Location, Location, Location...

I've been thinking and lamenting lately about the desires of the contemporary art audience. This could be in part my proximity to contemporary art collections that I work around due to my job. I've come to think that the direction and desires of current collectors is towards novelty and contemporary artists want to make art that's considered novel. I wonder at times if most artists like to think that their urge to be original comes first, and that the audience simply follows along at a lag time of somewhere between three months and ten years. I think that may have been true in 1912 or even 1950, but as long ago as 1965--when I was born--the game was up already. When I was in college, my peers and I knew that there was an audience out there, we just didn't think of it as an audience. We thought it was a kind of select, semi-secret society consisting of our favorite critics, a few big time collectors like Virginia and Bagley Wright, Paul Allen and Richard Hedreen, and an occasional new initiate, such as a friend or new contact in the Microsoft Millionaire Club with enough money and pity to buy something we made. Anyway, the audience that wants originality or novelty or doesn't know the difference, has moved on from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art and Minimalism to Post-Minimalism to Neo-Expressionism and Neo-Conceptualism, and now wants a novelty that 99.9% of painting cannot provide.

To most of the audience for contemporary art, painting, especially abstract painting[the kind I make], seems like "been there, done that." The rebuttal of, "Well, you haven't been quite there where my painting is at, and done quite what my painting is about" seems nit-picky and weak compared to, say, photographs of a big expensive home hanging off a hillside with no sense of support underneath or a video of an artist cutting their flesh to reveal strange colorful growths. Also, notice how the phrase "abstract painting" doesn't quicken your pulse like "artist cutting their flesh" or "hanging off a hillside with no sense of support" do.

We live in an age of branding and catch-phrases. Even the war in Iraq is branded by the television news networks, each with its own graphically designed catch-phrase. Abstract painting doesn't lend itself to branding or catch-phrases (and if it ever did, the brands and catch-phrases have been heard before). That's not a conspiracy; that's just the audience's appetite for novelty--OK, originality if you want--being satisfied. That's the way things are. We painters will just have to "deal", as the kids say.

There is however a quality in being out of the novel or in one's own zone.

When I'm painting, especially in the beginning or mid-beginning, I notice a lot of nice effects--those shape/paint-application/raw-canvas/drawing orbs that I like. Sometimes I wonder why the hell I don't create and preserve more of them in the finished painting; sure would look a lot more electric, or immediate I realize. But I want to maintain the relative (not absolute) singularity of things within a picture to let it have (not give it) more meaning. It's a choice, more often than not, of sacrificing some degree of fresh good-lookingness for at least a reasonable suspicion of profoundity beyond the esthetic. More electricity, better looks, but less possible profundity; less electricity, ugly or inept-looking, but a shot of meaning something beyond aesthetics (but not a meaning easily stated in words, or maybe not statable in words at all). If I've got any gravitas[Steven Colbert] as an artist, I'll choose the latter. Doesn't mean I succeed but at least I give it a shot.


Anonymous said…
Hi Harold. Yes, growths blooming under flesh on video screens (Susan Robb) and houses defying gravity in photos (Amir Zaki) sound more exciting than abstract painting, but see how you've stacked the deck? Specific, specific and then (abstract painting) general.

The only thing you can do is to keep working. That's all anybody can do. Since that's exactly what you're doing, I think you should be whistling a happy tune, not worrying about art tumors and houses in the air. Fondly, Regina
Anonymous said…
I have thought about this post quite a bit, being an abstract painter myself, having sometimes similar thoughts.

What seems to interest much of the art audience now is not a matter of if it's 'new' or not - but more a matter of if it's 'hot' or not. Sort of like the fashion trade.

But there have been a few painters, via Artstar, who have calmed whatever identity phobias I have with their clear vision of how real paint actually is. Nothing is more real and more variant, nothing has more potential.