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.