by DeWitt Cheng
"But not yet have we solved the incantation of this whiteness, and learned why it appeals with such power to the soul. .,, Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows — a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues — every stately or lovely emblazoning — the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtle deceits, not actually inherent in substances …"
— Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, Chapter XLII, 'The Whiteness of the Whale"
After my recent dissatisfaction with the new, hip programming at San Francisco's Legion of Honor — which, in my opinion, trashed the institution's own collection of Rodins, not to mention the tragic humanist tradition of western art — it is a pleasure to see the balance between old and new restored. A pairing of Rodin sculptures with contemporaneous paintings by Gustav Klimt sheds light on the erotic dimension of these two late nineteenth-century greats; and the exhibition "Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World" presents a strong, if long standing case that the Greco-Roman tradition that we have come to associated with pure, if blanched idealized form, wrought with dazzling skill in Pentelic marble from quarries north of Athens, is a cultural myth. I'll focus on the latter in this column.
The statues that we grew up regarding as pure, visually chaste (even when depicting the sexual harassments of Zeus/Jupiter), and (to cite Nietzsche) Apollonian, rational, intellectual and enlightened, as opposed to Dionysian, emotional and ecstatic to the point of violence, were painted, apparently rather gaudily. On my first visit, somewhat appalled by the busy patterning and bright colors, I was reminded of Marlene Dietrich's [actually Greta Garbo's] comment at the premiere of Jean Cocteau's film, "La Belle et la Bête," on seeing the tortured, mysterious Beast magically transformed into the pretty, perfumed prince (both played by the painfully handsome Jean Marais): "But give me back my poor Beast!" Even if historically inaccurate, I found myself missing the clarity of pure marble. On my second visit, I looked at the scientific and historical evidence and found it convincing, even if some of the restorations still seemed overly assertive in a way that the brightened colors of the cleaned Sistine Chapel frescos never were, a generation ago, after the removal of five centuries of candle smoke and soot.
The exhibit's core works are painted reproductions of works held by the sculpture collection, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung in Frankfurt and other institutions, produced by Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann using up-to-date technology, including ultraviolet scanning (for more info go to buntegoetter.liebieghaus.de/en). When classical sculptures were excavated during the Renaissance, they were denuded by time and erosion of the paint they once wore, with the faint traces of pigment either nearly invisible, or, after neoclassical theorists had exalted their shining purity of form, scrubbed white. The exhibition makes clear that Johann Joachim Wincklemann (1717-1768), whose "History of Art in Antiquity" (1764) was to prove so foundational, acknowledged that classical statuary was indeed polychromed. Nevertheless, his championing of idealized classical form — which may owe something to his homosexuality — carried the day, perhaps answering to a cultural counter-reaction to the frivolity of the fading Rococo style.
Even the best and brightest can be wrong, of course. A group of painted figures, laid out in Rosekrans Court, beneath the Legion's pyramidal skylight, reconstructs sculptures made for the Doric Aphaia Temple, built on the island of Aegina, east of mainland Greece, about 480 BC, and excavated in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Aphaia was a mother goddess, and this particular temple was a favorite subject for artists of the time, including Turner. The figures that were made for the temple's western pediment treated the Trojan war, so the supposition that the two kneeling archer figures represented, respectively, the Greek warrior Teucer, brother of Ajax, and the Trojan prince Paris, seems plausible, even if the flat egg-tempera painting and bright color, so reminiscent of dolls and plastic action figures, destroy any sense of Homer's "strong force of fate." Teucer is dressed in a white tunic soberly decorated with blue bands and a horsehair-crested war helmet; while Paris, in multicolored diamond patterned tights, is as gaily turned out as a, well, bridegroom — or, as the didactic wall labels suggest, a decadently feminized Asiatic. A trio of warrior heads nearby provokes the same response from this viewer: the unpainted one, in synthetic marble, roughly carved, with eyes blank, has a poetic mystery that is entirely absent from the two finely carved, painted heads on adjoining pedestals, which look fanciful and slightly absurd to my 21st century eye. It is like 2D comic-book characters popped into 3D space, which has thoroughly different pictorial standards that of course have nothing to do with 5th century BC visual intentions.
The whiteness of marble, unpainted by time, lends a melancholy and even stoic dignity to the figures, which the painting, however skillfully done, removes. A case in point is how the Temple of Aphiaia figures are joined by other painted reconstructions, sometimes featuring gilding, metal or stone details, that share their visual impact: a pair of life-sized warriors, majestically martial, metallic, and nude but for helmets, shields and weapons, from the island of Riace; a mounted horseman from the Acropolis, wearlng leggings akin to Paris'; the Amazon princess Antiope holding the Greek hero/cad Theseus, the plaster cast painted only minimally; and a cast of a relief from the Parthenon, showing a boy and horseman, which through the magic of digital projection is alternately 'painted' and unpainted.
Accompanying the painted reconstructions are classical and neoclassical (Canova, Cellini, Maillol) sculptures from the Fine Arts Museums and other collections, including two wonderful casts from the University of California, Berkeley: a monumental a caryatid (woman-as-column) made from the original at the Acropolis, in Athens, and a fragmentary horse and rider from the Acropolis Museum. Watercolor paintings made onsite at the excavations in the early nineteenth century by the antiquarian Edward Dodwell and the artist Simone Pomardi with the help of a camera obscura further enrich our understanding of how and why art is made and lost, rediscovered, appropriated, interpreted, misinterpreted and reinterpreted. I have merely touched on a few aspects of this important and revelatory show. In our age of enraged thersitical (a word that deserves revival) partisanship and Dionysian excess, it's also a call for scientific, historical, reality-based attention and analysis.
"My life and fortunes are a monstrosity, partly because of Hera, partly because of my beauty. If [only] I could shed my beauty and assume an uglier aspect the way you would wipe color off a statue."
— Helen of Troy in Euripides' play, Helen,
5th century BC
Chandra Cerrito Contemporary
Hybridity, changing demographics and scandal are back in the news. A purportedly racially insensitive or even racist painting was shown at the Whitney Biennial to some liberal consternation; statues of Confederate generals were assailed by liberals and defended by conservatives in the wake of the shameful neo-nazi march in Charlotte NC; and sexual hanky-panky on a colossal scale has emerged, seemingly everywhere—including
the hushed precincts of influential art magazines. Some artworlders may have now come to believe, given the political correctness inculcated in colleges in recent years, that shouts and alarums are the goals of good art. They can be, especially in our tumultuous times, but we also need to consider, for aesthetic balance, the beauty and complexity afforded by art without sociopolitical overt agendas, art made because the artists were inner-driven and self-directed.
The dual solo shows by Bay Area artists Connie Goldman and Mikey Kelly—her second and his first at this Oakland gallery—make a compelling argument for the best kind of formalist practice: work of museum quality—both artists have been collected at that level—that explores pure painting creatively and, indeed, notwithstanding the crisp, immaculate facture—no painterly blobs and drips here—passionately. The dogma of 1960s hard-edge formalism deserved its ridicule by Tom Wolfe in The Painted Word, with critics supposedly squinting slantwise across the canvas surface looking for suspicious painterly bumps, but the geometric abstraction tradition was always bigger than even Clement Greenberg; and the best reductivist or minimalist work—Mondrian, Reinhardt, Rothko, Newman, Stella et al.—was always about more than paint on canvas stretched over wood.
Goldman’s show takes its title Genea, from the Greek word for becoming or emerging, as in ‘genealogy’ or ‘generate.’ The artist cites her interest in the “tenuous equilibrium” in which people and the world exist (always, and not just post-Trump). Goldman: “Life is constant change. From one nanosecond to the next, from a minute to a decade, from a millimeter to a mile, there’s no chance of escaping the push and pull of time, nature, and volition.” Connie Goldman’s eight painted MDF (a fine-grained pressed wood) relief sculptures, with their irregular polygonal shapes, ‘split-level’ planes, and vibrant color palettes, are meticulously constructed puzzles, with double meanings and perceptual ambiguities. Some planes seem folded over, like origami, or read as the shadows of other planes; some planes in these reliefs are elevated or recessed, suggesting geological or architectural models. The multiple perspectives, overlapping forms, illusory folds, painted edges, and contradictory color and form make works like “Genea VI,” “Genea X” and “Genea XI,” my favorite pieces, vibrate with contradiction; distillations of imagination and experimentation that defy logic, but achieve a hard-won but effortless-seeming perfection.
Speaking of vibration and vibrancy, Mikey Kelly’s six overlapping-stripe acrylic paintings in Vibrate marry Op Art—Bridget Riley and Jesus Rafael Soto come to mind— with a compositional process involving algorithms, with the goal of what he calls ‘spirituality hacking.’ I am not clear on how the words that Kelly picks as titles are transformed or encoded by algorithms into these dazzling yet delicate ‘woven’ arrays of stripes—made with an automobile paint striper and straightedge, by the way—which seem to change from afar with the viewer’s movements, and, close up, suggest complex crystalline or architectural structures. Be Love Now V1.0 and Be Love Now V2.0, sixty-inch-diameter tondos, suggest both the yarn-string projects that many of us made as children, and the scanned images of planets, simplified by pixelation. Affirmations, a series of five twenty-four-inch square panels, carries a similar hidden spiritual message in its title, with the colored lines changing color according to the viewer’s angle of view and distance, as with the pointillist Divisionism of Seurat and Signac. Seven Names of God Prayer V2.0 with its vertical adjoining panels suggests (incorrectly) a prismatic version of the ROYGBIV rainbow color chart—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet—or an abstract, meditative, New Age version, perhaps, of Monet’s sun-kissed Rouen Cathedral. The sun is god, as Turner said.—DeWitt Cheng
Fresno Art Museum
The object of painting a picture is not to make a picture—however unreasonable this may sound. The picture, if a picture results, is a by-product and may be useful, valuable, interesting as a sign of what has past. The object, which is back of every true work of art, is the attainment of a state of being, a state of high functioning, a more than ordinary moment of existence. In such moments activity is inevitable, and whether this activity is with brush, pen, chisel, or tongue its result is but a by-product of the state, a trace, the footprint of the state. —Robert Henri1
At the heart of my work, whether it be quilts, collages or books, is the transformation of fabric and paper in layered constructions. Improvising during the painting, image-transfer processes and collaging of materials while chasing an idea at hand creates adventure in the studio—Thoughts are made visible. —Joan Schulze, 1999
Collage has declared to be the predominant aesthetic strategy of the modernist art of the twentieth century. (A slightly broader term, juxtaposition, might also be claimed for the postmodernist art of recent decades.) A century ago, the Cubists combined drawing and painting with glued printed images in order to depict, with ambiguous wit, modern life’s new fast pace, jumbling images and sounds.. A decade later, the Dadaists and Surrealists employed collage to create nonsensical or dreamlike tableaux that excoriated the ostensibly rational leaders responsible for the Great War. In America, after the second world war, collage was employed similarly by the Abstract Expressionists and Pop Artists: in Ab Ex, colors and shapes were combined with painted forms, echoing Cubist formalism; in Pop, real-world elements were painted or printed, or literally incorporated into artworks to both commemorate and satirize mass-culture daily life.
Joan Schulze, the eminent California quilt artist, has made collage the basis of her practice. She “embraces,” says art critic Peter Frank, “the disjunctive quality of modern life and seeks to discover coherence and harmony within such disjunction. This is no mere demonstration of virtuosity; it is an ongoing display of discretion, a constant matching of medium to material, content to context.”2 It is a compositional method that reflects her creative philosophy of openness, improvisation and experimentation. A lyrical poet as well as an artist, Schulze is a careful observer of things, and, of her reactions to them, both visual and verbal. Sarah E. Tucker describes Schulze’s “fascination with changing light, the effects of time and weather on the walls of buildings, the passing of time, and laundry (and to travel with Joan is to be ever alert to the cry, Stop! Look at that laundry! And yes, to stop and take photographs at regular intervals along the route.)”3 These photographs, transformed and combined, make their way into the artist’s beautiful, poetic artworks. Tucker likens Schulze’s compulsive image-gathering to the writing method favored by the eighth-century Chinese poet and calligrapher Li Po (who drowned, apocryphal legend has it, while drunkenly trying to embrace the moon’s reflection), as well as the twentieth-century Beat writer William Burroughs, who labeled his method ‘cut ups’.
Li Po would ride out each morning, his servant walking by his side. Each time a thought came to him, he would write it down and drop the slip of paper and text into the black embroidered bag hjs servant carried. Returning home Po would spend each evening working these scraps of text into a poem.4
…I grasped their patterns
Made by dots,
Those Morse Code messages
That reached out to me…
—From Morse Code, by Joan Schulze
Shulze waited until her late thirties, after becoming an accomplished poet and photographer, to focus on art quilt-making, or, to use the more exact and inclusive term, fiber art. In the 1970s, she learned embroidery at a local stitchery guild; in the 1980s she explored traditional quilting materials and formats (though not traditional imagery); from the 1990s to the present she has expanded her scope to include nontraditional methods and materials (glue transfer, acrylic paint, Velcro, plastic fabric, monotype, cyanotype, creative photocopying, reverse printing, layering, metal foils, machine and hand stitching, mass-market printed imagery) and unusual formats (double-sided quilts; scrolls; and sequences of images either sewn together or affixed to wide strips of tape, resembling filmstrips or contact sheets). Tucker sees this experimentation—which includes transforming old works into new ones— as akin to improvisation in jazz, one of the artist’s enthusiasms, demanding both technical virtuosity and perfect visual ‘pitch’5. Schulze also ventures at times from the lyrical into sociopolitical commentary with a feminist slant, proving that art engagé can combine visual beauty and even a wry sense of humor. Schulze’s fashion-themed collages (Tango, Fast…Faster) celebrate youth, beauty and glamor, while hinting, with their distressed, faded surfaces, at the flip side of fabulousness, evanescence. Schulze’s affinity for wabi sabi, the Japanese appreciation of imperfect beauty. i.e., marked by weathering or age, or ‘living a life.,”7 is captured in four works depicting Japanese tea bowls, which the artist collects. These works collate multiple views of each cup at various sizes and seen from different angles, cubistically; some of the cup portraits are distorted by photocopy-machine manipulation; others recall photographic negatives, with their light and dark values reversed. Three of the collages—a long time ago, not so long ago, and the unknowable future—are accompanied by poems that ponder the mystery and miracle of enduring artworks “made to last through time.”
once upon a time, not so long ago
this bowl, this precious object
cared for, used, and admired
passed from one to another
then given as a gift
to one who received it
with delight and surprise
—Joan Schulze, not so long ago, 2017
Schulze’s restricted, delicate palettes, her elegant drawing in thread, her use of written or printed characters as semi-abstract visual forms, and her airy, open compositions suggest the nature philosophy of Asian art. In several recent works, however, Schulze confronts the racial divide in American culture in tape-strip collages that suggest the pervasive imagery of the digital era. Interior Lives and Vertical Daydreams suggest private reveries, while Opus: White and Opus: Black and Brown, subtly show how skin color is still unfortunately the filter through which we perceive each other.
While previous writers have focused on Schulze as the creator of extraordinary art quilts, it is a disservice to her art to relegate it to the craft domain. Schulze’s vernacular, everyday images taken from a variety of sources, mysteriously and miraculously synthesized through color and composition into compelling, hypnotic works—that, in Whitman’s words, “contain contradictions”—are fine-art collages comparable to any. Schulze acknowledges the assemblagist Robert Rauschenberg as a kindred spirit whose work influenced her, and both artists combine curiosity about the world and a passion for materials and experimentation. For both, the process and the experience are of equal importance with the resulting product, or ‘by-product,’ to use Robert Henri’s 1923 term. Fortunately for us viewers, both are consummate artists who magically and intuitively transform the diaristic stuff of daily life into universal visual experience; Schulze calls this quality that lifts a work beyond design and composition ‘the sixth dimension.’ 6 Henri, again: “It beats all the things that wealth can give and everything else in the world to say the things one believes, to put them into form, to pass them on to anyone who may care to take them up.”8
1 Robert Henri, The Art Spirit (1923), p. 159
2 Peter Frank, “The Collage Aesthetic,” in Deborah Corsini’s Poetic License: The Art of Joan Schulze (1999), p.113
3 Sarah E. Tucker, “Schulze: The Artist Who Dances,” in Joan Schulze’s Quilts (2005), p.9
4 Sarah E. Tucker, “A Poetics of Cloth, Paper, Stitch and Line,” in Deborah Corsini’s Poetic License: The Art of Joan Schulze (2009), p.85
5 Sarah E. Tucker, “A Poetics of Cloth, Paper, Stitch and Line,” in Deborah Corsini’s Poetic License: The Art of Joan Schulze (2009), p.90
6 Schulze, quoted in Dyana Curreri, “ A Life Without Limitation,” in The Art of Joan Schulze (1999), p.58.
7 Schulze, quoted in Jette Clover, “Looking for Beauty,” in The Art of Joan Schulze (1999), p.110.
8 Robert Henri, The Art Spirit (1923), p. 142
Wong’s urban landscape paintings (pointedly devoid of greenery) document the graffiti and hip-hop era, now generally associated with Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf and others. They combine gritty reality— brown and gray building facades, the brickwork and graffiti meticulously rendered in somber reds, grays and ochers—with the Romantic excess of gay street culture in all its outrageously colorful theatricality. The cowboy-hatted Chinese-American artist from San Francisco who had once earned his living as the Human Instamatic, making $7.50 portraits at art fairs (with a personal record of twenty-seven fairs in one day!), and designing sets for the hippie-radical street-theater commune, The Angels of Light, found the subject that combined his various interests—gay culture, graffiti, an updated social realism, and even autobiography of sorts—in the vibrant, polyglot, multiracial bohemia of Loisaida.
A roundtable discussion on Wong’s New York work will take place 1pm, Saturday, November 11; a talk on Wong’s use of American Sign Language will take place 3:30pm, Saturday December 9. Martin Wong: Human Instamatic runs through December 10; Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2120 Oxford Street, Berkeley, 510/642-0808; bampfa.org. —DeWitt Cheng
Note: Not all the jpegs posted here may be included in the show. Will revise after I’ve seen the show. The piece was written in mid-September