Bucky and Bob
Innocence meets cynicism
by Jeff Jahn
"All of human wisdom is summed up in two words:
wait and hope."
The Count of Monte Cristo
"Every man alone is sincere. At
the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins."
Ralph Waldo Emerson
twin poles of perception are optimism and pessimism, and most
human activity, including art, mixes a combination of the two.
For example, I'm pretty certain most everything
on this planet (including art objects, architecture and books)
is gonna be vaporized when our li'l yellow sun goes supernova
... in the ultimate bonfire of the vanities! Yet, I'm rather
fond of some of those doomed things that mark the uneven process
of human existence, landfills excepted.
|Damien Hirst's "The Impossibility of Death in the
Mind of Someone Living."
Yes, humankind and its detritus share the same fate.
But I like the combination of balls and wisdom it takes to greet
doom with a passionate kiss.
A great work of art, like Damien Hirst's "The
Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,"
does just that. It's so cynical that it becomes both a hilarious
bouquet of flowers and a Dear John letter for the grim reaper.
The dearth of important Hirsts on display at major New York
museums always looks like an intentional and small-minded omission
in the face of the facts. Nobody did that '90s decade better.
Also, I thought Dan Ness's nice little Buckminster
Fuller installation at Zeitgeist Gallery last month (including
B.F. postage stamps) explored both cynicism (for the aspirations
of the past) and a yearning for similar radical idealistic thought
(mostly M.I.A. in the culture of the present). In many ways
it was much better than his show at Mark Woolley Gallery this
Dan Ness celebrated and skewered Buckminster Fuller at
My personal belief is we might as well enjoy life,
and wouldn't it be great if the enjoyment was intellectually
stimulating maybe even resulted in something we could
share with others? It's an essentially optimistic outlook I
have to work at, because my critical tendencies easily veer
into cynicism. Problem is, cynicism goes nowhere and, in a world
with so much to do, a cynical stance seems irresponsible as
an aegis of thought.
Of course, everything sucks. The big question is,
what are you going to do about it? At least Buckminster Fuller
looked for the key problems of starvation and shelter and tried
to find solutions. Yes, his idealism provoked cynical responses,
but it's more important to be original for such noble purposes.
After a visit to Dachau during high school, I concluded
that the complacent/cynical acceptance of Hitler by the majority
of the German populace was the key factor in that particular
tragedy. It was as if otherwise reasonable people cynically
thought, "Herr Hitler seems to get things done in an orderly
fashion, who cares if he's a hateful bigot?" Chaotic Weimar
economics are not an excuse.
Following the recent election, we seem to have some
real challenges ahead as our so-called conservatives seem to
be anything but conservative.
Jody Faucett, from Disjecta's Because Cyniscism Left
In the present day, innocence and cynicism are hot
subjects. For at least five years the faux-innocent artists
in the U.S.A. have been painting little birdies, horsies and
deer into their work. Unicorns and rainbows (often in pastel
colors) are also big. Now it looks like polar bears on icebergs
are the next big thing in quasi-innocent art.
As an antidote to all this, I like Tal R's self-described
"zombie" painting style. By comparison, R's
paintings make those with deer look over-calculated and
R's work, along with Dana Schutz's cannibalistic
fantasy paintings (which I also like), acknowledge how very
little innovative thought is affecting the art world today.
Thus, many top artists are eating their own rather
than finding new sources of aesthetic nourishment. True, Schutz's
paintings draw their own blood, but I still think it's rather
bloodless work. Her paintings describe the problem but do nothing
to fix it and it's difficult to be interested in all the pity.
There is a lot to like but nothing to love.
Dana Schutz's "Self-Eater 2003."
During the '90s, art impresario Ralph Rugoff rode
in on the trend of fetishing the sulky and pathetic. Rugoff's
pessimistic and not exactly innocent work championed "failure
fetish," which could usually be accomplished with self-conscious
drawings, pale colors and faux-naive figurative paintings filled
with schlemiels demonstrating all sorts of bad posture.
This mood fit perfectly with the bursting of the
dot-com bubble but it seems to be aging badly. It delivers the
pathetic, dopey-is-cool, university-sanctioned mope-laden self-indulgence
= style credo.
I dislike most of it because it is an easy affectation
with a practically guaranteed effect: pity for confused trust-funders
with infinite possibilities and no drive.
It's just too conservative for me. The "why try
when failure can be guaranteed?" ethos is just not cutting it.
I call these artists the "Hug Me's."
Truth be told, puppies make more effective sad faces.
For instance, Californian Brian Calvin definitely has got the
sulky effect in his painting. His stuff looks like competently
painted coffeehouse-amateur-night art but it's actually not
nearly as interesting as the more clumsy stuff I see everywhere
in Portland and Seattle java spots. I think it's trust-funder-as-outsider
Brian Calvin's "Nowhere Boogie."
Let's look at the history of the sulk: It was definitely
in effect in 1904 Vienna, an imperial city with its empire in
decline (but, man, is this stuff weak compared to existential
masters Edvard Munch, Oscar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele).
Sulk-art also seems rather weak compared to characters
like J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield or Goethe's Young Werther.
The viscount of the sulkers is Brian Calvin. His
characters are intentionally one-dimensional but look like over-embellished
love letters to Alex
Katz, Calvin's obvious anti-inspiration.
Katz, with his nearly blank ambivalence, is more
daring and less of a mannerist not to mention a lot better
stylist than Calvin.
Furthermore, most innocent-pathetic art is less
compelling than its parallels in popular music, like Radiohead,
Modest Mouse or even Jack Black, who acts out his pathos with
perfect self-immolating musical intensity.
Still, the despair of 9/11 gave license to a lot
of cutesy innocent-pathetic art, just like Pollock's Life magazine
article gave rise to tons of bad faux-angsty stylized expressionism.
Despite this, the Royal Art Lodge really brought that pathetic-innocent-victim
style to international acclaim in the late '90s. The first wave
was the best and nothing all that interesting has come from
their followers in Brooklyn since. That was 1999. I'm over it.
SpongeBob: innocent superstar.
Sadly, the innocent/cynic debate isn't best articulated
in the art world (another sign our art academies have lost their
pulse). Leave that to pop culture's SpongeBob SquarePants, who
was originally conceived of as a porous innocent surrounded
by cynics (and, curiously, fishy ones).
Notably, SpongeBob is not a perennial victim like
Wile E. Coyote or Seinfeld's George Costanza (both victims of
their own design).
To wrap up this rant, I think the art world likes losers (Beautiful
Why? Because it makes the wealthy feel both superior
and less threatened to think of artists as impotent, mopey street
sages. Admittedly, the street sages with MFAs are often their
Despite that, after this last election I cannot
see liberal-minded types fetishing losing as a consummation
devoutly to be wished for. It does matter who wins.
Calatrava ... building hope?
Seattle (Nov. 7)
Santiago Calatrava's Milwaukee Art Museum.
In architecture, the hegemonic grasp of cynicism
is under the strongest attacks and Santiago Calatrava reminded
me, with his Nov. 7 lecture at the University of Washington,
that he is the most inspiring man in his profession. Tellingly,
he spoke to a capacity crowd and many were turned away from
The university then used this situation as a pitch
for an even larger lecture hall, possibly designed by Mr. Calatrava
I can't blame them; Seattle is a city that collects
After the brilliant (but hardly ever open) Seattle
Library by Rem Koolhaas, Seattle needs another building with
which to distract itself. Portlander Brad Cloepfil is already
doing the Seattle Art Museum.
So yes, Calatrava is a pragmatic man and, like most
adults, is definitely not an innocent. Still, he is the farthest
from being a cynic that architecture allows. Really, who wants
to spend millions on a sulky, depressing building? The downside
is that some of his buildings, like the Milwaukee Art Museum,
have been plagued by massive cost overruns.
MAM atrium (photo: Jeff Jahn).
Despite this, you get what you pay for. Calatrava's
inspiring buildings soar, they often resemble string instruments
and they are almost always painted that heavenly space-mountain
If fact, the white can be obnoxious and, the first
time I walked around the outside of the Milwaukee Art Museum,
I sang the theme to "The Love Boat" in jest of its Princess
Cruise Ship whiteness. I stopped singing when I got inside.
Even the museum's Alexander Calder mobile is definitely
served well by the space Calatrava made for it. Calatrava's
projects are usually structures where ideals and ideas are manifested
places like museums, concert halls or bridges.
His buildings are incredible servants of humanity,
not the other way around like the work of so many other "great"
In fact, Calatrava's PATH terminal in New York looks
to be the only bit of new architecture up to the task of reclaiming
Ground Zero from the terrorists.
The design of the infinitely compromised Libeskind/Childs
Freedom Tower at Ground Zero will be tall but it won't really
address the intense symbolic void at the site.
PATH atrium: New York or Alderon?
Besides, what are a bunch of tacked-on windmills
doing at the top of its Freedom Tower? It's a silly eco-pander
that does not make up for the fact that it is a less-than-inspired
building on a plot of earth thirsty for inspiration.
A compromised design cannot cope with the uncompromising
weight of history, horror and responsibility that Ground Zero
demands. That's why Dachau and Auschwitz are not allowed to
be bulldozed. What monument would be able to speak better than
the camp itself?
Needless to say, Ground Zero is a place where innocence
and real victimization make paintings with deer and rainbows
seem like the trite affectations they are.
At least Calatrava has addressed humanity's need
for uplifting places.
Other architects, like Frank Gehry, Tadeo Ando,
Daniel Libeskind, local boy Brad Cloepfil, Norman Foster and
Rem Koolhaas, are also capable of being inspiring and pragmatic
when asked to compromise a little.
But all of them take a backseat to Calatrava. I
think people love his work so much that they don't wish him
to compromise so much ... hence the heavy price tags.
This is your mama's MoMA. [Courtesy Museum of
Modern Art © 2004 Timothy Hursley]
Other big-name architects, like Renzo Piano, Herzog/de
Meuron and new MoMA expansion architect Yoshio Taniguchi, are
poetic-utilitarian in their approach, rather than evocative
A museum's choice of architect says a lot about
that institution's level of cynicism.
For example, New York's new MoMA practically says
"we are what you expect, only bigger and whiter than before."
By going with Taniguchi and not Koolhaas or Stephen Holl, they
keep interpretive context control more in the hands of the curators
than the visitors or architects. At one time architects redefined
the meaning of modernity not purely as a style but as an experience
(see Frank Lloyd Wright). MoMA somewhat rightly quells the impulse
to challenge the art via architecture. Still, art that lives
in the present should be challenged and that radical Greenbergian
term, "toughness," seems neutered by much new museum
Still, I think the museum did a good job in being
fundamentalist and not gimmicky, but it definitely lacks any
(even token) experimental tinkering. Look, it's 2004
we should have some variety beyond whiteness. That whiteness
is anything but neutral; it conveys a certain precious deadness.
Thus (as if it was ever in question), MoMA is definitely
stating "the art of the present, while interesting, is not as
important as our collection of works up until 1989 ... we are
resting on our laurels and officially abdicate the responsibility
of showing new and non-blue-chip ideas to someone else."
I think a major theme for the next 10 years will
be that our established institutions like MoMA are so cumbersome
(and investment oriented) that, for the first time since the
early '80s, individuals will be charged with turning the big
ship of western civilization. Who knows, maybe everyone is about
to man the lifeboats.
causes for cynicism and optimism
Plemons and Shettler of Portland Art Center.
For dramatic contrast in economic scale to MoMA
there is the brand new Portland Art Center
headed by Gavin Shettler and Karen Plemons. It's large enough
to be exciting, small enough to afford rent for two years with
the help of a grant. It's not Brobdingnagian, but the space
is definitely the nicest gallery in Portland now that Haze has
closed (Elizabeth Leach's new gallery and the New American Art
Union space are equally lovely, too).
Thankfully, the center puts its imperative on consistent
and adventurous gallery-space programming.
As a rather young non-profit, Portland Art Center
now needs operating capital for programming and salaries. Portland
does have a huge untapped membership pool of arts people that
until now has not had an organization that seemed to fit its
needs. Still, Shettler and Co. need to reach the real money
and it will take more than talk and intentions to make that
happen. This project lives and dies on its programming.
I am optimistic because Shettler has reversed his
old anti-curatorial position, which seemed to promise everyone
a show opportunity. It was simply an untenable populist utopian
idea that wouldn't help anyone. Bravo. It's not like hasty warehouse
shows were uncommon here. Instead, we need a venue for more
considered and gutsy solo statements. Let's hope this is it.
Main gallery for the yet-unfinished Portland Art Center.
Shettler, who readily admits he is not an "art expert"
but an arts facilitator, will have a five-person programming
committee, including himself and center programming director
The other three members mentioned were good choices,
In a stroke of brilliance, the main gallery space
is to be devoted to installation art for the first year. It
is a severely under-served genre and probably the most exciting
part of the scene.
Another smaller gallery and a bathroom will also
be programmed with a looser, even more experimental approach,
featuring all media.
The first two main gallery shows of the year are
solid but adventurous choices: John Mace and Katherine Bovee.
As a juror, I fought to get Mace a show at the Portland Building
last year and it will be exciting to see what he does for the
Jan. 7 inaugural show.
Mace is capable of being spectacular but has not
had a great venue to strut his stuff. Let's hope he delivers.
This art center needs an auspicious start.
If it can follow through with some really great
programming, the community will support it. Money isn't scarce
here, but Portlanders are not easily fooled. If the programming
does not excite them, the Portland Art Center will die.
There is competition, too. Shettler's former Modern
Zoo partner, Bryan Suereth, is planning to open a much larger,
less-well-planned non-profit on Portland's Park Blocks this
spring. Call it cultural dueling banjos!
Even PICA claims to be restarting visual programming
in January (after a year hiatus!). PICA has got a lot of bad
blood to fix and their Masada complex has not helped. I missed
them (Time-Based Art just isn't my preferred focus) but, with
the new museum wing and two local art centers, they are reentering
at a competitive time in the visual arts.
from Brodie Large's Color Show at The Residence.
Everyone, including noteworthy once-staunch supporters,
are saying "I'll believe it when I see it."
The promise of a lecture series should be easy to
deliver, but we all wonder why it's taken nearly a year. The
visual-art scene in Portland really doesn't take kindly to being
an afterthought these days.
Another thing to be excited about is a new space,
The Residence, in the Everett Station Lofts.
The Lofts have been disappointing this year but
gallery proprietor Brodie Large put on the nicest show seen
in the Lofts since Michael Oman-Reagan closed Field last year.
Large's work had an inspired subject matter (color
with the tonal nuance of B&W photography) and was concise,
consistent and beautifully hung.
Let's hope he resurrects the Lofts which
are bustling with activity but low on inspiration, compared
to their heyday from 2000-03. With what looks like a major blue-chip
gallery relocation to a building only two blocks away, the Lofts
will become even more optimally placed by the end of 2005.
Savage Art Resources
Carlee Fernandez at Savage Art Resources.
Yep, little deer are everywhere ... at Disjecta,
Motel, Backspace, the Everett Station Lofts and at Haze's Aili
Schmeltz exhibition last March.
So what does it all mean?
At best, the so-called Bambi Effect is represented
by Carlee Fernandez's "Rabbit with Tangerines."
It's a kind of call and response between the natural
and manufactured, and hits on both atavistic and civilized levels.
In this example, the bunny and tangerines merge
a combination of ornamental still life and Frankenstein-like
It is both aesthetically pleasing and very dead
... like that animatronic Lincoln at Disneyland.
The whole thing is definitely too posed and manipulated
kinda like Michael Jackson doing an "impromptu"
dance on a car outside his child-abuse court hearings.
It is more subtle than that, though, since the presence
of a little white bunny implies lab-animal genetic manipulation.
By mixing the impulse to say "aww how cute" and "that's wrong,"
the viewer experiences what Robert Storr has been describing
as "soul dizziness" a disoriented response
to a series of incongruent, instantaneously triggered responses
that the mind cannot reconcile so much as accept and move on.
Is that the Bambi Effect, then? Nope.
Ashley Macomber's "Conversation of Death."
In other pieces, like Ashley Macomber's "Conversation
of Death," two stylized wolf heads seem to gaze at a gopher
fish. Predator and prey, the li'l "fish out of water" gopher
is no match for his antagonists.
The piece is both cute and mean, does not really
take sides and brings up the life-and-death struggle that is
part of being an animal. Although the piece is good, it does
not seem to go much beyond its own kitschy fantasy. It's as
if being a study in innocent but necessary victimization is
enough. I disagree. Seems like a vegan trying hard not to seem
Other pieces, like Marc Swanson's "M.D.S."
(a drawing of an owl sitting upon a platform with banners on
an animal hide), is a study in supports. The hide is the support
for the drawing, which supports the banners and platform, which
stage the owl, an age-old symbol of wisdom.
It is a somewhat romantic study evoking wild places
and the hard work of hewing civilization out of the wilderness
by hand. It is a drawing, after all. I suspect it has more effect
if you live in Manhattan and didn't grow up seeing real deer
and owls on a daily basis, like myself. To these eyes, it just
seems like a city slicker playing the frontiersman gimmick.
Somogyi's "The moment just before."
Shay Nowick's works on paper have the same problem.
"Horse Ride, With The" is a rather unconvincing
study in self-pity.
There is a young girl sitting on the ground, her
turtleneck pulled meekly over her chin. The rather unintimidating
horse stands next to her and has a big "F" on its
saddle blanket. Since the turtleneck rider is not riding, I
suppose "F" is for failure. Yet, the scene all seems so self-imposed.
Next time, fail better by trying to get on the damn
horse. This is "I need therapy" art.
I did like two other pieces.
Erika Somogyi's "The moment just before" deals in
Its little stump and delightfully painted pinecone,
rocks and "almost a geode" have a certain innocent wonder to
them that isn't forced like some of the work in this show.
Innocence inherently has potential both for bigger
and better things and for corruption. Somogyi's piece teeters
along the twin poles of fulfillment and doom. Life is like that
and, although this is precious, I think that it wins with disarming
The last piece is Justine Kurland's "Self-Portrait
With Deer." I've been a fan of Kurland's for years and
I like how this piece puts her intentions as a photographer
and a person literally front and center.
Justine Kurland's "Self-Portrait With Deer."
In the past, she has assembled a troop of young
girls who explore a landscape.
More recently, she photographed communes, somewhat
exploring her own upbringing.
Her works are studies in innocence and Kurland herself
has a gleeful, zippy, almost elfin personality (picture her
hopping up and down with a high-pitched squeal while she tells
me how much she loves Portland).
What I like about this self-portrait is that she
is no longer just the voyeur. She meets the adorable wild ones
in a park's parking lot. It's both a human and inhuman animal
in the sort of Checkpoint Charlie that exists between the two.
In this work the photographer and the photographed
are both naked and aware. Like the best work in the Bambi Effect,
it isn't so much the big innocent eyes or even an effect, it's
a conceptual acknowledgement that the artist is complicit in
keeping innocent qualities alive through bringing verve to the
Call it zest ... why else would an artist take up
crazy taxidermy or cavort with real deer?
Kurland and Fernandez are the most accomplished
artists here because their works retain legitimate innocence
while evincing a knowing regard at the same time.
It makes me smile and disturbs me, so it must be
Kilimnik's "Dinner" (Seattle Art Museum) ... she made better
horsies way back in 2002.
The other work by younger artists in this show could
be better described as the Bambi Affect.
So yes, the Bambi silhouette is today's symbolic
poodle-skirt-meets-anime-big-eyed-schoolgirl, but I'd rather
see something weirder.
A few years ago, Karen Kilimnik did this sort of
innocent girl nostalgia much better. Why? Because the narrative
is much more ambiguous and less cloying. Yes, the Bambi trend
continues. But to a certain degree it has parodied itself out
of freshness and relevance for this new wave.