Adrift in the postmodern world
[ artreviews - february 07 ]
Wind circles off the Hudson River in fast icy blasts, tearing through your heavy black leather coat as you huddle up West Street, moving toward 24th, on the exposed underbelly of lower Manhattan in early January. Once turf to merchant sailors, immigrants, dock workers, the aimless and hopeful, who found home in crowded tenements, saloons, jut-joints and flophouses, these streets are clean and stark now under a low, bright blue, mid-morning sky.
Chelsea's underpasses and alleys still echo Eugene O'Neill's turn of the last century working-class dialects, but today it's blue-collar elegant, historic (even the graffiti merits passing critique), but the hard-working, pragmatic ethos remains. This is a 'community of the conscious', as one resident sums it up, a respite from the global megalopolis, insulated by the quiet industry and easy commerce of art.
Modernism first took New York City in 1913, with the famous 69th Regiment Armory Show - held a few blocks north and east of here, and officially known as 'The International Exhibition of Modern Art'. All Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp, Picabia, Kandinsky, it's purpose was simply modernism: "to question the boundaries of art as an institution", and the experimental innovation that followed changed every art form and fueled modernism across American culture, deconstructing boundaries in art and life through the end of the century.
To locate the postmodern in painting today, we're looking for something authentic in Chelsea: work firmly anchored in the present with intimations of some common past; work which broadens, deepens, maybe enlivens our experience of humanity. The challenge of contemporary art is to be meaningful enough to overwhelm the meaningless, the banal, the contrived, the fraudulent and often brutal existential reality we have come to identify with postmodern life.
This is the age of global connectivity: Internet speed, individual satellite communication, instant stock transactions, global inventory adjustments and collateral damage kill-rates that overwhelm the imagination. So we need amusement to avoid the vacuous that we sense overwhelming us if we watch one more reality television show, or listen to one more political speech, one more rationalization for the irrational.
The era demands an art that does not cheapen our personal sense of time and place, or delude any humane aesthetic hardwired through time to save us from our lesser instincts. Like the Hellenistic period of transition, 20 centuries ago, we welcome art that assuages, cajoles, elevates or insists we recognize the human element even in the most menacingly unfamiliar contexts. We progress as a species, through art, we like to think, if we extend humanity beyond the moment, always prepared to imagine, and then construct, a more ethical future.
A German painter, he creates images of people in isolated but communicative attitudes, suspended in particularly nuanced solitudes of time and space. He does this in rigorously formal compositions that take on both the moment suspended and the weight of history, obviously reminiscent of the dark, moody palette and composition of the early French Impressionists, particularly Edouard Manet.
The Impressionists rarely move beyond the surface, typically the bourgeoisie at leisure, captured in rapid, small strokes of loosely mixed color, but Manet was different. A merchant sailor in his youth, he developed a dark affinity for Francisco Goya, particularly during the Franco-Prussian war which disrupted Paris life and informed Manet's important work, 'Execution of the Emperor Maximilian', (1867), coincidentally featured uptown in an exhibition at MoMA.
Eitel's exhibition at Pacewildenstein is called 'Center of Gravity' and it ranges from small, handsome color and moody portrait studies in oil, to giant dark, brooding compositions, introverted moments, rendered as postures, codes, collected and carefully composed in timeless milieus. Eitel's work is said to "reflect a continuation of the artistís inquiry into the interaction of images," but Eitel's inquiry probes deeper than image. He is exposing aspects of contemporary humanity as a mysterious emotion, even absent the human subject. Out of the darkest palette emerges a careful critique of alienation and introversion which resonates philosophically, socially and politically with the contemporary moment.
Some of Eitel's images are banal: 'Süaut;den', for example, a large oil on canvas, depicts five isolated figures, facing away from the viewer, arranged against a stark background of muted grays and blacks. It is as if these figures are awaiting the arrival of something unseen - a subway train, perhaps, a bus, or maybe Godot. This is an everyday scene, elevated by craft to the stature of early Impressionist portraiture, but the more we rather voyeuristically analyze the postures and attitudes, the more informed the figures become. This one is tense, that one impatient; we glimpse fear in one, anger in another. Even in the most ordinary of circumstance, something is happening, something is wrong; but there is no judgment, no social etiquette, just the continuity of painted characters waiting, and we viewers observing.
Eitel's work takes on real power when he focuses on images of the "unseen," the "unnoticed" - the homeless, democracy's "disappeared". With 'Besitz', a large oil on linen, we encounter a vague, huddled figure in the darkest of nights, illuminated by the subtlest moonlight. It takes time for the eye to formalize the image of a shapeless homeless man pushing his grocery cart of worldly possessions through the distant inky night. The word 'Besitz' can be read as a German legal term pertaining to, "the actual rule of a person over a thing."
Another striking, giant oil on linen called 'Unknown' focuses on a group of school children gathered in an undefined space. We enter the scene soon after the children have been apparently distracted by something unseen in the background, and we can now observe their reactions unnoticed - curiosity, intense study, boredom - we understand each attitude by each child's posture relative to the unseen event.
The huge painting is divided vertically by thick architectural band of crisp white oil, perhaps suggesting an optimistic future awaiting the young students off in the distance. It is an optimistic painting, but there is something unsettling in the attitudes of the children, an aura that suggests they may well be overwhelmed by an unknown and tentative future that awaits them. It is this particularly "edgy" attitude implied in Eitel's work, a constant, brooding and uncomfortable psychological murmur that is particularly postmodern.
At its best abstraction is the celebration of human ingenuity, calculated and elevated into what might be called a postmodernist fine art. Art that appears worked to a state of abstract perfection in terms of materials and limitations of the art form - art that exists completely for its own sake, which is approximately how Plato viewed art in his Utopian imagination.
Abstract painting is usually organized as "representational" and "non-representational" - which means the source of the abstraction does or does not derive from nature. A tree and its spindly branches are abstracted into dynamic lines and blurs of color on canvas, for example, while the finished work might look nothing like a tree. Layers of definitions are added to expand the idea of the abstract - 'Abstract Expressionism' of early Willem de Kooning or Jackson Pollock for example, indicates the explosion of line and color appears more emotional and expressive, as opposed to analytical or rooted in materials and process.
Andy Collins paints soft, fluid, intricate abstractions, reminiscent of late de Kooning (perhaps evoking the palettes of Georgia O'Keeffe's giant floral paintings). Collins' work is more delineated by the source image, however, often a photograph, a human skull for example, which appears computer-morphed and abstracted, then painted in pale hues and patterned surface textures on large canvas. The burnt edges of Collins' lines, which isolate shapes and forms as focal points within each composition, also appear derived from computer-generated color palettes.
In the new work at Mary Boone, surface shapes and forms sprawl topographically across large milky canvasses, suggesting timeless geological or anatomical abstractions, which could be derived from any point in evolutionary natural history. It doesn't matter where the image comes from, its identity is lost (at least to me), transformed by computer (it appears) into a highly finished and integrated work of analytical totality. Extraordinarily subtle, highly crafted, the work engages the viewer immediately with a sense of quiet contemplation, the many elements balanced, creating a sense of inner calm.
Collins, a native of Atlanta, is working in the mainstream of 20th-century abstraction, which travels from Kandinsky through Gorky to late de Kooning and Warhol (in terms of commercial material process) to the moment. Does Collins resonate in the real world today? As a refuge, a movement beyond the real, the work certainly embodies and extends one major branch of a postmodern aesthetic, which we might view as the quiet and continual progressive actualization of human imagination.
Influenced by this painterly tradition, Brooks, like Chuck Close, mines this genre with an intensity for minute detail, the super photo-real, but infused with something quite different and beyond photography. Close's work is literally metaphysical, documenting the molecular process of the act of seeing, while Brooks' airbrush and scalpel realism details the incidentally human in subcultures, the ordinary act, the oddity rendered natural. It is said Brooks creates his work by photographing his subjects (usually friends) and then recreating the image by scratching it into paint on canvas using scalpels and dentist's drills.
Caravaggio painted 'Death of the Virgin' (1606) with a corpse of a drowned woman as model for the Virgin Mary. The friars who commissioned the painting for a Carmelite church rejected it because the model was a known prostitute with whom Caravaggio was reputed to be in love, and because, "her legs were exposed and her swollen body" was "too realistic". Brooks painted a pastoral canvas, 'Flyfield' (2003), an agile young woman pausing in a crab apple field, perhaps to pick up an fallen apple, or hide in some game; but gradually, almost incidentally, the viewer realizes the young woman has simply paused to urinate.
Each artist isolates and elevates the naturally human (death, decay, natural body functions) to highly crafted portraiture by violating genre expectations. Caravaggio profanes expectations of the sacred by rendering a dead woman simply dead, rather than surrounding her image with the apparatus of religious mythology. Brooks elevates a mundane violation of social etiquette into voyeurism, rendering the subject and the moment universal. Caravaggio is naturalistic and dramatic, while postmodern realist Brooks is understated and emotionless. Both are somehow timeless. We are oddly clinical observers, not quite sure what we're looking at, but tricked into broader considerations beyond our expectations.
Brooks' new larger than life tattooed portraits at Stellar Holm recall Chuck Close, but his subject is human skin, as canvas for ink artists, covered with tattoos. If the viewer isn't in touch with the subculture of body art, the images are overwhelmingly confrontational, if voyeuristically absorbing. It's difficult to follow the fine lines of black and colored ink tattooed against white skin, and the act of concentration is scary. Beyond the character Queequeg, as depicted in John Huston's film of Melville's Moby Dick, I know nothing about the world of the totally tattooed. Such a bold assertion of individuality and cult in opposition to the main stream is frankly discomforting. It's somehow frightening to realize that so many people so freely and permanently opt out of mainstream culture. Is this a self-alienating malaise, or a heroic act?
It's also awkward to be forced to consider human skin with prolonged concentration; it's simply too close to the discomforting memories of race in America over the last century. The idea of surface skin defining the individual, recalls the potential within each of us to deny the existential reality of the other, based on skin.
One senses the psychological and tribal origins of body ornamentation (I spent time among the Montagnard peoples in the central highlands of Vietnam and Cambodia, years ago), but in the context of contemporary Western cultures, the tattoo cult remains a largely marginalized society. That is until one is forced to confront one's self conceits by the sheer overwhelming size and creative impact of Brooks' portraits.
Three male figures in 'Deluxe' (2006) are covered with colorful tattoos, a juxtaposition of symbols and graphics conjuring meaning - menacing, whimsical, mystical images from the past - in an array of colors and styles which compliment the figures' natural skin tones and, perhaps, each psychological and intellectual structure as well. Their pose of one of camaraderie and bravado, an assertion of the self, take it or leave it, three musketeers in easy and unique friendship.
Brooks conjures this world as a bond of fetishists, alien to the "norm," but remarkable in their commitment to individuality and tribe. In another large canvas, 'Untitled', two tattooed women, a couple obviously significant to each other, appear heroic in the face of mutually hard and perhaps tragic lives. Beneath their tattooed skin narratives, hard lived bodies and idiosyncrasies of personality, captured in oil, conjure another narrative which again links Brooks to Caravaggio through their mutual concern for the ethical directness. Brooks' two figures emerge as timeless and beautiful as you peer beneath the ink markings, and tough exteriors, and gradually contemplate their almost joyous eyes.
I find myself realizing that I am no different from a Baroque peasant confronted with Caravaggio's 'Death of the Virgin' for the first time in a Carmelite chapel. Perplexed by his giant, starkly realist image of death, perhaps wondering why this renowned painter has depicted the Ascension, not with a gloriously lit cloud of angels, but as a drowned prostitute, simply dead and mourned. Was Caravaggio's point sacrilege? Shock? Subversion?
Or is he reminding us of our own humanity and mortality by indicating that every death is the end of us, and that empathy and sympathy are more important lasting human values than myth or dogma.
Jason Brooks is a postmodernist, who paints in this tradition.