Is Having an 'Eye' for Art a Thing of the Past?

A few years ago I was standing in a Malibu furniture store looking at coffee tables when I heard another shopper whisper excitedly to a friend:

"Hey, isn't that Bruce Willis? He looks just like he does in the movies... but maybe just a bit shorter."

I can confirm: it was Bruce Willis, and that was one hell of a nice Ferrari he was driving. He didn't look short to me, but I digress.

The author looks over John Currin's Reclining Nude: Photo by Matthew Couper
While viewing the recent John Currin exhibition last month at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, I found myself saying some rather similar things to my friends Matthew Couper and Jo Russ, who were touring the show with me. Currin's paintings were already well known to me, but only in the form of photos in magazines and jpeg images seen on the net, and I assessed them just the way that the woman in Malibu had assessed Bruce Willis:

"They are a bit more painterly when seen in person," I told Matthew, "and the canvas is a bit rougher than I expected."

Of course, considered in the context of today's media-driven art market, these observations are inconsequential. Everything in the show was already sold -- for $2 million plus each, or so I am told -- and Currin's reputation as an art world star is well established. The feeling I had looking over Currin's work was that the paintings themselves were celebrities, glamorized by the fame of the artist who made them and their high market values. That isn't an original idea: I think it was Robert Hughes who more than 30 years ago said something along the lines that "Paintings are now celebrities and museums are their limousines."

Selfie Takers in the Van Gogh Museum. Photo by Becca Burns
Hughes was prescient in his observation and the recent phenomenon of museum selfies drives his point home very nicely. Being in the presence of a famous painting seems to be replacing -- especially for younger art viewers -- the experience of closely inspecting works of art. If you are interested in scrutinizing the surfaces of works of art slowly and scrupulously you are a connoisseur or possibly an artist with a kind of professional vested interest in a given painting's construction.

A case in point: when a number of my artist friends visited Kehinde Wiley's exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum recently, they had a lot to say on Facebook about how Wiley's paintings looked to the naked eye. There was quite a bit said about what Wiley's assistants in China had painted (the patterned backgrounds) and what he had painted himself (the faces) and also some comments about the fact that Wiley's technique was gradually becoming more confident.

I enjoyed hearing their first person observations, but also realized that they were having a similar experience to the one I had at the Currin show. Wiley has become famous because of the social messages of his artwork, especially his bold imagery of African-American men presented in a context largely borrowed from the grand traditions of European portraiture. What I and my other "painting geek" friends observe about his work in person isn't going to affect his career trajectory at this point. Like Currin, Wiley has created a body of work that transmits its messages well in magazines and on the net, and that aspect of his work is very potent -- and possibly essential -- at this moment in time.

In a media society the reputations of painters are made in magazines and on the web. Seeing surfaces in person is a luxury and an afterthought. A recent survey indicates that over 50 percent of contemporary art collectors have now purchased art on Instagram. There is clearly growing confidence among collectors that digital images can tell you enough about a work of art to spend big bucks. When the crate arrives, they can look over their purchases the way I looked over John Currin's paintings on the gallery wall, and make a few discerning comments if they are so inclined.

If you have an "eye for art" and a keen interest in inspecting the surface of works of art, both out of curiosity and a quest for deeper meaning, your abilities are linked to an increasingly outdated notion of connoisseurship. Having an "ear" for art -- which means that you pay attention to what people are saying about what is hot on the market -- is now the best way keep up with the trends. Maybe all of this has something to do with why art critics, who have been traditionally been relied upon to carefully scrutinize works of art and make critical pronouncements, seem increasingly impotent and irrelevant. When the editors of Hyperallergic suggested at the end of year that art critics might as well be replaced by Instagram, they made a very funny and rather relevant point.

When I can manage to pry myself away from my laptop and make the grueling drive into the city I always make time to see art in person. That said, I'm increasingly realizing that looking at art on the web is the only way I can really keep abreast of what is happening in my field. I'm still dedicated to the idea of connoisseurship, even in an age when visual ideas transmitted with immediacy are in the forefront. It's still great to visit museums and take things in slowly, inspecting the surfaces.

In L.A. there is also the chance I will see some celebrities, as they seem to frequent art museums. One of my students returned from a field trip recently and told me that she saw Tom Hanks at the Huntington. She said he looked just like he does in the movies, but a bit older now.

Carl Dobsky: 'Ship of Fools' at John Pence Gallery

Carl Dobsky, Ship Of Fools, Oil on Canvas, 72 x 108 inches, 2014 - 2015

Carl Dobsky, a realist artist who is also the proprietor of the Los Angeles based Safehouse Atelier, is currently showing his recent six-by-nine-foot canvas Ship of Fools at John Pence Gallery. The painting takes up an entire wall in Pence's Gallery Three, and is accompanied by eight preparatory studies of the painting's characters.

Carl Dobsky: Photo by Sadie Jernigan Valeri

John Seed Interviews Carl Dobsky

JS: Carl, how did you come to choose this image?

CD: The theme for the work has been around for a long time, but kind of comes into it's own in the 15th and 16th centuries with works by the likes of Hieronymous Bosch and others. It usually depicts a boat without a pilot filled with deranged or people who are kind of oblivious to their situation. In some cases, it has been used as social commentary.

Ship of Fools (Detail)

JS: In your version, is there social commentary involved?

CD: I wanted to take these elements, but give the theme a personal interpretation. For starters, I didn't want to make it into a social commentary where the viewer or myself was some how looking at it from a privileged point of view where we can pass judgment on the people in the boat. In fact, I wanted they viewer to sympathize with their plight. So, instead of making each person an archetype of a particular social class, I tried to keep them all on the same level, or rather, belonging to no social class in particular.

Ship of Fools (Detail)

JS: Tell me about how you constructed and organized the image.

CD: To set the stage for their dilemma, I wanted to show them in a situation where they were caught between an ideal vision and a practical situation. In this case, the practical situation is obvious enough; they're about to wash up into the rocks if they can't take care of matters at hand. To show the vision of the ideal, I chose the symbol of the butterfly for it's delicate and fragile beauty.

Ship of Fools (Detail)

JS: Yes, the butterflies add something unexpected...

CD: The thought to use butterflies came to me after reading about Chuang Tzu's dream where his identity becomes interchangeable with the butterfly. In a similar way we often identify ourselves by our ideals or dreams. It also has the connotation of daydreaming from the expression "chasing butterflies" where one is chasing something that aimlessly flutters about but cannot catch it and is always out of reach.

Ship of Fools (Detail)

JS: How did you orchestrate the emotions of the characters?

CD: The boat taking on water and approaching the rocks is perhaps a bit too obvious of a symbol, but I suppose sometimes obvious is the way to go. Between these two, the butterflies and the rocks, these people are all stuck on a boat and their fates are tied together whether they realize it or not. But instead of passing judgement on these fellows I wanted to focus on a range of reactions that people would have when caught between these two poles moving from a kind of rapture to panic.

Ship of Fools (Detail)

JS: How long did it take you to complete this painting?

CD: The work developed over a period of a year. I have always wanted to tackle more complicated narrative subjects, and for the first time since who-knows-when, I've had a stable enough situation to go ahead and paint something without worrying about whether or not it would go to a gallery, or if it would sell. So I decided to go for it. I hope to be doing more of this sort of thing in the future. It has been a really fun experience and one of the most rewarding things I've painted to date.

Carl Dobsky
April 10 - May 2
John Pence Gallery
750 Post Street
San Francisco, California 94109
Hours: 10 am to 6 pm (Mon - Fri)
10 am to 5 pm (Sat)

David Allan Peters at Ameringer | McEnery | Yohe

David Allan Peters, whose work is on view at Ameringer | McEnery | Yohe through April 19th, has been building heavily layered paintings that he carves into to reveal rich stratigraphies of color. Kaleidoscopic in their intensity, Peters' works are both intuitive excavations and explorations of pattern.

I recently spoke to David Allan Peters and asked him about his background, his education and his methods.

John Seed Interviews David Allan Peters:

David Allan Peters
JS: David, from what you tell me you grew up in a family that supported your creativity...

DAP: Definitely: as a child I was making things all the time. My parents were very supportive and I was was allowed to try whatever I wanted.

JS: When did you decide to be an artist?

DAP: I took my first art class in junior college in Cupertino, CA (which at time was a very small agricultural town) and began playing with materials and received encouraging feedback from my teachers.

Then I got serious and attended the San Francisco Art Institute from 1995 through 1997. In San Francisco, I was exposed to more art and artists: it was a big step. My parents got me an SFMOMA membership and I would stop in at the museum daily. I was exposed to so much there: I loved their Sigmar Polke, and I remember seeing a Richard Serra splash piece.

Untitled #26, 2014, Acrylic on wood panel, 48 x 36 inches
JS: What kind of work did you do in San Francisco?

DAP: At SFAI I was into abstraction and materials. I was trying to make my own kind of marks, but not a brushstroke. Being in the Bay Area I was looking at "juicy" paintings -- like Joan Brown and Jay DeFeo's The Rose -- and I kept asking myself: 'How can I use that kind of energy another way?'

I did some cut out paintings, and also some that were scratched out and had sand in them. That was the beginning of the layering in my work. I was just making a lot of work, painting all the time, becoming obsessed with the process of making paintings.

Liat Yossifor, who is also showing at Amerigner | McEnery | Yohe, was an undergraduate at SFAI with me, and I remember that we were both completely "geeked out" on painting.

Untitled #1, 2015, Acrylic on wood panel, 18 x 14 inches
JS: And after that you did grad work in Claremont with Karl Benjamin, right?

DAP: Actually, when I got to Claremont I hadn't heard of Karl Benjamin. But I started to see him and his dog 'Macho'. We started to talk a lot, and we clicked and became good friends and I started helping him out as a studio assistant. Karl reinforced the intuitiveness in my art work. That was a turning point for me. Although I still wasn't sure what was going on in my work at that time, something was changing and I began to work with color more.

Untitled #2, 2015, Acrylic on wood panel, 18 x 14 inches
JS: Have you always been an abstract artist?

DAP: Not exactly. As a kid, I copied old master paintings out of my parent's old art books. I tried hard to paint those kinds of paintings, but I couldn't quite do it. I soon figured out that I could make them look good by hiding paint layers by putting stain over them. It made them look much better, and I used sandpaper to bring up the colors. It definitely connects with some of what I am doing now.

Edge detail: photo by Lance Gerber
JS: Tell me a bit about the processes involved in your recent "carved" works.

DAP: They just go and go: I don't keep track of how many layers I have used...sometimes hundreds. One of my big things is the edge. I am always thinking about lines and stripes in my paintings. And to see all of those, you have to look around the piece. As far as carving goes, its just one little chip at a time... like a mantra... until the painting becomes harmonious.

Untitled #4, 2015, Acrylic on wood panel, 18 x 14 inches
JS: Are you pouring paint as you go? Scraping?

DAP: I do it with a paintbrush. I start by hiding the strokes from the layer before: I make all these fine layers and then I try to erase them from the surfaces. There are a lot of happy accidents along the way: random things. But then, I regain control by carving the surface.

Untitled #6, 2015, Acrylic on wood panel, 18 x 14 inches
JS: Who are some of the other artists that you are looking at?

DAP: I live in Little Ethiopia in Los Angeles which is blocks away from LACMA. I take breaks from my work and ride my bike up to LACMA a few times a times a week. I enjoy looking at Gerhard Richter, Robert Ryman and Tomma Abts.

I keep to myself so I can stay directed. You have to work hard.

JS: What are your interests outside of art?

DAP: I ride my bike, garden -- I try do quiet things. And I enjoy NHL hockey.

JS: Is there anything else you would like to say about your work?

DAP: I'm a shy person which enables me to stay directed and work hard at making work. I want people to get what they can from them, to take their time and enjoy.

David Allan Peters
March 19 - April 18
Ameringer | McEnery | Yohe
525 West 22nd Street, NY, NY 10011

Works by David Allan Peters can also be viewed at:
Royale Projects: Contemporary Art
73190 El Paseo Suite #3 Palm Desert CA 92262