David Lynch at PAFA: Why a Duck?
Julien Robson, who once judged me into a group show at the Main Line Art Center, mentioned in his talk about curating the show that the most useful distinction between a serious artist and a flower-pot painting amateur is that your professionals hold themselves accountable to the whole history of art. I love that statement for at least two reasons: one, it excludes everyone while naming a concrete and all-encompassing goal to shoot for, and two, it ignores technique, or suffering, or a degree from a respected institute and a testimonial from the Wizard of Oz as relevant qualifiers for the coveted title.
A fellow said to me recently that he went to a Picasso exhibition, and he was so gratified to see some good old, faithful-to-life sketches in it, "which prove Picasso could [jump through hoops] if he wanted to." So there. The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts' show of paintings by David Lynch, Unified Field, follows the future Academy Award nominee when he was a student at that school from 1966-1967. It provides a record of Mr. Lynch’s progress as an art student just before he began to make films. Was he an artist then, and is he now? No one can claim to grasp “the whole history” of art, but essentials in the posture of the real deal, if you will, are clear. Art is an intellectual and physical engagement with the unknown for the purpose of communicating the artist's presence to it. Unified Field is a superb presentation of a personal history and seems essential to understanding films like Blue Velvet and Eraserhead, or the television series Twin Peaks, and it certainly establishes Mr. Lynch’s credentials as an artist, right there at PAFA, the third art school he abandoned.
Mr. Lynch’s films and art works are nothing if not enigmatic. Most of modern art has an opacity about it, that sickening I don’t-have-enough-information feeling taking hold in a viewer, but a movie that doesn’t fall all over itself trying to declare what it means is rare, and Mr. Lynch has made several of those. The best thing about Lynch’s work is that meaning remains unclear and unresolved. The mechanism for wresting a moral from the story is present. We see it in the hard-working and straight-shooting detectives in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, but the plots amble towards an eventual revelation that doesn’t literally reveal anything, or at least anything useful to the human sensibility. Of Eraserhead, Lynch said it was “a Philadelphia of the mind.” A baffling movie becomes that much clearer: like Philadelphia, Eraserhead is about the decline of the Industrial Age, the stubborn and inconvenient fleshiness of the human form, and the importance of good grooming.
The point is to thwart revelation in a Hollywood-type vehicle that insists on disclosure. Lynch the movie-maker explains that, as much as we arm ourselves with facts and measurements, we don’t understand what’s going on, and even the most banal scenes and locations are fraught with cosmos-sized perils. Twin Peaks stripped away layer after layer of an insidious evil infecting a whole town, and called it "Bob." Bob turns up in the PAFA exhibit. Despite the promise in its title, Unified Field doesn’t tell us why things are the way they are either. The title of the collection refers to a branch of physics that attempts to discover the Theory of Everything, a single background of sums and data that unifies the four atomic forces: gravity, strong interaction, weak interaction, and electromagnetism. Every attempt at this is a failure: even at the level of pure math and science we can’t make all the numbers work out. String theory as an explanation has yet to be discredited, but it presumes an order of randomness and multiplicity that’s anathema to a unified anything.
A vanity is the belief that the human mind can grasp what the universe means. One should still take a scientific approach, but be content that science can’t explain nature in ways that will appeal to the human reason. Lynch on art said, “You can learn a lot by studying a duck.” The point there is that the composition of duckness is unsatisfying, all lopsided and cartoonish, but since the duck is a form created by nature, we should be content that it is perfect (eight billion years of evolution can’t be wrong). Lynch’s work explores a margin of aesthetics and observation where paradoxically the human desire for closure and balance are thwarted and our discomfort with randomness is ignored; nevertheless, “It’s art!”
David Lynch has made it clear over time that Philadelphia crystallized his understanding of art and the path he should take as an artist. A particularly intense night in the studio revealed to him the idea of a painting that moves. From this he made one of his finest pieces, the installation Six Men Getting Sick (1967). A projector plays a movie made with a crude camera over plaster casts of the artist wearing various expressions in various states of fulfillment. A siren screams continuously. The installation graphically depicts vomit passing through the six men as if they were culverts conducting life’s rejected dross, the horrific and ugly experience of a consciousness riveted to nature by illness, a doubter praying. Lynch might be using nausea as Sartre employed it, to describe the epiphany of realizing our utter aloneness and lack of resources, but in any case, human life is a sickness that only death cures.
Embrace the sickness. Philadelphia’s seedy, grimy, gray patina over scenes of depravity and loopiness heightened the state of emergency the artist David Lynch craved. PAFA’s notes tell us he was simultaneously horrified and energized by life in my city. He grew up in a picture perfect suburb in Montana but developed a grim, Gahan Wilson-like consciousness about the evil under the rose bushes. I love the opening of Blue Velvet, Jeffrey Beaumont’s dad in a Hugh Beaumont/Leave it to Beaver suburb having a heart attack and falling to the ground. The camera detects the predatory bugs at the grassroots level. Home in Lynch’s paintings is where sickness arrives and deranged men scream from their front lawns, “I Burn Pinecone and Throw In Your House!” The notes tell us David Lynch at one time had to assure reporters that his childhood was perfectly normal and safe. I think of Edgar Allan Poe and how the public invented his nightmarish history because otherwise his horror stories didn't add up or make sense.
While David Lynch was at PAFA the MoMA had its huge Francis Bacon retrospective, and a couple of the works here crib from Bacon explicitly. They have the same museum or operating theater setting and vivisectioned subjects. I spotted the open mouth and pearly white signature of England’s superb and morbid portraitist, whose stated goal was doing for dentition what Monet did for haystacks. Francis Bacon’s visceral portraits of dissected humankind undoubtedly encouraged Lynch’s oddness and maybe the notoriously self-taught artist who mastered technique—but only so much technique as he needed-- gave Lynch the confidence to “loady up the truck and move to Beverly. Hills that is.”
Lynch’s very large works constructed on huge spans of cardboard with hard-wired lighting and all the other flotsam that makes its way into mixed media, commercial paint and industrial materials, signal an outsider sensibility, in this case, a creepy one. I think about the art work of marginal people, who don’t know about art, Windsor and Newton art, but know what they like, and what they want, and they make it themselves: shrines, mementos, and homunculi that reference the most banal private acts of perverse cruelty imaginable. I'm thinking about Ed Gein's lady shirt and Jeffrey Daumer's throne of skulls. Several of the works here use unwrapped cigarette filters to represent the intrusion of a death-obsessed corporate culture living in the dilapidated tract homes of the consumer-forging 50s. Lynch communicates in his films the unthinkable boogeyman lurking by the dumpster, behind the diner, or cruising through the neighborhood, driving too slowly.
Bacon’s Painting (1955) demonstrated the extreme viciousness and carnality of ordinary men. He does it with a confident brush, an umbrella, white teeth shiny with saliva, and a flayed carcass. The image is indelible and had its movie moment in Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs. That another fine American filmmaker was influenced by Bacon is something to ponder in the rich and disturbing PAFA show of David Lynch’s works, mounted on cardboard and presaging the most disturbing images in his big screen catalog: Laura Palmer’s blue cadaver wrapped in industrial plastic and left in the park and naked Dorothy Vallens running across the front lawn in Blue Velvet, interrupting her lover’s introduction of the girl next door to his horrified mom.
Susan McKee: The Invisible Superficial
Sometime in Art's murky past, the subjective world view triumphed over the public version (don't worry-- there'll be a rematch), and since then, painters have represented the hopelessly individual nature of experience with various technical schemes. The adjacent application of complimentary primary colors in Impressionism refers to Newton's work on optics and the idea that a viewer actually mixes colors in his or her brain; the grids and fragments of Cubism are a reaction to the falsity of imposing a single, physical perspective on that same viewer. Ironically, artists relied on color systems and prescribed techniques to expose a fundamental truth about experience: that it is by nature unpredictable, unsystematic, and wholly susceptible to the irregularities of an individual observer.
I'm not condemning Seurat or Braque for their inconsistencies because every plan to depict reality is equally doomed. Magritte's "This is not a pipe" seems to me the only irrefutable utterance in art criticism. In a discussion of painting, one must accept the existence of any number of technical metaphors for the ineffable object depicted within the frame and accept that a representation of the real is not reality. The very best we can hope for from a painter is a thoughtful, stylish projection of their own faculties in reference to a mutual, but misunderstood, multiverse. (I know you're out there: I can hear you writhing.) Disregarding all that tautological drek about art for art's sake and painting about painting, every art work is ultimately about the person who painted it. We look at their work and compare our own experience of the world to the artist's. And then, we plan lunch or pack the car, however we interpret new information. Painter by painter, it takes years of painstaking work to acquire a mere simulacrum of all that stuff out there, but, oh, the people you meet, the places you go!
Susan McKee's current [January, 2014] show at Muse Gallery conveys a quirky and often lonely version of existence through offbeat subject choices and the artist's expressive brushwork. She calls the collection of bright canvases "Glimpses," indicating the impossibility of presenting a comprehensive record of that which is viewed. We are inside Plato's cave, people, inferring a leafy, sun-dappled outside that may only be understood secondhand. Ms. McKee knows no better than you or me how to interpret life's phenomena, but she's a valuable witness with a tone that's humble and humorous and common-sense insecure.
A man toolless or a tool manless--Take your pick!-- signifies the condition of futility and unfulfilled purpose into which we have awakened. For instance, one of Ms. McKee's paintings abstracts the Maytag guy from those iconic television commercials featuring the "loneliest man in town." Clearly, every worthwhile artistic career is similar to that of the isolated repairperson, possessing a wealth of skills in vain, since Truth and Nature will never yield to them. The painting Bring Your Own Bike describes an abandoned, red, two-wheeler, leaning against a weathered facade, a perfect expression of some absent "other" and more than that, a delightful means with its cause deleted. McKee incises the painting's title into a colorless layer, graffiti in the whitewash. She's adept at producing transparent layers of paint that give the work a gauzy atmosphere, a fog over the proceedings, a technical means to express a wistful nostalgia, the persistence of loneliness, and the weakness of memory.
"Glimpses" contains shots of pretty women, the white vinyl, knee-high boots of a drum cadet and a row of leggy babes under globular hair dryers. Ms. McKee's subjects and titles (Soldier Boy, Sweater Girl, Maytag Repair Man) fix her in a particular generational cohort, so we can see her coming. The banal familiarity provides a comfort zone so she can do something truly subversive, which is to use a technical mastery of her materials to suggest what she does not have and can not acquire.
As avarice is the refuge of the stupid man, and religion is a balm for the uneducated, art is control for the helpless. McKee in charge! The woman in Sweater Girl is strikingly beautiful and engaging, but the artist doesn't fuss over the details. The sweater is a lush, deep, wool-knit blue and the woman sits transgressively on the side of a table. She leans toward us with an "It's your move!" expression. The paint here is a patchwork of opaque and transparent sections blending depth of rendition with a purposefully superficial eye. Memory is inexact. It has lapses. Boy, does it have lapses.
This artist, Susan McKee, in this show at Muse Gallery, is a virtuoso of presenting the limits on perception. She probably wasn't thinking about Immanuel Kant's bicycle when she painted the postcard shot for "Glimpses." Kant argued that we never actually see the quality of bikeness, but we have it in our heads, an image suggesting every aspect of the subject. Great! So now I have that going for me. But this a priori bicycle we see is not the thing itself. Our view is too particular, fixed, shaped by our own random experience to truly encompass the whole. We make do, but the human condition is essentially an anxious exile to five senses. Shouldn't there be more? And where's my jet-pack?
I love the side-by-side pictures of the Wicked Witch of the West getting in Dorothy's face and a row of trees McKee calls Out of the Woods. The witch's hands are clawing, grasping against Margaret Hamilton's chest, there, and little Judy looks up at her, helpless. But the child's expression isn't fear, exactly: it's more a look of nonplussed anxiousness. The danger our witch represents kicks in against us only if we engage it.
Thus, the trees in Out of the Woods are a row or two deep, a barrier in the sense that those padded contraptions on a football practice field are barriers. They only impose themselves if one takes up the sport. McKee allows that she suffers a sort of self-imposed anxiety that's part and parcel of choosing to make art, exerting self-limited control over an environment she can see but dimly.
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Four Stages of Human Consciousness
Muse Gallery 36th Anniversary Show
Philadelphia's oldest artists' co-operative gallery celebrates its longevity every December with a group show. Because they have successfully and democratically responded to stress in their environment for so long, Muse Gallery has much to celebrate. I admit my favorable bias in that I was a member of Muse Gallery until fall of 2013 (and its director for 18 months), but here then is first-hand witness to the amazingly vital functioning of the organization. Name me another endeavor of equal complexity managed entirely by collaborating artists? Hell, even the Traveling Wilburys folded eventually.
One skill that stays razor sharp in a group like Muse is hanging a show. Someone always volunteers to do it, gets three others to form a committee, and has the gallery ready for First Friday traffic before you can say, "I'll bring the cheese." When twenty or so artists are each showing one or two pieces, an affinity of colors, shapes, and textures guides their arrangement, and visitors especially appreciate a straight categorization according to non-verbal cues. Kathryn Lee's paper collages Blue Engine and Red Engine, so bright and warm, looked splendid in the back of the space next to Deann Mills' large abstract, I'm Busy. Ms. Lee, a former book illustrator, always exhibits the most marvelous, colorful constructions in three dimensions, compositions of purely abstract forms mixed with references to actual objects. Sometimes she mixes her own colors and paints paper stock, and other times she uses already colored papers, twisting and folding them to make forms that stand out from the white mounting board.
I often see purely abstract work that makes me think the artist has exhausted his vocabulary of shapes. By now, I've seen more than fifty of Ms. Lee's works, and she is as inventive as Sheherazade and always gives me the feeling that the party will go on forever. Deann Mills, who works in oil on large canvases, is another primarily abstract artist whose creativity with brushed forms, brilliant colors, and composition expresses the free energy of paint without the ennui of a large segment of 21st century art. Deann's previous life was as an architect, and I think she builds her work with great care so that each section works compatibly with the whole. The painting in the anniversary group show may be designed to answer the question, does Ms. Mills' painting have too much in it, too many colors and forms fighting for space? The answer is not that the painting is overstuffed, but rather that the artist herself contains many interests and passions.
The sculptor Etta Winigrad has been with Muse Gallery longer than any member artist except Lorraine Raywood, the resident mixed media and photography wizard. They remember when the gallery was a women-only collaborative. Ms. Winigrad's ceramic work follows a process of her own adaption where, in the final phase, the raw clay is exposed in the kiln to various burning woods for the effect the smoke creates on the crystallizing surface. More amazing than that is Ms. Winigrad's quirky extrapolation from the human form that is at once innocent, a bit primitive, and endearingly expressive. Around and Around makes material a head filled with too many ideas and things simultaneously. In a halo circling his brow, a key, furniture, sporting equipment, a lightning bolt and other Monopoly-set tokens represent a churning of consciousness. The skill with which the work is assembled and realized can't be overstated in the case of this superbly refined professional whose sophisticated sculpture always maintains a childlike grace.
In contrast to Ms. Winigrad, the printmaker Terri Friedkin has been a member of Muse Gallery for less than a year, but like her colleague, she creates her own path. The last prints I saw by this artist had a texture suggestive of computerized typing; in Unleashed she uses an array of perforations in a block of color that reminds me of modern building materials or even Ben-Day printing dots, but in any case they're human artifacts rather than forms from nature. Ms. Friedkin suggests a lot with very little. I wonder if the windows-like forms of Mark Rothko influenced the composition in this anniversary exhibition. She shares that artist's skill at creating transparent panes of color and the endless permutations to be gained by overlapping them.
Sara Bakken's three-dimensional Environment is made of silk organza and glass, and, once again with these Muse Gallery types, she is applying her own process to the materials. Ms. Bakken distresses the silk with heat to make nodes and uses hand-blown, often sand-blasted, glass to complete the delicate forms. Frankly, I have no idea how she holds the sections together: is it done with string? surface tension? centrifugal force? In the past, her work has studied simple organisms that live in very deep seas, and the work in this show also celebrates nature's elegantly abstract forms dwelling in that part of creation most alien to man.
Diane Lachman is a professor of color. I'm not making that up or being hyperbolic. She taught in the University of Pennsylvania's fine arts program, but retired when they made color an elective course for undergrad artists. (The same damn-the-foundations-let's-build-a-house enthusiasm has erased grammar from every college English program I know.) Ms. Lachman's canvases have always been about the juxtaposition of different hues and tones, and her compositions have featured abstract arrangements of grid-like boxes or floating lozenges.
Warp and Weft continues a series from her last Muse exhibition in which the picture grid breaks into pieces, not like a jigsaw puzzle, but like some four-dimensional, geometric construct that requires special technology to be expressed in our visible three. The artist provides a separate schematic with each piece that spells out precisely how the parts of the whole should be displayed on a wall. In my experience with Muse Gallery artists, Ms. Lachman's resourceful and inventive approach to realizing a personal vision is very much the norm. Perhaps the quality that best predicts membership in this co-operative isn't frustration with the commercial gallery scene in Philadelphia, but a wholly individual approach to the use of familiar materials.
Creative Force Made Real at Muse
Sara Bakken’s silk and glass constructions at Muse Gallery this October recall the moment in some dark and unknown past when random proteins, minerals, and water, compelled by light energy, met the minimal organizational requirements to be qualified as life. She uses delicate, primary forms of white silk and glass--cones, discs, and orbs--to build representations of simple invertebrates that live in the ocean only a few levels of complexity removed from the primordial lightning strike.Like any minimalist, Ms. Bakken reduces form to basics and dispenses with overt content. Her work assembles a small number of shapes into a gorgeous accumulation of different creatures.
The artist learned her vocabulary of basic forms during a period of experimentation and deliberate inventiveness; no one gave her technical instructions. Shaping the white silk or shaping the glass involves stressing the materials using heat, stretching, and probably occult practices. Ms. Bakken’s ingenious constructions utilize the shapes she needs to articulate existing deep sea critters, and multiplication is one of the strategies she deploys to assemble a likeness.
Because the subjects consists of such pared down forms, we might not recognize them as actual denizens of Earth and appreciate them as abstractions. Painters of flowerpots or cows are far less likely to have their work mistaken for art that takes as its subject the basic techniques or simple forms of its discipline. Playing as she does so close to the origin of creation, Ms. Bakken can readily be mistaken for an embodiment of the spark of inspiration, a sort of muse at Muse.
She isn’t the first to focus attention on the bounty of purely organic, natural life forms drifting under the sea or to recognize in them the stripped down tool kit of life and the basic forms of sculpture and brushstroke. Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) discovered and named thousands of species (probably some of the same that fascinate Sara Bakken), and he generated a tree of life showing the relationships between life forms. Stem cells and ecology were among the words he coined. Besides being a biologist, he was an artist, producing dozens of elegant paintings of anemones, discomedusae, and radiolarians. Haeckel embraced as aesthetic and scientific treasures the order and symmetry of simple organisms, many of them combined into large communities organized to perform functions so simple they are nearly chemical not biological.
All artists produce in a recognizable style distinguished by the telltales of their own hand and their idiosyncratic reproduction of what the eye sees. Sometimes the artist cannot reveal their hand in a work except through daunting complexities. Sara Bakken developed processes to transform silk and glass, and uses them elementally to copy forms in nature. By keeping to a trajectory that stays close to nature’s simplest expression of the lifeforce, she invites us to enjoy the similarities between compulsive artistic and natural creation.
A quite remarkable new work was sent anonymously to our sister station, TexEditing.com, the copywriting resource for people in the arts community. The format of the work bears examination, since it is consistent with ideas I've written about in the past, especially in "Why I'm Not On Facebook Any More," but pretty much everything in these blog pages is consistent with the attitude expressed in The Mystery of Bitter Root Manor. What a relief! I thought I might have to finish out the rest of my days without understanding.
The work is in pentameter verse in about 50 chapters and three acts, and describes adventures of a behavioral psychologist and chemist and his fascinating children and grandkids. In almost every case, access between sections requires knowing a password suggested by the poem and involving three categories of trivia: the guest villains on the 1966 Batman television series; the theme music for the James Bond franchise; and questions regarding the names of songs and album titles by The Beatles. The trivia answers are daunting to the casual reader, although close attention to the words in the poem usually give more than ample clues. The point of the exercise is to insist on active reading of the work instead of passive "barking at print."
"The secrets hidden a reader could find/ Blah, blah, blah, and if he-she had the time/ Well anyway, in these rooms they are writ/ With treasure to win if you give a shit," Anonymous writes in the brief introduction, expressing a fatalism about reader participation. We are fast becoming a culture of illiterates, perfectly content to have our information spoonfed to us by corporate interpreters, Fox News and the Koch brothers. The point of requiring the reader to engage the text seems a solution to what ails democracy in this century: potential voters who are helpless when it comes tracking down factual data or citing it, and helpless in perceiving obvious propoganda and slanted speech.
Reproduced with this article are a pair of screen grabs from Wikipedia pages devoted to Batman guest-villains and singers and songs in James Bond movies. Talking to readers of "Bitter Root Manor" made it plain some people can't abstractly pose the right questions to access these resources. That seems to be one of anonymous' motives in using these pools of facts as a starting point for the 5600-line epic about the family Archer. Wikipedia remains an excellent source of trivia; the problem is we have a globe stuffed with facts, and no one we trust to interpret them. The online encyclopedia encourages its wiki correspondents to provide citations for everything. Anonymous obliquely encourages rudimentary scholarship in his/her work.
Another recurring theme in Bitter Root Manor is the post-modern assumption that everything we need to know as a race is already available in print form somewhere, but we are helpless when it comes to organizing our sources. Instead, the modern life is constantly overwhelmed by facts and figures, and bogus interpretations of them. The very idea of a trivia question recalls the post-modern aesthetic: A mere fact out of context is "what it is" and signifies a blank space in terms of meaningfulness. We glamorize facts when we select them as part of an essential class of other "stuff". The lowly Jeopardy! answer writer editorially organizes disjoint facts into a Venn-diagram circle: things an educated person is likely to know. The rest of life's dross is so helplessly obscure it will become a mere footnote someday, like the Justin Bieber catalog. Which among the barrage of information we receive is an actual cultural touchstone, and what might we thankfully forget with time, when our Gaga and Miley wounds have healed?
The lively and often ribald poet evidently is a product of the 60s and speaks directly to other members of his or her cohort, the core of the baby boomer generation.
The first act of the dramatic rhyming couplets are devoted to Batman (1966) trivia. The choice seems auspicious, and not only because the show is so fondly remembered. Adam West was a notoriously stiff performer, which helped to make the series the campy gem it was. Creator Lorenzo Semples, Jr., who just passed away in March (2014), was very calculated in his construction of the show around an ironic tone. He also came up with the idea to give ordinary objects a Bat-prefix. Camp is an essential aspect of the post-modern sensibility, and we can date it aesthetically to Susan Sontag's 1964 essay for The Review which determined its 58 separate features: chief among them are artifice and exaggeration. The carefully constructed "extra-textual" notes and disclaimers surrounding MoBRM highlight its artificiality, and the spy movie/comic book attitude mark it as a participant in a discussion that includes Terry Southern's work for Candy (1958) and Dr. Strangelove(1964) with a lovely dovetail to the Beatles, swinging London, James Bond and Casino Royale (1966). Anonymous remains self-effacing, self-referential, and multi-textual, so much it will make you plotz.
The writer of Bitter Root Manor and its fifty or so html pages has chosen a form that is perfectly suited to the internet (although the rhythm and rhyme suggest Shakespeare or Alexander Pope). Especially the first act isn't organized consecutively, but is more like a first-person video game: the story is revealed randomly as one encounters it going room-to-room in the titular mansion. Other manifestations of the post-modern in this form are the sense of effortless armchair time travel. Anonymous has some based-on-string-theory rationales for being inconsistent in time, place, and narrative voice. It can be said that the medium of the work is html code and the basic feature of its format is a page in a browser window. The internet, after all, is the crucial development technologically that motivates us to view the world ironically and with an Observo, superpower attention to shifts in style and perspective.
As Art Linklater used to say on the box cover of the game of Life, I heartily endorse the game-like randomness and wisdom of this profane exercise. Consider it three acts in search of a reader, and, don't go by me, but Pirandello over to TexEditing.com as soon as you can to see for yourself.
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A Brief Re-Cap of the Winter of '14 (LONDON, 26 Jan 2014) A couple visiting the Tate Modern museum here permitted their toddler to climb into an important Donald Judd minimalist sculpture as visitors to the gallery looked on in horror. The transformative moment was photographed by another visitor, Brooklyn art professional, Stephanie Theodore. Additionally, she told the parents of the dimension-shifting child they were letting him use a million-dollar abstract art work as a toy, to which they replied, "You know nothing about children." That may be true but I know what I like. If You Don't Agree with Me, Constance Culpepper:
As Horrified Visitors Look On, $M Abstract Sculpture Becomes Real
"I couldn't believe my eyes," opined Judd partisan Doug Heller, who is himself in an abstract state, having died two years ago. "The whole point of the work is to represent pure form, and here in a flash some random three-year-old makes it into a chest of drawers at granny's, catching everyone unprepared. I'm devastated." Asked if he would reconsider the work now that its reality was confirmed, the late Mr. Heller said, "Certainly not. My opinion of Judd and his work remains the same. He's the best!"
Life is too short not to take your turn!
COMIC STRIP COMICS
You're Stupid: A Scientific Approach
The human brain evolved for a single purpose: not to make money, not to make angels, but to give mankind a shot at survival in a neutral environment that doesn't care about us one way or the other. The greatest asset we possess as a species, slugging it out against forces bent on our destruction (presently we have the most to fear from man-made dangers), is abstract reasoning, the ability to think about what will happen next using symbols and language. We don't need to position our senses in a present-time, critical moment to identify and react to a threat or an opportunity; instead, we have the ability to abstract our environment and work out problems in advance, the way a chessboard represents medieval war and a map represents some unknown country.
If you are with me so far, I know you don't need to be told the importance of having a brain. (Not that bodies aren't useful. Most bodies.) Clearly, a majority of humans develop abstract thinking at about the age of twelve, just in time to figure out how to get laid, a fact that we know intuitively but has also been confirmed scientifically by Piaget and a gazillion other psychologists. I am less certain everyone knows what Kohlberg discovered during his review and extension of Piaget's work: he estimated that 30% of people in the US never fully develop abstract reasoning (Kohlberg and Gilligan, 1971). This deficit has consequences more dire than the prospect of these folks going home alone from the Deer Park Tavern after last call. Smart people need to contemplate the mental fitness of the population as a whole, because our survival as a race means negotiating a complex global environment where mostly the danger isn't predators, meteors, or a plague of locusts; the dangerous obstruction is other, stupid people.
One hallmark of abstract thought is drawing conclusions based on authentic, empirical evidence as opposed to getting some cockamamie notion at 3 AM and sharpening the cutlery. In the essay form, it's standard practice for the writer to cite other scholars who gathered experimental evidence in advance of the writing. Prof. Bouree, do that evidence thing you do for the nice people.
It doesn't seem that the formal operations stage is something everyone actually gets to. Even those of us who do get there don't operate in it at all times. Even some cultures, it seems, don't develop it or value it like ours does. Abstract reasoning is simply not universal. (Boeree, 2009)
We have all these folks running around who literally can't do the math. I'm not talking about slack-jawed yokels bounding out of Dogpatch and the mind of Al Capp. I'm talking about accomplished people, college men and women, some of them with enormous power over the rest of us and chests of money! I'm talking about Al Capp, for instance, and others like him who don't have the ability to calculate their own best interest except in concrete, immediate terms. An absolutely telltale indicator of the inability to think abstractly is the failure to recognize that all human life, indeed all life on this planet, is interconnected.
I'm not arguing that calculating one's next move based on the best possible result is easy; I'm saying it is difficult, and many of your neighbors and countrymen lack cognitively the formal operations to do it. Because we can't actually see, taste, or touch the way our behaviors impact others and vice versa, many folks believe they are secret agents, acting alone, with no accountability to anyone. Capitalists prattle on and on without understanding about individual initiative and how we are in competition with others and that this is a good thing. Their view, while true in a limited and immediate way, lacks understanding of the long-term, the big picture, the ultimate goal of survival of the human species. Don't these libertarians or Ayn Rand objectivists watch Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946)? Well I do, every Christmas, and my favorite part is when George patiently explains to the radically individualist banker the old codger's own self-interest in giving poor people a chance to get out of their slums and poverty.
Here, you're all businessmen here. Doesn't it make them better citizens? Doesn't it make them better customers? You...you said...What'd you say just a minute ago?...They had to wait and save their money before they even ought to think of a decent home. Wait! Wait for what? Until their children grow up and leave them? Until they're so old and broken-down that they...Do you know how long it takes a working man to save five thousand dollars? Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about...they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community.
The whole concept of mass markets and entrepreneurial initiative to access mass markets relies on a large population with the resources to use goods and services. A financial situation like ours in the US, where wealth is concentrated in the hands of the very few, is actually bad for the economy and especially dangerous to those short-sighted few. Writing for Business Insider in an article called "Plutocracy Reborn," Gus Lubin remarks that the last time wealth was so concentrated in the hands of the top 1% of families was in 1928, just before the Great Depression, and conditions today are more dangerous for the superwealthy than they were then. (Lubin, 2010)
Resistence to my premise-- that people with wealth and power very often are too stupid to understand what's good for them-- is great in my country because we are obsessed with money and material things and harbor the absolutely false, untested attribution that people with vast sums are smarter and better than people without it. A recent study indicated that people with money, even if they understood that they received special breaks and advantages to get it, were most susceptible to the opinion that their wealth confers upon them a special, heavenly grace, and they were less likely to have consideration for others. (Szalavitz) My argument against the mistaken attribution of exceptionalism to the beneficiaries of monetary success is that someone with a very limited ability to apply abstract thought can, nevertheless, acquire a huge fortune. Intelligence is not the prerequisite for wealth.
Genuinely smart people have arranged society such that, in the US at least, survival doesn't require extremely difficult skills like tracking prey for food, finding water, and building shelter. Boy Scouting requires skill; one can achieve financial success with luck. Much of the empty sloganeering of the American Dream comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who in Self-Reliance romanticizes the power and glory of the individual, self-made man. Emerson's creation inspires, but ought to include the caveat that everyone benefits immensely from the society in which he or she lives; other people matter. A less quoted philosopher is Don Novello's stand-up character, Father Guido Sarducci. In a routine called "Five-Minute University," he tells us everything we need to know about business boils down to this: "You buy-a something and sell it for-a more." Bill Gates is intelligent enough to realize his enormous fortune came to him partly by accident (Borsook), and he's also sharp enough to know that spending huge sums of money to eliminate disease in Africa and put computers in classrooms in the US benefits all people and himself.
The Koch brothers, Charles G. and David H., inherited the fortune of their father and the second-largest privately held company in the United States. Dad was a chemist who invented a process essential to the refinement of oil into petroleum, which indicates intelligence, and he was also a founding member of the John Birch Society, which indicates an utter lapse in abstract reasoning. His sons continued his work of spending huge sums to promote libertarian ideas, free-market economics, deregulation, and eensy weensy government. They have vociferously opposed universal health care and raising the minimum wage, two ideas that sound economics predicts would save the nation billions of dollars and create wealth (Zieler, Krugman); they also deny the existence of man-made global warming against overwhelming scientific and fact-based opinion. (Mayer) Obviously, it is in their immediate and concretely understood self-interest to reduce their own taxes and block legislation that regulates the oil industry, but they are unbelievably stupid not to anticipate the future catastrophe of tens or hundreds of millions of the poor and uneducated and an even warmer planet, which is already experiencing historic weather extremes--heat, cold, rain, drought, and storms.
Especially when one is born with a monetary advantage, success doesn't require advanced cognitive skills. In fact, the pursuit of money for its own sake shows a pathological deficiency in abstract thought. Money is the ultimate abstraction.The paper it's printed on is nearly worthless; money is a symbol of something else, something with an ever-changing value. Amassing billions and billions of dollars without regard for the planet and one's fellows on it demonstrates an abject failure to distinguish substance from the representation of it. (Pause) "These go to eleven." Nigel Tufnel in Spinal Tap is the best known example of an utter confusion of a symbol for what it represents. This next one is from my experience teaching high school. One of my 16-year-olds was looking at two expensive pull-down maps, one of the United States and one of her home, Pennsylvania. Her wide-eyed reaction was, "I never knew it before: they're the same size!"
A professor of sociology of my acquaintance was asked by a think tank to express what he expected in the future for America. He predicted doom and gloom. The biggest culprit in his mind was the rise of the belief that any government is intrinsically bad for the citizens and against their self-interest. The nitwits of the so-called Tea Party understand certain catchy slogans (No New Taxes! Big Government Off My Back!), but lack the mental acumen to apply them appropriately. (Incidentally, they got their own name wrong. Those early patriots were protesting the British failure to tax tea imported from Holland, not the opposite.) Government enacts laws that protect citizens from those with an excess of financial power, and the primary function of government is to redistribute the collective wealth of the nation.
When the stock market crashed in 2008, the Tea Party and its minions in Congress resisted higher taxes on the rich, the bailouts of threatened banks and industries, assistance to people whose mortgages were for more than their houses were worth and other government actions that are economically necessary when private investment dries up. They even shut the government down and refused to pay its debts unless these actions included spending cuts, ignoring the failure of similar austerity measures in Europe, and a lowering of the US credit rating that makes money more expensive. Since 2008, the people have actually profited from the payback on the loans it made to banks and business, but job creation remains stagnant. What we needed were huge investments in infrastructure and education that create taxpaying jobholders, improve services, and in the long run reduce deficits. Short-term thinking that flies in the face of evidence gutted support for the poorest working families, reduced public schools to rubble, endangered colleges, and the recession has dragged on for longer than it should have. Smart guys--help the dumb guys.
It's not only the wealthy elite who lack "moral development" (Kohlburg) that we should fear, but also the millions of voters whose understanding is stunted by deficiencies in dealing with the abstract, for our powerful nemesis distracts and misleads the huddled mass who ought to be its natural enemy. An insistence that every word in the Bible is literally true redirects workingclass anger towards narrow "family value" issues, when they ought to be railing against war-mongers and environment defilers. Belief in the imminent return of Son-O'-God leads to an ignorant disregard for long-term, scientifically demonstrated damage to our planet. Rampant global warming denial is based on a misplaced faith that God won't let his people be remembered only from the fossil record when insects take over the archeology and museum-building.
The Word takes on a magical significance that symbolic language does not have, resulting in misunderstanding and harm. If the purpose of the Bible is to give us consolation against a cruel world and show us the best way to relate to our fellow man, why can't it be understood metaphorically, and why insist that every word means exactly what it says (which is impossible)? The answer must be that many people are completely uncomfortable with symbolism; they must have everything in concrete terms. Ironically, they cease to believe that nature is governed by dependable scientific forces. "Magical thinking" describes a phase of cognition in which objects appear to have no physical continuity and where their every behavior isn't fully covered by the Laws of Physics, and, generally, the human brain outgrows it in infancy.
Other than insisting that a virgin can have a baby, or a man can walk on water, or that a burning bush can talk, evidence of an utter discomfort with the tricky subtleties of language surfaces every time one of Obama's enemies tries to compare his actions to something else. Conservatives demonstrate an utter clumsiness with figures of speech. Thus, on 10/13/13, conservative spokesman Dr. Ben Carson called Obamacare the "worst thing that has happened in this country since slavery," North Carolina state senator Bob Rucho, on 12/15/13, tweets that "Obamacare has done more damage to the USA then (sic) the swords of the Nazis, Soviets & terrorists combined," (yeah, three groups reknowned for their swordplay), and an Idaho state senator, Sherly Nuxoll, emailed to supporters this month (January, 2014) that "insurance companies are creating their own tombs...[m]uch like the Jews boarding the trains to concentration camps." These analogies are reckless, unfeeling, and pitifully clumsy, English language fails that are worst disasters than, um, the Titanic and New Coke combined!
As a Pennsylvanian, I'm always rooting for two-term (!) US senator and erstwhile Presidential candidate Rick Santorum to top everyone in spastic word play, and the sweater-vested little chowderhead never disappoints. "Gay marriage is an issue just like 9-11," he said, in February, 2004, and outstandingly, when Nelson Mandela died, he said on The O'Reilly Factor (12/5/13)
Nelson Mandela stood up against a great injustice and was willing to pay a huge price for that, and that's the reason he is mourned today, because of that struggle that he performed. ..And I would make the argument that we have a great injustice going on right now in this country with an ever increasing size of government that is taking over and controlling people's lives, and Obamacare is front and center in that.
Sometimes people who are weary with politics like to claim that the guys and gals who say and do ridiculous, mind-boggling things like shutting down the government for two weeks to make a quixotic, extremist point about government services, or hand the regulation of our environment over to the worst polluters of it, or compare health care to Apartheid must be accepting bribes from some lobby or corporation. I've always been opposed to conspiracy theories and their flimsy speculations. For one thing, I don't think the Far-Right is skilled enough (abstract wordplay coming) to organize a pack of gum let alone a vast extremist conspiracy. Thinking about the deficiencies of the conservative brain that ignores science, facts, and complex reasoning for the sake of immediate concrete satisfaction is plenty scary enough, but disagree with me and I won't think you're evil, just stupid.
Boeree, C. George. "Jean Piaget and Cognitive Development." Shippensburg University, 2009.
n. pag. Web. 19 Jan. 2014.
Borsook, Paulina. "The Accidental Zillionaire." Wired. 2003. n. pag. Web. 19 Jan 2014.
Gilligan, C. and Lawrence Kohlberg. "The adolescent as a philosopher: The discovery of the self
in a post-conventional world." Daedalus 100(4)(1971): 1054-1087. Print.
Krugman, Paul. "Obamacare's Secret Success." The New York Times. 29 Nov. 2013.
n. pag. Web. 19 Jan. 2014.
Lubin, Gus. "Plutocracy Reborn." Business Insider. 1 Sep. 2010. n pag. Web. 19 Jan. 2014.
Mayer, Jane. "Covert Operations." The New Yorker. 30 Aug. 2010. n pag. Web. 19 Jan. 2014.
Szalavitz, Maia. "Why the rich are less ethical: They see greed as good." Time.
28 Feb. 2012. n. pag. Web. 19 Jan. 2014.
Zeiler, David. "The surprising benefits of raising the minimum wage." Money Morning.
20 Dec. 2013. n. pag. Web. 19 Jan. 2014.
A Patterning Compulsion
Constance Culpepper is showing a recent set of large oils at the 3rd Street Gallery's new 2nd street space across from their old 3rd Street space, in Philadelphia. The show (September, 2014) is a triumph of the co-operative model, where gifted artists with much to contribute eschew the typical commercial model and manage the gallery plant themselves. Culpepper's bright, whimsical interiors and delicate handling of thinned oils are as charming as ever and give notice that the season for art of substance has returned to Old City after a summer hiatus.
Ms. Culpepper won't mind if we compare her interiors, lush with patterns and delicate inanimate objects, to Matisse. Influence is quite different than imitation. A concurrent show across town at the Barnes of Cezanne's still lifes of fruit represents the lurking presence of the human observer; Culpepper's pleasing artificial grids and scrolls of man-made objects suggest human activity without imposing a human shadow or injecting even one animate thing in the space. In Ms. Culpepper or Matisse's paintings of interiors we enjoy the compulsivity of human patterning over of an insensate and chaotic environment. Living things, the birds and bees, express their lively industrious in their constructions, nests and hives. Cezanne groups natural objects to suggest a brooding, individual consciousness, the drama of observation, exiled from what is real. A chair, a tablecloth, a painted vase, these things invite us to construct the human presence without constructing it apart from being.
The barely-off-the-fabric compositions in Culpepper's interiors, deft and confident graffitoes of oil-thinned color banding and dyeing canvas, are proud announcements of a human handiwork in the wild, the making of a home, the civilizing of an indifferent cosmic exterior. The artist just returned from Morocco which she loves for its tradition of tile-making and human sails and archways against the blue of the infinite sky and fire of the infinite desert. It is the desert cultures that forbid the human reproduction of nature, limiting expression of the human stain to abstraction, architecture and the all-over patterning of carpet and canvas. Here then is art, not as a challenge to God or proof of some subjective leverage in an unconscious landscape, but art as the compulsion to impose fingerprints and tracks on cave walls or dunes. Nature is an irresistable canvas; Kilroy was here.
I should probably assert how beautiful Constance Culpepper's large works are and back off, having articulated nothing, but I wouldn't be doing them justice. They aren't merely decorative, like a persian rug or the worst sort of abstract drips and drags across a canvas. The work in the 3rd Street Gallery show this month implies intelligence. It implies a whole civilization. By refusing to represent an ego, a maker inhabiting the space, I think the activity recorded in these works is rather sophisticatedly reserved, feminine in the sense of posessing a social grace, and more wise than overweening. That's what you can do with your figure in the landscape, gentleman.
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(LONDON, 26 Jan 2014) A couple visiting the Tate Modern museum here permitted their toddler to climb into an important Donald Judd minimalist sculpture as visitors to the gallery looked on in horror. The transformative moment was photographed by another visitor, Brooklyn art professional, Stephanie Theodore. Additionally, she told the parents of the dimension-shifting child they were letting him use a million-dollar abstract art work as a toy, to which they replied, "You know nothing about children." That may be true but I know what I like.
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