refuse

It comes as a surprise to some that my formal art education is actually in painting. Many first discover my work in printmaking and assume that I am primarily a printmaker. Those who have viewed my more recent "paintings" are well aware that the painting portion of those pieces is actually only a small element within a much larger construct.

It wasn’t until I was in the final semester of my graduate work that it dawned on me where my natural artistic interests were. My MFA thesis exhibition was actually comprised of paintings that connected with two works from my undergraduate thesis show. All of these employed fairly typical painting technique and realistic imagery, but they were composed of multiple panels that revealed only partial segments of larger pictorial schemes—with gaps in between the smaller panels.

By then, the painting was pretty much second nature. I always improve and shift my style a bit over time, but painting is not overly complex to me; it is just something I do. Yet from a fairly young age, the one thing with which I had often occupied my time was constructing things. I used cardboard, paper, styrofoam—whatever was on hand and free. Long before everyone had a personal computer at home and we were accustomed to typing PIN numbers into keypads after swiping debit cards, I was constructing three dimensional keypads and ID cards from paper for my cousins. These gave us special access as secret agents, as I recall.

There is something about the physical object that is essential to my artwork. Even with printmaking, the tactile quality of the blocks and plates is a part of my satisfaction. But it is not simply the construction of the objects (i.e. the enclosing structure of an altarpiece) that intrigues me. It is the interaction of images and objects within the works that most interests me.

It is only natural, therefore, that I have such a great appreciation for the work of Joseph Cornell (see previous posting). Even though Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp were the innovators who first placed everyday objects into artworks, Cornell became and remains the master of the technique. The key to the success of his assemblage work is in placing unlikely objects in an environment in which their interactions are not obvious but still seem natural. Cornell is often cited as tapping into the elements of childhood and nostalgia. It is, nonetheless, more complicated than that. His choice and placement of objects and images touches on some collectively recognized and seemingly unnamable qualities.

I had started incorporating assemblage-like objects into my early altarpiece works nearly a decade ago. They had a fairly specific and more obvious function at that time. In each of these you will find small glass bottles and jars that contain bread and wine—the elements of the Eucharist. Since the first series was concerned with personal saints—individuals who have influenced my art and thinking in one way or another—the Eucharistic devices made reference to the "great cloud of witnesses" and our connection to them within the Church universal.

I still use these elements in newer altarpieces, but other objects started to make their way into the works, too. Visually and aesthetically, I liked how the pieces were evolving, but often an artist’s work begins a process of transformation before he or she recognizes why. Furthermore, I was beginning the sketches for a new series of altarpieces, starting with objects I had found at flea markets and antique shops, before I discovered how they were driving the work conceptually.

It was about three years ago, while I was taking the train from Boston to New York, that the implications were exposed. While I do artificially age some objects within the altarpieces, I tend to find older objects that seem to reveal a story. They have an inherent beauty to them, based on their worn and battered state. Beauty is not even the proper term. Sublime is a more passable word for what I am getting at. Artists, however, have conflated the two words, using them interchangeably, and that has caused no end to the confusion that confronts those removed from art world conversations. So, when someone talks about the beautiful qualities of something any reasonable person would find to be truly ugly, realize they really mean the sublime. But back to the train.

For those who do not regularly ride the train I need to set the stage. Lining the tracks there is always an accumulation of debris that is both accidental and intentional. In the same way that you might see a lone shoe or a forlorn recliner in the median of a highway, inadvertently ejected by a passing vehicle, some items make their way to the train’s pathway as a pure mishap. Then there are items that were obviously deliberately discarded. Mattresses, for one. A filthy, ragged, full-sized mattress is not blown by the wind over a twelve foot high retaining fence. And the range of the discarded objects is truly astonishing. Their condition is decrepit, at best, since once they end up on the train side of the fence they might be stuck there for decades.

As these soiled and sullied items briskly passed me by, I was drawn to their "beauty." They each had a story and the odd juxtapositions of equally odd objects was as poetic as the best Cornell shadowbox. Abruptly, without warning, I recognized what my great attraction to the articles was. I wanted to pluck them from their despair and disuse and place them within a new context; elevating their status within an artwork. This garbage was a metaphor for the transforming work of Christ on fallen humanity.

Trash. Refuse. The discarded stuff of the world… It can all be made new. Christ came not just to save humanity from the trash heap, but to transform each person (item) into a new creation. God sees something beautiful in the ugliness. The blotches and bruises are not fully erased because they tell the story of grace. I might not always provide my viewers with all the clues as to why I choose specific objects, but the story of grace and transformation is there for any who wish to see it.