December 12, 2010

The season’s greetings

Dear stray reader. That’s it for the year, I’m tucked in under the Christmas tree trying to write a dozen or so little texts that must make at least an attempt at coherence, since they will be published in a grab-baggy modern art primer. Here at my place in the new year, expect a slapfight between Lon Chaney and Marina Abramović, a painting by Tim Eitel, some short-circuited thoughts on art referencing art, Keith Rowe’s canned cultural templates, scary German architecture of the Bismarck-Gothic, and the story of my unrequited love for the comics medium. Or maybe none of these. Have a jolly good time.

December 6, 2010

Nothing can shock you anymore

Karl Hofer is a painter who believes you just have to stand a human figure on a canvas to arrive at humanistic art. And that that’s the only way to do it. In his effort, he’s helped out, but often also hindered by the fact that he paints in a style which renders features simplified until they’re deindividualized. His calm gaze sometimes makes for a low-key tenderness which can be very moving. But it can also develop into a pretty goofy kind of deadpan.

Of course, Hofer did not invent the slight abstractedness of figure himself. He was rather mainstream in this respect, even if it is always stressed that he was a solitary on the German scene. He was handed down the mask-like face from Ensor through the Brücke painters, and gave it a touch of 1920s social caricature. While in Ensor the mask still had a clear function as the expression of an other self-estranged self, while in Picasso and early Kirchner it energized the figure through primeval forces, somewhere through the Brücke development a mask-like face became more like a batch of the recognizably modern painter, it was the done way to portray the human face, and it no longer held a deeper amount of psychology. 

I tell you this because, if you please, take a look at Hofer’s The Touch Of Death from 1945. This was between the carpet bombings and the Russians, and I’m not sure that I can see it the way the artist intended it, try as I might. Or what kind of comics did he read? There’s a lot of narrative, notice the still full glass of absinthe (ah! Degas, Picasso) vs. the toppled glass, the embrace of death (ah! Baldung Grien e.a.), admire the triangular construction of lines that the gazes describe on the picture plane, from the analytical narrator directed toward his friend, then up and hitting us straight in our safe off-space in front of the image from the skull’s empty sockets, still—what for can all this art-historically informed construction work be? if the players are instructed to act the yokel in mute histrionics.

We’re ahead of ourselves, though, let us go back to the time the Nazis took power. Like many a German artist who thought they were inventing a new and expressly Germanic art, Hofer was very surprised when he was classified degenerate, he thought it was all by mistake, even though he must have been aware that he had been vocal against the Third Reich. This meant from 1933 on he was barred from all exhibitions or public sales. Since he always had one or two patrons, he could continue working, and he wasn’t forced to restrict his subject matter, as e.g. Otto Dix had to, who was only allowed to paint landscapes for years. Still Hofer’s world grew very small indeed, and he’s one of the artists that are often described as staying and working in Germany during the Nazi regime in a kind of “inner emigration.” That’s a loaded term, which was used to defend those who had stayed and therefore secured their sinecures immediately after the war against those who later came back from the US or elsewhere and threw a fit because all profitable positions were already occupied and major talent wanting to come back to Germany was more or less stonewalled. Anyway, however you want to judge the term, Hofer was a near-perfect specimen of a painter in inner emigration. As mentioned above, he felt he and his art were deeply German, so much so that to him it was “a deadly thought” (quote) to consider leaving the country, although his situation was not bound to change for the better, and he had previous experience living abroad, in Rome and Paris, before the first war. What’s keeping him in Germany? His letters show a man who was increasingly loath to even leave his home: “I can no longer stand the bodily presence of those people,” he writes in 1943. By the end of the war, he doesn’t even accept invitations from friends.

Man In Ruins from 1937 is a painting that inevitably often gets read as a premonition of the bombings and destruction to follow, but of course that kind of voodoo isn’t necessary since Hofer had seen the ruins of an earlier war, and it feels more natural to relate the image to the state of his own soul. In a letter from December that year he writes of “the bleak loneliness and hopelessness which is the worst thing that can happen to man. The only preparation against this is to fully understand the abysmal horror in its greatness and its all-destroying power, and then nothing can shock you anymore.” These are sentences that can be easily translated into the deadpan of the painting’s protagonist. (By the way, reading his letters, Hofer seems to have been self-centered to the point where inner emigration probably meant a natural habitat.)

The picture that strikes me as the most emblematic work from a painter in so-called inner emigration and for the concept itself is The Record Player (literally translated simply: Girl with Record) from 1939, the year the war started. It has such touching awkwardness, such a desperate grasping after what may remain of civilization in the sorry staging of a bohemian tableau. Actually, I am not sure if that bohemian aspect was on the mind of the artist at all, I only can’t keep it from mine. Judging the wall, we’re in simple surroundings, maybe a cellar where you can listen to forbidden music at volume without the neighbors overhearing you. A gramophone and records are on the table. And there’s the girl, in a blue underdress, her right shoulderstrap carefully slipped to appear lifelike, tired eyes, hair still damp after washing. She is holding a record, presenting it like something valuable. The label looks like it could be identified, so I ask Jonathan Ward from the wonderful blog Excavated Shellac what it is, and he says it is an Odeon, a German label that used this design with the gold semi-circle around the bottom half  from the 1920s to the late 1930s. By 1939 they would have been under strict Nazi control. Today an internet search after Odeons that look like the one in our painting throws up that the hands-down most popular recording artist on these is Richard Tauber, the Austrian Kammersänger who had emigrated in 1938 after the Anschluss and was persona non grata in Germany (because of that and of his Jewish ancestry). Would a viewer in 1939 read the record that way? I can’t promise you, but it stands to reason.

The record and the carefully bared breast, yes, they dream of Bohemia.

There is unfortunately another version painted two years later, and this time Hofer gets it all wrong. Everything allows a little more of the concrete: more room in a wider frame, more carefully fleshed-out face with eyes that annoyingly want to connect, more pout, too languid a pose, too firm a body. And, worst of all, I can’t read the record label. This painting has nothing going for it really except still a slight awkwardness.

Thankfully, things look up. Germany loses the war, Hofer helps reform a Berlin academy, becomes director in 1949. He bickers with the abstractionists. Or, both parties stick burning needles into screaming dolls of each other. 

In 1954, the year before his death, Hofer paints a girl with a record again. This time around, it seems like the topic does not really register with him, the painting is about circular forms, I guess, so the records come in handy. The artist had to be occupied mostly with questions of style, since this is really the first time that his paintings change. Hofer’s mature work had switched between the two closely related modes that the works shown above illustrate, sometimes a little more flat and somber, sometimes more rounded and anecdotal—but essentially from the 1920s to the 1940s he consistently and gracefully dulled down from hints of caricature to a resigned deadpan. Then suddenly, after the war, his work becomes directionless and very uneven, but open again for the times that he lives in. This girl looks so German 1950s it’s amazing—I know what her kitchen looks like (actually, there is another girl from the same period who I seem to remember grinds coffee in that kitchen, I’d show her if I could find an image, somebody out there, please? Edit: never mind, I found her). I watch the girl until I suspect she is solving the puzzle of how to open up the record, and her strength of forearm suggests that she will succeed.

Outside, they clear away the ruins, the happiest beings Hofer ever painted.

December 3, 2010

Beer under palm trees

I don’t remember anything. Which is okay, since this is a shout-out to a largely unknown painter.

We’re in Paris, I guess it’s 2004. We’ve done honest tourist work somewhere on the fringes of sightseeing, now we’re sitting in a café, relaxing. There’s a flyer on the table which says that exactly this afternoon the arrondissement we’re in will open its artist studios for anyone to visit. That’s great. Of course we don’t go for the art, we’re voyeurs who want to see how people live.

We get to see students’ dumps and garden houses hidden within city blocks where people have too much money and too much time. A maghrebian joint serves spice tea with the art. I have a vague recollection of walking into the particularly promising back entrance of a pretty ramshackle historicist building, wide stairs, plaster dripping from the vaults. We have to go all the way up, and there, behind an inconspicuous door that should lead to the attic, is paradise.

I mean, like I said, I don’t really remember this. Also you can’t separate the rooms from the fact that they’re in Paris, and no sane person should be able to afford them, but anyway, this must have been the most beautiful studio I’ve ever seen. Rather irregular, high windows following the roof slope to the back. A rather dark partition to the left (but then it’s getting night and we can see the city turn electric over the rooftops) where paintings are hung.

How were the paintings? Well, not great, but worthwhile. Figurative but with a twist to it that I can’t find a description of in my brain files. They looked rather like the work of a young man who’s just a little step away from hitting on something really good. So we were somewhat surprised when we met the artist himself, a very interesting looking seventyish man who still had the air of somebody with a motorcycle in his life. We didn’t really talk to him, because, well the art was not quite marvellous enough for the slow-burning ecstasy we felt at the fact of his existence. So we nicked a small catalog from 1976 and an invitation card from 1985, which is all he had to his name, and took our leave.

The internet doesn’t know much more about him than that old catalog. Werner Ritter, born 1933 in Basel, Switzerland, has a secure footnote in art history as one of the first generation of Swiss pop and a member of the Farnsburggruppe, a kind of smalltime secession that formed 1967 in his hometown (they have an archival website, in case you read German). By the mid-1970s, his style had arrived at something close to photo-realism filtered through a kind of heavy fuzz that seems informed by Gerhard Richter’s black and white work and today again looks pretty young, if not massively original.

The catalog (really just a brochure) is called Automobile, that’s German for cars, and it comes with a motto by writer Christoph Mangold, which roughly translated reads: “At home cars were parked even in the marmalade, under the pillow, in the fridge. The kids could not talk in complete sentences yet, but they already knew the names of the race drivers and the car brands.” There are only two color illustrations in here, but these seem to show a use of mauve and beige and pastel blue in these car pictures that chimes very well with the domestic motto. (Girl colors, as my own kid would have it, and which he would never use except to paint a present for his mother or some other girl. The artist is much freer.) I’ve selected a black-and-white image of an accident painting called Spalenring, though, which I much like because here real life has done its best to emulate an artistic translation of facts into aesthetic forms, and the painter just had to record life’s poetic license with the integrity of things in a realistic manner.

The only other evidence I carried from the studio was the invitation card from 1985 you see on top. I must admit, at first view I thought this was pretty gruesome stuff. But hey, the title of this is Beer Under Palm Trees, so it can’t be all bad. See how subtly these four folks trying to look purposefully businesslike are undermined (the blurry faces, the beer bottles on the floor), and how with very sparse means—just a few stray palm leaves and some girl-colored light on a shutter—their self-perception as extras from a Miami Vice episode is suggested . . . I think I do get what it’s about and why it needed to be painted, so it gives me pleasure.

I’ve found one newer image on the net. This is called Bunkoman and is from 2000 and looks like a transitory jumble of all kinds of motifs and styles (now I wonder why I seem to mention Picasso in almost every post here, but the old trickster seems clearly referenced through that). I think if I really strained I could read something allegorical into it, but frankly I don’t care for the thing, so I won’t. Now if only I could tell you what the 2004 paintings were like that we saw in the studio. Not like that, but they also were of people, not cars. And they were good enough to make us feel glad that here was a man who had his work cut out for him, who seemed to do his thing regardless of a lack of public recognition, and who stood in the most beautiful studio in the world and managed to make sense there and have deserved it all.

It says on the internet that now he’s back in Basel. That’s not something I would have wanted to know.

October 28, 2010

All stays in the family

I guess I can’t very well expect you to scroll through several generations of bourgeois ancestral back story for a work of art, which I would tell in the uninvolved mock-genealogist style best mastered by Balzac spreading boredom for a hundred pages before he cuts to the meat of his story—still, since Alexej Meschtschanow has answered my request for an image with the most unassuming piece I’ve ever seen from him (in Balzacian terms: the poor country cousin), I think we can’t avoid throwing a quick glance at its forebears if we want to understand what this family of fettered furniture stands for, or better, carries on its upholstered backs.

The forebear nearest to my heart (for sentimental reasons) is this club chair from 2004, from the second year of sculptural works in this mode, which has become a sort of trademark for Alexej. Here is a piece of furniture with much higher pretensions than the footstool above, one that I suspect would care whom it’d be seen with. Not that this lies completely within its own choosing, because it must live with—depending on how you judge the situation—a support to put its broken bones upright, or a structure of shackles to keep it in place. Of course it is both at the same time, and the balance varies from model to model, since Alexej builds an individual tubular steel support for each piece, subtly reacting on the character traits of the furniture it carries, until it’s like an externalized ornament determined to hold its own. Here, the front legs of the club chair are held in the firm grip of a steely echo of leather cuffs, and its tiny wheels dangle in the air helplessly. The white tubular steel frame with its hospital bed wheels and the very practical handle in the back overpower the club chair and force an added efficiency on it that, as added efficiency will do, puts us in a wistful mood (even if we welcome progress in real life).

What is remarkable about this chair and all the others, the buffet and the children’s bed, is that they all have their thing so tightly together. As a viewer you needn’t bring much, you needn’t know what it’s called or what the secret intention is; the art draws on your powers of empathy and proportionally rewards them. Because of their communication skills, some of these pieces have almost iconic potential, well, as long as all stays in the family. A family that still grows, and I for one do not tire of their growing numbers, since each is an utter individual.

So the artist has sent me the poor country cousin, which I guess needs some extra love, because people tend to overlook it. The photo above helps, it is taken roughly from the perspective of a small child just able to stand on its own feet and to whom every object still has an inherent monumentality. Also, to whom the fettered footstool has a droll face, with beady eyes and a mustachioed lower edge. This perspective we wouldn’t share as normal exhibition goers; our gaze from lofty elevation down to that humble piece of furniture would rather try to see something useful in it, despite of its art status. And succeed. (I see my kids brushing their teeth when I look at the work. Seems safe enough if too narrow for the both of them at once. Only, the material is not suited for bathroom tiles, you’d always have to place it on a mat or some such nuisance.) Also, the forms seem quite happy in their easy encounter: the tubular steel lovingly repeats the funny keyhole that adorns the top of the stool. Yes, I think this country cousin of our sadly optimized club chair seems to be a rather happy-go-lucky fellow, his supporting structure uplifting in all senses of the word. The simple and open relationship between the two borders on the symbiotic, improving chances of survival . . .

All of this plays so directly into my habit of reading artworks for their psychology (which of course is the correct approach) instead of asking what the hell they mean, that I almost might overlook the obvious fact that these objects are hybrid beings sawn together by some mad Frankensteinian genius in his sleepless nights, impotent monsters that carry their self-defeating functional enhancements on their sleeves for us to ponder. Which is one thing that we need from art: monsters, I think I said that before.

After Alexej had created such varied cast of characters, they stood around in galleries waiting to be assigned roles, and since 2006 this is what he has given them. His exhibitions have become quasi-narratives acted out by sculptures, like in the recent Feierabend show at Klemm’s in Berlin, where the lone chair, a tubular-steel Breuer descendant held matter-of-factly in almost balletic grip by its support, pores over the floor plan of the exhibition, masterminding the whole scene.

Again, pretending it’s all between the artwork and the viewer.

October 4, 2010

Our eyes above each other

So, following on the Magritte post somewhere upstream, this could be the second part of a new series called: artists that don’t speak to me at all, except they’ve done the one single piece which absolutely floors me, should floor anybody, and deserves top entry in the canon. And again, I remember slouching into a gallery room (this one in Bietigheim-Bissingen, if you really need to know), and being hit by the thing—most squarely against the eyeball not least because everything around from that same guy, Max Pechstein, was run-of-the-mill Brücke expressionism that could be categorized into its leanings to more idiosyncratic colleagues work by work (and I’m not exactly a sucker for German expressionism in the first place, most of it seems to have yellowed before its time, read: instantly).

There’s not a lot science I can do here really. Just register the love with which the indecision of the boy’s pose between defiance, or maybe just being cold, or maybe just having to squat has been rendered. And yes, his eyes are blank pits of the deepest deadest darkness, this is not just because I scanned a postcard. I didn’t even have a kid when I first met the painting, so the resonance was mostly with my own boyhood. I’m not sure how far out of Germany this really translates, but I played with houses like that that came down from my father, and all of the forms are related to a history that to me included the mysterious unspeakability of the Nazi past, but of course to Pechstein in 1916 they did not. Boy With Playthings this is called. They surround him like twelve dolors in almost military formation.

For some reason (mostly colorful), the sobriety, dignity, and all-around humanity of that little fellow (only three years old when he was painted, at least that was the age of the artist’s own son then), to me goes so very well with a late Picasso painting from 1969, sort of a self-portrait as a spoilt child with a rapier and flower as his own playthings . . . While the Pechstein is much greater art, these two offset each other’s charms so very well.

(I really don’t know what to do with verticals on this blog, they look so bad. I mean, what’s the idea anyway, why would anyone do verticals in the first place, it’s not like our eyes were set above each other, is it?)

October 3, 2010

To drown and never be heard of again

This is the first post in a small series where I invite artists I know and like to send me an image of something they’ve done without much information except the technical data. I will then proceed to wrack my poor brains and see how far I get. The above image will in any case be the easiest of the run, since I’m probably the world’s leading expert on Rudolf Reiber. Ha! So much so that while I had not seen his Caromboat (2010) before he mailed me the photo, it already felt familiar, because he once had told me over a beer: “I’m taking a boat next and will be putting a billiard tabletop in it.” I immediately retorted with what every sane person would think, as long as they’d be anchored to the real world by a beer: “What in the hell would you want to do that for?” And like most of the good artists I know, Rudolf didn’t launch into a lecture about boats and billiards and their inherent meaning, but just said: “Wait. It’s gonna be good, you’ll see.”

I probably should have spoiler-tagged the image above. Because, let’s stay with the artist’s declaration of intent for the moment: it can actually prove a ballast pretty hard to throw overboard—and has been for me. I sort of had to reacquaint myself with the reality of a project that had seemed sort of exhausted once I had turned Rudolf’s description of it over in my mind for a couple of times. While it’s very easy to translate this piece (like many of Rudolf’s) into immediate words, I certainly wouldn’t choose the Caromboat to explain what the he’s up to to anyone, it just doesn’t sound good enough in words. I’d rather mention the work where he put an alarm system on an empty gallery wall, or the one where he blotted out all the stars in the sky of a Thomas Ruff artprint. These two seem much better when you translate them into words, because they’re more meta, they relate to Yves Klein exhibiting a void, or Rauschenberg erasing de Kooning, and all of that is mothered not by Cage’s silent piece itself, but by Cage saying that the audience didn’t have to experience the work personally, it would be enough to know it existed. That is to say, we’re on safe ground.

Anyway, I simply couldn’t help judging Rudolf’s piece before actually seeing it. And it didn’t make for a good story. While this is art you sometimes can easily put into words, these words can top the work like a bad haircut.

To continue in the same mold, I should probably have written about it blindfolded. Rudolf sowing the references, me reaping the connotations. The boat is almost too easy, German romanticism, Böcklin, but also Dante, Homer (Winslow as well as the Odyssey dude), Jerome K. Jerome, Hitchcock, you name it: a boat is a vessel to carry meaning. And then billiards . . . well, actually I have to seriously mention one table there, because else you wouldn’t trust me anymore, and that is from Gabriel Orozco. The artist made it elliptical and constructed a setting where the red ball sort of bombs the other two from above. Elliptical table of course stands for the world; apart from that the work seems about the game itself to a surprising degree, it’s like the revenge of the red ball, that’s the one you usually don’t play, is it?

While now I could go on and list the similarities and differences between the two works, it would get me nowhere, because the objects modified in these pieces that can be translated into simple sentences do not really seem susceptible to classical iconography, they’re still too much the things they were before they ever dreamed about becoming art when they’d grow up. They represent reality that’s been willfully screwed with (and I’m sure the beer still figures in here somewhere).

[Interlude: When my brother and I became old enough to spend our afternoons in front of the tv screen, as is proper, our family suddenly had a sort of spare playroom. It wasn’t sufficiently large for table tennis, so they decided to get a smallish pool table. While that soon became no more than another powerless tool to try and kill time with, the table always kept a certain media-supported glamour (The Hustler!), something of an elementary coolness (plus on the few occasions when later in life I was in a situation to play, I proved myself rather more adept than most of my unsuspecting playing partners). Though the thing standing there through my early teen years means I of course will never again have a desire to play again, I still remember its green surface with fondness, it speaks to me of the profound luxury of boredom, that is the privilege of youth. (Both of which I’ll never enjoy again.)]

So now, instead of having everything figured out beforehand, I will actually have to think about the thing, because I have a photo. Look above. (I haven’t seen the darn canoe in the flesh, by the way, and I don’t intend to, and anyone who tells you that you can’t talk about art which you haven’t seen in the original is a capitalist dead bent to destroy the frigging ozone layer. I’m serious.)

Part of what immediately endears me to the boat is that I know how they do the so-called Gartenschau, the landscape park on parade, here in Germany. Carefully groomed recreational areas within city limits—touched up not to provide little pockets of nature with prescribed viewing points like in English gardening, and not to rape nature just to prove the superiority of reason like in French gardening, but to furnish the green, make it inoffensive, habitable, and mildly useful. Within that, the boat is really an outpost of art in public space in general, which is usually about power structures—and you could argue that the best examples of that sad genre are probably the most reprehensible in their gender policies, but that’s for another post.

So rather, let’s walk the knoll like Diderot used to walk the academy into a painting, looking not for motif and meaning, but for psychology. The Caromboat is like a creature, maybe restricted in the sort of sense it makes, or rather, a mutation maybe senseless in itself (like all good mutations are before evolution harnesses them), and one that will not reproduce—there will be no billiard boats throughout the history of art like there are ferries into the nether lands. But there it is, and it has a vibe.

The boat houses three billiard balls that have an inclination to react against the elements together, they huddle more than they smack each other, they wouldn’t want any outright confrontation, that would be more drama than they could take. (The lake they live in might be small by objective standards, but it is completely sufficient for a billiard ball to drown in and never be heard of again.) So the balls seem to depend on each other. They stay close, following each other’s movements; there’s nothing they can do against their situation, but they can gain some solace from a solidarity which stands in opposition to the game they were originally created to serve.

Any object with sufficient mass creates gravity that longs for company from any other object.

But Rudolf, what if it rains?

September 18, 2010

Blown about the desert dust

When I recently searched this painting out again, it struck me that while I remembered the composition rather well, my mind had added colorful detail to the bear on the left: I was absolutely sure it would have a bloody snout and paws. Which of course doesn’t even make physical sense; and without the additional gore, it’s a much better painting. Still it’s clear where that mental image grew: the famous Tennyson verse from In Memoriam, where man was a creature “who trusted god was love indeed / and love Creation’s final law,— / tho’ nature, red in tooth and claw / with ravin, shrieked against his creed.”

The painting is better with paws licked squeaky clean, but it still strikes a precarious balance between gloating grimness and operatic smugness—the bear on the right relishes the tasty spare rib of an explorer with eyes closed in histrionic satisfaction. Think what a strange subject for a painting that really is, two ice bears devouring the frozen bodies of the members of a polar expedition, sort of seen from the animals’ vantage point. When Edwin Landseer painted this in 1864, the fate of John Franklin’s doomed 1845 expedition in search of the North-West passage was still very much on the public mind (the full story became official only in 1859), and it seems the artist made several references to the actual reports (the weather, the impotent rifle, etc.) that left no doubt whose bones the animals were chewing on. Is that what the artist wanted to offer, a graphic illustration of a miserable fate, now creep yourself out?

Don’t trust an artwork until you’ve read the title. And that is: Man Proposes, God Disposes. That’s really really grim. These polar bears are god’s cleaning squad, removing the remains of a human ambition that has of course rightfully been thwarted by the higher being. And they get to enjoy themselves doing it high time. The theme jibes rather well with the Tennyson quote above, both works are partly products of a first wave of Darwin reception. Only that Tennyson shrieks in pain against the slaughter that god will endorse, while Landseer seems to offer an ultra-puritanical stance which rejoices in the misfortune of those who seek a truth outside of scriptures. Luckily, it doesn’t work this way. God just adds a spiritual dimension to the horror. “It may be questioned whether the representation is not too purely harrowing for the proper function of art,” the Illustrated London News noted at the time. The public loved the painting and shuddered with delight. It is a pure (and successful) exploitation painting. And after the violence, here’s the porn:

It was good for both of them. This is The Shrew Tamed from 1861 and must be the most blatantly postcoital painting ever. Which one’s the shrew? The woman would have been read by the cognoscenti of the times as one Catherine Walters, highly celebrated close-to-last courtesan in London. Again, the critics did notice a deviation from the proper function of art in this portrait: “A high-bred horse of soft silken coat, dappled with play of light and shade as on velvet—subdued by a ‘pretty horsebreaker,’ is certainly unfortunate as a subject.” More remarkable than the subject itself, and perhaps more unfortunate for the critic, is the bearing of the horsebreaker, that of an independent, even dominant but carefree woman. The painting seems to celebrate her freedom, which comes with the privilege of an outsider status that is the product of projection from those powerful enough to be bored by the society they rule. 

The courtesan’s spaniel on the hay takes the position of a leopard in an earlier painting, Isaac Van Amburgh And His Animals from 1839, whose composition is sort of abbreviated in the later work. Alerted as we now are to the rather free and easy play with gender and sexual signifiers, it becomes difficult not to see van Amburgh as staging a rather decadent tableau here. It is interesting that the animal tamer’s reputation (allegedly he was the first to deliberately put his head in a lion’s mouth) does not suggest his stage act fit the somewhat effeminate image. On the contrary, when he came under attack for spreading cruelty and moral ruin in his own country, the United States, van Amburgh quoted the Bible, “Didn’t God say in Genesis 1:26 that men should have dominion over every animal on the earth?” and continued to mistreat his feline wards, and who knows maybe the lamb too. He was usually portrayed in not quite so languid a pose, among other artists by Landseer himself, but rather as a tyrant within the empire of his cage. I would guess that our portrait was part of a public relations program, since there is another by Landseer, where van Amburgh is shown caring for his flock like a good shepherd.

Again, who’s the shrew (here the tamer tamed?), anyway Landseer seems to go about his job with such evident gusto, delivering the limp hero in somewhat faggish terms, that I suggest the painting very well knows what plush abode it is setting up. See the strangely subdued society visible without the bars, are their looks not disapproving of that bohemian lifestyle of the fop within who shares his diggings with the viewer?

I’ve dwelled on these two paintings partly because I find it much easier to see an intelligent painter at work in a sort of frivolous painting than I do in kitsch (and of course much of Landseer’s main oeuvre to us today comes across as maybe quaint and able but definitely on the queasy side). The intelligence of this painter has been described by John Ruskin in his rather famous eulogy on The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner from 1837 (which I’m not showing, because it’s, well, oh so corny). “Here the exquisite execution of the glossy and crisp hair of the dog, the bright sharp touching of the green bough beside it, the clear painting of the wood of the coffin and the folds of the blanket, are language—language clear and expressive in the highest degree. But the close pressure of the dog’s breast against the wood, the convulsive clinging of the paws, which has dragged the blanket off the trestle, the total powerlessness of the head laid, close and motionless, upon its folds, the fixed and tearful fall of the eye in its utter hopelessness, the rigidity of repose which marks that there has been no motion nor change in the trance of agony since the last blow was struck on the coffin-lid . . . these are all thoughts—thoughts by which the picture is separated at once from hundreds of equal merit, as far as mere painting goes, by which it ranks as a work of high art, and stamps its author, not as the neat imitator of the texture of a skin, or the fold of a drapery, but as the Man of Mind.”

My favorite of the corny paintings is Saved from 1856. (Yes, that image looks kind of fishy, I couldn’t find another one. There’s something wrong with that dog, see the displaced front paws. Oh, but it’s a Newfoundland of the kind that has since taken over Landseer’s name, so . . . ) If I tried to analyze what makes this painting special for me, I’d have to think on Ruskin’s terms. The relaxed pose of the rescued boy (who’s unconscious yet) tells the story of how shortly before his struggle for life would end in exhaustion he suddenly realized he would be saved by a Newfoundland ex machina—and then the boy just let go and passed out. That, Ruskin says, is thought, but no matter how convincingly rendered (and, yes, subtle), I cannot see it as thought exactly, it’s such a cheap story. The highest thought in the painting, judging by the Ruskinian method anyways, would be the expression of the dog himself (I’m sure it’s a he). When I stare at his mouth I feel my tongue loll in exhaustion, my gaze strays, my brow begins to knit and my ears fall back behind me. Supreme though rules the dog’s one visible eye. It can be translated into several sentences that to me read: “Lord have mercy, I’m getting too old for this job. I know that you know and I know that I will do it again, and it will be the death of me. But you’ll grant me one more, I’m sure of that, we have a deal.”

So I detect the special quality of these works exactly at the point where Ruskin places it—in the gaze, in the poses, in the anthropomorphization of dogly details—but I no longer read them as thoughts. What I do read into them is an animation of animal psychology that is really a forebear of comics, the kind of cuddly comics that lets men have dominion over all the animals of the earth and sort of peaks with the Disney brand. (I’m foolishly dropping this here by the wayside, is there a history of comic books aware that John Ruskin had postulated a philosophy of the genre roughly contemporary with the first Rodolphe Töpffer publication?)

What is also interesting is that here we are at the exact opposite of our view of creation from what the first polar bear painting said. Now we have Nature flossed and pedicured. But it doesn’t matter. Like our Ruskin paragraph seems to suggest, the proper function of art works from the largest possible amount of narrative, and aims to bring in more narrative through means fair and foul, details and titles. The nature of that narrative will be secondary, as long as it related to man.

Funnily (but no, it’s not surprising), Landseer needs none of that. Here’s The Desert, a painting from 1849:

Study of a dead lion, is it? No, it’s much more. And Tennyson chimes in, we take him up at the exact spot we left him. He now wonders, should man “who loved, who suffer’d countless ills, / who battled for the True, the Just, / be blown about the desert dust, / or sealed within the iron hills?”

The answer has bitten the dust.

(PS: I've posted some follow-up thoughts on Landseer's Saved, paintings of apes, dinosaurs, and their fitness for the evolution of comics here.) 

September 6, 2010

Falling asleep update

Now 16 months old, my younger one will approach the bed in the evening of his own free will, throw his darling fox into it, look after it longingly for some time, then demand to be let in. Immediately regret sets in, and he will demand to be let out again. After two or three times back and forth, he will rest one cheek against the fox, pull his knees forward and lever up his behind, and hum himself into sleep on a tritonic scale or gently mumble. His favorite syllable for that is blah, mocking all his yet unuttered words he has just started to learn.

August 10, 2010

Silencing the old blunderbuss

If ever the work of a painter needed to be retold and all visual evidence trashcanned, Magritte is the man. It doesn’t even help that he’s aware. “I always try to make sure that painting doesn’t draw attention to itself, that it’s as invisible as possible. I work like a writer who strives for a simple voice, refusing all stylistic effect, so the reader cannot see anything beyond the idea that I want to express. The painting itself remains hidden.”

It also doesn’t help that Magritte painted a pipe which says it isn’t a pipe but a welcome introduction into sort of conceptual art and illusion for gullible abecedarians.

I well remember walking into a room in a Brussels museum and being hit by that thing above. It’s who? Magritte? It’s when? 1948? Is that even possible? How can he, way before pop art, or the affichistes, or most anything else with a feel for the sublime in the low in art, understand the power of comic books so well as to condense their spirit into a single image? This is as good as the reformed Guston would become, but Magritte had it way harder to get there. There is really nothing halfway related, except for the fact that Picabia had painted his magazine nudes by the early 1940s, which are not as worthwhile as images themselves, but a similarly surprising anticipation of much more contemporary tactics in art on canvas.

The painting belongs to a work group called the période vache, which Magritte completed within five weeks for his belated first solo exhibit in Paris. The critical consensus seems to be that he was giving the Paris art world the finger. I can sort of believe that when I look at the work group as a whole, really there’s only one other painting that I like, again historically surprising, since this was painted 30 years before the invention of the Duracell bunny. I’m not into the other paintings any more than into Magritte’s default mode, which he would return to immediately after this exhibition. I’m only into the one painting.

There is too much love there, it cannot mean the finger. It’s called The Ellipsis, but it doesn’t feel as if anything had been left out. There’s that shadow of distrustful amazement where the barrel hits the face. There’s the relaxed tenderness of the disjointed right hand resting on the rather tense left. There’s the interplay of eyes—I sort of wish the one staring out at us from within the hat wasn’t there so very obviously, but it carries so many implications, so much of the artist as he would know himself, checking in on the new-found guy who easily knocks off a painting per day, that it really adds a whole new layer of meta fiction.

I followed a notion and googled the possible German word “Pistolenschnauze” for this post. I hit on this automatically translated excerpt from a novel by one B. M. Bower:

“Casey sah nach unten und sah, dass das, was er danach erklärte, war, das mittlerster sehender Mann auf der Erde, das Richten des Breitesten gerade bei ihm machte Schrotflinte, die er je in seinem Leben gesehen hatte, mundtot. Sein Fänger verlagerte die Pistolenschnauze zum Rücken von Casey Hals und stocherte das Keuchen herum, bärtiger alter Mann mit seiner Zehe.”

Let me translate that back: Casey looked downward and saw that what he would later explain was the middlest man who saw on the earth, silencing the blunderbuss he had ever seen in his life, adjusting it at its broadest. His catcher shifted his muzzle face to the back of the Casey neck and poked around his wheezing, bearded old man with his toe.

Which fits the present context pretty amazingly.

August 9, 2010

The ugliest music I’ve ever heard

I posted something like this elsewhere in July 2007, shortly after my second Ivo Pogorelich concert in two years:

We saw him in 2005. He was my woman’s favorite pianist, she’d caught him live every possibility, so I was prepared that he had developed in strange ways since his pretty idiosyncratic last record in 93 or so. She warned me that the experience probably wouldn’t be overwhelming, since no pianist can really fill the Gewandhaus here in Leipzig with sound, but it should be deep, even if Scriabin and Rachmaninov for the second half didn’t exactly make my mouth water. But, to start with, there would be a mix of Chopin pieces, then a sonata.

A grumpy looking bald guy slouches in boxer style. We’re making ourselves comfy. Then he hits a single ugly note, then something hits me, and I’m struggling to get a grip of what’s happening here.

It feels incredibly slow. And very bleak, cold at heart. The only association I have is Loren Connors, tones emerging from a forlorn center, reaching out, trying to connect but dying before they can, opening up spaces. It sounds nothing like Chopin, though the tune is somewhere beneath the slow chords, played like under the breath, with incredible virtuosity, but more as a background. Pogorelich moves through minimal gestures, staring on the keyboard with intense concentration, and after a while it seems like he’s able to choose which notes to pick out of the text and lift them into those slow chords in real time; there is a improvisatory element to his choices.

As if that weren’t complicated enough, a third layer unfolds, one of ugly treble notes that Pogorelich punches out aggressively, one every couple of measures or so. It takes me a while, but when I start to hear them they fall into very slow melodic lines. Once I notice, listening gets really complicated. Pogorelich might start another part of the composition within the main text of his playing through a break, but then the next high note hits as a logical progression from the one before stuff wound down, and the mind’s ear has to paddle back and hear a transition instead of a break, trying not to lose the thread that keeps proceedings together all the while.

I try closing my eyes to concentrate better, but then I understand nothing—I have to watch his hands to keep a grasp.

He mixed all the pieces into each other, no pause for applause or anything, then a quick bow and off he slouched. We picked our jaws from the floor and drunkenly stumbled into intermission. (I should note here that while the above is mostly my own attempt to make sense of musical proceedings and you shouldn’t trust me, my woman is a pianist and knows these pieces inside out, and she was hit just as hard. There were tons of musicians in the audience, many of whom hated it, one mumbling, “That’s the ugliest music I’ve ever heard,” another, “I don’t want to hear music I don’t understand.”)

With us, exhilaration slowly set in. Classical classical concert pianists usually just don’t do this kind of thing. There are of course many who do “eccentric” interpretations. Those who play a more modern repertoire are different animals anyway, but Pogorelich always played only the chestnuts often in these “eccentric” interpretations. This was a completely different experience, though. It was radical, like taking the pure text of the music, taking it completely out of context, and building new sense out of it from the root up. It was the greatest thing that somebody from the so very conservative recital scene (and as indicated above, musicians can’t just challenge themselves by playing contemporary composers when they’re really part of that beat, it’s just not within their mind frame, it’s a different world) felt the need to keep pushing until Chopin was the most challenging music on the planet.

But there was no joy in his interpretation, it was too intense, almost desperate, there were some really bad vibes coming from the stage. Then again, we were sure, he couldn’t do it again after intermission, it was just something that had happened due to mood glitches. He couldn’t do it with Scriabin and Rachmaninov.

He did it again. The Scriabin was even more bleak, but more pure, as more of the text could be put into the slow chords, and as it’s colder stuff to begin with. Again, no break, but straight into the Rachmaninov where sometimes incredibly fast stride passages were clashing into the mood, and the long finale had lost all its virtuosic aspect and was more about punishing the piano with force and precision. We were completely exhausted from trying to listen, from trying not to miss anything Pogorelich was doing. It really seemed like a superhuman effort, like in some 70s flic where a mutant brain can change the course of asteroids or shake down cathedrals by sheer will power—if only the brain cells won’t melt before.

Then it was over, some people freakin’, most just doing the clapping game like they always do—we ourselves were too washed out to really applaud. No encore, what more was there to say? We stumbled out into the night and from then on Pogo was the family patron saint, and we invoked his name whenever we did something half-assed (which of course means he was around a lot).

Yesterday he played the Gewandhaus once more. He couldn’t do it again. Or could he? My woman had a nightmare in which he took things even further, but luckily she didn’t remember the details.

He wouldn’t even try. A Brahms Intermezzo was just that, an endless transition between nowhere and no place special in a mock-romantic gesture that seemed slightly ironic. Then he slept through a Prokovjev, ogling the sheet music (of course he’d played by heart two years ago). Technically wondrous, yes, and some nice unforeseen passages, but he made no sense. It was as if he were trying out possible angles on the piece but too tired to follow things up. Intermission. I was depressed. My woman was relieved as her nightmare hadn’t come true and earth still survived.

The second half started with three dances by Granados. Now the early Benedetti Michelangeli could play something like this and miraculously transform it through impeccable taste and touch. Pogorelich gave it the whole works. My interest actually picked up by the third time he was flying with full flags through an unspeakably banal chorus, my woman was rather more pissed off, still we agreed: guy’s making fun of us, must be. At least he’d woken up and now he gave an ice-cold rendition of Gaspard le Nuit that went deeper than everything he’d played before, but in the end it was depressing, the interpretation following nuance for nuance what he had recorded 20 years ago, only cooled down here to where there’s no feeling. (Actually I found that piece very impressive but I don’t want to know what it implied about the mood of the performer.)

This time an encore, don’t ask me, it did involve lots of notes.

Right now we’re a sad household. You could suspect that Pogorelich just is a somewhat arrogant dude who tries his stuff out in public, so during that he’s lukewarm, but once he’s mastered all the innards of the tunes he’ll slay you. I don’t think so, since he played stuff he’d done before. If you consider his personal tragedy, and the fact that he will usually have received no love for his more extreme and beautiful take on things—somehow it really felt like he had given up, like he no longer knew what he was on stage for but he vaguely remembered the motions. And he probably doesn’t even know what it could have meant to two folks up in the wings—and since the man seems to be the saddest man on earth, that’s what we want to tell him: you sailed around the moon single-handedly, and it fucking matters.

August 8, 2010

Drowsy mind of the creator

Some rooms into Olafur Eliasson’s Inner City Out exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, I’m hit by a very depressing vision. First let me ask, are you aware of the myth of the Studio Eliasson? It’s often portrayed as an experimental laboratory: scientists selected for their degree of madness meet with modelers selected for their degree of geekdom, all donning white overcoats to experimentally verify which of nature’s laws will translate into forms that secretly advance mankind while pretending to do no more than tickle the aesthetic funnybone. But lo and behold, here in front of us is a table littered with tons of small models that look like hesitant little mathematical formulae glued together from parts of plywood, with little filmic projections on their irregular surfaces that relate the model as it lies there to the single moment in its life when it seemed to make some sort of sense to the drowsy mind of its creator, before it had to take on the status of art straight-faced . . . It’s sort of sad—because all that the accumulated brainpower within the Studio Eliasson can come up with appears to be mildly schematic-looking bric-a-brac. When what we really needed from art was the birth of a monster glued together from the rotting remnants of the applied sciences.

Perhaps that is too much to ask. The exhibition is a good arrangement of well-timed one-liners, and some of them work very well. When I look into the Mercury Window, a huge bumpy mirror facing me in an early room, the reflections indeed behave like quicksilver due to the irregular surface of the piece. Is that science already? Or a metaphor on whoever steps in front of it? It’s not the only work where the viewer gets to act out a part, but since our reflections or outlines mostly tend to be aestheticized here, I’m not sure if they get us anywhere beyond the constrictions of our silhouette. (At least my colored quintuple shadow up against the wall looks kind of cooler than most of the stages-of-an-ape-developing-into-modern-man-during-mid-gallop schematics, I grant you that.)

Curator Daniel Birnbaum stresses that in works like these you don’t have an art object to look at. You have a very simple arrangement of conditions, with a row of spotlights on the floor, and the work is sort of the meeting that takes place between the viewer and a space carefully prepared by the artist. Which in theory means that the manifestation of the work could be somehow open-ended. In reality each viewer becomes alike.

It’s probably most fruitful to understand the best part of the exhibition as op art extended into space and situation, where you try to decipher the aesthetic rules a work follows, then try to decide if these rules make the work look either good or bad, or if they don’t matter at all except that they help you recognize the artist and tag stuff accordingly. But somehow the looks of these simple arrangements and apparatuses were the only thing that interested me on a deeper level. I became more interested in the machinery that seemed to want to hide behind the image, it seemed the obvious point worth pondering over. Because many of the pieces sit quite uncomfortably between slick high-production values and a careless sketchiness that suggests an idea is more valuable than the finished work. Would the art be better if everything had been pimped up to hectoring perfection? Or more plainly, if there had been more money spent? Maybe so, there was a whole wing drowned in colored fog, titled Your Blind Movement—this could have been a thoroughly emotional walk through psychedelic John Carpenter territory, except for the wood paneling of the floor, which refused to lend itself to out-of-your-mind experiences and patiently told you, dude, you’re still in a museum, just follow the grain and you’ll be fine.

That same question of production values also applies to the centerpiece of the exhibition, Mikroskop, pictured above. You have to enter through its behind-the-scenes, a huge scaffold covered with some sort of plastic sheets, so you’re sort of warned as what to expect, space wrapped in itself cheaply. Still, when you enter the room, it seems vast, the light seems glorious, the space seems vague but connected to something out there, up there . . . until . . . you regain your senses and start to connect all the dots and explain the illusion to yourself. Which happens rather quickly, and the moment you go into these details, the whole thing is no longer that aesthetically pleasing. The visible section of the dome doesn’t seem cut out very well, some of the braces are interrupted rather rudely, some seem left hanging . . .

Anyway, the artist states in interviews that the work is situated right at the central theme of his exhibition: Inner City Out. Through the glass dome the Berlin light shines and is supposed to let in some of the spirit of the city. Of course it sort of does, by power of pure situatedness, but the glass is frosted, which renders the light as anonymous as sunrays can possibly become, and the whole arrangement really doesn’t feel particularly communicative. Forget about circumstance, the title of the piece is much more evocative: Mikroskop, and if it’s a microscope, we’re the little specks caught down there in a drop of liquid on a slate, being watched dispassionately by a giant blind eye from above which refracts its thirst for knowledge into a kaleidoscope of blank screens. This is a reading that translates into pure emotion for a split second before spatial orientation sets in, and we’re back into a dome wrapped by mirror foil (remember that wood paneling on the floor in the other room as a similar distraction?).

If the inner-city-out theory immediately falls flat (imho, obviously), I’m left in a room covered with thin reflective plastic skin drawn tightly over standard scaffolding, reflecting rather good but not knock-down-dead late 19th century architectural engineering, the sky, and unfortunately myself over and over (and how can an army of scientists be not aware that my presence in an artwork destroys all of its deeper meaning. Wait, where was I?). That plastic skin produces wrinkles and crackles that quickly become the aesthetic focus of the room (schooled as we have been in op-art tactics through the warped mirrors etc. earlier in the exhibit). It’s optic glitch in an analogically produced virtual distance. One could use that as a metaphor and label the piece as lo-fi poetry built out of a grand idea executed in carelessly applied mirror foil.

And that’s really the point for me. I do suspect quite a percentage of the work on display is manufactured to elicit spontaneous gasps of aesthetical appreciation. But within the pretty confused mock-scientific invitations to easy ogeling, there’s some rather serious poetry collecting at the fringes. Growing like mildew, one would hope, and rotting the studio myth from the inside out.

May 1, 2010

To not fall asleep

This blog is named in homage to my twelve-month old, for whom delaying sleep is the major objective in life. He has developed considerable strategical cunning. He won’t lie down in the pram but sit in a position that will make him fall flat on his face when sleep overpowers him. If the pain doesn’t instantly bring him back, he can trust that it’s a sight I just cannot bear and that I will try to move him into a different position, which effort will wake him up again. If he cannot keep the sitting position for weariness, he will lie sideways with his teeth hooked into the railing, so that every bump in the sidewalk will give him pain, and every curb makes him bleed from the mouth. Then, when despite all his efforts he’s down to reserve power, he will start blindly climbing over the side, hoping for an adrenaline rush, or maybe a hit on the asphalt.

I do not know why he does that. Of course, sleep is the little brother of death, but there seems to be no fear of the void involved. More of a hunger for immediate context. I guess the stream of consciousness may not be broken, since once it is, you awake with a sloppily cleaned slate and have to start stitching the narrative back together again. A year of life without the narrative to keep you full of purpose, why, that would be unconditional surrender to your instincts. That’s how all the best ideas die, when it takes too long to frame them in the emotional circumstance they were born under and you have to give them some semblance of continuity the morning after. So I’d better not fall asleep.

(The photo is by my four-year old, picture-hunting among his toys.)