Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Quest for the West at the Eiteljorn Museum

P.A. Nisbet

‘Quest for the West’ at the Eiteljorn Museum, through Oct. 7

Like the visual arts of the totalitarian regimes of the last century, ‘Western art’ is like the pre-modern artworlds – i.e. it works to establish social values and meaning rather than to critique or undermine them. It’s also an artworld unto itself, with it’s own collectors and a dozen museums, several of which, like the Eiteljorn in Indianpolis, cultivate the genre with annual exhibitions of new work. Every year, 50 artists are chosen by the Eiteljorn, and about 150 paintings and sculptures put up for show and sale.

The Eiteljorn’s annual show is distinguished by narrative and scenery meant to be uplifting with the simple and direct wholesomeness of an elementary school text book. It offers fantasies of hearty pioneers/cowboys and cute Indians that is too shopworn and politically incorrect for mainstream galleries. But it does reflect a living ideology of freedom, opportunity, and individuality that competes quite successfully against the nominalism, alienation, and self absorption of the contemporary artworld for the domination of American life. Occasionally, there is some sense of the artists’ personalities or how each one feels about specific people and places.. But that kind of work can best be found across the hallway, in the Eiteljorn’s excellent collection of Georgia O’Keefe and the early 20th C. Taos school.

Most of the paintings in the Quest show seem to be follow the study of photographs, since there’s a cold, dry, flatness and the feeling that the artists were manipulating pixels rather than paint. While the sculptors, in the tradition of Frederick Remington, mostly focus on a broken, highly descriptive surface rather than the qualities of mass and space found in both modern and ancient traditions. And yet, there’s no doubting the extraordinary skill as these artists maneuver like Olympic gymnasts through the complexities required by their subject matter. The cinematic American West is certainly there in all its bronco busting detail, but unlike the pioneers they depict, the artists don’t seem to be breaking new ground or taking big risks. The pieces reflect the pleasant ambience of an upscale shopping mall or corporate office rather than a hard-scrabble frontier.

Turning his back on both contemporary fantasy as well as reality, P.A. Nisbet was my favorite artist in the show, as he recreated the effects of 19th C. landscape, including the infinite, spacious vistas introduced by English Romantics like John Martin. The eerie, obsessive perfection of Mikel Donahue’s photo based cowboy genre scenes cannot be ignored, either. Every year there’s at least a few pieces that deserve to be moved across the hall into the permanent collection, but most of them lack aesthetic intensity. It’s too bad that ‘Western Art’ seems to be the only art game in town that tries to reach beyond the personal to present positive and convincing American ideals.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Roy Lichtenstein at the Art Institute

Roy Lichtenstein’s introduction of commercial graphics and popular cartoon imagery into the black-tie artworld was such a spectacular and immediate success in 1961, one might wonder just how long his 15 minutes of fame was going to last. Which was probably a question he asked himself as he devoted the following decades to riffing on canonical art as well as comic books. It was a successful strategy, and without it, I doubt we would now have such an extensive career retrospective in a major museum. The exhibition’s program notes tell us that “he explored just about every art historical style out there”, but mostly he stayed within canonical modernism: Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, Brancusi, Mondrian, etc, with a final venture into Chinese landscape. All of it chopped up and processed in something of a graphic art meatgrinder, transforming everything to a clean, sleek, decorative style that suits a white cube, modern living space as smoothly as a Breuer chair. But does this work challenge or celebrate that process? Or does it just accept it – as one might accept the other consequences of modern life like air pollution, global warming, periodic financial crashes, and mindless chatter on radio and television? Despite those concerns, many of these productions do look pretty good, often with a hint of whimsy that can’t help but turn a frown upside down. And so he joins Jasper Johns and Gerhard Richter as the only post-war painters to have had something like a career retrospective at the Art Institute since 1980, which seems to recognize photography as the major vehicle for contemporary expression. In the 31 years following 1980,. the museum has given solo exhibits to 111 photographers but only 33 painters from the entire 20th Century. . The sensitive touch of a brush to a surface just doesn’t seem to be so important any more, and all it provided for Lichtenstein’s work was an occasional decorative flourish, as he seemed intent on making his pieces appear to have been mechanically produced. This is the kind of antiseptic nihilism that prominent Chicago artists have been reacting against for 50 years. We like our juvenile nihilism to appear more gritty and soulful.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Molly Zuckerman-Hartung at the MCA

Molly Zuckerman-Hartung at the Museum of Contemporary Art through July 24

Visual art summons meanings, and unrestricted by any obvious intentions, abstract art encourages free association. Abstract artists don’t need to be concerned with public responses like “No, that’s not Martin Luther King”. But unless they consider themselves to be decorators, there is usually some kind of profound association they would like to share with the world. Some offer these explanations in an artist’s statement; some leave it up to the gallerists or critics, but Molly Zuckerman-Hartung posts the 95 theses of her art theory up on an entire wall at the MCA.

The paintings/collages themselves are fascinating because they are so good, combining the effects of forceful self expression with what feels like the passivity of a chemical process, much the same way that colorful glazes play upon the surface of kiln fired ceramics, except that her multi-media technique offers her many more options for color and texture. Her appetite for creativity in these small pieces seems boundless – and indeed she often uses dyed strips of cloth to carry the colors beyond the boundaries of the rectangular surface. But that doesn’t necessarily make the pieces look any better, just as the wall full of text doesn’t especially explain them.

If a thousand people saw her paintings without reading her text, would even a single person guess she had purposed them to explore the “codes of capitalism”? And she doesn’t even attempt to explain which codes are being addressed by which paintings – nor does she seem to take her “95 theses of Painting” all that seriously. Soon after Martin Luther had posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg church, the newly invented printing press disseminated his text throughout Europe, marking the beginning of mass communication and triggering the biggest transformation in European history until the French Revolution. But the Zuckerman-Hartung 95 Theses aren't even distributed at the gallery, much less over an internet which could spread her manifesto instantaneously all over the world. If she really wanted to.

So despite the successful paintings, the exhibit as a whole seems to express frustration - either with the limitations of her medium or with a contemporary theory-driven artworld in which good painting has become neither necessary, sufficient, or even relevant.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Petullo Collection at the Milwaukee Art Museum

James Dixon

Accidental Genius: Art from the Anthony Petullo Collection, through May 06,Milwaukee Art Museum

As Anthony Petullo relates, he began collecting art at the Milwaukee Art Museum’s annual “Lakefront Festival of the Arts” exhibit of regional arts and crafts. Now, 30 years later, he has given those pieces to his children, and gifted the museum with 300 works that he has collected with the sophisticated assistance of galleries that specialize in outsider or self-taught artists. But why should sophistication be more important to collectors of art than it was to the people who made it?

Petrullo may not be a self-taught collector, but he does seem to have taken some chances with several European as well as American artists who are neither well known nor self-taught. In addition to iconic names like Henry Darger and Minnie Evans, one can also find work by Sylvia Levine (1911-1998) whose similar work can currently be bought on the internet for under $500. And she wasn’t completely self taught. She took art classes and worked in an early 20th C. figurative style that probably helped her develop the strong quality of her reclining nudes. David Pearce (b. 1963) is also far from famous, though his sparse, lonely village-scapes show that he is also quite adept at presenting a dreamy and beautiful world. His gallery markets him as “self-taught”, but his own website indicates that he studied at the Epsom, Kent, and Chelsea schools of art.

The other artists in this show also create visual worlds that are distinctly their own, mostly self-centered, and some less happy than others. Only some of them can command interest without reference to the life story that has been posted beside the art, another one of those being James Dixon (1882-1970), whose seascapes feel as brisk and fresh as the wind swept Irish island on which he lived.

None of these pieces are distinguished by exceptional virtuosity or important new developments in form or ideal. Do they really belong in the permanent collection of a major art museum? But the show is a good way to connect to the life stories of some very independent people, and many of the pieces are more visually compelling than anything currently found in the Milwaukee museum’s galleries of contemporary art. Art about self may not aim very high, but still it’s usually more interesting than art about art. The show could be even better if it completely abandoned the pretense of “self-taught”, and opened itself to a broader and less ambiguous category like “non MFA”, while hunting for the best pieces culled from the millions of amateur and professional painters of landscapes, flowers, children, birds, geometric patterns, whatever. Sophistication be damned.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Heaven and Hell at LUMA and Intuit

Heaven and Hell; Intuit and LUMA, through June 30

With it’s emphasis on The Word, Protestant Christianity has not had much use for visual narrative art, and when it has been used in Sunday school texts and such, it has run between dry and anemic. But it’s emphasis on individual salvation is a good match for those obsessed with personal visions, i.e. outsider artists, and nothing seems to have inspired them more than the depiction of Heaven and Hell.

This exhibition, drawing from 40 private and museum collections around the country, began as LUMA’s initial venture into the wild and wooly world of outsider art, so they wisely brought in the expertise of the Intuit Center Two curators, one from each institution, collaborated on making all the selections, and then the display was split between both galleries, with, appropriately enough, the Jesuit university hosting heaven and the outsider art gallery raising Hell

And that Hell is really hellish, often envisioned by people who have had difficult lives, sometimes ending up in prison. The life story of each artist is told in some detail, making the bizarre visions more understandable, my favorite being Royal Robertson. After his wife ran off with another man, the artist collaged a few cartoon Godzillas attacking a picture-perfect beach and light house. But even better is the sculpture, which doesn’t rely on any explanatory text, but stands proudly, and freakishly, on its own, as each artist-prophet “sees more devils than vast Hell can hold”.

As one might expect, self-motivated artists can more easily identify with the willfulness of Satan rather than the obedience of angels, and while Hell is supposed to be ugly, Heaven really ought to be beautiful (not just pretty). So the depictions of Heaven are less compelling. But still, some of these untaught artists were quite talented in their chosen media. Clementine Hunter is one of the few painters in the show who seems to respond more to paint than to message, while William Edmondson was so good at carving strong, simple shapes, he was the first African American to have a one-person show at the Museum of Modern Art.

So there are lots of discoveries to be made in both shows. All three of the artists mentioned above were African-American, and a good show might be made including only that ethnic group. While a better show might have given less emphasis to Howard Finster, who has 19 pieces on display. His cheerful, benign images may serve well to introduce outsider art to newcomers, but just like television evangelists, he also seems to have crossed the line between prophet and entrepreneur. If an outsider artist is trying hard to please other people, is he still an outsider?