Friday, January 31, 2014

William Wegman: Revisited



WILLIAM WEGMAN graciously acknowledges that he follows his dog's lead; that the model, in this case a dog, through some mood or gesture, shows him what he will do. This really is a question of grace, for the results are pure inspiration! In his dogs, Man Ray and Fay, he has recognized the uncanny expression of an immense humanity that wasn't human at all and has realized it with both vision and humor.

William Wegman is famous for his photographs of his Weimaraners. You could say that his dogs have made him the successful artist that he is, or, that he has made them famous, since most people would recognize them and lose him in the frenzy of adoring fans. Nonetheless, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston is hosting an exhibit which also includes his paintings, drawings, and videotapes in an effort to expose us to the complete artist and prove that there is more to Wegman than his dogs.

With almost 150 works from the past 20 years, this retrospective is the first stop on a United States tour that went all over Europe. It is a salute to Wegman's contributions as an artist and a clown. Despite the common bond of humor, the works in the four separate media are all quite different from each other. Only two show any signs of dogs. The truth is that each medium does reveal a different side of William Wegman. One might invite a certain refinement, another detachment, and still another something more in our face. By nature the drawings are witty and adolescent. They have a comic-strip image that tells a story, a joke. They delight in simplicity, a kind of straightforward and divine dumbness that approximates an idiot's wisdom, usually right on target in some offbeat way.

The paintings, on the other hand, are lively and painterly in that they enjoy what paint can do and how images can emerge from that paint. They are also watery, fresh, and colorful, with a great deal of activity in terms of gesture, energy, and detail. Their subjects are large, in the landscape, from the balcony, life in the garden, on holiday, the hustle and bustle of town. They are good-natured and fun, almost bucolic - at least on the surface.

The videotapes are almost childish. One gag after another in which Wegman uses himself and/or Man Ray as an instrument or subject. Most are mercifully brief and enjoyable, brimming with an inventive- ness, irreverence, and crude, impromptu charm. They can surprise. We might not recognize just what we're seeing at first; like something pour- ing down right in front of the lens with the color and consistency of heavy cream. Very heavy. It pulls away and we see that the camera is on the floor and Wegman is on his hands and knees, simultaneously spitting out this stuff and crawling backward so as to form a straight line. He turns a corner and disappears. Around that same corner seconds later appears Man Ray licking up the white liquid line until finally his tongue obscures the camera.

THEN there are the dog photographs. They have a certain classical and velvety elegance and intimacy to go with their cockeyed reality that makes them so appealingly dreamy. It seems unfair to compare them to everything else. However interesting it is to see the full scope of Wegman the artist, all this show ends up proving is that there is a reason for the popularity of his dogs; they are simply wonderful.

Although Wegman studied painting at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, and even went on to get a master's at the University of Illinois, he made his mark as an artist when he began photographing Man Ray in 1970. It was the beginning of a love affair between an artist and his model that lasted a dozen years and produced some of the most powerful and memorable images of its time.

The affection in his work is plain, even as it is undercut by humor, making it unique in a cool and cheerless art world. That Man Ray consented to pose, sharing his compassion and intelligence, however ridiculous the situation, lends the work its emotional touch. This is not a dog performing tricks. It is a free spirit indulging, even guiding, the lens and the artist. It is showing him and us something we have never seen or recognized and have yet to learn. To see the photographs is to believe this. The more preposterous or awkward the arrangement, the more gentle and haunting his wizened gaze, and the more profound the psychological impact.

As Man Ray approached the end of his life, Wegman turned from black-and-white to color Polaroids to preserve all he could of his canine companion's camera magic. The athletic young lead had by then become something of a character actor, but he had something to give, right to the end. It wasn't until almost five years after Man Ray's death in 1982 that the artist began working with dogs again, this time with his young female Weimaraner, Fay (b.1985). Life renewed itself with a new love, and the magic was back. Wegman and his dogs are jesters in the court of art. They clown around, recreating scenarios that benignly slide up beside us and strike a pose, showing us just how foolish our own charades are. Looking into the dog's eyes we are looking into a mirror, seeing how we feel about our own predicaments, asking how we got there, if and how we'll ever get out. It's all very funny, and then it's not. Dogs look pretty silly doing these things, but then so do we.

HUMOR is a seamless and essential part of life, one section in a strand of spaghetti. Wegman sticks that part up front in his work, and we call it humor. He gives us one long strand, however; one long enough for a meal. There is an innocence natural to most of the early work, to the drawings, the videos, and the photographs. It is hard to keep that alive. Life tests our sense of humor. Loss touches us all. When Wegman struggled, his dogs kept their innocence. They stood in for him, acting as his better half, a kind of alter-ego self-portrait.

This is the happiest of alliances. Most artists will admit just what a difference it makes to have a great subject. Then they can get about the the business of drawing, filming, painting, or photographing. William Wegman has had the great fortune of having two extraordinary subjects, Man Ray and Fay, and he has done them extraordinary justice by listening to them.

Addison Parks, Sept. 9th, 1991;

Pgs 16 - 17; Courtesy of the Christian Science Monitor

The William Wegman show will be at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, through Oct. 6, 1991 before traveling to the Ringling Museum, Sarasota, Fla.(Nov. 8 - Jan. 5), and the Whitney Museum of Art, N.Y. (Jan. 22 - April 19, 1992).

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Sunday, January 26, 2014

Todd McKie: Revisited

Todd McKie
He showed me his first painting, something which gave him so much pleasure at the age of 10, and gives him pleasure still. It was of a dog sitting in the grass with a tree to its left and a driveway to the right. He said that even though the dog mostly resembled a brown smudge, to him it seemed to be looking down the driveway. Twenty years ago, Todd McKie came to Boston straight from art school and began a career here which by now ranks him as one of Boston's finest and most influential artists. What he does today depends on that same sense of touch, that same sense of beingness alive in a gesture; a smudge.

The word "wonderful" was invented to describe Todd McKie's art. It sparkles like a child's garden on a sunny blue day. It is an innocent vision of life, objects at one, floating among the elements, half dream, half glimpses of a plan. McKie says that they are all characters on a stage, and points out one or two that look lost. Yes, lost in the garden, lost with wonder. Todd McKie makes wonderful images of primary existence, plants, animals, humans, vessels, furniture, fun.

There is something casual about this artist's work, as though it was all about something happening. It is not surprising to hear that he started out doing performance art. The work is almost just a record of some place he is, or goes. The color is so rare it is startling. It has sound. When I see it I hear it, and as if for the very first time. It is that original. I couldn't get over it. Blues, greens, oranges - "smudges" of genius.

On the wall adjacent to the one where his first painting clung to two nails was a bulletin board with a few photographs and drawings pinned to it. The photos were of Jesse, his son and only child who was killed last year. He took down a drawing and showed it to me. It was something Jesse had done of him that was like-spirited in both imagination and humor. The McKies like their humor. Todd's wife, Judy, is a furnituremaker whose work is as wild and playful as her husband's. He says that they share the same inspiration. Then he went over to his stacks and pulled out a watercolor that he and his son had done together when Jesse was 15. Jesse had painted the fish. It was shiny and bright.

Addison Parks
Courtesy of the Christian Science Monitor,  February 14, 1991

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Time of Day, Revisited

Louise Fishman, MacDowell Series #10, 1980. Oil on canvas, 8 x 10


This is a story of fear and ignorance. My story; A New York story, circa 1979. I was doing some writing for ARTS Magazine. Richard Martin had given me an Uptown beat, which wasn't particularly exciting, mostly mainstream and old guard haunts. Robert Miller's space stood out as the exception. Nonetheless, I got around. On one morning I might get yelled at by Betty Parsons for not seeing something her way; and my way, some punk of a painter's, was in print(later I atoned). On another day in another venue a dealer might casually offer to pay me to write something, anything at all, about their show. Just your regular stuff. This story is about one of the times I went astray.

One afternoon when searching for something to write about, and feeling pretty bored, I found myself pacing around a group show at Oscarsson Hood. I was alone in a gallery full of preneoexpressionist paintings, and free to conspire with myself. Did I say I was bored? It was then that an awful idea occurred to me: I was going to look for the worst painting in the show. Instead of searching for work I liked, I was going to discover the one I hated. Wow! What a concept! And I had a winner! Yes! There it was, a little smudge of a canvas by Louise Fishman.

Of course, you can guess the rest. After really looking at the painting, I fell in love with it. I was more excited than I had been in a long time. I went on to visit her studio, and write two articles about her work, one under an assumed name.

I might have been too ashamed to tell this story if it didn't have such a happy ending. Ashamed for being such a little shit of a human being. Ninety-nine percent of what I'd written had looked for the best in what people did, and I considered myself an enthusiast above all, an artist supporting his brothers and sisters. So what went wrong?

At the time it was Richard Tuttle who would remind me that what I was really looking for was my own reflection, my own "dimension." That dimension was my own values, my own tastes, my own experience. As broad as they might have been, I was still limited by them, and I was justifying them on the grounds that they were founded on some kind of knowledge. I thought I knew. In twenty years of writing about artists and their work, I have learned that I do not know, and cannot know. That no one can.

So now what? You don't agree? You can't agree? Everything you've been taught has told you otherwise? I had the same education. With maybe a couple of exceptions. My mother was an artist with an eighth grade education who taught me to think for myself. A mind of your own was about the best thing you could have beyond a good heart. She was as intelligent, well traveled, and well read a person as you could hope to meet. She was also an art lover.

What I got from her was that you had to give in to a work of art. You didn't master it, you let it master you. Only by surrendering would the work surrender to you. Richard Tuttle talked about it in terms of walls; that our walls had to give way before the walls of the work would. If we don't surrender, the only things that we will connect with will be ourselves in some other form. By looking in the opposite direction that day I discovered something else. I have since tried to preserve that peripheral vision despite my own limited dimension.

I speak for every artist I know when I say that it hurts when someone we've shared our work with fails to take an interest in what we've done. No curiosity, no excitement, no enthusiasm, no touch, no connection, no response. It is like making food that someone has just left on their plate. If they are content to be married to such behavior on the grounds of taste, as though they were correct in some assessment, and somehow justified in passing judgment, then they are only lying to themselves. Ironically, they would want more for themselves. Who wouldn't? I was lucky enough for some twisted reason to give Louise Fishman's painting the time of day, when I wouldn't have otherwise. As a result, I grew about six inches in a heartbeat, and the magic that is art became mine. In the end, middle and beginning, that's all it takes. The time of day.

Addison Parks, June 1996;
Reprinted Courtesy ARTSmedia Magazine;Boston

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Sunday, January 19, 2014

Harold Shapinsky Revisited

Untitled (1984) oil on paper, 17x22

HAROLD SHAPINSKY made a surprisingly big impression on me. Surprising because I figure that the world is jammed full of Shapinskys. That out there are millions of people who have just done what they loved doing just because they loved doing it even though no one else noticed. I didn't talk to him for much more than an hour, but talking to him impressed me more than his paintings.

And it wasn't what he said, and it wasn't that his paintings didn't make an impression, because he said good things, and makes wonderful paintings. No, what impressed me about Harold Shapinsky, and really made me appreciate his paintings and understand them so much more, was what he didn't say.

Harold Shapinsky is a 65-year old man who had been living and painting in Brooklyn, New York, in obscurity until six years ago when he was "discovered" and given his first one-person show, in London. He had been working all of his life in a style he evolved as a young man which at the same time was changing the face of the art world: Abstract Expressionism (characterized briefly as a form of painting which emphasized gesture in an effort to define the flatness and realness of color and shape as a more integrated realization of the painted space). While the work of its recognized pioneers, giants like Pollock, De Kooning, Gorky, and Rothko, continue to cast a huge shadow over the art world, Abstract Expressionism has long ago been absorbed into the scriptures of art history.

When something or someone comes along that asks us to examine with fresh eyes what we have accepted as law, we are naturally skeptical. We look at this kind of work normally under the watchful gaze of museum guards; how can we be expected to take it seriously as the life work of someone whom we have never heard of, who has been storing it under his bed? In describing Harold Shapinsky's work, people talk about how it has the passion and appearance of a De Kooning. Perhaps the appearance, but not the passion. I am a great admirer of De Kooning's work, however this work is really quite different beyond any stylistic similarities. Whatever it is that makes this work tick, it is worlds apart. And that is what makes it so interesting.

Apparently this work caused something of a stir because of how closely the dates correspond to the emergence of Abstract Expressionism. I don't know why this should come as such a surprise. One, that the paintings were done at the same time, and two, that they are "good." And that no one has ever heard of or seen the work.

You don't have to spend much in the so-called art world to discover that exposure and fame are as much of a mystery as art itself. Talking with Mr. Shapinsky,however, explains a lot. He is a shy and quiet man. But that doesn't explain it all. We have to ask, why the attention now and why, if he never wanted it, would he accept it now? It's still a mystery.

Untitled (1945) oil on paper, 21x28

So after all this time he had his first solo exhibition in New York(1990), at the Helander Gallery(which has closed since this was written). It was a small retrospective of the last 30 years of his work. Also included were paintings done in the last year. Happily these recent paintings are as lovely as any of the others; the man has not lost it. Any surprise? Not really. Not when you consider that he never seems to have strayed. There are differences, of course, but somehow there is something wonderfully the same, something constant, something remarkably true. Harold Shapinsky has held strong his faith in his vision, when all around him the world has changed.

What he pioneered in the spirit of the future 40 years ago is already in mothballs. And yet his paintings possess the authenticity of the real thing because they are the real thing. Harold Shapinsky is still painting Abstract Expressionist works that have all of the life in them that they had back then because he still believes in the form. Everybody acted like he was some kind of missing link. Well he is, and talking to him, I found out why.

It would be a mistake to sum these paintings up as some kind of "expressionism." Expressionism comes and goes. These paintings possess something more profound and lasting than passion. Their very existence is proof of that, and so is their vitality. I prefer to think of them as having a great deal of light instead of fire, in that light suggests a slow and enduring flame. The light is the thing I sense very strongly in the paintings. It is an impossible thing to put a finger on. It's just there. It is the kind of light that shines naturally in the art of children. Which says a lot. Children make art as plain as sunshine. You can't say much about it. It is all one. A pure and whole expression of life.

Which may explain why this work has failed to produce much "adult" response. There isn't enough self-conscious artifice for critics to sink their teeth into. That's the thing. I could hear it in myself as I talked to Harold Shapinsky. The negativity. The bitterness in the guise of criticism. I found no harbor in him for the expression of any such thoughts. None. It hit me like a hammer while I was talking to him. And then all of a sudden I saw it in the paintings. The acceptance. The positiveness. I was ashamed. But awed, and humbled. Something to admire and remember. Harold Shapinsky had nothing negative to say, and that said it all.

Addison Parks, 1990

This article originally appeared in the Christian Science Monitor and the Los Angeles Times on Dec. 3, 1990.

From the Artdeal Magazine Archives

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Saturday, January 04, 2014

Snyder, Joan: The writing on the wall

Joan SnyderYellow Was Blue (2013); 48" x 48"

Joan Snyder paints bulletins. Raw, brave, savage, savagely elegant paintings as bulletins. They pulse with color and paint and messages and signs and clues and musings  and poetry and humanity and promises. They flash in all directions and at the same time nail down a place, a moment, a crossroads, a confluence that is the thing that painting can still do, where touch and voice and memory and vision and thoughts and feelings and dreams can come together. Stick together. Stuck together. With paint. 

You can see it in her new painting: Yellow Was Blue (2013. 48" x 48"): a canvas at times scorched, singed, burned by fire. Consumed by fire. On fire. Where from the flames and ashes, where buried deep, where sinew and blood cry out, where life like pigment is ground and mixed to become the stuff of paint that gets scraped and pawed and smeared and brushed and washed and scrawled, and then rises, and catches the air, and the wind, and the light, and fills with life and voice, and then smiles and shines on us all.

Joan Snyder; Roses & Weeds (2013) 48" x 114"

And this is understood. Joan Snyder's paintings are what matters to her. What is going on with her. What is going on. These are the things that get pinned to her canvasses. With paint. With color and shape and paint. With color and shape and texture and mark and paint. Joan Snyder takes art personally. Like no one else. Like truth is beauty. It defines her, and her work, and if it is what you're looking for, she is where you go, where everyone goes. 

When Joan Snyder has a show, people come together. They drop whatever they are doing and join groups converging and answering some call. Like a pilgrimage. Converging. Like Flash mobs. Converging. They go to see what's new, of course, but more than that they go to get their fix. Paint like heroin. Fitting. For St Joan. St Joan the heroine. Her legions bleed for her work in the same way that her work bleeds. For them.

If you didn't know better you might think that Joan Snyder had been a disciple of Hans Hofmann. If you didn't know better. Something about boxes of color coalescing and floating over a sea of unreasoned paint. But that would be wrong. Hofmann was nothing if not instructional. Snyder is not, at least not in that way. Not formally. She would never presume. She knows there is poison and prison there, and the world has enough of both. No, quite the opposite, if Hofmann was the teacher, Snyder is the healer. The liberator. She would never say so of course, but everyone knows the unspoken truth. Joan Snyder's paintings bleed for us all. 

What can you say about her color, because you can't separate it from her paintings, but there it is. Color. Like you've never seen before. That goes inside you like fresh squeezed orange juice, that every cell in your body absorbs like a dying breath. Feeds on like a dying breath. Everyone comes poor to Joan Snyder's color and goes away rich! Color that rifles its way into our memory, memory of epiphanies past. Places and times resurrected, infused with new life, alive again! And so generously as well, as though she was made of paint!

Proserpina, 2013. oil, acrylic, paper mach, poppies,
 rice paper, dirt, charcoal. 48" x 120"

Another recent painting, Proserpina (2013), tells the story. We bask in its color like a field of wildflowers, like an expanse of Monet. Expansive Monet. We are nurtured by it. By its nature. We could live for days in it without food or water because it would feed us, be enough for us. Its energy would become our energy. Its passion would become our passion. Its beliefs become everything we believe. We lie down in these paintings. We lose ourselves in them. 

I won't pretend or presume to say what Joan Snyder's paintings are about. They are all different because they are about life and living; they are all the same because they are all her and hers. She is all things: creator, director, narrator, actor, and finally audience, as this is writing on the wall as journal, letter home, letter to oneself.

I will venture, however, that the work is supremely intelligent. Considered with great intelligence. Painted with great intelligence and wisdom. All I know is that jets are also the product of great intelligence, but I just fly in them, and look out the window. Joan Snyder's paintings are something we see that we feel immediately. The language of love. That is what we hear. The language of feeling. So close to the bone. It is unmistakable to us. Perhaps we all hear something different, but then I don't get it. I have heard art historians talk about Renoir nudes and never once mention flesh. They are all flesh. Joan Snyder's paintings are all emotion in the same way. The way Turner was all light. Of course some of the most emotional people I have ever known kept it under wraps. Pinned down. Like to a bulletin board.

Addison Parks
Spring Hill, 2014

Reposted on Berkshire Fine Arts