Thursday, November 29, 2012

Ironic... Isn't It?

A drawing I did of a man named Tony

My favorite art blog (Two Coats of Paint) posted this bit about irony in art a week ago...

Blogging at the NY Times last week, Princeton French prof Christy Wampole, assailing the hipster mentality, suggested that our culture needs to move beyond irony. 
Moving away from the ironic involves saying what you mean, meaning what you say and considering seriousness and forthrightness as expressive possibilities, despite the inherent risks. It means undertaking the cultivation of sincerity, humility and self-effacement, and demoting the frivolous and the kitschy on our collective scale of values. It might also consist of an honest self-inventory.
 Then, at Hyperallergic, Kyle Chayka suggested that irony is, in fact, a good thing, especially for art. 
[I]rony is a less direct, more complex method of communication than superficial honesty or transparency might prove to be. But there’s a responsibility and a weight to that complexity and the choice to use it, and that weight, its particular emotional spin, can sometimes prove useful, in life as well as in art.
He cites Warhol's Marilyn, Richard Artschwager, and recent paintings by Amy Feldman and Tatiana Berg as examples of how artists are making complex, slippery statements that may be both sincere and ironic at once. 
I guess I no longer understand the line between irony and non-irony, between sincerity and sarcasm. Maybe instead, it’s just an aesthetic continuum, where sincerity can continue to have its lofty perch at one end of the spectrum and the blackest of morbid humor can anchor the other? It would be more fun that way.
When he mentions "the blackest of morbid humor" Chayka is getting at an important idea. Artists who amuse themselves and their audiences are not necessarily engaging in irony, although that may be a component. Instead of using the blanket term "irony" then,  we should (if compelled to attach a label) start thinking more specifically about the type of humor, and combinations thereof, that artists are deploying. The label "ironic" flattens the dialog, draining the work of richness and complexity. Some other categories to consider:  slapstick, whimsy, dirty, droll, morbid, deadpan, farce, caustic, self-deprecation, satire, parody, sophomoric...

I never had a good grasp on the concept of irony, but I always had an intuitive sense about what was sincere and what was not.  I grew up in suburbia... a bizarre world of artificiality and shrink wrap.  For example, my peers used copious amounts of hair spray, went to tanning booths habitually, and watched Carson Daily's TRL... (need I say more).  Meanwhile, I gravitated toward the Delta Blues and Chicago Blues... musicians like Howling Wolf, Skip James, Johnny Shines, and Otis Rush.  This was my way of getting the full dose of blistering reality to contrast the shinny plastic surrounding me.  I learned to sniff out superficiality.  You know, those hollow yet polite social conventions like saying to someone "How about that weather?" or "How about them Bills?" (Don't forget I'm from Buffalo, NY).   That kind of stuff just infuriated and confused me.

Anyway, some art gives me that same feeling of repulsion... as if I could see right threw it... see through the slick surface all the way to the brittle back bone of strategy... of its intention... of its calculation to succeed in being "new" or "the next big thing".  Sure sometimes my "x-ray" vision is wrong and I end up coming around to the artwork... but even if my ability to sniff out insincerity is right 51% of the time, it's better than guessing.

Yes, our culture would benefit from moving beyond irony.  I'm a school teacher, and being a good teacher you're taught not to use sarcasm in the classroom because some children will mistake it for being literal... or even if they intellectually understand the irony they may misunderstand it emotionally.  Children are the most sensitive and perhaps most sincere people.  That's why their art is so special and different from ours.  Moreover, we encourage them to be honest and truthful because we know those to be great virtues... morals that will help guide them through the chaos of life.

So when it comes to irony in art I perceive it as weakness and a crutch in comparison.  How difficult and humbling it is to be sincere and forthright in expression!  And how powerful it is to witness such art that epitomizes this mentality!  The old, scratchy, leathery Delta Blues musicians that sing about heartbreak, being mistreated, or a true love goes so much deeper into your heart than a Jeff Koons vacuum can ever go.  But hey, if there wasn't slick conceptual art like Jeff Koons around, I might not be the authentic painter that I am today.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Michael Zwack and The Buffalo Avant-Guarde in the 1970's

Robert Longo

I was home in Buffalo New York for Thanksgiving and I thought it would be a good time to post images I took of an exhibition at the Albright Know Gallery I saw this past summer.  The exhibition was titled "Wish You Were Here: The Buffalo Avant-Guarde in the 1970's".  Here is the exhibitions press release...

Wish You Were Here: The Buffalo Avant-garde in the 1970s surveys a creative ecology that flourished in Buffalo in the 1970s comprising a loosely organized group of collaborative, interdisciplinary artistic communities spanning the visual arts, film, video, performance, literature, and music. Looking back on the art and ideas these groups propagated, one might argue that aspects of postmodern and contemporary art were seeded during this time, and that Buffalo was one of a group of geographic pockets that provided fertile ground for these concepts and methodologies to take hold. Wish You Were Hereidentifies some of these concepts and examines the various threads of connectivity and collaboration that made Buffalo a site of radical creativity.
The title Wish You Were Here comes from a notable anecdote of the time: In the aftermath of Western New York’s catastrophic Blizzard of ’77, instead of closing shop, Hallwalls responded with characteristic spontaneity and tenacity by putting together a memorable Snow Show featuring snow works by fifty-five artists. One of the participants, the artist Diane Bertolo, perfectly encapsulated the ironic yet persevering sensibility of the moment when she included a postcard-shaped wall painting on which she had written “Having a wonderful time . . . wish you were here.” Grounding the exhibition as a geographically based exploration of a particular era, the title suggests not only a tongue-in-cheek response typical of outsiders’ (and snowed-in natives’) unenthusiastic view of Buffalo, but also a poignant sensibility referring to a moment that was truly special, something not to be missed.
The exhibition is organized around the various venues and organizations that galvanized the period: the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, a museum venue that, while fulfilling a broader mission including postwar modernist art, made a series of critically important gestures in mounting exhibitions by emerging artists, including Bruce Nauman, Paul Sharits, and Steina and Woody Vasulka; Hallwalls (now Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center), originated in the halls of a former icehouse in 1974 by the artists Charles Clough, Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, and others; the Center for Exploratory and Perceptual Arts, or CEPA, an organization founded in 1974 to promote experimental photography; the renowned English department at the University at Buffalo (UB), run by notable poets and literary critics, including John Barth, Robert Creeley, and Leslie Fiedler, and the synchronous grassroots poetry movement; the downtown, independent Media Study/Buffalo and the Center for Media Study (now the Department of Media Study) at UB, both operating by 1973 at the initiation of Gerald O’Grady and propelled by resident professors and filmmakers James Blue, Tony Conrad, Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits, Steina, and Woody Vasulka; Artpark, founded in 1974 as an unchartered Land-art site where numerous artists—Ant Farm, Lynda Benglis, Nancy Holt, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Alan Saret, among many others—were granted long-term residencies; the Creative Associates and the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts, an avant-garde performance and music venue developed at UB and led by Lukas Foss, Lejaren Hiller, Morton Feldman, and Jan Williams; and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Foss and, later, Michael Tilson Thomas.
 Here are a few pieces that I thought were particularly interesting, especially Michael Zwack's sculptures...

Jack Goldstein

The Kipper Kids

Mark Fisher and Michael Zwack

Michael Zwack

Cindy Sherman

Michael Zwack

Michael Zwack

William Currie

Martin Puryear

Cindy Sherman

Rafael Ferrer

Gary Hill

Woody Vasulka

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Chris Machin and The Art of Kustom Kulture

I was selling some old things on my front yard earlier today when a muscular surfer-lookin fellow bought a little 1960's lamp I had.  After chatting for a bit he told me he had opened up a shop on Main St in Nyack called Kool Freaking Creations (  I went over for a visit and had a blast!  He and his wife Sharon opened up this awesome store about two months ago.  Essentially Chris starts with antiques from the 50's or 60's (sometimes working, sometimes not), strips their paint or finish, sometimes combines them with pieces of other antique objects, and with enamel paint transforms them into crazy psychedelic monsters!  I asked Chris if there were other artists out there making art like this.  He explained to me that this type of art is called Kustom Kulture.  Here is a description of the art genre from Wikipedia...
Kustom Kulture is usually identified with the greasers of the 1950s, the drag racers of the 1960s, and the lowriders of the 1970s.  In the early days of hot rodding, many fashions and styles developed. Over time, each of these distinct styles of customizing have blended and reshaped our everyday life. Artists such as Von Dutch (Kenny Howard), custom car builders such as Ed "Big Daddy" Roth and Dean Jefferies, hot rod and lowridder customizers such as the Barris Brothers (Sam and George Barris, along with numerous tattoo artists, automobile painters, and movies and television shows such as American Graffiti , Happy Days, The Munsters (The Munster Koach, Drag-u-la) and The Monkees (The Monkeemobile) have all helped to form what is known as Kustom Kulture.
Another great thing about Chris Machin's art is that its priced to sell.  I just wish I had some spare change so I could pick up some of this Kool stuff.

FYI this wall piece is not one of Chris'.  But I love it!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Jacqueline Sferra Rada: Modest and Marvelous

On Saturday I visited Jacqueline Sferra Rada's Studio in SoHo.  I first saw her work at Fountain Art Fair last spring.  She exhibited one of her swimmer pastel drawings there... it immediately made a lasting impression on me.  During my visit we spoke at length about authenticity in artwork.  Both her art and my art expresses the simple joy of drawing the world around us that we love and feel connected to.  Similarly we both value stripped down forms and shapes, contemplative subdued palettes, often centered compositions, and modest sized work.  In a way you can say that her work and mine is "nothing special".  Yet in the same breath you can say just the opposite about it; in other words, it is precisely the banal subject matter her and I depict that makes the work so exciting and alive.  

Jacqueline began her charming swimmer drawings almost by accident.  She told me that while she was sitting at the beach near her home in Long Island she instinctively started sketching the people in the water (a scene that was so familiar to her, and right under her nose, that until then she hadn't thought about making art out of it).  That made me think about a Georgia O'Keeffe quote I read one time.  Regarding an epiphany she had had about painting... she explained, "shapes and ideas so familiar to me that it hadn't occurred to me to put them down."  When a series of work begins in such a natural process you know it's going to catch the eyes of the audience and fill them with inspiration and wonder.

Below I've included many pictures of her art that I had taken during my visit with her.  All but the last image are her own... the last one is of a portrait she had found tucked away on a shelf that her late husband had painted of himself.  George Rada was an excellent artist as well, and his legacy lives on.  Without further ado enjoy these magnificent pastels and paintings.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Andy Waronker's Art Collection

My neighbor invited my wife and I over for dinner the other night.  Their home is amazing... full of antiques, crafts, and paintings.  I took pictures of these forgotten works of art with the intention of giving them a second life on-line.  Some of these lively pieces are craft, some sculpture, but most were paintings.  

The first few images I posted here first are the works of Andy Waronker's mother (by the way Andy is a woman).  The yellowing drawings and horse painting that follows were created by Andy's mother's lover when they were young.  From what I gather, they split up and soon after he jumped into the Seine River and killed himself.  The drawing of the cat by the window was done by the hand of Andy's daughter when she was 14 or so and whom is now a senior in high school.  The pictures I have posted after that were done by different artists, most of which are unknown.

As I scanned her walls full of interesting old paintings I thought of this expert from an article published in the New York Times titled "Finding Something Worthy in Every Find" by art critic Roberta Smith.  In regards to her collection of paintings found in flea markets, yard sales, and thrift shops, Roberta writes...
There is something immensely comforting about these works. They come at you entirely on their own, unencumbered by the name, life or personality of the artist, devoid of reputation or blinding auction prices. They lack the white noise of contemporary commentary and opinion that critics usually must work through, either consciously or subconsciously, on the way to their own conclusions when writing about art exhibitions. What might be called their orphanhood or nakedness is liberating. Given the onslaught of the art world and the current mania for contemporary art — largely a good thing, don’t get me wrong — artist-free art can be something of a relief.
In a way, you love these paintings in the simple, uncomplicated way you love pets, and they love you back. You don’t expect them to hold up their end of a conversation about art in the age of digital, or even mechanical, reproduction.
At the same time, the paintings themselves are not totally separate from art in a professional sense. Some are full of diluted strains of art history: assorted trickle-down styles, vague allusions, instinctive adaptations or absorptions of things in the air.