The man was Steve, husband of artist Alice McMahon White; the studio was one of many in Chicago's fine Fine Arts Building: a stately, storied old edifice that originally served as a Studebaker carriage and wagon factory and now houses a variety of artists and related organizations. (For a few months during college I had worked at the art-house theater that formerly occupied the first floor; when not busy I was always snooping around in the building's nooks and crannies.)
Still clutching a half-drunk glass of red wine from the last gallery, I gazed appreciatively about the small studio, crammed with intricate wall- and easel-mounted works, mostly portraits in pencil and pastel. I told Steve I thought it was about time for realism to stage a comeback.
He let me know that a comeback, of sorts, is happening right now.
Not to blow my own horn, but once upon a time I was an artist of some reknown -- at least among my second- and third-grade classmates. I spent most of my childhood drawing obsessively, and over the years took myself from the crudest scribblings to Peanuts-style cartoons to exercises in surrealism and realistic "portraits." (Upon which I promptly jumped over into music, largely because of a scheduling conflict between choir and art classes).
The point is, I educated myself and I put a lot of work into achieving a certain level of skill. So I get tired of going to galleries and seeing stuff that I -- or the stewbum on the corner, or a dead person -- could’ve slapped together in ten minutes, being lauded as “Art art.” (You know what I mean: Art art is the real stuff! It's Avant-Garde!* It's Daring! It's Authentic! It's Edgy! It's Outsidery! It's Dangerous!) I mentioned this point to Steve, who chuckled and replied, “My rule is that if I can do it, it’s probably not art.” For the next 10 minutes or so, we talked about the impending return of that downtrodden and maligned genre and the barren pretentiousness of so many of the -isms of Art Officialdom.
It's not just my own background that leads me to prefer craft in art; it's also an awareness of the awesome achievements of past artists infinitely greater than I could have ever hoped to be -- particularly the great painters who worked magic with their brushes before Art Officialdom expunged the values of craft and beauty from the art world.
A skillful realist drawing, or better yet, a painting in the style of the great masters of the 19th century and before, such as William Bouguereau, can absorb my attention for minutes. (Especially if it contains realer-than-real-life depictions of Rubenesque naked ladies -- but even if it doesn't.) By contrast, a lot of the pieces I see in galleries fail to catch my attention for more than the split second it takes for my fovea to rest on them and then flutter to the next piece, and then to that adorkable art chick over there wearing the granny glasses and the dress she just finished stitching together before she jumped on her vintage fixed-gear bike to come to the show.
Art isn't only about skill, of course. Creativity, of course, plays an important role. But novelty isn't everything, and sometimes it's completely beside the point. The Rocky Mountains, the night sky flecked with stars, the soft curves of the female figure, are not new, but they are no less beautiful and no less works of art.
During our conversation, Alice herself stepped into the studio and we were introduced. I repeated to her some of the stuff I'd been saying to Steve about realism, etc. She appreciated my praise for her portraits and Irish landscapes (the latter of which are not her favorite, she said, but people seem to like them). She also showed me a few more abstract pieces in a less visible corner of the studio. "What do you see here?"
I glanced at it and replied, "Hmm, I guess a night sky, with the moon hidden behind the clouds."
"Look again," she said with a mischievous grin. "I'll give you a clue. The title is 'A Star is Born.'"
"Ohhhhh," I said, embarrassed that I had missed it.
I should mention that Steve plays in alt-country outfit Urban Twang (which I will now have to go see, along with Robby Fulks, whom I met not long ago), and he also goes to various "Sout"- Side Irish pubs with friends and plays Irish type stuff.
After leaving Alice and Steve I moseyed on down the hall to Gallery Uno, where I encountered Taiwan native and current visiting artist at NIU, Yen-Hua Lee. She is a ceramicist, and evidently a very good one. But her piece was once of those wacky conceptual installations. She had made dozens of ceramic bowls and affixed them, in circular formations, to the wall and floor. Within the bowls were decals of –- mating insects. Cockroaches, flies, ants, bees, you name it.
In a good-naturedly puzzled way I asked her to explain the piece’s significance. She gave some convoluted explanation, half of which in her broken English I couldn’t decipher, and the other half of which I promptly forgot. Maybe she was just a freak and wanted to make art about sex, it being February and all.
I’ve always had the feeling that art needing lengthy explanation probably isn’t good art; otherwise it would stand alone. (In a conceptual installation such as Lee's, of course, there are the ceramic pieces-- which do stand alone -- and then there is the "concept," which I would argue is dubious.)
Now this is not to say there isn't a place or perhaps even a need for artists who figure out weird arrangements of physical objects and concepts. I just think it's all blown out of proportion and overrationalized. As I noted above, I was quite the renowned artiste in days gone by; yet even during my High School Period, when I produced my most challenging works, I felt no need or inclination to rationalize the images with some high-sounding statement about their alleged significance. There was no particular reason I would draw a crazed vampire-like guy standing before a darkened castle on a hill, mouth dripping blood, one hand holding his plucked-out eyeball (the socket being a hole I punched through the paper with a pen tip), the other holding open his cloak whose inner pockets contained a severed head and a bloody pair of shears -- other than that I thought that was funny as hell.
Likewise, there was absolutely no deep sociopolitical or psychological reason (that I was aware of) why I would cartoon a macabre baseball game in which the ball being pitched is yet another severed head. Or a giant one-eyed creature munching on human beings. Or a circus freak with a woman's body, five o'clock shadow, and an eye patch, strangling a small bug-eyed boy with a Gumby-shaped haircut and abnormaly elongated neck and limbs. Or any number of abstract doodlings. I was fifteen. Algebra was boring. Drawing was fun.
No profound insight was being expressed in my very realistic (in an "enhanced" kinda way) pencil, colored-pencil and pen drawings of buxom females in tight shirts, or out of tight shirts. I was a horny adolescent -- not to mention kind of an art/band/choir geek -- and it was cool to be able to create my own girlfriend.
I suspect most artists work from similar motivations -- random inspiration, enjoyment of the artistic process, horniness -- and the products are happy accidents or nutty experiments for which the artist is then told he must generate some profound “significance.”
Alternately, the work is a bullshit gimmick which must be cloaked in an artificial meaning in order to make a thin and unsatisfying work seem more substantial. In these cases I often find the artist's statements to be as creative as their art isn't. Perhaps some of these folks should give up art-making and focus instead on writing statements full-time.
Exiting Installationland, I went on to Ledesma Studio, drawn by the brightly colored, mystical, surrealist paintings, and chatted with Beatriz Ledesma for a few minutes. Last but not least, while looking for Finestra, I found myself in Richard Laurent's studio, taking in his surrealist/magical realist paintings.
LAST FRIDAY IN PILSEN (when did this become the new hipster capital of Chicago anyway? Okay, I know, I've watched it happen, but still...) I arrived with Annabelle Echo at Kristoffer’s Café, where we met Vito and the birthdaying beauty Ani.
At Extension Gallery, in the glow of Jonathan Miller’s TV-screens-everywhere installation “Traps,” a bespectacled and liquored-up chick kept teasing me about how I was trying to “steal” her wine or something. I shot back that she must be racially stereotyping me –- does she think every black man is a thief? We continued this mischievous flirtation back and forth, until I turned around and who should I almost run smack dab into but long-lost friend Marnita G., whom I had just emailed earlier that same day (and had been telling Annabelle what a trip she was)! Marni is an artiste and former Columbia College classmate. Last time I saw her she was an assistant something-or-other at a gallery, but now she says she's working at a real estate office. Yep, it's all about payin' the bills.
At the Chicago Art Department, which is applying for 501(c)3 status, the chalkboard posed the question: "what would you save if your house was on fire?” Many colors of chalk were provided for visitors to write (or draw) their answers. (My answer: "My extensive Anna Nicole Smith memorabilia collection.") I chatted with Nat, one of the personages behind this not-for-profit art-school-run-by-actual-artists, whom I'd met at the '05 VersionFest and who, at the after-party at Skylark, had kindly invited me to sit with him and his friends, who shared their Tater Tot basket with my penniless ass.
We stopped at the junk-art-festooned Get Knifed Gallery ("We're here to put the cult back in culture") for a few minutes. One of the partners, an artist and DJ, I think, related a story of how he and his buds went on a road trip with a portable record player, which they hooked up to their car stereo and held on their laps.
Drawn into the Maladjusted Art space by the funked-up sounds of an improvisational band, I talked with proprietress Vanessa Shinmoto. She’s a right-hander who took the idea of using her sinister hand to access her subconscious from some book she read. (This idea occurred to me some time ago as well -- left hand equals right brain -- and so I tried writing song lyrics that way. I was surprised by the way ideas began to flow when writing with my left hand. I haven’t tried it again since, however, probably because physically speaking it’s such hard work. But it’s probably well worth the effort.
At Vespine, Lisa Whiting’s amazing yards and yards of tangled hand-knitted yarn tubes (surrounding plastic conduit), attached to bulbous sacks filled with rice, colored in yellows and oranges, looked like mutant pumpkins attached by vines. But the idea was to mimick neurons, Whiting told me. (She said she used to be obsessed with medical illustrations.)
As I often find to be the case, on balance the art spaces and the people and parties and the interactions filling those spaces were more compelling reasons to be there than the art itself, which served as backdrop to the interactions. Of course, that's probably as it should be.
The next night, pretty much all of the Wicker Park spaces were opening. Much as I like the scene, I stayed home. I'm getting too old to do it two nights in a row.
* As far as the avant-garde, I tend to think that most folks who think they are on some sort of avant garde are fooling themselves. I recently saw Camille Paglia interviewed on Book TV, and in the context of a discussion about government arts susbsidies she said:
The art world has actually prided itself on getting a rise out of the people
on the far right. Thinking, “We’re avant-garde.” The avante-garde is dead. It
has been dead since Andy Warhol appropriated Campbell’s Soup labels and Liz
Taylor and Marilyn Monroe into his art. The avante-garde is dead. Thirty years
later, 40 years later, people will think they are avante-garde every time some
nudnik has a thing about Madonna with elephant dung, “Oh yeah, we are getting a
rise out of the Catholic League. ...Now, what is the result of this? Mainstream America looks at art and the artist as a scam ...