Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Chelsea Seltzer

When I visited Chelsea's studio, this painting was still in progress. I love how it has the pacing of a well told joke, although a joke in which the viewer isn't necessarily privy to the punchline. In a culture that is as obsessed with celebrity as ours, Chelsea's depiction of dead pop stars actually humanizes these cultural icons in their grotesque fallibility. We see an inversion of the typically glamorous depictions of celebrity in Chelsea's rendering; these men are the antithesis of sex appeal. This painting also reminds me of the Richard Prince joke paintings, only it's less didactic and it has a lot more freedom and fun in the rules of its construction as well as in its interpretation. This painting resonated with me since it's one of the freshest and least predictable paintings I've seen in some time. There's a looseness and ease in the color and handling of the paint which is reminiscent of Matisse, but the content which depicts the clichéd Utopic paradise as a comi-tragic destination, brings to mind Friedrich Kunath's ominous interpretations of Shangri-La.
I was just reading Sheena Wagstaff's essay, Comic Iconoclasm, which reminded me of Chelsea's work, especially when she writes:
"By using comic iconography, artists do the same thing as make a joke: perturbing, provoking laughter, attacking presuppositions and conventions. By annexing the comic character, they recontextualize it, thus altering its 'meaning.' Like the original Joke, the Fall, it threatens the established order of things. As well as appearing to blur the distinction between so-called  'high' art and popular culture, its seeming abandonment of seriousness has given art of this persuasion its special philosophical character."

Chelsea and I also discussed ideas of ritual and the occult, and the importance of both in her work. I used to think about ritual in relation to meaning in art whenever I would visit the African wing of the Art Institute of Chicago as a student. The masks and objects that had once been integral to religious ceremonies were removed from their initial purpose and presented as artifacts in the museum setting. The same can be said of the El Greco that had once hung in a cathedral. Throughout time, art was inseparable from ritual and faith. The more secularized and scientific our culture became, the inevitable schism from religion occurred in art. Despite our occidental tendency to idolize reason , we never lost our ability to mythologizing our lives. The philosopher Mary Midgley, writes about this condition in Myths We Live By, when she gives the example of the lone scientist, existentially isolated in the world, fighting heroically for truth in a world devoid of meaning. That is a prime example of a cultural myth that we are all so used to encountering, that it is easy to overlook how heavily imbued with subjectivity the tale of the heroic scientist is . At the core, we are all highly emotional and irrational beings, a fact that politicians enjoy exploiting regularly in their devious monologues of how concerned they are for the well being of our children, puppies, and kittens.

Chelsea has several developed bodies of work, and I appreciate her pluralistic approach to painting. This is a detail of her previous painting referencing the occult. She has an instinct for revealing oddness, and in this series she ruptures meaning by dislocating familiar symbols. The end result is a mysterious painting, comparable with David Lynch's nonlinear approach to film making.

Chelsea also has an ongoing series of shaped canvases. This beautiful painting shares a lineage with 17th century Flemish and Dutch paintings, only Chelsea's birds are happily alive, and not piles of little bird carcasses waiting to be devoured by some hungry nobility!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Colleen Asper

Colleen is a Renaissance woman!!! Seriously, is there anything she can't do?! I was blown away by her gorgeous painting. I love all the references to the old masters she employs. The way she left the left side in shadow and less modeled than the right is such a Rembrandt move! Her adroit handling of the paint and the glowing luminescence of the flesh is reminiscent of Vermeer. In addition to referencing De Stijl with the sleekly painted geometric forms,  her portrait is also a nod to those incredible Vilhelm Hammershøi paintings of interiors that typically portray the female subject seated with her back turned to the viewer. 
Aside form being stunning paintings in and of themselves,  the paintings are also conceptually rich and laden with Colleen's encyclopedic knowledge of theory and philosophy. Much of her current work addresses Colleen's background in dance. She explained how different the perspective of a dancer is from that of a painter. It's the difference between finding personal expression in following predetermined, choreographed moves and having full control in orchestrating the entire work of art from start to finish. 
Colleen manages to paint the anti-self-portrait, self-portrait, in that the identity and ego of the artist is obscured. However, anytime a woman is depicted in an oil painting, the subject of the male gaze cannot be avoided. There's a definite defiance and independence in turning her back to the viewer, and by depicting herself in such an athletic pose, Colleen is taking ownership of her body and how it is portrayed. The pose Colleen chooses is a stark contrast to those vapid, docile odalisques of Titian and Renoir whose only role is to passively wait for the Great Male narcissist phallocrat to pounce on them! DFW actually coined the term "Great Male Narcissist" when he was writing some serious smack about John Updike in his reviewCertainly the End of Something or OtherOne Would Sort of Have to Think. 
At first, I found these pieces to be quite comical, but the more time I spent with them, I realized that it was a nervous reaction, the same sort of reaction that comes from seeing a Beckett play. There is a relationship to Theater of The Absurd in Colleen's work both in terms of content and presentation. The black talk bubbles are actually rich, black velvet, which is difficult to see in the photograph. The figures cloaked in the pillow cases are interchangeable as well as the words in the black void of whatever it is they are communicating. They could be anyone, saying anything. Their situation does seem more straight forward than that of Vladimir and Estragon, since they are not waiting for anyone or anything, although whether they are aware of their predicament is another question. As a couple, they are defined by their solitude and are forever separated by the space in between them.  

This is Colleen's portrait of the protester. She explained that the protester could be simultaneously protesting everything or nothing. It's intriguing how a minimal drawing such as this can paradoxically evoke the exact opposite idea of vastness.