February 19, 2019

21st Century Janus

I've just hammered out an essay intended for a collaborative book project which is focusing on contemporary painting in Southern California. Even though the subject centers on SoCal, the thesis applies to painting in the world at large. Seeds for this are strewn throughout the entire history of this weblog and the image above is repeated from a tweeted manifesto last year, suggesting the linkage. It's a war wagon, meant to bring peace to warring factions and unify the schizoid split inherited from our 20th century.

3,210 words and 23 paragraphs below the fold...

Painting is the Sun

To see stars nearest the sun, you need an eclipse. Painting is the sun, but in order to see the stars adjacent to it, we had to occlude it as if we had blocked it with our hand outstretched. We discovered a multitude of stars: installation, performance, social practice, conceptual, video, film, the list is seemingly infinite. This is good, this is progress. The art world, like the sky is richer now that we know this. The sun is also a star like any other star in the universe. By size and magnitude, it's actually quite average. Similarly, painting is co-equal with the multitude of genres now celebrated in the universe of art today.

This was an image that I had conjured about ten years after I left grad school. I was trying to account for the apparent force of Critical Theory during the late 80's. I was trying to understand the proscription against painting and the near universal yet silent rebellion against all of this in grad school studios all over the world and especially in Southern California, when young artists ignored the warning that painting had died. The constant message was that it was a relic of a past best left interred.

Painting resumed living despite the forecast of its death. However, it had never addressed the reasoning regarding its expected demise. Postmodernism is the name of this pain. Back in the Los Angeles of the 90's, I remember finding it hard in social settings to discuss this umbrella term, postmodernism. Friends found it distasteful to summarize what they considered to be incommensurable. For them and for most of the world, the current era was like the infinite ratio of an irrational number and it was in bad taste to profanely circumscribe its sacred inscrutability.

Perhaps it was my background, my first degree in architecture that made the difference? The taxonomy of aesthetic movements in architecture is more structured than it is in art. To define postmodernism, one had to define modernism, to define modernism, one had to define classicism, and onwards down the line of turtles towards and past the archaic. Architects have the advantage in this regard. The view of art history along the aspect of building science renders modernity much more clearly than in art. Roman engineering had amplified the classical Greek canon and convention remained tradition for centuries undisturbed until the Enlightenment's cycle of scientific and industrial revolutions had upended the apple cart with a whole host of new materials and methods of construction. To be modern is to reconcile the thing one makes with the life one is living. This became crystal clear when factories, railroads, telegraphs, bicycles, airplanes, and reinforced concrete appeared, disrupted and were in turn disrupted by newer innovations. Modernists were bent on redesigning a new apple cart, postmodernists knew that all apple carts are destined to remain upended. Modernism was bent on saving the world. Postmodernists ridiculed and embraced the futility of such ambition. Rupture, dissolution, entropy and disorder is the new order for the latter, the new system was an anti-system.

We tend to think that the sequence was first classicism, then modernism and then postmodernism. But the modern and the postmodern arose Janus-faced as one at its inception. This is clear in the accounts of turn of the century Paris, in books such as Roger Shattuck's "The Banquet Years", which spotlit artists such as Picasso and Alfred Jarry as avatars for modernity and postmodernity. Let's now define the undefinable. Modernism tried to touch G-d via material means. Transcendence. Postmodernism pointed to everyday life via conceptual means. Quotidian. The New York School of Abstraction was the high tide of modernism, no artist could get closer to G-d than did artists such as Pollock and Rothko. Young Rauschenberg and young Warhol saw that they couldn't extend the existing dialog, so they flipped the script. Postmodernism proceeded in concatenating waves: Pop, Minimalism, Conceptualism; each dialing down materiality, each referring to everyday life, each focusing on information content. These were many ancillary movements, superpositions of trends, but all pointed to the world conceptually.

The fruit of the conceptual tree was Sol LeWitt's art-as-a-set-of-instructions, the epitome of dematerialization. Sol LeWitt and the conceptualists did what art should do, clairvoyance. They intuitively anticipated the approaching epoch, in our case, the Information Age, ten or twenty or thirty years before it had become manifest. After 1968, art moved through and past an achieved objective. Like a river that begins as dew forming from mountain mists and dropping into icy creeks splashing down over rocks, fusing into rivers beginning fast then growing slow and increasingly muddier until fanning out, creeping into a delta to the sea... finally oozing... stinking... fetid... vaporously disappearing into clouds... so too history and especially art history. The past fifty years have been a spreading delta driven primarily by Critical Theory, the ultimate conceptual index of a ubiquitous, increasingly politicized world. It has been a long run, with some eddies and counter-currents along the way.

But today, this postmodern engine has been running on fumes. One tell-tale sign is the appearance of the zombie. Coined by Martin Mugar and popularized by critics such as Walter Robinson, this meme captured the questionable quality of art that arose in synchrony with wealth disparity and the evaporation of the middle market and class. Zombie Formalism looked like great art but only in fading echoes of pale imitation. Mugar nailed it in his 2014 essay: "...These works of art look like paintings, act like painting but on closer inspection are as bloodless and lifeless as zombies. That the New York culture allows this kind of painting to rise to the top is no surprise: the New York financial world is known for creating zombie loans and the NY Fed has succeeded in creating a zombie economy".

We are today obliged to account for the etiology of the Zombie in early 21st century culture. How did this come about? I trace the inception to 1991 after the Berlin Wall fell, when the Soviet Union collapsed, when Critical Theory had reached its apogee in the academy, when it became crystal clear that the 20th century had ended a decade early. In the months, then years afterward, no articles appeared in the art press to conduct the necessary overhaul critique of the 20th century, of modernity-cum-postmodernity. We had the responsibility to collectively evaluate what could be relevant and what must be considered irrelevant to the looming 21st century. We declined our responsibilities. We, in effect, whistled through the graveyard.

Frances Fukuyama wrote "The End of History and the Last Man" in 1992 and in effect, declared Western liberal democracy the winner of the evolution of world civilization. Various interpretations of Fukuyama's essay-cum-book ensued subsequent to its publication, but its enduring impact had been deep and widespread. The system that had brought us to this place in history and had prevailed needed no further modification. This was no less true for the art world as well. Postmodernism was just another way to say Western liberal democracy. The end of history was real for the art world. Artists and especially new generations of artists need not bother with writing the subsequent chapters of history. Only art that emulated bibliography and end notes in some way however oblique were acknowledged. The ground of this self limiting condition was well prepared in advance. G-d was declared dead. Truth. Originality. The author. Painting. All dead. Anything one could say has been said before and woe to those who don't acknowledge it via citation and pale imitation. Nothing new could be permitted, so declared the descendants of the "Shock of the New". And so in time, nothing like the new was attempted.

Even when the reminder of the weaknesses of our existing Western liberal order presented itself in the suicidal take-down of the twin towers of 9-11 when rival ideologies challenged and attacked our complacency and exposed rivals within the world order, we simply shrugged and continued whistling through our own graveyard. A stasis of order evacuated the mind and the zombie arose to mock us all. Painting was dead and lifelessness was the only card... or role left to play. As the fruit of the postmodern tree was plucked (Sol LeWitt's art-as-a-set-of-instructions), painting was obliged to play second fiddle so that a new age could be born.

In order to account for the preeminence of painting in art history, one must concede that like the sun, painting is closer to our lived experience than the other stars. We feel its warmth infinitely more keenly than we do from the light of other stars. Immediate, accessible, concise in its component nature of pigment, binder and solvent. Painting is a complete correlate to our visually dominant mental world in terms of psychological theories of perception.

Painting acknowledged this artifice at the initial spring of the arc of postmodernism. Frank Stella started painting within bounded systems, so too did Jasper Johns with his flags and later when he buried this inherent limitation within his taciturn facture. Rauschenberg famously erased DeKooning and when he later romped in sheer visuality, he subordinated painting to printmaking and transfers. Warhol, like a number of his fellow peers used the design arts preeminently to dislocate painting. Greenberg's Post-Painterly Abstraction and later variants including Neo-Geo were determined to find a correlate in painting that also turned the minimalist dial downwards. Initially, it had to be thus. In the face of the cultural sea change of the emergent postmodernism, not only were there interesting avenues to explore in paintings' own negation, to do otherwise would have been surly and bitter. But twenty years after the announcement of the death of painting in the 70's when Critical Theory had crested in the academy, when the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended, art faced a crossroads. It was obliged to examine the nature of the artifice -the entire postmodern project, in other words-, assess what elements if any are worth continuing and what must be discarded... or sit at this juncture and declare the end of history. But while the game might be declared over, problems ensued.

The problem began when we forgot that our hand was covering the sun. When it wasn't forgetfulness, it was an anger at the sheer existence of a sun. What accounts for this lapse of judgement? We simply forgot about the function of artifice in argumentation. To make any point, one must do at least a small degree of injustice to alternative viewpoints, accentuating some, diminishing others. Participants in debate tacitly concede this reality as a lovely social grace. This is the norm. We exit the norm when we ignore or abuse the functionality of artifice. Another word for this is war, as expressed and universally accepted in Sun Tzu's famous epigram, "All warfare is based on deception." Artifice has a wide range of definition, its latin root relating it to art in all of its benign glory and the dictionary begins with "...clever or cunning devices or expedients, especially as used to trick or deceive others...". Homer applied artifice both to Hephaestus, the artistic/craftsman god and to Odysseus' use of deception in battle. In the former case, artifice is transparent and in the latter, concealed. When we forgot that we had concealed the sun of painting, we deceived ourselves -when in reality we thought we were deceiving others.

Credit goes to a majority of artists who painted after the beginning of the 90's, ignoring the proscription against painting. However a number of them made sure to continue to send signals of painting's diminished status. Wan, gloomy, strained, exhausted, limited, expended, constrained, cynical, the spreading delta of a negatory river course ever dissipating asymptotically. The better course for artists who resumed painting at that time would have been a forensic dive into the death of painting narrative, to search for sparks of vitality and animation. Side stepping allowed both narrative and counter-narrative to simultaneously exist blithely. As such, painting developed variants without theoretical support aside from a vague representation/abstraction distinction and concurrently, postmodern theory's balloon began to slowly leak away.

By the end of the aughts, aggressively bland painting -zombies- were selected by the marketplace for preeminence, successfully eclipsing the function of critics in debates over quality. The shrug by critics after the world historical sea change was reciprocated by the diminished power of criticism to influence the art world, their function implicitly negated as well by the end of history narrative. They acquiesced and were therefore nullified. Ideas stopped trafficking and therefore morality stopped as well, and finally all that was left standing was power. Money, in other words. What is a better expression of sheer power than the singularly minded zombie, hungry for the healthy brain? But here is the worrisome detail: Mugar coined Zombie-ism in 2014 and while the term trafficked in the art world dialog for a time, complacency has returned.

Now that symptoms are charted and a possible diagnosis if proffered, a cure is left begging. If we are living in dissipating times, and it is certain that we are to the point of schizoid mutual alienation, then its high time for the pendulum to swing back into the corrective direction. Conflict in the absence of reconciliation is another description of hell. The delta spread must at some point give way to the congealing force. Therefore, the synthesis of the thesis of modernism and the antithesis of postmodernism must in some way be the key for a succeeding 21st century. If modernism was a search for new orders that incorporated the proliferating categories of an erupting modern world and postmodernism embraced rupture, then one possible path forward, perhaps the only path forward, is a way to fuse system and schism simultaneously.

It is curious that the Roman god Janus in an anomaly in world history. This god of beginnings and passages, of change and time, has no analog in the Greek pantheon and it is the conceptual embodiment of an idea that had spawned no successors after the Roman Empire. What we need today is a supra-modern conception that incorporates the successful aspects of the preceding epoch in both aspects. The peculiar dualistic narrative of Southern California holds a special key that could help resolve the impasse and end the torpor of late stage postmodernism.

California art has long been identified with Light and Space, for good reason. The endless blue sky, the constantly amiable temperature, the particular microclimate where the desert meets the sea that creates a third dreamy environmental distinction. The West was and is the refuge for romantics, a frontier free from the burden of history. As Manhattan minted minimal and conceptual art, Southern California manifested a concrete version of the ethereal, one that could be witnessed by anyone first hand simply with the tilt of the head towards the bounded and boundless atmospheric cornea above.

Dreams aren't always benign. Close readers of SoCal historian Kevin Starr will note the abiding theme of boom and bust, of enticing dreams and ruinous catastrophe. Hollywood popularized film noir and Bukowski rescued John Fante with his introduction to "Ask the Dusk", and Nathaniel West's "Day of the Locust" focused on the losers of the casting lottery. The dream state isn't always so sweet.

However, pain has a tendency to fade from the mind given the passage of time. As a result, the halcyon image of California as the natural home of Light and Space was well on its way to cementing itself in the popular imagination by the end of the 80's. Of the dozens of art schools in the region, CalArts was leading the way during this time toward its own version of Light and Space, dematerializing studio practice and uploading theory into the clouds. Bibliographical citation and required reading reoriented to a mental/conceptual ethereality -another kind of Light and Space- in all art schools feeding into the local population. The art world seemed happy to shed its mortal coil. Then in 1992, Paul Schimmel curated MOCA's landmark "Helter Skelter: LA Art in the 90's". Finally, the full dimension of SoCal could again be appreciated worldwide and a categorical home was established in the art history pantheon for artists such as Chris Burden, Llyn Foulkes, Mike Kelly, Paul McCarthy, Lari Pittman and Charles Ray among others. Utopia and dystopia was reunited in the popular imagination, again if only for a moment, in the popular imagination as two manifestations of the same state. Hester Skelter was nested within even larger watershed moments of world historical proportions. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. It was the end of the Cold War and it was effectively the end of the 20th century, a decade early. Postmodernism too, had run its course but no one in the art world could acknowledge this because we were then too deep within it to circumscribe its extents.

Dreams can be sweet or horrible, but they are neither one or the other entirely. Similarly, western civilization is already a composite of oppositional forces and as such the key to its extraordinary success is already in our possession. We must shrug off the propensity to forget the other when we are in the thrall of one. It is the nature of painting to reconcile opposites. Binder and solvents. Abstraction and representation. Value and color. The problem of painting since the 90's is that it had proceeded en passant after the narrative of the death of painting. This is probably the greatest insult to Critical Theory and late postmodernism, which deserved an intelligent rebuttal. By carrying on obliviously, painting proliferated a chaos of types, adding to an inchoate delta devoid of any critical purchase. The other duality of body and mind both need sleep. Sleep is restorative. Dreams are either incidental or crucial depending on one's world view, but whatever one thinks, dreams are integrative.

Binder and solvent, when mixed with agitation, form an emulsive body of paint. The corpus of paint resides within its own liquid universe of strength integrating the tensile and compressive. Like breaking and riding horses, paint resists human will until that intention understands its nature implicitly. Liquids are evasive, running, pooling, dripping. Less liquid yields the paste of impasto towards a maximum surface tension at odds with its own mass. Curvilinear geometries rule and when tools lift out of the mass, conic sections define. Painting navigates the dualities of the pulling distinctions of drawing and pooling erasure. Images are made known, or left to be apprehended, another conjoined duality of representation and abstraction. Like the accomplished equestrian, a good painter has a feel for the medium, an affection and pride in the healthy exercise of its nature.

The death of painting only worked as theatre, when both audience and actors could suspend disbelief, when the devices of murder were mere dramatic props. Only by seeking to understand when and why we went wrong in mistaking art for life, when we thought literally that progress could exterminate painting in art, can we move forward and conserve what was gained by that theatrical leap of imagination and build upon it towards the looming epoch already upon us.

Posted by Dennis at February 19, 2019 7:01 PM

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