Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Curious Case of the Too-Talented Artist

Robert Longo was once an art world rockstar. Alongside the likes of Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, and David Salle, he became a "household" (ha! - not in 'Murca!) name. 

Above: This enormous, insanely destructive-looking wave drawing in charcoal dominates the room - it's a composite from photos, so it couldn't exist in nature. For Longo it's both an ominous nod to climate change and an homage to his lifelong love of surfing off of eastern Long Island. It's pretty intimidating to stand next to it in person. Sorry the pictures have glare and reflections in them (the red rectangle is an exit sign on the opposite wall); museums and galleries generally don't display charcoals any way other than under glass.

Longo was probably the most collected member of the "Pictures" generation, a group of young artists in the late 1970s  and early 1980s known for appropriating (and subverting) imagery from popular media. Many were photographers, but for Longo, a super-skilled draftsman, it was about forging new ways forward for representational painting, which had loudly been declared "dead" by influential theorists. 

Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art had spent the preceding decade shaking the pictorial tradition to its foundations, and that's when minimalism and conceptualism took the floor.

Yet Longo; unlike most of the other Pictures artists, was committed to - and hugely gifted at - using the traditional tools of art for representational imagery. He was and is capable of a stunning hyperrealism, and cites as major influences Rembrandt and Caravaggio. And despite the noise, the early '80s art world was buying.

Robot hand and closeup (2020-2021). Yes, this is in charcoal (as always, click for larger images).
When the backlash came, financial success put a very visible target on his back. Longo "got blamed for the '80s," he recently told Long Island Newsday. He was one of the best-selling artists at the very moment the "art market" as we know it was born: the cocaine-fueled, financially flush Reagan years, when everything began to serve the the interest of profit. As a highly valuable commodity to begin with, art slid easily into bed with business, spawning a new era in which seemingly facile, willfully provocative, or patently pleasing art could be made seemingly just to make millions (Schnabel, Hirst, Koons).

Native American Headdress (2020-2021) - below: detail.

Did I mention this is in charcoal?

So, basically Longo ran away. His peers reacted by making less-marketable work ever-more grotesque (Sherman, Levine),  aggressive (Salle), explicit (Kruger), and acridly critical of the mushrooming culture of capitalism and the increasing hollowness of the American dream. Instead, Longo hid in Paris, where he started all over building a new career in Europe. Along the way, he dropped out, "got lost for a while," raised three children and "missed the '90s" he says, though he used his time away from the art world to explore filmmaking and in fact directed Keanu Reeves in the highly successful film Johnny Mnemonic (1995).

When the urge to make art the old fashioned way came again, the only thing that came to hand was s "a bunch of shitty old charcoals," in his words, which he hated but couldn't put down. He started thinking about the fact that he was going all in on hand-crafting ever-more exquisitely tight pictures; yes, they're influenced by cinema and commercial photography, but he makes them using basically what cavemen used at the very birth of painting: dust from burnt sticks and ash. He kept going.

Last week, I happened to visit "History of the Present," Longo's extensive one-man show of vey recent work, up now at Guild Hall, a beautiful museum gallery space in East Hampton, NY.  Like everyone else who sees it, at first I thought I was looking at photographs.

Now, to me, massive skill and striking design are impressive, but they're not art - they are about technique,  and as such they are vehicles for art; it took Longo's own explanation of the show for me to see the art in these obviously beautiful hyperreal drawings. So in fact, I'm guilty of the very thing his latest work is designed to counter: our 21st century habit of assuming we have neither the time nor much of a need for sustained and careful looking and thinking.

Fallen bird's wing (2020-2021)

"We live in this world of an incredible image storm," he's said. "How to you get people to look at things more carefully? People look at my drawings and say, 'Oh, they're photographs,' and someone says, 'They're not photographs they're drawings',,,, that gets people to stop and look closer. It's a way to get people to look harder, more in depth.... I'm trying to create images that are more real than real. I've taken it to such an incredibly refined level." So much for technique. On to the art.

These are charged images of America's present. "The Agency of Faith," one of the two large galleries of his show. As Longo points out, a triangle of "American sin" can be traced between three of its potent images: a George Floyd protester, a cotton field, and a cropped image of an American Indian headdress.

"But at the same time, the drawing of the George Floyd protester is quite, I think, liberating," Longo said in an interview. "The translucence of the flag reflects the fragility of democracy. At the same time, the person carrying it is somewhat triumphant. Meanwhile, the world behind him burns."

George Floyd Protestor (2020-2021)

Although I didn't get it first, there's really no "hidden meaning," nothing overly complex or theoretical needing extensive wall text here (as in conceptualism) that someone drawn in by the enchantment and glamour of Longo's incredible skill wouldn't be able to see for herself. Context is all; as the wall plaque says, "A quiet wing of a fallen bird evinces vulnerability. Yet once the viewer encounters a drawing depicting a field of cotton alongside a drawing of a closely cropped Naiver American headdress, the seeming innocuousness of the natural imagery begins to unravel to expose a more provocative narrative."

This is art that requires thoughtful engagement, slowing down and "looking harder, more in depth." And while it isn't the kind of art dominating Artforum or the auction houses in London or New York at the moment, there is surely triumph enough in the way Longo's charcoal chiaroscuro "activates the power of beauty," as the wall text says, "seducing the viewer into a state of, if not unadulterated optimism, renewed faith in our agency to create possibilities for our future." And likewise there is triumph in Longo's return to making relevant art worthy of the talent he wields so well.

Thursday, September 2, 2021

"Abstracting the Seacoast" at Discover Portsmouth

Photo Credit: UNH

“Abstracting the Seacoast” opens October 1, 2021 at the Discover Portsmouth Center (10 Middle St., Portsmouth NH). It's a collaborative exhibition, with Barbara Adams, Tom Glover, Brian Chu, Dustan Knight and Peter Cady, and the show will be on display through November 19th.

Given its beautiful scenery, it makes sense that the Seacoast regularly celebrates beautiful landscape and seascape work by an unusually rich assortment of top-notch representational and plein air painters. Less often, however, do we see gathered in one place the work of painters who approach the region's landscape through the lens of abstraction. This show aims to remedy this imbalance. The following is an excerpt from the essay I wrote for the exhibition's catalogue.

An artist in the landscape asking, How shall I paint what I see? is doing something different from the artist asking, How shall I paint what I notice when I look? 

The difference involves a subtle but significant shift of attention, often with results closer to transformation than transcription. Neither stance is superior, just different: Both artists must be active observers of what’s there as well as alert to personal, felt response, and both must be masters of technique (defined as getting paint to do what one wants). Yet, reframing the question of How do I paint the landscape? can work in surprising ways.

Paintings such as those in “Abstracting the Seacoast” invoke fresh revelations of the familiar. Abstraction invites artist and viewer to take a step back from the observed and explore the space that opens up between painter and painted, seer and seen. Used as a verb, to abstract is to take away from, to draw off or remove, as in “to abstract water from the Piscataqua River in the form of a tidal stream” or, as in alchemy, to “abstract the essential elements” from base matter. Artists painting abstractly often seek an essence, an “inner necessity” (as Kandinsky called it), that can serve as the animating force of a painting when inexpressive, purely descriptive details are given a lower priority.

The five artists in this exhibition bypass literal rendering with intuitive responses, imaginative ideas, freely adapted rules, and at times, reinvented materials. Though the methods are non-traditional, the themes and motifs are well-known, even iconic – the red brick and white clapboard buildings of downtown Portsmouth, the celebrated waterfront with its busy docks and spindly piers, the Piscataqua’s islands, coves, salt-water marshes and granite-ledged back channels, the distinctive bridges, mills, and streets of the NH Seacoast.

The methodology is apparent in the paintings of several artists in the group who challenged themselves to re-imagine the immediately recognizable tugboats of Moran Towing Corp. (one of the oldest companies in America). Barbara Stevens Adams tosses conventional representation overboard and allows the tugs to morph into bright reconstructions of colorful energy, part cubist, part kaleidoscopic. Peter Cady’s interpretation (“Engine in a Hull,”), sighting up along a Moran tug’s hull from a very close distance and an unusually low angle, foregrounds a muscular geometry wonderfully expressive of the stout bulk of these serviceable workboats. For a totally different perspective, Tom Glover used aerial photos of the waterfront to capture novel views of the boats that he renders in ravishing, saturated color combinations and painterly improvisations enlivened by the play of shadows and light.

In other works on display here, Glover collages Seacoast ephemera, such as topographical and maritime maps, into paintings that circumvent boundaries which the materials of painting traditionally impose. On that front, Dusty Knight’s intuitive canvases record a raw, gestural energy that nonetheless pulls in actual bits and pieces of organic and inorganic material from the tidal channels and marshes she paints from memory – souvenirs, perhaps, from the material world from which her spirited transcriptions of experience take flight. Brian Chu’s cityscapes, as in all these artists’ works, take form within the liminal space between artist and canvas, where eye, mind, and imagination, or “sensuality and issue-solving,” as he calls it, have equal seats at the table.

These artists remind us that the world we think we know is what we make it: that even with iconography as an anchor, perception, artistic or otherwise, remains a subjective act, and therefore fair game for the mind and imagination as well as the eye.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Emenations of Time and Eternity

Shen Wei, Untitled No. 11, 2013, oil and acrylic on linen canvas, 82 x 211 inches

Radical visions of existence, tumultuous, atmospheric, at once primordial and apocalyptic - the monumental paintings of multidisciplinary artist Shen Wei fuse Western abstract-expressionism at its most emotional with the perennial goal of Chinese landscape painting: to render the magical nature of consciousness as the glorious dance of absence and presence at the secret heart of being.

Shen Wei's Untitled #13 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

For the historical Chinese landscapists, the goal of art was to take us to the very center of awareness of existence toward envelopment in moments of pure being. Shen Wei's contemporary paintings do this, but without the traditional sense of tranquility and transcendence. In the Untitled series of 2013, Shen Wei uses a limited palette of black, white, and brown and invites darker, more primal forces into his work. And although the tradition of of the mythical mind-scapes of ancient China is everywhere present, he departs radically in materials, composition, technique, and thus effect. What he offers "seems to leave us suspended between the dissolution of forms, between the occult and the heavenly, and beyond space and time," in the apt words of the accompanying catalogue.

Shen Wei, Untitled Number 13, 2013-2014, oil and acrylic on linen canvas, 165 x 218 inches

In the "cosmos in flux" above, bits of landscape, broken structures, mythical beings like dragons, natural elements like earth, air, and water morph in and out of the gestural paint. 

These are closeups:

A manmade structure of some kind being swept away in an apocalyptic flood, I think.

There's another manmade structure, maybe a fence, being washed away in the flood.

Plant, waterfall, erupting lava - your choice, purposely so.

The wall text notes that "small dabs of the brush suggest lone figures, birds or dragons." Definitely calling this one for a bearded dude in a robe piloting some kind of cat-frog-dragon over the hoary abyss.

By putting aside the traditional sumi-i ink brush and emphasizing the material through the drips, splashes, pools, and clumps of abstract painting, Wei's Untitled series stresses surface and expression. Appropriate to our moment in history, this strategy limits the degree of spiritual transcendence in the work, even as it brings Chinese landscape into the 21st century. Consequently, instead of a Zen-like state of Pure Consciousness, the work reflects the fractured global reality of contemporary life, at the level of both the social and the personal: "I am made of Eastern and Western ingredients," he says. "Now wherever I work or live, I bring, express, and share this conjunction of states of being."

A selection of Wen's work in paint, film, and dance is on display at the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum until June 30, 2021. It's this painting that drew me and that I want to write about here.

Chinese landscape painting reflects the Taoist understanding of the life force in all things simultaneously cycling between coming-into-being and dissolving-into-nothingness, beyond logical knowing and naming. In the extraordinary little book, "Existence, A Story," author David Hinton shows how Chinese landscape painting emanates the deep nature of existence not by representing but by directly depicting - his word is enacting - Taoist and Ch'an (Zen) spirituality's perception of "the inner processes and forces shaping the ten thousand things":

"A painting is itself the Cosmos in microcosm, alive with those cosmological principles of Absence and Presence... the emptiness in a painting extends beyond the picture frame, suggesting the vastness of the Cosmos. And gazing at it with a mirror-deep mind, as the ancients often did for hours at a time as a form of deep spiritual practice, we are returned to dwell here in the beginning, where consciousness and landscape are woven together in a single existence-tissue, where we experience the dynamic Cosmos in a complete and distilled way rarely possible in ordinary life: whole and with perfect immediacy." (Existence, A Story, p. 90)

Here's a series of traditional Chinese landscape paintings paired with one of Wei's followed by closeups of Wei's.

Traditional landscape: Mountains, Trees, Mist (Sung Dynasty)

Shen Wei

Above: Traditional Chinese landscape painting: Travelers Among Mountains and Streams, ink and slight colour on silk hanging scroll, by Fan Kuan, c. 960–c. 1030, Bei (Northern) Song dynasty; in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan.

Below: Shen Wei, Reflecting Elements No. 2, 2019-2020, oil on linen

Shen Wei, Reflecting Elements #2, 2019-2020 Oil on linen

Shen Wei, Reflecting Elements 1-5, 2019-2020

Close-up of Reflecting Elements #2

In Wei's  most traditional-seeming (and most recent, 2020) canvases, existence indeed rises to the surface and recedes into the depths, but not in the way it does in traditional Chinese landscape painting. Avoiding mimetic reference to things like streams, mountains, or trees, Wei depicts something like the "existence-tissue," ch'i, or life force itself, continuously (and chaotically) manifesting and un-manifesting before it even has a chance to fully become any one thing. 

A sixth in the series of Reflecting Elements.

Here as in the "Untitled" series, the imagery is unsettled, restless, yet also cosmic and elemental. Wei is channeling raw, primal forces the way Pollock's brush did, seemingly mixing up all the elements in every partial, morphing "image." The "Untitled" series is what made Wei's name.

Turning to one of that series, let's again start with a traditional Chinese ink painting of a landscape and then look at Shen Wei. 

Xia Gu, Pure and Remote Views of Streams and Mountains, Sung Dynasty (c. 970-1100)

Shen Wei, Untitled No. 1, 2013, oil and acrylic on linen canvas, 82 x 211 inches

The format is similar, the idea is similar: depict a spiritual state of being by pretending to paint a landscape - but there the similarities end.

Using oil and acrylic, not ink, and avoiding direct reference to any natural topography, Shen Wei paints a vision for our times. The following are closeups of the above painting Untitled No. 1.
Flows of smoke, water, "existence tissue," ch'i

Like a NASA photo of a moving storm.

All kinds of textures in the paint here.

This apparently is a sea-monster of sorts.

And this is clearly the scaled, serpentine head of a dragon.

Wonderful swirls of paint!

Shen Wei blends tradition and contemporary trends to make important and compelling paintings for our times.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Redeeming Darkness: Notes on Resilience

Any Human Thing #2 ("I promise nothing complete; for any human thing supposed to be complete must for that very reason infallibly be faulty.") from Loomings, tar and oil on canvas.

Why make art if there isn’t going to be a civilization to receive it?

What kind of art would be worth making if human extinction, in say 30 years, were certain? The evidence is all too explicit that we are living in the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch resulting from human intervention in the biosphere. We are experiencing a corresponding “sixth great extinction,” in which humans are steadily generating the conditions that have already eliminated 50-90%+ of all life on earth five times in the planet’s distant history (including death-by-high-atmospheric-CO2-concentrations and ocean-acidification/de-oxygenation). We can’t seem to stop destroying individual lives, local populations, and entire species in unprecedented numbers, threatening the fundamental social and ecological systems that make life on earth possible. 


In short, humanity on many new fronts appears to be sabotaging itself more efficiently than ever. It is the central issue of our age and the most serious problem in human history. How will artists respond?


In a time of radical insecurity, celebrating the pleasures and ignoring the pains begins to feel morally irresponsible. As a public act (that is, as soon as it’s shown), art has a moral dimension. As Shelley says, “A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.”


Past fear, anger, and mourning, one way out of paralysis is be all-the-way open: to create on behalf of human potential alone. In a dark time, only the highest ideals matter.


Art’s role is to elevate humankind. It’s that grandiose and that simple. This means, among many other things, that art’s essential value lies not in entertaining, educating, or consoling humanity but in redeeming it. Art redeems humanity by addressing itself to the best of which humanity is capable. This has always been the case, but never has it seemed more necessary to cultivate this way of making. 

- From the essay Meditations in the Dark: On Making Art in a Difficult Time, available in a limited, hands-sewn edition of 60 copies for $16 plus shipping. Also available: Loomings, Paintings in Tar, Oil & Gold Leaf, with writings on Melville, America, and the Redeeming Power of Darkness (paperback, 48 pages, with reproductions of paintings from Loomings and quotes from Moby-Dick, $18, plus shipping). If interested in purchasing a book, contact

Monday, March 8, 2021

Reading the Sexual and Social Dynamics in Degas' Compositions

It's no secret to art historians and discerning viewers that Degas did not make pretty pictures of ballerinas. His paintings of the ballet in Paris are a conscious and (back then) shocking elevation of actual contemporary life to the level of high art. Yet they also include stark, wry, and unflinching commentaries on the social and sexual dynamics of bourgeois culture, hidden as it were, in plain sight. 

That famous bronze of the fourteen-year-old girl ballerina he made? 

Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, 1878-1881
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Critics immediately recognized it as a "creature from the underworld," that is, the brothel culture of the stage. Degas surely knew such a thing would be controversial; this, after all, is an underage prostitute. One writer called the figure a "flower of precocious depravity" with a "face, marked by the hateful promise of every vice" thrust forward "with bestial effrontery."

But I want to look at how Degas uses the formal elements of art - particularly composition - as the site where this darker content plays out between us, the viewers, the objects of Degas' observation (the ballerinas) and his inclusion of the wealthy and powerful men who paid money to enjoy them after the curtain went down. I'll leave it to others to elaborate on a what misogynist he was and to detail the merciless way he treated the already exploited women he called his "little monkey girls." 

I'll just say that I don't see sadism in Degas' work. I take him at his word when, bristling at being grouped with the Impressionists he'd helped establish, he called himself a realist. He was that, and of a special stripe - his observations of reality went where the camera could not: To subversively document the true beauty and tension he saw playing out just beneath the surface of modern life. 

I recently began studying Degas' monotypes for technical tips in composition, but when I did my head exploded at how Degas’ compositions always do more than “move the eye” through his paintings - they also convey meaning. The time and geography have changed so much since the late 19th c. Paris he took as his primary motif, that we generally miss most of the subtleties and end up deeply admiring his technique - his unusual views of the human body coupled with his spectacular skill in draftsmanship, his highly original compositions and subject matter, and his mastery of color - without considering his use of those elements to advance content.

Consider one of his monotypes in the revealing light of this note about it from "Degas Monotypes - A Catalogue Raisonnee":

"In late 19th-century Paris, the ballet was the profession of (lower-class) girls and young women (they were referred to as “petits rats,” little rats) who were available for sexual hire. In this monotype, a gentleman of means meets with a Madame Cardinal in the coulisses (wings) of the Opéra to arrange for a private rendezvous with one of her daughters.” (parentheses mine)

You read that right - the ballet was a place where the mothers of lower class girls not only encouraged liaisons with older men who might, at least for a time, support them, but also literally pimped them out to these moneyed "gentlemen" of the higher classes. 

Now look how Degas has composed this picture to emphasize the hopelessly unequal relations in the positions of power - between the dark engulfing bulk of the leaning "gentleman" and the diminutive, dirty-white figure of the mother of the girl he’s about to pay for. And what are we to make of those dabs of red on her hat, arm dress?

What museum curators and art historians of Degas have traditionally discussed is his incipient modernism; how, as a restless experimenter (we'd call much of his work "multimedia" today), he conveyed the behind-the-scenes views of artificially lit contemporary life, including the crowded backstage bustle of the opera house. His paintings seem to pluck random moments from the fast-paced flow of life, framing and cropping his subjects casually and a bit awkwardly, in a manner akin to a snapshot taken by the new medium of photography. But if we combine the strategy of mimicking the snapshot with the subtleties that advance Degas' underlying content, we can see how his appropriation of photography into painting was more than either a technical device or a gambit to emphasize the modernity and immediacy of his pictures. The example of photography allowed Degas in his most meaningful work to fuse seemingly objective, observational seeing with an artistic inner vision of the life around him. And in the case of the next image we'll look at, it allowed Degas to deliberately place the viewer in the position of the unseen observer, that is, the voyeur - re-enacting precisely what is going on under the surface of his work.

Take a close look at this second, often reproduced, pastel-over-monotype.

After the initial overall impression, when we really look (that is, when we allow our eyes to travel through the composition) what do we see first? For me, it's the leash, I mean ribbon, around the dancer’s neck. After the initial glance at that tutu, her neck is the first thing that we really see; the unflatteringly lit face it draws us to largely remains a blur, but between the ribbon and her neck there's the highest degree of contrast and the hardest edges in the entire  picture. As that ribbon which we see first trails away from her neck, it literally points to the dude whom viewers of the day would recognize as her “sponsor” (polite for exploiter). The half-hidden man happens to be the composition's second-darkest dark and the location of its second-strongest contrast, and hence the second thing we see. 

Prevented from leaving the frame by the curtain behind the half-hidden well-dressed man, our eyes return to the dancer where, having already seen the neck-ribbon, we now look down over the rest of her body. Landing here, we are strongly invited to admire (assess?) the girl's literally spotlighted, tipped forward bust as well as her shapely leg (the lightest light in the entire composition), which glows brightly as her thigh emerges from a sugary, fairytale radiance imparted by the footlight-illuminated frills of that tutu. If we return along the vertical axis of her poised body to the strong contrast at her neck and then to her face, where we started, following her outstretched arm this time and then moving back down again, we have literally enacted the "looking-her-up-and-down" of someone "checking her out."

Degas was certainly a master of drawing and of human anatomy and the off-center glance of the modern eye upon the fleeting moments of fast-paced urban reality. He was also a brilliant composer, who knew how to use the properties of art to embed his work with an original inner vision full of powerful psychology and meaning. The strongest art is always more than a pretty picture.