Friday, June 30, 2006

Why Gopnik is so wrong

Last Sunday, the WaPo's chief art critic, Blake Gopnik penned an article titled Portraiture's Harsh Lessons - Contest Offers Unintended Primer On Do's & Don'ts.

In the article (read it here), this erudite and intelligent man steps outside of his art critic hat to dwell in the dangerous waters of "I know better than you" land and dispenses wildly wrong opinions from the powerful pulpit of the pages of the WaPo.

The National Portrait Gallery is not an art gallery, begins Gopnik, and Blake Gopnik may be an eminently talented art writer, but he is not, and will never be, a gallerist (or at least a successful one anyway).

Don't think high realism equals art.

Gopnik screams (it's bolded, which in onlinespeak is just below for caps for "screaming") Don't think high realism equals art.

I would submit that today one can safely say: "Don't think that __________ equals art," and no one would blink. Let's try some:

1. Don't think that putting a little sculpture in a jar of piss equals art.

2. Don't think that smearing feces on a painting equals art.

3. Don't think that a portrait photograph equals art.

4. Don't think that making a video equals art.

5. Blah, blah, blah equals art.

But then he proceeds to poison the reader's well for fellow art critic Dave Hickey, by actually attacking Hickey in a semi-personal way as Gopnik writes: that Hickey is "famously skeptical about a lot of contemporary art, does his best to boost the exhibition in his catalogue essay (mostly with fiercely backhanded compliments, as when he praises its ignorance of all the current painting he actually likes)."

I think that Hickey's sin may be simply that he disagrees with Gopnik's views. But what Gopnik does not reveal or account for is that he is equally famously skeptical about anything that involves a brush and a canvas.

And this is also evidenced by his previous many anti-realism (and anti-painting) comments in his reviews and articles, and by his now infamous lecture delivered at the Corcoran during his first few months in his new job at the WaPo, in which Gopnik declared that "painting was dead" (yawn) and (in response to a question from the audience, that to the best of my recollection asked something along the lines of "Since you don't seem to like painting, or sculpture, or drawing, or photography, then what should a contemporary artist be doing today?") to which Gopnik answered "video and manipulated photography."

The museum curator who was sitting next to me, leaned over and whispered: "Blake doesn't like pictures."

No melting watches, please.

Gopnik next writes: "For some reason (okay, so let's blame Salvador Dali) "modern" art has come to be equated in many people's minds with the wildly fantastical."


Who thinks this? A couple of wasted Google hours can't seem to find any sort of trend where people equate modern art with the wildly fantastical. In fact other than Matthew Barney's now slightly yawnish work, I can't seem to find a wildly fantastical signature to modern art, although I am sure that there are some there, but a trend?

In fact, as a gallerist who deals with both the general public, the collecting public, and members of the arts intelligentsia, I would submit that many "people" on the front lines of the public scene still tend to equate modern art to the sort of stuff that Picasso and Braque and those guys were doing at the beginning and middle of the last century.

In fact the only "trend" that I seemed to find, is the boring and cyclical trend that painting is hot again, and realism is what seems to be riding the crest of that repeating wave, somewhat deflating Gopnik's first point.

Warts-and-all is just skin deep.

Gopnik writes: "The idea that there is something bold about showing ugliness in a portrait instead of beauty has a history at least five centuries old."

OK, so he's right with this point; we agree here, although the fact that it has been done for five centuries doesn't mean that it is bad.

If it's ugly, make it hurt.

Gopnik writes:
If a portrait wants to prove it's more than empty flattery, it had better go much further than just throwing in some wrinkles -- as Doug Auld does in a close-up of a burn victim named Shayla, whose black skin is a tight mask of scars. It's one of the only pictures in the exhibition that need their links to the grand tradition of painted portraiture: By making a monumental oil painting of a badly disfigured face, Auld evokes the absence of such faces from the art of the past -- and from the larger social consciousness that past represents.

On top of that, the simple freak-show voyeurism implicit in this painting is so vexed, it's compelling. Shayla seems proud to present her damaged self to us in a portrait; should we also be proud of staring at it?
I'm not sure if the above is a "do" or a "don't"?

A signature is just graffiti by another name.

Gopnik writes:
"Titian signed his pictures on their fronts. So did Rembrandt and Manet. That was back when marking the active presence of the artist meant something. Now a signature just seems like empty advertising. Some clear marking on a picture's back is all posterity -- and the market -- demands of any artist. A picture's front should be so great that a signature would only mar it. In this competition, however, artists' names are flourished everywhere. (It yields a new axiom we might call Outwin Boochever's Law: The duller the picture, the more flamboyantly it's likely to be signed.)"
He is sort of half right here, but in the half that he is wrong, he shows an amazing ignorance of the power of the signature in art.

As those of you who have been the victims of any of the shows that I have curated, then you know that one of my major pet peeves with artists are the artists who put a huge, or misplaced signature on the front of the work, often marring it. I have actually rejected otherwise decent work from competitions (and sent the feedback to the artists) because I thought that their massive signature destroyed the essence of the work.

But Gopnik is saying (I think) that artists should never sign their work on the front.

When he states that "Some clear marking on a picture's back is all posterity -- and the market -- demands of any artist" he is somewhat wrong (especially with "the market" part, as the huge differences between what a front-signed Picasso brings when compared to an unsigned Picasso (the ones that he gave to one of his wives) and a rear-signed Picasso.

As a gallerist, it has been my experience that collectors not only want a signature, but in fact, if smart enough, they demand it. More often than not, the ones who demand it, want it on the front.

My advice to artists, based on my experience as a gallerist and curator and collector, would be very different from Gopnik.

(1) All artwork should be signed somewhere.

(2) Avoid flamboyant signatures on the front. Knock yourself out on the rear of the piece, but make sure that the signature doesn't "bleed" through the front, as I have seen happen in some photos and also in some paintings.

(3) Nearly all abstract work should be signed on the back (on verso in auction house speak).

(4) You will run into collectors who want a signature on the front. There's a significant psychological connection between art and signatures that Gopnik misses.

(5) In those works where the signature does not affect the composition or "mar" the work, then it's perfectly fine to sign it modestly somewhere where it will not affect the work - the classical area is lower right margin, or if you have a "gallery dressed" painting, sign it on the side.

(6) If you can't figure out where to sign the piece, see rule (1).

A child's toy can outdo oil paints.

No it can't.

Only in the "traditional" eyes of art critics who still wave the fifty-year-old Greenbergian mission to try to kill painting. Face it: it won't happen!

A child's toy to do art is more often than not a gimmick to catch the eye of an art critic trying desperately to always be edgy rather than be objective; it worked in this case.

Save sentiment for greeting cards.

OK, so we agree again. Except for the lines that state: "Art teachers everywhere call these "girl-in-a-room pictures." They try to wean students off them by junior year." As a former art student (University of Washington School of Art graduate), I had never had this experience in my four years in art school, but just in case I called and/or emailed a dozen or so art teachers in the last day or two to see if they knew what the "girl-in-a-room pictures" statement meant - so far the answers have been somewhat amusing (one person thought that they may be John Currin look-alikes), but as far as my very un-scientific poll, there seems to be no "girl-in-a-room pictures" syndrome affecting art schools and no "weaning" of anything other than (in some schools anyway), any technical skill that a student may actually bring to the school as a freshman.

Portrait art shouldn't have to be complacent art.

This last point in Gopnik's list of mostly wrong advice is simply based on (and a re-statement of) this particular art critic's deeply held traditional art criticism belief that art must (it MUST) say something new in order to be good.

So when an artist like Gerhardt Richter comes along and pokes all these traditional art critic beliefs ("painting is dead," "art must say something new in order to be good," etc.) in the eye with his complete disregard of these flawed art criticism axioms, it throws traditional art critics like Gopnik, unable to adapt to a modern art world (where the art, not the critic, nor the criticism, is what carries the day in the end) to a position where:

(a) they can't rip a Richter apart.

(b) they rip the little guys.
"It's the sense of adventure and consuming creative ambition that is missing from this show and that is there, at least as an overarching mission, in most serious contemporary work."
No sir, it's not missing, perhaps you can't see it, because when you came to see this show, your eyes were already shut from your anachronistic beliefs about serious contemporary work.

The Outwin Boochever 2006 Portrait Competition Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, runs through Feb. 18, 2006. See the portraits here.