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Self Portrait with Masks, James Ensor

It is easy for someone like me, who has been studying art for a lifetime, to convince myself that I have an accurate measure of the dimensions of a particular artist’s operative domain. But gratefully that conceit has not resulted in a callow disregard, and I love when my previous views have to be upended and rewritten. That’s how it felt to see the James Ensor exhibit (at the MOMA through September 21) this week.

It wasn’t the paintings that caused me to redraw the Ensor field of influence. In fact I classify many of his more grotesque paintings similarly to the work of Francis Bacon (also on exhibit in New York, at the Met)—historically significant and influential in their scope, but not a match for my aesthetic point of view.

But the drawings and etchings? That’s the side of Ensor that caught me immediately and held me in the show for hours. Without the plasticity of paint to veer into the grotesquery of an acid palette and harsh edged imagery, something emerges from Ensor that is emotional, sensationally powerful and utterly modern in its sensibilities. The line-based, mostly tonal pieces in this show are knock outs—exquisite etchings and small drawings, of which there are many on exhibit. Two drawings in particular stand out. These large pieces, never shown in the US previously, speak to and with his most famous painted masterpiece, “Christ’s Entry into Brussels” (which is too fragile to travel from its safe perch at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.) My favorite drawing, “The Lively and Radiant: The Entry of Christ into Jerusalem,” feels like a sourcebook for many artists that followed including Grosz, Dubuffet and Basquiat.

Holland Cotter’s description is a good one:

“The Lively and Radiant: The Entry of Christ into Jerusalem,” from 1885, is gigantic: nearly seven feet tall and done on a giant piece of paper. The setting is an immense proscenium theater, which is also a city street, with an army of helmeted extras marching toward us, the panicked audience. Signs hang everywhere, advertising art (“Les Impressionistes”), commerce (“Charcutiers de Jerusalem”), politics (“Mouvement Flamand”) and celebration (“Hip hip hurrah”). In the middle of the tumult, like a tiny light, is Jesus riding an ass.

An Ensor scholar could probably crack all the coding. And anyone who lingers over its scrim upon scrim of graphite lines will recognize a formal tour de force. But it’s more than that: it’s an entry point into conceptual and emotional realms with few clear guideposts. The drawing is, after all, absurd and freakish, like Rembrandt’s “Hundred Guilder Print” turned into wallpaper. Is the result in any way a devotional image? A social statement? A take-no-prisoners travesty?

What I love about this piece is its intensity. Yes, that cynical and angry Ensor subject matter is in full display, but it has more to offer than his outrage. The quality of his line, the density of his hand working on paper, the way the visual language transforms human passion and emotion—that is what stopped me in my tracks.

Every photographic image I have seen of this piece, online or in print, is deeply disappointing compared to the original. Its power is furtive. In many ways, that is true of Ensor in general.

More from Cotter’s review:

Although Ensor has long been a fixture in the art canon, he is also a fugitive presence. My guess is that a lot of people know his name without knowing quite who he is. Who can blame them? He’s hard to pin down. Gothic fantasist, political satirist, religious visionary: one minute he’s doing biblical scenes, the next the equivalent of biker tattoos, in a style that veers between crude and dainty…

He will certainly never be popular. He’s as much a visionary as van Gogh and a far more imaginative neurotic than Edvard Munch. But he was inconsistent in matters of style and polish. And he didn’t paint a “Starry Night” or a “Scream.” What he did paint — basically a medieval dance of death choreographed in personal, topical modern terms — most of us don’t relate to or want to hear about, though I suspect some artists do.

The MoMA survey…is an artist’s-artist show. It will appeal to anyone trying to negotiate an insider-outsider perch, anyone obsessed by violence and light, anyone who knows that loony is relative, that art is reality seen from a high small place, that the distance from a joke to a shock to a prayer is short.

To learn more about this show, here are several reviews and articles worth reading in full:

Holland Cotter in the New York Times

Valery Oisteanu in the Brooklyn Rail

Elatia Harris at 3 Quarks Daily

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Ganesha, festooned with the dried flowers of a Hawaiian lei, in my studio

Holland Cotter wrote a piece over the weekend in the New York Times on the state of the art world, The Boom Is Over. Long Live the Art! This article was not unlike about 20 others on the same topic that I’ve read over the last few months, from UK publications like the Guardian to art rags like Art Forum. It is a major topic everywhere you turn these days, the overnight collapse of the world’s most overheated art market.

It is a peculiar place from which to watch this massive imploding, a vantage point that I share with a number of cohorts and friends as well: Artists who are basically DIY small business proprietors. We’re the ones who do it all, on our own. We do our own R&D as well as making, marketing, promoting, distributing, inventorying, funding and accounting. We’re the small subsistence farmers who watch while international commodity traders collude in the agribusiness of corporate-run mega farms.

It’s not as 19th century pastoral as that metaphor might suggest, just as the small organic specialty farm has found a new “heirloom” or “artisanal” cubby hole that makes their survival going forward viable. I have a few thousand clients who have purchased my paintings. Most of them have come back and purchased more than one piece. But my operation is definitely artisanal rather than streamlined, handmade versus production-savvy. And while business is slow for just about everyone and everything these days, my modus operandi hasn’t really been disrupted by an economy that went square wave up and then, in a free fall of staggering proportions, went square wave down. For me it is still chop wood, carry water.

Reinventing art education as Holland Cotter has proposed (see the excerpt below) is one of many ideas I’ve seen proposed. But I don’t think the problems we are facing in the visual arts world are rooted in failures of the art school continuum, nor can they be addressed by shifting the emphasis of pedagogy in the art profession. Just as there will always be very badly written books that sell well, there will always be a category of art that is promoted for no other reason than profitability and the lure of greed. Just as I need publishing (be it self-styled or institutionalized) to also bring out great books that leave me altered forever, I likewise need enough breathing room in this small corner of the art economy to make my work, find a receptive audience and keep on keepin’ on.

And on that prospect, anything is possible.

From Holland Cotter’s article:

Which brings us to the present decade, held aloft on a wealth-at-the-top balloon, threatening to end in a drawn-out collapse. Students who entered art school a few years ago will probably have to emerge with drastically altered expectations. They will have to consider themselves lucky to get career breaks now taken for granted: the out-of-the-gate solo show, the early sales, the possibility of being able to live on the their art.

It’s day-job time again in America, and that’s O.K. Artists have always had them — van Gogh the preacher, Pollock the busboy, Henry Darger the janitor — and will again. The trick is to try to make them an energy source, not a chore.

At the same time, if the example of past crises holds true, artists can also take over the factory, make the art industry their own. Collectively and individually they can customize the machinery, alter the modes of distribution, adjust the rate of production to allow for organic growth, for shifts in purpose and direction. They can daydream and concentrate. They can make nothing for a while, or make something and make it wrong, and fail in peace, and start again.

Art schools can change too. The present goal of studio programs (and of ever more specialized art history programs) seems to be to narrow talent to a sharp point that can push its way aggressively into the competitive arena. But with markets uncertain, possibly nonexistent, why not relax this mode, open up education?

Why not make studio training an interdisciplinary experience, crossing over into sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, poetry and theology? Why not build into your graduate program a work-study semester that takes students out of the art world entirely and places them in hospitals, schools and prisons, sometimes in-extremis environments, i.e. real life? My guess is that if you did, American art would look very different than it does today.

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I came of age as an artist living in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Outside my Henry Street loft was a confluence of disparate cultures, each battling for turf in their own way. If you headed north, you ran into the remnants of the 19th century Jewish immigrants, and if you kept going you’d find the last bastion of the Italians in Little Italy. Heading west was Chinatown, south was Puerto Rican and east was African-American.

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For a long time it looked like the growth of the Chinese population was unstoppable and that Chinatown would be the heir apparent to this historic region. Little Italy fell first, then the Hasidic synagogues became Chinese churches and the infamous Garden Cafeteria—a favorite spot for writers at the nearby Forward Jewish Daily as well as Isaac Bashevis Singer in the day—became the Wing Shoon Seafood Restaurant.

But I was wrong. The winner was actually the next generation of hipster kids. My former loft building that once housed poor artists and sweat shops is now a handsomely appointed luxury building with an upscale design store where Jimmy used to fry up fish. The ethnic push and pull that I felt in the 70s is no longer the narrative.

For example, Holland Cotter’s New York Times overview of the art scene in my old hood captures some of the shift in the zeitgeist:

Among the art neighborhoods of Manhattan, the Lower East Side is by far the most picturesque. With its dusty synagogues, squeezed-together tenements, anarchist graffiti and shop signs in Yiddish, Spanish and Chinese, it’s a visual event whether you’re visiting galleries or not.

But the essence of a city is change, and this neighborhood is changing. The synagogues and signs are disappearing, along with the anarchist spirit and artist-friendly rents. Chic little bars and boutiques speak of rampant yuppification, although at the moment — and a sullen economy could prolong this — old and new are still trading places.

Art has its part in that negotiation, and always has. It both reflects and facilitates change. For more than a century the Educational Alliance on East Broadway has democratically provided instruction, studio space and exhibitions to artists. Important careers have emerged from it. Yet the sculpture on view in the alliance gallery now, though varied and energetic, smacks of an earlier generation. Contemporary Chelsea feels far, far away.

By contrast, Chelsea feels very close to another institution, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, which moved from far West 22nd Street to the Bowery a year ago. The museum exemplifies the developing boho-luxe mode of the Lower East Side. It makes a neighborhood that was once an alternative to establishment culture a welcoming home to that culture.

In line with this the museum is described as anchoring a local art scene, and in some sense it does, judging by the other Chelsea transplants clustered around it. Some, like Envoy, Feature, Thierry Goldberg Projects and White Box, have relocated. Others, like Lehmann Maupin, have opened second spaces here, joining galleries like Participant Inc. and Reena Spaulings Fine Art, which remain top attractions…

As in Chelsea, painting is dominant. And the New Museum sets the tone with two surveys, one devoted to the figurative painter Elizabeth Peyton, the other to the abstract work of Mary Heilmann. Enthusiasts of both will find agreeable things in galleries nearby.

Self serving perhaps, but I love Cotter’s line: As in Chelsea, painting is dominant. When I first arrived in New York City from California so long ago, Art Forum magazine sported a memorable cover that featured large block letters saying simply, PAINTING IS DEAD. No points granted for the art world’s powers of prognostication, nor for me in guessing where the LES would be in 2008.


(detail)

One of the most beguiling things I found while in India was palm leaf “books,” made from thin strips of dried palm leaves and threaded together to fold up accordion-style. Copies of this ancient tradition have been made into tourist souvenirs, but the early versions that we saw in museum collections are stunning. We also watched as monastery monks leafed through their own palm leaf texts while chanting.

Usually dealing with topics of a spiritual nature, these miniature commemorations pack a lot of power in the painstaking detail of the images as well as their compact and concentrated form.


Palm leaf books at Spituk Monastery in Ladakh

So it was with delight that I read Holland Cotter’s New York Times review of a small new show at the Met, “Early Buddhist Manuscript Painting: The Palm-Leaf Tradition.”

Here’s an excerpt:

Such practical features — size, resilience, portability — help explain why a similar form of palm-leaf art, the illustrated book, was popular in India between the 10th and 13th centuries. And they suggest why such books and their illustrations have survived into the present, while painting in more perishable media has not.

Even these books, though, are rarities. Of the huge numbers that must have once existed, only a fraction remain…Just under three inches high, it’s packed with detail. Each figure is dressed, as if for a hot summer day, in beaded see-through attire. The disciple, her skin a mango gold, smiles up at her savior while he makes a coy gesture with his hands as if playing a game of shadow puppets for her amusement.

All the palm-leaf manuscripts we know of are religious books, transcriptions of Buddhist scriptures, or sutras. A few sutras were favorites, and by far the most frequently copied one was “Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita,” or “Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Verses.”

Said to have been written — or spoken — by the Buddha himself, it was more likely compiled over centuries. Like many texts generated by an ardently proselytizing faith, it simultaneously had its head in the clouds and was down to earth.

On the one hand, the sutra defines wisdom as a transcendent consciousness, a state of ego-erasure so profound that the reality of emptiness as the ultimate fact of life becomes clear. To reach this understanding was the goal of monastic practice. It was to gain Buddha-level knowledge, which was the knowledge you needed to gain before you could do the one thing worth doing, which was to help others in need.

Balanced against this high-minded goal was another. “Perfection of Wisdom” also implied that a smart devotee might use the sutra as a kind of existential survival kit, a magical talisman. With its help you could ward off illness, accidents and other material harm. And you could acquire things: money, a spouse, an extra cow, healthy children, and lots of them.

So palm-leaf manuscripts, like most art, had multiple uses. They circulated spiritual information. They functioned as protective charms. They served as religious offerings, gifts from which karmic returns were expected. And they became objects of worship.

Prajnaparamita was not only a form of wisdom, but also a female deity who had roots in ancient goddess worship and was identified with the Buddha’s mother. The sutra itself explains that if the Buddha is kind enough to give you a book like this, you should “revere, adore and worship it with flowers, incense, unguents, parasols, banners, bells, flags and rows of lamps all around.”

A sheet from the palm-leaf book “Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita” (“Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Verses”), includes a tiny painting of a female disciple playing a game with a bodhisattva, a being who embodies perfect wisdom and love. The religious books, which originated in northeastern India, are transcriptions of Buddhist scriptures, or sutras.