Monday, April 18, 2011
In the late fifties and early sixties, as modernist paintings sat locked away inside the pristine fortresses of the gallery, the age of the post-modern was just beginning and a new crop of subversive art movements began to take shape. In 1959, a performative art movement, coined by Allan Kaprow as “Happenings”, sought to create art that could not be co-opted by the gallery. These spontaneous performances echoed the discordant activities of Dada and featured many traits that would come to define the postmodern. In this paper I will take a closer look at some these early divergences from modern art in America, and examine broader postmodern phenomena by discussing Fredric Jameson’s ideas about “pastiche and schizophrenia” in postmodernism.
In 1961 Allan Kaprow wrote an essay in Art News titled “’Happenings’ in the New York Scene”, that chronicled a small group of artists and spectators involved in planned acts of randomness. Kaprow describes one of these events at the start of his essay: “Everybody is crowded into a downtown loft, milling about, like at an opening. It’s hot. There are lots of big cartons sitting all over the place. One by one they start to move, sliding and careening drunkenly in every direction, lunging into one another, accompanied by loud breathing sounds over four loud speakers”(85). There are other examples of “Happenings” that Kaprow describes, and in each example the audience always becomes an integral part of the overall performance. In these works the artist becomes part of the collective, a radical shift away from the modernist view of the tortured genius as sole creator. Kaprow goes on to say that “happenings are events that, put simply, happen. Though the best of them have a decided impact—that is we feel, ‘here is something important’—they appear to go nowhere and do not make any particular literary point. In contrast to the arts of the past, they have no structured beginning, middle, or end. Their form is open-ended and fluid; nothing obvious is sought and therefore nothing is won, except the certainty of a number of occurrences to which we are more than normally attentive”(85). The fact that the “happenings” “go nowhere”, are not “structured” and do not seek anything “obvious” speaks to the emerging generation of post modernists’ artistic existential response to post WWII / Cold War existence. This attitude towards the absurd or inconsequential seems symptomatic of the postmodern.
Kaprow acknowledges the dilemma that the modern artist faced after becoming embraced by major galleries, art institutions, and academia, stating, “The old daring and the charged atmosphere of the precarious discovery that marked every hour of the lives of modern artists, even when they were not working at art, vanishes”(87). He also predicts that a similar fate will fall upon some of the artists involved with “Happenings”, stating, “Some of us will become famous, and will have proven once again that the only success occurred when there was a lack of it”(88). He acknowledges success as an inevitability and asserts that the fleeting nature of pure creative freedom and expression is not ultimately negative, but rather part of a cycle. Kaprow’s foresight is interesting and different from high modern idealism in that he has no false hopes that this art form will transform society or become the ultimate existential experience. Rather it will burn bright for a moment, decay, then finally lay to rest within the imaginative memory of those who witnessed the experience.
According to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms “…where a modernist artist or writer would try to wrest a meaning from the world through myth, symbol, or formal complexity, the postmodernist greets the absurd or meaningless confusion of contemporary existence with a certain numbed or flippant indifference, favouring self-consciously ‘depthless’ works of fabulation, pastiche, bricolage, or aleatory disconnection”(174). This description also works well to describe some sentiments expressed by early punk rock culture of the mid to late 70’s. The term “self-conscious”, ties together the philosophies of both “Happenings” and early punk rock, in that both performances appear to project “flippant indifference” or chance “disconnection”, but are in reality, acts of self-conscious expression. However, I feel that this self-conscious disconnection has been the great flaw of post-modernism, in that what was once self-conscious has become un-conscience. While pop-artists such as Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein clearly understood how their images played with the ideas and power dynamics of popular culture, hyper capitalism, and mass media, subsequent art often merely regurgitated the aesthetics of past styles deemed hip or fashionable in the present moment.
In Fredric Jameson’s essay “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”, the postmodern can be characterized by two of its significant features, what he calls “pastiche and schizophrenia”(129). Jameson defines pastiche as, “…blank parody, parody that has lost its sense of humor”(131). The pastiche is rampant in postmodern art. Pastiche artists seek to produce work that satisfies a certain aesthetic, which is borrowed from aesthetics of the past, be it the art of pointillism, expressionism, abstraction, minimalism, surrealism, pop, or photo-realism. However, the problem arises when context and philosophical understanding is lost, and historical amnesia takes its place. To Jameson this is akin to wearing a “stylistic mask”, a “neutral practice of such mimicry, without parody’s ulterior motive, without the satirical impulse, without laughter, without that still latent feeling that there exists something normal compared to which what is being imitated is rather comic” (131). Going back to punk rock for a moment, one can see this in later punk music of the 80’s, 90’s, and especially 00’s, when the style and sounds of early punk is reinterpreted by later generations, the potency, vibrancy, and original intent is lost. What you are left with is a weak aesthetic shell of what was once powerful.
The idea of “schizophrenia” as applied to the postmodern by Jameson, is disintegration between the relationships of signifiers. Jameson states, “the schizophrenic experience is an experience of isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link up into a coherent sequence” (137). The schizophrenic experience is one of a temporally perpetual present. Without a connection to past or future, the notion of “I” or “me” in a diachronic scheme is lost, replaced by a heightened sense of presence. Jameson states that, “as temporal continuities break down, the experience of the present becomes powerfully, overwhelmingly vivid and ‘material’” (138). He then goes on to say that the isolation of the signifier often gives the signifier a more literal or material translation. The way I see this literal translation affect postmodern art, is that when a postmodern artist copies, unconsciously or not, art from movements past, that artist is more likely to take a literal translation of those works and in doing so, the artist also propagates the pastiche.
Another element of the postmodern is that the distinction between high art and commercial art begins to blur. Jameson, states, “The second feature of this list of postmodernisms is the effacement in it of some key boundaries or separations, most notably the erosion of the older distinction between high culture and so-called mass or popular culture” (128). This erosion could be seen as positive, even from the stand point of anti-capitalist artists involved with “Happenings”, in that culture and art could be found outside the gallery walls, and become accessible by all. However, I fear this view is overly optimistic as ultimately this loss of distinction has led to an over fetishized, schizophrenic, and empty cultural experience. My hope is that the current age of the post-postmodern seeks to use proliferation of communication technology as a tool to move past the pastiche, towards the more informed. I include myself in this, as I have probably misunderstood most of the concepts I just laid out, I only hope to gain something back in the post-millennia.
Baldick, Chris. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford University Press,
Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on
Postmodern Culture. Ed. Hal Foster. New York: The New Press, 1998. Print.
Kaprow, Allan. “’Happenings’ in the New York Scene”. The New Media Reader.
Ed. Noah-Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort. Google Books. 29 March
Tuesday, March 1, 2011
Artist Comparison: James Rosenquist and Jenny Holzer
Between the years of 1957 and 1960, artist James Rosenquist could have been spotted high above 47th Street in New York’s Times Square, busily painting a Coca Cola or Join The Navy! billboard sign. Several years later, in 1982, text based artist Jenny Holzer would also contribute to the plethora of Times Square signage by lighting up a large spectracolor signboard with a series of subversive statements from her “Truisms” series. Both Rosenquist and Holzer use the power of advertisement in their work and understand its implications on the viewing public. The striking impact of form, layout, and execution produced on a grand scale are common themes throughout both their work and unite these artists aesthetically. In this paper I will take a closer look at these similarities while highlighting some of Rosenquist’s and Holzer’s differences in an attempt to view their work critically and incite some of my own artistic strategies in response to their art.
In 1962, James Rosenquist held his first solo show at the Green Gallery in NY, an event that would seal his fate as a Pop-Art icon, joining the ranks of fellow pop contemporaries such as Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselmann, Roy Lichtenstein, and Robert Rauschenberg. Like Warhol, Rosenquist had a history working in commercial art, specifically billboard art and sign painting. Rosenquist spent most of his early years in Minneapolis, and while attending the University of Minnesota, took a summer job painting signs on grain elevators, storage bins, and Phillips 66 gasoline tanks. He eventually joined the sign painters’ union in Minneapolis and began painting large billboards in the area. In 1955 he moved to New York to attend the Art Students League, and soon after joined a NY sign painters’ union, who employed him to paint large billboard advertisements, most notably in Times Square.
In 2008, while speaking at the lecture series titled, The Clarice Smith Distinguished Lectures in American Art, Rosenquist posits that it was this experience of painting large shapes and colors while standing at a close proximity to the pictorial plane that first influenced his studio work. A billboard painter has a very different view of the advertisement than the viewer thirty feet below on street level, and it is this experience that Rosenquist became fascinated with. What looks like a car hood from the street, may look like an abstract color field painting if viewed from a distance of two feet. The paintings that Rosenquist began to produce around this period, most notably his I Love You with My Ford from 1961, Marilyn Monroe, I from 1962, and F-111 from 1964, exhibit fragmented imagery, detailed shape, and vibrant color which transport the viewer to the vantage point of a billboard artist contemplating the massive image in front of him. In the lecture, Rosenquist also comments that the size of his work is meant to play with the viewer’s focus and peripheral. As one focuses on different areas of the painting, new ideas and experiences emerge. I could imagine walking alongside a work like F-111, which is 86 ft. long by 10 ft. tall, and having a completely new and different experience with the painting towards the end of my walk as opposed to the beginning. The viewer is visually surrounded and becomes enveloped by Rosenquist’s paintings.
This idea of art submerging the viewer is something that becomes quite literal in the work of Jenny Holzer, a Neo-Conceptual artist who has become known for her massive projections of text onto the façades of landmark buildings, or the interior walls of galleries and public spaces. Holzer grew up in Ohio, and later received an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. In 1976 she moved to New York and participated in an independent study program at the Whitney Museum. There, she began experimenting with texts and developed a list of short phrases she called “Truisms”. Around 1978 she was printing these messages onto pieces of paper that she would then wheat-paste onto to telephone poles, mail boxes, signs, etc. According to a biography of the artist in Art History Archive, Holzer liked the idea that the public could interact with her writings, and that often her wheat-pasted papers would provoke response in the form of graffiti and other commentary. In 1982, supported by the Public Arts Fund in NY, she was given the opportunity to display nine of her “Truisms” on the giant Spectracolor lightboard located at One Times Square. One of the more famous “Truisms” on display read, “Protect Me From What I Want”, a saying that has since been co-opted by today’s consumer society in a fashion similar to Barbara Kruger’s “I Shop Therefore I Am”.
Through the rest of the 80’s and into the 90’s Holzer embraced the advancing technology of image projection and LED sign display as her medium of choice. In 2008, using extremely powerful light projectors, she illuminated a series of texts onto the façade of the Guggenheim Museum that scrolled upward towards the sky. This work, and others that she has created like it, transformed the exterior of the building, altering not only the building itself, but also the significance of the message being projected through its exaggerated form. She also utilizes projections for interior installations. For example, her exhibit piece at the Mass MOCA titled “Projections”, invited museum goers to lie down on giant bean bags while projected text moved about the space enveloping the viewer and the bean bag as it traveled. The viewer, like the Guggenheim’s façade which is enveloped in text, becomes integral to the experience and also a part of the work itself.
Both Holzer and Rosenquist use the power of immersion to captivate and involve the viewer. To achieve this, Holzer uses massive text and light projection, while Rosenquist utilizes bold images and color along with large scale. In this way, the works of both artists’ consume the viewer, essentially working to subvert the message of advertising as used by purveyors of capitalist consumerism. Both artists seem conscious of this in their work, although Holzer is more overt in her political stance. In an interview with ART 21, she states that it is her intention to use simple text that is bold and legible; ultimately it is the message itself that is more important than the art or artist. She also states that she tries to remove herself from the work, letting the text speak truths and provoke response. This is a very different process and result than the work of Rosenquist, whose paintings become glimpses into the artist’s mind. Bright colors, sometimes abstract shapes, and fragments of objects begin to feel a bit like walking into the mind of a schizophrenic, or perhaps just a mind that is distracted, even bombarded by a plethora of imagery that exists within modern society. He does often paint political subjects (F-111 is a fantastic example) but the work appears to be equally about the man who painted it as the subject it portrays.
I have chosen to talk about these artists because different aspects of their work are relevant to my own artistic process. Having experience as a commercial sign painter for the past seven years, I can relate to the pure aesthetic pleasure that Rosenquist speaks of when creating a finely executed line in connection to a wisely crafted composition. I can also relate to Holzer when she strives to make art that is subversive, thought provoking, and engaging. I am excited to have these two artists in mind as I move forward with my own work.
Rosenquist, James. “Fine Art is Not A Career.” Clarice Smith Distinguished Lectures in
American Art. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Washington, D.C. 28 Nov 2007.
“Jenny Holzer.” Art 21. PBS.org. n.d. Web. 26 Feb. 2011.
“Jenny Holzer.” Art History Archive.com. n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2011.
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
After being a commercial sign painter for the past seven years, I was extremely excited to re-enter the world of art discourse. The residency at AIB was the first time I hung my large, surreal-like oil paintings alongside my sign work. In this context, the divide within my work became apparent to me. On one side technical skill is displayed, while on the other, an emotional or intellectual response is evoked. These issues were addressed during my critiques and discussions with fellow graduate students. Below, I will try to highlight this discourse and finally plot a direction for the incorporation of both the technical and intellectual within my future work.
When I show photographs of my sign work to other fine artists they often try to find an angle or some subversive statement that I am trying to make outside of the sign’s functionality. While talking about the sign work I had on display at AIB, Oliver Wasow asked if I was somehow making a statement about Op Art, pointing to the placement of the letters O and P in my alphabet painting. Similarly, a fellow student was looking at the photographs of my commercial sign work, and asked what the ultimate message I was intending to convey was. My oil paintings on the other hand, in particular the one containing the barrels of dead cow parts, may be too heavy handed and not leave enough to the viewer’s imagination. It is discussions like these that have made me think about my signs and fine art in a new way, and it is my desire to find a balance between the two.
During my critiques, the use of language and letterform in the work of other artists such as Jenny Holzer, James Rosenquist, Ed Ruscha, Richard Prince, Barbara Kruger, On Kawara, Jasper Johns, Adam Mcewen, and Robert Indiana was brought into the discussion. In response to these recommendations I have been researching their work and comparing it to my own. I am very interested in their ability to integrate text and ideas both inside and outside a gallery setting. I find artists like Jenny Holzer very interesting in that her work is sometimes literally projected on to the gallery’s facade. This kind of experiment with the appropriateness of placement begins a train of thought about space, specifically about the privileged binaries of inside or outside space. I look at my sign art as outside the gallery world, but then I begin to think about Graffiti Art, and the success with which it has infiltrated the gallery. Artists like Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Barry Mcgee, and Shepard Fairey are artists I have always admired for making this progression.
The discussions about my oil paintings have brought to mind a range of artists such as Salvador Dali, Renee Magritte, Caravaggio, Ralph Goings, and Neo Rauch. When I was creating this work I was obsessed with both Dali and Caravaggio. I enjoyed the latter for his ability to portray raw emotion, and for his dramatic compositions, and Dali for his skill and ability to create fantasy worlds with properties that defy physics. I enjoy the collage elements of Neo Rauch, and the hyperrealist art of Ralph Goings. I would like to use elements of all those mentioned above in my next series of work, along with elements of sign art and lettering.
Another artist that was discussed during the residency who has had some influence on me is William Kentridge, who everyone seems to be talking about, and for good reason. I saw his show at the MOMA in San Francisco, and what I really enjoyed was the combination of mediums and variety of display. Doug Aitken was also mentioned during my elective seminar with Ben Sloat, and is another artist whose combination of different medium interests me, in particular his text pieces in which he inserts different photographic images into the fill of the letters. Finally, the photos of Gregory Crewdson, whose subjects are carefully arranged in sometimes fantastical dramatic environments, then photographed. All of the before mentioned artists along with writers and thinkers such as Baudrillard, Saussure, Deleuze, Pierce, Barthes, and Derrida will help to inform my work in the semesters to come.
My first goal after finishing the residency was to finish a set of paintings for an art show in San Francisco on February 10th. I have finished those paintings and am now planning the remaining semester. What I would like to accomplish from this point is to finish my oil painting The Red Barn, begin preparations for the next large painting, and complete work for another text based art show in June. I am extremely excited to get to work on the next big painting after The Red Barn, as it will make use of both my sign and oil painting experience. My plan this semester is to complete the mockup of the final painting, and make several smaller pieces that will test the techniques I would like to incorporate into the final piece. The final painting will be on several pieces of layer glass, incased by a box frame with internal lighting. Because it is so involved I must make several smaller pieces first that test out my various ideas. These smaller pieces I will have completed before the next residency; the final large piece will have to be completed in the next semester. I would like the smaller pieces to be eventually displayed with the larger piece, like how William Kentridge’s drawings from the film are displayed next to the film itself. I also see these pieces being more affordable to gallery attendees.
To the next residency, I plan to bring several paintings from the San Francisco art show (unless they sell), the completed Red Barn painting, several small pieces on glass demonstrating the techniques that I will use in my next large painting, and some text based works for the upcoming gallery show in San Francisco in June.