Tuesday, September 14, 2004

The New York Times review of Peter Steinhart's "The Undressed Art: Why We Draw" makes an earlier posting I had a while back relevant again.

So here it is with some revisions...

A while back, Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik discussed the work of John Currin and his success in the art world.

photo by F. Scruton/Andrea Rosen Gallery -John Currin's 'Bra Shop' Apart from the silly and erroneous headline, this is actually a very readable article, and as posted by me earlier, I somewhat agree with Gopnik's puzzlement as to Currin's success in the art world.

However, I think that Blake gets most of his supporting arguments wrong, when he discusses why Currin has been so successful.

This is a perfect case where this eloquent art critic lets his personal beliefs and tunnel-visioned agenda (formed by the belief that painting is dead) get in the way of being remotely close to objectivity.

And that's somewhat OK, as critics don't have to be objective - but they should be clear about their beliefs rather than appear to speak from an objective pulpit. Gopnik is a smart, intelligent and eloquent art critic - we all know that; but he has a deeply-rooted belief that painting is dead, and realism, as he once put it: "It's like a vampire that refuses to die."

So we all know that Gopnik has clearly shown that he doesn't like painting and above all he doesn't like realism. According to Gopnik's "Long Live Realism - Realism is Dead" lecture at the Corcoran, realism has been done, so why would "serious" artists still waste their time attempting to continue to do it?

Thus, it is understandable that Gopnik would be particularly repulsed by Currin's work - in fact I dislike it too. But he is wrong in attempting to use Currin's success as an example of why contemporary realism is "dead" in his view.

Gopnik writes that "Within the art world, where Currin's career and reputation have been forged, he can get praise as an original not because he's doing anything new or special but simply because some vanguard curators and collectors don't get out enough."

I disagree that this is the main reason, but I certainly do agree that "vanguard curators" (whoever they are, as no star eclipses faster than a "vanguard" curator once his or her show has closed) don't get out enough.

As far as collectors, I do not believe that Mr. Gopnik (or most museum art critics) knows much about art collectors, so these are just extra, senseless words.

However, what Gopnik does not mention, is that some very influential art critics - much higher in the art world food chain than he is - have also praised Currin and his art, and helped tremendously to build this artist's standing in the rarified upper crust of the art world.

Influential critics like the New York Times' Michael "Dia" Kimmelman likes Currin a lot. In fact Kimmelman has writen that "Mr. Currin is among other things a latter-day Jeff Koons, trafficking in lowdown humor, heartless kitsch and ironic smut, while offering up dollops of finesse, beauty and brains. The combination is disorienting and, at its best, thrilling."

And because of Kimmelman's job, even Blake would have to admit that Kimmelman probably "gets out" a lot, especially around first rate New York galleries, rather than the "third-rate commercial galleries across the country" mentioned in Gopnik's piece.

So it's not just "vanguard curators and collectors [who] don't get out enough," that have made Currin's career. It is also one of the most powerful art critics in the world; and many more like him; all colleagues of Gopnik.

Let me re-affirm something again.

I don't like Currin's work either - but his sappy, vulgar work is not to be generalized to cover all of contemporary realism, which is generalized as "shopping mall realists...boardwalk caricaturists... or Sunday-painter surrealists."

So it's not just vanguard curators stuck in their offices, art collectors who don't get out much, but also first class, influential art critics, who have clothed Currin as a modern art emperor. You can also fill in any well-known contemporary artist name (Hirst, Barney, Brown, Chapman, Dean, etc.) instead of Currin.

Let's go back over that key paragraph again:

"Within the art world, where Currin's career and reputation have been forged, he can get praise as an original not because he's doing anything new or special but simply because some vanguard curators and collectors don't get out enough. It's as though the elites of contemporary art are so engrossed in their own world that they're not aware of what's already going on in the American mainstream -- at shopping malls, on boardwalks and in Sunday painting classes."

Wouldn't that logic apply to all artists whose career and reputation have been forged within the "art world"?

I'm not sure if Gopnik gets around to visit any of the "third rate galleries" that he mentions in the review - after all, he just reviews museum shows and I don't think that he has the "pulse" of what's going on in art galleries around the nation.

He certainly rarely gets around Washington, DC area art galleries. I can vouch for that!

But spend a few hours in 3rd, 2nd and 1st rate commercial galleries in Los Angeles, or New York, or San Francisco, or London or Madrid, or Washington and you will see a thousand artists still delivering Rothko-like, Pollock-like, Impressionism-like, Pop, and fill-in-the-blank "like" to any style, genre and idea - not just realism.

In fact, visit any of the garbage "galleries" in the malls or Bethesda or La Jolla or any expensive neighborhood, and weep as you see them selling reproduction after reproduction, gyclee, Iris, etc., framed in expensive baroque frames, and you're apt to find anything from Peter Max to Chuck Close to Warhol to Lichtenstein to Rothko to Pollock, etc.

Conclusion: The appetite for cheap, garbage reproduction poster art is not restricted to the genre of realism, or Currin-like images.

In this paragraph Gopnik tips his hand and his disdain for realism and specifically painting:

"Currin fills a perennial void: The American art world, and especially the art market in New York, is forever hoping for an oil-paint messiah -- for someone who will at last restore credibility to old-fashioned realist technique. Ask dealers or curators and they'll tell you that nothing appeals to collectors and the public like figurative oil painting."

I thought that Gerhard Richter was that messiah? Oh wait! he's German, and the dubious undying appeal of realism to make artists into superstars is an American obsession.... wrong!

jack vettrianoAnd even in trendy YBA land, the BBC says that "No modern artist, not even the likes of Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin, divides opinion like Jack Vettriano." Jack Vettriano is, of course, a painter - sort of the John Currin of Great Britain - but much harsher and romantic and sexual - and although this Scottish painter has sold out every single exhibition that he's ever had, apparently all of them within an hour (including one in NYC), and has a waiting list for his next painting of several hundred names, and famous people and celebrities all crave his work, and the British critics hate his work - he enjoys spectacular success in Great Britain and is one of those artists whose reproductions are sold by the millions in the same mall "galleries" that push out the endless Warhols, Maxes and such.

So it's not just a provincial American "thing" to reserve some of our want for a bit of realism in our art - even if most critics despise it - but if the "public" likes it... then it can't be good art.

I suggest that the Post should change this article's headlines from "Plan to Become An American Art Star? Oh, Be a Realist" to "Plan to Become An Art Star? Oh, Be a Realist."

And then the headline would still make absolutely no sense at all - can anyone send me a list of their top ten contemporary art "stars" that includes a majority of realists? What a load of nonsense!

My final thought on this issue. Both Gopnik and I dislike Currin's work.

But Gopnik dislikes it because he dislikes (a) the subject matter, (b) painting and (c) realism. I dislike it because I think that it is the pushing of the ultimate kitsch button by art curators - the perennial search not for a painting messiah, but for a high kitsch messiah to succeed the tired and jaded Jeff Koons.

lisa yuskavageOne thing doesn't make sense to me though.

At Gopnik's "Long Live Realism - Realism is Dead" lecture at the Corcoran, when asked if he had to buy a painting today, what would he buy, he answered: "A reproduction of an old master."

"Oh Come On!," replied the exasperated questioner, "You surely must have one painter that you somewhat like!"

When thus pushed further, Gopnik flashed some slides by Lisa Yuskavage and explained and defended her work using a lot of the same words and logic that critics use to explain and defend Currin's work.

Does this make any sense?

Am I the only one who thinks that both these painters are singing (and painting) the same tune?

Makes my head hurt.

painting by MinerNevin Kelly Gallery has a group exhibition featuring five works each area artists Sondra Arkin, Allison B. Miner, Thomas Walsh, Robert W. Saunders and Isabel Manalo. Opening reception on Friday, September 17, from 6 to 9p.m.

Allison Miner is quite a talented painter and I am a big fan of her work, so I will try to drop by and see this show, which hangs until October 3, 2004.

Next door to us in Georgetown's Canal Square, our neighbor Parish Gallery has painter Darnella Davis and photographer Phoebe Farris opening a show as part of the 3rd Friday Canal Square openings on Friday, September 17, from 6 to 9p.m.