Richard Shaw and Wanxin Zhang at Sonoma Valley Museum of Art


RICHARD SHAW AND WANXIN ZHANG

Sonoma Valley Museum of Art

January 19 - April 7, 2019

The popularity of new media and conceptual art, as well as American’s obsession with the new, in every sphere, including the arts, tends to obscure the work of artists working in traditional media, as well as the very notion of lifelong commitment to one medium. Ceramics, of course, has been accorded the full status of an art material only in the past half-century, largely as a result of doggedly individualistic Bay Area artists like Robert Arneson, Clayton Bailey, Stephen DeStaebler, Viola Frey, and Peter Voulkos, who infused wit, subversive humor, pathos and delight into that ancient and earthy (therefore humble) medium, with its tactile, shape-shifting expressiveness, suited to both Abstract Expressionist gesture and polished, geometric perfection—and its traditional Christian connection with the human body.

Two of the Bay Area’s undisputed masters of art ceramics are united in a show at Sonoma Valley Museum of Art (until April 7). The show originated at the gallery in Santa Clara University’s Edward Dowd Art and Art History Building Art, initiated by by SCU ceramicist and Gallery Manager Pancho Jimènez, and curated by San Francisco State University Art Professor Mark Dean Johnson and SVMA Executive Director Linda Keaton. The show, untitled but for the artists’ names, is modestly-sized, with only about a dozen works by each artist, but it’s large in spirit and ambition: vigorous, assertive and pointedly funny, when so much contemporary art looks forced and voulu, willed and affectless, and overly reliant on being oh-so subversive, but only that. The works of Shan and Zhang score some sociopolitical points, but with beauty and wit.

Shaw and Zhang, friends and colleagues from different generations (born in 1941 and 1961, respectively), are deeply personal artists who, along with being invested in clay, are interested in cultural critique of a personal sort. Shaw’s trompe-l’oeil assemblages of faux oddments, sometimes conjoined into humanoid figures, play with the conventions of mimesis and traditional realism, but in the playful mode of the Mannerist painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who contrived portraits made of fishes, book, and fire; and in the melancholy mode of the Metaphysical painter, Giorgio di Chirico, whose mute mannequins reflected the modernist disbelief in classical heroes—though not without nostalgia; they’re junk-pile ruins that are analogous to T.S. Eliot’s verbal collage in “The Waste Land.” Mark Dean Johnson in his informative and readable catalog essay also cites those usual suspects, the trompe-l’oeil American painters, Peto and Harnett, as well as the virtuosic decorative porcelains of the Frenchman Bernard Palissy in the sixteenth century. (To digress slightly, Chris Anteman’s 2017 Forbidden Fruit show at the Crocker Art Museum was inspired by the eighteenth-century German, Johann Joachim Kändler). Zhang, who emigrated to the US from China in 1992, and soon made his mark with life-six=zed ceramic figures akin to the Xi’an warriors guarding the tomb of the First Emperor, but done in a, expressive, loose style that to my eye melds Rodin and Bay Area Figuration; there are also sly notes of satire and humor in the anachronistic modern accessories—boom boxes, shades, skateboards— that these stolid, stoic, heavy, timeworn warriors bear with such fortitude and resolve. Johnson also points out that the two artists share a biculturalism that disproves Kipling’s old adage that East and West never meet: Zhang uses the formidable academic sculpture skills that he honed at LuXun Academy of Fine Arts, but he modifies it with the free, intuitive expressionism that he absorbed in the Bay Area; Shaw’s still-life assemblages draw on the history of Chinese porcelain, which he imitates in his parodies/homages, with seeming effortlessness.

Among the outstanding pieces of this very strong show I have space for only a few. Shaw’s 2014 “Canton Lady” is a composite figure composed of a paint-can head (labeled “100% Pure Paint”), paintbrush fingers, a cigar-box hips, baseball-bat limbs, and a blue-and-white ‘Cantonware” vase for a torso, all made in clay and colored with decals or hand-painting; his 2012  “House of Cards with Pearlware House and Fence Motif,” a seemingly precariously balanced arrangement of objects anchored by a heavy textbook (Psychoanalysis in Modern Art) atop which are stacked an inverted Ming-style teapot, another book, and then a pyramid of playing cards. Zhang’s 2008 “Untitled Warrior,” a life-sized columnar figure of daunting power and weight, protected by jade-plate armor—and a white-snouted respirator mask of the sort that Bay Areans used for protection in last year’s wildfires (or goggled, equine-looking Great War soldiers, against mustard gas); his 2018 “Shifting Mountain” is a similar courtly figure, this one bearing wrapped gifts, but surmounted by a tower-like encrustation of rock akin to the intricately eroded scholar stones collected by Chinese connoisseurs for centuries; his 2013 “Fish Dinner Box” replicates a takeout Chinese-food container, replete with faux grease stains and the injunctions,  “Microwave Safe ... Enjoy... Call Again.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wesley Tongson at Chinese Cultural Center, San Francisco (reprinted from Artomity magazine, January 2019)

Wesley Tongson’s Paintings Depict His Spiritual Journey

by DeWitt Cheng

The idea that life is a spiritual journey was once common in European and American religious culture: Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan’s 1678 allegorical adventure of a Christian soul, was once required reading—after the Bible.  Spirituality has largely fallen by the wayside, however, with modern materialism. In developed countries now we focus on scientific and economic progress, and largely neglect the spiritual aspect of life, still part of the social menu of traditional cultures, which patronizing contemporary standards adjudge as backward.

The spiritual aspect remains, however. The new film by painter and director Julian Schnabel, At Eternity’s Gate, dramatizes the struggle of Vincent van Gogh, the son of a Protestant preacher, possessed in his youth by a fervent religious worldview, and then dismissed as a lay minister in a Belgian mining town for what his superiors deemed unbecoming zealotry.  He found his way to art , everyone knows, and transferred his hopes of heaven into a ten-year pantheistic ministry of art—and heart.

The paintings of Hong Kong artist Wesley Tongson (1957-2012), or Tang Jiawei), shown in The Journey, at San Francisco’s Chinese Cultural Center through March 9, 2019, constitute a spiritual pilgrimage as well.  Curated by Catherine Maudsley, and featuring biographical notes by Cynthia Tseng, the artist’s sister—who, she reveals, did her brother’s art homework when he was a child, before his interest in art surfaced in adolescence—the show reveals a talented hand, both disciplined and intuitive, at the service of a restless, relentless creative drive.

Tongson, who grew up in a Chinese Christian family in Hong Kong, was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age fifteen, in the spring of 1973. Shortly afterward, at age seventeen, he declared an interest in studying traditional Chinese painting, and began taking lessons, encouraged by his family and teachers. Cynthia Tseng: “Due to his illness, Wesley could not do anything else. Art was the only thing he could do. He was good at it and it was what made him happy, so my parents were supportive and encouraged him to continue. Wesley was a lonely person.... Later[[,]... when he retreated into his own world, he disconnected with friends and family. Art was his life; it gave him purpose and the courage to go on: his constant ‘companion.’ He found solace in his art.... He was able to cope with his illness”—with the side effects of his medication, and with his paranoia. “Without his art, I honestly don’t know how he would have survived all those years.”

Not only did Tongson survive; he thrived, visibly, in his art. The paintings on board and paper, framed or mounted onto wooden strainers, respectively, are artfully laid out in the venues three small galleries, with pairs of large colored landscapes flanked by monochromatic calligraphic paintings, facing each other: landscape and calligraphy, the twin poles of traditional Chinese painting, recapitulated and reinterpreted with modernist verve and dash. The American AbEx painters, who were, after all, influenced by Asian art  (despite LIFE magazine’s influential presentation of Jackson Pollock as cowboy), would surely understand and appreciate. Along the adjacent hallway are smaller works that show the evolution of Tongson’s famous splashed landscapes, accompanied by writing by the somewhat reticent artist and his sister, a talented keeper of the flame.

While I would have preferred a chronological arrangement, in order to trace the artist’s development, the space dictated the current arrangement, but attentive viewers can puzzle out the progression through various styles.  In any case, the works of various styles speak to each other anyway. While still in high school in Hong Kong, Tongson studied traditional Chinese painting styles and themes—pine trees, plum blossoms, bamboo, etc., with their symbolic and homophonic associations to longevity, perseverance and congratulation, respectively; with incessant practice, he became a young latter-day guoha painter in the retired-Confucian-scholar mode before graduating in 1977. At Ontario College of Art, 1977-81, he studied western painting, especially the metamorphic Picasso, and began experimenting with splashing ink, probably influenced by the example of Jackson Pollock, “Jack the Dripper, and certainly influenced by Zhang Daqian (1899-1893), the versatile modernist master (and virtuoso mimic/forger of older masters) who sported an antiquarian long beard and flowing robes, and developed a late splashed-paint style, pocai, which came, as Tongson writes in a letter, directly from his heart. Tongson returned to Hong Kong in 1981, studying with Gu Qingyao and Huang Zhongfang, and he continued experimenting with and perfecting various non-brush ink application techniques, instructed by the Taiwanese painter Liu Guosong in ink staining, rubbing, dyeing, and marbling (floating ink on the surface of water and dipping the paper into it, capturing the swirling, cosmic patterns used for the psychedelic end papers of deluxe books). These masterly landscapes, combinations of time-honored themes and new techniques, garnered praise from critics and collectors, museums and galleries in Hong Kong, Beijing, Suzhou, London; and the artist, who called these richly textured works, improvised yet impossibly perfect, his Zen Mountains of Heaven paintings, his visions originating in Mahayana Buddhism’s Western Paradise, referred to himself at the time, with irony and pride, as Shandou Laoshi (Mountainscape Teacher). Finally come Tongson’s late, monumental landscape paintings, done with his hands, fingers and fingernails, completely without tools, direct from-the-heart indexical transcriptions of the painter’s nervous system, like Pollock’s loops and skeins of liquid paint flung from a stick — just so. Art and nature combine in ink, the life force of qi flowing through Shandou Daoren (Mountain Taoist).

San Francisco is fortunate indeed to have even this modest sample of Tongson’s prodigious output of work, the latest of a series of exhibitions assembled by the Tongson family, which can take pride in the achievement of its prodigiously talented, hard-working, solitary son. Hong Kong, too, which recognized Tongson’s talents early, deserves praise for its aesthetic judgment. I must single out a few extraordinary works: the three 1992 calligraphic splash paintings, “The Light,” “Blessed Rain,” and “God’s Light,” pictograms that seems to be both carved and liquid, monumental yet evanescent; “Red Plums Over the Earth,” from 1993, a traditional bucolic motif given explosive energy, with the plums represented by perfectly sized and placed drops of vermilion ink; “Plum 5,”from 2011, with the fruit-laden trees dissolving into what appears a dance diagram or a musical score; “Mountain 1” from 1995, and “Misty Mountains,” from 1993, small, magical miracles of evocation: paradise, regained.

 

 

Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World at SFMOMA (reprinted from The SpaceByTheBay.com

A Panoramic Exhibition Traces Chinese Contemporary Art

by DeWitt Cheng

In 221BC, the self-styled first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang (259-201BCE) declared his reign the beginning of history, and enforcing the decree by pre-empting dissent: burning the books and burying the scholars possessed of other ideas about antecedents. Jorge Luis Borges, in “The Emperor and the Books,” an essay about this alternate-facts regime, concludes that Qin’s radical rewriting of history was doomed to fail (as it did, with Emperor Two), by the conservative character of “the most traditional of peoples.”

Given the strongly Confucian, hierarchical bent of Chinese culture, that characterization has some truth. However, it ignores the social, political and economic revolutions of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (as well as various failed revolutions: the Boxer and Taiping Rebellion, etc.). Cultures do not attain the ripe old age of five thousand by being inflexible and dogmatic—by building mental walls, and forsaking rationality and reality. The historian Will Durant rnoted that China’s foreign conquerors and rulers—the Mongols of the Yuan Dynasty and the Manchus of the Qing Dynasty—ended up mastered and colonized, themselves. “Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind,” observed the sage, Bruce Lee.

The lessons of history, including cultural syncretism are much in evidence in the wide-ranging survey now at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World (through February 24), assembled by the Guggenheim Museum. Comprising over a hundred objects—in painting, drawing, photography, video, sculpture, installation, and conceptual art—from sixty-odd individual artists and collectives, the show is an ambitious retelling of the development of contemporary art, especially conceptual art, from the quashing of democratic dissent at Tiananmen Square in 1989 to China’s ascent to the world stage as an economic equal with its hosting of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a spectacle that enlisted the talents of famous artists Ai Weiwei, who designed the Bird’s Nest stadium, and Cai Guo-Qiang, who designed the fireworks extravaganza.

 The title of the show is revealing: Art and China. The development of contemporary art is on display, but there’s little or none of the Cynical Realism that first registered with western audiences, a kind of ironic commentary on Chinese culture that seemed made for export: Pop Art (not socialism) with Chinese characteristics, to misquote Deng Xiaoping. With multiple curators, the show is expansive, with much of the work seemingly chosen as much for historical (or art-historical) reasons as for pure aesthetic appeal (which contemporary art mavens sometimes disparage as counterrevolutionary bourgeois hedonism). Can we dub Chinese conceptual art, then Sino Realism?

 The show is organized in six topics, each one occupying a gallery or two on the museum’s seventh floor.

1. No U-Turn: 1989 revisits the China/Avant-Garde Art show that opened in the National Art Gallery in Beijing, in February, 1989, containing work made during the previous decade after the liberal reform policies of the late 1970s. Unfortunately, the forward-looking, no-retreat thrust of that show was blunted by the events of June 4, which prompted both an exodus of talent and dampened the \ spirits of those who remained. The most prominent work in this gallery is the large pair of sculpture installations by Huang Yong Ping, “Theater of the World” and “The Bridge,” which update traditional Chinese animal symbolism with live snakes, lizards and insects, confined to zoomorphic (snake- and turtle-shaped) cages. Installed at the Guggenheim, the piece aroused the ire of animal rights activists; SFMOMA has chosen to exhibit the work emptied of prisoners, and thus without creaturely carnage. More traditionally palatable is Gu Dexin’s “Plastic Pieces—287,” a swarm of multicolored plastic tangles, melted into organic forms suggesting android viscera, and more interesting to peruse in its bizarre details than to behold in toto as a large wall installation. My favorite piece in the entire show is Qiu Zhije’s panoramic six-panel map of China, “Map of Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World,” a fanciful yet sobering depiction of mountains, river and plains bedecked by historical and cultural inscriptions in English and Chinese: e.g., Valley of Reform Era, No U Turn, Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, Struggle Against Bourgeois Liberalization, etc. It’s a world contained in an artifact, like the Bronze-Age Greece contained in Achilles’ shield in The Iliad, or Bruegel’s living-folklore painting of Dutch villagers enacting 16th-century Dproverbs. Alas, this encyclopedic masterpiece linking traditional Chinese landscape painting with history, politics and aesthetics, belongs to the Guggenheim, which commissioned it; at least it will be available in New York.

2. New Measurement: Analyzing the Situation follows the development of conceptual art in Hangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai, using “mechanistic processes, documentary sensibilities, and minimalist means that slyly mimic the very systems the artists sought to subvert”—I quote the show’s wall label—by eliminating individuality and embracing absurdity. Wang Guangyi’s oil painting Mao Zedong: Red Grid No.2, is a grisaille rendering of the Great Helmsman, almost official-looking in its neoclassical perfection, but crisscrossed by red stripes suggestive of cages. Geng Gianyi’s Misprinted Books are bound volumes of gibberish Chinese characters, a Borgesian idea, converted to Hanzi. Qiu Zhije’s “Assignment No.1: Copying the Orchid Pavilion Preface 1000 Times” both embraces and mocks China’s reverence for tradition and rote learning: the artist copied a famous fourth-century poem until it became an illegible, inscrutable block of ink fashioned and canceled by innumerable repetitions.

3. Five Hours: Capitalism, Urbanism, Realism examines the return to social realism in Beijing and Guangzhou. Hung Liu painted “Avant-Garde,” a shaped-canvas self-portrait as a rifle-bearing soldier in the People’s Army, in 1993-4, after emigrating to California; it’s monumental and dignified, a testimonial to the value of traditional art training, once disparaged by the avant-garde West as Soviet Realism—and a reminder that ‘avant-garde’ was originally a military term. Zeng Fanzhi’s oil painting,”Meat,” shows stoic slaughterhouse workers changing into their work clothes, while surrounded by hanging carcasses that are nearly indistinguishable from the men’s bodies.  Liu Zheng’s documentary photos of coal miners and actors and Wang Jianwei’s “Living Elsewhere” video of hardscrabble country life—at the edge of a superhighway, no less—remind us that ‘crazy rich Asians’ are the stuff of global fantasy—mostly. (The film flopped in China, incidentally.)

 4. Uncertain Pleasures: Acts of Sensation examines both the accent of Chinese contemporary painting to the international market, and the reaction to that financial success among the artists of Beijing and Hangzhou. Ai Weiwei:”Always distrust authority, be suspicious of centralist theories, doubt your alleged cultural influences.” Yu Youhan’s collage, “Just What Is It That Makes To day’s Homes, So Modern, So Appealing?” pays homage to Pop Art with its title, taken from Richard Hamilton’s iconic collage; but instead of a California bodybuilder with a giant lollipop as protagonist, we have a middle-aged Mao enjoying the midcentury-modern lifestyle. Lin Tianmiao’s sculpture, “Sewing,” looks at the Chinese fashion industry through the lens of surrealism, with its sewing machine wrapped—mummified—in cotton thread, and a ghostly pair of hands busy at work via digital video projection. Chen Zhen’s suspended sculpture, “Lumière Innocente,” a child’s bed bedecked with otherworldly lights, is a magical object even without a social subtext. Song Dong, by finding and throwing stones, and painting on them a record of his interactions, creates faux-archaic artifacts endowed with narratives in “Throwing a Stone—documentation.” Ai Weiwei’s famous photos of the artist dropping a Han Dynasty urn are here, as is a Han vase decorated with a Coca-Cola logo, and an unpretentious photo of an insouciant young woman (the future Mrs. Ai, I believe) lifting her skirt and flashing her panties for the camera at The Forbidden City.

5. Otherwhere: Travels Through the In-Between focuses on the increased contact with the international art market as well as the transformations in consciousness wrought by digital media. Song Don’s “Stamping the Water” is a series of color photographs documenting an hour spent stamping the water of the Khasa River with a large carved woodblock bearing the ideogram for water, an exercise in poetic transcendence—or bureaucratic absurdity. Zhan Wang’s video, “Empty Soul /   ”The Mao Suit,” documents the mass-grave burial of a number of coffins, each bearing an empty Mao suit, in a parody of the massive Qian burial site of the First Emperor, with his armies of ceramic warriors. Liu Xiaodong’s four full-length oil portraits of soldiers,  “Battlefield Realism: The Eighteen Arhats,” are painted in a simplified realistic style recalling both commercial illustration and Egon Schiele, a style appropriately ambivalent for warrior-saints.

6. Whose Utopia: Activism and Alternatives Circa 2008 examines the art produced as the Beijing Olympics (motto: One World, One Dream) drew near, promising renewed international acceptance and enhanced national prestige. Various groups of artists abstained from the official rites and ceremonies, creating utopias of their own outside the object-trading commercial system, and in stark contrast with the dazzling pyrotechnics that highlighted the Olympics opening ceremonies, shown in a video. Gu Dexin’s “2009-05-02,” a series of painted ideograms in official fonts and colors, reproduces disturbing text from Lu Xun’s dystopic novel of 1918, Diary of a Madman. Ai Weiwei’s “4851” covers the walls of a small gallery with lists of the names of children killed in (I believe) the Sichuan earthquake, a topic he covered several years ago in a dragon sculpture composed of small backpacks. The dragon, associated with water and benevolence, is also the subject of Chen Zhen’s “Precipitous Parturition,” an 85-foot long dragon with a sinuous body made of bicycle inner tubes, and a head fashioned from bicycle wheel rims, hanging in SFMOMA’s old main entrance, on Third Street. The hasty birth of a mobile, industrialized nation—with its benefits and costs—is the subject here, and one which resonates through the rest of this mammoth exhibition on which I have barely touched here. It’s a must-see aesthetic spectacle—with sociopolitical characteristics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ward Schumaker at Jack Fischer Gallery, San Francisco (reprinted from TheSpaceByTheBay.com)

San Francisco Artist Turns Trump’s Words Against Him 

Unless you have been in a cave for two years, and/or watching Fox News, you know that Donald Trump is a con man, provocateur and prevaricator nonpareil, logging nearly ten lies a day, according to the latest count, with a grand total in the thousands. He is aided and abetted by his staff, by friendly media like Fox and Sinclair, and, all too often, by a supine mainstream corporate media: shitstorms sell, after all.  On the other side, we have great satirists and comedians telling truth fearlessly and hilariously to power (and the powerless); the late-night talk-show hosts, I think, deserve particular credit in pointing out the emperor’s new clothes. 

The art world, which skews decidedly liberal, has been active as well (although major galleries and museums are timid, as usual, as afraid of their wealthy base as the Republican Party is of its). A notable exception is Ward Schumaker’s painting show, currently on view until Election Day at Jack Fischer Gallery, in Minnesota Street Projects, in the Dogpatch neighborhood. (Kudos to Fischer for standing up on behalf the blue Bay Area against Agent Orange.) Schumaker is a veteran illustrator and longtime San Franciscan who made a stunning debut as a fine artist at the same gallery, with a show entitled Years of Pretty, in September, 2013, following a June show at Dominican College in San Rafael. (There were earlier shows in San Francisco (at the nonprofit Meridian Gallery), Los Angeles, New York, Nashville and Shanghai, but I am always the last to know....) About Schumaker’s breathtakingly beautiful painting albums, Kenneth Baker wrote, in the San Francisco Chronicle: 

Seldom will you encounter contemporary art in any medium of such relaxed, fearless [painterly] confidence... Here and there he takes on the additional challenge of incorporating words into the books. Surprisingly, for the most part, the text does not interfere, nor does it disappear by settling down into obvious meaning. Very rarely does a critic encounter new work that immediately rewards a lifetime of learning to look.

I was similarly enthusiastic, reviewing for ArtLtd.

Recurrent reports of the death of painting are greatly exaggerated, of course, as are related rumors about the death of the individual and the death of art in the hurry-hurry postmodern age. Ward Schumaker's generous display of painterly bravura at the newly relocated Jack Fischer Gallery makes the case for subjectivity and colored mud [artist Philip Guston’s ironic description of oil paints] yet again. Schumaker's work clearly derives from modernist precedents--savory Abstract Expressionism foremost, with notes of Minimalism and Conceptualism--but his synthesis is personal rather than programmatic or theoretical....  "Years of Pretty," a large show of work from the last decade, stunningly confirms that impression, managing to avoid the twin traps of conventional prettiness and conventional iconoclasm... With two highly regarded recent shows, this has been Schumaker's well-deserved year of plenty.

What a delight, then, to see such artistic chops standing up to Trump’s shameless mendacity! Trump Papers (hoisted by his own petard) is a group of thirty-nine of Schumaker’s mixed-media paintings on heavy, textured Stonehenge print paper, mounted casually on the gallery walls, like wheat-pasted event posters, depicting Trump’s provocations, insults and word salads. The title, from Shakespeare, means, to be blown up with one’s own bomb (not pierced by one’s sword); Hamlet, betrayed by his spying college chums, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, dispatches them on a diplomatic mission to England, with a lettre de cachet commanding their execution: royal dispatches, indeed. (The Pentagon Papers of the Vietnam War, the internal Defense department memos leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, may be another allusion implicit  in the show title.) Schumaker turns our king’s diatribes and jests against him, by painting them without editorializing, but with stunning effect, with the slurred stenciled letters serving as metaphors for Trump’s slippery-slope verbigerations. The painted words have two natures: as beautiful, expressive aesthetic objects of mysterious power and meaning; and as symbols of vacuous, benighted speech and thought; and they never quite settle into one or the other, remaining visual and verbal contradictions, in unsettling but bracing opposition.

But what glorious paintings they are, responding—with deadpan irony—to our perilous political situation! When I visited the gallery, on Halloween Day, Schumaker told me that he had never made political work before, but that he simply had to make the works, painting around the clock starting right after “the night of horror,” as he puts it, in November, 2016. Three bodies of work have emerged from the Trump debacle.  First, the album Hate is What We Need, sold to a private collector, I understand, but published in a reduced-sale facsimile edition by Chronicle Books. Then, because, Schumaker writes, “to paraphrase Mitch McConnell, the man persisted,” a second album, The Administration of Cruelty and Stupidity, emerged. Finally, just in time for election season, Schumaker created the current set of Trump Papers broadsides, improbable meldings of Trumpist blather and visual delight. The paintings are hung unframed, and often overlapping each other, like advertising posters jockeying for wall space. Each painting is accompanied by a short explanation of its context, printed on a handout sheet. Return with us now to those glorious days of yesteryear: Omarosa Manigault’s threat that Trump critics would have to “bow down to the President” (PBS, 9/23/16); Staffer Kelly Sadler’s dismissal of GOP critic John McCain as ”dying anyway” (5/11/18); Trump’s preference, stated before an Iowa audience, for “heroes ...who weren’t captured” (7/18/15); Giuliani’s mystagogic declaration that “Truth isn’t truth” (8/19/18); and Trump’s advice to Missouri veterans that “What you see isn’t really happening” (7/24/18); Trump’s invitation on live TV for electoral interference by Russian trolls (7/21/16); and Trump’s Twitter declaration that “your favorite president did nothing wrong (7/21/18).” Historians of the future—assuming that we have a future, despite the shenanigans now going on— will be astonished and dismayed by what Americans countenanced in this era. Lincoln addressed his Republican Congress in 1862: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise—with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.... We—even we here—hold the power, and bear the responsibility.... We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Editorial for VisualArtSource.com before midterm elections, November 6, 2018

Editorial

The midterm elections are a week away, and, according to the latest news, Trump and his minions are running scared, speaking of a possible “massacre” or “slaughter.” Make it so, please; this is our last chance. “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth,” to quote the first, best Republican president.

 In keeping with the current perilous Zeitgeist, on Halloween day, I headed over to Jack Fischer Gallery, in Minnesota Street Projects, in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood, where a particularly relevant and important show is hung right now (but ending—with a bang, not a whimper, we hope—on election day): Ward Schumaker’s Trump Papers; Hoisted by His Own Petard. Close readers of Hamlet will recognize the Shakepearean reference to being blown up by one’s one bomb: Hamlet engineers the deaths (via lettre de cachet) of two college friends who spied on him for his murderous, treacherous uncle. Trump is of course decidedly un-Shakespearean (although the gleefully wicked Richard III comes close), but Schumaker, one of the Bay Area’s most talented and original abstract painters, delivers a ringing condemnation of Trumpism by simply turning his own egregious words against him. Schumaker paints them, in a variety of fonts and colors—in a brilliantly surprising palette anchored by cadmium orange—the lies, insults, brags, and threats that characterize this low era. These beguiling word paintings, with their irregularly stenciled letters invoking Warhol’s silkscreened printer’s ‘holidays,’ or mistakes, present quotations from Chairman Donald and his henchpersons : “I alone can fix it,” “I’m President and you’re not,” “The truth isn’t the truth,” and ”Bow down to President Trump.” Both stentorian and stuttering, these slurred and curiously beautiful paintings are perfectly in synch with our fake-news-based Crazytown-on-the Potomac; they also provide a refresher course in Trumpiana for those who have tuned out, or never tuned in. (If you miss the show, a similar body of work, Hate is What We Need, is available in book form as well, the perfect gift for a Trumpist relative endowed with a sense of humor.)

This is not a review of the Schumaker show (although it certainly merits many), so much as a reflection on art’s place in the general culture, and, more specifically, on political art’s standing within the diverse universe of art.  Contemporary art includes almost innumerable galaxies and solar systems, to continue the astronomical metaphor, serving every possible taste or aesthetic inclination; this is why it is impossible to formulate a grand unified theory of art, as previous cultures did, lacking our instant access to information. Read the art criticism of two hundred, or a hundred, or even fifty years ago, and the worldview of a different time and place become readily apparent; whether those values are dated or not is up to you. What those cultures had, however, which we lack nowadays, was a sense of absolute values and of man’s place in the cosmos: misguided or not, they had faith, or optimism, for lack of better terms. Sir Kenneth Clark in Civilsation, his BBC survey of the art of western civilization, mentions several times that belief in one’s culture is crucial to creativity. (These days, we might also include a presumption that the world is not going to hell. Many artists confess to difficulty in focusing on work. Even Ward Schumaker, for example, with whom I talked, at the gallery, said he longed for getting back to making art—although I would consider his artistic confrontation with Trumpery, which he deprecates as therapy, as exemplary artmaking in crisis.) Art is recent years has become overly dissociated from reality, and perhaps even, in its elitism and removal from the concerns of the common, complicit with the global capitalists (no matter what French philosophers we invoke, reverentially). When Andy Warhol said that making art was just a job, in the 1960s, it was refreshingly provocative and down-to-earth; fifty years later, we know that extremism in the defense of aesthetic freedom (to paraphrase Barry Goldwater) can degenerate into artistic sin. Art today embraces everything, but too often stands for nothing but itself.

 There are, of course, many artists who focus on political issues, and I am not for a nanosecond contending that all artists need to be polemicists or propagandists. But such artists find themselves sidelined by the art world, shunted into university galleries or small art centers. Art is big business these days, and galleries and major museums for the most part are leery of alienating the patron class. When the history of this lamentable, disgraceful era is written (assuming that we survive Trump’s Déluge), how many art institutions will be able to  answer—except with retrospective sanctimony—Pete Seeger’s question from the Depression years, “Which Side Are You On”?  Remember the shaming military-recruitment poster from England, a century ago: “Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?” Stand up for your right.— DeWitt Cheng

 

\