Saturday, February 16, 2008

Beyond Chinese Landscape

I've been learning about Chinese painting lately. In traditional Chinese painting landscape is very important. The Chinese philosophy sees man and nature as one, without the western tendency to keep the two separate. Within this idea, it is logical that natural subjects would be important. The stigma of triteness given to animal art, and even landscape in western cultures does not exist in China. In Chinese paintings these subjects, along with plants, are of the utmost importance. This concept is so obvious within the culture that it need not be defended. Chinese people have been thinking this way about nature for thousands of years.

Landscape is perhaps the most important subject in Chinese painting. The landscape is treated in a very intellectual and symbolic way. This can be best demonstrated by noting the teaching regimen for landscape. First, and artist must learn the basics of Chinese brushwork and begin to copy master landscapes. When a certain understanding of the basic structure and language is gathered, the artist heads out to paint from nature. The artist is not truly a landscape painter until he stops painting from nature, and gains the ability to make up his own ideal landscape out of his head.

This is not an impossible feat, because Chinese painting stylizes and simplifies the landscape in to an elegant language. Chinese aesthetic demands the essence of the subject, not a documentation of it. Thus, Chinese painting, but also landscape painting more specifically, becomes its own language for expression of many unutterable truths. Landscape becomes a forum, or medium of an ideal and an expression of feeling that can't be stated. So, Chinese landscape is more than landscape, but it is important that it takes the form of landscape.

My views on landscape are strikingly similar. I certainly believe that landscape is of central importance. I believe man's attempt to separate himself from nature is silly and foolish. I find landscape to be a great forum to express feelings and ideas. Landscape is symbolic and emotional as a subject, as well as formally stimulating. The stylistic diction of landscape in Chinese painting is beautiful and flexible. It is like an illustration of an abstract ideal. By making abstract ideas into recognizable images, the Chinese artist can make his most obtuse emotions and concepts available to the viewer in a comprehendible manner. That is a very exciting idea to me.

In my painting, I push these ideas one step further. Chinese painters use brushwork to create expressive power. I do the same. But Chinese artists tend to focus on the brushstroke as the main element of expression. Color, even when present is not of great importance. In my paintings I also use color as an expressive tool, just like brushstrokes. In Chinese painting extremes in value are rarely used, subtlety being preferred. I use intense value contrast and shifts expressively. Most importantly, Chinese stylization takes landscape a long way away from what the eye sees. This gap makes for easy symbolism and idealism. But I think the landscapes then miss something important. The viewer cannot vividly imagine himself at a particular location or within the landscape he is viewing. While I would hesitate to call myself a realist, my works are realistic enough to place the viewer at a time and place. That gives the viewer a thrilling churn in the stomach and sets the imagination on fire. It is a sublime, spiritual moment when you become lost in a painting. Despite all the other factors that are important to me, I want to transport my viewer, not just in an intellectual way, but viscerally.

Thursday, February 7, 2008


Earlier today, I had a studio visit that I was looking forward to. As silly as it seems, studio visits always cause me a little anxiety. My studio is a personal place where I create things that reflect upon me all the way through. In my studio I'm far more transparent than I'm used to being. A visit in that context can feel a little like an invasion. But despite this fact, I was looking forward to it. I expected a whole new angle from this visitor, because she is not an artist, but an editor, curator and critic. Usually, I only talk to other artists. To be honest, I don't know what makes people who devote their life to art without actually creating it, tick. I have no idea what someone coming from that angle is likely to say. I felt that I could learn all sorts of things in just a half hour.
The visit ended up being a waste of both our time. I was asked to talk about my work, and I did to the best of my ability at the moment. My visitor talked about how my work didn't seem contemporary or relevant and it seemed to be 'missing something.' But what? Apparently, my work seems frozen in the age when photography was the new technological thing. I need to find a way to make it about today, a time when satellites are traversing the landscape's sky and everything seems to be mapped. Of course, I am paraphrasing my visitor's words here. Perhaps translating or interpreting is a better word, because I was rarely sure what she really meant.
I wanted to find out what sort of thing was missing from my work. I made it clear I wasn't interested in gimmicks to 'update' my work, and stated, frankly, that I deal with the same questions she was asking about landscape's worth all the time. She insisted it was how I was portraying landscape that was irrelevant, and that she has nothing against landscape in general. To prove the point she gave me a video artist's name who deals with landscape. But I couldn't really get any closer to what was so irrelevant about my work. She seemed much more interested in some Dakota place names I had on my door. I said that I was interested in having them in the my upcoming show with my landscapes, but painted on wood. She liked that slight installation idea, but said that if I painted them on wood it would be expected, and people would only think of signs. That is precisely what I like about the concept. But overall, she seemed totally disinterested. Very polite, but bored. She asked if I had any questions. I had about five hundred, but I said no. For one, because I knew by now that we were philosophically on opposite ends of the spectrum. Secondly, she seemed like a bird aching for freedom and I didn't what to hold her back. Third, she'd already professed to not have any specifics on the 'missing something' and relevancy fronts. She left after about eighteen minutes of chatting.
I was quite depressed after the visit. I get depressed when someone who knows nothing about art is bored by my work. Imagine the effect of extreme boredom coming from someone who's devoted her entire life to art. That's a pretty low feeling. When someone is disinterested, an artist can feel it like a rash. Ironically, someone who knows nothing about art would be less likely to be bored by my art. I call that being jaded. My visitor came off as being very jaded, seeming to find no pleasure in the entire realm of my studio. I still was depressed, but I began to feel better. I realized that despite important titles and a life's work in art fields, someone can be less than insightful. It really depends on the person.
In this case, the visitor was someone who'd devoted her whole life to not just art in general, but to 'contemporary art'. That one word is of great importance and it got me thinking about the word itself and what stands for.
In its most basic sence, contemporary means occuring at the same time or age. But contemporary has also come to mean 'now'. In an art context it means the cutting edge--the super-now in art. But in the more broad sence all artists alive and working now are contemporary artists. The art world seems to define contemporary in a much narrower way. It is basicly a synonym for the latest in the avant-garde. And in this jaded age we live in, even what work is considered avant-garde is up for grabs. As usual, a few intellectuals on top decide. For some people that may be the exciting thing, or even the only thing that they are interested in. I don't count my self among this crowd. Unfortunately, the top of the art world has a pretentious habit of excluding everything that is not deemed avant-garde in the present by a small number of people. It's not democratic, and it rewards work that communicates with the most difficulty. The result is that most people that have any potential interest in contemporary art are turned-off by it. And that includes me, an artist in graduate school.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is my visitor, who only seems interested in the art world's narrow brand of 'contemporary'. I don't like the art world to be exclusionary, but it seems to take pride in that fact. If you ask me a lot of the problems artists face are caused by, or exasperated by this sort of culture. It is hard to interest most people in art these days, and it's not getting better. Art is undervalued and underfunded in our society. Deeming only one tiny segment of art relevant at the hands of intellectuals who far too often live one step out of the world they examine will only shrink art's importance.
Basing art's importance almost solely on the avant-garde is silly to me. It made sense when the concept was new, and helped propel art to exciting and unexplored territories. But the idea of avant-garde seems more worn out than modernism to me now. At least many diverse efforts could be welcomed under modernism ideals. It is increasingly difficult to invent something truly avant-garde. Conrad Atkinson's description puts the avant-garde in it's often ridiculous place.
The concept of Avant-gardism had become a blind replicator of a constrictingly rehearsed notion of advancedness, a conservative convention, and a contradictory position. The term 'postmedern' at best, only names the process of disenchantment and alienation which followed from the pressure of this contradiction upon art practice.

The art world seems to act like a child who's just discovered the idea of contradiction and says the opposite of whatever he hears for a day. This quote is highly accurate in its description of dysfunction in the art world. I'd take it one step further. The reactionary nature of the avant-garde has become so brazen that the reaction to the once fresh ideals of modernism were merely dubbed post-modernism. Not because the connection was evolutionary, such as impressionism versus post-impressionism, but because the only unifying element to art after the age of modernism was its desire to be not modern. From that shattered alliance, we now live in an unnamed art age that is in some ways a pathetic attempt to rebel against an era who's only unification was its desire not to be pigeon-holed. That can only create a mess. In my eyes, the chieftains of the art world are attempting to clean up the only way they know how--by being contradictory and exclusionary. To me it is a sick and broken system that cannot pervade long in this form. So, I am suspicious whenever I hear the words contemporary and art together. And I'm not alone.