Saturday, January 26, 2013

Saira Mclaren

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of visiting Saira's Williamsburg studio.
Working on unprimed linen, Saira first soaks her surface in water and she then allows the fabric dye to seep into the linen. Saira's use of the soak and stain technique shares a history with the paintings of Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis.  Frankenthaler is largely credited with having invented the soak and stain technique, but the technique had been used in watercolor painting for hundreds of years beforehand. Watercolors are such an old medium that even the cave paintings at Lascaux were painted using watercolor. One can only imagine the great difficulty that those poor troglodytes encountered  when they first began utilizing the soak and stain technique on rock!!!
This is one of Saira's newest paintings, which was still in progress when I visited. Saira uses gravity to manipulate the paint, which is also similar to the way Morris Louis handled paint, however  Louis removed his hand completely, and was reducing painting to its inevitable conclusion after Pollock. Saira reintroduces the artist's hand and vacillates between both translucency and opacity. Saira's background in film is revealed through her paintings. When looking at Saira's transparent screens of color, I think of Stan Brakhage's Abstract Expressionist films. 
Not only did Stan Brakhage introduce Abstract Expressionism to film, he was also responsible for teaching South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker while they were in film school at the University of Colorado. I had a friend at the Art Institute who used to gush over the marvelous colors that South Park uses. Although I have always been a fan of the show, I somehow was not enough of a cognoscenti back then to appreciate South Park's exquisite palette!
I do however love the palette used in this gem!!! This was my favorite painting in Saira's studio and I got to keep it!  I traded her a kitten for it. Curiously enough, I didn't notice the face emerging from the paint until I brought it home!
Saira's method is gestural, improvised, and intuitive. There is always a sense of freedom surrounding work that is as process based as Saira's. By relinquishing a certain amount of control and  allowing the paint to take on it's own life, Saira gives free reign to chance and accident. The fluidity and ease found in Saira's paintings is also a result of the spontaneous manner in which they are made.

Friday, January 11, 2013

S.E. Nash

When I met up with Nash at her Long Island City studio, we discussed the points at which art and science meet. We quickly learned that both of us are used to being surrounded by scientists and physicians. It’s not uncommon for scientists to be involved in the arts. The same sort of insatiable curiosity and sense of wonder drives both the greatest artists and scientists. Since Nash's current body of work relates so much to biology, I was curious about how much of an impact growing up with a scientist may have had on the direction of her paintings. I know that while I was growing up, seeing photographs on the covers of medical books of the worst human deformities and tragedies of the body made me aware from a very young age that not all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

We also talked about how science is often romanticized and how the myth of the heroic scientist is not unlike that of the heroic painter. Everyone enjoys a good story about a lonely, isolated genius struggling against the ignorance and indifference of the dirty, unwashed masses!
In Huxley's Point Counter Point, there is a character of a bored aristocrat who finds existence futile until he becomes interested in the complexity and wonder of the natural world. Huxley who suffered from depression himself derived a lot of meaning from studying science. Although I believe that there is value and meaning to be gained in examining the complexity of the world I wouldn't necessarily suggest it as a panacea for existential angst. I am also not a proponent of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, since that would be far too simplistic and indulgent. Nietzsche has an aphorism in Beyond Good and Evil which describes what I am talking about far more eloquently than I am capable of: "Knowledge for its own sake"--that is the last snare laid by morality: we are thereby completely entangled in morals once more." 
The well-read man in Sartre's Nausea,  is the ultimate example of the absurdity of the idea of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. He spends his days pointlessly reading every single book in the library, going through each tome indiscriminately and by alphabetical order. Just like any good intellectual, the well read man does not arrive at any deeper conclusions through his reading, he just keeps going on and on purposelessly and aimlessly like the Energizer bunny!
I love the way the light falls on this piece in particular, It's a gorgeous painting. Some of Nash's pieces have the sense of time being frozen, just as in a photograph or a Luc Tuymans painting. There is also a sense of nostalgia and longing in this crisp, cool, botanical form that is reminiscent of a silent gramophone.
The other-worldly aesthetic as well as the formal qualities of Nash's paintings remind me of Ruth Duckworth's ceramics. 

 Even the chalky, muted quality of the paint Nash chooses in her work reminds me of the way glazes look on ceramics before they have been fired in the kiln. Ceramics used to be considered more of a craft rather than an art. I’m glad that that silly, imposed distinction is finally going away. Artists such as Joanne Greenbaum and Sterling Ruby are especially breathing new life into the medium.
The slashes bring to mind Lucio Fontana, although Nash's slashes are more careful and gentle. This painting especially possesses an unexpected, quiet strangeness, and there's something inexplicably comical about it. The small scale of the work aligns it with the scale of much abstraction now, although that's the only semblance between Nash's work and much of what is going on now in Bushwick. 
Nash is an articulate painter who has the ability to reference multiple painting traditions within an economy of means. Her quietly, contemplative paintings invoke the felt presence of life on both the macro and microscopic level.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Jill Galarneau

When I visited Jill's Williamsburg studio, these works were still in progress. Jill creates her own private world and as a visitor I felt like I was privy to her innermost thoughts. There is a definite conviction and cohesion to Jill's highly elaborated vision.
I loved Jill's painting of a sponge!!! Jill's enigmatic watercolors allude to everyday objects without being too literal. Although Jill is keenly aware of the tradition she works in, she retains a sense of spontaneity and freedom in her collages. Jill shares a lineage with the French painting tradition of Intimism, which is best known for artists such as Vuillard, Bonnard, and Matisse. Intimism was invested in revealing the significance of the ordinary, quotidian aspects of the artist's domestic life. 
This collage alludes to a pie and a clown. Jill talked about how her current interest in clowns and the double meaning they convey. The clown on the surface seems boisterous and fun-loving, but they are often depicted as tragic figures throughout the world. Paul Klee's etching, Comedian (1931), comes to mind, where just beneath a mask of feigned happiness, lies a dissatisfied malcontent. Sean Lander's depictions of clowns who are either lost at sea or trapped in a state of paralyzing inertia become metaphors for our own selves. Fellini's Clowns, chronicles the history of the Italian circus clown, and is one of the most hauntingly beautiful documentaries I've ever seen. Fellini also saw clowns as archetypes who mirror our own behaviors , and he differentiated between the white clown and the Auguste. The white clown is the sad, elegant clown who always does the what he is supposed to do and the Auguste is the comical figure who always seems to mess up. 

Here's an excerpt from Fellini on Fellini, explaining the distinction between the two clowns:

    The white clown stands for elegance, grace, harmony, intelligence, lucidity, which are posited in a moral way as ideal, unique, indisputable divinities. Then comes the negative aspect, because in this way the white clown becomes Mother and Father, Schoolmaster,Artist, the Beautiful, in other words what should be done. Then the Auguste, who would feel drawn to all these perfect attributes if only they were not so priggishly displayed, turns on them.
...The Auguste is the child who dirties his pants, rebels against this perfection, gets drunk, rolls about on the floor and puts up and endless resistance.
     This is the struggle between the proud cult of reason (which comes to be a bullying form of aestheticism) and the freedom of instinct. The white clown and the Auguste are teacher and child, mother and small son, even the angel with the flaming sword and the sinner. In other words these are the two psychological aspects of man: one which aims upwards, the other which aims downwards; two divided, separated instincts.
Here Jill was thinking about the harlequin, which is another type of clown. During the Renaissance the harlequins would perform their stunts and acrobatics outdoors, traveling with  Italian Commedia dell'arte. Jill pointed out she pointed out that in America we have no counterpart to the harlequin. The history of clowns in Europe is far richer than in America. At one point in Europe, clowns were given the same respect as artists. In 1976, when Fellini shot Clowns, the clown was already a nearly extinct artform, which is one of the most heart wrenching aspects of the documentary.
Jill's collages have a sense of lightness and impermanence, which are evocative of a more Eastern approach to art making. The Occidental tendency is rooted in fear and the desire to make everything last forever, whereas Asia honors the ephemeral and realizes that nothing lasts. There's this incredible Hokusai print which depicts the day after a celebration where banners and other remnants of a festival are strewn about by the wind. It's an incredibly powerful and moving image, emblematic of the great beauty and sadness of experience.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Jamian Juliano-Villani

Fusing together Family Circus, Alien, with a dose of good old-fashioned romance, Jamian creates a hilarious and unsettling depiction of the simultaneous terror and desire that a son feels for his overbearing mother. The mother is an archetype that Jung explored at great length, and an archetype which contains both positive and negative characteristics. As infants we are completely vulnerable and entirely dependent upon our mothers for survival, and from the beginning of our lives our relationship to our mothers is one of the most powerful and pivotal bonds we will ever share. Although the mother archetype represents love, nurturing, and wisdom to Jung, it also represents a dark, domineering, abysmal force. The darker aspects of the archetype manifest themselves in symbols such as the witch or the dragon. Jamian breaks several taboos, not only by depicting the mother as a monster, but by also encroaching on insidious themes of pedophilia and incest. There's a brilliant Indie movie, that I'd suggest you'd see, gentle reader, called Spanking the Monkey. It's one of the most disturbing movies I've ever seen. The plot line revolves around a twenty-something year old who stays home one summer to take care of his foxy mother who has a broken leg, while his father is away on business. Things do end up taking an Oedipal turn, and although Spanking the Monkey is less bloody than Sophocles, it's still a must see.     
Jamian appropriates the hypermasculinized hot rod icon, Rat Fink, and strips him of his machismo by bringing to our attention that he is, "mother's worry." There is a tenderness to how the image becomes feminized through the text. Although this is a rat that only a mother could love, this already anthropomorphized creature is further humanized through the emphasis placed on his mother and her concern. Jamian uses appropriated imagery to create a highly specific narrative, which is a shift from much of appropriated imagery from the past which aimed to do the opposite. In Rauschenberg and Polke the appropriated signs are stripped of their initial cultural context and meaning through the aestheticization of nonlinear collage and the overwhelming bombardment of signs used. Koons also employs a similar strategy in the fragmented images found in his paintings. 

Not one to underestimate the importance of subject matter, Jamian does not shy away from including race as an ongoing theme in her work. Most of the time artists only depict their own race in their work and act as though their race is the only race that exists. Which is especially strange in a country that's inarguably one of the most ethnically diverse, if not the most diverse nations in the world. It's a touchy subject and seemingly much too incendiary for the politically correct art world to consider. The self-congratulatory art world likes to pretend to be liberal and open-minded, when in actuality it is typically conservative, smug, and myopic. I see a parallel between Paul Pfeiffer's videos and Jamian's paintings. Like Pfeiffer, Jamian uses appropriated imagery and explores race in an intriguing and ambiguous way. When Pfeiffer first began showing his appropriated videos of African American basket ball players, many people automatically assumed he was African American, when in fact, Pfeiffer is of Filipino descent.
I've been thinking a lot about censorship lately, and how there are people who want to censor anything that does not align itself with their belief structure, and how so many are willing to give up their freedom of speech just to keep things clean and inoffensive. Jamian's work especially has a way of making people uncomfortable, which I think is incredibly exciting and refreshing. It seems to be a commonly held belief that after the Chapman brothers and Saatchi's Sensation show, no artist can do anything to be a source of contention to anyone anymore. Since the economy tanked, we have become so accustomed to seeing so many artists churn out insipid, derivative drivel that we cannot imagine things any other way. The lemming abstractionist movement (also commonly referred to as the Martha Stewart School of Provisional Painting) still seems to have inexplicable hegemony over most of the art world. Thankfully, there are pockets of artists who are still creating vital, subversive works. 
Here are a few excerpts from Fellini's Notes on Censorship:

Censorship is a way of admitting our own weakness and intellectual insufficiency.
     Censorship is always a political tool: certainly not an intellectual one. Criticism is an intellectual tool: it presupposes a knowledge of what it judges and opposes.
     Criticism does not destroy; it puts an object in its proper place among other objects.
     To censor is to destroy, or at least to oppose the process of reality.
     ...Apart from this pride and euphoria, there is also an excessive degree of resignation, fear of authority and dogma, customs and formulas, all of which have made us very law-abiding and submissive.
     All this leads to censorship.