Charles Anselmo: Teatro/Moto at Gallery Route One, Point Reyes Station

Charles Anselmo, Teatro CampoAmor #24

Charles Anselmo: Teatro/Moto: Photographs on Paper and Silk

February 20-March 28

Gallery Route One, 11101 Highway One, Point Reyes Station CA

Th-Sun 11-5, 415.663.1347 

Photography captures time, but in more ways than one. It freezes an instant, for posterity, but the images made by cameras and film (or digital sensors) capture not only the instant of their creation, but the time elapsed from past to present. Photographs are time machines or time capsules bearing messages from the past.

 The Bay Area photographer Charles Anselmo is is a connoisseur of ruins, like those eighteenth- and nineteenth century artists and photographers who documented the ancient worlds of Rome and the Middle East. Best known for his photographs of the picturesquely decaying infrastructure of Havana, made during over seventy trips during the past twenty years, Anselmo is decidedly old-school in his studied approach to carefully scouted and selected subjects. He carries a view camera and tripod, and shoots on 4x5 film, scanning the negatives for digital printing in large format on paper (traditionally and archivally matted and framed) or on silk (hung loose from curtain rods, and rippling with the slightest air current). The crumbling, neglected public buildings that he photographically preserves—both colonial-era baroque and revolutionary-era modernist in style—affect the contemporary viewer as the antiquarian etchings of Piranesi and the Romantic paintings of the Turner and Hubert Robert did their audiences, evoking melancholy about the depredations of time, and a pleasant sense of at least temporary immunity—of being an observer and survivor. Rose Macaulay describes such nostalgia—etymologically, the pain of memory—in her classic Pleasure of Ruins, as a pleasurable “self-projection into the past, ... observing the screech owl, the bat, and the melancholy ghost, and the vegetation that pushes among the crevices and will one day engulf.” 

Anselmo writes that he depicts “derelict sites, with the “broken structure and interiors engaging a dialog about the interaction of place, memory and the city's social context... Expressing their own visually inherent narratives, these disparate, fragmented realities remain disconnected from their original identities. Like the unknowable "essences" in Plato's Theory of Forms, the structures which began as perfected, idealized concepts are later reinterpreted, broken and repurposed under the weight of history as they become "phenomena," the sensory representations in everyday life.” He captures  “the dissonances of Cuba's urban landscape in ... decline as palaces and theaters become outside spaces, and the broken symmetries of grand structures are newly interpreted as subjective phenomena in a timeless archaeology of loss.” The photographs of Teatro/Moto depict the decaying grandeur of an abandoned theater built in classical European style a century ago, during Cuba’s colonial period. Anselmo:

 Nestled behind the extraordinary Baroque beauty of Havana’s restored Gran Teatro is the smaller, roofless Teatro Campoamor. For fifteen years I had walked by this remarkable relic, unable to enter due to its barricades and boarded doors. One oppressively humid day in July, 2017, I met the caretaker who had been living in the theater for twenty-four years in what had been a coat-check room. [The caretaker’s portrait is included in the exhibit.] I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the inner edifice magically overtaken by lichen and vines, its wooden stage turned into soil by many seasons of rain. Fifteen-foot tropical palms had been gifted to this interior from seeds driven by the hurricane winds of previous years, the gold gilt peeling from sensuously ornate plasterwork.

Anselmo’s large, hyper-detailed photographs and his prints on billowy Habothai silk convey the richness of faded architectural glory as it succumbs to time and nature —and to the repurposing of the past by the future. The Teatro Campoamor was transformed in the 1990s into a parking lot, or moto, probably serving patrons of the resplendently restored Gran Teatro, adjacent to it in Havana’s city center. The art critic Jorge Luis Aguilar writes that the Teatro, as a remnant of pre-revolutionary Havana, is something “we don’t want to see or remember,” but still a part of Cuba’s history and psyche. “Anselmo is a compelling seeker. He has wandered Havana’s streets innumerable times, like any Habanero. He knows Havana as very few do. He enjoys telling her stories, telling her dreams, ... with the smiles and the suffering.”

 Hypercapitalist America, which has in recent decades prided itself on market-based “creative destruction” and the enrichment of its elite while neglecting its crumbling infrastructure and the desperation of ordinary citizens, should observe, and draw the proper conclusions. Americans might also consider the totality of their history, not just its airbrushed grade-school-friendly mythology. In “Ozymandias,” Shelley evoked an ancient ruined royal statue reduced to two stumps of legs:

And on the pedestal these words appear:

'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away."



Charles Anselmo, Teatro CampoAmor #32

Charles Anselmo, Teatro Campoamor #19

Charles Anselmo, Reynaldo’s Room

Charles Anselmo, West Column

Charles Anselmo, Reynaldo

Christine Miller High at Avenue 12 Gallery, San Francisco, November 2020

CHRISTINE MILLER HIGH: Vintage San Francisco

Avenue 12 Gallery

Christine Miller High (1911-2010) was a fourth-generation San Franciscan who painted San Francisco street scenes in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. High’s watercolors have a broad appeal that transcends their everyday subject matter— everyday for scenic San Francisco, that is; there is also, as we look back at old San Francisco, a nostalgic appeal, especially for San Franciscans familiar with the scenes, and perhaps of a certain age. (San Franciscans may be forgiven for being a little obsessed with The City for its looks: the abstract painter Mark Rothko, who lived here in 1949, said the most beautiful place in the world should be its art capital.)

The artist lived most of her long life in Marin County and San Francisco. She began her art education at Miss Burke’s School, and continued at the Fashion Art School, in the Scottish Rite Temple, also in San Francisco, with the Baroness Maria von Ridelstein (1884-1970), who strenuously advocated realism to her students: “Critics get excited by something new .... Hang an ism on it and call it a new style of painting. ... It is ridiculous—going to extremes doesn’t lead anywhere. We should come down from our high horses and say art is a language.... An accomplished artist talks with his painting.” That advice seems to have resonated with High, whose work seems close in spirit to the landscape tradition of the seventeenth-century Dutch Golden Age or the Ashcan School of American painting a century ago or the Expressionist landscapes of the Depression: her paintings are shaped by reality and emotion inspired by the motif rather than pre-existent symbolism or pictorial formulas—or isms.

High’s career is outlined in Edan M. Hughes’ monumental 1985 reference work, Artists in California, 1786-1940, a twenty-year labor of love in researching some 6600 artists through newspaper and magazine articles, business records, exhibition catalogues, and telephone-book cold calls to people with the artists’ surnames. Hughes cites 1910, just before High’s birth, as the date when California women artists, formerly confined to decorative paintings, began to take their work seriously and compete with men. High, whose plein-air watercolors of local scenes were a far cry from delicate scenes of domestic tranquility, exhibited locally, joined the Society of Western Artists, and was scheduled for a 1941 one-woman show at the de Young Museum, a signal honor for an artist not quite thirty, but one which sadly never took place because of the onset of the war.  But, as the saying goes, she persisted.

The seventy watercolors on paper that comprise Vintage San Francisco are, despite their years, surprisingly fresh-looking; they could have been painted yesterday, though High’s subdued palette and fidelity to reality link her work to her formative years rather than yesterdays isms. There are four thematic groups:

Icons, e.g., portrayals of touristic postcard cynosures like the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge, the Japanese Tea Garden, winding Lombard Street, North Beach, etc.;

Neighborhoods, e.g., the Octagon House, Telegraph Hill, Sea Cliff, a produce market, Temple Emanu-El, and various gardens, alleys and parks;

Views: e.g., Lafayette Park, Inspiration Point, the Marina and Angel Island, the Sausalito waterfront, the San Francisco skyline, etc.; and

Waterfront: e.g., Fisherman’s Wharf, Sausalito Houseboats, the Embarcadero, etc.

The works are undated, so the thematic groupings above probably have no chronological sequence. I read recently that traditional Asian artists, because of their cyclical notion of time, did not date their works in Western linear time. I suspect that for High, working in series was never a concern; that she painted what she encountered and wished to commemorate by participating in it sympathetically. The paintings may seem unsophisticated to some, with technically ‘incorrect’ (but not ‘naive’) rendering, as in the paintings of the Henri Rousseau. Their virtues, as documents of time and place, of nature seen through the artist’s temperament, endure. —DeWitt Cheng













Lynn Sondag's "Cityscapes" at Avenue 12 Gallery, San Francisco. November 2020.

LYNN SONDAG: Cityscapes

Avenue 12 Gallery

If the title of this exhibition, Cityscapes, suggests panoramic views from some of San Francisco’s new apartment towers looming over its boarded-up street businesses, the subject matter of Lynn Sondag’s lyrical watercolors, however, is more bucolic. Sondag focuses on the northwest quadrant of San Francisco, north of Golden Gate Park, where she lives, and, to use John Muir’s terminology, saunters, with an observant eye. San Francisco—ineffaceably dubbed The City by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen—is still a walker’s town, and these paintings reflect the artist’s strolls around the Richmond District, Lake Street (branded the Lake District by the real estate market seeking Wordsworthian nature-lover cachet), Golden Gate Park, Seacliff, The Presidio, Mountain Lake Park, Crissy Field, and Ocean Beach. Cityscapes comprises sixty-odd paintings from several series executed during the past twelve years, concluding with the Lake Street series from 2020,  depicting scenery only a block or two from Avenue 12 Gallery.

Sondag, a professor of art at Dominican University, grew up in the Midwest, and brings her love of nature to the Bay Area, famously rich in natural beauty and distinctive architecture. While the viewpoint of the paintings and their fresh immediacy suggest a plein-air, on-site painting practice, Sondag works from reference photographs, and reconstructing the scenes in her studio. (Photographers will note that her framing has the 2:3, 3:4 and 9:16 aspect ratios of digital SLRs. ) There is nothing photorealistic about her loose, atmospheric renderings, however, which seem to record her feelings about the scene as much as the facts of weather, architecture and foliage. The art historian Barbara Novak, describing the conflict in early American painting between realist and Transcendentalist impulses, between objective and subjectivity, cites the painter Thomas Cole, who worked from memory, trying to “get the objects of nature, sky, rocks,, trees, etc. as strongly impressed on my mind as possible ... [B]y looking intensely on an object for twenty minutes I can go to my room and paint it with much more truth than I cold if I employed several hours on the spot.... I become more intimately acquainted with the characteristic spirit of nature than I could otherwise do.”

If photography serves as Sondag’s sketch book, replacing Cole’s twenty-minute fixed gaze, the sense of place must surely be recorded in the artists’ visual memory, or, in Wordsworth’s words, “that inward eye/Which is the bliss of solitude.”  While watercolor is the perfect medium for recording color effects and spontaneity, it is not forgiving; it is inherently not amenable to correction or  adjustment, demanding decisiveness, experience and a vision or, in Sondag;’s case, an interpretive “emotion [to be] recollected in tranquillity.”

San Franciscans—especially of the wanderer-lonely-as-a-cloud tribe—are likely to have a strong affinity for Sondag’s evocative pictorial tone poems of our beloved peninsular paradise, which capture meteorology and mood more completely than any of the artist’s snapshots must manage to do. The camera never lies, but it’s only a machine. Sondag’s atmospheric paintings of sky overarching the domestic landscape may remind you of Turner (Sea Cliff V and VILake Street District 16th Avenue, Presidio Drive ), and her architectural renderings may suggest Hopper (West Clay, Anza Trail I) as an antecedent or ancestor, but these art-historical resonances attest to a shared sensibility that finds visual analogues for feeling available to the attentive, transparent, Emersonian eyeball.—DeWitt Cheng



























Art and China after 1989, SFMOMA

A Panoramic Exhibition Traces Chinese Contemporary Art

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 noted 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 Wei Wei, 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 acsecnsion 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.











It should not be forgotten that a certain amount of Big Brotherism still prevails in China, now aided by digital technology, so artists who stayed in China after 1989, unlike their emigrant peers, still have to toe the line. The governments actions against Ai Wei Wei, which culminated recently in the sudden (but probably expected) bulldozing of his studio,  cannot have escaped anyone’s attention. Youthful protests against cultural conservatism—the invasion of museums, and documentation of actions performed in public space, familiar to westerners familiar with Dada and performance—took place, but overt political dissent is understandably nowhere to be seen. During the Soviet bloc years, eastern European artists used Surrealism to mask and process their discontent. Conceptual art, with its intellectual puzzles and in-joke humor, may serve the same covert expressive function in today’s capitalist China. Can we dub it Sino-Realism?




the twenty years between the bloody suppression of protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the ostensible accession of China to respectable nationhood (these days, with the rule of law seemingly on the decline everywhere, not looking so respectable) with its hosting of the Olympics in 2008.  Art fans will remember that Chinese were enlisted in the spectacle: Ai Wei Wei designed the Bird’s Nest stadium; and the pyrotechnics expert _____ was entrusted with the fireworks, which are, after all, a Chinese invention.


Originated at the Solomon Guggenheim Museum in New York City, to acclaim and alarm. The acclaim was for the show’s ambitious scope, tracing the history of China’s avant-garde art movements in a vast country without much of a collector base, and its ascension to the global art world (several of the artists are rep[resented by Pace and Gagosian, major player galleries with worldwide reach and impact. The alarm was for a pair of controversial installation sculptures,

Chen Zhen’s “Precipitous Parturition,” and 85-foot long dragon with a sinuous body made of bicycle inner tubes and a head fashioned from bicycle wheel rims and other parts. hanging in lobby of SFMOMA old main entrance

Parturition is giving birth, so the hasty birthing of a mobile, industrialized nation—a formidable dragon, traditional symbol of _______________


ZHang Peili “Water: Standard Version from the Cihai Dictionary”  (1991) video of famous woman newscaster who has been tricked into reading a dictionary entry on water, symbol of change and adaptation


Huan Zhang “12 Square Meters:”(1994)


Ai Wei Wei “Dropping Han Dynasty Urn “ (1995

“Han Dynasty Urn with Coa-ColaLogo”





Xu Tan “”Made in China” installation (1997-8)


six theme

third space”

critical stance and open-ended forms of COnceptual Art


Gu Dexin’s wall sculptures of melted plastic pieces in various colors —organic, variety meats intestinal viscera zoomorphic invertebrate life forms from some alternate reality


QIu Zhijie “Map of art and China After 1989: Theater of the World “ 2017)

six-panel painting in ink ion paper mounted tovsilk

commissioned by te Guggenheim

specifically created for this theme

mountains, plains, rivers,  vast expanse

features labeled  Chinese history and art history that has the intellectual and emotional depth and the visual grandeur of a Breugel lansdcape populated by enactments of sixteenth-century Dutch proverbs



Huan Yong PIng

“Theater of the World (1993) millipedes, beetles,crickets, cockroaches, grasshoppers geckos and wall lizards

The Bridge 1995  bronze figurines, corn snakes and sulcata tortoises


Wang Xingwei’s 2001painting, “New Beijing,” replicating a news photo of wounded students whelled to the hospital but replacing the students with wounded oenguis


Xu Bing’sinstallation “Where Does the Dust Itself Collect?”

Chan Buddhist poet

originally distfrom9/11 site


Huang Yong PIng ”The History of Chinese Painting and A Concise History of Modern Painting Washed in a Washing Machine for two Minutes (1987/93)






The End of the World (reprinted from VisualArtSource newsletter)


If you are like me (and we do share hominid DNA), you have been spending the last few months doing all you can to oppose our mad king and his suicidal minions while fighting off nagging doubts, mine probably amped up by too much YouTube time with Epic History and The Fall of Civilizations.

What if Trump, the cruel, venal Biff Tannen (based on Trump, as everyone must by now know), endowed with federal superpowers, and aided by the bullet-headed thugs of his Republican Guard or SA, wins re-election? What if we cannot find solutions for the pandemic, for economic decline, and for global climate catastrophe?

The end of the world (as we know it) is a trope of science fiction movies, and the post-apocalyptic era is a kind of survivalist fantasy world of Wild West anarchy with mighty-man warlords. It is of course also the story of much of human history, once you remove the trappings of state and the regalia of royalty and religion. Shakespeare’s history plays bedeck royalist gangsterism in ineffable verse.  Coppola’s Godfather trilogy depicts ruthless organized crime as business sans the usual hypocrisy, and a potential pathway to ‘legitimate’ power. Vito tells his son, now following in his footsteps: “I don't apologize - that's my life - but I thought that, that when it was your time, that you would be the one to hold the string. Senator Corleone; Governor Corleone.” All bow to President Corleone.

Western civilization represents at least in name an advance from the barbarism to which e seem to be succumbing. It is trendy these days to disparage Enlightenment liberalism as an ideological figleaf for capitalism, colonialism and exploitation; it has been those things, but at its best represents, as it did for Lincoln, the last best hope for mankind. Can America gets its mind right, and live up to its stated ideals, or do we cede the planet, with supine ‘realism,’ to nakedly authoritarian rival regimes?

We are currently in a great transition. The digital global economy is wreaking havoc on traditional norms, awakening dark forces—“dark shadows” in the words of our oracular maximum leader. A book from my freshman Western Civ class in college comes to mind: Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium examined how the social chaos wreaked upon feudal society by the incipient industrialization of Western Europe created the context for radical millennialist movements who believed the end of the world imminent in the year 1500. These groups rampaged across Europe, goaded by charismatic prophets, who assured them of inevitable success in establishing a true holy kingdom, no matter how many priests had to be beaten or beheaded.  It’s a rollicking tale, nicely encapsulated in a few antinomian (i.e, above the law) chapter headings: The Saints Against the Hosts of Antichrist; An Elite of Self-Immolating Redeemers; An Elite of Amoral Supermen. Clearly we are in a similar moment of crisis. Perhaps Q, the Deep Throat of QAnon, knows the story’s conclusion, even if his warrior-citizens do not: how church and state put aside their usual bickering and united, the mailed fist within the velvet glove, to burn the heretics and suppress their impious, populist aspirations. (Perhaps Q is an agent provocateur, covertly keeping the populists busily gnawing harmless chew toys in concert with the disinfotainment specialists at St. Petersberg’s Internet Research Agency...)

The Judaeo-Christian tradition’s eschatological concept of linear time ending with the return of an angry/rewarding God, however loony in real life, has paradoxically inspired great works of art; but do Bosch’s sublimely weird visions balance the suffering inflicted by the “christianizing and civilizing”(William McKinley) conquerors outfitted and enriched by the artist’s pious collectors? The Founding Fathers of the United States, heir to both Christian belief and Enlightenment thought, tried (imperfectly, as everyone now knows) to balance the better aspects of both, while turning a blind eye to their dark side:  the slavery and genocide necessary to Manifest Destiny, to Making America Great.

But you have to wonder how much that supposedly necessary hypocrisy cost the leadership in psychic terms. The historical examples of fallen empires were often in their thoughts, and some of the painting of the era depicts those fears, while attempting to discharge or displace their energy into the safely remote past—object lessons for New World’s Best & Brightest. JMW Turner’s paintings of doomed civilizations and Hubert Robert’s paintings and Piranesi’s paintings and etchings of Roman ruins and imaginary prisons testify to a fascination with decline and decay that some now (where did Happy Talk go?) would deem morbid, while others would accept them as the inconvenient truths of philosophical realism.

Several years ago I read David Foss Bjelajac’s study of Washington Allston’s painting “The Feast of Belshazzar.” Its subject is the biblical account of the hand of God delivering a fiery written warning to the Babylonians that their glorious empire would fall (as it did, in 539BCE): Mene mene tekel upharsin. Rembrandt had painted it earlier, dramatically, and the Romantic John Martin showed his contemporaneous version in England to great success; but for Allston, just after the Revolution, it was a pictorial reminder that the new republic—the new Israel, not the new Rome—would have to be godly, so the painting has a rather stentorian, moralistic feel. Allston, who worked on the painting from 1817 to 1843, was planning to work on the obstinate Babylonian king on the day he died. Maybe America’s royals can learn from the writing on the walls of Portland and Kenosha before our money-centered, death-dealing empire/world is given to the new Medes and Persians, whoever or whatever they turn out to be.