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:

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
Please feel free to comment here.  If you would prefer to comment privately, I can be emailed at:

Friday, May 2, 2014

Entry - 5.2.14

My childhood elementary school had determined that students should learn to play a real instrument starting in the Fourth Grade.  I don’t recall being asked if I wanted to play an instrument; it was simply assumed that all children were musical.  So, instead of being asked if I would like to learn to play an instrument, I was asked what instrument I would like to learn to play.  For me, this wasn’t a difficult question.  I had noticed that drummers were given a padded block of wood on which they could practice, quietly, at almost any location.  I’d be in the cafeteria eating my sandwich when a kid at my table would whip out his sticks and begin hammering away at his block of wood.  I thought that this was pretty cool.  It was also my supposition that playing the drums would be easy; after all, how hard can it be to hit something with a stick?

“I’d like to play the drums,” I quickly responded.

“We already have enough drummers.  You’ll learn the clarinet.”

And so began my brief romance with the licorice stick.

I never liked the clarinet.  Saliva would build up on the mouthpiece and run all over the instrument and, eventually, the musician.  My fingers were too small and skinny to properly cover the holes.  For some reason, I was never able to hit a high note on the thing; whenever I tried to do so, the clarinet only screeched.  And I never practiced… which might explain why I never learned to read music.  Of course, I had mastered the memory tools, FACE and Every Good Boy Does Fine, to determine note order on a scale.  But I, literally, had to count how many lines down a note was located and then go through the mnemonic rigmarole for every note I played.  By the time I figured out what note I should play, another ten had already passed by.  My solution was to play notes arbitrarily in time to the music.  I still wonder how my music teacher, a kind and patient man employed by the school system, put up with me.   

One of the benefits of playing an instrument was that I got to march every May in our town’s Memorial Day Parade, an event in which participated school bands, Little League teams, glockenspiel players, Boy and Girl Scout troops, the Lion’s Club, the lacrosse and football teams, the American Legion and other veterans’ organizations, baton twirlers and cheerleaders, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, the turbaned Kiwanis, police and firemen and finished up with a lineup of the town’s fire engines and a real live tank.  It really was amazing that anyone was left at curbside to watch the parade.  After three years of study, I was still blowing notes randomly, but I really enjoyed the marching part.  The clarinetists would clamp a device onto their instruments to hold their sheet music while marching (in my case, it served for purely decorative effect).  Every year we would play “The Marine Corps Hymn”.

Because our school band was too small, we could not march alone and had to be combined with the band of another school in the district.  Before the parade, we gathered on the back streets of the town to be properly organized as a consolidated unit and then were left to wait for our turn to march.  On a beautiful, sunny morning, as I stood in formation waiting in the mottled shade of the giant elms that lined the street, I was approached by a cute girl at least a head taller than I.  She was not from my school.

“So you play clarinet too?” she asked.

I nodded.

“What part?”

I looked back at her, speechless and confused.  Exasperated, she tugged at my clarinet and looked at my sheet music.

“Third clarinet!  What grade are you in?”

I finally found my voice.  “Sixth.”

“Sixth Grade and still playing third clarinet?” she exclaimed.  “I play first clarinet.”  She sneered and walked away.

My music education would not continue into Junior High.

Having a curtailed performing career, I never developed the technical vocabulary that would permit me to speak accurately and concisely about music.  If you read Part I of this composition on contemporary folk artists, you may have noticed that I rely on metaphor and visual imagery to discuss how songs function.  Don’t conceive this as my being fanciful.  My ignorance of music terminology forces me to find an alternative means to express my observations and responses to this art form.  I hope this deficit is not taken to reflect a lack of interest in music.  While I never learned to play any instrument (I even struggled with the tonette), I have devoted many, many hours of my adult life to what I would call educating my ears, perusing musical genres from classical to grunge and building a substantial collection of recordings.  Music is a vital component of my life, an assertion given credence by my desire to express here, however clumsily, my thoughts and reactions to the work of these contemporary artists.

Having stated this, I can continue with my sampling of contemporary folk musicians.

Anais Mitchell
Anaïs Mitchell – A singer-songwriter from Vermont, Mitchell was raised in an atmosphere where independence and intellectual excellence was stressed.  At a young age, she was encouraged to travel and covered a good portion of the globe, making stops in Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and Japan.  Perhaps this accounts for her precocious ability to allude to the larger implications of the intimate dramas which she unveils in her songs.  Mitchell doesn’t have a large voice, and she doesn’t introduce a lot of ornamentation to her singing.  Within her simple approach to vocals, she manages to elicit nuance and expression, exposing, at times, an unsettling vulnerability.

She was fortunate to come to the attention of Ani DiFranco, who signed her onto her own label, Righteous Babe Records, which released three of Mitchell’s albums between 2007 and 2010.  Ultimately, she started her own label, Wilderland Records, which has released two of Mitchell’s albums since 2012.  Though she can piece together quite successfully a collection of independent songs (take 2007’s The Brightness, for example), Mitchell seems most inclined to tackle thematically related cycles and narratives.  Her 2012 release, Young Man in America, follows a character, who I believe is roughly based on Mitchell’s father, through a number of songs while addressing themes relating to labor, economic inequity and power manipulation within relationships.  One song, “Shepherd”, was inspired by one of her father’s stories, and it is his face that adorns the cover of the album.  In 2013, Mitchell teamed up with Jefferson Hamer to record a series of old English and Scottish folk songs documented by a Harvard professor, Francis James Child, in the late 1800’s.  The resulting album, Child Ballads, a satisfying and sweet collection of seven songs, beautifully harmonized and accompanied with lean acoustic instrumentation, talks about personal and hierarchical struggles within preindustrial society.

But it is with Hadestown (2010), created along with director Ben Matchstick and arranger Michael Chorney, that Mitchell accomplished her most successful work, a folk opera based on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.  Mitchell reconstructs the tale, transforming Hades into a Depression Era shanty town run by a pragmatic and cynical boss obsessed with preserving his power.  Within the opera, she explores the insidious relationships between seeming opposites like art and money or freedom and deprivation.  Mitchell has performed Hadestown in many venues with many co-performers, but, when recording the album for release, she gathered the quintessential cast of performers, including Greg Brown, Ani DiFranco and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon.  “We Build the Wall” from Hadestown is an incredible song dissecting the ugly truth of how nations and classes maintain economic dominance, but I include “Flowers” here because it is better suited for Mitchell’s voice and range. 

What I wanted was to fall asleep
Close my eyes and disappear
Like a petal on a stream, a feather on the air
Lily white and poppy red
I trembled when he laid me out
You won’t feel a thing, he said, when you go down
Nothing gonna wake you now
Dreams are sweet until they’re not
Men are kind until they aren’t
Flowers bloom until they rot and fall apart
Is anybody listening?
I open my mouth and nothing comes out

Will Oldham
Bonnie Prince Billy – When just becoming familiar with Will Oldham’s music, I tended to watch his videos on YouTube which probably gave me a distorted impression of his work.  The videos are quite funny, often featuring Oldham clowning around in a self-deprecating fashion, and I thought that his songs must be playful and humorous too, somewhat akin to the work of Harry Nilsson, let’s say.  It took me a while to recognize that Oldham’s music was serious and sensitive.  Having worked as an actor early on, perhaps he just can’t resist hamming it up a bit when a camera is pointed his way, but I think something else is going on.

Oldham seems to value contradictions.  While one part of him is constructing a perspective, another part is dismantling it.  So, by performing a serious song humorously, he is forcing us to listen to it differently than he originally intended.  Throughout his career, Oldham has consistently approached writing and performing music with a unique mindset.  When just starting out, he would surround himself with similarly unskilled musicians and deliberately document in single take recordings their mistakes and deficiencies.  He recorded his songs on outmoded equipment in non-studio settings.  Also, rather than pushing to establish name recognition as a young artist, he changed his name from album to album, cognizant that each album represents a distinct artistic venture and hoping that a new audience, unprejudiced with preconceived notions about what a Will Oldham song should sound like, would eventually find the album.  He continually shuffles and adds new players to his band.  Just as a point of interest, Angel Olsen, presented in Part I of this blog topic, performed back-up vocals for him for a couple of years.

In recent years, Oldham has consistently released albums under the name “Bonnie Prince Billy”.  Also, now he produces high-quality recordings with talented musicians.  He is a great songwriter and an intensely emotional performer.  Incredibly prolific, he has released many albums, though my favorites are I See a Darkness (1999), The Letting Go (2006) and Wolfroy Goes to Town (2011).

I include here a beautiful live performance by Oldham at Coney Island of “2-15” and “New Partner”.

Now the sun's fading faster, we're ready to go
There's a skirt in the bedroom that's pleasantly low
And the loons on the moor, the fish in the flow
And my friends they still whisper hello
We all know what we know, it's a hard swath to mow
When you think like a hermit you forget what you know

Link to “2-15” and “New Partner”:

Alela Diane
Alela Diane – For a number of years, long before going digital, I would read a review of Alela Diane’s music and tell myself that I had to hear her stuff.  So on my lunch hour I’d trek on over to Borders from my office and dig through the stacks of CDs on their display shelves, only to come up empty.  Same would happen at Barnes and Noble and Best Buy.  I would grumble in frustration, mutter some expletive under my breath and move on.  This actually happened a few times.  Miraculously, a year or two ago, a friend of mine was going downtown to J&R in NYC (which unfortunately just a few weeks ago went out of business) and, having been asked by me to keep an eye peeled for Alela Diane, handed over to me a couple of days later the CD To Be Still.  Upon listening to it on my stereo that evening, I knew that the wait had been worth it, that my perseverance had paid off.  Since then, I’ve become somewhat more technically savvy and have learned how to purchase and download music on the internet, a must for anyone whose tastes don’t conform to the norm.  So now I’ve gathered a fairly respectable collection of Diane’s music.

Another Californian, Alela Diane was born in 1983 to musician parents.  Her father, Tom Menig, often plays in her backup band and tours with her.  Parents nurturing an early interest in music seems to be a common thread in the stories of so many of the folk artists I’ve researched for this topic.  Diane began writing her own songs at about the age of twenty and was encouraged to perform publicly by Joanna Newsom.  Another common thread, she self-produced and released her first albums, which eventually led to her being picked up by Rough Trade Records.

Her lyrics, so essential to Diane’s music, tend to be grounded in personal experience and do not hide behind encryption and metaphor.

“…the music that I cherish the most is the music that you can really tell is coming straight from the heart, so I think that throughout my musical career I’m always writing about things that are important to me and that I do care about.  Because that’s why I think music exists, it’s because of the lyrics for me and talking about things that I feel are important to me or could help people get through something in some sort of way.  I think that’s a big problem with popular music right now, the commercial radio at least, it’s just like all of those folks are just singing about things that really don’t matter at all.” – Alela Diane, Hive Magazine

Diane’s presentation is simple and direct too, her arrangements very pared down.  Commonly, she accompanies her singing on solo guitar.

About a year ago, Diane’s marriage to fellow musician Tom Bevitori ended and Rough Trade Records dropped her.  So in 2013, she self-produced and released About Farewell, an album that addresses the dissolution of her marriage.  The songs are honest, confessional and, while not indulging in self-pity or finger pointing, maintain an excruciating tone of sadness.

I include here a live version of “Dry Grass and Shadows”, recorded at Portland’s The Funky Church, a performance that I find very moving in that the musicians are solely focused on the music, their exertions striving to produce a pure and perfect expression of emotion.

Strong spines of valley hills all overgrown in gold
Look softer than a spool of old silk thread
But if we walked down with our feet
I'd be pulling spines and barbs and fox tails from your skin
Oh, if we walked down with our feet
I'd be pulling spines and barbs and fox tails from your skin  
Link to “Dry Grass and Shadows”:

Bill Callahan
Bill Callahan – It came as quite a shock, after listening to Callahan’s deep baritone voice and somber, deliberate delivery on a number of albums, to finally see a photograph of him.  I was expecting a craggy, weathered nomad.  In reality, he looks absolutely boyish, somewhat like the clean-cut, wholesome youths I remember from TV shows in the early 60’s, and dresses conservatively, commonly wearing jeans with a collared, button-down dress shirt.  Even at the age of 47, he continues to maintain this fresh, youthful appearance.  I like the fact that Callahan doesn’t fit the mold; his music is certainly pretty unique.

In 1966, Callahan was born in Maryland but spent a fair portion of his childhood living in England where his parents worked for the National Security Agency.  Early on, while performing under the name “Smog”, Callahan produced experimental music, played on less than top-of-the-line equipment, which he self-released.  Eventually, he evolved into a sophisticated, lyrics-oriented songwriter.  Now his musical accompaniment sounds professional, and he records on high quality equipment.

Callahan’s songs tend to be melodically simple, with repetitious chord sequences, and lyrically complex, often without a chorus.  His singing is slow and deliberate, the words clear and easily understood.  Callahan sings about ordinary things, making his listeners see them in a new way.  Often his songs are confessional, addressing the intimate, internal workings of his mind.  In researching this entry, I read a lot of reviews of his music and regularly the critic would call his work “depressing”.  I couldn’t disagree more.  I find many things depressing: the NRA, Vladimir Putin, beauty pageants, pretentiousness, religion, sports fanatics, global warming… I could go on forever.  But I don’t consider an intelligent, thinking person evaluating himself and his surroundings within an artform as depressing.  I actually find Callahan’s music uplifting.

Callahan has produced a lot of music, most of it good, but my favorite albums of his are A River Ain’t Too Much to Love (2005), Woke on a Whaleheart (2007) and Apocalypse (2011).  I include here “Baby’s Breath”, a song about commitment and transformation.

Oh young girl at the wedding
Baby's breath in her hair
A crowning lace above her face
That will last a day
Before it turns to hay

Link to “Baby’s Breath”:

By the way, one of the articles that I read while researching Bill Callahan was Pitchfork’s “A Window That Isn’t There: The Elusive Art of Bill Callahan” by Mark Richardson.  I think the piece is well-written, comprehensive and insightful, and I include a link to it below should you want to know more about this enigmatic artist.

Laura Marling – It almost pains me to state this, but here’s another extremely talented singer-songwriter who got an early introduction to music.  Marling’s the child of a music teacher who began teaching her guitar at the age of three.  Her father ran a recording studio.  Being English, it seems inevitable that blue blood flows in her veins; her father is Sir Charles William Somerset Marling, the 5th Marling Baronet.  I will try not to hold this bit of silliness against Laura, but it will not be easy.  At 16, after years of studying guitar and mixing with first class musicians at her father’s studio, Marling dropped out of high school, moving to London to pursue her music career.  There she collaborated with several indie folk groups (Noah and the Whale, for example) and became romantically linked with a number of talented musicians.  Her first album, Alas I Cannot Swim, was released in 2008, and, since then, she has produced three exceptionally good albums (I Speak Because I Can (2010), A Creature I Don’t Know (2011) and Once I Was an Eagle (2013).  Marling currently resides in Los Angeles.

I’m pretty sure that Marling’s the youngest artist that I’ve covered within this topic.  She was born in 1990, which makes her just 24 years old.  I was surprised to discover that she is so young because I have listened to her music for years now and always find her songs to be so adult, almost motherly in a knowing, authoritative way.  Her voice has a rich, mature timbre too.  Strangely enough, in interviews Marling seems pretty insecure, concerned with presenting a carefully constructed persona, wary of exposing too much of her personal life.  She also tries to distance herself from her songs, insisting that they are works of art, not confessions or reflections of her inner being.  I’m never quite sure how to take it when artists commonly claim that their work is not about their lives.  I guess all art is a fan dance.  The artist turns one way, fluttering some feathers, and the fan slips downward; she spins on her heels, retreating out of the spotlight, and when she emerges from the darkness, the fans are newly positioned, offering potentially rich rewards to the patient voyeur.  When the curtains close, the audience is left thinking that they’ve seen a lot more than has truly been exposed.

Female folk singers are regularly declared to be heirs apparent of Joni Mitchell, and Marling is no exception.  In her case, the appellation may be justified.  Already, at her very young age, she has produced a lot of great music.  I can’t think of a single song of hers which is not listenable.  Her lyrics are smart and inventive, deceptively simple but forged in sophisticated poetry, and her voice is rich, deep and supple.  At times, her singing slows to a decadent drawl or halts altogether to become briefly conversational.  Marling appears to have been endowed with “the goods” and has developed “the smarts” to exploit them effectively and judiciously.

Below is an excerpt from “I Was an Eagle”

So your grandfather sounds like me
Heads up shoulders back and proud to be
Every little girl is so naïve
Falling in love with the first man that she sees

I will not be a victim of romance
I will not be a victim of circumstance
Chance or circumstance or romance, or any man
Who could get his dirty little hands on me

Link to “I Was an Eagle”:

I hope that in covering this topic I have introduced my readers to a few artists with whom they might not have been familiar before.  During the writing of this piece, I realized that none of the artists included is really that obscure, most having been established for years and having produced at least several albums.  Honestly, it takes just two lines of a song and a couple of bars of music for me to know I’m interested in hearing more of an artist’s work, but it takes years and a couple of albums to lend me comfort in endorsing his or her music.

As always, I encourage you to comment here, but, if you would prefer to comment privately, you can email me at: