Friday, December 29, 2006

My year's end roundup is in this week's Washington City Paper.

I'd just like to add that it was nice to be able to name-drop
Jefferson Pinder at the end of the piece.

Jefferson and I both teach at Maryland, and we did a
project together this past January.

This is what some would call a conflict of interest.

That's why I've never written about his work for the CP. For his most recent show at
G Fine Art with Iona Brown, I only wrote a pick for Iona's pieces...though fellow CP writer Kriston Capps did specifically--and quite nicely--examine his installation, Juke, a week or so later.

But considering the year Jefferson's had--a piece at the Studio Museum in Harlem, a review in the New York Times, a museum show in Poland with Kara Walker, getting picked up by G Fine Art--well, it seemed ridiculous for me not to at least mention him in my final article for the year.

You know, Jessica Dawson from the Post did a pretty good job writing about the work, too--aside from the fact that she seems a little fuzzy on what Malcolm X looked like.

It is at least true that both men are African-American. And, yes, they do both wear glasses.

But enough about that. Here's wishing you a safe and happy New Year's Eve.

See you again on January 2nd.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

While wandering through the American Art Museum this weekend, I happened on a couple of Hopper paintings.

In graduate school, I thought about Hopper's work often. Not because of his themes, mind you. The Hopper who lives in the popular imagination--the reporter for American alienation, sterile spaces, loneliness--is a bit of a yawn.

I will admit, though, to being interested in the ways in which modern or contemporary artists are only capable of viewing the present moment as worthy of parody, unable to rise to the level of heroism of the work or lives of the past. There was a fine article about that in Art in America a few years back--specifically about Hopper's relation to Vermeer, Protestantism, gender, etc.:

"Hopper's utilization of Vermeer's active, narrative-advancing light has about it the same lacerating reversal of purpose as Joyce's substitution of Leopold Bloom for Ulysses. As Bloom's heroism, such as it is, is a caricature of that of Ulysses, so Hopper's light is a monstrous inversion of the light in Vermeer. Where sunlight in Vermeer everywhere symbolizes propagative life, sunlight in Hopper is cold and sterile, unable even to "breed maggots in a dead dog" (Hamlet). The light in Woman with a Pearl Necklace is like an embrace; in Morning in a City it is like radiation."

Find the rest here:

Of course, the use of light as a metaphor for Christ is a familiar enough subject. Think of the way candles function in Georges de la Tour paintings--the penitent Magdalens--or, say, in Luminist paintings, where the sun is never just the sun; it's the presence of God in the New World. One wonders how much of this was on Hopper's mind when he did a painting like Woman in the Sun--or any of his other paintings with solitary female figures bleached by cold sunlight.

But I digress.

What really turns me on about Hopper is his anti-heroic paint handling, his many refusals of painterly mastery as typically defined.

Look at any folio of his drawings and it's clear that Hopper is a capable draftsperson--facility with the implement, unerring compositional sense, it's all there.

But in his paintings, he resists all sorts of opportunities to build a luscious surface, or show off expressionistic brio with his brush, or, well, anything that makes painting delicious and enjoyable to work with. He scrubs in slabs of chalky color; his work is all about defining planes and facets, controlling edges. Look at those two contrasting rectangles of sap green in the window in Cape Cod Morning, one light, one dark, angled toward one another; take your eye from that to the thin stripe of red oxide at the bottom, and the difference in tone in the two small shapes bracketing it.

Sure, there's plenty of precedent for this with modern European painters. But Hopper's no cubist, and there's enough sense of what color ought to do, how it ought to behave and be constructed despite all that chalkiness. He's not like the preciosionists--like Scheeler, who might as well have been using gouache, or working in an architect's office. Hopper is about planes and edges, about reduction, but he still feels what oil paint is.

Anyway, it was something of a relief to see those Hoppers after being a little sour on painting for the last few months. I forget how quietly, perfectly wonderful the seemingly plain images above can be. You can lose an afternoon with these.

Top: Ryder's House, oil on canvas, 36 1/8" X 50", 1933
Bottom: Cape Cod Morning, oil on canvas, 34 1/8" X 40 1/4", 1950

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Somehow, by 10:00 tomorrow morning, I will have finished a piece on the state of the visual arts in Washington, DC, here at the end of 2006.

Prognosis: Disempowered. Artists are either making decorative works with a few playful stabs at historicism--stylistic mash-ups, usually--or they're doing ineffectual critiques of gallery culture--say, selling cheap wares that might as well be 'zines or crafts, or making political statements that fail thanks to intellectual laziness and half-baked presentation.

Other than that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?

Mind you, I wouldn't trade living and working in D.C. Really. There's a handful of galleries that I consistently enjoy, and there's a bunch of artists here that I know are making strong work, no matter what misgivings or reservations attach.

But that may not be apparent to the casual reader of my pieces in the Washington City Paper.

I'm calling this blog "hatchets and skewers" precisely because I have a reputation for not liking anything--for being a little mean. For always insisting on writing a mixed review, rather than a simple approving nod.

I call this due diligence.

Art is all about failure, about making claims for works or offered experiences that probably won't hold up, or are somehow incommensurate.

I know this because I 'm not just a critic. I 'm an artist. When I talk about technical issues, about fit and finish and the rightness of making, it's because I do this stuff for a living. I paint, and I teach painting to college students, and I show--so far, mostly at non-profits and community colleges.

I've been painting and drawing since I was a kid. I have good hands. I make things well.

This is not to say that I'm satisfied with the things I produce. I am not. My artworks generally disappoint me.

Yet I can't stop looking at them, or tweaking them, or thinking about them. And I keep making more of them.

My writing is an extension of my studio practice, of this lifelong cultivation of dissatisfaction--of committing oneself to saying one thing and doing another.

Many lies in the service of a great truth--that's how Picasso put it.

But let's not forget that we're lying. Let's not get comfortable with that formulation.

So I say a lot of negative things. I poke little holes in the veneer. I ask impossible things of myself, and of the work of other artists.

It is nonetheless a privelege and a pleasure to get to see their work, to test the claims they make for it, to think about the aptness of their expression, their material.

Personal note: Yesterday was Christmas. My mother stayed with us this weekend; it was her first Christmas alone. My Dad died this past January.

I had a show going up that same week. I drove the four and a half hours between my hometown and my studio more times than I can count. I didn't sleep for a week.

I cried a lot. And I finished my paintings.

So it's been a strange Christmas. Some really good experiences, a lot of lingering sadness--and yet, at 1:00 in the morning, this is what I'm thinking about: How are people making art right now in the city in which I live? What should I demand of that art, those people?

I don't trust blogs. I don't trust spontaneity, or confessional writing, or any of that. Blogs thrive on immediate feedback, and I don't believe that our first, or our second, or even our third response or impression is necessarily valid. Things need to be tested gradually; determinations take shape only over long stretches.

What I feel now may have evaporated by tomorrow. What I think about an exhibition may not be clear to me until I'm halfway through writing a review. I learn about the world by doing and making.

So what I'll write in this blog in the coming months will be conditional, I suppose, and I may be wary of letting people read it. I'll have to sort through that.

In the meantime, here are the first stirrings.