Monday, August 25, 2008

Diane Jacobs at Disjecta

On Saturday night I went over to Disjecta and made a short video with Diane Jacobs about her new exhibition, “The Writing’s on the Wall.” This show was scheduled for the Portland Art Center and Disjecta stepped in to give the artist their new space. The space also looked great on their inaugural show - I found a video about it here (Dogmandave is quite the reporter). Plus here are some photos from Jacobs' opening night at OPENWIDEpdx.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

tough cuts

Awhile ago I recounted how someone in the mid-80s told me that I was perhaps as good as Hannah Höch, but that I’d never make it as a collage artist. She might have been on our minds because this conversation occurred in San Francisco and Modernism had just mounted a Höch show. Instead of dwelling on hot I was, to just be in the same universe as Hannah Höch, I went down the other path, dressing myself up as a painter and retreating from showing montages.

Of course there could be a lot of hand-wringing over this, but then again, it doesn’t hurt to pose the question: just who was Hannah Höch in 1985? How was she perceived? And the answer is she was not the same as how we look at her now.

Recently I checked out the Photomontages of Hannah Höch, published by the Walker Art Center in 1997. This book has given me a perspective on her life and work that is both inspiring and a bit depressing.

When I first discovered Dada in the 70s, I read everything I could find. There wasn’t much on Höch at all, no monographs that I could find. And so I bought my books on Heartfield and became the resident expert on him. I’d say that I still love him best today, but then again, it’s not like I had all this choice. You can’t like what you don’t know.

For years Höch was only known within a certain context: the Dada years. She was even called “the Good Girl” by Hans Richter, a dismissive remark if there ever was one, especially if you compare the work of the two artists. He made nice abstract films, while Cut with Kitchen Knife is just the tip of the iceberg on the tough cuts Hannah Höch achieved over a lifetime of art-making.

And that’s the real deal: emphasis on a lifetime. I knew she was working into old age only because she was listed in Femail Art, produced by Anna Banana in 1978. Her address was listed in the back pages, along with Yoko Ono’s (and my own). As soon as Femail Art came out, I was writing these illustrious women. I wrote the letter to Höch all in German, which I had studied in school. The letter was returned with something like Abgestorben stamped all over it. I was just a little late – she was dead.

“I’m sick and tired of Dada,” Höch said in an interview in 1976. “Slowly it’s becoming played out. Everything else that has developed goes unnoticed.”

- She’s talking about her own work decades after that movement, when she continued to invent photomontage. She combined it with paint, she referred to the history of art, she took on feminist concerns in ways no one did. She was also working in embroidery, fashion and what we call craft. She had access to fashion patterns, strange mechanical, factory patterns and used them all. The woman was all over the place and way ahead of her time, but she was still called The Good Girl. It was right there in her obit in 1978.

Not that she didn’t undermine her own career. She showed only painting for years, thinking either no one will value her collages (this sounds familiar) or because they can get her into big trouble. She stayed in Berlin while the rest of the world either moved or perished. And works were also often undated and unsigned, with the artist uncertain or wrong about their origin - which doesn’t exactly tell us that she thought it all mattered. She was quietly working in a place where she just hoped no one would find her. The switching of gears after the Second War was not that easy.

Still, her confidence in her diversity of materials is obvious. Cut with a Kitchen Knife is the big image to get thrown into every modern art history class, but why is it the only one in a career which fruitfully expands over six decades? This book makes the point that while the fellows received more play and credit, they pretty much wrote their signature song in their career launch. Not so with Hannah Höch, who raced through themes and materials right into the 1960s, looking very sage and Mod at the same time.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

the meaning of life

There is none – so discovers Philip, our art school drop-out in Of Human Bondage.

A colorful poet tells him that the meaning of life can be found in a richly woven Persian carpet. Someday he will see it, promises the poet, if he’s paying attention. Philip takes the carpet with him to wherever he moves. One day as he looks into the pattern, he sees his own story: one bungled attempt at life after another, often repeated endlessly and without reason – save of course that it is, that it exists. This is all we can hope for, a meaningless pattern. There is no difference between success and failure. You just weave a pattern and then you’re done.

There is nothing to feel extremely bad about, which was an immense revelation to someone who has lived without love as he moved on this earth with his ridiculed club foot. His lack of direction, his obsession for a woman who’d rather hook than love him, his worship of artists who become only dilettantes at best, none of it matters. The realization is a watershed moment and the passage is so well written, you are at least a temporary convert once you’ve read through it.

Could it be true? That none of it matters? Initially this seems to annihilate the laws of karma, which of course tell me that every damn thing matters, that every action has a responsibility. Sometimes it’s overbearing. When every action matters, you can easily feel like shit about them all. When you find something to feel flawlessly good about, in a matter of minutes it can be crushed. So this idea of meaninglessness sounded really comforting.

In our chosen field (and the one which Philip abandons), we lay on the meaning over-time. Empty rooms and black paintings, soaked in meaning. To talk about how something looks, even though it is called visual art, is just perfunctory. If you can make what you think is “beautiful” but which you can also debate, analyze and write ten pages about, you’ve hit the jackpot. But if I personally stopped thinking about it for a day (or much longer), it’s almost like a vacation. “Meaning” has sometimes performed like one sonorous, continuous artist statement.

This embrace of the nonsensical still has a huge measure of optimism: we do it anyway. I shared my dilemma with the person who gave me the book. She told me that she, too, had a weight on her shoulders as she filled out forms and pitched for free money and for exhibitions and all the things a living artist does as they navigate the art world. Truly, all this for work maybe great or maybe not, for a few interesting ideas and not a lot of money and some bitchy people?

“- And then I realized,” she said, “That I needed to remember why I want to do this and why I am an artist. I had to get back to the real thing - not the peers, not the here and now, not the politics.” And for her, what this could mean, handily, was a book on Rothko. That’s what she grabbed first. From there she touched on the catalogue of the Sienese painters that the Met produced. We had seen that exhibition together several times in 1988. While I may find the middle of life, just as Somerset Maugham implied, absolutely meaningless sometimes, I never find that kind of work meaningless at all. It was like food or sustenance. It had that same reality.

I could hardly stand to finish this book, to let go of it. It is also entertaining to read what various online reviewers have to say. The young feel it has a happy ending, but those who read it again later in life said that happiness is not the point.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Nick Blosser at PDX

The current exhibition at PDX Contemporary Art is a group of small landscapes by Nick Blosser. Called Off Road, most of the exhibition is comprised of works with egg tempura. They have that glow unique to that medium. I personally enjoy Arthur Dove, Milton Avery and Charles Burchfield immensely and can see bits of all of those artists in what Nick is doing. We made a video about the show.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

studio visit with Lauren Mantecon

I first met Lauren Mantecon 12 years ago when I was still living in New York, visiting Portland on vacation. She was just out of grad school and showing with Mark Woolley. She also had a studio in 333 and kindly gave me my first one person show in P-town right in 333. About a year ago she moved to the Bay Area – gorgeous Sausalito to be exact – where she has a nice studio in the Industrial Center Building. She makes both figurative and abstract works and yesterday we had a studio visit and made this short video.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

what is talent?

"There is nothing so terrible as the pursuit of art by those who have no talent." – W. Somerset Maugham.

Hearing of my search for women artists in literature, a friend gave me Of Human Bondage. I was fairly certain that I had read it before, yet could remember none of it. In the story, a young man named Philip tries many things and one of them is art school in Paris. Here he meets a woman (named Fanny Price, which is also the name of a major Jane Austen heroine) who has “no talent” but nonetheless literally starves for her art - until she can take no more, and commits suicide. The haunting image of her suffering and sacrifice never leaves Philip.

Outside of a coming of age story, the theme is rather evasive. One subject however that the book revisits is that of “talent.” It’s quite clear that Somerset Maugham thinks a lot of us are wasting our time on creative endeavors. Second rate is just not good enough and the world is way too full of it.

But exactly what talent is, that’s never fully explained. - For a lot of these characters can draw OK. They can render. They talk about art and philosophy all day and night long. It’s all enough to fuel them in youth, but true brilliance is another thing. The fact that it all takes place in Paris does not save their efforts, or make them any better. One of the professors makes a grave impression when he tells Philip: “Get out while you can. It’s not enough to be just alright, there’s not enough reward for that.” What he is basically doing is trying to save Philip from a life of romantic mediocrity.

It’s interesting to be reading this book now, in a time and place where there is so much drawing and yes, I’ll say it: a hell of a lot of it is mediocre. That’s not to say they can’t draw. But just as the novel implies - that’s not enough. Talent is a word I’ve personally learned to distrust, because some people think it can replace hard work. But whatever that mystery word means, I don’t see it in enough of the drawing. And I know drawing is fun, in and of itself.

When Philip decides to quit art school, it’s not played as a tragedy. He has to make a go of something, he must earn his way and having grown up with a club foot and no parents, he’s got very little room for rose colored glasses. But he never forgets the artist’s way. He is always grateful for the two years he spent in Paris.