Monday, July 21, 2008

Color, Line and Texture

Color, line and texture: this is the subtitle of Betwixt and Between, the current exhibition at Courthouse Gallery in Ellsworth, Maine, curated by Bruce Brown. At a panel discussion this past Thursday with artists Robin Mandel, Lois Dodd, and me, Brown spoke about his wish to present work that was off the beaten path – the beaten path being a familiar one, strewn with images of the Maine landscape like boulders in a blueberry barren (my words, not his). And while there are plenty of landscapes in this show, from the abstract to the very representational, there are also Henry Wolyniec’s digital ink prints, Joe Kievitt’s accumulations of ink lines, and texture in three dimensions by ceramicist George Perlman. Brown, who is Curator Emeritus at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, has long been instrumental in bringing new forms of art to the fore in Maine.

Line, color and texture are qualities which exist in every work of visual art, so it was interesting to hear Robin Mandel speak about his avoidance of color in the service of identifying an ideal and impersonal form. His steel sculptures are the uninflected-black contours of ordinary objects, such as boxes and grocery bags, in which “absence” of color serves to locate each object in its own Platonic shadow. By contrast, Lois Dodd builds her paintings out of color shapes which reference very specific subjects, and because she generally paints from life, she maintains a balance between local color (what’s actually out there) and the color relationships that will make a strong painting. I was on the panel as the texture person, even though texture for me is not so much intentional as it is the random by-product of building up layered encrustations of paint. Hence I am indebted to Bruce for pointing out that perhaps this kind of texture has its correlation in what I too am looking at, the very real accumulations outside my studio. Granite, clay, gravel, and, right now, the endless weeds of summer inform the invented line, color and especially texture, of my abstract paintings.

The show – with a selection from each artist - can be seen online in the catalog. The exhibition is up through July 30.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Artist and the Scientist

I have a giraffe. His name is Roland. He’s almost as tall as I am, which either makes me a very tall person, or Roland a not-so-tall giraffe. In addition to size differences, giraffes also differ in their coat patterns. A friend recently dropped off a page from National Geographic illustrating six different genetically distinct giraffes, and we tried to match Roland's pattern to one of the real African kind, reticulated, or Rothschild’s. But it was not to be, and I suggested that Roland might represent the Platonic ideal of giraffeness. To which my friend countered, “Or a new species waiting to be discovered.” A giraffa melissaanddougii?

Which brings me to the current vogue for science-infused art, and the aesthetic of meaning (see last week’s post). It’s not easy to find pure painting anymore, or pure sculpture. Perhaps these traditional forms have beaten a retreat into the savannas of printmaking, where technology allows for all kinds of formal permutations. Drawing has become mapping, photography the documentation of time, painting is the handmaiden of computer generated imagery, and sculpture – well, Arthur Ganson's machines do all these things and more. Not that I think any of this is bad. To the contrary, it is in the light of the discoveries of new species of art that we become more rigorous in our evaluations of the patterns of form and meaning.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Arthur Danto Comes Out - for Beauty

Thanks be to the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland for bringing Arthur Danto to the coast of Maine. Danto was required reading when I was a student back in the late 80's, and I always liked how his essays started off in one direction, then took a different tack, and finally got back on course to make his point. His lecture tonight was the inaugural presentation in the Farnsworth Forum series, and he was interviewed by the Farnsworth's Director of Education, the excellent Roger Dell.

By his own description, Danto's work as a critic has been to arrive at a philosophy of art as defined by the sort of Socratic questioning that is itself definitive of much of Western thought. He began his talk tonight by positing that when Andy Warhol presented the Brillo Box as art, he set in motion a sea change in what art can be. Of course, it was Marcel Duchamp, not Warhol, who questioned the boundaries of what we may consider to be art by giving us the urinal, and Danto did later make a correct philosophical distinction between the Duchampian and Warholian reasons for adopting the ready-made.

A new tack: what of the market, of government repression and the freedom that American artists generally enjoy, as long as one doesn't look too closely at Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, Jesse Helms, or Rudy Guiliani? From here, Danto rumbled into considerations of aesthetics and the philosophy at which he has arrived: that art is no longer judged by an aesthetic of form, but by an aesthetic of meaning, of which beauty is not a necessary component. When pressed by an audience member for criteria by which we might judge meaning, he reasoned in circular fashion that meaning is to be found in meaning. What did the artist mean, and where has meaning resided throughout art history? Socrates would never have let him off the hook on that one.

But never mind. The interview ended with a return to the shock of the new in the form of Jeff Koons' exquisite balloon dogs. How is it we are allowed to think of these as art? They are a far reach from ready-mades, and they are gorgeous in their form. It's ok, Danto implies, to like them just because we can't help ourselves. But what do they mean, and are we to depend on the artist for the answer? I like to think we can trust our own critical judgment here.