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What catches the eye and entices the imagination is a mystery. What snags me and holds my attention is often a surprise. Why does India endlessly compel? Why are fluid dynamics and ferrofluids so mesmerizing? The landscape of the desert, what is it about that barrenness that keeps pulling me in? And what is it about language forms, understood or not, that are so provocative?

There is a context that can enrich the way these questions are considered. In his introduction to Between Artists, Dave Hickey does his usual—he provokes, prods and delights in describing how artists navigate a confusingly convoluted and quickly morphing world. Hickey is good at being the agent provacateur. He is also very funny.

One of his themes deals with the downside of postmodern trends:

In the late sixties…the ideas of the artists as an originative, independent, litigious voice in the forum of cultural politics became intellectually discredited…the artist became a mere cultural producer whose work constituted a “collaboration” with the culture at large….In this way the work of art, which had been rendered mute and symptomatic by modernist theory, remained mute under the new regime, a voice symptom, while the artist, who had previously been allowed the occasional cri de coeur, was rendered mute as well…

This disenfranchisement of the artist’s voce is the consequence of a failed project by pop, minimalist, and postminimal artists in the late sixties to suppress the artist’s presence in their work, so the work itself might speak to its beholder—so the work itself might comment on the cultural context we all inhabit, rather than reflexively referencing the artist…So the artists of the sixties…strove to cleanse their works of the allegory of the self, sought to present their works as public declarations as transitive, rhetorical instruments of advocacy in the forum of cultural politics.

Hickey goes on to make his case with that Hickeyesque hyperbolic intensity and flair. What is an artist today? Where does art making fit in the cultural landscape? According to Hickey, the interviews in this book (which I have recommended earlier here and here) demonstrate the fact that it is not “high art” and that rarefied construct that have driven artists to their vocation:

Again and again we discover that the “threshold experience” of these artists took place on the street, that it has little or nothing to do with the experience of high art within the confines of high culture…most artists become artists because they find the art available to them unsatisfactory. “Artists make things because they want to see them,” Terry Allen remarked…”They make the art that’s not there for them to see.”

Artists, says Hickey, are the hedgehogs in Isaiah Berlin’s famous hedgehog/fox analogy, and these interviews speak to that reality. “They know one big thing, the thing that drives the engine, that perpetually eludes articulation…We get the atmosphere, the filigree of little things, of accident and incident, of nuance and desire, that surrounds the enormous absence that the work of art must, necessarily, fill in our lived experience.”

What a welcome injunction: Fill it.


Ferrofluids: Images made with magnetic fluids and magnets

(To watch the creation of this image in action: click here)


Nooma 2, mixed media on wood panel

Some people are gifted with an ability to sit with a political or ideological opponent and have a meaningful conversation. I’m not one of those, which is probably true of most of us. We choose to spend most of our time with my like-minded tribespeople. It’s an easier path.

I don’t think this proclivity is always just about comfort and/or close-mindedness. I know for me there is a practical aspect to consider. Ask yourself: Have your views on abortion or the obligation we all have to care for each other ever been altered by a conversation with someone who approaches those issues from the other end? Rarely, right? So that human tendency to ghettoize around key issues is often pragmatic rather than just programmatic.

That said, here is an exception to that proclivity. Roger Kimball is a conservative cultural critic and stands far afield from my political and social beliefs. He has written a few jeremiads about the art world that are full of vitriol and contempt for contemporary art memes and trends. But in his book, The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art, there are a few moments where our sensibilities actually overlap in spite of his self-professed intention to “equip the reader with a nose for balderdash and absurdity.” A few passages are worth sharing here:

In one of his essays on painting, Henry James observes that “There is a limit to what it is worthwhile to attempt to say about the greatest artists”…The great occupational hazard for an art critic or art historian is to let words come between the viewer and the experience of art—to substitute a verbal encounter for an aesthetic one. As Clement Greenberg observed somewhere, art is “a matter of self-evidence and feeling, and of the inferences of feeling, rather than of intellection and information, and the reality of art is disclosed only in experience, not in reflection upon experience”…Often, the best thing a critic can do is to effect an introduction and get out of the way.

There are several reasons for this. One reason has to do with what we might call the deep superficiality of aesthetic experience. The experience of art, like the experience of many human things, is essentially an experience of surfaces, of what meets the eye. When it comes to such realities, the effort to look behind the surface often results not in greater depth but in distortion. The philosopher Roger Scruton touched on this truth when he observed that “There is no greater error in the study of human things than to believe that the search for what is essential must lead us to what is hidden.”

I have no argument with that point of view and particularly like the concept of missing depth and going to distortion. And don’t worry—I’m not smugly touting my open-mindedness. I revel in my subjectivity and have decided to eschew the pejorative connotations of that term. I don’t have a capacity for objectivity on those issues that matter the most. Embrace your subjectivity, that’s my motto. Or one of them.


Chocorua IV, 1966. Fluorescent alkyd and epoxy paints on canvas.
Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College
© 2010 Frank Stella/ Artists Rights Socety (ARS), New York. Photo by Steven Sloman.

In a recent review of the Frank Stella show, Irregular Polygons at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College, Boston Globe art critic Sebastian Smee ended with these words:

I myself really do admire Stella. There is such verve and liveliness in almost everything he has done. He has played the abstract game as well, as intelligently, and as thoroughly, as anyone. He has relished first abstraction’s self-sufficiency, and then its links with the outside world. And he has not been afraid to recognize its limits.

And yet other artists — even other abstract artists — so often look better. And when they do, it’s because their reasons for painting or sculpting the way they do go deeper. They’re more personal, more persuasive.

It’s not that you can’t feel temperament or personality in Stella’s work. His personality is too forceful for that. Rather, it’s that the personality you do feel is always floating away from the work. You’re feeling the restlessness of that personality, and — notwithstanding all of Stella’s spatial games — a sort of pond-skimming inability to puncture the surface of things.

His works are marvelous, and then they are not.

Ah, that ageless issue of taste. Of preferences. Of proclivities that make one artist more appealing to us personally than another. My good friend Carl, a lifelong Stella fan and about as knowledgeable on the man and his work as anyone alive, is so personally connected to Stella’s oeuvre that this dismissal by Smee was more than irritating to him. My response was that everyone who lives their life centered on the visual arts has their “anchor” artists, those two or three lynchpin individuals whose vision is so aligned to your own that you keep coming back to them over and over again. And Stella isn’t on Smee’s list, clearly.

Long ago I quit trying to achieve the highfalutin goal of detached objectivity and just surrendered to the subjectivity that runs my life whether I acknowledge it or not. Opinions about everything! Favorite foods, favorite movies, favorite artists—and oh so many topics to explore and choose favorites from. It’s feast of subjectivity.

My anchor artists? As a young art student the list was Henri Matisse, Mark Rothko and Richard Diebenkorn. Right this minute I’d say my list is Agnes Martin, Brice Marden and Richard Tuttle. But being the rampant subjectivist that I am, that could change tomorrow.

The dominance of the eye and the suppression of the other senses tends to push us into detachment, isolation and exteriority. The art of the eye has certainly produced imposing and thought-provoking structures, but it has not facilitated human rootedness in the world. The fact that the modernist idiom has not generally been able to penetrate the surface of popular taste and values seems to be due to its one-sided intellectual and visual emphasis; modernist design at large has housed the intellect and the eye, but it has left the body and the other senses, as well as our memories, imagination and dreams, homeless.

–Juhani Pallasmaa, from The Eyes of the Skin

Note: I am in New York for a few days. I have queued up a few small-scale directionals, gentle proddings that shift the way to view the familiar.

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This morning a group of us went to see the Shepard Fairey retrospective at the ICA in Boston. Having lived through the viral spread of Andre the Giant and the OBEY stickers and stencils in Boston and Providence, I had a preconceived idea about what it would be like to see his work assembled in the formality of an indoor gallery space. My expectations were low, I’ll be honest. Street artists, from Bansky to Os Gemeos, have achieved a very particular kind of cultural significance. But my curiosity and acknowlegement of their work were not bucketed with my personal artistic practices or intentions. Heavily iconized and graphic in nature, Fairey and his cohorts were using visual forms for a different set of intentions than I am employing with my work. Street art is political. Ironic. Cryptic. Sarcastic. All valid projects in and of themselves, but that’s not the program I’m watching in my studio.

The show at the ICA changed my view utterly. Shepard, while holding on to his populist and political roots, is a master collagist. The murals on display are layered and complex, full of innuendo and suggestion. I felt my resistance collapse into those surfaces immediately. His immense murals have gorgeous texturing with layers of newspapers, wallpaper, and recycled imagery, an amazingly delicate backdrop to his fist thrusting imagery.

The controversy around Fairey’s catapult from street artist to a museum retrospective—and around Fairey himself—is just so much added theatricity, although the meta of the meta is too ironic at times to not comment on. (Example: In these rooms full of “appropriated” images—many of them in litigation as I write this—visitors are not allowed to take any pictures of the works. And Shepard was arrested last night for two outstanding warrants as he arrived to DJ his show opening. Which of course could be a stunt in and of itself. Once again, the meta of the meta…) Putting aside all the Obama flywheel fame and urban legending around Fairey’s guerilla art tactics, Fairey is doing something extraordinary visually. He has found his way onto that fragile parapet between mass appeal and museum-quality (read: elitist) work. Between political content and a fresh and memorable aesthetic statement. Between an art that is detached and emotionally cool and one that is deeply engrossing and emotionally engaged.

From an interview with Fairey in the New York Times:

“I’m a populist,” Mr. Fairey said in an interview with a portrait gallery curator. “I’m trying to reach as many people as possible.”

“I love the concept in fine art of making a masterpiece, something that will endure,” he said, adding that he understood, too, how unlikely that is for anyone. “But I also understand how short the attention span of most consumers is and that you really need to work with the metabolism of consumer culture a lot of the time to make something relevant within the zeitgeist.”

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Included in the documentation for the show is Fairey’s 1990 statement about his work. Worth a read even nine years later:

The OBEY sticker campaign can be explained as an experiment in Phenomenology. Heidegger describes Phenomenology as “the process of letting things manifest themselves.” Phenomenology attempts to enable people to see clearly something that is right before their eyes but obscured; things that are so taken for granted that they are muted by abstract observation.

The first aim of phenomenology is to reawaken a sense of wonder about one’s environment. The OBEY sticker attempts to stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the sticker and their relationship with their surroundings. Because people are not used to seeing advertisements or propaganda for which the product or motive is not obvious, frequent and novel encounters with the sticker provoke thought and possible frustration, nevertheless revitalizing the viewer’s perception and attention to detail. The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker. Because OBEY has no actual meaning, the various reactions and interpretations of those who view it reflect their personality and the nature of their sensibilities.

Many people who are familiar with the sticker find the image itself amusing, recognizing it as nonsensical, and are able to derive straightforward visual pleasure without burdening themselves with an explanation. The paranoid or conservative viewer however may be confused by the sticker’s persistent presence and condemn it as an underground cult with subversive intentions. Many stickers have been peeled down by people who were annoyed by them, considering them an eye sore and an act of petty vandalism, which is ironic considering the number of commercial graphic images everyone in American society is assaulted with daily.

Another phenomenon the sticker has brought to light is the trendy and conspicuously consumptive nature of many members of society. For those who have been surrounded by the sticker, its familiarity and cultural resonance is comforting and owning a sticker provides a souvenir or keepsake, a memento. People have often demanded the sticker merely because they have seen it everywhere and possessing a sticker provides a sense of belonging. The Giant sticker seems mostly to be embraced by those who are (or at least want to seem to be) rebellious. Even though these people may not know the meaning of the sticker, they enjoy its slightly disruptive underground quality and wish to contribute to the furthering of its humorous and absurd presence which seems to somehow be antiestablishment/societal convention. Giant stickers are both embraced and rejected, the reason behind which, upon examination reflects the psyche of the viewer. Whether the reaction be positive or negative, the stickers existence is worthy as long as it causes people to consider the details and meanings of their surroundings. In the name of fun and observation.

The ICA is free on Thursday nights starting at 5:30. If you live in the Boston area, don’t miss this show.

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I’m off to New York for a few days. Before I go, I will share some thoughts about simplicity and transcendence. I am probably being drawn to this viewpoint as a way to counteract the commencement of a holiday season that often feels more garish and overstated than heartwarming.

“Translation,” wrote Kakuzo Okakura…”can at best be only the reverse side of the brocade–all the threads are there, but not the subtlety of color or design.” Few examples illustrate this better than the Japanese concept of wabi sabi. Westerners tend to associate wabi sabi with physical characteristics imperfection, crudescence, an aged and weathered look. Although wabi sabi may embody these qualities, these characteristic are neither sufficient nor adequate to convey the essence of the concept. Wabi sabi is not rigidly attached to a list of physical traits. Rather, it is a profound aesthetic consciousness that transcends appearance. It can be felt but rarely verbalized, much less defined. Defining wabi sabi in physical terms is like explaining the taste of a piece of chocolate by its shape and color to someone who has never tasted it. As long as one focuses on the physical, one is doomed to see only the back side of the brocade, while its real beauty remains hidden. In order to see its true essence, one must look beyond the apparent, one must look within.

The term wabi sabi is derived from two characters shared by Japanese and Chinese. Wabi originally means “despondence” and sabi means “loneliness.” These are words for feelings, not for the physical appearance of objects. The term embodies a refined aesthetic sensibility…

[Consider] the haiku by the eighteenth-century Japanese poet Yasano Buson:

From a mountain temple
the sound of a bell struck fumblingly
vanishes in the mist

This poem conveys a deep personal aesthetic consciousness, a bittersweet mix of loneliness and serenity, a sense of dejection buoyed by freedom from material hindrance. This is what wabi sabi feels like. And one can only experience it by turning the focus from outer appearance to look within. No wonder the Japanese struggle to explain wabi sabi; they try to tell how it feels, not just how it looks…

One only needs to look at Walker Evans’ photographs of the interior of an Alabama farmhouse, or Andre Kertesz’s images of shadows cast by empty chairs, or the central courtyard in Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu to recognize a similar aesthetic awareness. These artist speak to the audience through mutual understanding of their private emotions. Such a connection cannot be faked. A common fallacy is to believe an artist can artificially create a resonance with the audience with certain visual cues. Unless the work is a genuine expression of the artist’s feeling, the effect will appear hollow to the perceptive eye.

Wabi sabi is not a style defined by superficial appearance. It is an aesthetic ideal, a quiet and sensitive state of mind, attainable by learning to see the invisible, paring away what is unnecessary, and knowing where to stop.

Tim Wong and Akiko Hirano

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Mexico, 2007