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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