Monday, January 29, 2007

The World Is Flat

Falling Cow Gallery is not quite a year old and they are presenting a show that would not seem out of place in Brooklyn, Manhattan or London. Titled, The World Is Flat, this group foray is certainly more interesting than the Tom Friedman book of the same name – which is flat in another way – but the meaning remains: things are the same everywhere. (Isn’t that what I was just saying below?) The title also ironically refers to painters leaving their walls behind and venturing out into different media that still is concerned with painterly issues. The show includes a Brit! Brits always know what they are doing and are usually good conversationalists. Chris Lawley has made a piece from straws all standing out from the wall and one from of hanging blue tarp. Deliciously low-tech this work still requires the viewer to bring something to the table. Ben Will makes artful use of duct tape (the New Paint) made fashionable recently due to the rise of Jim Lambie of Glasgow. – I’m not sure how they sell Lambie’s disco/punk influenced DIY in Chelsea and in Art Fairs, but it must keep local hardware stores in business. Talk about reconfiguring rooms with basic equipment! – Will’s main piece, “Burst” has that odd look of a non-objective thing but with the essence of installation and performance ie, the making of the thing is the thing, to quote Hamlet. Not sure exactly what to make of it, but I want to see more. Bruce Campbell’s old record player hangs on a wall in the small room looking mysterious. It covered in fake grass from a train set and is completely odd. In a completely opposite vein, his circular yarn piece near the floor conveys a Shabby Conceptuality. – Have I just coined some art-speak here? – Mauro Zamora’s projection, The Surrender, is a movie in a painting and fits into the hand-made/store-bought aesthetic. With the the repeating text, “Be Aware Beware,” this piece connected with the others in terms of mystery, backward looks and forward motion. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with all this, but I wanted to stand there a long time and work it out and that is always a good sign. Someone should go in there and buy some of it.

The fourth in a series of juried shows, Morgellons, at Fleisher/Ollman also deserves praise for simply attempting to by-pass the old model of what encompasses art in Philly. It would also look at home at any art fair. Morgellons stresses the contemporary and is full of the variety one expects in a current group shows: a nice obscurish video piece with cool soundtrack, a sillyish installation of cardboard boxes, strange collections of objects – phallic melted glass in this case – and a few naive painted works and goofy collages. The free standing piece with LED readout on stands was offay and typifies a lot of multi-media half installation. I say half because it only dominates part of the space with its table top topography. Nami Yamamoto’s delicate cut-outs are nice but haven’t I seen them before several times? The killer was Jayson Scott Musson’s piece, My Favorite White Rasta, not only because of the Wookie Star Wars connection and perfect title, but because of the visual boldness. It was also very funny, if not relevant, like all his work and only One Hundred Dollars! Well done, Fleisher/Ollman. We are all going a bit Tristan Lowe aren’t we? I should admit that I did submit work for this show and though I was not selected, I feel not the least bit burned.

Friday, January 26, 2007


Contrary to popular belief, I am not a Philaphobe, though my criticisms of the art scene here may seem to indicate that. Watching the recent, swift and successful aquisition of Eakin’s Gross Clinic by the city was mystifying. It was as if the city’s honor was at stake. Perhaps it was, but it is this blind affection for the past that confuses me. Eakins is OK, but is it not time for a new art hero? And I don’t think the Rocky Statue qualifies. It is not that I want to appear the snob, but I can’t see how any of this connects with the making of a viable contemporary art scene. Now, old traditions are fine. That is what gives a place its own identity and many places have none. Philly has plenty of identity. At times we wallow in it and wish very hard for it to be mythic in scale. Unfortunately, by definition, the contemporary has nothing to do with “finding a cozy place like Philly to make your own,” unless you are a muralist. I suppose Zoe Strauss does it to great affect but it remains localized art, taking inspiration from the city. In my glorified role as critic, it seems pointless to analyze piles of indifferent art by sensitive types that identity too strongly with place rather than with ideas.

Yes, cities, historically, have always defined their art. Think Paris, Vienna, Rome, New York, Dusseldorf. But, in contrary fashion, I say, what about the places that have no identity? The places where many of us come from originally? Aren’t those places of Insufferable Normality prone to the same progress as cities, or the same difficulties? Anyway, New York isn’t really New York anymore is it? There is no "New York" art. London has had similar change. The Local is dead. Sure, it was always better before before the Gap and Starbucks intruded on the local identity, but what if the Gap and Starbucks is the local identity? That is a question for contemporary art to answer.

Next: Stay tuned for review of The World Is Flat at the Falling Cow Gallery on 4th Street, south of South in my fair city and a look in at Fleisher/Ollman's juried show.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Basquiat 81

After seeing Art School Confidential I became interested in researching how art is portrayed film-wise. I saw Ed Harris in Pollock a while back but never saw Basquiat for some reason. Schnabel’s film is a real rags to riches story about the early eighty’s wunderkind It is a straight forward morality tale that doesn’t end well. Sort of rock and roll really and I’m not sure if it rings true or not. I suspect that given the celebrity lineup even in cameos that it is a too Hollywood to be an honest depiction. Wilhem Defoe has a small part as an electrician and Christopher Walken plays a journalist for about 3 minutes! The time is sure interesting and I am wondering about the Basquiat/Warhol relationship. Basquiat died one year after Warhol oddly enough and I have a vague memory of seeing a show of work they made together. The film made in 96 already has the notion that art is only made to sell in the opposite way from the Van Gogh myth of the starving misunderstood genius. Remember Kirk Douglas going mad in a straw hat? I prefer the Alec Guinness sort of con-man/alcoholic/genius artist in the Horse’s Mouth, a little gem way before Star Wars. Now that I’m on the subject of morality, what about The Portrait of Dorian Gray? I saw that on PBS recently. Dorian sells his soul for everlasting life and what a drag that turned out to be. It’s basically a Victorian horror film which brings me back to the art world. The Soho boom of the 80’s petered out with a recession but those swinging days are nothing compared to what is going on now. Perhaps the figures aren’t looming as large, but there are more of them. You even see a little of the ancient New Image inflections returning now and again. After seeing Basquiat, I watched Downtown 81, a nearly plotless romp which caught the street mood better, including the bad acting and excellent glimpses of bands like Tuxedo Moon and the Plastics. That was worth the price of rental on its own. Still, no film maker has ever caught that sixties/seventies Me-Generation evolving into a major New Wave Party. The music was rich and it is ripe for parody. Just watch out for the water bugs on Avenue B.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Art School Flash Back

I recently got the DVD of Art School Confidential (2006) and was struck by the unchangingness of the beginning of the film. Set in the present day, it could easily have been 1974. It reminded me of a litany of flipped out self-indulgent students and pretentious unfathomable teachers. The film could cause you to think that art school hasn’t changed in a generation. This, of course, is not the case, which made me think it should have been set in the past to play up the 70’s film genre ala Dazed and Confused. The reason the movie – it is very funny – catches the 70’s vibe so well is that the writer Daniel Clowes – best known for the graphic novel, Ghost World – was born in 1961. The odd part is that some of the parody in the film is accurate and perhaps unchanging, while the current art world – equally ripe for lampooning – is a little different. The film is peppered with up-to-date art school dialogue which certainly wasn’t used in my day. There was no contextualizing anything and no one read Barthe. We were smart enough to suspect the futility in what nearly all of us were doing. This would change quickly as Punk and New Image were about to break. Unbeknownst to me, there was Jenny Holzer graduating a year ahead at RISD. How did she know what she knew then? Different and inspiring teachers or artist parents? In those days, the leaning was towards the cosmic rather than the well-read Marxist and teachers more often had a discreet pony tail than not. One was lead to believe that there was this mysterious process in becoming an artist that involved something akin to primal screaming when many just wanted to learn how to use a brush. These were days where minimal art flourished along with myriad strange performance arts if you had the guts. David Sedaris caught some of these moments very well in his stories (Me Talk Pretty One Day) about his school experience, involving how much speed he was on. Basically, there was an overblown sense of importance to the work and to the individuals making it. That part was hard to take seriously and was often mediated with vast amounts of alcohol and drugs. It was the mid-seventies after all. If I’d gone to art school a little later I might have latched on to the New Image trend which I caught at the end of the decade. After a few years bumming aroundI became an MFA at Syracuse made attaptes to update. By this time music was as important to me as painting and it seemed appropriate at the time. I graffitied the whole MFA hallway with images of skin heads (hard core-bands) ala Picasso. Can I tell you it was fun? This was an incredible sea change and many professors were caught unawares. They were still smoking pipes and going on about Pollock and On the Road. I remember the day in 1983 when reknown critic, Clement Greenberg showed up to preside over a crit. I should have gotten his autograph. He called my little oil painting muddy. He was correct but it was a funny picture of a punk rock band as well. I continued making that sort of work until the late Eighties and ran out of steam. I remember being told – when I finally got the opportunty to show in a gallery in New York – how New Image was out. My life had either just begun or was coming to a complete halt. Shall we talk about Basquiat next? He died that very year.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Art Takes Time

At a holiday party this week in North Jersey I had the opportunity to meet some people outside the Philly arts loop. They announced that they had heard great things about the art scene from their artists friends living here. Rather than burst their bubble like I am tempted to do, this required further gentle probing. The artists friends in question were in there 50’s obviously – as am I – so I would have to give them a little grace and I mitigated my initial and usual response. These people claimed that their artist friends were showing in old city and having a fun time. I wasn’t around 15-20 years ago but I know Philly has come a long way. If you graduated from Tyler in 1980 or thereabouts you would have had a different and more difficult experience from recent grads who are now spilling off the sidewalks and showing their bits and pieces all over town in a variety of boutiques, coffee houses and little galleries. So today must feel like a party compared to the limits back then. If only this party had more substance. Yes, you can show all sorts of work in Philly but very little is of a caliber that makes anyone else take notice. Yes, there are hipsters from all over coming to town; such is the great press we are getting in Local and National media not to mention the hidden recesses of My Space. There is no telling where we shall be in five years. We shall have, no doubt, have numerous subcultures dancing to new beats, but I fear the same old institutions and bureaucracies. It is natural that as the nature of art shifts dramatically, the older set loses sight of the continuum – I can relate – and tries to hang on the familiar model. But why hang on to the dying breed of Old City gallery hopping by people in Eagles caps. Call me a snob if you like, but they wouldn’t know art from a hole in the ground (Yes, I know art is often a hole in the ground)! At the party, I was surrounded by unfortunate works from my student days that my brother had collected. I used to be embarrassed by it all. This is why I brought along a nice new piece so there would be a more complete history of my meagre doings. The piece was met with approval by most of the crowd. I will not mention the mid-seventies realist self portrait by a younger James Rosenthal featuring heaps of unkempt hair and a painful expression. I guess I have come a long way too.