31 March 2009


Turdus Migratorius, by Rick Leche

A brief follow up to a point in the last post about the logarithmic expansion of the territory called art. We attended a symposium entitled YES! The Persistence of Optimism at the Tang Museum at Skidmore College last weekend. Our very dear friend Hope Ginsburg was among the presenters and the chief allure for us, and spoke about her Sponge project, but all of the presentations were informative and several were quite compelling. (Follow this link for more information about the whole weekend of events.)

During the Q & A, I asked the panel how important their identity as artists and their association with the art world was to them, and if they thought they would be doing much the same thing if art did not exist or if they were not working under its aegis. I asked in part because many of the projects they undertook could have been classified easily under other disciplines or rubrics, for example sociology, mathematics, landscape architecture, and good old-fashioned activism, to name a few. On the other hand, I was wondering how much of this the artists would have come to, in the way they had, had they not approached it through art.

The answers varied. Oliver Herring, who does community-based improvisational pieces called Tasks, said, and I paraphrase, that he would be doing more or less the same thing, art or no art, saying he “looks for deficiencies” in society, and works to remedy them. From there the answers ranged back across the rest of the spectrum, all the way to "very important and couldn’t do it without art" on the opposite edge.

For a long time, art has been acting as a conduit to non-art activities as well as a consolidator. An artist may, for the purpose of an artistic goal, explore new, unknown to them, disciplines or activities to achieve it; an artist with diverse personal interests or passions may bring them into the art tent, as it were, and fashion them into a coherent piece. Without art, there is no space where a lot of these things could be mutually explored and synthesized in the same way. As a result, art has become the most vibrant laboratory for cross-disciplinary or inter-disciplinary studies, far out-stripping any academic or other alternative, hence its exploding appeal and protean (and sometimes exasperating) qualities.

One of the presentations we enjoyed most was by the self-declared “not artist” on the panel, Tod Lippy, the editor of Esopus, a fascinating, twice-yearly publication that includes an eclectic and thoroughly engaging variety of projects, portfolios and music. By all means have a look and subscribe. The issues are ridiculously cheap for such a thought-provoking and beautifully presented product.

12 March 2009


(A 14th century manuscript of Euclid’s Elements, showing Proposition 29, the first to rely on the parallel postulate.)

1) What is the value in making a positive or negative case for expression, content or communication in art the first place? It is not in the least obligatory or even advisable for a painter or any other kind of artist to engage in these sorts of investigations as a basis or prerequisite for work. There are legions, perhaps a preponderance, of artists who work away happily without the slightest concern for any of this, and I wish to whatever deities that may populate the firmament that I were one of them. But along with my passion for painting has long resided a deep-seated skepticism about what painting is doing and how it operates that has both bedeviled and animated my work since I began. The resulting interest as an artist has been to ascertain what possibilities exist for painting, and how to sensibly proceed. Some of the writing here deals with that, and I am grateful for any assistance offered along the way.

2) That being said, an exhaustive analysis of the dynamics and manner in which we apprehend artworks would be a insuperable endeavor in search of a contemporary Sisyphus. Over the last 50 years or so, a primary focus of many artists has been to expand art’s dominion into countless fields of form and inquiry, which has been accomplished at an ever accelerated pace. As a result, the full range and manner of artworks and activities defies any but the vaguest characterization. The scope of art has become so broad, and the territory covered by the word “art” so vast, that the utility of the term has been curtailed as the set of things that are not art or could not be considered art approaches null. There really isn’t any object or activity involving human beings that can’t be considered art, and the simple proclamation that something is art preempts any contrary claim. Which is all well, of course, as no one is keen on sacrificing a liberty once won, and eventually the word “art” may be left behind completely and other ways to talk about these phenomena will arise, if it’s not happening already. I am most interested in looking at some examples from various genres as a point of departure, with painting, and a focus on abstract painting, the eventual destination.

3) The act of looking at art and paintings is of course an experiential and dynamic process. Anything canned or self contained—takeaways, in the current parlance—is anathema to art’s dexterity, which equips it to treat ambiguity and polyphony without compromise or reduction; examine unexplored interstices and marginalia to discover new connections and associations; give voice to nuance and embody the ephemeral; and, if you’ll pardon the metaphor, create new space for the viewer. Anne Carson makes an illuminating observation in her book, The Economy of the Unlost, beautifully demonstrating how poets can overcome limitations of language to bring into focus something beyond what language can manifest literally:

At the same time, Spirit does not arise of its own accord, but is wrested from behind the veil by an effort of language between I and Thou. The effort, as Simonides and Celan stage it, is very like a poetic act reaching right to the edge of ordinary babble, to the place where metaphor waits and naming occurs...it contains visibles and invisibles side by side, strangeness by strangeness. (p. 68)

Spirit itself cannot be represented, named, but can be interpolated by poetically framing its absence. In one of her examples, “If to you the terrible were terrible,” from a Simonides fragment, “babble” is laid into the symmetrical structure of the line to illustrate the gap in the perception, between the speaker and her sleeping infant, of a violent tempest, while also pointing to the invisibility of the tremendous event to the sleeper. (p. 58) What Simonides is showing to us here, according to Carson, is that “'if to you the invisible were visible, you would see God,’ but we do not see God.” The gap between the capacity of language and our aspiration for it—demarcated but not bridged—shows language failing in a primary sense, but succeeding by making invisibles visible, framing what cannot be directly seen. “We know [words] don’t count, but we lay them against the abyss anyway, because they are what mark it for us, contrafactually.” (p. 65)

As a conception of art or as an artwork lists toward the declarative statement, so its compass contracts in direct proportion. Art is exceptional among human pursuits in its capacity to work fruitfully with what cannot be declared.

03 March 2009


Igor Stravinsky said once that there is no such thing as expression. Samuel Beckett expressed his creative credo in 1949 as “The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” Nothing new, then, about the idea that expression in the arts is suspect. At the same time, the presumption that the artist is communicating something is built into our language and thought, and hard to elude. We talk about “content,” “meaning,” “medium” and “message” of an artwork. Medium for what? What is being transmitted via the medium? Content? Ideas? Emotions? Where does it come from? The artist, obviously, no? Eliminate from consideration the hyper-rationalist notion that there is anything unadulterated—in terms of content, idea, what have you—that moves from artist to viewer via the artwork, the message in a bottle. Surely, though, illumination is at hand. If the artist is not telling us something, what is the point? Why do it and why look? How come I feel or think so when I see this particular painting, for example, and why do others feel or think similarly? Doesn’t this ratify that art is communication of some kind? But then what of the many differences in interpretation of works? A veritable Babel. One would not aver that competing interpretations are simply wrong, yet how can one call it communication when the response to the artist’s impetus is so varied? If one cannot track back through the work to some operating assumptions of the artist, how can there be expression? Maybe there is a more nuanced way of looking at it, less black and white. What if we talk about “feel” or “sensation,” rather than “content” or “communication,” can one capture the sense of the dynamic between artist, artwork and viewer, without getting tangled up in a philosophical Sargasso of artist intent and information transfer? On the other hand, either there is communication or there isn’t, right? And even if you describe it in more vaporous terms, there is still an implied connection to the intent of the artist, and thus communication? The artist did what they did so you would feel, more or less, the way you do. What if someone doesn’t “get it,” does that mean there are right and wrong responses to the work? Is the artwork itself the vehicle for the expression? If so, what happens when you pluck it out of its particular geographic or cultural sphere; doesn’t the interpretation vary wildly, and so how could the artwork be communicating anything? Mustn’t it then have much more to do with information in the artwork referencing things about which there is a preexisting cultural agreement within the sphere in question? Is that a problem, can’t it still be communication even if the artwork is reduced to a kind of semiotic matrix or forum? Do any of these questions actually produce contradictions? Does it matter? Should one just throw up one’s hand and get on with making art?

These are vexing questions to anyone who has examined them with the intention of clarifying their understanding of what occurs when art is made, viewed and processed, understood, discussed—complicated at times by the visceral aversion to erase one’s ego as an artist or, as a viewer, to confront the confounding miasma spawned by the realization that one’s response to an artwork is potentially ungrounded in the artwork itself, or in any intent of the artist, beyond the question of right or wrong interpretation.