In Memoriam: Sadegh Tirafkan (1965-2013)


Sadegh Tirafkan (1965-2013)

Photo: Gallery Etemad, Dubai

Artist/Photographer Sadegh Tirafkan, who passed away in Toronto on May 9th of brain cancer, was a distinctive and complex individualist. Although deeply influenced by his Iranian heritage -- his work was about roots and identity -- he resisted labels; "I never want to be categorized by a singular place or category," is how he once put it.

"Sadegh's works speak volume about the loss of individuality or rather markers of individuality in our current age where crowds and collectivism are the norm," says his friend Jareh Das. "Where Tirafkan focuses on the individual -- as in his 'Loss of Our Identity' series -- he presents the individual as a complex character constantly vying between past and present, ancient and modern belief systems."

Tirafkan's childhood and adolescence were shaped by the grand forces of war and revolution. Born in 1965 to devout Muslim Iranian parents living in Iraq, the rise of Saddam Hussein forced his family's return to Iran in 1970. After the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, 14 year old Sadegh volunteered to serve in the Basiji, the poorly equipped people's militia whose soldiers ranged from teenaged schoolboys to unemployed seventy year olds.

Often acting in conjunction with the Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard some Basiji participated in suicidal "human wave" attacks against Iraq designed to clear minefields and draw enemy fire. Inspired by patriotism and promises of eternal glory Basiji militiamen marched into battle in successive rows, wearing plastic "keys to paradise" around their necks.

Tirafkan served for three years as a cultural militiaman, living alongside other young Basiji members in a mosque where they carried out collective rituals in honor of the martyrdom of Inman Hussein, the Prophet Mohammed's grandson. His interests at the time were cultural and aesthetic -- "film, theater and anthems" -- but he also learned to shoot a rifle. Tirafkan later wrote that "...spending the best decade of my life in the middle of a revolution and war had taught me so much, I don't think I would have ever been able to have the same experience just through reading or watching a movie about this time."

In 1984 Tirafkan entered Tehran Fine Art University to study photography. At the time, Iran's Revolutionary atmosphere demanded that photographers train as photojournalists who could create documentary work to serve political purposes. To satisfy his university requirements, Tirafkan took conventional photographs of streets and people, but did so with an acuity and restlessness that hints at his later themes and interests.

Sadegh Tirafkan, "A Church in the Julfa Neighborhood: Esfahan," 1989, photographic print 
© The Estate of Sadegh Tirafkan

After graduating in 1989 he was given a government voucher that allowed him to subscribe to a magazine called "Creative Camera" which gave him precious glimpses of western photography. In an atmosphere in which gharbzadegi -- "Westoxification" -- was seen as a direct threat to Iranian cultural identity, this kind of access was rare and carefully controlled. Following his 1990 one man show of portraits at the Seyhoun Gallery in Tehran, Tirafkan came across an article about the American photographer Cindy Sherman, which a friend was able to translate for him. "After reading the article," he later recounted, "I knew that another kind of photography existed which was very different from what we knew as art photography."

An invitation to exhibit in Paris then opened up a career outside of Iran, including a brief period of living in New York in 1997. Interestingly, Tirakfan's time in the west had the effect of putting him more deeply in touch with his Iranian cultural and aesthetic roots. Now a practicing postmodernist Tirafkan returned home to create "Persepolis" -- Iran's first conceptual video installation -- in which the artist poses amidst the ruins of ancient Iran's ancient imperial city.


A video still from "Persepolis" © The Estate of Sadegh Tirafkan

Defining himself as a conceptual artist with roots in photography, Tirafkan's mature photographs, digital collages, installations, and videos became vehicles that allowed him to explore the themes that would preoccupy him until his death: masculinity and identity. He would explore these themes in a way that wove the threads of his own life and experience into the vast and ancient tapestry of Iranian culture.


Sadegh Tirafkan, "Iranian Man," 2000, c-print © The Estate of Sadegh Tirafkan

Writing about his photo series "Iranian Man" in 2007 Tirafkan explained his underlying ideas and cultural contexts:
My initial inspiration for this series came from looking at ancient drawings, existing in places such as Takht Jamshid and Perspolis. In this series of pictures, a man is hiding his face behind a red cloth/towel, which should usually cover the lower body; maybe he is ashamed of his past. We can't see his face, but he has a sword in his hands. But in some images, you may notice that his hand is up and seems like he is about to give up, maybe after all, he is tired of putting up the veneer of toughness... maybe he is ready to quit.
Tirfafkan served as his own model for the "Iranian Man" series, and his bare torso -- decorated with block stamping, calligraphy, and tattoos -- often appeared in later photos and videos. In his "Body Signs" and "Body Curves" series words spelling fire, water, renewal, secrets -- and also single letters -- stand for the artist's psyche while the stamps represent symbols of Iranian popular culture. Tirafkan once commented that "...flesh is the canvas branded by culture." These series -- and others that followed -- also demonstrated the artist's willingness to expose the male body, breaking down another Iranian cultural taboo.

Sadegh Tirafkan, "Body Curves," 2001-02, stamps and hand written calligraphy on silver print 
© The Estate of Sadegh Tirafkan

The confessional aspect of Tirafkan's self-portraits gave way over time to digital collages that made broader cultural commentaries. In the last decade of his life Tirafkan orchestrated layered vignettes of heroisim, athletic prowess and self-flagellation. His "Endless" series frames images of daggers and combat in a kind of dance of death and intimacy. These digital collages represent one of the artist's ongoing projects: an attempt to represent "...a different side of my culture through images to address cultural and religious aspects of where I came from and their homoerotic and homosocial potential."

Sadegh Tirafkan, "Untitled" from the Endless series, 2009 digital photo collage
© The Estate of Sadegh Tirafkan

Sadegh Tirafkan, "Multitude #3," 2008, digital collage
©The Estate of Sadegh Tirafkan

In 2006 the artist turned his interest to the problem's of Iran's growing population. Using digital collage, and adopting the metaphor of a human carpet, he created his "Multitudes." The idea of the carpet, as he explained in an exhibition catalog, allowed him to address a rich and inter-connected set of ideas:
The carpet is emblematic of Persian culture. It is a symbol of culture, seasonality, richness, diversity and continuity - in time and in history. As such I have been obsessed by the parallelism and marriage between this symbolic, intricately loomed object and the people to which it belongs.
Sadegh Tirafkan, "The Loss of Our Identity #2," 2008, digital collage
© The Estate of Sadegh Tirafkan

Another series of digital collages -- "The Loss of Our Identity" -- sets cultural images and emblems against the features of contemporary Iranians. Tirafkan's friend Jareh Das recalls being deeply captivated by "Loss of Our Identity #2":
This photo montage quietly speaks of the silencing of females which I must say isn't just a Middle Eastern concern but universal. To be seen and not heard could be a literal interpretation of the work as her eyes gaze piercingly whilst her mouth obscured by the decorative motif of male royalty. Its a work I keep going back to and have been captivated by since I first encountered it.
Sadegh Tirafkan, Always in Our Thoughts, 2011
© The Estate of Sadegh Tirafkan

In 2011 Tirafkan exhibited a suite of multimedia columns referencing the hijla -- temporary shrines to commemorate the dead -- titled "Always in Our Thoughts." Conscious of his own mortality, he had been struggling with cancer for three years at the time, but remained hopeful that his mother's prayers would help him defeat the disease. Wrapped in strips of cloth that allude to the bits of fabric tied to traditional hijla in remembrance of the dead, these final projects transformed and updated an ancient way of coping with grief, as Tirafkan explained in an interview:
With Hijla, I wanted to present a gift from the living to the deceased in their honor, but to also celebrate life. The word actually means marriage, and traditionally it's an image of a deceased man, but I wanted to break the taboos and use pictures of living people and also women and include mirrors, so that the viewer can share in the celebration.
In his final decade Tirafkan made regular visits to the U.S. and Canada, but remained an Iranian in his heart, deeply proud of his culture. Acclaimed both in Iran and in the west, the artist who had begun his life as a boy revolutionary died a revolutionary of another kind.
"My goal is to demonstrate that all the people regardless of gender, culture and religion are indeed seeking inner peace and sanctity." - Sadegh Tirafkan
A celebration of Sadegh Tirafkan's Life will be held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tehran, Wednesday, May 29th, 5 to 7 PM

Vonn Sumner: Somewhere Else

There is a silence about the works of painter Vonn Sumner. His canvases ask his viewers a question that takes a moment to consider: do you want to laugh, or cry, or both?

Vonn Sumner, "Defense," 2013, oil on panel, 18 x 18 inches
Vonn's upcoming show "Somewhere Else" features a suite of paintings that form a kind of personal Commedia dell'Arte, whose main actor has a tragic, muted air. Sumner is wise enough to know how to engage you in his theater and also smart enough to stand back and let you react on your own terms. The paintings are generous, funny and just a bit opaque.

Sumner, whose father Richard ran a Palo Alto frame store and gallery grew up looking at art and thinking it over very carefully. Echoes of Bay Area painting, flavors gleaned from Morandi, Guston and Magritte and a hint of Buster Keaton come together in his recent works through the filter of a sly, discerning intelligence.  

John Seed Interviews Vonn Sumner
Vonn Sumner -- Photo: Eric Minh Swenson
Vonn, you grew up in the Bay Area and got your MA at UC Davis. How have the traditions of Bay Area painting stayed alive in your work?

In many ways: There was a David Park show at the Palo Alto Cultural Center when I was in high school that was a life changing event. I went to see it every weekend, it had a physical effect on me. Also, those painters had a love of art history, of the traditions of painting, but also could not ignore the new artistic developments and anxieties of their time. With the 'Bay Area Figurative' painters especially, there was a desire to bring the processes and premises of non-objective painting together with the timeless project of representing the human form. That same question is something I try to grapple with every day in my own way.  

Your images often manage to mix humor and commentary. Is it important for you to have both of these elements in everything you do?

Well, they need each other, don't they? Lisa Simpson needs Homer; Chuck D needs Flavor Flav; Karl Marx needs Groucho. Social commentary alone can become didactic, orthodox, simplistic and boring. Pure silliness and absurdity can become nihilistic and trivial. I am for the complexity and contradictions that come when both of those elements are simultaneous--I think that is more honest, more fully human, and therefore more subversive.

Vonn Sumner, "Reliquary," 2012, oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches
Your painting "Reliquary" includes a shrouded figure decorated with roses. What are some of the ideas behind that image?

For me, the decisions in making a painting are largely intuitive. There is no literal idea or narrative I am trying to execute or illustrate. I can say generally that I work with materials and imagery that feel "right," and that I work toward an image that resonates with me at the time. I'm also interested in breathing new life into old conventions, like portraiture. With "Reliquary" in particular, it felt both ridiculous/absurd and also somehow melancholic or mournful.

Vonn Sumner, "Neo-Byzantine," 2013, oil on canvas, 20 x 18 inches
Many of your recent works appear to be self-portraits: are they? 

I actually don't think of them as self-portraits, even though I am often using my own body/face as the figure. Instead, I think of them as just "heads" or "figures" in a generic sense.

An analogy might be that a filmmaker can write a script and then act in a particular part because he knows what he wants for the role more than the role is autobiographical or about "self." Also, since I am often putting the figures in a state of potential humiliation, I think on some level I feel more comfortable doing that to myself than to other people.

Since we don't -- as far as I know -- choose our bodies when we are born, I think of it almost as a kind of "readymade" or a given; like Jasper Johns using the stencil letters and numbers you get from a hardware store, a kind of neutral decision in some way. Bruce Nauman's work was influential in this regard, as was Joseph Beuys, though he was more overtly "autobiographical"-- if perhaps fictional. I do take photos, but don't stay too faithful to them and throw them out as soon as possible so as to let memory and invention take over and just be present to the painting.  

Can you tell me the names of artists who have influenced you? What have you borrowed from them?

That is a dangerous question, I could talk all day... First, I will say that I give myself permission to steal from anyone and anything. My job is to make it my own. But some of the main influences: Philip Guston, Balthus, Giacometti, de Chirico, Morandi, Goya, Piero, Giotto, and the Italian "Primitives" - especially the Siennese like Sassetta, Duccio, etc.

Among current painters, I like Peter Doig as well as the 'New Leipzig School' painters from Germany, I feel a certain kindred spirit with some of them. But I also love abstract painters like Sean Scully, Terry Winters, Brice Marden, Nozkowsky. I loved Amy Silman's last show in New York, I think she has found an exciting way to address the question of how to combine abstract painting and figuration.

I have to add that many of my main influences are from cartoonists and filmmakers. People like Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman, R. Crumb. The Marvel comics of the 80s had a profound effect on me growing up.

At Davis, my teacher/ mentor Wayne Thiebaud introduced me to George Herriman's "Krazy Kat." And Wayne made it clear that he took that very seriously: that cartoonists and "commercial artists" like that were not to be condescended to but to be seen as artistic equals. That had a huge impact on me and validated how much comic books and even children's book illustrations had influenced my wanting to draw in the first place. Some of the earliest and most impactful pictures that anyone sees are the drawings and paintings in children's books. Similarly, I think Alfred Hitchcock and the old Film Noir movies are probably a major influence on my work, as is Buster Keaton. I worship Buster Keaton.

Vonn Sumner, "Action," 2013, oil on panel, 18 x 17 inches
You have explained that your work "attempts to reconcile the exterior objective world with my subjective experience of it." Can you expand on that?

It's hard to talk about. I remember since childhood being struck by the distance between what was going on in the "objective" /observable world and what I was feeling and experiencing in my "subjective" inner world. I think that is one of the main reasons that artists make art: to bridge that gap and communicate, to bring what is inside and show it to the outside, to make the invisible visible. And this is not only an intellectual or an emotional thing; this is also about the physical experience of being in a body. Painting is uniquely equipped for addressing the body, for projecting the physical experience of the painter and producing an empathy in the body of the viewer.  

Vonn Sumner, "Parlance," 2013, oil on panel, 24 x 20 inches
What direction do you expect your work to take in the future?

Of course, I don't know, and the not-knowing is part of the point. In general, though, I hope to grow and push my work into a place that I can't yet envision. More specifically, one thing I can say is that I have always really been interested in the territory where painting and drawing overlap and the boundaries between the two disciplines are blurred. That is part of my interest in Giacometti, and I think late Guston addresses that. Picasso's black and white paintings deal with that directly. And I am increasingly interested in the ink painting traditions of China and Japan. The directness and simplicity of that painting is amazing. So there is something there that I have yet to fully explore and I hope to find a way to invent my own version of that painted-drawing or drawn-painting thing. That is very exciting territory to me.

Vonn Sumner - Somewhere Else
Merry Karnowsky Gallery
170 S. La Brea Avenue Los Angeles, CA 90036
Exhibition Dates: May 18 - June 15, 2013
Opening Reception: Saturday, May 18 from 8 to 11pm
Gallery Hours: Tuesday - Saturday 12 - 6pm

On Taste, Richard Serra and the Green Eggs and Ham Syndrome

"Art produces ugly things which frequently become beautiful with time." 
- Jean Cocteau
Although I pride myself on having wide ranging taste in art, there are some artists that consistently rub me the wrong way. There is one major American sculptor in particular whose work I don't care for.

Yes, I am a Richard Serra disliker.

Before I go further I should clarify something: I don't dislike Richard Serra personally. I had the chance to meet him when an exhibition of his was being installed at a gallery where I worked in the early 1980s, and he was very pleasant to me. He was immensely intelligent, and I enjoyed having the chance to drive him on a few errands and hear him talk about art. Serra has a temper -- I watched him chew out the photographer who had been hired to document his installation -- but I figure that "fiery" can be sign of integrity. As I gained a generally positive impression of Richard Serra the man, the two massive pieces of battleship armor that I saw installed in the gallery floor were charming me less than he was. Over time, and after periodically viewing many more Serra installations, I still haven't warmed up to Serra the artist.

I think that Serra's work is vastly over-rated, pompous and inhuman. I think that most of the credit for the presence found in Serra's steel pieces should go to the foundry in Germany that fabricates them. Serra strikes me as an aesthetic bully whose installations are imposing to the point of actually intimidating the public meant to appreciate them. I do, however, think that Serra's large steel pieces sometimes make nice backgrounds for photographs of people. So do rusting battleships.

OK, my opinion is out there now: I'm in trouble, right?

Richard Serra: Sculpture - Gagosian Gallery, London. Gallery 3: Fernando Pessoa (2007-08), Weatherproof Steel. Photo by Matthew Retallick

By airing out a private judgement in public I have given you -- the reader -- the opportunity to judge my taste against your own opinions and biases. If you agree with me you respect me more and if you disagree we are now at odds. As human beings we are always most comfortable around others who share our taste. We are naturally insecure around those who disagree with us, and when the matter involves taste things get quite personal.

Taste is art is about a kind of freedom: the freedom of preference. Each of us likes what we like and nobody can or should define our taste for us. If a student tells me "I love Thomas Kinkade!" I try to keep my disdain in check and congratulate them on having a passion for art. At the same time, I also get ready to offer them a broader range of art to look at. I believe that the proper way to teach art appreciation is to expose not to indoctrinate.

When I find myself getting too smug about my own taste, I keep humble by reminding myself of something I call the "green eggs and ham syndrome." Years of looking at art have taught me that sometimes something that I have been rejecting morphs into a source of pleasure. "I like green eggs and ham!" I suddenly exclaim...

When a work of art that we previously found puzzling, unsatisfying or even repellent suddenly enchants us, an internal boundary is erased. According to the British writer and philosopher G. K. Chesterton, all art involves "drawing a line somewhere." Challenging works of art dare us to cross the line of our preference and to even change our notion of what may or may not be art at all. Expanding the boundaries of taste offers an exciting prospect: new pleasures.

One of the reasons I read art criticism is that individual critics hold out the prospect of new discoveries. Of course, I reserve the right to disagree. My disdain for the works of Richard Serra puts me directly at odds with the views of an art critic that I genuinely admired, the late Robert Hughes. Here is what Hughes wrote in the Guardian after viewing Serra's installation at the Guggenheim Bilbao in June of 2005:
"Let's come right out with it: on the basis of his installation of one old and seven new rolled steel sculptures at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, we can call Richard Serra not only the best sculptor alive, but the only great one at work anywhere in the early 21st century."
That is high praise from a man that had extraordinary erudition. Just re-reading it activates some insecurity on my part: could I possibly be completely wrong about Richard Serra? Then again one's taste is never "wrong," even though people will tell you that it is.

Am I six months away from discovering a work of Richard Serra that I find immensely moving and beautiful? Is one of  Richard Serra's curving walls of COR-TEN steel going to be my green eggs and ham? Possibly...

Of course, this blog isn't about Richard Serra. What I want to write about is the mutability of taste. Whenever I lay out my own opinion about art I do so realizing that my taste is not stable: it's development is an ongoing project. I have written enough to sometimes be called a critic, but I'm too aware of my own intellectual capriciousness to take on that responsibility just yet. I worry that declaring myself a critic would result in more people being critical of me.

Critics play a role in the way that taste is transformed into commerce, so they occupy a hot spot in the art world. One of my Facebook friends -- an artist -- recently had a few choice things to say about art critics on his Facebook status:
"I am so sick of these so called art critics who don't know shit. A friend asked recently: How does someone become an art critic? My reply: Well, first you have to fail or give up completely at being an actual artist. From there you find a way to tell other artists how to be good artists."
Those comments hit home because I am an artist turned writer. And yes, there is something very appealing about becoming a larger fish in the art pond and having the chance to give patronizing advice and pronounce judgement. Having my brief public rant about Richard Serra was very satisfying: it let me, the failed artist, connect with a nice juicy revenge fantasy. Frankly, it also felt good to disagree with Robert Hughes, who became a critic after "failing" as a painter.

Could it be that my reactions are petty and personal? It is certainly possible, just as it is similarly possible for anyone who pronounces judgments about taste. I keep in mind that while a particular critic or commentator may be broadly exposed and profoundly learned, they are human too.

Despite being a "Serra disliker" I recently took some time to read a blog by Ed Schad, who wrote a review of a Richard Serra drawing exhibition now on view in Los Angeles. In his blog, he talks about the way that Serra's works have a kind of force of nature about them, and makes this observation:
"Nature is at best apathetic of us and the enormity of its silence and disregard of us has a strange way of making us seem precious and unimportant at the same time."
In other words, some of the same things that have made me hostile to Serra's works -- their uncompromising force and intimidating presence -- are directly connected to the aspects that Ed found so moving and profound. Ed's blog in itself is so beautiful that it made me promise myself to go see the Serra show. Part of me hopes that Serra's works will live up to Ed's praise. Part of me also hopes I don't like the show, so I won't have to change my mind.

Your taste is who you are. My taste and I are both human, flawed, and always evolving.

For the time being I remain a Serra disliker. What about you?

Odd Nerdrum's Paris Open House

Brandon Kralik, an American born painter who lives and works in Sweden, recently attended the Paris open house of his former teacher, Odd Nerdrum. Over 100 of Nerdrum's paintings were on view, and a special concert was performed, but the painter himself was absent. I am appointing Brandon "guest blogger" so that you can read his report about the event, and also view a video and slideshow. - John Seed

L to R: Painters Brandon Kralik and Nanne Nyander with composer Martin Romberg 
On an otherwise sunny day, a dark thundercloud passed over the sprawling gardens of the Nerdrum's home in Maisons-Laffitte. "Nature providing a little drama for Odd," commented the artist's son Bork Spildo Nerdrum as the rain passed and an international group of collectors, painters and admirers ga thered from around the world to see this most special exhibition of paintings.They crowded the huge rooms to see over 100 works by this most interesting, and arguably the best, of all figurative painters and to hear the special concert arranged by the composer Martin Romberg as wine and hors d'oeurves were served.

Romberg composed a piece to accompany Nerdrum's latest masterpiece, "To the Lighthouse" and the composer stood by as pianist Michael Cheung performed it in front of the painting. Cellist Marcus Eriksen and violist Sarah Niblack joined Cheung for live performances of Sibelius and Arvo Pärt compositions as well. The entire event was presented in grand style at Nerdrum's private residence and studio outside Paris which was opened to the public on April 19, 2013 for just three days. A miracle of rare device!

The event was arranged by the Nerdrum Museum, Galleri Pan of Oslo and Galerie L'Oeil du Prince of Paris, and was opened by Gerald Bliem of Galleri Pan who spoke of the challenges that Odd Nerdrum has faced during the past decade with regards to his cruel treatment from the Norwegian tax authorities. The Norwegian Supreme Court recently overturned a 2 year 10 month prison sentence and now the painter awaits a new trial which will present new evidence in the case. Nerdrum's new book, "Crime and Refuge," depicts these challenges by presenting a collection of Nerdrum's paintings with its focus on the theme of the refugee.

Nerdrum's son, Bork, presented the book which was released for the first time at the opening. The forwards to the book are written by Norwegian author Nabintu Herland, who was on hand for the opening and Gregory David Roberts, acclaimed author of Shantaram and although he could not attend the opening, his wife, Princess Françoise Sturdza of Switzerland were among several hundred people in attendance.

To see Nerdrum's work in person is important if one is to understand how large his contribution is, both literally and figuratively. Every room in the house was full of paintings by this man who has chronicled his life and the full range of human experience as no other painter has. From the soft, gentle paintings of children in their mothers arms, of families and groups of individuals bathing and lounging in the sunset by the waterside, to the despair, the alienation, and backstabbing that seems to inevitably accompany human beings as we fumble for grace during our dance to the grave.

The huge stone staircase leading up to the second floor of the exhibition was lined with paintings of mistreated animals which, alongside haunting images like Dustlickers and Five Singing Women gave the viewer a distinct impression that Nerdrum knows exactly what he is doing. He is no mad artist.

In the Cognac room there were many books by Nerdrum containing not only paintings but also volumes of essays, prose and plays. In this one room, the smallest of all the rooms, were dozens of small portraits of former students who have come from all over the world to learn from him and Nerdrum has given freely to those who have wandered his way.

An iMac on the table played the films that he has conceived and which have been made by his sons, Øde and Bork. Although the other rooms were spacious with inlaid wood floors, chandeliers and vaulted ceilings, the paintings were so large that there was room for only one per wall in most cases. The life size figures floating midway on transparent lakes, suspended in space or singing by caves, measureless to man, allows one to forget that these are paintings at all and transports the viewer into the full emotion of the song, into the longing for the dawn.

For me that is an important aspect of Nerdrum's work, to forget that it is a painting, to be absorbed by ancestral voices, and in doing so, to catch a fleeting glimpse of what was there, who we were before the turmoil, when there was just eternal emptiness. Peace. The fact that hundreds of people traveled to enjoy this experience with me reminds me that I am not alone.

Throughout the house were easels and palettes and evidence that he had been there, although Nerdrum himself was customarily not present.

In his studio, with the huge fireplace the guests found themselves in the company of five over-sized paintings on easels, the figures communicating through gestures, through paint. Beyond the brushes soaking in oil, the 200 ml tubes of paint with indentations from large hands, lids missing and piles of discarded paint scrapings, stood a skeleton wearing Nerdrum's clothing. In his timelessness, he takes us beyond his own death, in this life, by giving us an exhibition of paintings that all who made the effort to attend can be eternally grateful for.

-Brandon Kralik

 The hallway leading to Nerdrum's studio -- Photo: Brandon Kralik

Composer Martin Romberg, Pianist Michael Cheung, Cellist Marcus Eriksen -- Photo: Delphine Margau

 Nanne Nyander and Brandon Kralik with Odd Nerdrum's "Five Singing Women" -- Photo: Gro Raugland

 Nanne Nyander descends the staircase with Nerdrum's "Tortured Animal" series on view -- 
Photo: Brandon Kralik

 The painter's studio and palette -- Photo: Brandon Kralik

 Painter David Della Venezzia and Galleri Pan owner Gerald Bliem with Nerdrum's "To the Lighthouse" -- Photo: Brandon Kralik

 Odd Nerdrum's Paris home and studio -- Photo: Øde Spildo Nerdrum

 Nerdrum's Studio -- Photo: Nixon St. Hilaire

  Violist Sarah Niblack, pianist Michael Cheung -- Photo: Delphine Margau

Michael Pearce: Rescuing Beauty

I recently asked Michael Pearce -- an Associate Professor of Art at Cal Lutheran University, and the driving force behind last year's TRAC 2012 Representational Art Conference -- how he liked to spend his time when not involved with art. His reply took the form of a question:  

"What else is there?" 

Pearce is currently on sabbatical from teaching, but doesn't seem a bit interested in sitting by the pool. During his time away from the classroom he is continuing to work on his personal mission: changing the course of art history.

Two weekends ago Michael Pearce gathered a select group of writers, academics and museum directors in an upscale hotel conference room, and gave them six hours to chat through a list of ten questions including one of his personal favorites: "What is the place of beauty in contemporary representational art?" The symposium, and the seven course meal that followed demonstrated one of Pearce's strengths: he knows how to bring people together, make them comfortable and get them talking. The event was also -- in Pearce's words -- a "call to arms," intended to generate wider discussion on the future of representational art. 

"Michael has an unrelenting dedication to the revival of skill-based art education in the academy," observes Pearce's friend and colleague Michael Lynn Adams. In all his projects Pearce has the full support of Cal Lutheran's President Chris Kimball, and a campus gallery -- the Kwan Fong Gallery -- where exhibitions and demonstrations by representational artists make his vision tangible.


Michael Pearce
Pearce first went public with his ambitions as director of TRAC, held in Ventura last October. The conference, which was attended by over 150 people, was developed around an assertion that Michael and his co-organizers share: that there has been a "neglect of critical appreciation of representational art well out of proportion to its quality and significance." Attendees heard critic Jed Perl tell them that they live in a "time when authenticity is embattled." and they seemed to eat it up. Dr. Kay Kane, a lecturer in Life Drawing who came all the way from Australia to attend, later wrote: "I came away from the conference with an overwhelming feeling of excitement at the ideas, both visual and intellectual, to which I had been exposed."

Of course, the term "representation" is quite broad, but the TRAC conference mainly drew artists whose tastes and methods are rooted in the long lineage of pre- 20th century European painting traditions. Pearce himself has a taste for the works of Bouguereau and the Pre-Raphaelites, and feels that Impressionism was a detour that led to Duchamp knocking beauty right off the highway of art history. Not surprisingly, Postmodernism, with its tendency to favor ideas over skill and irony over sincerity, is an approach that Pearce sees as exhausted. As Postmodernism wanes and wilts, Michael Pearce is optimistic that beauty, skill and engagement are waiting in the wings, ready to spread their wings and fly again.

I recently spoke to Michael, and asked more about his background, his views, and the planning for the second TRAC conference.  

John Seed Interviews Michael Pearce: Can you tell me a bit about how and when you came to the US?

I'm a classic US immigrant. I landed here on my birthday in 1990, with a backpack and $1,000, which didn't last long. England was miserable in those days - everyone I knew was unemployed. I came here because I'd been given a scholarship to do an MFA and a job as a teaching assistant at USC, which was a fantastic deal - I got paid to be a student in California! While I was at USC I had the good luck to meet Ruth Weisberg and take her Life Drawing class, and I've kept in touch with her ever since. I deeply admire her.

All I knew about California came from reading Tom Wolfe, so everything was new to me. I lived in a hot pink house in West Hollywood with an elderly, profoundly alcoholic white ex-actor and his young Korean businessman partner. They adored each other. Our other roommate was a hippie girl from Santa Cruz who wanted to be a movie star. I was given a motorcycle, which I promptly crashed, so I bought a beat-up backfiring old jeep. I loved driving that car around LA, along palm-lined boulevards.

You remember that Talking Heads song: "You may find yourself in another part of the world. You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile. You may ask yourself, 'Well, how did I get here?'" I sang that song over and over again.  

What educational and aesthetic experiences shaped you most powerfully?

Before I came to the United States I had been a theatre student at Dartington College, in the South-West of England. The people who established the college loved Rudolph Steiner's ideas about education, so it was an extraordinarily creative environment, where wonderful stuff happened.

You might walk up the mile long driveway to get to class, watching a steam train puff its way alongside the winding river in the valley below, and encounter a group of students dressed up as Edwardians wandering through the fields with umbrellas and balloons, then have to jump out of the way as a group of naked people painted blue ran past. I felt very comfortable there, because that sort of thing was going on in my head all the time. Looking back on it, I don't think I really learned performance there so much as I learned how to manifest my imagination, and I think you can see that in my paintings, which are both performative and idea-driven. It's as if being at Dartington gave me permission to have ideas and share them without worrying about them. The problem isn't coming up with ideas for paintings, it's about choosing which ones will work well.

The other formative educational experience for me was doing my PhD, which was all about using Prehistoric art and architecture to make contemporary art. I loved exploring ancient landscapes and sacred spaces and deciphering the traces of things that had once been normal and ordinary, but which became completely mysterious. I didn't know it then, but it was the beginning of a long creative journey into symbolism that I have absolutely loved making.  

How do you respond/react if someone characterizes you as "conservative" in your aesthetic tastes?

Appreciating representational art isn't a characteristic of being conservative; it's a characteristic of being human. We've been making representational art for forty thousand years. I have tremendous faith in perennial truths, but I've got little interest in nostalgia and imitation. I want to emulate the great artists of the past but I want to make paintings that are relevant to the present.

"Conservative" implies looking backward, but I'm glad that the 20th Century's over. I think the 21st Century offers so much cause for optimism; the world wars are passing out of memory and becoming history. New ideas about emergence that are coming out of science are exciting, optimistic and truthful, about things being bigger than the sum of their parts. I want to make art that reflects that.  

You once told me in an e-mail -- speaking about TRAC and its supporters -- that "We are Postmodern." Can you expand on that?

The postmodern period is an uneasy time in which we are still shaping the ideas that will follow modernity - it's like the fifteenth century, when the ideas that would form the renaissance were gathering, but hadn't yet fully emerged from the late medieval. This transitional period is post-modern in just the same way that period was post-medieval.

Postmodernity is a condition, not an ideology. We're all postmodern simply because we happen to live in the era after modernity; there's a difference between living in an era and embracing a description of it as an ideology.

We seem to be fascinated by seeking definition for whatever follows modernity because we desire cultural focus, but it took until the sixteenth century for Vasari to name the renaissance. I expect the new age will be named with retrospect in a hundred years or so. I think democratic choice will be a major force driving art. The times are uniquely suited to it.  

You seem to have remarkable drive and energy. What motivates you?

Genes? My mother is a very strong woman; she's a retired medical Doctor who practiced Radiology, and associate Dean of a University medical school. My father was an RAF squadron leader who flew bombers during the cold war. Living up to their example is quite a challenge.

In 1997 I rolled that backfiring jeep over on the Hollywood freeway, completely destroying it. I wound up in hospital, covered in blood. That wreck woke me up to the reality that life can be taken away JUST LIKE THAT. It was a revelation on the road to San Fernando. I remember thinking that if I had died I wouldn't have left behind much to be proud of, with the exception of my kids. I felt the need to serve very strongly, and to do everything I could to make the world better doing what I was good at, painting and designing. My ex-wife said "you should be teaching art". And she was right - I loved it, and still do. I love those moments when students "get it" and discover their ability. I feel the pressure of time very strongly - one day I'm going to die - so I paint, write or study daily.  

If I were to say to you that Postmodernism is and has been "The Academy" for the past 30 years how would you respond?

Longer. I'd say the art academy has been dominated by postmodernism since as early as 1970, but that the roots of that dominance stretch back to at least the early 1900's. Establishment art is predictably nihilistic.

It's also tedious seeing endless imitations of Duchamp's toilet gag. In the last century we asked the question it posed about art and context a million times using bits of string, bricks and poo. There's not much mileage left in it. I imagine a bored Duchamp looking at that kind of derivative work saying: "Are you kidding me? I did that a hundred years ago." and turning back to the chessboard to move his Queen to Kb5 for a tidy checkmate. He was quite good at chess.  

Are you optimistic that a new appreciation of art that requires skill and which is unashamed of being beautiful is growing?

Yes. People are hungry for it. We all love beauty, and we always will. Nihilism is an unsustainable, self-defeating ideology. I'm optimistic about the growing appreciation for emergent art that looks at all the things that have been sidelined - for example: realism (which is foundational to skill-based art), spirituality, authenticity and allegory. But I think we have work to do. The hand of the artist is back in the work, the ateliers provide technical training, now it's time to set imagination free and allow her to inspire fabulous, wonderful art that epitomizes these democratic choices. I think we have yet to create the exemplars of those choices.

When Michael Lynn Adams and I established the representational art conference in 2012 the reaction it got was extraordinary - it was as if we gave water to people in the desert. It's the only academic conference I know of that makes people truly joyful. In 2014 our keynote speakers are Roger Scruton, who did the lovely BBC2 show Why Beauty Matters, and Juliette Aristides, the prominent author and one of the leaders of the atelier movement. I hope you'll join us there, because it's the only conference out there that examines 21st century representational art - it's something quite unique. It's scheduled for March 2nd - 5th 2014 in Ventura, California.