Saturday, August 22, 2015

flogging the past -- John Hunt Morgan’s last stand

Remembering the bad old days of cold war propaganda when some bad old things were said about the soviets. On weekends the paper would feature pictures of stout russian women in heavy overcoats laboring in rail yards, such as that. On a more intellectual level the communist party was accused of disappearing people when they fell out of favor, scratching their names out of books and cutting them out of old group photos. Year by year the little oval portraits from the first party congress continued to disappear leaving pale little oval blanks behind the glass. What bastards. 

Then I began to notice the tracings of people on this side officially forgotten. I was an adult before I ever heard the name Paul Robeson, a huge talent and personality shunned by american media presumably for challenging racial customs, and Rockwell Kent, once famous painter and pubic intellectual, who embraced the notion of communism and the Soviet Union, and was subsequently forgotten by general proclamation -- Rockwell who? His wide ranging illustrations, including incredible woodcuts, can still be found in books of certain vintage, an edition of Moby Dick, for example.

Suddenly in my hometown, in your hometown, all over the wind has shifted, deciding to blow back the other way for a while. Overnight we want new statues of new heroes, and we’ll want to get rid of the old ones. Nocturnal graffiti artists have expressed group disapproval on their pediments, and many want them carted away, out of sight--out of mind, disappeared. Doesn’t one wonder on occasion what sense of history each human would have if each succeeding civilization wasn’t intent on destroying every symbol of the previous -- temples and libraries, gods and thought processes. 

Well they aren’t just symbols, these chunks of bronze downtown, but works of art built to outlast the fickle winds of society’s approval, and they’re still hanging around after the love has grown cold, cold. It’s bound to happen, songs are sung, but bronze is difficult to work with, lost wax, molding and pouring, and these are formidable accomplishments which might last damn near forever on their own. The one of Breckenridge isn’t inspiring, just pedantic, prosaic, and boring. It looks ordered from a catalogue -- go ahead, melt it down, but John Hunt Morgan on a horse, buttons on his tunic, spurs on his boots, the bogus equipment on his horse, a local whimsy, is really pretty nice. Not many artists and skilled shops could pull that off these days. 

Calling John Hunt just a lowly horse thief is sure enough silly, since we know every statue of Sherman in front of a northern courthouse is and will be safe, and he outdid John at every turn, in every way -- but that was all so long ago. Who cares, at this point, who John Hunt Morgan really was, let it rest. By now he’s just a bronze equestrian dressed up in military regalia, looking sure of himself full of youth and romance -- let him stay. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

healing arts and art -- getting better

My reality has worn spots, a patina of human usage, and leaves room for sudden shifts of purpose -- let’s go for a ride. I visit a hospital only when serious repairs are called for, but there I see a day-to-day much different from my own. Florescent lit and subterranean, endless hallways branch Escher-like behind the information desk, and me always lost after the second turn.  

Here is purpose beyond the individuals in it, each with personal lives but on time for every shift. It’s a worthy mission and an avenue toward full human potential, but there’s an environmental price to pay in all that sterile uniformity. The body thrives on vitamins and minerals but the total organism needs different levels of stimulation, and euro-style functionality and easily cleaned surfaces don’t provide much, especially everywhere all the time. 

That’s where the art comes in. Does art promote healing, maybe, but mostly that’s a theory found on grant applications. Discomfort, debility, worry and concern are all serious distractions from the enjoyment or even the consideration of art, and the average patient just wants to go home. Original art becoming a feature of hospital environments primarily benefits those who trod the same halls, traverse the same public spaces, eat in the same food courts everyday -- the hospital staff. 

Art on the wall, that distilled essence of human experience and empathetic communion, is the static antidote for surroundings drained of character, charm, and warmth by the need for efficiency, emotional distance and organic isolation. The hospital becomes more livable with real art. It’s only a side benefit if art seen by a patient, or maybe an attendant or relative, so catches the eye that the name of the artist is written down for future reference. Art displayed in that most public place, frequented by every social class and ethnic distinction, shows respect for all and gives the entire population ‘permission’ to like the art as well, and that’s a slice of spiritual healing all around. 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

losing money -- a matter of scale

‘Why do so many art galleries lose money?’ is the provocative headline in the Bloomberg News, and it’s a reasonable question since, as they point out, the billionaires are running up the score on their end snatching up everything at the art fair over six figures. What gives? 

In the first place the high end contemporary market isn’t about art -- it’s about having so much money you get points for pissing it away, so much the better if it’s pointless. Six hundred horsepower to drive down to the launderette seems excessive, big boats that never leave the dock line the lakefront, and the ultra wealthy buy art just because it’s expensive. It probably wouldn't be practical to try to emulate that here.

Art discussed in terms of auction performance and not content might not be much to look at, but given the proper trademark signature it doesn't matter. For the sake of the present discussion we’ll ignore everything over five figures as being essentially irrelevant to our original question, since few art galleries in this territory go that high, and those uptown marketing strategies, appeals to peer prestige and glamour, grow weak out here in the provinces.

When the proprietor of a retail shop spends all day looking out the front window it’s time to freshen the offerings, upgrade the stock, sell something else. It’s sorely tiresome to hear gallery owners bitch about dumb customers, the poor economy, their crushed hopes and dreams. They’re just not going to be able to sell grad-student imitations of what the big guys get away with because they don’t have the same conspicuous-consuming customer base who don’t care how much they spend, who never sacrifice to own art. It’s a matter of scale.

Gallery director, you may be doing your best to look like downtown Chicago, but that may not be the best way to address the audience in front of you. If the fault is not in your public maybe it's your merchandise. If not enough buyers are helping you with your rent isn’t it time to acknowledge that the home-grown product is more potent, more eco-friendly, and better for the economy and state of mind of the local population than that trendy magazine-derived stuff you can’t sell, a realization which could turn failure into success. Good luck.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

public and private -- art’s one-eyed jack

Art’s role in public is a grand excuse for endless debate, but mainly it comes down to we have these funds to spend and this stack of proposals, so let’s pick something unassailably consistent with current trends and clear a patch for it. I’m just guessing. I know nothing about it really, and not usually consulted, just like the most of us. There are people who make these decisions for us and I’m sure they all have swell credentials.

Art’s function in private is almost neglected territory, not written about or considered in slick periodicals. Current trends, after all, aren’t enormously important to owned art since its bound to outlast them. Owning and living with original art has a calming and broadening effect, honing perception and fortifying confidence. Art becomes a daily presence in your home powered first of all by simple uniqueness. So there it is, this framed cold-fusion reactor radiating on your wall, growing more potent through the years in its seniority and intimate familiarity. Art isn’t just a decoration but contributes to general awareness and well-being over a lifetime, and individuals invest in their future selves when they buy some. Still, there’s not much debate concerning the life-enhancing qualities of owned art. In fact, they’re hardly mentioned at all.

To really be involved with art, as with basketball for example, requires participation. The reason former athletes provide color commentary during games is because they have more credibility than the golden throated play-by-play guy who only sat in the stands. Filling the head with statistics, watching old newsreels, and interviewing the greats will only get you so far. So when it comes to art what does participating mean? Well, there’s making it, and anyone who seriously tries is in the game, but what about the experts, commentators and curators, who know so much about it? Self-sure fans is all.

Some folks look at art, sampling the box wine and crunching baby carrots -- they pause, tilt their head before an interesting use of color, and move on. This is not ‘participation’ all the way up to PhD. Buying and owning is the rest of the game, and living with art and supporting the artist completes the circle, ignites the arc, and eventually artistic expression becomes a viable board member of society’s general awareness, as well as a self-sustaining contributor to the local economy. Can’t really see the need for phalanxes of fixers and fund-raisers, or the cool coded commentary of ‘contemporary’ art reviews. 

Artists and owners, and folks who broker in good faith between them, seem to be the only essential players, the only ones with authentic credibility, and in the end, the only ones left on the floor. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

digital lies -- seeing what’s real

At this point there’s no photograph I’d believe, either by content or graphic quality. Is the flower really that color, is the waterfall really that tall, is there anywhere a human so perfect -- maybe, but you sure can’t be sure by looking at a digital image. This is an interesting point for art because there’s always been, since the advent of the camera and even before, a question of where does the value lie in a work of art? Is it in the quaint antiquity in a misty landscape, the milkmaid’s shy smile, the grandeur of snow-peaks, or is it something about the way it’s painted, whatever it is?

The abstract expressionists sought to answer the question with brutal finality. They removed content entirely so that painting itself was all there was left, and it did make the point but didn’t change the facts. It’s always been the case that quality in a work of art is in its execution and that subject is only the vehicle and not the destination. Once established and accepted all around this makes the original work of art the only visual image you’ll ever see with any claim to individual integrity and inherent value. This can be a tricky, almost esoteric notion in these days of perfect facsimiles, since the original art has value and it’s identical clone won’t ever -- there’s a reason.

So what, these days, has in itself inherent value, and just around the corner from the 3-D printed living room it’s a legitimate question. The answer, since the beginning of time, has been ‘what’s rare, hard to get, only possessed by a few,’ and in the end that will turn out to be anything made by a human hand. The better it’s made the better, because that will make it more rare still. It’s a simple equation. Original art, oddly enough, does not depreciate over time but only becomes more valuable as it becomes more rare, as notoriously in the case of the artist’s death.

It should be possible to bring the same criteria to the judging of any work of art, how well it’s made and its final impact, without considering subject at all, and what an interesting faculty to develop as the value of almost everything else dissolves in an ocean of digital open-accessibility. Knowing about art is about to become the new life-jacket in rising tides.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

movies about movies -- art about art

Saw a western starring Ed Harris and it was a disappointment. Expected something pretty good after Harris’s bio of Jackson Pollock, an accurate portrayal of Pollock’s career, including a scheduled six month layoff during production to facilitate a forty pound weight gain so he could finish the movie as the artist after his successes and excesses -- a major personal effort to be true to his subject. His western, however, didn’t reflect the real world as it is or ever was. It was, as one reviewer noted, a movie about movies, and not about real life at all. 
In the movie the hero lawman swaggered around all invincible, clubbing down miscreants and shooting up the town, occasionally staring off to muse about the meaning of it all, and it would all have made perfect sense to someone who’s watched a lot of movies, seen a lot of TV, but might have seemed contrived and artificial to a person with a modicum of historical sense and a little more grit in their carry-on. Movies based not on life as lived but on movies previously seen tend to instill unreal expectations, to project artificial role models, and some would claim they add to the confusion.

Art about art is the special realm of scholars and experts, but inspiration loses focus after many derivations like those old xerox copies. The source, so said Picasso, is always nature and that’s idealistic, but what he really should have said was everyone’s direct perception of the world -- it’s almost the same thing and closer to what he meant really. How closely it’s rendered or how far it’s stretched is the art part, and we revere individual artists for how they say it, even though partly it comes from us -- how we see it with them. It’s this life we’re interested in, most of us, and the world around us, and some art helps us see it better, almost always the art closest to the source. 

Monday, June 8, 2015

nude reveals all -- a parable true

In a small sleepy southern city some five or six decades ago a dedicated group of painters, retired art professors and sincere amateurs, sought a place where they could present their work, mostly to each other. They lived in an area of cultural aridity with only three water-holes of common interest and conversation -- tobacco, basketball, and horses. Best place they could find to exhibit was a doctor’s waiting room, since he was also a painter, a most inconvenient marriage of convenience for both parties. Then one day the little art league got lucky and was gifted with a derelict hulk of a mansion on the parks and recreation’s endangered list.

Even in new digs, it was still a sleepy organization with one modestly paid director and every other officer a volunteer. Openings were dutifully manned by the cookies and punch committee but lightly attended otherwise. Then one year the chairman of the gallery committee declared she wanted to do a ‘nude show,’ right there in traditionalist horse, tobacco, and basketball country, at the edge of the blue-nosed south. Well, why not?

The nude is the perfect theme for an art exhibit. Everyone knows the subject super well having bodies themselves, having grown up and lived in families, and of course there’s the internet. Unlike some snow bedecked mountain crag the television painter just imagines with a flick of his wrist, everybody knows where everything goes on a nude. Along with everyone’s direct experience, the nude is also the most depicted image in the history of art and so becomes the most revealing of the times, of the artists and of their audiences.

First of all no clothes means no indicators of historical period or social status and no embellishment with satin and pearls, just a basic human the way we’ve looked for the last hundred millennia. In that way the nude becomes an universal image, a ‘magic’ two-way mirror in which artist and audience see each other. For example, some people automatically associate the nude with sexuality but that mostly reveals the repression they’ve been taking for granted all along, and seeing the actual artwork would reveal broader and deeper thoughts to consider.

Back to the story. For the first few years the ‘nude show’ was the only opening of the year to draw an outside audience and more people showed up every year -- parking on the grass. Artists applied from all over the country, some from overseas, and the quality of the art was varied and interesting. From the notoriety and response to this one exhibit the art league began to grow and blossom with paid staff and progressive exhibits, in time becoming a non-profit refuge for people with art degrees and, frankly, no profession to go to. As a result of this increasingly academic bias, the nude show began to change. Year by year it was becoming more ‘contemporary.’ 

No longer paintings of humans without clothes, each year the notion of the nude became more and more abstracted and pathologically demented. Body parts were grafted onto kitchen utensils, generative parts specifically were grotesquely parodied, and with implied and explicit sex acts sprinkled throughout the overall aspect was seriously disturbed. I don’t know why the show was finally abandoned, but as part of their recently announced ‘reorganization’ the art league is bringing it back. In this time of transition, consider the lesson of your own living parable, oh art league, and go back to the beginning.

Turns out what people like is painting. They didn’t attend those early nude shows to see nakedness. They came to see what painters had to say about other people, about themselves, about life -- and mostly to see how good they were, all there side by side so it’s easy to tell. These days there’s a more general interest in art and the nude show had its part in that, plowing the earth and sowing the seed. This time around it might find reward. A new audience is ready to come to openings if exhibits feature area artists in themed exhibits -- interiors, landscapes, people, etc., exhibits that would help to educate and entice a public ready to be interested in art and local artists, a worthy mission.

With price tags up next to each piece, a modest non-profit percentage of art sold could be retained to help supplement operating expenses as grants and subsidies shrink away. Replay the same record, your own history, from the beginning again to hear a different song this time.