From time to time, articles appear, proclaiming the death of painting, or the death of art; both are, to use Mark Twain’s word, premature, and easily ignored. However, the strange state of American culture in the Trump era, with its worship of money and its mingled fear of and contempt for creative expression calls for occasional reflection. We have been living and working for the past four decades or so in what is termed the postmodernist era. Preceding that was the modernist revolt in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, against a by-then debased Renaissance realism. To quote Wikipedia:
George W. Bush’s administration touted ‘faith-based reality’ over old -fashioned ‘fact-based reality,’ so W was seen by some as the first postmodern president. ne could argue that today’s alt facts and fake news are now new, but legacies. Nowadays, we read increasingly, however, that PoMo itself is no more. The philosopher Daniel Dennett: Postmodernism, the school of 'thought' that proclaimed 'There are no truths, only interpretations' has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for 'conversations' in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster."
In the post-postmodernist age, we are invited to forsake the intellectual skepticism we imbibed in school (some of us) , the old-time irreligion, and to find new faith in ... something. Cultural critic Eric Gans posits a ‘post-millennialist’ rejection of politically correct ‘victimary thinking’ in favor of ‘non-victimary dialogue’ that will “diminish […] the amount of resentment in the world.” Alan Kirby, a British critic, is less sanguine assessing our current condition as ‘digimodernism or ‘pseudo-modernism’; he enumerates our faults: "In pseudo-modernism one phones, clicks, presses, surfs, chooses, moves, downloads," excoriating even —is nothing sacred?—"the drivel found […] on some Wikipedia pages.”
This confusion about the intersection of philosophy and aesthetics came to mind as I absorbed the current Urs Fischer show at the Legion of Honor. Fischer is a skilled artist in the conceptual mode, i.e., intellectual and provocative , but not emotionally engaging The museum is displaying two bodies of his work: large bronze sculptures made from amateur-artist clay models, dispersed in the entrance courtyard, surrounding Rodin’s Thinker; and mixed-media paintings and sculptures, installed at various points within the Legion’s traditional galleries, surrounded by Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical paintings, sculptures, and furniture. The juxtaposition of old and new is so striking that I went back twice to look. I can’t say that the mashup effect was entirely pleasant or, for that matter, unpleasant; it did, however, reflect our current confusion about art’s meaning and how it is affected by context, The exhibition, which celebrates the centenary of Rodin’s death, is a mixed bag.
The Legion of Honor, you may recall, is a slightly reduced-scale replica, erected in 1924 on a hill overlooking scenic San Francisco Bay, of Pierre Rousseau’s 1782 neoclassical Palais de la Légion d'Honneur in Paris, If the original Legion celebrates military valor or other meritorious service on behalf of the French nation, the San Francisco museum seems the very model of a traditional museum; its Greco-Roman architectural style (so often copied for banks and treasuries) connotes—unlike contemporary museums—stability, substance and endurance. A 1923 plaque mounted on the archway leading into the colonnaded courtyard commemorates “comradeship with the dead” of America’s Great War, and Rodin’s Thinker seemingly broods over “Patrie et Honneur,” Country and Honor, engraved on the entrance pediment.
Sixteen bronze sculptures made from clay models by amateur artists have been placed within this classical patriotic setting in what can be described only as, depending on your tastes, a genius coup de théâtre or a backhanded slap to patriotism and self-sacrifice, once considered virtues, but now regarded by most Americans, rightly or wrongly, with skepticism and even scorn. The juxtaposition between these lumpy antiheroic works and the classical columns surrounding the spacelike disciplined soldiers seems odd, but in a good way. Only steps away from George Segal’s Holocaust memorial, and encircling Rodin’s masterpiece, these bronze turds are inept, funny and weirdly endearing. Louis xiv is a sagging ornate throne; napoleon, a tricorn-hatted head perched atop a column of slumping mud; boy in chair depicts a enervated, splayed protagonist; man on pile is a comic version of the Greek hero Prometheus, awaiting his daily evisceration by eagle; pietà boasts a monstrous Madonna instead of the eternally young Queen of Heaven; and column two is a saggy, baggy architectural support member worthy of Dali, an ironic Ionic.
Less fortuitous are the works installed within the museum — the aesthetic holy of holies—surrounded by familiar European masterworks. Here, the juxtapositions become jarring to anyone with affection for Old Master art or historic artifacts. Fischer’s oddball sculptures, mixtures of hardware-store fixtures and digital technology, are odd and eccentric, but not with the dopey, excremental appeal of the works outside. Invisible Mother, a partial skeleton lying in a chair, and irrigated by water run though a hose, looks, with its gold coins in the fountain, like a prop from the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Fiction, a sculpture of a table with a few objects, vibrates, apparently (I did not notice), symbolizing “a mental state of blurriness,’ but there’s nothing tentative about the dramatic Dutch portraits and landscapes behind it. Dazzled, a pair of large sculptures of disembodied eyes, is described as critiquing the artificiality of socially constructed ideals and objects; they look away from a trio of English portraits and toward a pair of Scottish ones, unseeing, unblinking. Kratz is a sculpture composed of a single bed filled with a disastrous amount gravel or cement and close to collapse; it is an intriguing piece, but the Rodin bronzes around it come from different worlds (despite the stone-like bases of some of the Rodins) and, like competing optical illusions, cannot be ‘seen’ simultaneously; they suffer from the poor chemistry
I recently ran across the Japanese word tokonoma, an alcove dedicated to a single work of art. Artworks should be displayed either in isolation, to encourage contemplation, or in visual conversation with sympathetic works; pairing antithetical works should be avoided without very compelling reasons to do otherwise.
Collagist Irwin Kremen at Berkeley Art Museum
The genius-whiz-kid syndrome so dominates the world of contemporary art that exceptions to the rule are surprising and gratifying. The collages of Irwin Kremen, who began his five-decade career at age forty-one, in 1966, make a strong case for the unpredictability, even the anarchy, of the art impulse.
Kremen, a Duke University psychologist, had studied as an undergraduate at avant-garde Black Mountain College (Asheville NC), the American Bauhaus, boasting a unequaled roster of faculty and students: Josef and Anni Albers, John Cage, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Ben Shahn, and Peter Voulkos, among the teachers; Ruth Asawa, Stephen De Staebler, Ray Johnson, Kenneth Noland, Robert Rauschenberg, Dorothea Rockburne and Cy Twonbly, among the students. Kremer’s former writing teacher, the poet M.C. Richards, suggested that Kremen, who had frequented New York art circles before taking up psychology (incidentally, meeting Cage, who dedicated the score of 4’33” to him) try collage; and a later visit to Switzerland, with exposure to the works of Arp, Nicholson, Tobey and others, confirmed the artist, now ninety-two, on his path and vision. After twelve years of working in secret, Kremen was offered a show by the Smithsonian Instuitution.
The twenty-three collages on display, curated by BAM’s Lawrence Rinder, show Kremen working in the scavenging/recycling tradition of Kurt Schwitters and Robert Rauschenberg, transforming found elements into lyrical microcosms of precisely orchestrated color and texture. Kremen tears paper from old posters and flyers pasted to walls in locations ranging from Bruges, Belgium, to Berkeley. (Déchirage, tearing, was the name devised by the Surrealists for this aesthetic sampling.) He prizes papers marked by weathering: “I hunt out unduplicable papers, experienced papers, papers that have been in sun, in rain, in dust, in snows, covered with the dirt of the city.” Indecipherable fragments of writing punctuate the colors and textures of the papers, affixed to tiny hinges of Japanese paper, hinting at their past lives in the public realm of commerce before joining the Yeatsian “artifice of eternity.” Irwin Kremen / Matrix 265 runs until August 27. Berkeley Art Museum, 2155 Center Street, Berkeley (510) 642-0808; bampfa.org. —DeWitt Cheng
TERRY ST. JOHN: Figures, Landscapes & Still Lifes: Six Decades of Painting
Dolby Chadwick Gallery
The huge crowds at SFMOMA’s Matisse and Diebenkorn show prove two things: that Bay Area Figuration (BAF) has an enduring appeal, and that, even in our deeply unserious culture, serious artists learn from serious artists, tribal elders whose work speaks across time. The painter Terry St. John has a long history in the BAF tradition, having studied informally in college with his friend James Weeks, a Diebenkorn student; and, after earning an MFA, going on to an illustrious career as painter, curator and educator. Frances Malcolm’s incisive catalogue essay quotes the artist: “Painting somehow gave me an opening to the future and a sense of hope ... it was salutary.”
This career retrospective features thirty figure studies, landscapes and still lives, mostly in oil on canvas, cardboard or panel, but including eight figure studies made between 2012 and 2017 (during trips to Thailand) in ink wash on paper. St. John’s painterly, expressionist style will remind viewers of Diebenkorn and Weeks, but if Diebenkorn’s lyrical color and refulgent space owe a debt to Matisse, St. John’s heavy, simplified forms, at times almost obscured beneath his rugged, scumbled impastos and high-contrast lighting, suggest to my eye the monumental, archaic figures of Picasso’s Iberian period preceding the invention of Cubism. Thai Woman With Tuba (2016), Chiang Mai Balcony (2016), and Bupha By WIndow (2016), to name only three works, are beautiful paintings, but powerful and sculptural rather than pleasantly luxurious or chromatically melodious: Spanish duende rather than French delectation? In some pieces, you may descry other influences percolating into the creative mix: David Park in Solveig (2014); Guston and Rouault in Lanna Farm Woman (2015); Munch (whose influence can be seen in the landscapes) in the early Uncle George (1956). Don’t miss these wonderful landscapes and still lives: Studio Still Life, Berkeley (1985), Still Life/Studio (1978), View From Holy Cross Church, Santa Cruz I (1985), Berkeley Marina (2004), and the unassuming, delightful Berkeley DMV (2015). —DeWitt Cheng
KAORI YAMASHITA: Remote Ancestors at Bass & Reiner
Kaoti Yamashita’s ten sculptures in Remote Ancestors, delicate small to medium-sized structures of ceramics, tile, wood and mortar, take the form of scaffoldings based on quotidian real-world structures: walls, boxes, frames, vases or amphorae, maybe even architectural frameworks. If some of these handmade, untitled constructions recall Minimalist works by Sol Lewitt in their geometric, serial form, their apparent fragility suggests not abstract, timeless mathematics, but vulnerability and transient beauty. Mono no aware is a Japanese term for the pathos of things, or empathy toward things, which are all passing with infinitesimal slowness away (if we choose to look at things sub specie aeternitatis, in the perspective of cosmic time), with some, if one may editorialize, vanishing considerably faster than that—visibly.
One pyramidal floor-standing piece invokes architecture, but one quickly realizes that the walls and floors replicate the mortar holding bricks together; it’s as if the bricks had become invisible, or been removed, like the scaffolding beneath completed Roman arches. A trio of vases or vessels is made of mortar skeins as well, not in orderly formations, but in ramose cracks, as if a shattered vase had been glued together, and then the fragments had decayed, leaving only the repairs remaining, in an extrapolated or extreme version of kintsugi, the Japanese aesthetic tradition in which broken objects are repaired with precious metals. A small rocklike ceramic piece is joined by its skeletal double, Yamashita’s structures have a family similarity to postminimalist works by Eva Hesse and others that dramatize and anthropomorphize abstract form. There’s poetic feeling, here, and Zen philosophy about “the contingency of structures in daily life” and the “innate nothingness that persists through continuous change” (to quote the fine Post Brothers essay for a 2015 show in Berlin), for those who look for it. —DeWitt Cheng