Wednesday, August 7, 2013

American Painting Culture, 2013

 More than ever, the new medium of our imaginations is a screen. Glowing little pixels of light, repeated endlessly in a frame is what we spend a huge part of our lives looking at. Whether it be watching movies, TV, playing video games, or surfing the Internet, we're looking at what amounts to a glowing (sometimes moving) image in a frame. The screen is taking over. Certain seemingly traditional things are now frequently being done on screens—reading books, researching, as well as most movie special effects and animation (both created and watched on screens). With the advent and takeover of Iphones, most of us now walk everywhere with high performance screens in our pocket, connected to the Internet and with a camera, video games, social networking, texting and traditional phone talking capabilities.

Screens aren't only everywhere, with us almost all the time, they are also given high importance, a great deal of collective attention and are major status symbols. We aren't simply connected by screens because we now carry them around all the time and use them as our primary communication tool—lately the natural need to feel part of something, part of an in-group, is fed with technology. And people feel part of a community based of what screen-based technology they have. Our collective breath is constantly held over the next screen—the next screen gizmo, or the latest add-on (software, apps).

Painting is perhaps the oldest 'screen'. Images in a frame, or at least a square/rectangle format, have been part of culture for hundreds of years, not too far from a thousand. It was not that long ago in the history of Western civilization that the main practical way to depict was only by hand—using sculpture, painting, printmaking or drawing. For reasons of effectiveness and practicality, painting was the leader of these means of depiction.

In our age of photography, digital technology, instant information, and glowing screens, something like painting seems very archaic. It is essentially smearing colored goo onto a flat surface to make imagery. And it is simply not a new idea—it is a very old one. In our culture, new is almost always better than old.

So, in this environment is painting still alive? It is. In fact, more people are currently painting than at any other time in history. Not only that, but there are more acceptable styles of painting and techniques and approaches developed than in any time in the past. But that doesn't mean painting is in a healthy place.
For one thing, painting is not something deemed relevant by most of American society. Most people know little about it. Ignorance about painting is rampant. Most everyday Americans do not have the skills to decipher quality in painting. While it seems like every American is at least a casual movie and music fan and is likely to have opinions about these forms, they tend to be almost totally unfamiliar with painting. Their opinions tend to either be non-existent or very minimal and poorly informed. People generally feel no need to 'keep current' with what is going on in the fine arts in general, including painting.

This lack of painting being part of most Americans' everyday lives is fed by painting's general position in society. There is seemingly a contradiction here—painting is not held in high esteem by most of society, yet a small, elite group of wealthy people use painting as an expensive collecting hobby, a source of status symbols and as a market to invest in and manipulate as a pastime.

This contradiction is a bad mix. You could say 99% of people see painting as irrelevant. The other 1% aren't interested in painting for what are always the purest and most virtuous reasons. Any interest the 99% might be tempted to take in painting is often discouraged by the insider art culture that has been procured by the elite 1%, who are most active in art. Frankly, most American's confusion with current art and painting is only made worse by the way the ruling class most involved in the art world presents it. What they enjoy and encourage and their insider culture itself, not only looks confusing or silly to the rest of the population, it often telegraphs a message of exclusiveness.

The upside of this situation is that artists currently working have a choice—they can either cater and position their work to appeal to the elite art world, or work in relative obscurity. While one of these options sounds obviously grim and the other potentially appealing, perhaps the opposite is true in most cases. Those who choose the option of catering work to the trends of the art elite face long odds. Most customize their work to appeal to that upper market and completely fail to get a taste of it. On the other hand, those who do not cater to the elite and choose the type of art they want to do, based on heart's desire, have a variety of options. Small, slightly underground subcultures of various types of painting offer community and opportunities. These days, one can learn and find support in a huge variety of painting styles and techniques. It has never been easier to paint in so many different ways. One option is trying to win the lottery, while the other is trying to eek out a living, albeit trying within a variety of established styles of painting.

The general pluralism of painting and art in general today had its good points. Painters have many options, sources of inspiration, and techniques to draw on. Not only can artists simply choose any of these and adopt them as their chosen method, they can also mix and match these already existing art making types in limitless combinations.

And yet this pluralist, open-ended painting and art culture is much more limited than it may appear on the surface. While the pluralist culture alive at the bottom of the art world has influenced the art and culture styles at the elite top, there is a very limited set of styles and philosophies at the trend-setting top of the painting world.

Trend-setting painting today has a certain look to it. It is a myth that there us no style, no movement in current painting. Things are too shattered and hybridized to be boiled down to a simple movement, such as Abstract Expressionism, yet something that could be a movement is happening. If taken with some looseness, we are in the midst of a definite movement.

What are the attributes of current, 'elite' painting? The first, most general aspect is that current trend seeking art has a feel and look that hits the well traveled eye before the mind can grasp or define. It has an almost subconscious predictability. One gets the feeling and then searches for explanation and specifics. This isn't so different from other art movements in the past. But those tended to be aware they were movements which included and excluded based on a series of attributes. And they had a particular purpose—usually new ground that artists felt needed to be broken. The current style or aesthetic is more an ironic blend of recent painting history as well as other pop culture or consumer culture elements.

Though not steadfast and true across the board, there are some general aspects to the 'elite' aesthetic of current painting. Not all work contains all these elements or even any of them, but in general they are pervasive in 'elite' painting today.

Perhaps the first element to note is the openness to multiple mediums, collage elements, and installation elements in painting. Perhaps the second most important element to note is the very graphic look to 'elite' painting. It mixes painterly elements with hard edges, a sticker-like, floating, sudden edged feeling to objects in the painting. Part of this graphic look is due to the odd influence of illustration, cartoons, pop and advertising imagery and architectural renderings. Their influences seem to be pervasive whether the work is representational or abstract.

Either abstract or representational work is welcome, but both venues end up surprisingly similar in effect. Work of both types veers between (or includes both) very painterly and very graphic with hard edges. The painterly is not the elegant, paint-dancing of Abstract Expressionism, but messy, awkward or squalid looking. It brings to mind what's in a dumpster behind a convenience store, rather than the beauty of paint in motion. The purely abstract work tends to have a feminine feel to the color choice and shapes. Palettes are heavy on grays and gaudy colors—the subtly between tends to be left behind. I've started calling this the 'bubble gum palette.'

Beyond color and shapes, the feminine feel to this aesthetic is supported by frequent occurrence of pattern and things influenced by interior design (the housewares section of your local Target store has a surprisingly large amount in common with current 'elite' painting). Cloth patterns, weaves, designs and textures are often referenced.

Current 'elite' painting is also frequently ironic and cheeky. It references 'retro' things in a shallow, cute way, more for decoration than content. It seeks to be strange, funny and sometimes slightly creepy. Art is often strange, but our current obsession with strangeness stands out for its shallow, single-minded quest to be strange for the sake of strangeness.

Irony is often hinted at by depicting pretty things in ugly (or tacky) ways or things that, because of their plain, unromantic nature, have not been thought of as art subjects in the past. This idea took the main stage in the form of Pop art, a movement which started in the 1950's and took of in the early 1960's. In a way, more than fifty years later, a lot of painting is a new, more messy version of Pop art's 'consumer culture as subject'.
A large volume of the irony feel in current 'elite' painting comes from the aesthetic of ugly. Beauty is out, ugly is in. The volume is often turned up on this to the point of gaudiness. Painterly is now messy, clean lines now harken a dank, concrete parking garage.

This goes beyond simple aesthetic choices. Squalor and suburban decay is often a subject either indirectly or explicitly. Consumer culture and its extremely short half-life is often on the mind of the painters on some level.
As a cohesive whole, these current paintings make little effort to be the Renaissance 'window to a world.' The flatness of current paintings is made clear by a fondness for blank space that is beginning to border on cliché. Objects and brushwork often float on blank white surface or unfinished wood. It isn't simply the move of minimalists (often this occurs in crowded paintings) but rather an aggressively blunt way of showing the 'man behind the curtain.' There is no attempt at illusion or secret, the blank space not only proclaims the work as a graphic, but also spills the beans on what sort of surface the work is painted on. This perhaps goes along with the aesthetic of ugly. The ugly chic of these works demand extreme—compositions are either cluttered to the point of claustrophobia or left with blank space that almost seems unfinished or not thought about. Sometimes both extremes are employed in one painting. What is usually avoided is a beautiful, conventional sense of composition.

Tying into all sorts of these aspects is a large reliance on a primitive aesthetic. Folk art and outsider art is very influential in the way many are now painting. Untrained, clumsy, and rough-hewn technique are in. Even paintings that rely on some type of formal virtuosity also have a countering naïve element. For instance, a painting with complex paint handling or photo-realistic elements may have a naïve or clumsy composition in which even the axis of the whole painting seems off kilter. Realism or highly polished formal skills are often used in small parts of a work dominated by more crude means. Reference to children's art is also common. All of our own history as artistic primitives, the way we made and saw art as children is highly influential, like African masks and art were to Picasso. The current turn to the primitive has a definite self-referential and pop flavor. When Picasso began to use the influence of African art in his work, it was confusing and even menacing. Part of this is because of the look of African art, part is because of how Picasso used this influence, but part of this was also because it was an exotic, strange thing to reference. Current painters reference a much more cozy world of every American's comfortable, suburban, pop culture soaked childhood. Growing up in a garish consumer culture, one that does not enlighten its youth in high culture well, is both a conscious and unconscious wellspring.

Part of the high level of current interest in a 'graphic' look is to ape surfaces in an illustrated way, rather than in a literal realist way. A common tool is to, for example, put in wood grain or metal as if it is a decal rather than an actual surface with light hitting it. 'This is wood' is most often said with wood paneling rather than painting an object so it looks like it is actually made of wood. This sort of material irony and humor is sometimes one of the main objectives of paintings these days.

Lastly, the conceptual nature of current 'elite' painting encourages artists to delve into certain subjects and ways of working. It is frequently self referential in a way that would make the self exploration of past artists look tame. Self-obsessed is a better term. It is common for current painters to have self history as their main subject, or at least a side subject. The history of self has become the topic of this generation of painters.

The way current 'elite' painters work has certain tendencies, too. Gimmickry is common and encouraged. Through most of art history, painters were expected to evolve and make clever variations on some bread and butter painting realities. Everything painters did was an image which appeared on canvas or panel in a square or rectangle. Now, painters seek to work outside the box by basing their work on a gimmick. This may not be a type of work that can be varied and explored for long without becoming tiresome. But if an artist is successful, they will stretch their gimmick without evolution as long as possible (or profitable). What is a gimmick? It is anything unconventional in the sphere of painting. It can be mixing of media, painting on a strange surface, working without paint but still calling oneself a painter, working in unusual scales, incorporating extreme conceptual practices in painting or presenting your work far from the normal way a painting is traditionally looked at. This often is in the format of artifact-making, that is, making a painting which is to be looked at as an artifact or reproduction of an object, and not a picture of an object or an illustration.

So why is such a long laundry list of general descriptions of current elite painting necessary? Why, if it takes so much to describe this new style, is it of any use to try to put current painting in a box? I'm not big on putting a definition on everything. But art is surprisingly non-inclusive now. The list of attributes of current, 'elite' painting might seem long, but if a painting is outside of too many of these tendencies, it is not considered by the 'elite' art world. In this environment, many of our greatest visual arts talents are ignored.

So what does this culture in 'elite' painting have to do with our screen-obsessed culture? The more I think about it, the more connected they seem. Screen culture is about being hip—haves and have nots. 'Have you seen this movie yet? Do you watch this show? Do you have this gizmo? Do you have this app for your gizmo? Did you hear about this event on your screen yet?' It is about being part of a community, one that is in the millions, and yet people desire to be elite. It is a world of one-uping your peers, for checking to make sure they are up to your tech standards.

Painting culture is picking up some of these elements. It is non-inclusive, but skill, talent and ideas are not the clear way to inclusion. Simply being hip to the tone of the of the current aesthetic is the biggest ticket to inclusion; a willingness to change or evolve what or how you paint until it matches the very specific guidelines of contemporary trends. And this very non-inclusive environment is hidden under the banner of pluralism. In a similar way our tech obsessed culture claims to be about faster, easier information and convenience, while it ends up being just as much about status and distraction. Both art and technology offer opportunities for elitism and these days both are being utilized for elitism frequently and in a surprisingly organized way. It is in tech company's interest to promote a culture of one-upmanship and perceived exclusiveness (never long lasting). In this way they sell more product more often and remain exclusive in our culture and collective attention. Elite art is also market based. More than art or even personality, the art world sells trends. Painting is often boiled down to a collectible, high-end trend. It is in the interest of the elite art market to be very exclusive—to make sure the work, and even artist personalities fit very specific trends and do not number too high. A product of limited availability and clear-cut attributes is worth the most and the easiest to control and sell.

On a less conceptual level, current elite painting is very much a result of our tech obsessed culture and from looking at screens. While movies and TV suggest the viewer step inside the frame, a modern resurrection of the Renaissance window to a world, small Iphone screens and most Internet activity occurs in a very flat world. The glass becomes a firm shield and we can't quite pull our imaginations into a different 3D world on the other side. We can see the results of this culture in the trends popular in 'elite' painting. The masses of white space mimic the flat world inside a screen. And the layout of a typical Internet page, with its white, blank space offset by areas plastered with busy ads and complex images are mimicked, too. In a general way this is the basic aesthetic of many paintings that are now considered trendy or being bought and sold in elite venues.

The pluralist appearance of 'elite' painting is a reflection of the high volume information culture we now have, thanks to our screens. You can find information about most anything instantly on a hand held device. Communication with friends and even acquaintances is an all day, instantaneous process. With this great power of information at our fingertips, we get an ego as a society. We think we know everything because we can look anything up. But we are limited by time and our own imagination and intelligence in this aspect. Also, while a great deal of information is online, many topics aren't or have little information available online. The reality is often as much about distraction as it is about knowledge and learning. And our ability to socialize constantly online with portable devices may make us seem more connected to each other, but in a way it distracts us from in-person interactions as well as entrenches us in a group we already know rather than encouraging meeting new people.

'Elite' painting has similarities. It might seem more inclusive than past movements. Is isn't about one thing (like pop art) or even called a specific name. Many mediums and approaches are acceptable. Crossing and blurring art mediums, painting, drawing, sculpture, installation etc. is often encouraged.
But that open-ended environment is tempered by a clique-based reality in the 'elite' painting world. Wildness and open-ended art making is welcome, so long as it fits into a fairly narrow aesthetic zone. The aimless feeling of this new aesthetic reflects a feast of choices. New work is not so much totally ground breaking as it is a mixture of past painting. It seems artists are paralyzed by the options presented to them by past developments in a similar way that our culture is overwhelmed by constant information and 24/7 access to it. But all this access to information, and in the case of painting, the access to a history of varied approaches, has given our current culture a bit of ego, which clouds perspective.

The age of constant Internet access and social networking outlets such as facebook, Twitter and youtube has created a culture, particularly among youth, of egotism. Sharing mundane details of everyday life constantly creates a sense of minor celebrity in people's mind, a sense that people they know are following their lives with interest. Easy picture taking and sharing results in people with large collections of their own image. In a way, everyone is their own celebrity, at least in their mind.

This matches with the large amount of self-referential work and personal archeology found in painting now. And when painters aren't aggressively referencing themselves in painting, they are referencing something. Usually work has some retro reference, either from past art or past culture. Pop culture is constantly referenced in work, either directly or indirectly. It seems our culture of self reference created by screens and technology has rubbed off on the popular set of painting styles.


In simple terms, both our culture at large and our 'elite' painting culture have been affected by our tech obsession. While these new tools have the potential for great uses, they are often used for petty purposes. They also have a destructive tendency—the power technology bestows on us also comes with responsibility and temptations to keep at bay. Art culture has been adversely affected by these tech trends. But perhaps a larger danger to both our culture at large and our art and painting culture is elitism. When too small a group holds too much of the power, much danger lurks. And this is the current situation in America in general, and in the microcosm of painting.