The New Landscape: A History

Cove Mt. Desert by Henry Isaacs
Cove Mt. Desert by Henry Isaacs

This essay appears in the catalog Henry Isaacs: New Works for an exhibition at Maine Art Shows, August 9-September 1, 2014.

The New Landscape: A History

For much of art history, when the artist painted the land, he did so only as a backdrop, as context, rarely as subject. In fact, what little interest there was in the landscape nearly disappeared entirely during the medieval period, but in the 17th century, Dutch Golden Age painters began to flirt with the landscape as a valid genre of painterly expression. The views of Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten, a 17th century Dutch art theoretician, perfectly illustrate the complex relationship art history has with the landscape. On the one hand, van Hoogstraten thought of landscape painting as “the common footmen in the army of art”—a technical skill that was no different than the skill of painting hair or flesh tone—devoid of any deeper, intellectual or spiritual value. But van Hoogstraten also saw landscape painting as a “locus for poetic license.” As Thijs Weststeijn explains van Hoogstraten’s views, the landscape “provides scope for artistic freedom, for coloristic virtuosity and for chance: for a dialogue between Mother Nature and the artist’s own innate ability.” Or, as van Hoogstraten himself put it, “Whose artistic spirit would not burst forth with something extraordinary when he hears the poets sing of the landscape in such painterly words?” The landscape obtained a foothold on the rocky mountain of art.

Brittany by Henry Isaacs
Brittany by Henry Isaacs

Brittany contains all four great elements of landscape: sky, earth, water, and vegetation. Henry Isaacs renders the atmosphere in patches of blues and creams and yellows; the land made of oranges and greens sits on the watery cove which mirrors the sky. Vegetation creeps into the foreground like a kaleidoscope. That we recognize Brittany as a landscape painting—as opposed to a work of entirely Abstract Expressionism—says as much about our own Modern visual language as it does about Isaacs’ ability to render the three-dimensional world as a two-dimensional experience. What is remarkable about Isaacs’ work is its ability to hold our attention, its ability to pack so much visual pleasure into each patch of color. Every time we look at this painting we find something new.

It would be easy to see Isaacs’ paintings as simply the result of the artist’s imagination. Cove Mt. Desert is a colorful expression of land and sea and sky. The boats sailing out to sea in East Boothbay, Maine are the recollection of a lazy summer day. One could draw the conclusion that because Isaacs starts his paintings en plein air and finishes them in the studio that they are rooted in the truth of Mother Nature, but finished in the imagination of the artist. But doing so ignores two hundred years of art history where artists debated a series of simple questions: Is the subject what the artist sees or how the artist sees it? Is the artist under the influence of divine inspiration or a practitioner of scientific observation? Is the landscape painting a document of the land or the artist’s painterly expressive poem about it?

Two hundred years after van Hoogstraten, a twenty-year-old Victorian art critic named John Ruskin began collecting watercolors by JMW Turner. In spite of his popularity, Turner’s dynamic compositions were an affront to conservative Victorian tastes; his shocking colors were often criticized; and Ruskin was having none of it. A particularly condescending writer remarked of Turner, “He has robbed the sun of his birthright to cast shadows.” Ruskin’s defense of Turner, his response to the accusation that his painting was “contrary to nature, and to the rules of Art”, was to write a defense of the artist that liberated landscape painting from the pictorial restrictions of academic art. Ruskin ends with a plea to trust the genius of the artist. By contrast, Turner’s greatest rival was John Constable, who declared in a lecture at the Royal Institution in 1836, “Painting is a science, and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature.” Constable rejected the notion of landscape painting as the product of divine inspiration, that as if by looking at the landscape, the hand of God took hold of the artist’s brush and did the work for him. Constable argued good painting was the result of “long and patient study, under the direction of much good sense.” The rest of the history of landscape painting is a sort of tit-for-tat series of art movements. The expressive French Impressionists were responding to the dominant realism of the Barbizon school. The Ashcan school rebelled against American Impressionism to which American Realism revolted …and so on…until Modernism, when the history of painting was so exhausted it seemed to stop. Modernism completely liberated landscape painting from the land and placed the idea of a painting in the mind of the artist. The only subject is concept.

Mount Desert by Henry Isaacs
Mount Desert by Henry Isaacs

This history begs the question, What is Isaacs doing? What is his place in this morass? Isaacs trained at the Slade School of Art, where he learned to be a draftsman with formal skills and gained an ability to look at his subject with science-like observation and render it exactly as it appears. Yet, the realism of Isaacs’ paintings cannot be found in their illustrative qualities. Being a child of Modernism, Isaacs uses the act of seeing as the conceptual foundation of his paintings, and uses color work as the method of painting. The results of all this are landscapes that bridge 20th-century Modernism and reconnect us to the history of landscape painting in a contemporary manner. The old arguments and questions of landscape painting have been resolved. In Isaacs’ paintings, experience, sight, color, and the artist’s imagination converge to give the viewer an experience that hold our attention and dazzle our mind.

SOURCES
The Visible World: Samuel Van Hoogstraten’s Art Theory and the Legitimation of Painting in the Dutch Golden Age by Thijs Weststeijn (Amsterdam University Press, 2008)

Introduction to the Academy of Painting; or the Visible World by Samuel Van Hoogstraten (1678)

“British Institution for Promoting the Fine Arts in the United Kingdom, Etc.”, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (Vol. XL, No. CLII, October 1836, p. 551)

Modern Painters, Volume 1 by John Ruskin (1843)

John Constable, Lecture IV at the Royal Institution (June 16, 1836)

Philip Frey: Lavish Attention

Deep-Waters-by-philip-frey
Deep Waters by Philip Frey

This essay appears in the catalog Philip Frey: New Works for an exhibition at Maine Art Shows, June 27-July 16, 2015.

Philip Frey: Lavish Attention

The respect for and service to the viewer is, perhaps, one the best attributes of Frey’s paintings. “I am a student of aesthetics: the study of beauty,” he writes. “I paint what is interesting and beautiful to me.” What is beautiful to Frey is the Maine landscape and the people who live in it. The view in Deep Waters captures the striking natural beauty of mountains pouring into lakes. Double Cannon Ball speaks to the joy and excitement of seaside summer fun. Gestural and expressive use of paint conveys a sense of immediacy—a nowness—to Frey’s work that helps bring the viewer into the moment. There is no agenda here, no greater purpose, than to share a love for the world and a deep sense of place.

Art history is full of examples where paintings defined a nation or rebuilt a country’s identity in the face of defeat. The history of painting is littered with patriotic propaganda, religious liturgy, and moral lecture, but only in the last 150 years have artists been interested or able to step away from a political master and truly serve the viewer.

In the wake of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, Claude Monet found himself back in his hometown of Le Havre making a series of paintings of the city’s busy port. Monet had spent the war in England studying with John Constable and J.M.W. Turner, both of whom deeply influenced his work. France was abuzz with patriotic renewal in the face of a humiliating defeat by the Germans and artists were quick at work attempting to reestablish the glory of France. Painters like Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville were busy rendering scenes from the war. Neuville’s Les Dernières Cartouches shows French snipers ambushing Bavarian troops in Bazeilles before the Battle of Sedan. Jean-Léon Gérôme was painting Pollice Verso, a moral allegory set in ancient Rome. It was around this time William-Adolphe Bouguereau painted the erotically charged Nymphs & Satyr. French painting was academic, politically charged, and intent on reclaiming France’s pride. Monet was none of these things.

In Le Havre, Monet worked on a series of paintings of the port. Impression, Sunrise was painted from his hotel room overlooking the bay. Monet worked from a base of gray, relying on subtle shifts in tone to distinguish the water from the sky, and quick, almost rudimentary marks to draw the cranes in the background and two small boats in the foreground. Dots, dashes, and squiggles make up most of the piece. The painting is a wash of understatedness except for the salmon-orange sun and a bevy of equally brilliant strokes that capture its reflection on the water. Peter Gay in his book, Modernism: The Lure of Heresy, describes the painting, “Altogether truly an impression, a highly accomplished impression, looking far more casual a piece than it really was. A characteristic specimen of the new painting, it tells no stories and offers no lessons; it does not aim at making its viewers more devout, more moral, more patriotic, or for that matter, more sexually aroused.”

Convergence by Philip Frey
Convergence by Philip Frey

In contemporary terms, such non-objective art is usually reserved for abstract painting, where the lack of representation suggests an emotional or aesthetic exploration on the part of the artist. Increasingly, as we move into the 21st century, we see painters, like Frey, incorporating the lessons of abstract art into representational works. We see this in paintings like Convergence that are small, immediate, and relatively free of details. Frey breaks down the scene in Convergence into its basic elements: a blue underpainting, a wide stroke of yellow for the sun, a softer stroke below the sun for its reflection on the water; a dozen or so marks of green, a few strokes of white for clouds. It is casual and free and yet completely conveys the breathtaking view one gets when looking out at an island across the water. Convergence is what you feel when you remember the view.

“My work begins with a feeling­—a connection to my everyday experience: evocative colors; unexpected patterns of light or the sublime quality of ordinary objects,” writes Frey. “From that feeling, I build a colorful and painterly world in response to it.”

Monet was working against a backdrop of patriotic fervor; Frey is working in a different context. Never in its history has so much art been so removed from people’s lives. Much of contemporary art demonstrates a contempt for the viewer, an unabashed lack of concern. One has only to take a brief tour of art fairs in Miami, New York, or Basel, to see a parade of narcissism, mundanity, and disdain that too often alienates everyday people from art. Frey is a refreshing counterbalance to contemporary art that is driven by concept and executed only to the point where the point is made. In contrast to this other work, Frey cradles the viewer, takes them by the hand, and walks them to a majestic view.

Pier Patterns by Philip Frey
Pier Patterns by Philip Frey

This approach to painting comes from our Impressionist forefathers. “Impressionist painters were carrying out Baudelaire’s influential agenda to lavish all of their attention on the present in which they lived and to which they responded,” explained Gay. And while Frey is not an Impressionist, the Impressionist spirit lives on in his work. He not only lavishes his attention on the present, he invites us to do the same, to join the boy jumping into the water in Dive, to take a walk in the woods in Forest Floor, to stroll the boardwalk in In the Moment, and enjoy the vibrant, colorful symphony of life in Pier Patterns. This is how Frey respects and serves the viewer.

In the Moment by Philip Frey
In the Moment by Philip Frey

I Don’t Care About David Byrne Anymore?

burning-spots

On October 10, 2014, Hyperallergic published Ric Kasini Kadour’s essay, “I Don’t Care About David Byrne Anymore?” in response to Mr. Byrne’s blog post, “I Don’t Care About Contemporary Art Anymore?”

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I Don’t Care About David Byrne Anymore?

by Ric Kasini Kadour

David, I received your missive in my Facebook feed. You know, the one where you pseudo-declare, “I Don’t Care About Contemporary Art Anymore?” The one where you complain that the art on view in the galleries you “peruse … when I return from jogging” are failing to raise your curiosity.

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Duncan Johnson: Reaching Across History

model-shop-by-duncan-johnson

Ric Kasini Kadour’s essay, “Duncan Johnson: Reaching Across History”, is published in the catalog Duncan Johnson which accompanies the August 16-October 31, 2014 exhibition “Stone. Glass. Wood.” at the West Branch Gallery & Sculpture Park. In the essay, Kadour examines how Johnson’s use of material weaves multiple histories into a single work.

Duncan-Johnson-CoverDuncan Johnson: Reaching Across History

By Ric Kasini Kadour

Every work of art poses some basic questions to the viewer. What is it? What does it show? Who made it? Why did the artist make it? And some art—that art which is more complex, perhaps more sophisticated, or simply difficult to look at or understand—raises other questions. Where does the art fit into the broader visual landscape? How is the artwork related to the larger narrative of art history? One doesn’t need to answer all of these questions to enjoy a work of art or even to understand and appreciate it, but asking these questions can make art a deeper, more meaningful experience.

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State of Affairs

ANE-State-of-Affiars-Spread

In the September/October 2014 Issue of Art New England, Ric Kasini Kadour took stock of the current state of contemporary art galleries in New England and profiled a number of galleries doing well in spite of the challenges: Kobalt Gallery in Provincetown, MA; West Branch Gallery in Stowe, VT; Clark Gallery in Lincoln, MA; Yellow Peril in Providence, RI.

ANE_SO14_CoverState of Affairs: How New England Galleries Make Their Way

by Ric Kasini Kadour

As businesses go, the art gallery is simple. Artist makes art. Gallerist hangs art on wall. Collector sees art and buys it. Everybody is happy.

If only it were that simple.

Imagine a business whose primary focus is the exposition of ideas in the hopes that someone will be so dazzled by them that he or she is willing to spend a small fortune on them. Imagine those ideas coming from a horde of eccentric children whose temperaments and idiosyncrasies become the business’s job to appease. Now imagine that business existing in a society that doesn’t really appreciate abstract ideas. Now you are approaching the reality of the contemporary art gallery.

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Paul Schwieder’s Glass Poems

copperbluenest-by-paul-schwieder

Ric Kasini Kadour’s essay, “Paul Schwieder’s Glass Poems”, is published in the catalog Paul Schwieder which accompanies the August 16-October 31, 2014 exhibition “Stone. Glass. Wood.” at the West Branch Gallery & Sculpture Park. In the essay, Kadour charts the history of the studio glass movement from its humble beginnings in a shed behind the Toledo Museum of Art.

Paul-Schwieder--Cover

Paul Schwieder’s Glass Poems

By Ric Kasini Kadour

Having a beautiful object is like owning a poem. A jumble of words are aesthetically, sometimes rhythmically, arranged to convey a meaning greater than its prosaic self, a gestalt. Art objects are similar in that they combine complex histories, a myriad of narratives, into single forms. One can reduce a piece of sculpture to its basic elements—glass, stone, wood, etc.—but in doing so, one misses the entire point of the object’s existence: to show the viewer something greater than the sum of its parts; to expose the viewer to a greater, deeper meaning. This is what a poem does. This is how having beautiful objects is like owning a poem.

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Epic Journey: Paintings of Giovanna Cecchetti

detail-cricket-song-by-giovanna-cecchetti
Detail of Cricket Song by Giovanna Cecchetti

“The Epic Journey: Paintings of Giovanna Cecchetti” originally appeared in a folio of prints published by West Branch Gallery & Sculpture Park. The folio accompanied the exhibition “Giovanna Cecchetti: Shifting Frequencies” that ran February 10th to April 28th, 2007. Kadour spoke at the February 10th opening reception.

The Epic Journey: Paintings of Giovanna Cecchetti

By Ric Kasini Kadour

Circle Meditation with Yellow Distraction by Giovanna Cecchetti
Circle Meditation with Yellow Distraction by Giovanna Cecchetti

Paintings are like poems—carefully crafted things where visual words are placed in such a way as to lead the viewer first to an image then to an epiphany. A Pollock painting with all its chaotic rhythms and stringing drips is like a good jazz lyric. The bright colors and geometric shapes make a Mondrian painting read like a haiku. Kandinsky gave us ballads, Warhol gave us jingles, and Jasper Johns gave us stanza after stanza of beat.

Giovanna Cecchetti gives us epics: magical, mystical journeys where the hero traverses a dramatic terrain of shifting shapes and lines; hearty, earthy tones, and brilliant bursts of color. The hero of the painting, battered and world-weary, goes deep within and emerges robust and emboldened, as if the hero had looked into the eyes of God.

You will not find the hero in one of Cecchetti’s paintings. He is not a black dot surrounded by brown in Guided by Ruins 7, nor among the reed-like vertebrates of Winter Meditation. You will not find the hero in the red or blue mists of The Large Scroll because the hero of Cecchetti’s paintings is you, the viewer.

Cecchetti creates paintings through the brilliant application of technique and with a deliberate meditative process. She works with a variety of media: acrylic and washes, ink, pastel, pencil and gouache. In some work, she sands the paint, blending one layer into another. She is not shy about using new technology. “Scrollsketches” began as digitally-manipulated prints of drawings into which she works paint, ink, and pencil. Her paintings have an aged, mature quality like a well-cured piece of wood or the wind-softened façade of an ancient temple.

When she paints, Cecchetti starts by preparing her surface with traditional methods of sizing and coating with skin glue or oil-based primers; which she sands down. The composition starts with a feeling for color. She makes random marks on the surface until an interchange between herself and the image before her takes hold. “I don’t like to impose control or power over a piece,” she said. “I have no idea where the pieces actually are going to go until they’re there.” In the “Guided by Runes” series, Cecchetti selects a stone and contemplates the symbol while she works.

This process is not religious. “I don’t like imposing spirituality upon my work,” said Cecchetti. “I think the process becomes a way to transcend the material world in the macrocosmic sense. And to get into the microcosmic sense of what’s really going on.” The purpose of the process is not to restate dogma, but to use the experience of painting to learn, explore, and grow. The results are for us to enjoy.

Neither is the process automatism. Cecchetti is a formalist, and her work shows attention to line and color, balance and form. In Scrollsketch #8, for example, viewing the painting from right to left, one sees a group of lines, then a sea of bright cell-like shapes which go dark, then darker, then a cloud of red mist speckled with small bright shapes that twinkle from underneath. The piece has a beginning and an end, a top and a bottom, a climatic middle, and resolution that is conveyed by shifts in palette and shape of marks. The work resonates a delicate harmony.

A painting is done, Cecchetti explains, “when it feels like it can leave and go live a life of its own, that it’s become its own being. It’s got its own consciousness, it’s able to go out and do it. It doesn’t need me any more.” That is to say, when the painting is all grown up. Only then do we, as viewers, get to encounter it and have our epic journey.

About Giovanna Cecchetti

Giovanna Cecchetti was born in Suffern, New York in 1953. Cecchetti first studied art at SUNY Rockland under Edgar and David Levy, who influence brought her to NYC to study with Larry Rivers at Parsons. After graduating with a BFA in 1976, Cecchetti moved to a loft in Hoboken, New Jersey and then to Montclair, New Jersey. In 1995, Cecchetti moved into one of the old silk mills in Paterson, where she lives and works today. Since her move to Paterson, Cecchetti received an MFA from William Paterson University where she currently teaches as an adjunct professor. Giovanna Cecchetti received a 2006 Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. She is also a 2003 recipient of the Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper Residency Fellowship, as well as a Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation funded residency at the Vermont Studio Center in 2004. Cecchetti’s work is included in national and international collections, both public and private.

www.giovannacecchetti.com

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Craig Mooney: Forward Movement

sailors-delight-ii-by-craig-mooney
Sailor’s Delight II by Craig Mooney

This essay appears in the catalog Craig Mooney: Lore of the Sea for an exhibition at Maine Art Shows, July 19-August 7, 2014.

Craig Mooney: Forward Movement

Spurred by an ascending Modernism, the pitter patter of art movements that rambled through the twentieth century left a mess at the art world’s door. If it could be painted, it had been painted; every conceivable style, approach, and method was exhausted. Painting has been declared dead and reincarnated so many times, that proclamations of its demise have become the stalwarts of lazy art critics and curators thirsty for attention. In reality, some painting movements have lost their utility. The white-on-white Minimalism that rocked the art world in 1951 no longer redefines our understanding of painting. We can no longer mine meaning from the dramatic application of paint to canvas which entertained the Lyrical Abstractionists of the 1970s. Post- and neo-revivals where artist’s attempt to resuscitate antiquated painting methods, while briefly entertaining, fail to sustain a meaningful approach to the medium. Where painting is moving forward is where artists are taking the lessons of past movements—the very best of visual strategy and technique—and putting those ideas in the service of new images. The collage of visual language expressed in paint is the future of painting and where some of the very best work is being done today. Craig Mooney is a case in point.

The bedrock of Mooney’s approach to painting starts, as all paintings do, with an abstraction of the subject to its most basic forms: land or water, horizon, sky or, in the case of figurative work, torso and head situated in the geometric forms of a scene. By under-developing aspects of his paintings, Mooney uses Minimalism to connect with the viewer who must fill in the blanks with his own experience. He builds intimacy between the viewer and the painting by using brush strokes and color work to highlight detail. For example, the dabs of orange and white in Inlet offer the viewer a visual scavenger hunt with which they can explore the painting. Lastly, Mooney combines a variety of styles—American Realism à la the Ashcan School, European Impressionism, and color and atmosphere catching pochades—with a contemporary use of blur that connects the viewer to a truth that transcends the subject, the viewer, and the painting itself.

Harbor Town by Craig Mooney
Harbor Town by Craig Mooney

In the collection of paintings presented in this catalog, one sees the evolution of Mooney’s practice. In his earlier cityscapes and figurative work, Mooney painted from the ground, from the viewpoint of a person merely feet away from the scene. This perspective can be seen in the figurative pieces Coastline Remembered and Call of the Sea and the landscape Day Sail, where the viewer looks out across the water to see sailboats dotting the horizon. But in Harbor Town or Day’s Catch, the perspective is that of someone hovering in the air. This compositional technique was pioneered by Andrew Wyeth in such seminal works as Soaring and continued by Andrew’s son Jamie in his paintings from Monhegan Island. Mooney’s use of this technique gives his paintings a mystical, fantastical quality as the viewer is asked to reference a point of view somewhere between aerial photography and a downward swooping cinematic shot. The result is a heightened sense of drama. This is particularly powerful in Harbor Town where, like the beginning of a movie, the viewer is poised to descend into a seaside village and the myriad of stories, secrets, and experiences found there. It is a gorgeous exposition with all the promise of climax and dénouement.

Recently, Mooney spent a few weeks in Paris with nothing to do but visit museums. He found himself returning to the Louvre and, in particular, to J.M.W. Turner’s Landscape with a River and a Bay in the Distance. The 1840s oil painting is a delicate work in beige, browns, and soft blues; though, because of the artist’s use of carmine, the colors seen today are most likely a faded version of what Turner originally painted. Nevertheless, the painting shows Turner’s remarkable ability to capture atmosphere. A mist descends onto the valley where the river meets the bay, gently obscuring the hills across the water as blue sky breaks through the top right corner. Turner was a romantic painter and a forerunner of Impressionism. For him, the subject was not the scene as he saw it, but the emotional dynamism as he experienced it. Mooney’s response was, “that was something I would like to do.”

Now Voyager by Craig Mooney
Now Voyager by Craig Mooney

The incorporation of Turner-inspired technique into Mooney’s blend of painting has yielded incredible results. Now Voyager is perhaps the closest to that style. A solitary ship moves into a vast fiery mist. Now Voyager is remarkable in that it has no horizon, no line that separates the water from the sky. The sailboat moves into the painting as if it is mid-ascension into the heavens. In Sailor’s Delight II, Mooney works from deep blues in the foreground to brilliant oranges, as the sky is reflected on the water. The clouds catch the sun in a radiant display of light. This masterful application of Turner-esque technique marries well with Mooney’s other visual strategies: the near abstraction of the land, the minimalist rendering of the boat, the dramatic perspective.

As he continues to evolve as a painter, as he continues to develop and add to his toolbox of techniques, Mooney will continue to make intense, dramatic paintings that deliver to the viewer the best of what painting can offer us. The works in this catalog are a wonderful beginning.

Jazz Is Playing

musical-missionaries-by-jefferson-pinder

Convergence: Jazz, Films and the Visual Arts” at Bates College through December 13, 2014 is the subject of Ric Kasini Kadour’s article in the July/August 2014 issue of Art New England.

ANE_JA14_cover2“Convergence” is the product of a collaboration between the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, an institution dedicated to the preservation and advancement of “America’s only indigenous art form”; and the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Nearly every work in “Convergence” is an example of how artists make visual art from music. Because that music is jazz, these works carry the extra weight of African American history and consciousness as it unfolded throughout the 20th century and continues today.

“Jazz Is Playing at Bates College”
by Ric Kasini Kadour
Art New England July/August 2014
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Musical Missionaries is a woodcut by Chicago-based video/performance artist Jefferson Pinder. It is an incredible reflection of jazz and African American history. Pinder’s video work deals with themes of blackness, Afro-Futurism, and physical endurance. You can see some HERE.

The Emotional Registry of American Art: Daniel J. Corey & Abbie Williams

Follow the Wind by Abbie Williams
Follow the Wind by Abbie Williams

This essay appears in the catalog “Daniel J. Corey & Abbie Williams: New Works” for an exhibition at Maine Art Shows, June 28 – July 17, 2014.

The Emotional Registry of American Art

This catalog and accompanying exhibition of new work by Daniel J. Corey and Abbie Williams offers an opportunity to take in the work of two Maine artists whose paintings are deeply connected to the communities in which they live and work. Corey lives in Bristol and paints around the Midcoast of Maine. Williams’ studio is in a lush wood in Nobleboro and she paints regularly from Monhegan and in Taos, New Mexico. Not only do they offer an exemplary collection of paintings, they are remarkable examples of contemporary American artists.

Before the 20th century, America had no art it could truly call its own. Painters worked their craft. Sculptors built their works. But their skill and training was rooted in a European tradition, informed by the continent’s aesthetic whims. Careers rose and fell in the cities of London and Paris, far, far away from Upstate New York, the Heartland, or New England. New York City, the art capital of America, traded largely in European artists, or American artists who expatriated themselves to France to study with the masters. This is just how it was.

After World War I, as America’s stature began to rise on the international stage, its identity at home also evolved. A great debate took place between the champions of European art and those who argued for an idea of American art. As Grant Wood explained in his 1935 pamphlet, Revolt Against the City, “painting has declared its independence from Europe, and is retreating from the cities to the more American village and country life. Paris is no longer the Mecca of the American artist. The American public, which used to be interested solely in foreign and imitative work, has readily acquired a strong interest in the distinctly indigenous art of its own land.” And for a brief moment, American art reached across the continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans, and included all the fields, prairies, and mountains in between.

This moment did not last long. At nearly the same time that America was finding its voice, a new kind of art was emerging, one that would redefine the viewer’s relationship to artwork and liberate the artist into a free zone of thinking and expression. Modernism was a philosophical, cross-media evolution in human culture that worked off the premise that traditional forms of culture were no longer capable of addressing modern, industrial life. New ways of thinking, a new culture, had to emerge. The discussion was no longer about how a painter could abstract his subject. Modernism negated the need for a subject all together, allowing the artist total freedom of expression. A great debate on the role of Modernism in American art took place between pro-Modernist critics and artists in New York and Regionalist, Social Realist painters from the Heartland, like Grant Wood. Backed by the economic and political power of New York City, the Modernists won the argument and American art would be forever synonymous with Modernism. As America rose to dominate international affairs, in light of the Cold War, Modern art—and its subsequent offspring: Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Lyrical Abstraction, etc.—would define Western civilization’s experience of art throughout the 20th century. American art, defined by the New York art scene, became indistinguishable from the global contemporary art found in the galleries of London, Paris, Berlin, Milan, and more recently, Beijing and Dubai.

But a distinct American art did not go away. In the rainy mountains of the Northwest, in the deserts of New Mexico, along the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico and New England, artists continued to make work that spoke about and to families and neighbors. They painted the world in which they lived, as they experienced it. They built sculpture with materials that came from the land around them. They photographed the people and places they called home. It is from this tradition of American art that Corey and Williams work.

Williams paints dramatic scenes of the rich landscapes she finds “while painting outdoors, painting in my studio or while I’m prowling around Maine’s uncommonly visited corners with my camera.” Blueberry Fields shows the fiery light of the setting sun blazing across a wild field. Williams renders this scene in fierce reds and oranges that show her fearless use of color. A soft ridge of green runs along the top, which is backlit by mauve mountains that fade into a blue-grey sky. One can see this delicate color play in the backgrounds of many of Williams’ paintings: the yellow and grey strokes above the trees in Clary Hill Farm; or in the soft magenta that appears like a cloud above the birds in Follow the Wind. These are not simply the colors observed by an astute artist; they are the subtle threads that make up the quilt of memories of those places we call home.

Yard Truck by Daniel J. Corey
Yard Truck by Daniel J. Corey

Corey’s paintings are a beautiful marriage of the Ashcan School of Social Realism and the Impressionism of the Cape Cod School of Art. Ashcan artists were concerned with showing daily life of real people and tended to skew what they saw as a “genteel tradition” in visual art. The Impressionism of the Cape Cod School of Art is informed by its founder, Charles Webster Hawthorne, who was, in turn, influenced by one of the great American Impressionists, William Merritt Chase. Steadfastly committed to painting en plein air, this particular tradition informs Corey’s use of luscious oils and rich colors, but when married with the Ashcan tradition, the result is work that teeters between romanticism and veracity while avoiding the pitfalls of nostalgia. Yard Truck shows a classic rural moment: the neighbor who allows his dead truck to become a lawn ornament, overgrown with weed and shrub as it rusts away. Corey renders this scene with a classic impressionist technique of loose brush strokes and vibrant color, but he doesn’t shy away from the reality of the truck. He uses a quick stroke of black for the rear view mirror and three strokes of different reds for the tail lights. The result is beautiful rendition of a familiar scene, elevated and celebrated.

This sort of emotional registry only comes from culture made by the people with whom we share our lives and land.

This is American art.

Lunch: Paintings of Henry Isaacs and Craig Mooney

From the catalog “New Works by Craig Mooney and Henry Isaacs” for the exhibition of the same title, June 25 to July 21, 2011 at The Gallery on Chase Hill, Kennebunkport, Maine.

The pairing of Henry Isaacs and Craig Mooney is not an obvious one. It is like organizing a lunch for your sister-in-law’s second cousin from the countryside of New England with your brother’s wife’s first cousin once removed who lives the urban life of New York. They are roughly twenty years apart in age. They work in the same field and they may both show up wearing the same blue cardigan, but their presentations and personalities are fundamentally different. Despite their differences, they click perfectly and find they have much more in common than knowing you and your penchant for organizing lunches between strangers.

One of the things that makes the paintings of Isaacs and Mooney work together so beautifully is their common roots and the trajectory of the art traditions that inform their work. The paintings of Isaacs and Mooney each show a Fauvist influence, but the real story of this pair is how each has developed a unique style.

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Isaacs’ paintings reflect André Derain’s emphasis of painterly qualities over representation. In July 4th, Islesford, Isaacs renders the scene with great detail: the American flag, the ramble of dock shacks, the line of boats on the shore, the trucks in the parking lot, and the bicycles waiting for the return of their riders. Boats sail in the background. Isaacs gives the viewer just enough of these elements to recognize them, and then takes the viewer on a fantastic escapade of paint and color: the goldenrod bottoms of the boats executed with single brush strokes, the patchwork of greens and blues of the shore, and the trucks painted in four shades of rusty red with some dots of blue for good measure. The painting is an explosion of the moment.

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By contrast, Mooney’s paintings are more akin to the work of Milton Avery, whose work moved away from Fauvism in the 1930s when he met Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko at New York’s Opportunity Gallery on 56th Street. Under Gottlieb and Rothko, Avery came to develop a restraint that underscored the emotionality of his paintings. Mooney has perfected it. Broad Beach shows four people walking along the shore at low tide. Mooney renders the expanse of sand in a series of tans and pinks and the sky in subtle blues and light grays. The two fields meet at a soft horizon. The people, whose presence allows the viewer to enter into the scene of the painting, are rendered with one, two, or three simple daubs of paint.

The arc of landscape (and seascape) painting leaves the 19th century on the solid ground of the Impressionists (and its post- and neo-impressionist progeny), who by 1901 are dominating the genre. So much happened in the 20th century and art took many a detour. The genre of landscape painting did not evolve as much as it absorbed the change that was swirling around it. The arc of 20th century landscape painting is a blur, but these two artists rise in this century with total clarity of style and solid execution. Landscape painting of the 21st century will be marked by a synthesis and refinement of approach and technique and these two artists are perfect examples of that phenomenon. Lunch with the two of them would make for a perfect afternoon.

What Is Contemporary Art & How Does It Matter?

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In its most basic sense, “contemporary art” refers to art dealing with themes and ideas of the present. But like any moment, it’s nearly impossible to have a historical view of the present. In that sense, contemporary art is more of a question than an answer. Here’s another way of thinking about it: Jackson Pollock is not a contemporary artist. For one thing, he’s dead. More importantly, however, his art making—the act of composing paintings by dripping paint onto a surface—is exemplary of art that is rejecting past traditions in favor of experimentation. That is to say that Jackson Pollock is a Modernist. If an artist were making drip paintings today, he would be making them in the tradition of Pollock.

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Postmodernism is a rejection of or reaction to modernism and, in particular, to notions of universality, authenticity, originality, and, in many ways, the traditional mediums of Modernism. Postmodernism is a rejection of the avant-garde and the privileging of technology. (This is why there is so much bad Postmodern video.) One of the greatest contributions of Postmodern art, however, is the breakdown of distinctions between high art and low art; between fine art and popular culture.

I think we’re at the end of Postmodern art and a major theme of contemporary art is how artists are wrestling with what comes next. So many sub-movements of Postmodernism (deconstructive conceptual art; classical realism; electrical installation art; digital art; inter- and multi-media art) led down so many dead ends that artists struggle to be relevant. I-married-an-artistThe artist has become a self-referential joke. An image making the rounds on social media shows one girl whispering, “She’s an artist,” into the ear of another girl who replies, “Oh, I thought she was just weird.” In 2008, a c-print by Anne Collier and Matthew Higgs was the appropriation of a Billy Button book cover that showed a woman weeping with her head in her hands. The title of the book was I Married an Artist. Ask an artist what impact they want to have and what you often get is a scuffle of confusion, insecurity, and vagueness.

Transitions between cultural movements are often presented as a crisis and a response to that crisis. Our culture is in no great crisis. We haven’t had a World War in a generation. We are programmed now to digest new technology. Our world is known to us and new discoveries tend to fill in the gaps of our knowledge rather than completely altering our understanding of the world. Nothing is really that shocking. Most of us living in first world countries will never experience famine, displacement, large-scale disease outbreak, or the sort of oppression that defined generations of human history. That is not to say that we have achieved world peace and prosperity for all, but, chances are, if you are reading this, you live in a stable society. For those interested in the advancement of culture, the greatest cultural crisis is a lack of crisis. Artists have a unique ability to put the world back together when it is broken. Think of Anselm Kiefer and his work’s ability to confront the taboos of German history or Pablo Picasso’s Guernica and its ability to convert the horrific carnage of the Spanish Civil War into a painting that champions peace. The most recent collective crisis seen in the Western World was the AIDS epidemic among gay men of the 1980s and 1990s. That experience generated the largest piece of public kitsch ever made, the AIDS Quilt, but it also created art like AA Bronson’s Felix, June 5th, 1994, a portrait of the artist’s partner on his death bed, after he had died, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), a 175-pound mound of individually-wrapped candies that corresponds to the artist’s deceased partner’s body weight. Viewers are encouraged to take a piece of candy, and the diminishing amount parallels Ross’ weight loss and suffering prior to his death. These works play an important cultural role in affirming humanity at a time when humanity is questioning itself. They also advance ideas of painting, sculpture/installation art, and, in the case of AA Bronson, the diffusion of art and ideas.

The greatest challenge for today’s contemporary artist is relevancy. Without a collective crisis, artists seem to be milling about, goofing off. Perhaps this is why art seems so trivial. But what an opportunity! For the first time in millennia, artists have the opportunity to forge new ideas that are not simply a response to human tragedy, but a propulsion towards greater human capacity, meaning, and joy.

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In October 2012, a number of high profile art writers, among them Sarah Thornton and Dave Hickey, declared they weren’t going to write about the art world any more. Hickey called contemporary art “nasty” and “stupid”. Hickey said“Thirty years in the art world and hundreds of biennials had not prepared me for… the conferences, committees, agendas, proposals, symposia, position papers, tourist boards, prize adjudications, directorial appointments and preening philanthropists.” Thornton complained that reporting on the art market, which she had made a name for herself doing, “implies money is the most important thing about art.” Complaining about money and art has been around forever. Andy Warhol found it amusing. In 1975, he declared, “I like money on the wall. Say you were going to buy a $200,000 painting. I think you should take that money, tie it up, and hang it on the wall. Then when someone visited you the first thing they would see is the money on the wall.” Collector Charles Saatchi complained in The Guardian about contemporary collectors, “Do any of these people actually enjoy looking at art? Or do they simply enjoy having easily recognized, big-brand name pictures, bought ostentatiously in auction rooms at eye-catching prices, to decorate their several homes, floating and otherwise, in an instant demonstration of drop-dead coolth and wealth.” But there is no real crisis in contemporary art. The people pretending there is one have a limited view of art. For them, the art world is a very small sliver of big-name, high-priced, globally-traded artists.

Art is incomplete until it is received by the viewer. Just as artists need to evolve, society needs to evolve as well.  Before the message of the contemporary artist is relevant, the audience has to be able to receive it. We need to learn how to read art again.

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Lawrence Weiner created a poster in 1991 for Printed Matter that said just that: LEARN TO READ ART. He explained it to Marjorie Welish in BOMB magazine in 1996 this way, “That phrase is advertising a particular means with which you can go through life, it doesn’t tell you that if you don’t learn to read art you’re going to be fined, it just says: Learn to Read Art. I don’t see that as an imperative. All artists are attempting to communicate, in whatever form, and if you can learn to read that form then you can either accept it or reject it. If you can’t read it, then it doesn’t mean shit to you.”

Relevancy. Connection. Communication. The collective experience. Those are the themes and ideas of today. If artists can make art about those ideas and if we as a society can learn again to read them, then contemporary art will be that force that propels us to greater capacity, meaning, and joy.

This article connects with the project Authentic Contemporary Art. See more HERE.