October 20, 2008

Kippenberger at MOCA and Beyond

(Note: This will the be the third attempt at this post, my laptop has been playing nasty tricks lately, devouring much along the way. Here is a rough summary of what might have been...)

Kippenberger has always been a favorite artist of mine, despite the fact that I knew very little about him... I operated on the hunch over the past several years concerning what little I knew of his work: that his paintings, his sculptures and installations like the subway entrances, and ultimately his iconic self portrait with bandaged head were sufficient confirmation that his star was an important navigational aid for the art world. I was thrilled to find upon my arrival from Spain Martin Kippenberger's retrospective at MOCA LA. I also had some trepidation that I would be disillusioned by a deeper acquaintance with his oeuvre. Luckily, that wasn't the case... I do have a critique of the presentation of his work however, but more of that later.

Doug Harvey has a great article in the LA Weekly: MARTIN KIPPENBERGER'S "PROBLEM PERSPECTIVE" AT MOCA: ENTER THE K-HOLE The art of obnoxiousness, framing the "sleazy trickster" with all around assholery:

Martin Kippenberger seems to have been a bit of an asshole. I?m not making a judgment, just an observation. Some of my best friends are assholes. I never actually met Kippenberger during his fabled L.A. sojourns in the early ?90s, but, given his epic drinking and insatiable anti-authoritarianism, we probably wouldn?t have found much to argue about. And Kippenberger?s assholism is no secret ? in fact, it was central to his oeuvre, as well as being the reason his work hasn?t received as much attention as it merits. When you do stuff like buy a gray monochrome painting by one of your former art heroes, screw legs into its stretcher bars and display it as a coffee table ? as Kippenberger did with a Gerhard Richter in 1987?s Modell Interconti ? feelings are going to get hurt.
...and then he circumnavigates the poles...
...At this point, Kippenberger?s hermeticism is rendered moot. Or rather, its more pedestrian function ? as knowing winks and secret signs in a Machiavellian fraternity of academic profiteers whose reputations are built entirely on the obscurity of their references ? is superseded. Regardless of the specific targets of his scorn and ridicule, Kippenberger?s volleys were finally symptomatic of a grand vision of the transformational potential of art, in whose service he was willing to play the jester (and court cirrhosis). Hermeticism has traditionally been a symbolic language for encoding and communicating psychologically powerful and politically liberating philosophies. Due to his unfashionable passion, his irrepressible formal chops and his restless invention, Martin Kippenberger imbued even his most sophomoric pranks with this faith in art as a way to awaken from the nightmare of history. Art is the asshole of the Unconscious. Some people are just born without a cork.

Doug Harvey's article does a superb job of describing the artist and his work, and I was particularly impressed that Harvey too saw Kippenberger as prescient. Strolling through the show, I thought of how many younger artists made entire careers from what was for Kippenberger, passing moments or gestures:

It may be less a question of influence than of prescience ? Kippenberger?s relentless skepticism, globetrotting career, impatient and idiosyncratic social/political engagement, and refusal to disavow poetics and beauty (however stripped down or wonky) were all a few years ahead of the curve, but his reputation as a boozy, ridiculously macho troublemaker made him a difficult role model in the go-go ?90s. Many stylistic facets of his all-encompassing Euro-slackerism have since found their way piecemeal into the mainstream of contemporary art in the hands of more compartmentalized (and socially presentable) practitioners. But encountered as a totality, the singular stylistic innovations of his work become secondary to their unifying underlying identity as outbursts of creative insurgency ? an example much harder to follow than, say, making funky furniture out of weird shit and calling it art.

Beyond the Beyond

Shifting from the issue of a general influence versus a specific prescience, my thoughts wafted from Kippenberger's influence on younger painters to the subject of painting versus conceptually driven art in general. Recently, I had a look at the catalogs for a show in Austria called "LA Potential". It was curated at a venue called Hangar-7:

With the LA Potential exhibition the HangART-7 art programme is presenting contemporary art from Los Angeles. More than 60 works bynine young male and female artists are shown in Hangar-7. Programme director Lioba Reddeker worked on the selection together with the Los-Angeles-based artists Hubert Schmalix and Roger Herman.

Roger and Hubert are the former dons behind the scenes of the erstwhile Black Dragon Society. Both UCLA based teachers, they used their pioneer ChinaTown gallery on Chung King Road to port many students young artists into their international careers. I am not aware of any direct connection between them and Kippenberger directly, but I did wonder about and imagine one, at least on the level of their European/Austrian/German take on art and of our PostModern zeitgeist, to touch everyday life with conceptual means.

As I strolled through the Kippenberger show, I kept thinking about "LA Potential" and some of the writing which curatorially framed the show in Austria. From the brochure, the blurb introducing the work of my friend Bart Exposito (whom I have vetted the ideas in this post and concerning which I should state that he does not necessarily endorse them specifically):

The artist's main interest is in the painting itself, as an object beyond any transcendence, that moves through the orbit of art..."
An object beyond any transcendence? Painting is beyond the beyond? Soooooo cool! I want to be beyond the beyond too! What a great solution to the problem of the limitations of the high water mark of Abstract-Expressionism (#2)! If the postmodern implies the modern and they were born as one, bifurcating as they issued forth -where in the latter we indicated G-d through material means and in the former we indicated everyday life through conceptual means- then the problem of our time is how exactly should we surmount this dichotomy? How can we move on? It's crystal clear that Kippenberger was a paragon of PostModernity, constantly indicating everyday life conceptually via the entire spectrum of art media within his reach. This is the very "orbit of art" in our time, isn't it?. To dwell within a single media, especially painting naturally runs against the spirit of the age, albeit one so long in tooth.

If the transcendent was a limitation... well... let's just... jump over it! And there is the idea of this strange creature -painting- that is beyond the beyond like some extra-solar-system entity intercepting the orbit of art, our contested art world dialog in other words. The relevance of painting restored with a capital "P" in our time might be found in the map of the intersection of its' flight path on the orbital geometry of the dialog, one that conforms to the empire of the conceptual with the inescapability of Newton's Law.

Let me try to explain this idea in another way. Painting is accepted and not accepted in our art world today. Painting is at once the odd man out due to the arc of art history (see Bending Light), and also the eternal art form. Painting is simultaneously acknowledged and dismissed. Moreover, few gallerists and curators don't readily know how to talk about it, in contrast to most conceptually based work whose ideas have been well plumbed and talking points are extremely accessible. Most everything -and not in the least, art- is sold with stories and not too many people have the imaginative resources to tell the story of (a) painting ex nihilo. And yet painting is both valued and scorned, diminished as the mere product of the eye when all the while all the eye is the exteriorization of the brain. For most artists, this is a profound problem, for others it is a wonderful place to be. I myself would like to counted in the latter company. How delightful to see this divide described in terms of celestial bodies with painting as a rogue and its' relevance measured by an intercept course with orbital dynamics, the information age as a gravity well.

Heavy, heavy, heavy.

I thought my cup was rather full after reading this, there was much to consider. Then I flipped open the hardback catalog and read Andrew Bernardini's essay (you can check out his blog here, good stuff). I have transcribed it here in full, it's five pages long but he cruises into good territory and you can't find it anyplace else, so a full treatment seems appropriate:


Andrew Berardini

"So I was looking at painting as a strategy and I thought of each painting as analogous to a very fast song by the Ramones, something like that, a very simple idea that could be executed very quickly with minimum fuss, minimum of tools, just done you know essentially in half an afternoon or something."

Tom Lawson at the Glasgow International Symposium, Painting as a New Medium

Painting has both a very hard and a very easy history in Los Angeles. Hard, because in a city dominated by the schools in the last fifty years with their concomitant critiques and theories, has not often been kind to old fashioned tradition of painting, aggressively pushing art seen as less commercial , and in this false dichotomy, somehow more arty. In the 80's, CalArts, a school at the center of death throes of the avant-garde, after producing a swathe of the Pictures generation painters who jettisoned L.A. for New York like Eric Fischl, Matt Mullican, and David Salle, had at one time, not a single painter among its students. Though anecdotal, and therefore unverifiable, it's not hard to believe. Painting still has to justify itself here in a way that I'm sure makes painters endlessly uncomfortable. A situation that LA Times resident curmudgeon/senior art critic Christopher Knight bemoaned in an article titled "Painting gets a Broader Brush," published December 2, 2007. He uses one student painter's complaints as launching point to talk about the state of painting in L.A. art schools:

"When they sneer and say I'm foolish because painting is obsolete, I don't know what to say to them," she said, smiling.

Oh, I thought, that old chestnut. Art, like science and technology used to be discussed in terms of progress. That meant an ancient practice like painting could be obsolete, like absolute monarchy or 8 track tapes. We don't think like that anymore.

"That's easy," I replied. "Say, 'Thank you.' And mean it."

If it's not a problem in the schools, you hear something slightly different in the galleries. "Conceptual painting" beign a phrase I hear tripping of the dealers' tongues. "He's a really thoughtful painter," they say before scurrying off to hopefully do what all dealers aspire to do, make deals.

"That's easy," wrties Knight. Painting in Los Angeles has had an easy history here for the same reasons as everywhere else perhaps, but tweaked by the landscape. After sculpture became a urinal and videotapes and snapshots became the true New Image, painting as a protable and familiar object has remained a market favorite. No need to explain whatever imitation of a critique the video art recently purchased, people (and the less theory-savvy collectors) easily recognize paintings as "art." these are perhaps truisms, but necessary to repeat when talking about young painting in Los Angeles. The schools haven't always been so hard; each of the major ones had a few painters on staff, continuing to kick against the pricks. Tom Lawson at CalArts, Roger Herman at UCLA, James Hayward at Art Center, all mentored a generation of would-be painters in the hostile atmosphere to painting, often still found at universities.

Lawson, who moved to Los Angeles almost twenty years ago and was a seminal figure in the painting wars of the '80s, saw painting, as he puts it in his seminal article published in ArtForum in October 1981, as the "last exit": "Radical artists now are faced with a choice," he wrote, "despair, or the last exit: painting."

He saw painting as "perfect camouflage... allow[ing] one to place critical esthetic activity at the center of the marketplace, where it can cause the most trouble." I quote Lawson extensively as he was and is one of the most vocal recent godfathers of painting in Los Angeles, bringing an incisive critical approach mixed with punk rock energy to his regular writings in magazines and books. His students have gone far and include Laura Owens, Monique Prieto, and Ingrid Calame. But many of the painters in Los Angeles, though a good portion having passed through its art schools, seem to have no godfathers or godmothers. They seem, like apunk rock generation, to pick up the tools and have a go at it. Many worked without the weight of history, painting friends and scenes, international pop with the rough energy of a fan, marked with an eager naivet?, whether put on or not, found in the most ardent admirers. One of the nodes of painting in Los Angeles has more affinity with K Records, DIY twee, and sunshiny earnestness, seen in the work of artists like painter MAri Eastman, or to expand the field of media, with sculptor Anna Sew Hoy. If they thought about history at all, it was with an irreverence often cited in the sculptural and conceptual art of colleagues and teachers, like Mike Kelly, Richard Jackson, Mike Bouchet, and the late Jason Rhoades.

But if Los Angeles painters choose mentors outside of their university, they choose whomever they like, trawling history for inspiration from where it may come. In America, Clement Greenberg and Ad Reinhardt amongst other, killed painting, at least as we knew it. In Europe, the tradition never faded, the death of painting never a question in the conversation, and great painting continued there unabated, from Polke to Richter and to the current crop of Eastern European wunderkind like Wilhelm Sasnal and Adrian Ghenie. American painters, influenced by Europe and pop culture, have attempted to reform a tradition to pull painting out of the theoretical coffin , and make it dance a Western song. Many graduate level fine art programs no longer have life-drawing classes, and no matter how many intellectuals decry that painting ain't dead, try being one in Los Angeles, and not feel like a zombie.

But like its diffuse landscape there is no Los Angeles style, or Los Angeles school of painting. But there are nodes, imaginary neighborhoods, gathering places, shared points of reference: the different university programs are one, the elder painters who have made their home here another, each other as a community a crucial third. After a cold reception in London, R.B. Kitaj moved here ostensibly to hide out, but his style (historical, referential, expressively figurative and literary) can be found in the succeeding generation of L.A. painters, Alexander Grant in an interview with me quoted him as an important reference point. His fellow British Pop painter David Hockney came to Los Angeles as well, adn his cool palette and flattened terrains reflect a foreigner's imaginary of Los Angeles, but Hockney came more for the handsome poolside boys than he did for any art scene. But for both painters, L.A. in different ways became a haven; a place Europeans went to avoid the weight of history, chase boys and paint.

The two arguments one hears in the bars after the openings, from art students fresh from critiques, and in the occasional magazine article push two different versions of what art should be. On one side are dyed in the wool painters, painter's painters and the other could care little about painting, though they sometimes use it (and drawing to reference the human hand as an element of creation), in the service of a historical-theoretical argument. The two sides, and I would call it an argument but neither side really cares to talk to each other anymore, runs on one side as the sheer, unadulterated pleasure of paint. Advanced here in Los Angeles by tired Modernist like James Hayward and his student Daniel Mendel-Black, critic David Pagel, and critic/painter Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe damaging a generation of artists with their push toward the formal, the technical, and the so-called "beautiful," amounting to me as anodyne actions from artists dooming themselves as derivative references to a dead dialogue. Hayward, a tall cowboy with a booming voice, always wearing a Stetson hat and a perennial joint hanging from the side of his mouth, reminds one of the heroic painters that we stopped needing sometime in the '70s. He's been doing similar paintings for thirty years and they consist of thickly layered impasto rising inches off the surface, abstractions where the whole process of painting is about the pleasure of the thick gooey paint. Pagel, in a similar vein but not quite so retro, pushes through his essays and methodologies a kind of art though not limited to any particular medium, in many ways limited by medium. His essays (which can easily be found at the LA Times website) dive deeply into descriptive passages whose thoughts are repeated clich?s and the only liveliness of the writing consists of gushing, perceptual forays, so amorphous as to be almost unquotable. As the reader can tell, I have little patience for either of these methods, and this proposition is advanced more thoughtfully but with the same faults by Art Center of Pasadena's own resident aestheticist Gilbert-Rolfe adn the famously, prickly critic regularly tripping the light fantastic, Dave Hickey.

To quote a few passages of Gilbert-Rolfe from an interview in the Brooklyn Rail in May 2005, we see both his emphasis on beauty and his repugnance to the other side of the divide:

"That's very much what 1974 was like. Suddenly idiots theorizing art exclusively as a matter of historical production, things like joseph Kosuth signing philosophers the way Andy signed soup cans, were being taken seriously.

Of course that completely fucked painting, because it could now be treated purely as an historical object by a discourse devoted entirely to death- of painting, of modernism, of the author but not the dealer. I've described the situation regarding the recurrent and constant death of painting and also of Kant as paralleling Derrida's refutation of Fukuyama's preservatoin of Marx as ghost in order to that he may be the one who finally lays the threat to rest. Painting has been preserved as a ghost so that successive generation of productivists can demonstrate that it's their critical ritual that can finally exorcise it. As to your earlier question about my painting and writing, when people look at my paintings I'd appreciate it if they'd recall that they are made by the person who demonstrated not only ostensively but also in prose that the death of painting is a crock of shit."

Wow. Both his demonstrable knowledge of theory/philosophy and his fierce reactionary energy are told with a kind of verve I can't help but appreciate, even if i think gilbert-Rolfe is on the wrong side of history. An intellectual defense of the superficial, the purely beautiful, is not only untimely, but also unconscionable: the intellectual defense of Paris Hilton (though I'm sure this is knocking around as a thesis somewhere in academia). Gilbert-Rolfe is a particularly interesting case study, as a founder of the journal October, the mouthpiece of Rosalind Krauss and a very academically driven discourse on contemporary art with countless adherents, few of them artists.

But nor do I think the post-Marxists and theory heads are on the right side of history either. On the other side side of the divide, leftists and theoretical critiques still have legs, and the teachers (and it's always the teachers) still pushing this work understand it often less than their students, hastily translated French theory often puts Baudrillard, Lacan, Deleuze, and Foucault at the same champagne party, and while yes, they may speak the same language of philosophy they've as much in common with one another as any two people speaking any language, pluck two Englishmen off the streets, and they'd agree as much as Baudrillard and Foucault. But French theory has been, many years after its main practitioners have either died or stopped writing is still being pushed as viable ways to talk about art, teh same class that has a A Thousand Plateaus on the syllabus is likely to have neo-Marxist claptrap by Hart and Negri, such as Empire. If the practitioners of this school of practice look at painting at all it's as either commodities or illustration for this theory or another. Though it's hard to find painter's these days who dig into this, there are members of the expanded field coalition of post-media artists who still use these rather tired critiques as blunt tools. Sam Durant and Charles Gains, to concentrate on two artists/teachers in an L.A. school who still cling to this model, both resort to history and philosophy as crutches to their didactic art. Both are experts on the instructional four-page press release evidenced in recent shows, Gaines at Suzanne Vielmetter and Durant around the corner in Culver City at Blum and Poe. These press releases underline how little they care about sensuality as to be the dustiest of professors with little care for the human hand; humanity easily exchanged for convoluted histories as to be entirely random without a lick of humor. Assistants then duly execute the work. an excerpt from Charles Gaines press release for his current show at Suzanne Vielmetter Berlin Projects illustrates this: "In Randomized Text: History of Stars," photographs of the night sky are paired with handwritten texts of sentences from two books, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garc?a M?rquez, and Orientalism by Edward Said. The sentences are based on a randomizing system in which alternate sentences from each book are combined according to the letter of the first word in a previous sentence. The result is a text whose actual meanings remain arbitrary in relation to the sequence of the sentences (the system) that produced them."

While one school of critique becomes too sensual, obsessed literally with surfaces, the other is senselessly bricked in by books only half-understood and pushing art that a political action committee as opposed to what is the true spirit of art: ambiguity and astonishment. Pure sensuality seems as dunderheaded as tired whinging leftist politicking and any remnants of theory driven-art still somehow finding a happy home with historians.

Los Angeles painters, and they are not all made equally, at their best walk in-between these distantly American with fierce manifestations in L.A. schools, and they do so without any weight of history except for recent, they regularly (though perhaps not regularly enough) break with their teachers.

Perhaps the dealers are right, everyone like a thoughtful painter, but we'll politely discard their market term "Conceptual Painting" and just call it what it is, artist who think.

Painting is as much a part of the expanded field as any other medium; the formalist and theoretical bets are off. And in the diverse Los Angeles landscape, where for decades buildings could be thrown up with little care for local style or historical precedent, painters can make whatevver they want and happily they do. Though I've come full circle to the end of the essay to say I don't really think about painting. The medium is no longer the message. The medium is what it always was, a vehicle to get you someplace, hopefully interesting; for artists who paint, that destination is of course up to them. Painting never died, but painting in a certain way died, and after a long tea time with French theory in Los Angeles, painting has an energy because if it uses these debates at all, they're merely tools in an arsenal full of other options, the primary being their own visions as artists, picking up the tools at hand and with minimum fuss and exploding on the canvas with the energy of a Ramones song.

Andrew Berardini

"...the true spirit of art: ambiguity and astonishment."


Posted by Dennis at October 20, 2008 1:38 PM

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