“What inspires you?” It seemed such a simple, innocuous question. A bunch of us from the Sculptors Guild were sitting around a Manhattan loft last weekend, basking in the glow of a reading by two actor friends -- Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. Nostalgia. “Look deep into yourself” said Rilke. Bring Art from this authentic core and all will be well. Conversation had gone back and forth and a few of us were starting to wake up and remember that Postmodernism had happened. Now here was an artist across the room asking me this: “What inspires your work?” First instinct was to just roll over and punt, “I’m not sure, really.” But never one to shy away I tried to dredge up my old feelings and take a stab at it: “The Human Body, this body, our energy, our presence – yoga, dance” I babbled.
There was a time when I had been so sure of my inspirations – so tuned to my Source. I had an agenda, I had passion, I was making my interior world visible. Years of watching avant garde theater performances, Butoh, meditating, doing body and spiritual practices, living with ceramics in Asia – it all just came together so easily. My tasks then were formal: I needed to learn more anatomy to get the gestures I felt inside to come into focus in the piece itself. I needed ceramic methods, glazes, experience with molds and casting. Lots of time with the model. Practice and more practice.
Looking back I realize that was the easy part. I knew the work could be better but I didn’t doubt what I was making or why I was making it, and one piece after another tumbled out of the studio.
But in recent years it has all gotten much trickier. I’ve been introduced to the world of curators, academic critiques, clever young MFA students, heads filled with Postmodernism. Irony: nothing gets shown without it. And for Heaven’s sake don’t make a piece beautiful! Signifiers/Signified. The dreaded Male Gaze. A general skepticism about Craft—that it is incompatible with Art. The Artist’s Hand: best to keep it well under-wraps or indeed leave it out altogether. Let’s just assemblage some recycled materials and found objects, shall we? Or maybe digitally scan some celebrities and run the whole thing through a milling machine. Punch the foam every now and then to get the machine off-kilter- that makes it Art. Realism? Figure? Well – maybe we are tiptoeing back into this but it must never be Academic. Do away with Pedestals. The Art Object is really so passé . Can’t we just conceptualize a performance/installation in our heads and bypass this whole Creating Things rigmarole? If we must do it, can we just squeeze some foam out of a can, spread a sheet over it, spray it with some spraypaint, strip and lie down for some cozy selfies instead? In Venice, naturally. With gallery assistants to scrape it up off the floor into the waiting arms of Massimilano Gioni or one of his fellow super-curators.
Into this miasma ,“The Art World”, we struggling artists (and we are almost all struggling) have been pushing our works, our little soldiers, to suffer their fates – indifference at best, occasional scorn, rare glimmers of interest. Genius and success are largely self-manufactured via buzz and social media. Objective standards (beyond all the “Don’ts” above) being so rare, no one knows quite what to look for or get excited about, so the best we can hope for is the fleeting praise of Novelty.
Now enough of all that whining! Things actually seem to be changing, albeit slowly, but clearly changing and I believe for the better. Signs of it are all around if you know what to look for. Bill Viola – making video of saints and torment as exciting as any Italian cathedral ceiling. Hayv Kahraman, painting exquisite Persian-style oil-on-linen figures somehow both traditional and completely contemporary and subversive. Jorinde Voigt – a classically trained cellist-turned-visual artist, whose luscious cut/scored paper gold wall pieces bring the energy and patterns of a master cellist’s bowing into vibrating form. A new class of realist figurative painters, like Brad Kunkle and Kevin Grass, sometimes even painting with egg tempera, are using contemporary models and poses to collapse centuries of painting into startling visual and conceptual feasts. Crowds of art world cognoscenti and average tourists alike flock to see the street art in Wynwood, Williamsburg or Rio, which almost inevitably will have representational elements, strong compositions, exuberant use of color and clear use of line, (along with perhaps a surfeit of pop-cultural references)
Young artists in Oakland, Brooklyn, Seattle or Moscow are working in creative ways to transcend their media- be it 2-D or 3-D- to take the brain on a well-designed and well-executed roller-coaster ride. For example, Cyrus Tilton’s sculpture High Hopes, seen recently at Vessel Gallery in Oakland, opens up a traditional partial horse form into an arsenal of infrastructure and earth elements.
Or, this Fall from Anglim Gilbert Gallery in San Francisco: Catherine Wagner’s conceptual photographs, shot as an homage in the actual studio of Georgio Morandi, look as if one were shining a light at a series of bottles whose shadows are being cast onto a brightly painted and otherwise well-lit canvas. When approaching the works the viewer instinctively expects to see the shadow of his or her head appear on the same background with the bottle shadows: when that doesn't happen it creates a moment of perceptual dissonance and fun.
On the writing front: a general desire, a reader’s strike if you will, in favor of better art writing seems to be bearing fruit. Friends all admit to having stopped reading Art Forum, and places like Art in America or Brooklyn Rail are actually writing comprehensible art criticism/reviews on a routine basis. A rumor circulates that a new Publisher may be coming at Sculpture Magazine. Several times a week the Wall Street Journal publishes thoughtful, comprehensible reviews of new and historical works in a paper written for a few million simply intelligent/curious readers, not even for an art audience, indicating that despite decades of neglect and even outright antipathy in the relationship a general audience still exists and remains interested in art. John Berger, who somehow writes clearly of complexity and mystery, has a well-received collection of reprinted essays just out.
Well, It is all very complicated and I would not want to try to reduce things that are not simple into a sound bite. What I am feeling though is that there is a growing interest in art that takes a clear form, that is perhaps representational, that demonstrates a coherence and skill in execution, that allows the eye some sort of visual dance (rather than an assault) and that might even, occasionally, carry a message other than ironic takes on nihilism/fragmentation/alienation.
For me as a (representational/figurative) artist this means: one cannot expect to ever go back to a simple time of just trying to create figures with a strong gesture or novel materiality. One can, however, expect that a well-executed art object or installation, with presence, complexity, authority, tuned in to a contemporary sensibility can expect to find an audience, and may even get some curators a little bit excited. That might not seem revolutionary but, based on what I’ve seen for the last 20 years, I think it is.