MADDER LAKE ED. #11 : TOWARDS THE UNDERGROUND  

 
 
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EDITIONS

 

 Marcel Duchamp in New York, 1917, by  Edward Steichen

Marcel Duchamp in New York, 1917, by  Edward Steichen

 

TOWARDS THE UNDERGROUND

An address to the artist...... 

By JAMES MERRIGAN  | Christmas Eve, 2017


In conclusion, I hope that this mediocrity, conditioned by too many factors foreign to art per se, will this time bring a revolution on the ascetic level, of which the general public will not even be aware and which only a few initiates will develop on the fringe of a world blinded by economic fireworks.
The great artist of tomorrow will go underground. 

From 'Where Do We Go From Here?', Marcel Duchamp's address to a symposium at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art, March 1961.

 
If I can't bend those above I'll stir the lower regions.

From Virgil’s Aeneid, and epigraph from Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, 1899.


 Children in New York City, circa 1930, peering down a sewer grate. Photo by Walker Evans.

Children in New York City, circa 1930, peering down a sewer grate. Photo by Walker Evans.

 

1917. 
Winter.
33 West 67th Street. 
New York, New York.

A blind alligator emerges from an open manhole like a terrible turd. First sweaty and dirty from the sewers below, the New York winter night turns the piss and shit into crystallised trinkets to form the most perfect of Christmas trees. After a spell of gaging and wheezing, the reptilian conifer coughs up some human flesh and bone porcelain – birth and death wrapped in a lizard loogie. The flesh is titled Marcel Duchamp; the porcelain, R. Mutt

 
 The fork in New York's Yonkers Tunnel, 1913.

The fork in New York's Yonkers Tunnel, 1913.

 

This is not a letter. I wish it was.

A letter is something private between friends or family. A letter is something like, let's say, the artist’s studio, where, as Gerhard Richter once awkwardly confessed in front of the camera, you can let all your vulnerabilities and mistakes “hang out”. But if we take Richter's confession to the next conclusion, then all that follows is artifice. 

A letter is not an email either. A letter takes physical effort – the muscles of the hand making cursive sense of the awkward emotions and logic of the brain. A letter is an intimacy between friends and family. A letter is an admonishment of friendship and fellowship, something we have lost lately to the distancing artifice of technology.

 
 A headline from the February 10, 1935, issue of The New York Times.

A headline from the February 10, 1935, issue of The New York Times.

 

This thing I'm writing here is none of those things, though I am asking for the same platonic consideration. This is not a letter because I am making my feelings public to friend and stranger alike, feelings that are as ill-distinguished as a fetish, ill-distinguished as that metaphor used to describe them.

Ill-distinguished because these stirred feelings are full of instinct rather than the intellect; they are incomplete because I'm in the throes of their becoming (that's where the whole 'Towards' thing is coming from). But, like a letter, I want the addressee – the artist in this case – to take what I am about to write here, not as a criticism of the artist per se, but of the context in which the artist has become accustomed to, and the predicament I find myself in, as I look at the official art scene with increased detachment. 

 
 The Kensico Bypass Aqueduct, New York, 1910. 

The Kensico Bypass Aqueduct, New York, 1910. 

 

This letter, that is not a letter, is written on the backs of conversations I've had with hunched over artists in their studios about the current state of affairs in the Dublin art scene. When you mistakenly start, or unfortunately enter a conversation about how to get an exhibition in Dublin, you start and end with questions about the curator. 

Curators are named, dissected and blamed in a conversation like this. This is because curators are now more visible than the artist, they represent 'visibility' for the artist, a visibility that the artist envies and wants for herself, while disavowing the fact that visibility generates exactly what she is feeling right now, envy. Same artists! Same curators! Same! Same! Same! The rage turns to resignation. Change subject.

 
 The top of Shaft 7 of the Moodna pressure tunnel, with the Hudson River in the background, New York, 1910.

The top of Shaft 7 of the Moodna pressure tunnel, with the Hudson River in the background, New York, 1910.

 

This is nothing new – the power of the curator. What is new is the outright acceptance of the curator’s power by the artist at the expense of all alternatives. The DIY culture of artist-run spaces is dead and gone, as Dublin becomes economically unliveable and unviable for artists who can't write a letter home to Mammy and Daddy.

What happened that curators now rule everything and artists rule nothing? I have always viewed artists as saints and (mainly) sinners of the underground – "aristocratic" as Diane Arbus might describe them. Because they have always represented for me the possibility of risk, revolution and liberation. While the artworks in the gallery only give us a hint at the risk-taking that takes place in their studios, in their lives. This might be overselling it, or being overly romantic, but only if the definition of the artist has changed, in the artist's mind, and ours. And I think it might have...
 

 
 Scouring for change through a street grate during the Depression, New York, 1930.

Scouring for change through a street grate during the Depression, New York, 1930.

 

Roles change but, like at the Christmas dinner table, they stay the same, especially where identities have been forged in high emotion and passion. I have been trying to consider what are the motivations behind the artist’s work if the curator is the only modus operandi left. During my short watch there have been memorable instances when artists have come together to curate each other's work and make exhibitions that are critically self-aware and cohesive. These are rare occurrences, and usually come under the torn banner of 'recent-graduate-show', where a mix of naiveté, rebellion and institutional cabin fever – incubated in the art college that has sheltered them from the politics and algebra of the Dublin art scene – collide to form ground-breaking exhibitions, like 'Underground' (2011) by – now shadow of its former self – Basic Space Dublin. 'Underground' created anticipation. And even though the followups never lived up to that anticipation, 'Underground' offered hope that artists had discovered their own volition. But unfortunately, artists mature.

 
 Inside the completed Kensico screen chamber, New York, 1914.

Inside the completed Kensico screen chamber, New York, 1914.

 

Lots of things have contributed to the changing position and institutional conditioning of the artist, including the boom-bust-boom economy over the last decade, and the professionalisation of the artist in art schools. Now artists are fabricated over a period of time through an accumulation of official plaudits. Artists grind out their visibility through residences and curated projects and, not to forget, Instagram, where artists become passive consumers and aggressive creators of curated lives. It's not all about the work anymore, it's about the artist's visibility, and sometimes an image will do just fine. It's business as usual.

 
 The late Glenn O'Brien wearing a leather jacket signed by Jean-Michel Basquiat with his signature Crown, New York, Date unknown. 

The late Glenn O'Brien wearing a leather jacket signed by Jean-Michel Basquiat with his signature Crown, New York, Date unknown. 

 

Recently I've been reading a lot about death. The shadow of death hangs in the air, especially this time of year, in ironical counterpoint to the celebrations of the Christian birth. I'm in the middle of Adam Phillip's Darwin's Worms, Simon Critchely's Notes on Suicide, and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis' Life & Death in Psychoanalysis. All books deal with death, from its nobility to its nature, transience to legacy. But the slow death of the art scene, or at least my view of it, or my maturing relationship with it as an art critic, is perhaps the real reason why my interest in the subject of death has overflowed from the sewer of consciousness. 

 
aaeda34671c1206f3511bea6cc76ff5b--new-york-city-in-china.jpg
 

Like a religion or addiction, every Wednesday for the past five years I have made time to see at least one exhibition in Dublin. If a gallery isn't open on Wednesdays, which is generally the case, I make an appointment. Last week I broke the habit and spent the time wandering and thinking why I had broke the habit. I felt religiously guilty, but not the withdrawal of an addict. 

I started to think about what it is I want from art? Am I asking for too much? Am I too invested in history, where artist radicals are everywhere if you count in decades? What I think I am looking for from artists is to fuck things up, to dictate their terms, to be radical, or as radical as artists can get in this conservative culture. To do that artists have to stop falling in line, waiting to get a nod and wink from the curator of the moment. This is not about setting up a space in Dublin, painting the floor grey and walls white. That's been done, is being done. This is not about artist-friends headlessly pooling resources together. It's about peers who believe in and bounce off of each other's work. It's about mutual respect and mutual ends. It's about rage not resources. 

 
 ‘Underground’, Basic Space Dublin, 10 – 13 November, 2011.

‘Underground’, Basic Space Dublin, 10 – 13 November, 2011.

 

The most radical thing the current Basic Space Dublin have recently done, is organise a talk with the curator double-team RGKSKSRG (Rachael Gilbourne and Kate Strain) at the Hugh Lane Gallery – their institutional shadow. I thought this was big. But once again I maybe seeing drama where there is none. For me this was a real pass-the-torch moment between artist and curator, between legacy and future. RGKSKSRG have radicalised how the curator is perceived, and by default, radicalise the artists they curate. It's not a case of obligation or amnesia that I have responded to their projects in writing more than most, because they represent the radical mobility that the artist has somehow lost to a deepening dependency on officialdom.

 
 A surveyor takes cross-section measurements with a sunflower instrument in the City tunnel south of Shaft 16, New York, 1913.

A surveyor takes cross-section measurements with a sunflower instrument in the City tunnel south of Shaft 16, New York, 1913.

 

What has happened that curators like Gilbourne and Strain are showing artists what artists can do? What happened that I look forward to what they do with artists more than what artists do on their own volition? What happened that artists now lineup for speed-curating? WTF. Or form an embarrassed queue for annual open exhibitions? [ And STOP apologising for 'cross-posting'! You know it's bullshit! ] Where is the artist that drew on their school textbooks to receive the ire of their short-sighted teachers? Where is the artist that was met by fear when they confessed to their parents they wanted to go to art school? Where is Basquiat's Crown? Where are the rejected, Courbet, Manet, Cézanne? 

 
 Marcel Duchamp, 1961, by Christer Strömholm. 

Marcel Duchamp, 1961, by Christer Strömholm. 

 

In Marcel Duchamp's 'Where Do We Go From Here?' address to a symposium at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art in 1961, he proposed that the future artist will have to go deeper than the Surrealist sub-conscious to mine new values for art, values that are removed from the exclusive retinal and economic concerns of the artist of the day. He was wrong... so far. But maybe, just maybe, the "future artist" has already gone underground. Like the New York sewer alligator, the future artist is a fiction, an idea, a myth. 

 

Madder Lake Editions

MADDER LAKE ED. #10: TOWARDS A HABIT [ psychoanalytically speaking ] 

 
 
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EDITIONS

 

Towards+a+Habit_slideshow.002.png
 

TOWARDS A HABIT

 [ psychoanalytically speaking ] 💀

By JAMES MERRIGAN  | December 16, 2017


A painter once asked me: 'What is it about painters who commit to a way of painting for, in some cases, a lifetime?' In the asking he was critically asking himself the same question as much as pointing the finger at other painters. I wondered from his self-questioning could a passion, a love, exhaust itself, and when totally expended become a habit with no where to go creatively or critically but in a straight line? Or was it a passion, a love, in the first place?

 
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Habits are mystifying things; having neither a beginning nor end when you are in them. They can look like the passions and loves of our lives, of a lifetime, or the symptom of some disavowed secret that the habit-maker, the inhabited, has no want of discovering or confronting. 

 
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The habit has to be pleasurable or validating enough, repressive or comforting enough, to become a habit in the first place. Some might call this a dependency, others, a commitment. Whatever your position, depressive or euphoric, habits are things that we find difficult to admit to ourselves or divorce ourselves from. Everything outside a habit is just a fling. 

 
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A stranger thing about habits is, we know what they are in other people, or in ourselves after we divorce ourselves from them. In the latter, rare self-acknowledgement, when we admit to having a habit after the fact, we can sometimes end up hating the habit. This is when self-identification gets turned in on itself; when the habit goes from being intrinsically part of our identity and connected to our life, enriching and supplementing our other passions in myriad ways, to being perceived as something that blindsided us, like an addiction or a con. After the divorce, the habit becomes an agent that once conned us into loving it at the expense of other possible or alternative relationships with the world. A real passion for something sacrifices everything else. We sacrifice our friends for our first love. Habits depend on your dependency.

 
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There's degrees of separation when it comes to divorcing a habit. Those that divorce themselves completely from what they were,   understandably, have to hate that aspect of what they were. Alternatively, I have come across artists who have divorced themselves bit by bit from art making and the art scene for reasons that include exhausted hope or just the vissicutudes of life. They tell themselves they no longer longingly look in at the art scene from the outside, and disdain what is being produced by the in-crowd. But hate a bit of themselves every time they take a peek. The rejected nullify the accepted.

 
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For the past five years I have taught psychoanalysis through art at Trinity College Dublin. Over the course of three months, between September and December, I engage fully with psychoanalysis in my reading and my writing. Come the New Year I divorce myself from everything psychoanalytic until the following Autumn. Psychoanalysis is a mistress that I build up a desire to meet again in the future rather than habitualise and exhaust in the rolling present at the expense of everything else. But for some reason I can't divorce myself from art the same way, not even for a day.

 
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Because psychoanalysis – the talking cure with no cure in sight – is interested in the stories behind other people's psychological ticks and tongues, a natural navel gazing takes place in the reading and writing of it. When reading art through a psychoanalytic reading there's a natural turning inward, especially when the artist and artwork being covered (not mutually exclusive in the psychoanalytic context) psychologically reflects either the traumas of the world or the traumas of the individual (also not mutually exclusive in the psychoanalytic context).

 
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Although Freud feared and disregarded biography, especially when it came to himself, a fear that led him to destroy personal correspondence just in case the biographer got his hands on it, it is fundamental to the analyst/analysand relationship, a conversation through which autobiography is redescribed in subjective detail until the unconscious announces itself in the verbal slippages in the retellings. In psychoanalysis you gradually trust the tale over the teller. 

 
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Every year I tell the students that we cannot possibly cover art history in an meaningful way here, because we are primarily engaged with the psychoanalytic story not the story of art. So we approach art appreciation through a side door, a shortcut to the backstage where the artist foregrounds the artwork on the stage, and the artwork foregrounds the audience in the auditorium. When there is no biographical evidence of the artist backstage, we use that absence of biography to speculate and explore the artist's decision making in the artwork as a stand-in for the artist, and critically reflect on our speculations as authors and critics of those fictions.

 
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I find that contemporary art has a way of producing high emotion in those who have already made up their minds about it. Generally the students are either anxious or excited by the inclusion of contemporary art in the curriculum. But in most cases you realise how small the Contemporary-Art-Self-Appreciation-Club really is. But I ask the students to always question high or low emotion in front of contemporary art; or question easy-to-come-by words like elitism that have defined their relationship with contemporary art up to that point. I ask them to critically look inward when a flight or fight response takes hold; to stay put when the urge is to bolt. The stabilising psychoanalytic presumption is, we are always wrong in our presumptions. 

 
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Donald Kuspit, who, like Hal Foster, Maggie Nelson and Craig Owens, sometimes writes psychoanalytically on art, wrote an essay in the 1980s titled 'Artist Envy', in which he claims that psychoanalysis envies the artist's enjoyment and sublimation of her symptoms. Freud himself wrote that artists had the power to enter their dreams and their traumas and return to tell the tale, unscathed. Kuspit's tone in 'Artist Envy', an unbalanced mix of art critical statement uncomfortably colliding with psychoanalytic sentiment, is one of a writer who has been conned by a habit: perhaps even psychoanalysis? What has come to my attention in recent years teaching this class is the artists I select to discuss within the psychoanalytic story, like Mike Kelley, Diane Arbus, Chantal Ackerman, have died by suicide. 

 
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Gently putting to the side the tragic ends of these artists – something I plan to explore in a future Edition – peeking through the dirty keyhole backstage at these particular artists you get a feeling that through their artworks, writings and bandaged biographies, they always questioned their habits as artists. Whether it was Arbus, who went from photographing fashion to photographing 'freaks'; Ackerman, who Richard Brody observed as "recklessly personal"; and Kelley, who Peter Schjeldahl described as the artist who "went deepest". 

 
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So when the painter asked 'What is it about painters who commit to a way of painting for, in some cases, a lifetime?', I asked, 'Is it art or habit we are talking about here, when the road gets so straight and clean that you drift into a kind of dream or death?' Every artist, no matter the medium or message, perhaps should always be asking the question when the freewheeling starts to buckle: 'What if I turned down this horizonless dirt track? 

 
Check out DEEP—SEATED, wherein I aim to refashion the psychoanalytic relationship between art, artist &  viewer through writing, editing, &  art projects throughout 2018. [ More Here ]

Madder Lake Editions

MADDER LAKE ED. #9: TOWARDS SAMENESS & DIFFERENCE

 
 
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EDITIONS

 

 CoisCéim, 'Body Language', Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA), Dublin, 29.11.2017. Image: Author.

CoisCéim, 'Body Language', Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA), Dublin, 29.11.2017. Image: Author.

 

TOWARDS SAMENESS & DIFFERENCE

and CoisCéim's 'Body Language' at Dublin's Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) 💀

By JAMES MERRIGAN  | November 11, 2017


 

Sameness means more of the same. 

Contemporary art proposes something different. But the thing about difference is, it becomes more of the same. We desire difference because we want to get lost. But there is real risk in getting lost. There is real danger in losing oneself. 

For one thing, there's the prospect of solitude. Solitude is something we desire when we can't distinguish ourselves from the crowd. Solitude is also something we fear because of the real potential for discovering who we really are, far, far away from the clamour of technology and relationships. Noise is a community and commodity of distraction. Whereas solitude, can get lonely. 

But being different is something artists desire but cannot fathom, once they are schooled. The canon of art sets a benchmark and presents a vetted image of what art is and what art is not. The schooled have an idea of what contemporary art is, and what it is not. But the schooled are never really surprised by their definition of art; our biases and blindspots are just confirmed in our definitions. And the schooled are okay with that, while the unschooled are confused and frustrated by that. Even though the unschooled have achieved difference out of what the schooled might call naïveté, or ignorance, the unschooled still want to know the ingredients for how to be the same as those in the know.

Contemporary art is a variation on the same theme, that theme being, limits and limitations. Art appreciation is a nominal sensibility, teased out and hinted at through our art schooling, art making and appropriation of history and each other: art begets art, artists beget artists. If you don't go to art school you are an outsider because your image making hasn't been schooled. And we schooled can tell an outsider when we see them. You could say the unschooled threaten our sameness because they are different, that's why they're called outsiders. And this difference between the schooled and unschooled is not a discrepancy, it's a disparity. It's an ocean for those in the know. But there are more unschooled out there than schooled. We see their paintings in restaurants and gift shops on Sunday afternoons. But we don't really look at them. We view them as pathetically different. The pathetic is never elevated to the tragic, especially over Sunday dinner.

Sameness persists in our art scene. We anticipate it in the two to five year cycles of the count-on-your-one-hand gallery represented solo shows and Arts Council funded artists, curators and institutions. When a gallery artist hasn't shown in over two years we begin to miss them. Habits are all about embracing sameness, for the sake of compromise or comfort. Sometimes I think we aspire to sameness. Other times I think we are just speaking the same language of difference in an environment that fosters sameness. 

The RHA Gallery reaches out to the world of schooled and unschooled once a year in their Annual Open exhibition. Some of the schooled view this as a calamity, while the unschooled see it as an opportunity to be recognised as the same. But the schooled are doing the selecting, so a sameness prevails, more or less. But in the end it's an open submission, so a little leeway is allowed in the calamity of sameness and difference that is the The RHA Annual.

In recent years either CoisCéim dance company reached out to the RHA Gallery, or the RHA reached out to CoisCéim. I don't know the ins and outs. But what I do feel after experiencing their collaboration 'Body Language' the other night is, this is different. Not multidisciplinary different which ends up theoretically the same. But Different.

My journey towards difference was, ironically, predicated on sameness. I arrived at the RHA on a Monday to learn that there was no live performance on Mondays; and on a Wednesday to learn the live performance had been pushed back from 1.30pm to 6pm. But these uncanny repetitions gave me first and second impressions, experienced through the recorded live performances that play out on skyscraper projections in the main gallery when the dancers have left the building.

Press release in hand and surrounded by 360º projections, I began to make sense of what is a cumulative approach to CoisCéims's live performance. I learnt that an interview takes place with a selected participant. The willing participant is then led to the main gallery space. Here, with a bit of poking and prodding, the participant's responsive body language supplements the choreography for the troop of white-clad dancers, CoisCéim. The to and fro between dancers and participant is simultaneously recorded and projected live to form a pixel-perfect landscape where, this individual portrait of the ebb and flow of human fear, exaltation and joy plays out in front of the jittery participant who is feeling all this fear, exaltation and joy, and the live audience, who also become part of the spectacle. 

On the night of experiencing the live performance, however, the cast of dancers and onlookers portrayed in the recorded images and film began to shuffle in prominence. The cameraman, whom I register first on entering the gallery, but didn't register at all in the documentation – obviously so because he is the man behind the camera – becomes the focus of my attention. Entering the gallery before the show begins, I find him pacing beneath a lightbox rig hanging from the ceiling, the kind of lightbox you might find hovering over a boxing ring in some New York arena in the 1950s. (There's beads of sweat in the air here too). There's an immediate shift in perspective. The cameraman becomes the gimbal from which everyone and every perspective is tethered. 

We don't like to see ourselves mediated. It's us but, not us. The camera informs us that our objectivity is a bare-faced lie. The German artist Hans Belmer once claimed that the first instinct is to escape the outline of the self. I want to believe the dancer gets lost in the dance not in the gravity of the audience or the situation. I don't dance, so you'll have to ask a dancer.

But I initially judge there are too many eyes between the machines and humans to get lost here. Perhaps we get lost in the habitual nature of an action, what we refer to in passing as 'becoming second nature'. There are too many things tethered here to technology and choreography. The participant is not generously neglected. There's an 'eyes-on-me' attachment between the participant and the cameraman; a don't-look-down tightrope act, just in case the floor disappears and the woman loses herself in the audience or herself.

The camera never stops moving and recording either. You are left with a big WHAT IF? What if the cameraman puts down the camera; turns off the projections; gets rid of the seats and turns on the lights? What then? Over? Lisette Model, who was Diane Arbus' teacher at a critical point in her development as a photographer, "taught Arbus to walk around with no film in her camera, just so she could practise seeing." What potential 'seeing' might take place if a spectacle like this was abruptly unplugged mid-show, mid-narrative, mid-entertainment? It might lead us away from our anxious dependence on the mediated image to ground us. But the absence of the camera, of the lights, of the action, in the age of the digitally dependent self could be more terrifying for us than a child's fear of the dark. 

But if the cameraman is the necessary panopticon in all this, the dancers are the criminals that lead us astray. I felt lost at times; drunk even. Not during the naked puppetry of the anxious and submissive participant, as she was whipped and gagged by the cyclopic ring master. But when the dance became more about the dancer. When each dancer contained themselves in their idiosyncratic gestures and compressed articulations of bone and muscle and skin, I imagined gyrating black arrows circling their bodies targeting them in time and space.

 
 Anne Imhof’s FAUST in the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2017.

Anne Imhof’s FAUST in the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2017.

 

Two schools clash at the RHA Galley, both unschooled in the other's school. The only recent example I have from the artworld that comes close to this meeting of body language and art on this scale, is Anne Imhof's FAUST, presented in the German Pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale. I felt drunk there too, confronted by difference, even though the art language of apathy and nominal effect was at play. I drank up what I described in a previous Edition as

the trendy and unique and dangerous and dramatic and dazzlingly masturbatory wallowness in a soulless and songless and colourless Emerald City fortress of glass and metal and fashion and posturing and voyeuristic consumerism by an audience who are the ones doing all the consuming without really realising it.

CoisCéim's 'Body Language' is more dance world than artworld, and their 'Body Language' has a warmth to it that might even melt the cold glares in Imhof's FAUST. But their body language was something I wasn't equipped for, wasn't school in, where risk is regimental but the line they walk and dance made me falter, and at times, fly. 

 
 

*Through 10 December [ See Schedule here ]


Madder Lake Editions

MADDER LAKE ED. #8: TOWARDS AN ART EDUCATION

 
 
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EDITIONS

 

 Sam Thorne  School: A Recent History of Self-Organised Art Education  Sternberg Press [ 2017 ] : photo : author. 

Sam Thorne School: A Recent History of Self-Organised Art Education Sternberg Press [ 2017 ] : photo : author. 

 

TOWARDS AN ART EDUCATION

critical reflection on art and education, prompted by reading Sam Thorne's book School: A Recent History of Self-Organised Art Education (2017) 💀

By JAMES MERRIGAN  | December, 2017


 

Every young artist should know 3 things:

1. TALENT IS CHEAP.
2. YOU HAVE TO BE POSSESSED WHICH YOU CAN'T WILL.
3. BEING AT THE RIGHT PLACE AT THE RIGHT TIME.

[ John Baldessari, from the short film A Brief History of John Baldessari, narrated by Tom Waits ]


I always say that you have to be very vigilant to not turn into what you critique.

(Tania Brugurera, from School: A Recent History of Self-Organised Art Education, by Sam Thorne, 2017.)

 

 

These thoughts, these words, were prompted when reading Sam Thorne's School: A Recent History of Self-Organised Art Education (2017), a generous survey on the subject of the free art school, proffering thinking and imagining beyond the institution.*


 
 

Perspective was my first lesson.

Just before Mam lost her voice and life to Motor Neuron Disease, she asked to have a moment with me in her bedroom. Bed ridden for months, she gestured me over by neatly folding the blanket that covered her tiny body. The gesture seemed slow and huge, like the slow curve of a huge wave before it crashes in on itself. Later I would experience the same slow and huge in anticipation of my first kiss or last breakup. What Mam had to say that day was slower and huger than all the kisses and breakups that were ahead of me and behind her. 

Thing is, as I walked toward her bedside, Mam could see Death coming over my shoulder. At the age of 13 death is nothing more than a drawn monster. But terminal disease is different; it gives you time to unpack the black cloak and scythe. Mam had been unpacking for months in her bedroom. What she had for me was simple: 'Mind your sisters and brother. Do what makes you happy.’ I icily took the last bit as licence to be an artist because…well, you’ll see.

Perspective is a strange thing. Youth is eyeless to it; old age is lidless to it. Having that nebulous black cloud on the horizon gave Mam premature perspective on her past and my future. Truth tell, I wanted to get out of Mam's bedroom as quickly as possible. I was 13. I had things to do, and the unfathomable wasn't one of them.  

Mam's bedside advice to do what made me happy was given at the time when I was obsessively drawing and colouring on my school text books: drawing monsters to scare the real one out of my mother. Winning an art competition at age 12 and meeting the then Minister of Education Mary O'Rourke in Dublin, with my mam and dad in attendance, was enough validation to become an artist for a lifetime. It did two things: it made Mam happy and Dad patient; patience being the best thing for everyone in the long game of art.

Years later I was listening to a woman on the radio whom was being interviewed about her previous life as a fashion model. She looked back on modelling from a position of sobriety in her current role as a quantum physicist, or some such profession that places the graceful intellect above the drunken body. She talked about how she was criticised in the beginning by photographers and designers for thinking too much on the job, but as soon as she left her brain at home the job became easier. 

 
  Mad Men  Season 1 [ 2007]

Mad Men Season 1 [ 2007]

 

The American TV series Mad Men is not about 1960s fashion and design as I was led to believe by the media when it first came out in 2007, it's about the sowing and blossoming of feminism in the 1960s. Watching Mad Men today against the weirless floodgates of sexual abuse scandals by Hollywood royalty and others, Mad Men's style bears real substance, as if the phalanx of maxi-dresses and mini skirts were just a pretty parade for the rear guard of female discontent to rear up and revolt. Mad Men's men are narcissistic dicks in a trouser-society where women have no choice but to be slim and dim. The only equality is that everyone is chained in tendrils of cigarette smoke. 

My mother and father came from the Mad Men generation; Dad worked, Mam did the house and us. Even though Mad Men is a closed portrait of professional and familial relationships against the backdrop of a 1960's Madison Avenue advertisement agency, I ask myself time and again while watching, how did my father treat my mother and vice versa? I remember – felt – respect and love in our home of three boys and three girls. If anything it was a matriarchal home. But of course, a man reflecting through the eyes of a boy might conclude that on the basis of petty wars won in the household by Mam. But outside, it was still Dad's world.  

 
 Mam & Dad [ The past. ]

Mam & Dad [ The past. ]

 

I am a product of many things, my father, my mother, my experiences, including all the sociological stuff that doesn't need repeating here. But art and education have been my mainstay. I dropped out of school at 15 (because of all the above) to haul cavity blocks and mix cement and plaster. But education was always there for me when I was trying on life. But education was never work. Work was work. 

Work for my father was physical and long – it was day in and day out. Dad spent a lifetime harvesting the land with gnarled hands and soot on his face as a coal miner, a forester, a security guard, and finally, a gardener. For the physical worker, work punches the daydreamer awake, and is something you cradle in your bones at night. Work suppresses the anxieties and excitements of the past and the future because you're compelled to relax into the tiredness and aches of the present. Work floors you. Work grounds you. 

 
  Mad Men  Season 1 [ 2007]

Mad Men Season 1 [ 2007]

 

Words in contrast to work, seduced me. Words filled my head with anxieties and excitements that I never fully plastered over in the day in and day out of work. Words spun dreams; desirous utopias that could never be built with bricks and mortar. Words were rhetorical, but somehow answers weren't what I was looking for. What I was looking for was something that existed between work and words; something that demonstrated to me the invisible labour and beauty of, let’s say, a spider's web. It was always art. 

Self-organised art education is something I have been interested in since 2009, when I came across an article by Roberta Smith in The New York Times about the Bruce High Quality Foundation University (BHQFU) based in New York City. The anonymous group of artists had this motto that made sense to a lost art graduate: "Professional Problems, Amateur Solutions." Sam Thorne's School is the first book I've read on art education that gives real examples for real possibilities for self-organised art education, and possible futures for the art school and beyond the art school.

Because the topic of free education naturally confronts and challenges the status quo of paid art education, especially how art education has been professionalised in recent decades, a natural criticism runs through the 20 interviews with initiators of art and education projects. Of course there's lots of rhetorical language and ideologies at play here, appropriated from the very thing that is being questioned, the institution. Such pronouncements make me think that ideology is born out of the loss of the very thing you end up critiquing. Something that is taken from you, or corrupted in some way. A damaged ideal or belief becomes an ideology; Institutional Critique becomes the institution. 

Thorne’s interviewees are mostly socially-engaged artists, for whom art and eduction is transformative. Even though I don’t want to be sweeping, I always feel that socially-engaged art fells lots of trees to produce lots of pulp and pronouncements, but no one is around to hear them fall. Throughout School criticisms are made against the exclusive language of the art school by the same socially-engaged artists, even though, a lot of the time, socially-engaged projects adopt and mimic the academic language of the institution. 

I did a HDip in Further Education. I read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Mexican artist Pablo Helguera’s elegant ideas and ideals about education via art are sourced from Freire. In Thorne’s School Helguera comes across as very open and refreshingly critical of the ‘reputational economy’ of the artworld. He puts a positive spin on the institutional mimicry that dresses his art and education projects with the phrase LEARNING TO BE INSTITUTIONAL, through which Helguera proposes we create systems to replace the system. It all sounds like it's coming from a good place, a good heart, but there is a bit of the slippery language of American 1970's foreign policy about it all – the echo of Henry Kissinger's "creative systems" and "constructive ambiguity" can be heard crashing in the woods. In the end they are all systems; in the end they are just words; in the end we are all human. But, as Dave Hickey asked: "What's wrong with being seduced?" And more specifically in relation to art making, what's wrong with being seduced by words? Well, if you take my example, I gave up art making for words. 

I realised I liked to talk the talk very early on. First there was the unsolicited essay I wrote for my 5th Year art teacher on the life and painting of Raphael when I returned to school at 19 to complete my Leaving Cert at Pearse College, Crumlin. The teacher gave me an embarrassing A+++ due to, I believe, disbelief rather than distinction: I was all poetry and little prose in those days, but I had a work ethic. Then there was the 10,000 words I wrote for my MFA when 2,500 was all that was needed. I knew no one was going to read it, never mind count it, or open it, so it was for me rather than them

Some time between my Leaving Cert (when I received a D- in Art) and my MFA, I came across the academic language that was being proliferated by new theory-heavy MAs and PhDs in Dublin, like Art in the Contemporary World (NCAD), MAVIS (IADT) and lateral institutions such as GradCam (NCAD and various institutions). Time-lapse Ivory Towers were sprouting up all around me as if the world were growing teeth. But I always chose the art-making route, no matter how seductive I found the language in the prospectus, believing that you needed to physically 'do' before you could theoretically 'speak'. There was also the whole work complex courtesy of my dad complex.

 
  Mad Men  Season 1 [ 2007]

Mad Men Season 1 [ 2007]

 

In the early days I went along to the symposia on multidisciplinary art practice where some subject or another seemed to be always taking a 'Turn'. The phraseology had the concision of a Mad Men advertisement but lacked the charm and heart of Ed Ruscha. In the end the phraseology started to bother me. I became burdened by lightbulb messages that flickered to reveal phantom solutions that you couldn't work with as an artist in the studio. The exclusive message became the medium.

In 2000, when I took the first steps into third level art education, real transformations were taking place in terms of art education and the art school. On the ground, however, where all this theoretical touting was (I assumed) meant to manifest into art, little was shifting in terms of new territories for art making and its display. Sometimes fledging institutions – artist-run spaces or art collectives or art groups formed in the art school – would shake the foundations, but it was always transient or fragmented, artists and curators moving on to the next thing, the next institution.

Without the possibility of a peer group forming in my BA or MFA years, I would have given anything to avoid sliding off the cliff into this real world of limited art resources and opportunity. The art school supplied me with a critical community that, day in and day out, challenged my own sense of taste in the making and doing of art. Inside the walls everything was good. But after graduating there was a perspective shift in me because of the insecurities of being an artist in the world. Like a bouncing castle the sealed air that was being pumped into the once soft art institution looked bloated and vulgar and alien from the outside. In the following years when NCAD bulged with its inflated student numbers, and at the same time the physical art scene fluctuated between staying the same or getting smaller, the idea of self-organised art education promoted and executed by the likes BHQF became really seductive as an idea, but never a reality.

Thorne observes how in 1957 there were 350 MFA graduates, compared to the 100,000 art-related (BAs, MFAs, PhDs) today “in the United States alone”. Reading through Thorne's correspondence with artists who have built big reputations (or not) by taking the back-alley route of self-organised art education, you get the sense that the whole movement was, and still is, a rebuff against the professionalisation and "collegiate capitalism" of the contemporary art school at critical mass (It's only two years since ‘NCAD students staged a mass sit in to protest against senior management over claims it is “damaging the quality of their studies.”’). Two years before the NCAD sit in, New York’s Cooper Union School of Art and Architecture, a free school for over 150 years, announced that it would be introducing annual fees of $20,000, which “sparked a two-month occupation of the president’s office… the longest student occupation in American history”.  

I wonder how this proliferation of words has helped art making; or how it has changed the thinking behind the art object. What would art look like without the theory, without education, without the institution, without the curator, without words? What if there were no bureaucratic middlemen? If in their stead you had artists and studios and self-organised art spaces? Does talking the talk help walking the walk? Are we all just saying the same shit? Are we convinced by words over images? I’m sure the answer is found some place in between – a typical answer from an art educated me. I have come to believe that artists depend too much on their master and minion institutions. 

When I was an MFA student at NCAD Nicolas Bourriaud's Relational Aesthetics was a book that was always kept, or hanging out on the kept shelf just beyond the librarian's shoulder – including the copies. I was absolutely seduced by the facilitation of words and text in the work of Liam Gillick et al. Still am. Thorne mentions how art historian Lane Relyea defines relational aesthethics in relation to the contemporary art school, where "Hanging out, talking shop, and making connections with faculty and visiting artists" has replaced the curricula and syllabi. But what about beyond the art school? Helguera chimes in on the criticisms of relational aesthetics, one of many in this book, by saying that relational aesthetics was less about the public and more about the artist. Thorne mentions Theaster Gates as an example of an artist who manages to skate across the rough and smooth of socially-engaged art practice and artworld/ art market. I personally loved Gates' work at Documenta 13 in 2012; but as an object rather than a message. I wanted to take it home, the songs and smells, even though it was a building that housed working humans and working art. 

You do get a sense from the artists in Thorne's School that the sophisticated language and materials of art is as important, if not more important, than the message. Not in the Marshall McLuhan meaning of ‘the medium is the message’, whereby the medium influences how the message is perceived. But in terms of how language is in excess of the medium, a medium that has nominal effect on its viewership or, more to the point, readership. That failure is its success; the clichéd lesson of art education. 

 
cover_1.jpg
 

Said in a matter-of-fact way, Anton Vidokle, the founder of e-flux and coeditor of e-flux journal, responds to one of Thorne's questions on his unitednationsplaza 'school': "It started with mainly artists and curators, particularly curators, who tend to be very active. That's because there's some kind of entrepreneurial component to this profession; you need to be visible and you need to engage in a network." Later in the conversation Vidokle admits to wanting to put art back centre stage where it obviously belongs, and magnanimously admits that e-flux is partly to blame for the generalised theories that permeate the artworld today. 

If relational aesthetics is the bad guy in all this, then Black Mountain College in North Carolina, which “opened its doors the same year [ 1933 ] the Bauhaus [ School ] closed”, is the mythological hero. At Black Mountain artists learned by doing, with no curricula, courses or grades, just the gathering of experience. Black Mountain didn’t become an inflated bureaucratic castle: “Over the course of its twenty-four years, fewer than twelve hundred students enrolled”, with Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly  two of its students. And work played its part at Black Mountain too, in the way the artists harvested the land, something my father would have understood. 

 
 

Strict yet nebulous themes produced a wide variety of forms that attempted to break the standard triangular and circular or square arrangements. They often did, perched on pews or swarming in a crowded corner of gravestones. 

 

*Sam Thorne's School: A Recent History of Self-Organised Art Education is published by Sternberg Press [ 2017 ] 


Madder Lake Editions

 

MADDER LAKE ED. #7: Context is Everything

 
 
Logo Design by FlamingText.com
 

EDITIONS

 

CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING

...review of the AOIFA National Flower Festival, Ardee, County Louth💀

By ALAN PHELAN | November 11, 2017


 

Content is the glimpse of something, an encounter like a flash. It’s very tiny—very tiny, content. (William de Kooning, in an interview)

 

It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible. (Oscar Wilde, in a letter)

 

[ Epigraphs from Susan Sontag’s essay ‘Against Interpretation’ (1966) suggested by James Merrigan]


 

There is some kind of circular logic that should apply when you have to write about flowers through flowers. The language of flowers spoken here however is not simple or ready to decode with a handy glossary.*

*

 
  Gerbera  (I'll try harder)

Gerbera (I'll try harder)

 
 

It is more like a dialect or patois, specific to a particular community or tribe. The detail is different and difficult, like a technical language**, but importantly not riddled with jargon. 

 

**

  Cosmos  (Sophistication, Mystery)

Cosmos (Sophistication, Mystery)

 

This is a language that does not seek translation*** and possibly not even interpretation. The obvious parallel is with the language of the artworld, where artists develop their own syntax of materials and ideas to create visual statements. 

 

***

  Iris  (Message, Wisdom)

Iris (Message, Wisdom)

 

Sometimes this language becomes so introverted, private or dense that viewers can only marvel at the form, as the content is seemingly unavailable****. 

 

****

  Aster  (Afterthought, Patience)

Aster (Afterthought, Patience)

 

Form in floral art shares these characteristics with content*****.

 

*****

  Bouvardia  (Enthusiasm)

Bouvardia (Enthusiasm)

 

The difference is that these flowers do not require the language of criticism or deference to history. They are very current and determinedly****** yet inevitably, ephemeral. 

 

******

  Alstroemeria  (Pleasantries, Devotion)

Alstroemeria (Pleasantries, Devotion)

 

They also have a criticality beyond binaries and observations of symmetry, flow, or contrast. The potentiality of the staging is everything, taking several months to develop yet unfolding over a few hours. Fleeting perhaps, but anchored in an ongoing community of active agents*******. 

 

*******

  Dianthus  (Admiration)

Dianthus (Admiration)

 

Strict yet nebulous themes produced a wide variety of forms that attempted to break the standard triangular and circular or square arrangements. They often did, perched on pews or swarming in a crowded corner of gravestones. 

 

********

  Bupleurum Griffithii  (Power)

Bupleurum Griffithii (Power)

 

This all happened in the context of two churches and a community centre, organised primarily by women for women********, with everyone welcome of course*********. 

 

*********

  Anthurium  (Hospitality, Abundance)

Anthurium (Hospitality, Abundance)

 

There were a few men involved but the gender equality portrayed on the TV report on the event played to the natural misogyny********** of our national broadcaster***********. 

 

**********

  Ammi  (Fantasy, Femininity) 

Ammi (Fantasy, Femininity) 

 

These arrangements do not televise easily. Edible flowers or sons devoted to their dying parents make better stories. This misrepresentation offered a soft criticism that revealed insecurities instead. These are not flowers for flowers sake, they have a better purpose than mere narrative, they are not weak and pretty. 

 

***********

  Chrysanthemum  (Cheerfulness under Adversity)

Chrysanthemum (Cheerfulness under Adversity)

 

This is not a demonstration************. 

 

************

  Freesia  (Lasting friendship)

Freesia (Lasting friendship)

 

Alan Phelan is an artist based in Dublin. alanphelan.com

 

*This text is about the AOIFA National Flower Festival “Celtic Way” held in Ardee, June 2017. It was written for Natalie Czech for her “A Critic’s Bouquet” project where a writer footnotes a text with flowers which is then realised as a bouquet which is photographed, see : [here]


Madder Lake Editions

 

Convenience Stores & Rabbit Holes

 Paul Mosse, 'What’s with the Apocalypse?', Visual Carlow, 16 September – 12 January, 2017.

Paul Mosse, 'What’s with the Apocalypse?', Visual Carlow, 16 September – 12 January, 2017.

 

In 2001 I had my first intellectual experience of contemporary art with someone who was paid to intellectualise it, an art college lecturer. Mick Wilson was the lecturer; The Douglas Hyde Gallery Dublin was the gallery; the artwork was by Lucia Nogueria, who died 3 years earlier in 1998, aged 48. 

In the same gallery in 1999 I have a memory of Felix Gonzalez-Torres' lightbulbs, who also died 3 years earlier in 1996, aged 38. But that experience, removed from context, from history, from someone teaching us how to think, was pure experience rather than a lightbulb moment. The combination of Wilson and Nogueria was a lightbulb moment. But the lightbulb was not all head, it ticked. 

 
 Lucia Nogueria. [ Where? When? Unknown.]

Lucia Nogueria. [ Where? When? Unknown.]

 

In a review of the exhibtion in The Irish Times the writer missed the heartbeat: "Lucia Nogueira makes sculptures from everyday things. Here, a random-seeming collection of broken, discarded objects—tricycle, washbasin, wire, piping—lie on the floor. It could almost have been designed as a sobering antidote to the consumerism of Christmas."

What a leap of convenience —"antidote to the consumerism of Christmas" in the month of December. In contrast, Wilson was making an impassioned plea to us to see beyond the convenience store. He asked the group of students what was it about this "random-seeming collection of broken, discarded objects—tricycle, washbasin, wire, piping—lying on the floor" that activated the space. 

As second year art students we stood there, silent, willing Wilson to get on with it. But he didn't; he let the silence hang there like a botched execution. Standing there in the excruciatingly still lineup—hoping for a Houdini among us—I began to search the artwork for an escape. 

And there it was. I don't remember if it was thread or wire, but the stuff that connected the "random-seeming collection of broken, discarded objects... lying on the floor" disappeared into the polished concrete as if the devil was pulling the strings. Randomness gave way to constriction, like the past erupting into the present. 

Nogueria's rabbit holes in the Douglas Hyde Gallery floor in 2001 showed me an alternative way of thinking and seeing through art. They suggested to me that a world existed beyond the artwork which the artwork could only point to. That the artwork is always missing a part, a bigger part, which the artist can only express as absence.

 
 Paul Mosse, 'What’s with the Apocalypse?', Visual Carlow, 16 September – 12 January, 2017.

Paul Mosse, 'What’s with the Apocalypse?', Visual Carlow, 16 September – 12 January, 2017.

 

Wilson and Nogueria came to mind during a visit to Visual Carlow last week, where I was confronted with an exhibition that blocked all but one burrow. Paul Mosse's work promises much by way of the candy-coated excess of his materials and fabrication, but the rabbit holes are caved in at Visual, where the mountainous scale of the main gallery space, like most museum-sized spaces, makes material molehills out of his art. 

One molehill after another, Mosse's display of objects is ordered like an orphanage dormitory: the wall works, headboards; floor works, beds. They all have the scale of beds too, sometimes bunk beds. But the boys and girls ain't dreaming here. Dreams are airy things you don't catch. 

Mosse coagulates his natural and manmade materials in resin and glue. Some of these mummified dreams look like Paul Doran's paintings from 5 years back. But with Doran you get the splinters, the desire to touch, to finger, to collapse. Here you get fixative.

 
 Paul Mosse, 'What’s with the Apocalypse?', Visual Carlow, 16 September – 12 January, 2017.

Paul Mosse, 'What’s with the Apocalypse?', Visual Carlow, 16 September – 12 January, 2017.

 

So I wander around looking for rabbit holes. One will do. Believe me, I was really giving this a try. I remember the heaving effort that was needed to notice Nogueria's rabbit holes in the Douglas Hyde Gallery 16 years earlier—and they were in plain sight. And then I see one. It's not much, a notch in the gallery floor. Mosse has leaned what looks like a discarded Christmas tree that has engulfed its decorations against a wall in the corner of the gallery. It looks like a reject, a standing orphan among the embalmed ones. A length of rebar that doubles as its gnarled tree stem nestles in the notch. 

I'm not sure if Mosse made the notch or found it—I don't want to know. Either way, there's intent and purpose in both scenarios. Not framed by space or wall or shelf or table or vitrine, like the rest of the collectibles, gives this little thing life. It becomes the bolt upright sitter in the morgue. Without the wall it would fall over; it critiques its kin just by leaning there. 

Forget the battle between subjectivity and objectivity, figuration and abstraction, content and materiality, I'm lamping for rabbit holes. 

 
 Paul Mosse, 'What’s with the Apocalypse?', Visual Carlow, 16 September – 12 January, 2017.

Paul Mosse, 'What’s with the Apocalypse?', Visual Carlow, 16 September – 12 January, 2017.


Madder Lake Editions

MADDER LAKE ED. #6 : TOWARDS MANHOOD

 
 
Logo Design by FlamingText.com

EDITIONS

 

TOWARDS MANHOOD

...review of a book about Forrest Bess💀

By JAMES MERRIGAN | October 11, 2017

 

 
 Forrest Bess,  Untitled (No. 11A) , 1958

Forrest Bess, Untitled (No. 11A), 1958

 
He relished the darkest things, deeply,
Poring over his novel day and night in
A bare room with the shutters closed and blue
Humidity souring the walls and pages
Opened onto ochre skies and rain forests,
Flowers uncurling into their starry flesh,
Vertigos, holocausts, pandemonium!
—All the while the neighbourhood clamour
Blared below—he was still alone, stretched
Across unbleached canvas, weltering caravel!


The last stanza from Arthur Rimbaud's The Seven-Year-Old Poets.


The old man was dreaming about the lions.

The last sentence from Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, 1957.


WET dreams, wet fantasies, our childhood bedroom was the damp room in the house; you know, the one with the dog-eared wallpaper. The bedroom window looked out onto a flat, felted roof. The felt was balding and grey like an old man. At night, patches of stubble caught the moonlight to form constellations, timeless and virile.

One night the bedroom window gave birth to a shadow. It was my brother, 6 foot, 12 stone, 17 years of him; gravity rather than will dragging him head first into the yin-yang moonlight. As a practised window diver I could feel the window fastener dig into bone and drag at skin. The big gorilla was squeezing through an ass crack. But he was drunk. So bones and muscles poured through the window, laxative relaxed. 

The same brother read books aloud to me at bedtime. The one book that stayed the course to manhood was Ernest Hemingway's novella The Old Man and the Sea (1951). As my brother read – our heads swimming, our laundry inside-out, our beds islands shored on the fizz of youth – the earth gradually regained its foolish flatness.

The book seemed to represent the age of man or a philosophy of manhood that was too fast, too soon for a boy, for me. The tug and release from boyhood to manhood and what a young boy might innocently call 'heroism' if he had the words; or with old age might critically call ambition. 

In the eyes of a seven year old, however, heroism is not coupled with age. My brother (the hero) was as old as my father (the hero) was as old as the fisherman (the hero). A lifetime is an eternity for a seven year old. But tides of sadness barrelled over me as the weathered Old-Man-Santiago became my father.

Thing is, we all fear our parents dying. But what we fear more is the monument to mortality that our parents represent, leading us to hate to love and love to hate. And we love and hate our parents for that. In my boyhood mind both my father and the fisherman had caught some disease that my brother and me were immune to. We would stay like this forever, ageless, in this bedroom with dog-eared books and wallpaper. 

 
 Chuck Smith,  Forrest Bess: Key to the Riddle , powerHouse Books, 2013. #home

Chuck Smith, Forrest Bess: Key to the Riddle, powerHouse Books, 2013. #home

 

Who knows why the past erupts into the present like this. Sometimes you go searching for it; other times you turn a corner and there it is, waiting on a book shelf. The odds were stacked against me keeping the wallpaper from my past pasted in place. 24 hours earlier a sickness hit me the way childhood sickness hits, quick and violent and through both ends. Cosy sick, I instinctively groped a book like a good breast from a stack of unread and half-read books in my bedroom: Forrest Bess: The Key to the Riddle.

For those painters who perform DJ with the B-Side of art history, Forrest Bess represents the ignored outsider artist come good in the afterlife. Bess ended up becoming a bait fisherman on a spit of land that was only reachable by boat. The camp was something he circumstantially inherited from his father which, from his prolific letter writing, was more of a blessing than a burden. 

 
 Forrest Bess,  Untitled , 1951.

Forrest Bess, Untitled, 1951.

 

Although remotely attached to the world, both physically and psychically, Bess had friends and supporters in high places for his painting. New York gallerist Betty Parsons, who represented Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, was one such supporter, giving him his first solo show in New York in 1947. But you discover reading his letters to Parsons that he didn't much fit into the bar scene bravado and machismo of the New York art scene. Before taking on his father's bait camp Bess left a studio and framing nixer in San Antonio, Texas, evidently relieved to escape the babble of talk-talk artists. 

Bess' life after moving from the city to the sea was marked by fishing by day and painting by night, when he would faithfully paint his dreams and visions. Day and night are feverish and fluid in the retellings of the quotidian routines of this complex man. But beneath the dreaming and the drudgery Bess was terrified that his paintings were sequela of a brutal assault. More terrifying was the thought that his faith in Jungian individuation and desire to become a pseudo-hermaphrodite (not born with but surgically altered to have two sexes) was nothing but sexual perversion.

 
 Forrest Bess,  Untitled (No.10),  1957.

Forrest Bess, Untitled (No.10), 1957.

 

In his paintings Bess didn't muck around. The vision came. He immediately drew the vision down. Then he painted the vision. Tadpoles of paint coalesce to form leaden suns; lidded eyes flirt in stelliferous nights; spider legs form a marching cornfield beneath a sun with flaking eyelashes. Unlike my metaphors, Bess was recording not trumpeting. His paintings are minimal but emotional; direct but layered; small but larger than life; sacred but humane.

But Bess' paintings are one thing and the motivation to paint them is quite another – quite other. Especially when you consider the burden of desires that undergird them, laid bare in his correspondences with friends, artworld professionals, psychoanalysts (Carl Jung included) and medical doctors.  

 
 Forrest Bess,  The Penetrator , 1967.

Forrest Bess, The Penetrator, 1967.

 

Bess was gay. He kept that secret, until the war, when a drunken pass toward a fellow soldier left him with a "caved-in skull". Before and after the attack Bess was a painter who experienced visions; art and fantasy was something his mother fostered from early on. But he was worried as a boy and a man that he had inherited the "bad blood" of his grandmother, who ended up painting "fantastic canvases" in an insane asylum.

Up to the point of the assault, Bess had come to terms with the local community's taste for provincial pastoral – derivative Van Gogh and Matisse can be distilled from the suppressed stylisation of his early work. After the attack, Bess' commitment to the 'truth' behind his visions led him to the larger process of "integration", a form of meditative completeness with his work. In essence, Bess' work was the present compass and future ruins of a vision quest to become complete as a pseudo-hermaphrodite.

 
 Forrest Bess,  Untitled (#II) , 1957.

Forrest Bess, Untitled (#II), 1957.

 

Beyond androgyny, beyond painting, beyond the sexual and aesthetic plain, Bess' ultimate drive was to achieve immortality through the sexual act of full penetration with another man through an incised hole at the base of the penis. Over the course of 15 years of correspondences with his New York gallerist, Betty Parsons, and art historian, Meyer Shapiro, Bess shared explicit details of his botched self-surgery, followed by detailed accounts of successful surgeries by a local medical doctor.

Bess was schizoid-social: making friends was a means to uncovering the highest form of individuality, immortality. In one letter to the same doctor who performed the surgery, Bess confesses to being sexually active with a string of curious and willing partners: tongue and groove sexuality will always find its groove and tongue. But Bess never sounds like a victim in his letters; he is the flame not the moth.

 
 Forrest Bess,  Night Flight , 1959. 

Forrest Bess, Night Flight, 1959. 

 

The life-long research behind Bess' theories on androgyny and immortality bred a 'thesis', which by some accounts was a scrapbook that confirmed only one thing, confirmation bias. Even though Bess' thesis was rejected by his respected 'teacher' Meyer Shapiro, Bess subsequently proposed to Betty Parsons in 1958 could he display the thesis alongside his paintings in his next solo show at the gallery. Parsons politely refused, wanting to keep the show on the "aesthetic plain". The book's author claims that this was a "ground-breaking artistic move" obstructed on the part of Parsons.

After wrestling with the nature of nurture and the nurture of nature for a lifetime – a storm ends up destroying the bait camp that had become his home – Bess, like Hemingway’s fisherman, experiences the "salao" (isolating bad luck) that Santiago exhausted in his pursuit of the marlin. Although Bess’ last exhibition while alive took place in a small town in Texas far far away from New York, and was organised by a group of ladies from a small arts organisation, we are told by the author that he seemed happy. Unlike Santiago, however, Bess doesn't end up dreaming of lions. 

His last journal entry dated 7 October, 1974:

The dreams are full of symbols. Several dreams each night... I can't help believing that this is the beginning of the end.

 
 Forrest Bess,  Evening at Chinquapin , 1969.

Forrest Bess, Evening at Chinquapin, 1969.

 

Madder Lake Editions

MADDER LAKE ED. #5 : TOWARDS YOU review of an exhibition that doesn't work💀

 
 
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EDITIONS

 

TOWARDS YOU

...review of an exhibition that doesn't work 💀

By JAMES MERRIGAN | October 11, 2017


 [Detail, flipped and mirrored and multiplied]: Daniel Rios Rodriguez,  Lights Revolt , 2017, oil and mixed media on panel, 50.6 x 50.8cms. Image: James Merrigan, pointing at a copper pin.

[Detail, flipped and mirrored and multiplied]: Daniel Rios Rodriguez, Lights Revolt, 2017, oil and mixed media on panel, 50.6 x 50.8cms. Image: James Merrigan, pointing at a copper pin.

 

YOU wonder what the online world would look like if you hooked it up to a polygraph. You imagine it would register as flatline most of the time, because the event that caused the hyper-enthusiasm or hyper-emotion in you in the first place is in the past, and all you are doing now is essentially documenting the event with pictures and text. You are not really 'overwhelmed' because if you were you would not be able to document it with such sobriety. That's obvious though you admit to yourself.  

YOU think that the flatline might get a little jittery when you haven't time to gather yourself; like when you get into a verbal argy bargy in the comment box below a Twitter or Facebook post about Trump or art criticism. But that's Twitter and Facebook. You believe Instagram is something better, something more conducive to your imaging of your identity and process inside and outside your studio. It's personal. You notice the artworld has coveted Instagram as its online neighbourhood – even Cindy Sherman has moved in next door.

YOU think you may be a depressive, but you say to yourself that most of the time you are flatline around art. For you it's never 'amazing' or 'exciting' or 'deadly', or for that matter, 'entertaining'; it's more difficult than all that relative stuff, like skipping with a lead rope. You think you are being cynical for thinking and feeling this way, that you are different, that Instagram will not validate, will not compute. You keep to yourself the thought that it seems, on the surface of your phone screen anyway, that the artworld is a Himalayan line graph with no plateaus, as if everyone is climbing or falling at the same time, never resting. Maybe you wake up every day on the wrong side of the bed but, even so, everything seems flat to you, a horizon, a pancake – so flat that even when you propel yourself to stand on your hands the horizon just cartwheels with you, or when you flip a pancake you are met by the same golden brown desert waiting for the sugar rush.

YOU finally arrive in the art gallery, and the exhibition that has all your LOVE in Likes on Instagram doesn't do it for you in the flesh. You whisper: 'This exhibition doesn't work!' between an agreeable friend and the defenceless art objects – between a marshmallow and a soft place.

YOUR friend asks you, "Are group exhibitions meant to work, does that really matter?"

YOU say, "Well yes. Because some art objects survive group exhibitions and some don't... can't, because they're either too vulnerable or aggressive or whatever within the display, the architecture, the design. And it is the responsibility of the artist, curator, or whoever makes the selection, makes the edits, makes the choices, to make sure everyone is part of a bigger picture. If not, group exhibitions are nothing more than Argos catalogues. So it matters."

YOU qualify later after taking the mountainous scenic route on Instagram that whispering 'This exhibition works!' or 'This exhibition doesn't work!' is not really a criticism; it's worse, it's a dismissal. And it implies, claims even that other art exhibitions 'have worked' for you in the past, but this one, right here, right now, just doesn't work for you for no reason or just too many reasons to mention. Maybe, you venture, Instagram is to blame. 

Brave now, YOU take another step, admitting to yourself that the current group exhibition at the Kerlin Gallery Dublin just doesn't work for you in the flesh, on the whole — THERE, YOU SAID IT! But it works on Instagram! That's why you are here. Everyone else exclaims it works on Instagram too. Or did they? Back up! (back to YOU!). Were you lying through your ## or did it just make for a nice image? Did it just work on your phone?

YOU uncrumple your face to reveal a mask that hides nothing: all the images you took of this exhibition on Instagram is just a case of you picking your favourites, isolating them and cropping them and filtering them so, they represent you, us, not it; your Christmas tree among trees. You agree with yourself that you don't really look at the big picture anymore because the big picture doesn't fit on your phone; that you do a lot of picking and choosing and isolating and 'why didn't you pick me?': there's a lot of YOU going around these days. 

YOU conclude that this group exhibition is not really about 'working' anyway and that that's obvious. It's a 'pick me' exercise you think to yourself with no cynicism or irony or sarcasm or anything insincere you – YOU! – might think is behind that thought, that sentiment, that fact. The fact is (between you and YOU) currently at the Kerlin there is a group of young[1], emerging artists who have been put together in a commercial gallery space *PoP* (price tags from €800 – €8000 excluding 11.5% tax) with a potential solo show or gallery representation dangling just in reach, for one  [*PoP*] (YOU speculated Hannah Fitz (if anyone) on Instagram before you saw the show in the flesh but, now..?)

 
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YOU realise too that there's not so many installation shots of this exhibition on Instagram, and the ones that exist don't work, just like the exhibition in the flesh. Everything is up in your face, theorising in its limited and limiting territory. It's a perfect Instagram exhibition. Too much, too little, to you this exhibition is an exemplar of how all exhibitions have the potential to work on Instagram as a carefully conceived, cropped image, separated and selected and individual: YOU. 

YOU find, however, that amidst this catalogue arbitraire you have no choice but to draw closer and frame the more enticing objects on your phone. And when you do you realise that a lot of the stuff here works. Isolated, some artworks breathe in their immediate oxygen, and you gasp a breath of ennui toe-to toe with Fitz's derailed circuit of cigarette smoke before drawing in, drawing back, raising your phone and taking another image that tricks you and me and them into believing that the wood is free from the trees; but in truth, it's not, not nearly. 

YOU then notice beyond the wood and trees Daniel Rios Rodriguez's paintings and everything else recedes like a film set, a flat image, Instagram. You find yourself getting up close with this flesh and blood painter's character and desire sublimated in paint and pins and rope and more. You speculate and believe and hope that these paintings don't work well on Instagram; they must come across as dried out pancakes. In the flesh, however, they are the plateaus you have been searching for all along. Hung low, you see all the paint-mess from above, in relief. Copper pins push through aureoles of Madder-mixed-white. Ever so precisely and delicately some messy panels are paint-pleated at their zig-zag edges, making these works worlds within worlds. Like Picasso who lassoed a painting in 1912, you realise Rios does the same here but adds a bow so you leap frog to Jean-Michel Basquiat's exposed teepee corners. You concede texture and surface, like Norbert Schwontkowski's paintings, makes for good paintings; image is secondary. YOU go AWOL. You imagine lying on the surface of one of Rios' paintings, crusty and squidgy and sharp. A pin impales your heart and the polygraph peaks, and then, you get up and move on, flatline.

YOU come to terms with the fact that some art belies the photograph and some art defies the photograph. Take your pick. 

[James Merrigan]

Through 26 August.

_______________

Notes

[1] Artist and former art critic William Powhida and art critic and former artist Jerry Saltz had a recent Twitter argument that broke the flatline when they disagreed over what passed for 'young artist' in the artworld. Jerry wrote in a review that 40+ was young while Powhida vehemently disagreed. They publicly don't like each other anymore; privately, they probably never did.