WRITTEN BY WESLEY KIMLER
I really thought about your quite marvelous unpacking of the Lygia Clark exhibition…..Roberta Smith almost always disappoints anymore -compare her piece on my dead friend Ed Paschke’s recent show at Mary Boone -with John Yau’s….it aint even close….as for Jerry -nice guy -good social commentary -he wasn’t harsh enough about that stupid Whitney (Mat Gleason nailed it).but Jerry wouldn’t know a good painting if it came up and bit him on the ass!
Anyway -here are a few paragraphs from art slant -I sent you the whole thing awhile back….I think we are talking about a lot of the same things……it was a real pleasure to chew on what you had to say today -in fact it was on my mind most of the time.
You’re not far off at all. The thing for me is the black-and-white drawings. With the chiaroscuro and the starkness of black and white, I’m able to get the psychological resonance that I want. Going back into my life a little bit, where the black-and-white drawings come from…I worked for a while as a messenger. This was, of course, in San Francisco. I rode a one-speed, heavy bike with a basket on the front. It was grueling work at $50 a week—awful. I would go in and deliver things between these printing houses, and at the time there was a lot of chiaroscuro, black-and-white kind of work in advertising, so I saw that often. I always thought, “If only I could work in one of these places, I would be so happy.” To survive psychologically in my life—which was pretty hard at the time, living in a $6-a-week hotel room and doing this messenger job all day long—I started to see everything in the world in black and white, without color. I spent weeks refusing to see color. I retreated into my imagination, never to return. Let’s face it, it’s more challenging to work with color; what comes so easily with black and white is not so easy when chroma enters the picture.
BR: There is a great story about de Kooning running into Pollock after his “black and white” show where he said something like, “Great show, but could you do that in color?”
WK: Beauty and color must resonate psychologically to work. It’s how painting has been, what it is—Géricault, Delacroix, and so on. The color had an emotional sensibility and resonated psychological drama. But after, say, the Fauves, a lot of that sensibility got lost in the formalism of the twentieth century, in the deconstruction, but a lot was gained, also. That color in a painting should have drama wasn’t the issue. The issue was whether it should be psychological or formal. The Fauves questioned that hierarchy, that sensibility, and a lot of Modernism continued in that direction-free painting from depiction, unhinged. De Kooning is an excellent example of the cognitive dissonance I’m referring to.
So where we are at now is the emotive quality of contemporary painting, of abstraction, becoming random—a mere formality at this point. I disagree. I always freight the color up in my paintings to a certain psychological state, which can make them more difficult to paint. It’s a conflation of making a painting and painting a picture. If a painting has beautiful color and looks great but doesn’t feel right, it’s got to go back under the knife. So no, you’re not far off. They are completely psychological, they are emotional, they are emotionally specific, and they are also dumb, physical, inimitable objects. They are survivors that have endured my torture chamber of a process—ha!—existing in some kind of conflicted gestalt—complicated, a concrete thinglyness, carrying enough existential traction to well up and dwell convincingly in reality. All my paintings are rafts of the Medusa! We cannot return! I think it was Joe Goode who once said, “I respect my heroes too much to imitate them.” You see a lot of, like, eighth-generation Ab Ex out there at the moment—it’s very popular—and the problem, for me at least, is it is only that, without claiming any new territory. It doesn’t seem terribly ambitious. Though it does seem to sell well in the whole art-as-investment scenario.
Additionally, I wanted the paintings to be reactionary, in the sense of me reacting against corporate auction houses, painted to be “flipped” abstraction, against the toweringly vapid stupidity that you see taking place out there with the university art-department-driven, de-skilled painting crew. Of course they’re also metaphorical in that they’re about me, my struggle, and how I approach painting in a very war-like fashion. So yes to all that.
But probably the next time I paint, I might make some paintings about Afghanistan, which would make them more explicitly contemporary. The contemporary aspect to that narrative is how low we’ve sunk at this point. During WWII, and right after that in the 1950s, American painting and culture really hit a high watermark. Artists and critics set the agenda! Not some hedge-fund clown, dumb as the day is long, with a wad of stupid money, buying to flip in a manipulated market.
Let’s talk more about painting—where I think painting is at, at least in my studio…When you look at contemporary architecture, when you look at contemporary literature, when you look at contemporary design, you really see their practitioners taking High Modernism—the quest for essential form through science and technology that was prevalent in the twentieth century—and running with it. I mean look at Gehry, or look at someone like Jeanne Gang, or any number of people. The real deconstruction happened after color’s role was contested in the early- and mid-twentieth century with analytical, synthetic Cubism—and then there was Abstract Expressionism. There you have the deconstruction and the recapitulation of what painting could mean. But in a way, that language was laid out there, and to my thinking, never spoken.
As the advent of Pop Art came along with popular culture, art became very popular, institutionalized, and fundamentally changed to adhere to the academic footprint—a “taught career,” an “art beginning,” with Marcel Duchamp installed as the institutional role model. What “art practice” should be recently morphed into “social practice,” all supplanting studio practice. We now have more of a desk-job, project-managerial model being pushed: “Critical Theory Concerning Social Injustice.” Is there anything about this that wouldn’t have Joe Stalin peeing his pants in delight? Welcome to the aesthetic gulag. It’s so venal it’s actually hilarious to watch. The only thing worse is when these same idiots decide they are going to tell us what “matters” in contemporary painting. The Painter Painter exhibition at The Walker last year, for instance—I quote Matthew Collings: “Fascinating spectacle of naive narcissists staging hostile assaults on something they clearly don’t have the faintest clue about, but in relation to which they have been granted positions of great authority.”
So to me, my painting is not unlike looking at a piece of contemporary design or contemporary architecture: taking the language of High Modernism, taking all that was laid out, and then taking that language, those numbers, letters, symbols, and signifiers, and firing them up. Making a living, humanist painting that employs those conceits to bring painting into today as “the enemy of the people,” there to shatter their preconceptions as to who they are and what painting is. I don’t see the canvas as an arena—it’s more like a war zone where a lot of stuff goes down, both good and bad. It can get kind of intense at times. One person, a brush, and some canvas. It is what it is—simple, fierce, and hard to do well.
I guess my way of thinking, it’s pretty old school, but considering what’s out there right now, it’s also oddly enough kinda radical. I’m not alone. There is some serious painting and thinking about painting being accomplished by some fairly radical inimitable individuals—in spite of and in the midst of, the institutionally driven middlebrow dystopia we inhabit. I paint in a way that feels important to me. My ideation is self-generated; my paintings are arguments both internal and external, having to do with painting, with life. The biggest disagreements I have are with myself; it’s the crux of how I am creative. I’m a visual artist working in a time of visual illiteracy, looking at the best, most challenging stuff, trying to extend it in my own work on my own terms, with intellect, intuition, and the reality of my hands pushing oil paint around on a canvas. Really coming to understand how color can work, what the language of sheer plastic invention can look like and mean, or not mean. Camped out in front of one messy painting after another as a way of life, living like a savage, working in a language beyond words. As Wittgenstein once said, what we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence. That, then, is painting, at least around here it is.