The competent, yet somehow dead, rendering of these images conveys an objective distance. The old masters, like a glass darkly, dim under the dark varnishes. They seem to dissipate, yet grow more poetic with age. The modern paintings seem colder and more dead, yet somehow louder, like a single death bell being played again and again at a constant volume. They have nothing to say, but to memorialize their own death.
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Insert Emotion Here
"Painting Paintings" By David Klamen at Richard Gray Gallery in Chicago until April 3, 2010.
Upon immediately viewing these paintings, everyone who has seen them has uttered the same, single question: "Why?"
With the goal of answering that question in mind, allow me to embark on another of my pseudo-philosophical, pseudo-poetic, pseudo-critical musings.
What we've got here is a strange breed. The paintings of David Klamen seem to be more question than statement. Though fairly well painted, they are not purely realist because they are too dependent on the fallacy of photography. They aren't solely narrative. Nor are they intended to be relegated to those genres. My reading is that the artist views realism as inherently limited. But, they are not purely "contemporary", as the skill and almost imperceptible hints of beauty that they propose are distracting to the conceptual reading. Thus, he seems to say that conceptualism is equally limited. They seem to be more closely related to the tradition of iconography.
These paintings are conceptually dense. Like an icon, like an onion, when you peel back one layer of meaning you discover another. As an academic project, I find them quite fascinating. One could explore the hard crisp skin: the question of originality vs. appropriation. One could ponder the nature of appropriation within the dialogue of contemporary realism. One could read them as a statement about the institutions (museums) where great Art eventually goes to live, (or die). That's how I read these paintings of paintings. They speak of the museum experience, in its power and in its monotony. There's something lost when a painting leaves the intimacy of someone's private collection - someone's home - where it can be contemplated at leisure over a dark cognac. This is a full, living experience.
There's something lost when the work enters the clamor of a contemporary museum. The often stark setting, the multitude of other voices emerging from each painting, all trying to hook your attention like hundreds of fisherman all casting into the same, small, wary pond. Yet, there's also something gained: the immortality and care of a carefully controlled environment, the ability of a young artist to come and learn from the masters in person, or the chance for an art lover to just visit an old friend.
Cold objectivity in painting typically turns me off immediately. There's not much that bores me quicker than a barely competent painting which has no compositional beauty, no technical virtuosity, no passion for the language of the paint or brush, no human hand, no human voice. This is where these paintings fail. They are clearly painted from a photograph, giving them yet another removal from subjective experience. This, coupled with the severe objectivity in the painting of Mondrian here almost repels me. This piece is so cold, so clinical, so alien, that there is no way to enter this painting, nothing with which to identify.
Even the best pieces are almost unreachable. Almost.
Even so, Klamen's paintings are able to succeed. As overtly removed and conceptual as they are, the barely detectable and often too subtle beauty of the light, especially the darkening varnish, the subtle and mysterious images of the masters... all invite you to fill the void with your own experience in museum "x". Being an artist myself, I often find the experience of standing in front of a Rembrandt, a late Goya, or Velasquez to be something akin to a cathartic and holy experience - not in the way of a standardized religion, but more like a meeting of twin souls. In a great masterpiece I often find my own empathetic image staring back at me across the ages and there is an intangible chord stretching through the ether like those I used to stretch between my bedroom and my friend's next door. If I put the paper cup up to my ear, I can barely hear the muffled voice of my dear friend, recounting his hope and his fears, reminding me of our shared humanity.
However, it is my poetic nostalgia that gives them this power. Yes, the greatest paintings demand that you bring your own experiences into the piece. But they meet you halfway. The weakness of these paintings is that they don't demand. They quietly and politely wait until you meander over and grace them with your attention. All in all, I applaud Klamen's attempt to bring some degree of skill and beauty into conceptual Art, or bring conceptual Art into contemporary realism. Though this seems to be too great a challenge. These two make bad bed fellows. The nature of conceptual Art is that you must have all these thoughts to bring to the table. You require a certain amount of education, you require a certain knowledge of context. You are required to entertain yourself. And so, if you strip away all the context from these paintings, what you have left are photocopies, thrice removed from the original.
So, yes, I understand the artist's intention. This is the state of the Contemporary Art world. Any power, any poetry, any beauty that these paintings have are reflections of the paintings that they are copies of. Contemporary Art is all nothing more than copies of copies of copies, riding on the coat tails of the great, mirroring something powerful that he believes (and I strongly disagree) we can no longer create ourselves. The fact that these paintings function at all is due only to the mystery of the old master paintings themselves. Klamen's choice to render them faithfully and to emphasize the darkening varnish was his saving grace. Aesthetically, they are about as exciting as an hour long explanation of the process of manufacturing gravel. Conceptually, they are marginally more interesting: certainly, more interesting than most conceptual Art I've come across in the last 10 years. But, sadly, that's not enough.