How To Explain Pictures to a Difficult Date
I live in a tiny town in northern New Mexico, one where the chances of meeting an available man of a certain age are, shall we say, extremely limited. So when you do encounter one who owns a car, has a college degree, and doesn’t chew tobacco, your hopes can get sort of unrealistic.
And so it was when I was dating the man I’ll call Alan. A few weeks into the liaison, I asked him to join me for a preview and dinner to celebrate Chuck Ginnever’s suite of sculptures, “Rashomon,” at the Center for Contemporary Art in Santa Fe. First, though, he wanted to stop at a gallery along Canyon Road, which was also having a first-night fete for an artist who shall remain nameless. Canyon Road is notorious as a stretch of kitsch roughly a mile long in the heart of town, a place where you will find pictures of Indians huddled around campfires, gigantic bronze sculptures of buffalo and horses, and bright metal whirligigs masquerading as kinetic sculpture. (In all fairness, there are also some really nifty shops and good restaurants, and the occasional adventurous artist does slip through in places like Nuart.)
I wasn’t expecting much from the opening Alan wanted to attend, but I was trying to keep an open mind. My jaw went south about three steps into the gallery. The painter’s favorite subjects, as quickly became clear, were winsome young women in varying stages of undress, lounging poolside or gazing out a window or stepping gingerly into the water, where a previous soaking may or may not have left its impress on a clingy tee or translucent skirt. The poses were generally the wistful ones I remembered from my brother’s stack of Playboys—nothing out-and-out vulgar here—and what clothing there was in evidence was plainly of the ecologically correct variety. No frou-frou Victoria’s Secret stuff here either.
“What on earth do you see in these things?” I asked Alan. “It’s the technique,” he said. “It just amazes me that these are watercolors.” Indeed, the artist was a master of a kind of dry-brush virtuosity Andrew Wyeth could bring to many of his subjects.
“But, honey, this is pure cheesecake!” Alan gave me a scornful look and went off to chat with the artist. I wandered into another room of the gallery to check out the pictures of circus ponies and raccoons.
Things went downhill when we got to the cavernous galleries at the CCA, where Ginnever’s cunning sculptures were laid out along the floor with smaller models in vitrines. Ginnever is of the same generation as Mark di Suvero and Richard Serra and has made some sensational outdoor sculpture that slices and folds into the landscape with a crisp precision, like large-scale origami. The “Rashomon” group consists of fifteen identical sculptures made of rusting steel planes that stand unsupported in fifteen different positions.
But allow me here to quote former San Francisco Chronicle critic Ken Baker, who saw the works in San Jose, CA: “It took me 10 minutes’ concentration on two adjacent pieces to become convinced that I understood the relationship between their respective positions,” he wrote. “At that rate, truly to see the whole ensemble for what it is could take hours. The viewer’s basic confidence in the purchase of perception and memory on objects comes down a notch, and a subliminal haste in ordinary conduct of life stands uncomfortably exposed….Ginnever slows down and challenges the viewer’s experience. He inculcates us with a nagging doubt, which becomes part of the pleasure of the work.”
Alan was having none of that. He was simply bored. And I’m afraid I had none of Baker’s eloquence or deft observations at my fingertips to try to convince him otherwise. But in the days that followed I tried to argue with him why what we saw in the first gallery was just plain schlock. I went back to Clement Greenberg’s classic essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” to see if I could more precisely pinpoint for him why Canyon Road painter’s technique simply couldn’t compensate for cheesy images presented without even so much as a knowing wink. Writing in 1939, at a time when there was truly an avant-garde (Picasso, Miró, Mondrian, et al.) distinguishable from the products of popular culture, Clem was really not much help. We live in an age when “kitsch” almost defies definition but is tossed around with great abandon: If Jeff Koons can turn tacky garden sculptures and gift-shop figurines into gazillion-dollar collectibles, lauded by a fair number of critics, what then becomes of kitsch?
To spark some sort of dialogue, I emailed Alan what I consider a thrillingly erotic image by John Currin, which was included in a fine show on the subject of Mary Magdalene, curated by Dodie Kazanjian about five years ago. The painting is called simply Mademoiselle and is breathtaking in its interplay of warmly realized flesh, gauzy feather-trimmed negligee, and casually draped gleaming pearls. The model is as nonchalant in her nudity as one of Titian’s Venuses, and the same painterly love of sumptuous stuff prevails. For once, Currin eschewed the campy exaggerations to give us a real-live, wholly accessible and credible woman.
And if you want to talk about technique, Currin has it in spades, from the mottled skin of the woman’s cheeks and knees to the spun-sugar texture of her see-through robe. That the model is rather awkwardly cropped, a knee and a foot cut off from view, only seems to add to the power of the whole.
Alan’s only response was “Pretty neat, but it doesn’t really send me.”
I’m guessing there’s not a serious artist or art lover alive who hasn’t run up against this kind of brick wall (probably book and movie and music aficionados get into the same arguments). Why can’t you see that this is better than that? You don’t want to seem like too much of a snob, but you would truly like the other party to understand the difference between good art and bad, inspired technique and dumb-ass tricks. Finally you give up because you know you’re wasting your breath.
I recall years ago being with another beau in Montreal when he spied a ripoff AbEx painting that caught his eye in one of the gallery windows. The painter had forged a slick marriage of Franz Kline brushstrokes and Pollock-y spatters, but it was not a successful recycling of previous painterly innovations, as some find in the work of Keltie Ferris and others. Yet this guy wanted to learn and seemed educable, and so we did quite a bit of museum-going—until he returned to his wife.
With Alan, things were sliding from tenuous to untenable after a couple of mild political disagreements (and I probably keep a more open mind about politics than I do about art). But then one evening, when he brought a three-dollar bottle of wine from Walmart to accompany an Indian dinner I’d spent an entire day cooking, I simply gave up. Because sometimes taste really is all in your mouth.
Photo credits: Edgar Degas, L’Absinthe (1876), oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
A stunning essay, insightful, witty prose; this is why I check out the site regularly.
Too funny, Ann! I love the Degas that you lead with.
As I live in the same funny little town in Northern New Mexico I can attest that the observations in this piece are lamentably true, both re men and the quality of art on Canyon Road in Santa Fe. Except for Nuart, where I usually find something to surprise and delight.
The first paragraph brings back my Taos memories as a single woman. Maybe it was because I couldn’t ski, or maybe there were there too many other overeducated women of a certain age looking for a date? What was it about the Taos that I loved that seemingly directed every available man into growing a beard, chewing tobacco, and not giving a damn.
Your description on explaining art to your beau only left out the image of sputtering and eye rolling….I give you credit for even trying to enlighten this person.
Thank you for the article….and I agree with you that Canyon road is kitsch—other than Nuart.
My God, I love your wit, woman. “…where a previous soaking may or may not have left its impress on a clingy tee or translucent skirt.” Thank you for educating me. A bumpkin I may be; but a willing to learn one! I LOVE Vasari21. It’s a dream to learn while being entertained.
Yesterday I saw the Frank Stella you initially introduced me to, in Zane Bennett. After my trip to the Whitney to see The Retrospective entire floor of his work, I saw the Zane/Stella again. Now, I get it.
You are my Art Fairy Godmother/Sister.
(Did I mention I LOVE Vasari21?)
Hilarious! Loved the read on my lunch break!
Cracked me up! I love your hilarious observations, Ann… Vasari 21 rocks!
Art as a measure for compatibility works like a charm. Keep testing those guys and keep us in the loop.
Gosh ! This is familiar. Thanks Ann.
I live in the cosmopolitan East, supposedly. In my case the sex is reversed, alas the attraction to flash, bling, and questionable taste is alive and well. Great story nicely told.
Wonderful piece. Makes me doubly sad that we’re not working together on that NYC blog anymore as the way you described our outings–and this issue of taste–was always so eloquent and witty! Oh, and I remember Canyon Road all too well though we only drove along it. Saw a kind of equivalent once at the misnamed Moscow House of Art during the Yeltsin years.
How reductively dismissive and insulting. Your ‘slim pickings’ in the area have more to do with your withered and sideways participation in Dating Culture. You might be part of the problem, seeing other people only as Dates or Potential Mates instead of other humans you have Relationships with. It’s bewildering why you’d use your high IQ to trot this man’s ‘bad taste’ around and try to display his lack of acumen when it’s apparent the problem is not him lacking a Relativistic and educable eye, it’s your disappointment with your own choices of the company you keep that makes your attitude salty. As an avowed Feminist I’m ashamed to say this type of online commentary behavior– clickbait articles using Bad Dates as an example of the downhill slide of culture at large and the men who are to blame– it seems to be a straight woman’s strategy for parsing insults while disguising a wounded sense of resenting an assumed need for companionship.
And the last lines about the bottle of wine were just sad, but I understand. It wasn’t all him. For what it’s worth, Charles Shaw wine had an extraordinary couple seasons a few years ago and the wine was preternaturally delicious for $3.00 USD. But good luck pursuing relationships instead of weighing somebody’s worth by their inability to fit your expectations. Yes, “too much of a snob”. His mother must thank you dearly for mercifully attempting to come down to his level.
What is a “Relativistic eye” and why is it capitalized? How is my participation in dating culture “withered and sideways”? And how is my attitude “salty” (I would say it is anything but). I guess I do have problems….I believe clarity in language is as important as making discriminations in art and wine–as is showing a hostess who’s cooked all day a little more generosity. But I will check out that Charles Shaw wine!
Enjoyed your piece about your existence! Your writing is wonderful-articulate and humorous. I remember the days when I was unattached and am so glad to be with an architect who understands the importance of aesthetic insight!
Wow ! Who is this “Keyoka ? I found the “essay”on you date experience most entertaining and relevant until I
read what he had to say . . . why not forget about the man thing and just be content: single! mo
This essay is a hoot! But since I’m a person sorely in need of art education myself, I truly enjoyed the passages that describe the differences between good art and sleaze. I LOVE the juxtaposition of Franz Kline brush strokes and Pollack splatters–now I’m learning something which is, after all, why Vasari 21 is so good!
High expectations, yes always!
High expectations, yes always! You go girl!
W O N D E R F U L.. If you wrote a dating book, I’d buy it along with a lot of other people.
Runny thing about that. I approached several agents about doing a dating memoir, and none of them bit. I was told by one that there are just too many “bad date books” out there.