|Matthew Barney, he disappears more in the stills than
in the Cremaster films. But is it sculpture?
Barney, Eckard, Mehretu,
Macca, ayo, Grantham, Latteier
by Jeff Jahn
aradoxically, one of the best ways to disappear is to become a
very visible, highly developed visual artist. This happens even
if the images of the artists themselves are the main visual material.
I love how visual art objects tend to overshadow the artists who
Within that disappearing dynamic lies a lot of the enduring appeal
and charge of the visual arts the immolation of the artist
into a complex sign.
When the art is successful, what is left of the artist becomes
iconic something bigger than a mere human. Once a work is
finished, the distilled aesthetics of the artist are no longer a
moving target and the artist becomes merely another viewer. At that
point, each subsequent viewer is a subjective stargazer who catches
a glimpse of the work as it makes its way across the night sky.
In the end the artist is just a catalyst and in many cases one
can ask, "Is the artist just a rocket destined to burn up on
re-entry?" Answer: the art is the payload! As a rule, better
artists create work that literally forces them out of the picture.
David Eckard's crawl, art vs artist?
That's why I avoided David Eckard's performance at the Art Gym.
He can try to recapture the spotlight, but his big Tournament (Lumens)
pieces still overshadow him. It just seemed like a pointless and
self-indulgent exercise, so I went to Lewis & Clark College
I get it. But quasi-Dionysian group spectacles do not interest
me much. The photos of Eckard's performance are pretty interesting,
Maybe I just lack patience?
Eckard is making a point about the rigors of his chosen path. But
in this case it's preaching to the choir. Mixing performances with
objects is always sticky business.
It's possible I'll feel different next month after I've seen Matthew
Barney's "Cremaster 3" film and exhibition at THE Guggenheim.
I consider Frank Lloyd Wright's museum to be the toughest test room
in art, and I want to see how Matthew Barney holds up. Will it be
histrionics, or genius?
Then again, maybe the whole cloth of his work is something more
Can Barney disappear in relation to his prop sculptures on display?
Are his films sculpture as he claims? Well, sort of: the stills
from the Cremaster films are more iconic and enduring than the slow-moving
films themselves and, thus, act more like sculpture. By being so
slow the films are like mimes trying to be sculpture. There is a
difference, but Barney initially fools a lot of people. That initial
ambiguity has drama, but it gets spent as aesthetic capital.
This disappearance of the artist into a sign isn't unique to the
visual arts, but nowhere is it more developed or expected than in
painting and sculpture. Despite this, disappearance of the author
or performer is a widespread goal that never really happens in moving
or time-based medias.
Good painters always become secondary to the work; good actors
attempt to disappear but the notoriety of the performance makes
it impossible. Why care about the artist if you already have the
art? Conversely, a performer lives on the pregnant possibility of
another great performance. Object-makers take a back seat to the
work, performers are front and center.
In literature, Kafka's "The Hunger Artist" explores an
aesthetic parallel where the hunger artist eventually perfects his
art of fasting so thoroughly he becomes unnoticeable, even to the
hungry beast that is introduced into his cage.
Still, we are aware of our dependence on the the narrator's words
and the writer's various revelations in the flow of the story. Most
visual art objects do not make those specific sequential and procedural
demands. Sequential demands assert authorship.
If authorship is too incessant it spoils the flavor of the aesthetic
meal. I think that's why Mark Rothko stopped signing the front of
1907 "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" ... the artist as
a presence is supplanted by the viewer.
Mastery leads to invisibility.
For example, does anyone really get too troubled over what Gaurnari
thought? No. His violins are all we care about, that and the instruments
of Stradivari, his star pupil.
I got to play a Gaurnari once; they really are better. Another
reason I don't buy the postmodern cult of individual ineffectiveness:
I have felt the difference. We need to move on.
Thus, at a certain point of mastery, an artist starts to disappear
and becomes a footnote to the work. Yes, the moral implications
of this "disappearing" dynamic are scary but that, too,
adds a special cultural tension for those reaching for the brass
A prime visual example is Picasso. As a historical character he's
an interesting, charm-filled misogynist with legendary woman troubles.
Still, his paintings overshadow those soap operas by distilling
the dynamic into something more than two people having either a
good or a bad time. He absorbed Baudelaire's sense of nuanced ennui
and it showed him a way to supersede his own presence in the work.
In the most important painting of the 20th century, Picasso's Les
Demoiselles d'Avignon, even the prostitutes are no longer selling
themselves. They are selling a troubling idea that "this"
Picasso himself barely understood it at the time, but was brilliant
enough to know when to stop tinkering. As it is now, the canvas
asserts itself above the artist; it is notoriously unresolved and
doesn't much pander to any world view. Conversely, lesser art is
too subject to the artist's prejudices. Les Dems was way ahead of
Picasso's own prejudices by 10 or more years.
Picasso's paintings of his lovers make us interested in those people
as to how they relate to the paintings
not the other way
around. Morally, it's quicksand. But that's why the drama works.
We don't live in a perfect world; Picasso's paintings distill the
tension of imperfections and perfections. The final product is an
opportunity for pure subjectivity in the viewers gaze.
Other artists, like Jackson Pollock and Marcel Duchamp, were utterly
obscured by the infamy of their techniques: the drip and the ready-made.
Duchamp's "Hat Rack" readymade.
British artist Damien Hirst knows and loves the fact that dead
animals in formaldehyde supersede him. He makes objects that present
dead things and are ultimately more interesting than his own eventual
Death is kinetic force in visual art.
Overall, it's amazing how some artworks become more individual
and unique than those who created them. Even when the effect is
unintentional, art objects transcend, compact and highlight elemental
tensions from the artist's life ... the equivalent of an avalanche
started by a noise.
As "the noise," the artist is important as a catalyst
for releasing the kinetic potential of visible things. The art runs
its course after that, usually burying the artist if it is a big
In bad art, the work reveals how those elemental tensions are misinformed
as to their own nature and scope. Not that such work is useless;
it works instead as therapy.
Is therapy a cultural product worth preserving? Rarely. That would
be like recording only a beginning student violinist doing scales,
but not their brilliantly improvised cadenzas to Vivaldi's "The
Four Seasons" years later.
It's understandable though: human beings have daily concerns, and
art objects can just "be." Whereas performance artists
like Martha Graham and Jimi Hendrix never let you forget that you
were watching Graham dance or Hendrix play guitar.
Nobody has danced or played like that, before or since.
When one views a painting the artist isn't in direct view, even
in self portraits. Painting and sculpture are Machiavellian. The
end justifies the means.
Julie Mehretu was "Out of Sight"
Henry Museum of Art, Seattle
Retroscopics: "A Renegade Excavation" (18 feet wide).
Today's hot artist, Julie Mehretu, had her most ambitious painting,
"Retroscopics: A Renegade Excavation," on display at the
Henry in Seattle. Sadly, it's gone now.
Frankly, you are foolish if you missed it and consider yourself
at all serious about painting or drawing.
It was part of a show about fictional spaces, yet another show
on that 2002 topic du jour, "the city." The show was good
and beautifully laid out. Still, the Mehretu was definitely the
conceptual and aesthetic lynch pin.
The painting fits the complex Zeitgeist of right now, where we
try to get a handle on a world with too many variables to fully
take in. In heavy theoretical terms, it's beyond postmodern isolation
and deconstruction; it's additive, cumulative and collaborative.
May most of the second half of the 20th century burn in a hell
mapped by Mehretu. Her work is a nice synthesis of Kandinsky, Futurism,
Frank Lloyd Wright, James Rosenquist and Roy Lichtenstein. Nothing
could be further from Cyndy Sherman.
One interviewer in Flash Art called it "post-diagrammatic,"
which wins my masturbatory pseudo-meaningful jargon award for 2002.
Still, such silliness often requires a serious muse, and Mehretu
provides the praise-deserving impulse.
a Renegade excavation (detail).
"Retroscopics" does fit Robert Storr's classical (i.e.,
so far unoriginal but valid) interpretation of the grotesque as
a fusion of disparate elements, but it still has some of the aesthetic
oohs and ahhs of Dave Hickey's ideas on beauty.
Yet the painting has flaws, as most shockingly original work does.
It works best up close and lacks oomph from far away.
It isn't this century's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, but it might
be on par with Van Gogh's "Sunflowers," as it points strongly
toward a different clarity not present in the actual work.
The painting maps the effects of a multitude of individuals and
cultures colliding and interacting.
The thing looks like a car crash between the present, past and
future, but without individuals. I think I can see the seatbelts
"Retroscopics" is all impersonal visual efficacy without
cause, a chaotic order chronicling both building and explosions.
9-11 has nothing to do with this? Yeah, right.
One disappointment: the skin-like background translates better
in reproductions than in person, like on the cover of the Flash
Art Magazine. Mehretu solves this problem in other works in different
After close inspection, where all the details shine, one might
ask where is Mehretu in all this? Who cares. Her personal statements
about complexity in her work are almost too analytic; a rhetorical
style that seems to say to her interrogator, "Just look at
the damn thing."
This art star is the antithesis of Entertainment Tonight, where
each terrible movie seems overshadowed by its bankable lead actors
and their often shockingly generic minds. (Yes, that was a dig at
In "Retroscopics," Mehretu is drowned out by the sweep
and breadth of her enterprise, an 18-ft.-wide behemoth. She is concerned
with things bigger than herself: war, diasporas, the building of
cities and time. Of course she's upstaged. She has the wisdom to
let her process and style take over when her intentions reach their
François Morelli: "Carousel"
The Ronna and Eric Hoffmann Gallery of Contemporary Art
Lewis & Clark College, Portland
Jan. 23-March 16
Sunday's sunny art outing to Lewis & Clark College's François
Morelli show was tops. I love this campus and its gallery.
Morelli's serial use of 70 different rubber stamps to create 133
feet of endlessly anthropomorphic undulations was excellent
an analogue of language not unlike Paul Klee's drawings of cities.
Although it lacked Klee's penetrating poetry, it still held my
attention for a time and I really enjoyed how Morelli used symbols
of life (trees), death (needles, skull and crossbones) and expression
(money, scissors and violins) to create continuity within the gallery
space. Francesco Clemente also uses needles, skulls and scissors
as signs and puts them to good effect, too.
Overall, "Carousel" provides an endlessly looped procession
of signs, an anthropomorphic meta or possibly pre-hieroglyphic language
that underscores the recurring nature of human enterprise. It is
more hip-hop in its sampling than Clemente and Klee.
Is that good? I answer with the question, do you like hip-hop?
Not to be pretentious, the nice blue color scheme provokes reflective
thought. Just go see it, what "Carousel" lacks in raw
originality it makes up for in a feedback loop of macrocosm and
Joe Macca: "Night Paintings" and "I
PDX Gallery, Portland
Another untitled Night Painting.
Joe Macca's latest show is a lot more brooding and complex than
his last show, "Hedz." In this latest outing, Macca's
paintings hover like sublime memorials to the universe as it was
There is a romantic asceticism where viewers lose themselves in
the subtly shifting browns and reds of the color fields. In the
past, I liked the work but found it a bit too systematic. The code
was too easy, like hacking a computer system with the first name
of someone's youngest child.
What's different this time out is how moody the effect is: Instead
of the bright, distinct, horizontal bands of colors from the past,
we get deep loamy toned, mysterious nebulas.
There is a sense of indefinable but palpable differences in density,
yet these paintings are resolutely flat.
Macca's "Night Paintings."
These Night Paintings vary in shade and color in a looser, more
unpredictable way. They are infinitely easier going than the Hedz.
Sort of like a Zen master vs. the flashy monks, training in the
courtyard. Unlike all the moody encaustic we often see regionally,
Macca's surfaces are resolutely dry and do not attempt any shrouded
depth in their fuzziness.
Another nice touch of these Night Paintings are their direct and
mysterious knifelike edges made from cut aluminum. Much like the
truth, they cut the visual field to ribbons without much hoopla.
It's a highly successful show and they make the PDX space come
alive and lift the architecture by Brad Cloepfil a notch or two.
Instead of the typical ironic postmodern icebox gallery experience,
Macca transforms this into a temple.
To my mind, this is the first time Macca has consistently pushed
us beyond the experience of color into the experience of otherness.
There is another part to the show, "I Virus." A dramatic
shift from the Zen void of the "Night Paintings," "I
Virus" consists of bravura and witty delusions. In "Art
Tournament," Macca is the eighth seed in a tournament against
greats like Agnes Martin, Matisse and Duchamp.
Hilariously, Macca beats them all. How so? Macca is learning and
taking from them. I am certain Agnes Martin does not lie awake at
night with clenched fists saying, "Damn you, Macca." But
Macca should have the last word, and is collecting them as influences.
Another hilarious piece showed a map of the United States much
like those for presidential election results. The candidates: Macca,
Frank Stella and Thomas Kincaid. Of course, Kincaid took every state!
"Starting Eleven" Robert Irwin a goal keeper? ... Madness!
As PDX's director points out, Macca and Stella failed to carry
their home states. Sometimes it is not about winning, but what and
how you win.
"I Virus" is not the main show, but it does show how
an artist can be self-effacing yet absorbingly engaged with one's
own life. Macca shows that American attitude and Zen absorption
are not such unlikely bedfellows.
Many of the young self-effacing yet self-absorbed artists in Portland
could learn so much from Joe Macca's jokes. They are funny, but
they have engaging personal consequences that the artist is unafraid
to put on display. The main course of "Night Paintings"
are an absolution and a compression of Macca's concerns and ideals,
but are presented in a way that extends the horizon instead of shrinking
it. Well played.
damali ayo: Skinned
"Flesh Room," another engaging disappearing act.
Damali ayo had an excellent show in Seattle at the Center on Contemporary
Art (CoCA), called "Skinned." It really shows a lot of
her range as an artist. In "Flesh Room," a space painted
her own skin shade, her art literally obscures the artist like camoflauge.
In that room, she disappears somewhat while standing in front of
the wall. Nice touch. It's about how basic skin-shade characteristics
overshadow people. Yet when people who do not match her shade stand
in the room the difference stands out all the more saliently. The
point? Color matters but it is up to the viewer to subjectively
Overall, "Skinned" is pretty nuanced and aesthetic. Its
genesis occurred in a paint store where the staff was continually
asked to match colors. Ayo, being the imp she is, simply asked to
match her skin tone.
In the second room, ayo arranged a multitude of skin-toned surfaces
with dime-store frames. The effect is concussive: ayo as an artist
has completely disappeared into a sea of flat, droll distinctions
about skin tones. A real showstopper.
It's easy to get used to as art. However, does it really change
people? Probably not, unless it's put in increasingly public spaces.
But as Victor Frankl pointed out while accounting his ordeal in
the holocaust, "A human being can get used to anything."
Ayo's display of variety is at least part of the solution.
Trish Grantham: "Compound"
through March 4
a crowded opening.
I last wrote about Trish Grantham in September 2001. Her works
are still "untitled," but have gained a greater clarity
after some experimental forays with newsprint and acrylic polymer.
I particularly love the almost robin's egg blue that all the works
share for a background.
The works defy gravity more than before, with floating cars, bunnies
and pieces of bread. All are symbols of change, fertility and an
uneasy reading of bread as a life-giving fuel and/or the literal
bun in the oven. The work defies too close a reading and has this
wonderful uneasiness. It is not for lil' boys, it is not for lil'
it's for young single people who need to explore basic
life questions, age 21-38.
There are questions that explore two-pronged queries:
1) who to love, who can love?
2) where to move, where to stay?
Seems pretty simple, except there is an intense cynicism infused
into the work and that complicates everything. It looks a bit like
a good pop song sounds.
Trish herself does not have an indecisive quality
her work, but I'm certain her whip-smart cynicism was the catalyst
for the work. Once again, the artist takes a bow offstage. We don't
learn much about Trish through the work, but it speaks for an entire
demographic particularly those who search for "their
thing." It is valid but can be tiring when forlorn words are
woven into the painting surfaces. Leave it more ambiguous.
Trish didn't enter the Oregon Biennial, feeling she wasn't quite
ready. It's that kind of assessment that will eventually make her
better. We'll keep watching this one right now she's already
better than 90 percent of the entries who didn't recognize their
flaws. Trish's work will come of age when the narrative leaps from
its age bracket and holds true for all.
Amos Latteier: "Power Pointillism"
Multnomah Public Library, Portland
doin' the pigeon.
Amos Latteier incorporates basic laptop presentation techniques
into art performances. I really like the subversion of the office
tools for art, but on a critical level Latteier needs more results
for his presentation to take off (cough).
Latteier gave a lecture on flight-based photography with special
emphasis on pigeon photography. His mad scientist/hobbyist earnestness
was infectious, recalling Bert from Sesame Street, who sang "doin'
the pigeon" with no sense of irony.
Latteier is not so much postmodern. Instead he is pre-success in
the best possible way.
He doesn't really have command of his subject matter, but one senses
the day will come.
A postmodern presentation would simply insist that man and pigeon
are somehow destined to ineffectual, imperfect enterprise. Instead
this Power Pointillism is more like early science, a form of trial-and-error
empiricism. Think: the New Organum ... broadcast.
As art, its infectiousness and lecture format recalled Beuys, Yves
Klein and Luca Buvoli's recent work at PICA. The only real problem
is that it was obviously a project in medias-res with some pretty
excellent blurry pictures that Latteier didn't like much. I liked
'em; real ambiguous and Latteier's plausible explanations were good,
too. But they lacked punch.
The problem lies in how little material the presentation had regarding
the pigeon-based photography. The unknown aspects of the journey
were the best part. This is process-art in the guise of a lecture.
At this point in his development, Latteier is both the artist and
the medium. Whereas with more photos from the pigeons, maybe 20/50,
we would see it more as a collaboration. Then our view of Latteier
would become a presentation on the evidence the pigeon brought back.
With a critical mass of material, the art would overshadow the
artists (pigeon and Latteier) and gain more efficacy. William Wegman
went through a similar thing with his early films, though I do not
wish Wegman's current Chrysler-ad hell on Latteier.
Then again, if this is just a hobby and not intended as art, then
by all means make Ford ads and feed the feathered friends.
There is nothing wrong with turning one's hobby into a career.
All careers have rules, even art. As long as you're a mad scientist
making a Frankenstein, ultimately beyond your control, it is still
The second you clone Michael Jordan and deliver the new young Jordan
to the NBA, you have just become a sane, pragmatic scientist and
the ad world's favorite person.
At that career point, it would be nice to begin collecting some