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Friday, December 22, 2006

Postmodern Paradox and Practice

Paradox and Practice: Architecture in the Wake of Conceptualism, is an exhibition of conceptualist installation art held at the Room Gallery at The University of California, Irvine, supposedly offering a reconsideration of the "notion of 'site,' as it exists between art and architecture." The exhibit’s first but unintended contradiction is to be encountered in its title, which refers to conceptualism in the past tense. We think it proper to infer that conceptualism is a spent force in art - but we’re certain that’s not what the curators of this exhibit had in mind.

According to the postmodernist artspeak of curators Juli Carson and Nana Last, Paradox and Practice supposedly "re-thinks the legacy of Conceptualism vis-à-vis the philosophical operation of paradox." While we find fault with the overall thrust of the entire exhibit, it was the following preposterous hyperbole from the show’s press release that got our attention:

"(…) the curators of Paradox and Practice argue the progressiveness of thinking non-dialectically as an aesthetic and political act."

Understanding that dialectics is the science of arriving at the truth by way of logical argument, the curators and artists in this show have opted to abandon reason in favor of the incoherent and the irrational. That is not an unusual stance for postmodernists to take, but it has nothing to do with any accurate definition of "progressive," especially since Paradox and Practice masquerades as cogent political discourse in opposition to the excesses of the Bush administration. Reading further, the press release states:

"Thinking about paradox and conceptualism is no formal exercise; it is a political imperative. Take, for example, last year’s infamous Torture Memo, drafted by Alberto Gonzalez, in which any paradoxical notion of a 'state of statelessness' was denied. Within such logic, the Geneva Convention could be dismissed as 'irrelevant' to those lacking clear national status.

We’d like to remind the curators of Paradox and Practice that the Bush administration has already declared that so-called "unlawful combatants" do no have any rights under the Geneva Convention. That fact aside, one cannot imagine Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, or anyone in President Bush’s administration, pondering the efficacy of paradox and conceptualism - as these notions simply have no use in practical statecraft. Whatever one may think of the Bush regime, it did not end up in the White House through the exercise of non-dialectical thinking. Despite insistent pleading from the exhibit’s curators, thinking about paradox and conceptualism is not a political imperative; it is however a monumental distraction - and even less valid as a political/cultural response to undemocratic practices in government.

Aesthetic and political acts borne of non-dialectical thinking are castles made of sand, and they are prone to melt away after a brief moment of glory. In terms of contributing anything meaningful towards an understanding of our world, non-dialectical postmodern aesthetics can only offer stupefaction and bewilderment.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Against National Chauvinism in Art

[ UPDATE: This article has been revised, please see its closing for all the details ]

Every movement whose time has come will experience steady growth and maturation, leading inevitably to splits and factions. Such is the case with the phenomenon of Stuckism, or the Remodernist movement, in the United States. American Remodernists have been formulating ideas, painting works under the banner of Stuckism, and founding chapters across the United States since 2000. The Los Angeles Stuckist Group mainly operates anonymously, and sees its role as providing the theoretical groundwork for the expansion of Remodernism in America. Since its inception the L.A. group has maintained a dynamic web log, and has provided links on its web site to other Stuckists and like-minded artists across the U.S.

While taking an activist approach to the promulgation of Remodernist philosophy, the L.A. Stuckist Group has assumed no leadership in the overall movement - nor do we seek such status. When it comes to group dynamics, we believe in autonomy, self-reliance, and democratic principles. We have never claimed to speak for anyone but ourselves, and proclaiming our circle as the preeminent Remodernist formation in the United States would be in contradiction to our vision of the movement. It should therefore come as no surprise that we would be in opposition to self-proclaimed leaders rising out of the shadows to anoint themselves the titular heads of the Remodernist movement in America. Careerists and opportunists who would exploit Remodernism to their own ends need to be challenged - the very scenario we are now confronted with and forced to respond to.

On Friday, December 13th, 2006, the self-appointed leader of "The American Stuckists", Allen Herndon, announced the launching of "the official website of the American Stuckists" ( To our knowledge, Mr. Herndon has not had an active working relationship with any of the various working Remodernist groups and individuals across the U.S., nor did he consult with any of the aforementioned before stating publicly the establishment of his "American Stuckists" national movement.

"The American Stuckists" website is vaingloriously bedecked in red, white and blue, and bears a stupidly idyllic photograph of two children standing beneath the national banner of the United States - a photo that serves as the site’s masthead. Moreover, the site bears the motto "Home of the Cadmium Red, Titanium White, and Cerulean Blue" - as pugnacious a nationalistic slogan as ever existed. The site also boasts a red, white and blue logo that reads, "American Stuckism" - an emblem clearly modeled after the original Stuckist International logo that is smartly neutral when it comes to identifying national origin. While the founding London Stuckists are largely concerned with matters pertaining to the United Kingdom, they have prudently avoided crass displays of the Union Jack on their expansive website - which strives to present the international character of the Remodernist movement.

Mr. Herndon and his group have made an entry on the Wikipedia encyclopedia, proclaiming their red, white, and blue logo as the symbol of "The American Stuckists," giving the false impression that all Remodernists in the U.S. are united under their tutelage (Editor's Note: The Herndon group has since removed their Wikipedia entry.) The preponderance of red, white and blue on "The American Stuckists" website gives the appearance of an ultra-nationalist grouping rather than one dedicated to the universal language of art. Whether conscious or not, their misguided super-patriotism will not go unchallenged by us. National Chauvinism has absolutely no place in an international art movement.

Herndon wrote and posted a manifesto on the "The American Stuckists" website, allegedly meant to "unify the various Stuckist artists into a cohesive national movement." Notwithstanding the fact that no one elected him to coordinate such an undertaking, and putting aside for the moment the glaring contradiction of a so-called "national movement" having its manifesto penned by a single individual - Mr. Herndon makes a serious error in thinking Stuckism can, or should be, a "national movement" in the United States at all. Historically, late 20th Century national movements in art were at best closely aligned with right-wing ideology, like Thomas Hart Benton’s nativist school of reactionary American Regionalists (Benton declared himself an "enemy of modernism" in the 1920's.) Such is the nature of nationalism in developed Western countries. Nothing about Mr. Herndon’s red, white, and blue website gives the impression of his offering anything different.

Art fused with nationalism has always been a dangerous combination, and in the worst case scenarios, national movements in art found their most terrifying political expressions in the dictatorial regimes of 1930’s Spain, Italy, and Germany. The legacy of the lethal mix of art and nationalism in the late 20th Century is so strong, that even the mere suggestion of a "national movement" in art raises suspicions and fears. We wish to distance ourselves and Remodernism from any such expression. It is one thing to be an admirer of, and adherent to, an international school of art like Impressionism, Remodernism, or Conceptualism - but it is perilous to suggest that a school of art can or should be claimed by any one nation.

Likewise, Mr. Herndon’s suggestion that "The Future of Western Art is up to you," could just have readily been made by the most retrograde Eurocentric traditionalist pining for a return to some golden yesteryear. The L.A. Stuckist Group understands the globalized nature of art in today’s world, what is more, we see that potential problems and their solutions must be international in scope. The future of Western art is of little importance to us - we are concerned with no less than the future of art itself.

In point number twenty of his manifesto, Mr. Herndon wrote;

"But we are not a political group; we are painters. You may hold any political belief you like and be a member. Politics destroyed the spiritual aspects of Surrealism. If you are a political painter that is fine, but we are not painting politicians."

It is astonishing that in describing "The American Stuckists" Mr. Herndon can write that "we are not a political group" - after having first wrapped himself in the American flag while calling for a national movement of U.S. artists. What a strange definition he has of what constitutes the political. Be that as it may, we’d like to remind Mr. Herndon that the primary objectives of the Remodernist movement consists of uprooting postmodern thought and institutions. That is no small undertaking, and the process in large part has been, and will continue to be, an intensely political one. An entrenched and powerful elite cannot be removed without a political struggle, and to think otherwise is pure naïveté.

The L.A. Stuckist Group is also in profound disagreement with Mr. Herndon’s open door policy when it comes to persons of any political persuasion being welcome in the Stuckist International. "The American Stuckists" of Mr. Herndon may embrace the pro-Bush radical right and its "culture wars" agenda - we do not. Our opposition to the postmodern art world elite is not based upon some conservative desire for a return to a mythic past, we wish a progressive way forward for painting, and putting traditionalists at the helm of our movement will only give it a reactionary character.

Mr. Herndon’s assertion that "Politics destroyed the spiritual aspects of Surrealism" is also patently false. Surrealism was a militant political and aesthetic response to bourgeois society as it crept towards its marriage to mass carnage and repression. Internal strife and political disagreement within Surrealist circles did not inhibit Surrealism’s ability to fulfill its mission - it was war and fascism that did that.

In closing, we sincerely hope that upon reading our critique, Mr. Herndon will abandon all intentions of dominating the North American section of the Stuckist/Remodernist International. He can of course publish whatever he likes, but if Mr. Herndon wishes to play a part in a genuine arts movement in the United States, he must first learn how to collaborate and cooperate with other artists on an equal basis. An immediate act of rapprochement should be taken on his part, indicating a willingness to shed his pretense at leadership. Such a statement of reconciliation would go a long way if it also contained an avowal to rein in and curtail the offensive nationalism we see as detrimental to a truly international movement.

[ Update: The L.A. Stuckist group received many positive responses to, Against National Chauvinism in Art, our critique lambasting "The American Stuckists." Our critical assessment apparently hastened the collapse of the group, since on December, 18th, 2006, it ceased publishing its web site - leaving only the following brief message from the organizers in its place:

"The intention of this site was to provide a central Internet hub in which any individual or group calling themselves Stuckist could display their artwork for free. It has met with opposition and criticism, and is thus permanently closed. Sincerest apologies for any misinterpretation or misunderstanding."

We are not in any way opposed to the establishment of a national hub website that will act as a clearing house for the many groups and individuals in the United States now associated with Remodernism. When the L.A. Stuckist group launched its own website on April 9, 2006, it was the co-founder of the London Stuckists, Charles Thomson, who suggested to us that our website serve as that hub. We declined that role, but in the interim have found ourselves moving inexorably towards it. We encourage all Stuckists and supporters of Remodernism in the U.S. to send us the web addresses of their groups or individual online portfolios. We’ll be more than happy to post this information in the Stuckist Links section of our website.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Magritte: The Treachery of Postmodernism

In 2000 the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) presented, Magritte, a major retrospective of artworks by the Belgian surrealist painter, René Magritte. The straightforward exhibition presented some sixty-five works that highlighted the artist’s "painting as representation, and the relationship between language and images." The exhibit was the first overview of Magritte’s work on the West Coast of the United States in more than three decades. Six years later the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has nearly replicated the SFMOMA exhibit with, Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images, the only difference being LACMA has unnecessarily wrapped Magritte up in trite postmodernist trappings.

The L.A. exhibit took its name from Magritte’s famous 1929 painting of a pipe, an artwork the artist titled The Treachery of Images. LACMA’s expropriation of this title could be interpreted as a sly way of declaring realist painting dead in the here and now, and an appeal for public support of the conceptual art contained in the show. Late in his life, Magritte was quoted as saying, "The present reeks of mediocrity and the atom bomb" - which actually should have been the name of LACMA’s exhibit.

LACMA’s Senior Curator of Modern Art, Stephanie Barron, said that the museum "felt that it was time to not do just another Magritte retrospective." So instead the institution made its guards and staff wear derby hats like the ones that appeared in Magritte’s works (no, we are not kidding), and hired the conceptualist John Baldessari to design the layout and installation of the exhibit. The overall effect, while a bit sensationalist and obviously pandering to an audience more familiar with theme parks than art museums - is not entirely unpleasant. One enters the exhibit through a doorway that replicates the one painted in Magritte’s The Unexpected Answer. The gallery floors are made to look like the skies painted by Magritte - covered as they are with carpets depicting fluffy white clouds on a pastel blue background. Looking up, visitors will see photo reproductions of L.A.’s knotted freeway system plastered on the ceiling. As stated, it’s all a bit gratuitous and theatrical but not altogether disagreeable. A wonderful new career awaits John Baldessari if he would only go into Interior Design and stop torturing the public with his boring and emotionless conceptual artworks.

LACMA’s The Treachery of Images, is more an exercise in justifying postmodern contemporary art than a celebration of the marvelous Magritte. While the exhibit presents sixty-five iconic paintings and drawings by Magritte - many of which are superlative examples of what an inspired and well trained artist can do with oil paint and a good set of brushes - the viewer is expected to accept the juxtaposition of sixty-five other works by thirty-one postmodernist art stars like John Baldessari, Eleanor Antin, Richard Artschwager, and the loathsome Jeff Koons. What is particularly annoying about the LACMA exhibit is its very narrow definition of what constitutes "contemporary art", with artists outside of the anointed gaggle of postmodernist celebrities simply not existing in the museum’s purview.

Personal Values - Painting by Magritte, 1952
[ Personal Values - Magritte. Oil on canvas. 1952. A surreal vision painted with impressive skill. It is painting like this that exposes the threadbare quality of works by the other artists in the exhibit. ]

Of the many stunning paintings on display at LACMA, the jewel in the crown would have to be Magritte’s 1952 masterwork, Les valeurs personnelles (Personal Values.) A surreal vision painted with impressive skill. Gigantic ordinary objects like a comb, shaving brush and wine glass quixotically crowded into a small bedroom, are painted in minute and loving detail. The artist painted the wood grain of the floorboards, the nubs on the Persian carpets, the translucent quality of the comb, and a transparent goblet that reflected all things in the boudoir while allowing the viewer to see through it. It is painting like this that exposes the threadbare quality of works by the other artists in the exhibit.

Time Transfixed, Painting by Magritte, 1938
[ Time Transfixed - Magritte. Oil on canvas. 1938. On display at LACMA, a triumph of surreal vision and the painter’s skill. Deceptively simple, the painting is loaded with rich details like the grain of the marble fireplace and hardwood floor, and the mechanical features of the ethereal train. ]

Watching the hundreds of people examining the artworks in the exhibition was in itself informative. People gathered in awe around the splendid paintings by Magritte, but generally expressed little interest in the postmodernist works, most of which were simply uninspired and boring. The artworks by Magritte imparted a sense of wonder and mystery in the crowds, while the works by the postmoderns left them cold. Why on earth anyone thought to place in this exhibit the feebly drawn doodles by the thoroughly inadequate Raymond Pettibon, is beyond comprehension. Because he incorporates text in his misshapen and cramped drawings is no reason to equate his works to that of Magritte. Likewise, when the king of mediocrity, Jeff Koons, has his large stainless steel Rabbit placed in the gallery - you have to wonder what the curator was thinking. Even the really big names like Ed Ruscha, Jasper Johns, and Roy Lichtenstein seemed awfully tiny in Magritte’s shadow - but then, one unintentional consequence of LACMA’s exhibit is the highlighting of the inadequacies and woeful shortcomings of postmodern contemporary art. When placed against the visionary paintings of René Magritte, the artworks of today’s "moderns" appear laughable.

The Human Condition, by Magritte, 1933
[ The Human Condition - Magritte. Oil on canvas. 1933. A complicated trompe l'oeil canvas where the artist painted his easel placed before an open window. ]

There are many ways LACMA could have presented the works of Magritte - but they intentionally chose to present him using a postmodern framework. Understanding postmodernism as the great leveling concept opposed to hierarchies; a philosophy that argues all histories ("metapictures") are equal, truth is just a matter of opinion, and standards are just another oppression - it then makes sense that LACMA would present a charlatan like Jeff Koons as being on par with Magritte. The ideas of French postmodernist philosopher, Michel Foucault, seem to play no small part in LACMA’s exhibit, in fact, a museum special lecture titled Foucault’s Magritte and Other Metapictures is slated to be presented at LACMA’s Bing Theater on Feb. 4, 2006.

Photo by Baldessari
[ Wrong - John Baldessari. Photo print with text. 1967. This specific piece chosen by LACMA to illustrate the influence of Magritte upon contemporary artists, is indicative of the sixty-five conceptualist works selected for display in the exhibit. The print is aptly titled since it’s wrong on so many levels. ]

Foucault wrote a 1968 essay titled Ceci nest pas une pipe (This is Not a Pipe), in which the philosopher applied his controversial theories in analyzing Magritte’s painting. Many philosophers and thinkers have criticized Foucault for his right-wing nihilism and for having rejected the values associated with the Enlightenment. In the 1960’s Jean-Paul Sartre condemned him as "the last rampart of the bourgeoisie," and famed MIT Professor Emeritus of linguistics, Noam Chomsky, referred to Foucault’s opinions as "completely amoral." LACMA could just as easily have shaped its exhibit around the ideas of André Breton and the circle of surrealists Magritte was so closely associated with - but then Breton and his cohorts had revolutionary political ideas that might have resonance in today’s world. Better to stick with the harmless apolitical postmodernists, who believe in and advocate nothing.

On the whole, LACMA’s Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images, is unquestionably worth seeing, if only to view the large collection of Magritte’s fabulous paintings. Unfortunately, many erstwhile students and art lovers will be turned away by the steep ticket price for the show, but that misfortune aside, we highly recommend the exhibit - despite our misgivings regarding the postmodern spin.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Turner Prize a big YAWN

On December 4th, 2006, the annual high-profile Turner Prize was awarded at ceremonies held at London’s Tate Britain. Yoko Ono was on hand to announce the winner, abstract painter Tomma Abts, who also walked away with the Turner cash prize of $79,122. Abts, 38, is a German-born artist now living in London, and the first female painter to win the Tate prize. The Tate has in the past ignored painters in favor of those artists who create installation, video, and conceptualist works. But Abts’ pictures in no way challenge the bastion of postmodernism and its antipathy towards painting - her minimalist abstracts are a safe bet for an art world elite that doesn’t want to rock the boat.

Painting by Tomma Abts
[ Ehme - Tomma Abts. 2002 acrylic & oil on canvas. Abts paintings are titled by picking place names from maps of her native country, Germany. ]

A spokesperson for the Tate said the judges "admired the rigour and consistency of Abts' painting, in which compelling images reveal their complexity slowly over time." That someone could see something "compelling" in Abts’ squiggles is bad enough, but proclaiming her to be one of the world’s most dynamic artists is truly mystifying. The Tate maintains that Abts’ "intimate and compelling canvases", deserve Britain’s highest arts award became they 'build on and enrich the language of abstract painting". But as we see things, Abts’ paintings have all the intensity and passion of cartography, in fact, she titles her pictures by picking place names from maps of her native Germany.

Installation by Phil Collins
[ Office - Phil Collins installation. Photo by Linda Nylind. ]

As dismal a choice Abts might be for the world’s most significant artist of the year, the runner-ups for the 2006 Turner prize were even more dreary with all of their faux outrageousness. Rebecca Warren’s sculptures looked as though they were slapped together artlessly by grade school children just learning to play with clay. Conceptual artist and film-maker, Phil Collins, recreated a self-enclosed working business office environ replete with all the details of corporate life. But for what purpose? There was no inherent critique, statement or observation in this insipid installation. According to the Tate, Mark Titchner’s installations combining tables and computer monitors with large photo reproductions of obtuse slogans snatched from advertising and propaganda sources, are meant to pose questions about our blind "obedience to authority." But who will stand up to the illegitimate authority and tyranny of the so-called postmodernist art establishment? Certainly no one who enters works in the Turner Prize competition.

The BBC news asked chief art critic Rachel Campbell-Johnston of England’s, The Times, for her opinion regarding the Tate awards, and she quipped, "One thing they could do is occasionally cancel, occasionally say - 'There was nothing up to standard, and let’s scratch it', that would really get people to discuss the state of contemporary art." She’s not the only voice to express disquiet over the state of today’s art. As might be expected, our Stuckist comrades in London held a protest out in front of the Tate Britain during the awards, but this time people are paying attention like never before. The U.K. Guardian wrote, "Formerly dismissed as cranks, the Stuckists this year precipitated a Charity Commission report into conflict of interest on the Tate board of trustees." That controversy had to do with the Tate purchasing an installation by Chris Ofili for £600,000 (around $1,185,000) while Ofili sat on the board - all while he was asking other artists to donate their works to the Tate collection for free so that the museum could save money. At this year’s Tate protest our colleagues demanded the resignation of Tate director, Sir Nicholas Serota, as well as the Tate’s chairman, Paul Myners. Stuckist co-founder, Charles Thomson, said "Serota has been at the Tate longer than Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and it's time for a new face."

Stuckist demonstrators out in front of the Tate carried signs that read, "Is It All A Fix?", a reference to a statement made by Lynn Barber, a writer for the U.K. Observer and a Turner prize juror for 2006. Back in October of this year Barber broke the traditional vow of silence expected of jurors to write How I suffered for art’s sake, an article for the Observer in which she stated bewilderment at judging procedures, and declared her enthusiasm for postmodern contemporary art "seriously dampened" after her experience as a Turner prize judge. She stated that she felt "demoralized, disillusioned, and full of dark fears that I have been stitched up - that actually the 'art world' - whatever that is - has already decided who will win the 2006 Turner Prize and that I am brought in purely as a figleaf". What makes Barber’s article so striking is that she describes herself as someone "generally enthusiastic about contemporary art", in other words - she’s no Stuckist.

Announcing Tomma Abts as the winner at the Tate award ceremony, special guest Yoko Ono said: "In 1966 I was in New York and received an invitation to come to Britain. It opened the gates to a new world and changed my life. In those days New York was the center of the art world - now it is London." Declaring yet another "center" for the art world has become such a tiresome and annoying con, one wonders just how any thoughtful person could engage in spreading such tripe - but then, we are talking about the Tate awards. It is especially revealing that it’s the postmodernist crowd, or at least one faction of it, that’s proclaiming London as the new "center of the art world". With all of the postmodernist dribble about there being no more hierarchies and that we all live in a decentralized pluralistic, globalized paradise of interconnectivity - you’d think Ono’s remark would be cause for great embarrassment, but apparently the elites over at the Tate are too drunk with power to notice how ridiculous they’ve become.

As a group of artists writing from the city of Los Angeles, we yawn in the faces of those who proclaim London the "end all, be all" of the art world. However, while we are proud of what L.A. and California artists have accomplished over the years, and we extol the contributions these artists have made to the history of art, we are not foolish enough to proclaim our city as the center of anything (except perhaps, boredom). We do however see ourselves as one sphere of influence. To be honest, since L.A. is such a multi-cultural city, and quite frankly, a cultural capital that has exerted far too much influence over the world, we’d like to proclaim the Mexican City of Tijuana as the new "center of the art world". Henceforth, we think that all trends in contemporary art should be set by those artists residing in Tijuana, and that international artists should trek to the city along the U.S./Mexico border in order to find inspiration, make connections (and of course sales), and study and work with some of the finest artists in the world. If you think our idea preposterous then you might want to challenge your Eurocentric world view.

[ UPDATE: The U.K. Guardian reports that Turner prize winner Tomma Abts was criticized by Germany's leading art critic for creating paintings that look like east German "wallpaper". In a December 7, 2006 review published by the respected Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Niklas Maak said Abts "Is a very good designer. It's lovely wallpaper. But it isn't really art." He went on to say that her pictures looked "like pattern samples from an old German Democratic Republic wallpaper factory".