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:

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