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.

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.

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.


Heather said...

I happened upon your blog and I really enjoyed reading! I've never heard of this painter and it's bizarre that he would repaint classics but you were able to analyze it, where I would just shrug and say "whatev". Good writing!

Anonymous said...

Yes, very good writing, I will probably read it all in the next few days.
And then the "but": The paintings of Piet Mondrian!! those paintings are so intensely saturated with pigment and brushwork and most important, they not only represent light, they are light of soul and intellect, and I find it impossible to separate them from the tradition they belong to from painters like Vermeer and Van Gogh.
Nothing is wrong with early modern painting. What went wrong was the NY school.
Kindest regards
Erling Steen

New York City said...

Hi Erling,

I agree with you in some aspects. Yes, Mondrian is closer to the masters than ab-ex or definitely conceptualism.

I think it's a grey scale rather than a clean dividing line.

He was trying to isolate the classical elements of composition. And at least the early modernists were working with some kind of beauty in mind.

But, Mondrian was doing something purely analytical. He isolated only two elements of composition (geometry and color) and disregarded the language of paint and brush, light and shadow, tonal relationships, subtlety, etc....

Compare him, for instance with Rothko's Seagrams series. These paintings had all of these elements and so, I would say are much closer to the masters than Mondrian or any of the minimalists. Rothko was dealing with the human soul and was entirely subjective. Further, his work required a higher level of skill.

So, with Mondrian I see the light of intellect, but I don't see the soul. This is why they read to me as cold, analytical, objective, absolutely clear, platonic. Mostly conceptual. They are removed from human life. I feel nothing in them, only see a contemplation of formal composition. (Again, much much better than ab-ex and conceptualism, or even most minimalists like Malevich or Barnett Newman)

I can enjoy early Mondrian. I can enjoy late Rothko. I can enjoy Picasso's Blue and Rose periods. Some of Van Gogh's work is quite powerful to me. I really enjoy Degas.

But, All this being said, I wouldn't put them in the same room with even Sargent, Whistler, Turner, Bouguereau, or Waterhouse.
And they can't hold a candle to Rembrandt, Da Vinci, Velasquez, Ribera, Carravaggio, El Greco, Rubens, Goya, Titian, Carriere...

It's like comparing Dostoevsky, or Vladimir Nabokov to a talented 10 year old who wrote a short story. I can enjoy the story, but it's not the same thing.

I may be very opinionated, but I'm also open minded. You seem quite certain of your opinion. I would be very interested in hearing your response.

Anonymous said...

I think those paintings have much of what you ask for, only more subtle and discrete. Mondrian, as a cubist, downplays the less important aspects of painting to bring forth the one element that rules everything; geometric composition. If the geometry of a painting is flawed, everything falls apart and nothing is left but lifeless paint.
Handling the geometry is the greatest challenge that meets a painter, and the early moderns, especially the cubists, confronted that problem head on, in contrast to later modernists who shy away and use cheap tricks to avoid this confrontation. Like Jackson Pollock who distribute paint equally over the surface so that no particular point on the canvas attracts the eye more than another; Duchamp giving up painting altogether substituting it with ready-mades and declaring art non-existing; Andy Warhol makes a clown of an artist, Newman and his stripes of light in colors that would fit a kitchen wall, Albers, Rothko, rectangles within rectangles approximately as difficult as matting a print.

If we disregard the so-called distilling process, the origin of conceptualism, the cubists, in my mind, exist in somewhat harmony with representational painting.
Up to a point the late 19th and early 20th centuries' painters, impressionists, post impressionists, cubists, expressionists, surrealist, realists, naturalists, symbolists, you name it, expanded the field of painting and created an abundance of diversity.
At a later date somewhere along the line, something goes awfully wrong. Exactly when, how and who is difficult to say, but I find it rather obvious to point to NY curators and critics during and after WW2.

One thing though that I feel is repelling about Piet Mondrian as well as abstract painting in general is the iconoclastic implications, probably one of the reasons that abstract painting apparantly is a dead end street.

New York City said...

Very well said. It seems like we agree about the fundamentals. I also agree with your estimation about post WWII signaling a vast decline. I think there was another signaling event: the armory show of 1917. Pretty much everything modern and post-modern in the 20th century (minimalism, ready-made installation, cubism,etc..) is a repetition of what was done between 1900 - 1917.

Apart from this it seems to come down to opinion. Certainly geometry is a very important compositional element. But I believe that the poetry comes when it is hidden. If there is no ambiguity, I am not able to identify because I can't place my own experiences and emotions into the framework of the piece. So, for me Mondrian's absolute clarity (and I mean specifically clarity, not accuracy)comes across as an obvious statement. Whereas, though there is little geometric composition in Rothko, only in his Seagram's series (and none of his other work) the subtlety of tonal and color changes create an atmosphere and light that doesn't exist in Mondrian. Mondrian has no atmosphere, so it always reads as flat and does not allow me to enter.

It's actually a similar issue I have with Jacques Luis David (except for the Death of Marat), though to a lesser degree. The geometric composition is so classically stable and clear, the form sense so clear (though not always accurate),the atmosphere so thin, that it's emotionally closed to me. There is no room for my ideas, emotions, or experience. Only that which is stated by the artist.

For a dramatic example of the opposite look at Eugene Carriere. His best works involve a dynamic compositional underpinning, while covering his tracks with atmosphere and light. Many of his paintings have too much ambiguity and not enough structure and accuracy, but when he includes those two elements, it's transcendant.

But the question is this: do you want to judge the early modernists as lesser artists, but within the old master's tradition? The truth comes when you look at them side by side (especially in person). For instance, look at a Matisse or a Gauguin next to even Soutine. The difference is dramatic. Place them next to the masters and they melt away.

When I was a child, I immediately liked Turner, Monet, Van Gogh, Degas, and Picasso's blue and rose periods. No one ever had to tell me that Rembrandt, Titian, or Goya were great. But, I had to be taught in Art History class to appreciate Gauguin, Matisse, Pollock, and it never really stuck.

Great discussion.

Anonymous said...


Lesser or greater? Trying my hand at an objective point of view I would prefer to avoid that question.
Greatness is in many ways a remnant of romanticism, you could call it the Einstein/Picasso syndrome. I think those days are over and names like Warhol and Hirst obviously represent increasingly desperate attempts to preserve the idea of greatness.
But of course we all have individual subjective preferences that are just as valid, and from that point of view nothing beats Jan van Eyck! If you know what I mean!
That said; yes I think that the early moderns are not only well within the tradition but also adds to it and expands it.
The culprit is "art" that bypasses the problem of geometric form and is passed off as great art, much as if engineers ignored the laws of statics, only its intelligence that falls not buildings.

I have seen originals of most of the painters you mention and I think that you prefer "Rough Brush" pure resin/oil painters, I like them too, but I prefer the "Smooth Brush" tempera/oil Painters". So perhaps our discussion has lined up some sort of dialectics of painting.

Those Davids; I call them "bare ass and iron helmet" sounds better in Danish "bar røv og stålhjælm".

New York City said...

I think your description is largely accurate. I agree that art bypassing geometry is a problem, but another problem is the persistence of relativism. (I'll get back to that later).

I do have a preference for rough brush. But, what I mean is more a control of value relationships in a poetic way, which tends to go with rough brush more. Though, if you look at Andrew Wyeth, he has the ambiguity and atmosphere that I'm talking about, but is quite clear.

But, I can't shy away from hierarchical judgement. Because if the early modernists are within the canon of the old masters, they must be compared. If all things were equal, then nothing has value as compared to anything else... and all things are then meaningless. This is the end result of relativism and post-modernism.

So, though no one can truly be objective, we must still compare and rank. Otherwise we end up with Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Murakami, Paul McCarthy, and Andy Warhol. I don't think they are holding on to an idea of greatness at all, it's exactly the opposite. The relativism that you're talking about that has given them the ability to be where they are. After all, they are very common and don't even make their own work. Jeff Koons is only a business man, I've met him. And there are a million businessmen much better than Jeff Koons. (And what Warhol did make himself was incredibly boring).

Ultimately, we are genetically predisposed to hierarchy. And if there is any value at all, then it is obviously those things that are most rare, but that have an obvious and almost measurable quality apart from the market value.

No one would say that Dan Brown is equal to Shakespeare. No one really believes that Michael Jackson is equal to Mozart. Why do we do this in the realm of Art? If Matisse or Cezanne are equal to Leonardo da Vinci, then I can show you millions of people who are equal to da Vinci. And if millions of people are equal to da Vinci, then da Vinci is not a genius. Where are we now?

Anonymous said...

I don't think that I am promoting relativism just because I appreciate the early moderns and actually base it on somewhat objective criteria such as the math of painting, or because I think that the notion of "genius" is as obsolete as the European royal families.

I don't mean to say that anything is wrong with hierarchical judgement, comparing or ranking, when applied for the right purposes (I have my self a top ten list of paintings on my FB. page) Its very good for discussions like this, and for teaching and self guidance.
But hierarchical judgements tends to be very subjective, an if not accompanied by at least an attempt at objectivity it either falls prey to relativism; "every man his own bubble of preferences" and "my bubble is as good as yours", or it becomes the foundation of despoti, if many people are persuaded to believe in one particular hierarchical system.

We have for many years been in need of widely known visible criteria that includes any honest human activity in the field, and excludes the fraudulent. And I think that contemporary representational painting, through its technical superiority, is achieving a lot, if not everything, in that respect.

The junk art our museums are stuffed with is not the result of anything as sophisticated as relativism, but merely the result of fraud and abuse of power. And I would much prefer simply to consider it a crime against humanity.

New York City said...

First, let me applaud you for continuing this debate in such an astute, articulate, and logical manner. And I would tend to agree with your conclusion that it is a crime against humanity. (Perhaps I was initially a bit too optimistic)

It's interesting, in Ancient Greece they never said someone "was" a genius. They said that peson "had" a genius. It wasn't until the Renaissance that the term changed. Perhaps this is why a lot of modern artists are so self destructive. It's a lot of pressure to "be" a genius.

Though, I have a question. Why is the idea of "genius" obsolete?

Leonardo da Vinci was not a genius? Isaac Newton? Aristotle?

If not, what were they?

Certainly, the word is used far too liberally today. But I don't see how we can say it doesn't exist.

I think I see where this discussion is going though. What is the nature of mastering something so fully? Is it inborn or does it derive from hard work? Obviously, it's both, but what degree of each. And does the term genius mean that it must only be inborn and not cultivated?

If you haven't already, check out Malcolm Gladwell's books "Blink" and "Outliers". He discusses the relationship between inborn talent, luck, and old fashioned hard work, and how this may or may not result in success or mastery of one's field. Very fascinating.

People really aren't born equal. Of course, we don't know their potential as children. Often we don't know our own potential for much of our lives. That can only be revealed throughout life. So, yes, everyone should have equal opportunity. But all men are not created equal.

Anonymous said...

The idea of genius has become a social thing and no longer refers to neither talent nor accomplishment but only to social rank witch is irrelevant.If I must I will go with the Greek.

The people you mention has helped to build our world they need no titles, they don't even need a name or a face but without them and many others there would be no world. Like with the first amendment, we don't really know who it came from, and it doesn't matter it is just as powerful.

Are we born equal? I don't know but I am quite certain, based on history, that the assumption that we are, is necessary to take mankind one step further along the road.

Shortly after my last post above i ran into a video on FB with a well known pop singer trying to sing a very famous Puccini aria in front of a large audience, in principle nothing is wrong with that,but this was awful "compared" to all the great singers I have heard interpreting this aria, and I thought; damn it; Richard is right! But then again you could also just call it fraud, people selling goods that they cannot deliver.
I made a short comment about the singers lack of voice, and this guy deleted me as a friend.

You have forced me to write down a few words, thank you for that. I fully understand and respect your ideas. Very interesting subject!

New York City said...

Likewise, I hope we find another topic so interesting in the future.

I will look forward to your responses.