Saturday, September 13, 2014

Entry - 9.13.14


Gerard Wickham - Cat's Cradle - 2014
Finishing a painting these days always generates conflicting emotions in me.  Of course, there is a sense of satisfaction, relief that the project undertaken is complete.  And it is always interesting to see the finished work (when the last stone is set, so to speak), and I can evaluate how far from my initial concept I have strayed.   On the other hand, there are a number of formidable negatives too.  At this stage in my career, I tend to work on my larger paintings for quite a few months, so, upon nearing completion, I get somewhat weary of the image.  At some point, I usually become inured to the emotional content of the work and concern myself primarily with tackling technical issues.  So when I step back from a newly finished work, I have trouble experiencing it fully.  Often it can take years from completion before I can really “see” one of my paintings.  Also, finishing a work always brings up the discomforting question of what to do next.  Even if I have a firm concept in my mind of my next image (which commonly is not the case), I must still address the issues of locating models, purchasing and hauling supplies and preparing a canvas.  And although the initial phases of creating a work (making preparatory sketches, determining the composition, transferring my drawings to the canvas and blocking in the underpainting) are stimulating, the experience can also be intense and stressful.  Hence, finishing a painting does not represent a fulfilling climax for me… most probably, simply a resigned moving-on.

My latest work, Cat’s Cradle, took nearly two years to complete, longer by far than any previous work.  I experienced a couple of major disruptions during the painting of this work but nothing so cataclysmic as to justify the time spent in its execution.  Life does seem to be incredibly complex these days, often exigent demands imposing restrictions on the amount of time I get to spend in my studio.  And I don’t possess the stamina that I used to.  Regularly I could feel “maxed out” after a three hour painting session.  As I appreciated that I was approaching the two year mark on this work, I recognized I had to kick up my performance a notch or two and began adding after work sessions to my schedule.  Lastly, I can assuage my conscience a bit with the consideration that this composition was extremely complex and presented a number of unique technical difficulties for me.  But, all said, I do recognize that I must organize my days more effectively and push myself to extend the length of my studio sessions beyond my current norm.

Every painting presents its unique challenges.  Though I try to control most aspects of my paintings, I find that unexpected circumstances often lead to unplanned results.  Once a woman who was to model for me asked me the day before what she should wear to our session.  I replied that she could wear anything except black.  Of course, she came the following day in a pitch black, long-sleeved top.  Another time I asked a model not to wear anything patterned, and he arrived in an intricately patterned, plaid flannel shirt.  I’ve arrived at locations to find that the available space will not allow me to position myself at the anticipated angle in relation to the scene, requiring ad hoc compositional adjustments.  Or I discover that my model simply cannot strike the pose or express the emotions I desire.  Sometimes the unpredictable actually enhances a painting, forcing me out of my comfort zone and challenging me to develop innovative solutions.  At other times, these irregularities can detract from the final image.

I always come to a modeling session with a pretty firm concept in mind.  I know the role each model will play and the specific pose I will ask him or her to take.  I possess a fairly detailed concept of the layout of the surroundings, the placement of any props to be used and my positioning in relation to the models.  When I arrived at the location at which I was to shoot my “source photographs” for Cat’s Cradle, the models were dressed appropriately and were fully capable of holding the poses and expressing the emotions I requested of them.  The space was sufficient to permit me to light my subjects correctly and take my pictures from the angle that I had anticipated.  What did surprise me was finding a colorful and intricately patterned quilt draped over the sofa on which my models were to be posed.  At first, I thought of removing it but then reconsidered.  I realized that the quilt could play a pivotal role in the painting, that my challenge would be to depict the quilt convincingly without permitting it to overwhelm the composition.  I generally like to position my figures within austere spaces (in front of a bare, white wall, seated on a solid toned chair or sofa, enveloped in darkness, etc.), so addressing a composition that would be active all over and brightly colored incited me to employ new solutions.

I immediately thought of works executed in the international style during the late gothic period – paintings, in particular, that captured the cosmopolitan pageantry of European courtly life.  Commonly, these paintings and murals were large in scale, crowded with activity and executed in great detail.  The costumes of the individuals portrayed in these works were sophisticated and richly patterned.  Every inch of these images was infused with energy, often even the sky being occupied with colorful flags and banners or a mesh of jumbled lances.  Figures, all evenly lit and carefully delineated, are gathered in massive clots that fill vast expanses of the picture plane.  A good many of the paintings I’ve seen that were executed in this style strike me as awkward, having no discernible focus point or unified composition.  Complex patterns clash and overlap arbitrarily.  But I don’t believe that these works are necessarily unsuccessful; the intentions of the artists differed from those of post-renaissance artists.  Rather than seek to develop a unified composition with organized movement within areas of non-activity, these artists sought to provide persistent overall detail that would impress and delight an audience regardless of viewing angle.  These paintings were public declarations of the wealthy and powerful patrons who commissioned them.  It was critical that they confirm the status and sophistication of their owners.  And wherever you were seated in a banqueting room or at what point you stood in a reception hall, upon turning to examine the mural beside you, you should find within the larger composition a charming vignette to captivate and entertain you.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti - Allegory of Good and Bad Government - 1337

Paolo Uccello - The Battle of San Romano - 1438 to 40

Pisanello - The Vision of St. Eustace -1438 to 42

Simone Martini - Maestra - 1315

By the way, the onset of the renaissance did not bring about the complete demise of the overall composition.  Particularly within the modern and postmodern modes, artists, breaking away from long established conventions, have successfully utilized overall compositions.

Max Beckmann - Die Nacht - 1918 to 19

Jackson Pollock - Number 1, 1949 - 1949

Janet Fish - Green Glass from Alexis - 2001
So, my challenge was to embrace an overall composition, one that convincingly represented the form and patterning of the sofa and quilt, without interfering with the primacy of the figures or obscuring the thrusts of movement their forms suggest.  I accomplished this by pushing the tones in the quilt slightly to the blue and diminishing (again just slightly) contrast in the background elements, while emphasizing contrast and warm tones in the figures.  This may sound fairly elemental, but it took me some time and a couple of sessions of repainting to work out.  Contrary to my usual practices, I also elected to use a heightened palette with Cat’s Cradle.  This was determined, to some degree arbitrarily, by the chance circumstances of what I found upon arriving for my shoot.  But once I determined that I would be addressing an overall composition, it seemed natural to permit the work to drift a bit to the decorative.  And it certainly felt right to portray two lovely, adolescent girls using a cheerful array of pigments.  I think that the final work arrived at a satisfying balance between overall activity and traditional composition… between the decorative and the austere… between the attractive and the profound.

Gerard Wickham - Cat's Cradle (detail) - 2014

Gerard Wickham - Cat's Cradle (detail) - 2014

Gerard Wickham - Cat's Cradle (detail) - 2014

Gerard Wickham - Cat's Cradle (detail) - 2014

Gerard Wickham - Cat's Cradle (detail) - 2014

Gerard Wickham - Cat's Cradle (detail) - 2014

Gerard Wickham - Cat's Cradle (detail) - 2014

Gerard Wickham - Cat's Cradle (detail) - 2014
I’m not going to analyze the painting here, touching on how it functions and suggesting possible interpretations of the imagery.  Having tried this many times in the past, I’ve learned that any attempt to guide a viewer to a more thorough grasp of one of my works only leads to misunderstanding and obfuscation, whatever observations I provide becoming gospel and the artwork being transformed into an illustration of my words.  I will only say that in creating this work my intention was to please and delight the eye; I hope that in doing so I haven’t trespassed into the saccharine.

Please feel free to comment here.  If you would prefer to comment privately, you can email me at gerardwickham@gmail.com. 




Saturday, August 2, 2014

Entry - 8.2.14

A number of years ago, I brought an artist friend who was visiting the USA up to my studio to view my recent work, and he looked a long while at the oil painting set upon my easel, his brow knotted in dissatisfaction, and said, “Gerry, your work is too subtle.  If you want people to notice it, you’ve got to make it more extreme, more sensational… more controversial.”  The work he was viewing was An Exclusive Repast, a painting that I had been working on for months and was finally nearing completion.


Gerard Wickham - An Exclusive Repast - 1996
I could read my friend’s mind.  With all of today’s technological advances, it is incredibly easy to reproduce and disseminate imagery.  We are simply bombarded with spontaneous digital snapshots, advertising, political imagery, news photos and reproductions of artwork.  When looking at artwork on the internet, I cover so much material so rapidly, scrolling through pages of thumbnails in just a few moments, only stopping to open up an image if it grabs my attention.  My friend, who enjoys a successful career in the arts, recognized that I needed a “hook” that would make people stop and examine my work, that could possibly get a gallery director interested in representing me, that could even get some media coverage, good or bad.  Having been peripherally involved in the “art world” for many years, I certainly didn’t have to be told this.  In fact, I had already formed in my mind an informal list of the most effective ways to draw attention to one’s artwork which I will share below.

Avant-garde – Anyone who was conscious in the twentieth century is familiar with the term avant-garde.  It comes from the French meaning advance guard, the body of the army that leads the way into hostile territory to make discoveries, to determine the lay of the land and to make contact with the enemy – often suffering heavy losses in doing so.  When applied to the art world, the term refers to those artists who reject the established modes of visual representation and adopt a language more applicable to the era in which they live.  In doing so, they would usually experience years of dismal sales, public derision and poverty.  I think that the term “Avant-garde” was first applied to the impressionists, but the concept is not new and could refer to a multitude of movements that arose since the renaissance.  For instance, the mannerists, in opposition to the ideals established during the renaissance, painted flesh in garish, unnatural colors, distorted the proportions of their figures and preferred unbalanced and dynamic compositions, often adopting an unusual vantage point to further energize their imagery, all innovations which violated renaissance ideals.  I am sure that the public was initially dissatisfied with the changes which the mannerists initiated, but, with time, got used to the new approach to imagery, the mannerist mode becoming what one expected from “good art”.

The process of “revitalizing” imagery is actually a very natural one and had occurred for centuries in a totally organic fashion.  After extended exposure to visual norms, the brain becomes calloused and gravitates to something different.  (I’ve been commuting by train along the very scenic Hudson River for so many years now that I have to remind myself, now and then, to look out the window to take in the view.)  As natural as the process of revitalizing imagery had been, a change occurred in the mid-nineteenth century which made the evolution of stylistic modes a little more violent.  Starting with the impressionists, the initiation of a new stylistic mode became a traumatic, sensational, revolutionary donnybrook, and, since the age of the impressionists, it has become increasingly critical to offend ordinary tastes in order to get attention and to establish oneself as an “authentic” and “credible” artist.  Eventually the pattern became almost predictably banal.  A renegade artist would burst onto the scene with work that was so audacious, so outrageous, so unmarketable, so beyond the scope of what one previously considered “art” that the public would gasp in collective horror, the press would lambast the poor soul and gallery directors and museum curators would bar the doors of their honored institutions to his work.  But, contemporaneously, a growing number of supporters would form: an art-wise elite enlightened in the latest modes of representation, a handful of progressive critics and a few gallery owners willing to gamble on the work of a maverick newcomer.  Within a decade, our renegade artist would be showing in the most exclusive galleries, would be represented in the collections of most major museums, would enjoy unanimous critical support, would be teaching at one of our esteemed institutions of learning, would be fetching astronomical prices for his work and would consequently sport a huge target on his back for the next generation of renegade artists to take a shot at.


The trick was to make a splash, and the bigger the splash, the better.

Henri Matisse - Blue Nude - 1907
Marcel Duchamp - Fountain - 1917
Carl Andre - Equivalent VIII - 1966
Richard Serra - Tilted Arc - 1981
Damien Hirst - The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living - 1991

Nudity/Sexuality – During my 6+ years of study, I usually worked a couple of days each week from a nude model.  At first doing so seemed a strange and titillating experience, but, over time, it became quite natural – at times, fatiguingly mundane.  Quickly, I became aware that painting or drawing the nude figure was exceedingly challenging.  Besides addressing proportion and anatomy, the artist must be aware of subtle tonal variations in the appearance of flesh resulting from sun exposure, abrasions and frictions and the flow of blood beneath the skin’s surface.  I eventually came to think of the nude as a landscape of rounded mounds, shaded valleys, stretches of ridges and dark crevices all bathed in a golden light.  After years of fairly rigorous study, I had made some progress in tackling this demanding subject matter, but, once out of grad school, it became nearly impossible to find accommodating volunteers to pose and my budget wouldn’t permit me to hire professionals.  So, even though I was interested in continuing with figure study, the nude virtually dropped out of my oeuvre.  I state this here so that it will be clear that I more than understand the appeal of the nude as an artistic subject matter.

America is very conflicted about sexuality.  I think it’s essential that we keep in mind that many of the Europeans who initially settled this country came here because their religious beliefs were too extreme to be tolerated in their home countries.  Among the Puritans, for example, offenses punishable by death included the worship of any non-Christian god, blasphemy, witchcraft, bestiality, homosexuality and adultery.  And there was a wide array of punishments and tortures to be carried out in cases of less serious crimes.  The Puritans were so zealous that they couldn’t tolerate the Quakers, often branding them on the forehead and forcing them into exile for propounding their beliefs.  It wouldn’t be too great a stretch to find many significant similarities between the practices of the historic Puritans with those of today’s Taliban.

I guess the rule of thumb during America’s early colonial period was: if it’s pleasurable, then the devil must be in it.  Attitudes towards sex and sexuality were naturally impacted.  Dress was plain, monochrome (black being the preferred color) and above all chaste.  Sex was restricted to intercourse within marriage.  All non-marital and non-reproductive sexual activity was forbidden, including pre- and extra-marital sex, homosexual sex, masturbation, and oral or anal sex.  Violators of these restrictions received any number of punishments, even, in some cases, the death penalty.  These uncompromising beliefs about chastity and sexuality didn’t just evaporate during the centuries following the American Revolution; they are still deeply engrained in the American consciousness and affect our decision making, often steering public debate on significant issues, even today.  For instance, prostitution is illegal in all but one of the 50 states.  The Supreme Court recently determined in support of religious groups that Obamacare cannot mandate that insurance policies must cover contraception.  Bill Clinton was politically neutralized during his presidency not as a result of his performance or policies but because of his extra-marital activities.  The Puritan ethic is alive and well in America.

While many of the first Europeans settlers came to America to experience religious freedom, there were many others who came to pursue entrepreneurial opportunity.  These were extremely motivated individuals willing to leave home and family to risk death (in the trans-Atlantic crossing, at the hands of native Americans, from disease, exposure and starvation) all in hopes that an unexplored continent of limitless land and unexploited resources would offer the newcomer inconceivable financial rewards.  This entrepreneurial hunger accelerated the expansion of the colonies, fueled the American Revolution, made the scourges of slavery and indentured servitude irresistible to our forefathers, encouraged innovation, invention and initiative throughout our history and led to the blind pursuit of Manifest Destiny untempered  by consideration of the rights of native Americans or potential environmental consequences.

Our entrepreneurial spirit also ensured that sex, the greatest sales hook of all time, would become ubiquitous in our society.  Today sex sells software, cars, laundry soap, soft drinks, footwear and vacation packages.  Images of half-nude models adorn our bus stops, the tops of taxi cabs, pay phone kiosks, magazine covers and the display windows of stores.  Sex is infused in our movies and music, the books we read, our theater and shows, our choreography and poetry.

So, as I stated earlier, America is very conflicted about sexuality.  It seems that as a nation we’re fine with sex if it’s gratuitous, titillating and sanitized, but once it crosses a line to become something real and elemental we are appalled and disgusted.  Rolling Stone, a magazine covering the edgy world of the rock music scene, commonly sells itself by featuring on its cover celebrities in various states of undress but is very careful never to expose what Monty Python referred to as “the naughty bits”. When Amy Winehouse was coming apart at the seams shortly before her death, the magazine contained a brief article about an occasion when she was found wandering the streets outside her home, naked and dazed.  The article included a photo of her with black bars covering the appropriate zones.  I wonder how this magazine, once the touchstone of a generation of rebellious youth, would cover Woodstock today.  My suspicion is the digital censor would be working a little overtime before that edition hit the magazine racks.  When Janet Jackson flashed her breast for a millisecond during the 2004 Super Bowl Halftime Show, the nation erupted in a frenzy of shock and outrage.  There were even Congressional hearings to investigate the matter and determine what punishments should be meted out to the responsible parties to ensure that such an affront to public decency should never occur again.  When corrupt bankers tank our economy or a drone missile takes out a wedding convoy in Yemen or cops beat a man to death during a routine traffic stop, no one is shocked or outraged.  But a momentary glimpse of a breast…

So it’s no secret that an artist hoping to get a bored, imagery-sated public to notice his work would serve his purpose well to showcase imagery with strong sexual content, preferably featuring some full frontal nudity.

Balthus - Therese revant - 1938
Eric Fischl - Bad Boy - 1981
Lucian Freud - Naked Man with Rat - 1977/78
Robert Mapplethorpe - Thomas - 1986
Jenny Saville - Plan - 1993
John Currin - Nice 'N Easy - 1999

Controversy – One of the most effective ways to draw attention to one’s work is to offend the viewer by challenging his belief system, desecrating something he holds sacred or violating the currently accepted moral code of the majority

Religion, without a doubt, is an easy target.  True believers are like rabid fans at a soccer match, just waiting for that bad call or blatant foul to clear the stands, rip out the goals and pounce on a few of the opposition’s players.  I’m often mystified that in a nation that takes such pride in its tolerance of all belief systems we feel it acceptable to go absolutely bonkers when an artwork provides evidence that the artist doesn’t share our beliefs, doesn’t hold sacred those objects and images that we revere, doesn’t follow the same taboos that steer the course of our lives.  If we truly believe in our faiths, can’t we, upon observing the shenanigans of the infidel, sit back smugly and tell ourselves that eternal damnation awaits those who violate our covenants.  Most religions set rules and penalties for violating them, abstract or otherwise, applicable to their followers, but the followers independently deputize themselves to police the entire community, root out violators of the faith and inflict punishment on them.  Hell, it’s a lot more fun to incite the faithful into action, print up some placards and hit the streets, make a few irate phonecalls to local politicians and ultimately shut down an art show than to wait quietly for the hand of god to exact justice.  Conversely, while the artist is expressing surprise that his innocuous work elicited such a heated response and holds firm against this contemptible call for censorship, he is also basking in the media attention that the controversy has garnered.

Andres Serrano - Piss Christ - 1987
Chris Ofili - Elephant Dung Madonna - 1996
Another way to draw a strong response from the public is to offend its sense of patriotism.  People tend to compartmentalize their concept of “homeland” separate from the abuses and shortcomings inherent in their national history and the inanity and corruption that pollutes contemporary politics, leaving them free to wax sentimental, chests aswell and hearts palpitating wildly, whenever a band strikes up the national anthem or the flag ascends a flagpole.  When an artwork threatens to violate the sanctity of our concept of “homeland” and infect it with facets of reality, we respond angrily, demanding that the artwork be withdrawn and the artist be punished.  In particular, desecration of the flag seems to incite a violent response from patriots.  During times of war, the public is especially sensitive to work that depicts servicemen in other than a positive light.  Again, the public outcry, a “spontaneous” demonstration, media coverage and finally governmental intervention and censorship can establish an artist’s reputation and initiate a brilliant career.

Paul Cadmus - The Fleet's In! - 1934
And don’t for a minute conclude that censorship is solely the expedient of conservatives; liberals are just as ready to disregard the Constitution’s First Amendment when they feel that an individual has violated the murky and unforgiving code of Political Correctness.  In our crusade to establish the perfect citizen within our society, we cannot tolerate works of art, statements or even flip comments that express opinions that contradict the strict yet quite mutable code of moral acceptability.  But while violating the strictures of Political Correctness will gain an artist attention within the media and community, there is a danger inherent in doing so.  Since the overwhelming bent of the artistic community is liberal, establishing a name for oneself by blaspheming against the commandments of that community may lead to condemnation by those with power and influence within that community and banishment from the network of outlets available to promote one’s work.

David Nelson - Mirth and Girth (Portrait of Chicago Mayor Harold Washington) - 1988

Silly Art – Of late, I’ve been noticing a proliferation of what I would call “Silly Art”, work that is just plain ridiculous because of its theme, its size or the medium in which it is executed.  Often the subject matter is cute, borrowed from the cornucopia of cartoon and commercial imagery available in comic books, television shows and merchandizing targeted for children.  The intent, as far as I can tell, is usually to be humorous.  Because these works tend to be large and situated in public areas, I commonly come across new woks while wandering the streets of NYC and have witnessed firsthand how they excite interest and draw crowds of passing pedestrians.

Permit me to characterize a common reaction here.  Along a public street walks a couple, attending to their regular business and having no interest in seeing any art.  They glance into a nearby courtyard or square to observe some garish, oversized replica of a beloved cartoon character, and they stop in their tracks, broad grins stretched across their faces.  Nearly mesmerized, they forget their prior obligations and, like automatons, approach the work, eyes locked on it and smiles permanently etched on their faces.  They stare for a while, take a stroll around the circumference of the work and finally they grant the ultimate endorsement that any artist can hope for – they pull out a cellphone and take a selfie in front of the work.  This accomplished, they are quickly on their way once more.

This variety of work definitely pleases the public and is guaranteed to attract lots of media attention.  It functions similarly to a Disneyworld attraction or a wacky mascot at a sports event.  We can’t help but become interested and are momentarily awed or amused but also can’t help but question whether there is much substance inherent in most of this work.

Tom Sachs - Hello Kitty - 2008
Jeff Koons - Balloon Dog - 1994/2000
Wow! That balloon dog is actually made of stainless steel.

Takashi Murakami - Miss ko2 - 1997
Florentijn Hofman - Rubber Duck - 2007

In closing, I want to make it clear that I am not implying that the artists featured in this entry are less than committed to their subject matter and have resorted to presenting a specific variety of imagery solely for commercial or narcissistic motives (though there are probably a number of exceptions).  I greatly admire many of the artists included in this piece, their work having had a profound influence on my own development.  Art asserts its own rules and logic regardless of the expectations of the public or the prevalent moral codes in place at the time.  I once found myself pursuing a form of imagery that could have been construed as sensationalist.  While I was in grad school, I had a kind of creative crisis which led me to question my approach to imagery.  I felt my work had become too didactic, judgmental and critical and no longer reflected my own personality and outlook.  I tend to see phenomena as multifaceted and embodying within themselves contradictions that preclude any full understanding of them, but somehow my stance in relation to my work had evolved into the perspective of an infallible and omniscient authority.  For nearly a year, I went through a period of experimentation, both technically and philosophically, and floundered quite a bit before arriving at an approach that made more sense for me.  My new work suggested recognizable imagery but was so “abstracted” that the viewer would be hard-pressed to determine precisely what the imagery represented.  I became interested in imagery that expressed a duality, a self-nullifying contradiction, and chose to explore this theme primarily through pictorial representation of the creation/destruction paradigm.  This all sounds very heavy (and believe me I could go on about my thinking ad nauseam), but the resulting imagery was actually playful and intuitive.  Most commonly I would opt to present an image that suggested both sexual activity and, simultaneously, an act of violence.  My figures, repeatedly edited, distorted and expanded, were painted in lurid, peachy hues, inundating the picture plane with activity.  The paint handling was vigorous and intuitive, varying from thin washes to thick impasto, splatters and drips commonly charging the canvas surface.  Though through concealment and camouflage I deliberately withheld from the viewer any precise reading of the imagery, there existed within the work a potent nuance of the erotic.  I arrived at this approach organically and intellectually with no commercial motives, but I must also confess that it was gratifying to discover that, whenever my work was displayed, it excited attention and prompted discussion.  This felt pretty good and certainly provided an incentive to explore these themes and techniques until the proverbial well went dry.  (Which it did a few years later, but that’s another whole story altogether.)

Gerard Wickham - Yin and Yang - 1984
Gerard Wickham - The Letting No. 2 - 1984
The point is I once produced the kind of work that my friend was advising me to embrace.  As my painting slowly evolved, eventually becoming representational, I even sought to retain, thematically at least, the mood of lurid suggestiveness that my earlier work embodied.  And, gradually, as the years passed, my interest in shocking or captivating my audience waned.  Perhaps this was just part of the aging process or perhaps it came about from having young children running about the house.  My best guess is that this change in approach resulted from my not having an audience at all to consider.  Painting, for me, had become a dialogue with myself.

Shortly before my friend’s visit to America, I consciously recognized the transformation that I had unconsciously undergone.  I understood that I wanted my work to be more subtle, less confrontational… ultimately deceptively benign.  My desire was that one could live satisfactorily in the presence of one of my paintings for years, experiencing repeated episodes of contemplative consideration, never quite reaching a decisive conclusion about the work, yet sparked through the exploration of it into engaging in a fruitful, internal discourse.  Having given this topic of viewer engagement much thought, I had to smile inwardly when my friend offered me his manifestly practical advice.  I was heading in the absolutely wrong direction, one that I follow even more rigorously today than I did at that time.

Gerard Wickham - Three Tangerines - 2010
One Final Note: Since the topic of censorship has been addressed in some depth in this entry, I think it appropriate to make mention of the fact that my last entry on Liu Xiaodong, a posting that, I believe, was balanced, fairly positive and would not be construed as critical of China, appears to have gotten my blog blocked in China.  Previously, my blog had a small but consistent audience in China, but, since my June posting, I have not received a single hit there.  My guess is that simply including Liu’s name in my blog, regardless of content, was sufficient to get it quarantined.  I think it is really regrettable that the government cannot tolerate Liu’s message; his work reflects a consciousness of the environmental and social impact of rapid development on a population, an empathy for the suffering of his fellow citizens and a concern for his nation’s future.

As always, I encourage readers to comment here, but, for those who would prefer to comment privately, I can be emailed at: gerardwickham@gmail.com

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Entry - 6.7.14

When my office moved up to the 50’s about two decades ago, it occurred to me that, besides my paying more for lunch, the new location afforded me access to the hub of galleries clustered along 57th Street in Midtown Manhattan.  This represented a great improvement from our prior location.  While, on the upside, the stores, restaurants, delis and bars serving our old location were more fitting pricewise for a proletarian workforce (of which, I consider myself a member), the downside was the immediate area was pretty devoid of any cultural life.  Occasionally, if I was feeling particularly ambitious, I’d hike across town and up about ten blocks to visit the Pierpont Morgan Library, where I’d rush in huffing and puffing, make a quick tour of the show and then beat a hasty retreat back to my office.  From our new digs, I could easily visit on my lunch hour a host of excellent galleries such as Marlborough, St. Etienne, Michael Rosenfeld, Marian Goodman, Tibor de Nagy and Pace.  One of my preferred places to go was 745 Fifth Avenue, a building that housed a few of my favorite galleries like Forum, Mary Boone, Edwynn Houk and McKee.  A jazz pianist was usually stationed in the lobby, his music welcoming visitors in from the noisy NYC streets.  Moving from floor to floor in the building, I’d cover four or five shows in a single lunch hour, taking my time to consider the work, feeling privileged that such a great resource was now at my disposal.

So, one afternoon some years ago, I step into Mary Boone Gallery, not knowing what she’d be showing that day, and find the walls covered with ambitious oil paintings, very large in size, often composed of multiple panels.  For the most part, the paintings depict groups of people situated in open landscapes.  These paintings don’t function like Gainsboroughs in which the landscape is somewhat generic and generalized, serving as a foil to enhance the emotional projection of an individualized sitter.  The landscape in these works represented documentation of very specific locations, places that held equal significance to the artist as the people who inhabit them.  The landscapes were not scenic or manicured, having more of the forlorn, disheveled quality of a ghost town, moonscape or an area that had recently suffered some natural disaster.  But these places are not the products of abandonment; everywhere we see evidence of human activity: the large scale movement of earth, workers laboring like ants in the landscape, buildings undergoing demolition, a modern construction project mushrooming inexplicably in a remote, unchartered region.  And the people populating these unusual landscapes wear cheap, mass-produced clothing: T-shirts sporting logos, blue jeans and flashy sneakers.  In contrast to the momentous activity that is taking place around them, they often seem lost, disconnected and purposeless.

Liu Xiaodong - Emigration of the Three Gorges - 2003

Liu Xiaodong - Out of Bichuan - 2010

Liu Xiaodong - Phoenix - 2010

Liu Xiaodong - Self Portrait - 2008

Liu Xiaodong - Sky Burial -2007

Liu Xiaodong - Three Gorges Newly Displaced Population - 2004

Liu Xiaodong - West Ridge Again - 2010
I’d never heard of the artist, Liu Xiaodong, before, which isn’t too surprising considering that he is a member of the generation of artists that came to maturity in China as the nation was transforming itself into an industrial and commercial powerhouse.  In 1963, he was born in Jincheng, an important industrial city in north China, best known during Liu’s youth for coalmining.  At the age of seventeen, Liu left Jincheng to study art in Beijing where he attended the Central Academy of Fine Arts for both his undergraduate and postgraduate studies.  Liu is now a central figure among China’s Neo-Realist painters, his work documenting many of the ills resulting from his nation’s rapid industrialization: population displacement, economic turmoil and environmental devastation.  He travels extensively, choosing to visit areas experiencing disruption and upheaval due to social, economic or environmental change, usually working on his large canvases on location – an ambitious undertaking to which the photograph below can attest.


Many times I’ve seen him referred to as a Social Realist, which seems fair since in his work he strives to expose the often ignored negative consequences of the rapid development which China has experienced over the last half century.  I’m not a big fan of Social Realism.  The artwork of this movement sheds light on suffering and injustice, serves to educate a myopic public about issues and conditions it would prefer to ignore and may even inspire a moment of empathy for those less fortunate than the viewer.  I can’t argue that those goals aren’t significant and praiseworthy.  But even the best products of this movement often leave me feeling, after an initial reaction of dissatisfaction, sympathy or outrage, less than engaged.  It’s not that I disagree with the perspective asserted by the work, but I think that work that is basically didactic in function must inevitably simplify, ignore nuance, deny inconsistencies, perhaps even lapse into exaggeration.  So, after the intended message of the artwork is delivered, there may not be a lot more there to be gleaned.


Ben Shahn - The Dust Bowl - Resettlement Administration

Isabel Bishop - Tidying Up

Jacob Lawrence - Toussaint L'Ouverture Series - 1938

John Steuart Curry - The Return of Private Davis from the Argonne - 1940
 Luckily, Liu’s work doesn’t seem constrained by the Social Realist mold.  In the weeks spent in preparing this entry, I’ve kept a couple of Liu’s images on display at my home and office and find that they keep me interested upon repeated viewings.  One reason for this is that Liu restrains himself, that the work never trespasses into the overtly didactic.  Perhaps the work reflects the ambiguity that he feels about the change he witnesses occurring about him.  But I think there is something more going on.  There is definitely a surrealistic aura to these works.

Liu Xiaodong - Into Taihu - 2010
A boat is filled with adolescents, dressed neatly but casually – like students.  They are certainly not fishermen or laborers.  Their bodies are slim and flimsily muscled.  Their faces are individualized, expressing a range of emotions.  They seem extremely innocent and vulnerable as they sit in the wooden boat, a transport with no visible means of propulsion.  Above their heads, cranes hover, long necks extended from their torsos, sticklike legs dangling beneath them, fragile wings disheveled and entangled.  Their frailty and susceptibility mirrors that of the boys, serving to intensify our empathy for them.

Liu Xiaodong - Jincheng Airport - 2010
 A group of several men and a woman gathers in a jungle clearing.  Dressed informally in brightly colored clothing, they are engaged in serious discussion apparently presided over by a crouching man holding a document.  Looming behind them is a small jet fighter seemingly decommissioned and stripped of parts.  The juxtaposing is odd. The people gathering appear to be engaged in some local, grassroots activity.  They are informal and relaxed.  But the plane suggests that another influence intrudes here, one that results from technology, capital, a centralized government, a military whose vision extends beyond the nation’s borders.  It is difficult to reconcile the two worlds alluded to here, and the viewer is left feeling confused and dissatisfied.  Perhaps that is the artist’s intent.

Of course, when looking at Liu’s work I’m at a disadvantage.  Only peripherally aware of China’s recent history, I may be discerning the surreal in images that contemporary Chinese would find completely accessible and self-explanatory.  But I don’t think so.  One of the benefits of painting is that the artist’s options are almost unlimited.  Liu chooses to present ambiguity, the irreconcilable, the disjunct in his paintings, a choice which allows his work to transcend the didactic.

I’m going to take a moment to address the topic of technique, so bear with me here.

Back when I was an undergraduate at college, one of the regular assignments we were given in the Art Department was to make the journey into NYC once or twice a semester to visit galleries.  It was a bit of a hardship losing a full day of my weekend, a time I’d usually use to catch up on assignments, but the experience was definitely worthwhile.  We were directed to cover a specific area in a trip, Soho or Chelsea or 57th Street, but it was left to our discretion which galleries we chose to visit.  So Gallery Guide in hand, I’d hoof it to 15 or 20 galleries in a single day, climbing up and down staircases, making quick tours of shows, jotting down a few notes and collecting the essential postcard.

Eric Fischl - Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man - 1984
During one of these journeys, I first saw the work of Eric Fischl, another artist I’d not heard of before.  His paintings disturbed me.  At the time, I found his overtly sexual themes to be sensational and opportunistic.  But it was his technique which gave me the most trouble.  His painting wasn’t “painterly”; it was purposeful, utilitarian and lacking in nuance.  I saw little or no underpainting in his canvases.  Often the bare canvas was left exposed.   Transitions between highlights and shadows were not developed, and the colors used were local and conventional.  His surfaces were not complex and built-up.  At that time, I was somewhat fixated on the work of early-Twentieth Century expressionists, artists whose efforts achieved extremely lush and painterly results.

EL Kirchner - Playing Naked People - 1910

Egon Schiele - Albert Paris von Gutersloh - 1918
While I was struggling in my own work to develop a comparable virtuosity, it was shocking to come across an artist discarding the very skills that I had yet to fully master.  I thought of Fischl’s technique as “matter-of-fact” painting.

As I attended grad school and then worked on my own, I continued to be drawn to painting that was complex, built-up and layered, whether I was looking at representational or abstract images.

Balthus - Therese - 1938

Willem de Kooning - Gansevoort Street - 1949

Lucian Freud - Woman in a Grey Sweater - 1988

Anselm Kiefer - Nigredo - 1984
For a period, I think I even became obsessed with texture, building-up layer upon layer of paint on my canvases during successive sessions.  I believe that I was seeking my own “El Dorado”, the perfect surface, and my imagery suffered for it.

Over years and many paintings, I came to realize that there was too much artifice in my work and sought to “abbreviate” my technique, striving to be more utilitarian in my process.  I remind myself that paint is only paint, and it is not unconscionable that it follow the properties of paint and be “read” as paint on the surface of a canvas.  There is a definite beauty in simple, honest painting that I was unable to appreciate earlier.

Today Fischl’s paintings no longer trouble me.  During the decades that have passed since I first saw his work, many artists have adopted a similar approach to painting.

Neo Rauch - Die Stickerin - 2008
So when I first saw Liu’s paintings (there was a purpose in my digression), I wasn’t offended by his straightforward, practical execution.  Often he sweeps thinned-out paint over the canvas with a broad brush, applying a second darker layer over the first, wet on wet, to indicate shadows.  He generalizes a lot, eschewing fussy detail, and leaves the bare canvas exposed in many areas.  Of course, his approach is somewhat necessitated by the size of his canvases, many of them monumental in dimension, and working on location with live models would certainly provide an incentive for accelerating process.  But, I believe, Liu could not permit himself the liberties which he does if he were not philosophically in accord with his technique.  After all many artists known for complex, lush surfaces have tackled the challenge of scale without sacrificing their aesthetic (Rembrandt, Balthus, Freud and Odd Nerdrum would be good examples).  No, Liu is using the visual vocabulary most suited to his work, a sort of field reporter’s shorthand that attests to his desire to honestly document his world.

By the way, my own struggle with surface is far from over.  Though I recognize that I should aim for a more pragmatic approach to painting, I would say that I’m only walking a middle line at this time.  I still rely on an underpainting to work out compositional elements and to complement the dominant tones in a painting.  And I continue to paint in layers and relish varied, emphatic brushwork.  But I try to keep it organic, to minimize artifice and restrict process.  I must admit that I’m a bit of a reformed junkie, intellectually aware of tendencies I should avoid yet emotionally ready to lapse at any moment.  I’m taking it one painting at a time.

Gerard Wickham - Mary and Conrad - 2005
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