John Seed: Art World Satires for 2014

One lesson I have learned as an art writer is that sometimes you can say things with humor that you can't say any other way. Please enjoy the art world satires I wrote this year for the HuffingtonPost Arts Page and for Hyperallergic.

 - John Seed

Art World Satires, 2014





Ten Memorable Paintings from 2014

All of these artists to watch. So few artists to look at.

 - Dave Hickey

When I came across writer/critic Dave Hickey's quote a few nights ago on Facebook I had to smile. For the past two weeks I have been looking over more than 550 submissions for this blog, which I guess is my version of a top ten Artists to Watch blog: yes Dave, it's that time of year. Of course, I hope this blog is a bit different. I truly hope that what you find here are artists to look at whose visually charged work lingers in your memory for a long time to come.

The art and artists you see here were carefully chosen: there were some really tough cuts involved getting this list down to just ten. Seen as a group, they represent a slice of what I think matters in painting, and if I had to present my taste as a list of adjectives the words authentic, masterful and heartfelt would be on it. As time goes by I'm realizing that I like artists whose work resonates a quality of egolessness: the power of what their work comes from a dedication to their craft that allows their imagery to come through them. These artists stand out both as individuals and also as painters who join the long, varied and distinguished lineage of Western painting.

With each painting I am providing some comments by the artist, a few comments of my own and a direct link to the artist's personal website.

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David Kassan, Dorothy, Oil on canvas, 22 x 19 inches

Artist's Comments: 

The subject of this painting Dorothy, is what I call a neighborhood wanderer. There are a few people that you see hanging around that are almost as ubiquitous as the buildings and storefronts of your neighborhood. There is a non-car culture that persists in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. It's like a small village where everything is within walking or biking distance. What this does to a culture is that it really makes you get to know people that live in your area. For example, every business on my block knows my son and has watched him grow up all his life.

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Dorothy (detail)

A major fixture in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn is Dorothy, She isn't homeless, however she lives in a group home on social security and because she wanders almost aimlessly from business to business, from bus stop to bus stop each day, everything one "knows" her even if they haven't really met her. I've sorta kept an eye on her for the past 5 or 6 years as a subject of a painting because she has been such a mystery to me. One day one of my good friends Callum, who bar tends one of my local bars, The Three Jolly Pigeons, who knows my work well, offered to introduce us.

John Seed:

Extraordinary work by an artist who is still a few years away from his 40th birthday. If you don't think mastery has a place in contemporary painting, spend some time with David's work and you may want to re-assess.

Website: http://www.davidkassan.com

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Rebecca Crowell, Red Bog
Oil and mixed media on panel, 48 x 36 inches

Artist's Comments:

I have been an artist in residence at Ballinglen Arts Foundation in County Mayo, Ireland for the past 2 years, and have returned home filled with memories of the rich colors and textures of the boglands of that part of the world. The memories feed my abstract work, comprised of layers of cold wax medium mixed with oil, powdered pigments, pastel and other materials, built up and selectively scraped and dissolved back.

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Red Bog (detail)

John Seed:

Rebecca Crowell has what Richard Diebenkorn and Agnes Martin had: the ability to let the landscape come through her.

Website: http://www.rebeccacrowell.com

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Kyle Hackett, After Brown
Oil on aluminum, 20 x 16 inches

Artist's Comments:

This is a self-referential portrait. I recall the image of insurgent abolitionist, John Brown and his declaration of war on slavery. I made After Brown when my brother faced trial in court and was labeled as a young black male, despite being of mixed race. He was incarcerated. The pressed hand represents hope or a passage back into time that would allow me to participate and give a testimony. Out of desperation to be authentically heard, I broke the illusion of painting/underpainting with my handprint. I satirically indicate a touch of criminal identity (fingerprints) prosecution, inner-rage and the doubt of overcoming or defending race when marked brown on trial.

John Seed:

 The mark of the artist's hand serves as a signature and an accusation, giving this work both tremendous immediacy and a lingering sense of moral challenge.

Website: http://www.kylehackettstudio.com

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Krista Schoening, Chrysanthemum
Oil on board, 58 inches in diameter

Artist's Comments:

Lately have been thinking about Baroque/Early Modern flower paintings. I am not the only one to use that era of budding consumerism as a mirror for our contemporary culture of consumption. This painting was built from my observations of dozens of white Chrysanthemums. I was part of a wonderful seminar on Gian Lorenzo Bernini at the same time that I was working on this painting. Perhaps something about the movement and structures I found attractive in the flower have some resonance with that wonderful 17th Century torsion Bernini does so well.

John Seed:

It is thrilling to see work that is so skillfully and perfectly realized.

Website: http://k-schoening.tumblr.com

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Lisa Pressman, The Darkest Day
Encaustic, 24 x 24 inches

Artist's Comments:

I picked this painting because it was /is my antidote to the passing of my mom and the deep dark days of December here in New Jersey. This piece reminds of the joy of painting!

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The Darkest Day (detail)

John Seed:

Lisa Pressman has developed a convincing personal language that is fused with a wonderful feeling for materials. This is mature, hard-won work.

Website: http://www.lisapressman.net

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Alla Bartoshchuk, Transience
Oil on canvas, 24 x 30 inches

I painted Transience for the exhibition Sound and Vision which took place on October 11, 2014 at Sound City Studios (now Fairfax Recordings). Sound and Vision paid tribute to all the musicians that have recorded there, creating some of the greatest music in rock n roll history. I chose the band The Lumineers as the inspiration for this work. Here is something I wrote about them:
The sounds of The Lumineers awaken a sense of familiarity that is hard to place. It is a polarizing feeling: a combination of thrill and anticipation coupled with a sense of warmth and comfort. Usually triggered by sentimental smells, foods or favorite folk tales, it materializes into a brief slide show of memories that one holds dear.
John Seed:

Alla Bartoshchuk is a gifted storyteller whose work takes your imagination on a fine ride.

Website: http://www.b-alla.com

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Doug Webb, Redemption
Acrylic on linen, 30 x 40 inches

Artist's Comments:

I was commissioned by a gallery in Japan to create four paintings, this being the first depicting the destruction from the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, in Tohoku, Japan. The Japanese Army, the mayor of Onagawa and the major newspaper in Sendai, gave me volumes of research to work from. This scene is from Onagawa, ground zero, which I visited in February. My task was not only to be true to what took place, but also to juxtapoz objects symbolizing hope. The four commissioned works will be involved in a massive campaign by city governments, major media outlets and many corporations including the 3M corporation, in an effort to restore much of the Sendai-shi area that was devastated. I've never been involved in anything like this, and am a bit overwhelmed, but very grateful and honored to be included.

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Redemption (detail)

John Seed:

Doug Webb's work is poignant and completely realized.

Website: http://www.dougwebbart.com

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Diana Corvelle, Cornerstone
Gouache on paper with cut paper overlay, 30 x 40 inches

Artist's Comments:

Cornerstone is a portrait of my remarkable friend Stacey. Stacey lives with her mother, two siblings and young niece in their childhood home, because she knows that her income is needed to upkeep it. That Stacey chooses to remain at home in order to support her family reveals much about the type of person she is. The fact that she is an out, gay woman choosing to live in a traditional, working-class suburb reveals even more. I see my friend as a kind, noble and quietly heroic individual and I wanted my portrait of her to reflect that. Drawing reference from religious icons and royal portraiture, I depicted Stacey in her family sunroom framed by a paper-cut of her home.

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Cornerstone (detail)

John Seed:

I feel echoes of Grant Wood in Diana Corvelle's feeling for American subject matter: an exquisitely crafted image that radiates love and dignifies its subject.

Website: http://www.dianacorvelle.com

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Catherine Mulligan, Pathmark (night)
Oil on masonite, 16 x 20 inches

Artist's Comments: A formative experience for me was growing up in the suburbs. Being a friendless and intensely shy adolescent, I found myself hanging out with my mom more than any group of friends. Many hours were spent waiting in parked cars for her to finish running some errand or other, protected from the ugly world in the big metal vehicle. I had nightmares about being stranded at the Willowbrook Mall or by the side of the Jersey Turnpike, through some accident, without a means to get home. It was around this time that I became aware of a disjunction between what commercial worlds were meant to represent and what they actually did. Every banal setting or mass-produced object, chain restaurant, and bus station became intensely charged with these fears and these memories. As I walked home from school, I would be shouted after and taunted by my classmates. I remember endless autumns; the brisk, white air that cast a clear cold light over so many shopping centers and deluxe movie theaters.

My work has continually gravitated towards these subjects. As opposed to the photorealists in the middle of the last century, I don't intend to approach them ironically or with a detached and critical distance. They are infused with personal histories, such as my own. Although it is common to lament the spread of corporate franchises, no two McDonalds™ are really the same. In my paintings, I hope to represent this tension between the somewhat static and sanitized promise of the corporation and the reality of the public space that is employed and patronized by actual individuals. Further, in my still lives and self-portraits, I'm similarly interested in what Diane Arbus called the "gap between intention and effect". It is the complexity and strangeness of the actual effect, and the actual world as it is, that I choose to examine.

John Seed:

Catherine Mulligan is an alchemist who transforms mundane subject matter into a world of deep feeling.

Website: http://catherinemulligan.com

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Thomas Wharton, Adam--The Becoming
Oil on linen, 36 x 36 inches

Artist's Comments:

This painting is part of a series I'm working on where I'm using the nude in unusual and unexpected aspects to express states of emotion or spirituality that seem to lie below the level of ordinary reality, what I think of as "Hidden Realities". These realities exist below the surface of daily activity and may reflect currents of emotion, like deep ocean currents that exist and perhaps shape our lives in ways by which we may not be aware. I believe that when we view a body in a pose or position, especially an unexpected or extreme one, we experience it sympathetically at some level and that physical experience creates an emotional experience. I also believe that as we become aware of the hidden realities in our lives, we begin to live more in a more authentic world, and can even free ourselves from limiting currents that shape our lives.

John Seed:

Thomas Wharton's work has an exquisite balance of visual tension and emotional resonance.

Website: http://www.whartonstudio.com

'Hubert Vos: Court Painter to the Empress Dowager Cixi' by John Seed is featured in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of 'Arts of Asia'

Now, really, I was struck very strongly by her appearance…Erect with a tremendous will power, more than I have ever seen in a human being. Hard, firm will and thinking lines, and with all that a brow full of kindness and love for the beautiful. I fell straight in love with her.

- Hubert Vos, writing about the Empress Dowager Cixi from Peking, June 28, 1905

Hubert Vos (1855-1935)



Hubert Vos: The Dowager Empress Cixi (Tzu Hsi), 1906 
Collection of the Summer Palace, Beijing 

Read the complete article in the Jan-Feb 2015 issue of "Arts of Asia"



Holiday Reads: Ten Recent Books on Art and Culture

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Ten Recent Books on Art and Culture

One of the joys of being a art writer is that over time I getting to know many other writers in my field. In the case of Britta Erickson, I have actually known her for over 35 years (we attended college together) and I really had no idea that she was writing until I re-connected with her on Facebook. As I have recently learned, Britta is an independent curator and scholar who lives for part of the year in Northern California, but who also spends a fair amount of time in China: she is the Artistic Director of a contemporary art gallery and experimental space called The Ink Studio in Beijing. It was Britta who introduced both the sponsor and organizer of the Ai Weiwei exhibit now on view at Alcatraz to the artist several years ago.

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Ai Weiwei with Britta Erickson

As becoming re-aquainted with Britta has reminded me, each writer I know offers me an open door into their extended world, full of their most treasured ideas and images. Writers share what they find most valuable. In that spirit, I'm sharing ten great books with you and "paying it forward" for the writers -- and artists -- who have created them. With each book I'm offering you a few lines of information and opinion in the form of a description and a micro-review. If you find something you just have to have, most of these books are available on Amazon.com and when they are not I have provided links that will take you to sites where you can order them.

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Zheng Chongbin: Impulse, Matter, Form (Contemporary Chinese Ink)
By Britta Erickson and Zheng Chongbin
Softcover, 192 pages, Published by Ink Studio

Description:

 Zheng Chongbin is an artist who works with traditional Chinese brushes, black ink and white acrylic on xuan paper. Shaped by the bicultural experience of studying and living in both the United States and China, his works fuse the language of traditional ink painting with the philosophical and practical concerns of Western Modernism. In the books featured essay, Establishing Spirit in a Sea of Ink, Britta Erickson credits Chongbin with finding "a new direction for art, with a new way forward for both abstraction and for ink." This book also includes essays by Kenneth Wayne, Craig Yee, Amjad Majid and the artist.

Micro-Review:

A strikingly beautiful book that opens up a new set of possibilities for contemporary abstraction and for the continued dialogue between Eastern and Western aesthetic traditions.

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River of Ink: [An Illustrated History of Literacy]
By Thomas Christensen
Hardcover, 320 pages, Published by Counterpoint

Description:

A wide-ranging series of essays that are loosely connected by the theme of literacy: the book's title refers to the sacking of Baghdad in 1258 when the Tigris ran black with the ink of books flung into the water by Mongol invaders. Its essays traverse the world and time, from Prehistoric China to contemporary America. Its author views culture as a mirror and asserts that "To explore other times and other cultures is really to explore our own time and our own culture..."

Micro-Review: An eclectic and sporadically brilliant book in which an erudite writer takes his readers on a set of historical and cultural birdwalks. The essay Journeys of an Iron Man, which tells the story of a 19th century Benin iron sculpture of the god "Gu" -- the god of ironworking and warfare -- is a particularly informative and engaging read.

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Art Deco Hawai'i
By Theresa Papanikolas and DeSoto Brown
Softcover, 138 pages, Published by The Honolulu Museum of Art

Description:

Art Deco Hawai'i is the catalog for an exhibition at the Honolulu Museum of Art that will remain on view through January 11, 2015. Included in this book are paintings and sculpture by such artists as Don Blanding, Marguerite Blasingame, Robert Lee Eskridge, Isamu Noguchi, Agnes Lawrence Pelton, Gene Pressler, Lloyd Sexton, and Madge Tennent, and, at the center of them all, the six-mural cycle that Eugene Savage created for Matson in 1940.

Micro-Review: A gorgeous and engaging book that documents the enchanting hybrid style that emerged when Parisian-born Art Deco came to dominate the fields of architecture, design and visual arts in Hawai'i in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. The catalog's main essays The Exotics of Leisure: Art Deco in Hawai'i by Theresa Papanikolas and Art Deco in Hawai'i Modernity and Tradition in Commercial Art by DeSoto Brown are superb.

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Art in America 1945–-1970: Writings from the Age of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Minimalism
Edited by Jed Perl
Hardcover, 886 pages, Published by The Library of America

Description:

This book is a compendium of primary source materials on American art. It includes major critical essays by Clement Greenberg, Susan Sontag, Hilton Kramer, and other influential figures. There are also responses to art by poets and novelists, including John Ashbery on Andy Warhol, James Agee on Helen Levitt, James Baldwin on Beauford Delaney, Truman Capote on Richard Avedon, Tennessee Williams on Hans Hofmann, Jack Kerouac on Robert Frank. Add to that, a selection of memoirs, diaries, and journalism by Peggy Guggenheim, Dwight Macdonald, Calvin Trillin, and others.

Micro-Review: Jed Perl has done a major favor for those of us with a deep interest in American art. This book combines a lovingly selected cross-section of historically significant writings with helpful headnotes. Perl's scholarship is, to put it succinctly, awe-inspiring.

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Leonardo's Brain: Understanding Da Vinci's Creative Genius
By Leonard Shlain
Hardcover, 240 pages, Published by Lyons Press

Description:

Leonardo's Brain opens with two interwoven strands of exposition: one deals with the life and works of Da Vinci while the other the evolution of the human brain. The book's final section then goes on to both explore the role of brain anatomy on creativity and to offer some notions about the evolutionary future of human neuro-anatomy. In total, it offers an ambitious conflation of biography, art history, and neuroscience layered with scientific and sociological conjecture.

Micro-Review: Leonardo's Brain, published posthumously through the efforts of the author's three children -- Kimberly Brooks, Tiffany Shlain and Jordan Shlain -- is the magnum opus of prodigiously curious man with a larger-than-life intellect. It is rare and stimulating to find a book that locates so many profound and unexplored connections between art and science.

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Creating the Future: Art and Los Angeles in the 1970s
By Michael Fallon
Hardcover, 400 pages, Published by Counterpoint

Description:

Creating the Future is a work of social history/cultural criticism that examines the premise that the progress of art in Los Angeles ceased during the 1970s and didn't resume until sometime around 1984. Fallon takes a particular interest in the sheer variety of approaches and voices that appeared in the 1970s. Arranged into twelve themed chapters, it tells the stories of artists and their communities.

Micro-Review: This book is a valuable record that captures the beginnings of a number of movements that later became tremendously influential including Feminist Art, Chicano Art and Lowbrow. Read it and and plan on finishing with a more nuanced and insightful view of Los Angeles culture.

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Reading Basquiat: Exploring Ambivalence in American Art
By Jordana Moore Saggese
Hardcover, 268 pages, Published by the University of California Press

Description:

Reading Basquiat offers a carefully constructed approach to Basquiat's themes and the impact of his practice. It does so by discussing his work in relationship to important aesthetic concerns including identity, appropriation and expressionism.

Micro-Review: A deep and decidedly academic book that takes itself and its subject seriously. Its first chapter -- The Black Picasso: Jean-Michel Basquiat and Questions of Race -- offers insightful and overdue analyses of the complex "black experiences" that the artist's works both broadcast and embody.
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Behind the Easel: The Unique Voices of 20 Contemporary Representational Painters
by Robert C. Jackson
Hardcover, 264 pages, Published by Schiffer Publishing Ltd.

Description:

Artist Robert C. Jackson interview 20 contemporary representational artists (himself included) and showcases there work. The artists are Steven Assael, Bo Bartlett, Debra Bermingham, Margaret Bowland, Paul Fenniak, Scott Fraser, Woody Gwyn, F. Scott Hess, Laurie Hogin, Robert C. Jackson, Alan Magee, Janet Monafo, John Moore, Charles Pfahl, Scott Prior, Stone Roberts, Sandra Mendelsohn Rubin, Daniel Sprick, Will Wilson, and Jerome Witkin.

Micro-Review: Beautifully produced: the interviews are wonderful, but it is the high-quality plates that make this book a knockout. Prepare to be WOWED.

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Lawrence Gipe: Century of Progress
by Lawrence Gipe
Hardcover, 80 pages, Published by Zero+ Publishing

Description:

A selection of works by Lawrence Gipe, who is fascinated by the romanticism of early images of industry and technology and their evocations of power and politics. The book includes an interview with Gipe by Marshall Price and contains containing 49 color plates and featuring Gipe's paintings from the '80s and 90s.

Micro-Review: Gipe's work blends critical intelligence with a strong feeling for atmosphere. A great coffee table book for those who feel the nostalgic pull of the "Cult of Progress."

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The Figure: Painting, Drawing, and Sculpture
Edited by Margaret McCann
Hardcover, 240 pages, Published by Skira/Rizzoli

Description:

The Figure: Painting Drawing and Sculpture, Contemporary Perspectives has the look of a high-end coffee table decoration, but don't judge this book just by its Martha Mayer Erlebacher cover. Inside, you will find it crammed not only with striking images but also with essays by critics, artists, and other thinkers that air out thematically related historical, philosophical, theoretical, and technical issues. The Figure is an ambitious and overdue tome that fills a void: if you haven't noticed, contemporary representation is coming on strong. It is is also a celebration of the burgeoning influence of the New York Academy of Art (NYAA), a singular institution that has come into its own more than three decades after its establishment.

Click here for my full review

Micro-Review: If there ever was an art book that needed to become a major exhibition -- or a maybe a salon -- The Figure is it.

'Pupils of Apelles' at Copro Gallery: One Cult, Two Masters

"The time which I have been thrown into does not interest me." - Odd Nerdrum

 Pupils of Apelles, a four person exhibition now on view at Copro Gallery, is about reaching far back in time for inspiration and connection. Although the Norwegian artist and mentor Odd Nerdum appears in the largest font on the show's roster, it is the 4th century Greek artist Apelles of Kos who is presented as the presiding master of its cult.

The invoking of Apelles may strike some as a kind of smokescreen, as show's star attraction is Nerdrum, an aesthetic refusenik who once painted himself in a custom-sewn golden robe as The Savior of Painting. Whatever you may think of Nerdrum's art -- and his ego -- you have to grant him this: no living "master" has magnetized more ambitious and talented young representational painters than he has. Yes, offering up his own art as a model is part of what Nerdrum does, but to be fair, Nerdrum's approach has also involved asking his students to look far outside the perimeters of current tastes in art: that is where Apelles enters into things.

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Odd Nerdrum: Photo by John Seed
 
"Rather than dialogue and cooperatively compete with contemporaries," explains painter David Molesky, "Nerdrum has taught us the benefit of ignoring the packaging of time and to strive with masters of the past as if they were our peers." Striving to create an artistic dialogue with Apelles involves both research and considerable imagination since none of his works have survived, except in copies and descriptions. Molesky, who studied with Odd Nerdrum between 2006 and 2008 says that the legend of Apelles came up as they looked over a book of Pompeian frescoes: Nerdrum told him that the paintings preserved by the ashes of Vesuvius were "copies upon copies" that echoed the original great works of Apelles.

A lyrical painter whose works are recorded as having employed elaborate allegories and personifications, Apelles made a number of portraits of Alexander the Great including one of the young ruler wielding a thunderbolt. History has noted Apelles as being an early advocate of a tetrachrome (four color) palette consisting of white, yellow ochre, red ochre and black: from this basic set of pigments a wide range of tints including flesh tones could be mixed. Apelles' technique also presages European oil painting methods: in his Natural History Pliny the Elder says that Apelles used a varnish on his paintings that "caused a radiance in the brightness of all the colours and protected the painting from dust and dirt." The "rough technique" of Apelles — in combination with his limited palette — was adopted by Titian in his late works and also by Rembrandt and Velasquez. Odd Nerdrum's son, Öde Spildo Nerdrum, notes that Apelles' methods also had an esoteric aspect: "The understanding of the limited palette also goes further than just an idea of mixing color," he comments: "It is an alchemistic tradition."

"It really triggered my imagination," Molesky recounts, "to think about what these paintings must have looked like, these invisible paintings -- all destroyed 1200 years ago -- that were esteemed by Rembrandt, Titian, Botticelli and others as the greatest works ever, even though they had never seen them." Raphael, another admirer, portrayed himself as Apelles in his fresco The School of Athens which graces the Vatican's Apostolic Palace. In a sense, striving to emulate Apelles offers up the fantasy of joining what Molesky describes as "a secret bloodline of painters whose imaginations were ignited into fierce striving when the imagination was set to try and create something worthy of the Greek master."

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Odd Nerdrum, Maenads, 2014, oil on canvas, 75 x 106 inches
 
What would Apelles have thought of the rivetingly strange Maenads, the largest of six Nerdrum canvases on view at Copro? The subject is classical: maenads were women who resisted the worship of Dionysius and were driven mad by being forced to participate in rituals against their wills. Its seven nude figures, who rise from an ashen scrim of water, glower accusingly toward the viewer offering variations on the theme of refusal. One of them, second from the right, is androgynous or even masculine: in fact she/he resembles Nerdrum. Just what are these unwilling Northern bacchants accusing us of? I'm guessing fatuousness and inanity: their resistance and suffering are the emblems of their character. Like the asylum inmates that Gericault painted, Nerdrum's Maenads are to be both pitied and admired.

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Maenads, (Detail)
 
The characters in Nerdrum's paintings have some pretty weird circuses going on in their heads, and to like his paintings you have to buy into the lugubrious strangeness, which not everyone does. Jenny Dubnau, a realist painter who earned her MFA at Yale, argues that Nerdrum's imagery is "...like a parody of a Wagner opera or something: it feels like a very false, silly mythology that has no relevance to anything real in our culture. He himself describes his work as kitsch, but there's zero humor to it, so it's intensely unlikable." In contrast, the late critic Hilton Kramer (1928-2012) found Nerdrum's works valuable as cautionary tales: "They reject the present and exploit the past in favor of pictorial fable, allegory and myth that offers the viewer a grim symbolic account of the human condition in extremes."

For the past few decades, young artists interested in classical training -- exactly the "wrong" approach in an era dominated by postmodern theory -- have looked to Nerdrum as a beacon. His Road Warrior meets Rembrandt imagery and his considerable facility have made him a figure of considerable adulation. Luke Hillestad came to study at Nerdrum's farm after an art school put-down helped him clarify his sense of difference:
At 22 I made a picture of two lovers for an Art University. The teacher's only comment was that I "should get a job making covers for romance novels," which sparked chuckles in the classroom. I would have happily taken that job, as I would have been equally glad to make pictures for video games, if only I had those connections. While the University upheld Kant's call for disinterestedness, I was on an earnest search for beauty which pleasures and drama that delights. Odd's farm was a place that facilitated these desires.
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A detail of Luke Hillestad's Abyss
 

Hillestad's melodramatic painting Abyss which depicts couple kissing in a water-filled cavern shows the tenderness and luminosity that was encouraged under Nerdrum's tutelage. Migration, Hillestad's image of a nomadic clan seems to be located in the precise mythological zone that Nerdum has invented, but its figures and surface are more carefully burnished. There is a hint of Pre-Raphaelite grace in Hillestad's female figures that gives his work its distinctive mood.

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Luke Hillestad at work on his painting Migration in Norway, 2013
 
Caleb Knodell, who is represented by three oils including his glowering Self-Portrait as Possessed, found that his studies with Nerdrum offered both a sense of belonging and the support he needed to attempt challenging subject matter:
Working with Odd really isn't work. While it can be strenuous at times, it usually involves small things. He will say things like "we will do this, and then we will have a nice time."Whenever there was some big chore it was always followed by great food, relaxation, always coffee. He tends to always look at the other side of things. Not necessarily playing devil's advocate, but more so a sense that whatever the majority believes is probably wrong.
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Caleb Knodell, Self-Portrait as Possessed, oil on linen, 49 x 50 inches
 
David Molesky, who first worked as an apprentice and model for Nerdrum at his studio in Iceland, found that his best moments with Nerdrum mainly consisted of watching Nerdrum paint and listening to his cultural anecdotes. Studying painting with Nerdrum -- in Paris, Reykjavik or Memorosa -- is rather like studying architecture with Frank Lloyd Wright at Talesin: just being in the presence of the master can be the most important aspect. Rose Freymuth-Frazier, who studied with Nerdrum in 2005 says: "Odd's very compelling, generous etc. A lot of people looking for that influence in their lives find that, even temporarily in him. He's bigger than life and he has the artistic mastery to back it up."

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David Molesky painting at Odd Nerdrum's farm in Norway. 
 
Of course, the adulation of masters is something that has to come to an end at a certain point. When asked why had had left the studio of the sculptor Rodin, Constantin Brancusi famously replied: "No other tree can grow in the shadow of a great oak." For that reason, David Molesky's paintings, which have moved from Nerdrum's Nordic mythological zone into a contemporary world filled with depictions of fiery confrontations and conflagrations, offer a welcome indication of artistic separation and maturation.

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David Molesky, Surface to Air, oil on canvas, 18 x 20 inches
 
From Odd Nerdrum, his first master, Molesky learned the importance of drama and atmosphere. Apelles, his second master, helped him realize that the imagination is a much broader field than any one person could ever show you. Artists who never walk away from the shadows of their masters risk being what the Greeks called epigones: less distinguished followers or imitators.

Pupils of Apelles
Odd Nerdrum, Luke Hillestad, Caleb Knodell, David Molesky
Through January 2nd, 2015
Copro Gallery
Bergamot Arts Complex, 2525 Michigan Ave T5
Santa Monica, CA 90404

Margaret Bowland: They Say It's Wonderful

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Installation View: They Say It's Wonderful
 
Margaret Bowland, whose work is now on view at the Alan Avery Art Company in Atlanta, often deals with issues that are common concerns of postmodernism including race and identity, but her technique comes from a much older source: the deep tradition of European representation. Bowland is searching for beauty, an eternal quality that she feels has been diminished and re-defined by consumer culture. Bowland's works seek out difficult truths, evoking awe and discomfort as the artist's perceptions challenge and deepen our own. She understands that art has the power to let both her models and viewers "exist apart" from the world's limits.

I recently interviewed Margaret Bowland, and asked her about her background, and the ideas and values that vivify her art.  

John Seed Interviews Margaret Bowland
 
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Margaret Bowland in her Brooklyn Studio
© Lisa Barlow
Courtesy Driscoll Babcock Galleries

Tell me about growing up in NC and how it shaped you?

I grew up in a North Carolina that no longer exists. Pre-internet, small towns were kingdoms. Burlington, NC, the town of my birth was totally self contained. We were taken as children to Greensboro, to Raleigh or Chapel Hill as my own children have experienced going to London or Paris. Books were my only link to a larger world. I found solace in knowing that others were asking the same questions that consumed me.

Everyone attended a church in my home town. As a small child I thought when an adult referred to "various religions" he or she was speaking of Protestant sects, Methodist, Baptist, etc. And I was taught to vaguely fear Catholicism. My family's social life was created by its submersion in family and the Baptist Church. From very early childhood I knew that there was something wrong with me.

Sitting in church, three times a week, I believed what others were telling me, that God was speaking to them. But I knew that He never spoke to me. I had no idea why. I prayed nightly and listened, straining in the dark, but there was only silence. So I began to lie about it. There were times in the life of a Baptist child in which you were expected to "testify" that Jesus was in your heart. I did as I was told, all the while knowing myself to be a fraud. This self knowledge, this great shame, created me.

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Some Day my Prince Will Come, 2010, oil on linen, 78 x 64 inches
 
At the University of NC you studied both art and English. Why did art win out?

When attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill I wavered for years between declaring a major in art or one in English lit. I decided to throw in my lot with the English department. I was in total despair within the art department. This finally led to my dropping out of college altogether.

I had arrived at Chapel Hill, which is just 30 minutes from my home town, like a kid today arrives in NY City from Iowa. Everything was dazzling, sophisticated, and terrifying. Here I believed, I would find the answers to so many of my questions. Here, I would be taught to paint like the great artists I had seen in books. But of course, I was walking into college in the early 70's and none of what I wished to learn was for offer in the art department of that time.

I was living in a time that celebrated "freedom." Yet, in the art department I found there to be one way and one way only. The teachers were all Abstract Expressionist men from Chicago. When I met them they had warily begun to move from Rothko to Frank Stella. The largest conversation was whether to let the lines you made on the canvas bleed or not; whether to leave the masking tape you were using to create those lines breathe a bit at their edges or fix them hard and fast with acrylic medium. I was told firmly there was no painting of the figure.

I entered a life drawing class where before us stood a naked young woman. Our instructor told us to "draw the fourth dimension." I was 17 years old. My despair and confusion shook me. I painted abstract paintings along with everyone else. I felt exactly like I had in the Baptist Church. I was back in a religion that held no answers for me, that dismissed my questions. Again I was a fraud. But the depression at times would flare up as anger.

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They Say It's Wonderful, 2009, oil on Linen, 78 × 66 inches
 
I enrolled in a sculpture class to learn how to sculpt. The teacher regaled us the first day with an hilarious story of how he had gotten into the Master's Degree Program at the Art Institute of Chicago. He and a friend had dropped acid and gone all over the city of Chicago throwing chains over objects, over tree limbs, etc. The pal had photographed these works of art. These photos had comprised his portfolio and gained him entrance into one of the most respected art schools in the country. He thought it all "a gas". I said nothing but I began to feel anger. Who was the real fraud in this case?

I made the sculpture teacher a huge magnolia pod of felt that I sewed and affixed to a chicken wire base. I lined the pods with pink satin and he absolutely loved it. Each seed could be pulled from its own vagina of pink satin and pushed back within. The seeds were the size of a child's hand. His euphoria over the piece deeply confused me. I had liked making the pod. I liked replicating it. But these instincts I believed were relegated to just playing with crafts.

The works I had glimpsed in museums were getting further and further away. In the English department the big questions were being asked. How to deal with death without the solace of God? How to define meaning? Here I discovered many writers, among them James Baldwin. His life experience, coming as it did from such a rigid religious background was one I understood. This brilliant man was writing from exile. His doubts and downright disbelief were written there on the page.

Back in the art department, it felt to me there were no conversations of importance. Teachers wafted in and out of classes. often only staying for an hour of a three hour class. At critiques I was totally lost. I could fathom no continuity in the values and judgments of the teachers and they did not pretend to have one. Frankly, it broke my heart. So I ran.

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Painting the Roses Red, 2012, Oil on linen, 55 1/2 x 51 inches
 
You have been a realist for your entire career. Since postmodernism has been dominant for the past decades, have you felt your career has a contrarian aspect?

Yes, I have spent my entire life as a "contrarian", but I never for one moment wished to be. I have sought all of my life to be in a community, to feel like others feel, think like they think. But as in a line said by a character in Saul Bellow's "Augie March". "The soul wants what the soul wants."

My parents could never understand why I could not believe in God as my college professors could not understand why I could not embrace their new religion of Abstract Expressionism. Now the current orthodoxy is Post Modernism and I have had the predictable results. I stand in line anxious to receive my glass of Kool-Aid but when it is in my hands I find that I cannot swallow, even though if I could, rewards might be mine.

Art in my life time has been as doctrinaire as any church I have ever encountered. There are things "one cannot do" and these seem to be the things to which I am attracted. I have been told by current artists that the very way that I paint marks me as unsophisticated, backward. One can paint the figure now, but only in a somewhat careless way, or in a cartoon-like format. It reminds me of the humor of Wes Anderson, Bill Murray. You can tell the story but only insofar as you are signaling to us that you are simultaneously aware that storytelling is an ironic exercise.

The paintings I make are what come to me. They are born of my searching through this world for a belief system. I paint what my psyche tells me to paint and what my eye perceives to be beautiful. I am not coy and I realize, profoundly, that this is a problem for many artists in these times.

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The Tea Party, 2013. Oil on linen, 64 x 78 inches
 
You have said that beauty only makes sense to you when it "falls from grace." Tell me how this applies in one painting you have done?

I have made that statement. A more accurate statement would be that beauty makes sense to me when it has suffered damage -- therefore entering the world -- yet has held on to a sense of itself. That is a shocking accomplishment in a world that distrusts all shared beliefs. Beauty no longer exists as an ideal. The word has fallen to the level of a description of pretty girls and boys attired in expensive clothes.

I look at a model I have used for years, Klare Potter. She is a preposterously beautiful woman by any standards. Fair, long legged, tall, perfectly proportioned. But an extreme case of Alopecia has left her with no hair on her body at all. In the Metropolitan Museum of Art I saw a statue of the goddess Isis. She also had no hair. The Egyptian royalty are thought to have suffered from hair loss as a side effect of inbreeding. Looking at Isis, covered in white paint over the terra cotta, I saw Klare. I covered her in white paint and placed her in a bath tub.

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Venus #1, 2009, oil on linen, 68 x 52 inches
 
I wanted the viewer to see the woman beneath the paint, the real woman beneath the goddess as the paint loosed from her body in the water. I see Klare as more beautiful now than I believed her to be when she had a head full of blond hair. Now her beauty holds a question. The flaw, the loss, underscores the perfection of what remains. I am painting her again now.  

How and why did you begin your "Anna" series?

I began the "Anna" series like I have every series in my life, by meeting the model. Anna appeared one day at the bus stop on the corner of my street and I asked her if she would model for me and she said yes. Our lives then began to entwine. I have been out in the world with her, at restaurants and bars. I am 5 feet 10. So the two of us get our share of glances. Anna always acts as if she does not notice. But when we are alone I have heard stories, of course. Anna lives defiantly. She has suffered extensively by existing outside the norm, but she has triumphed.

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Olympia Series #4, 2006, oil on linen, 78 x 62 inches
 
When painting Anna I had never asked her to pose for me nude, as she had seen me paint other models. One day she asked me why. Did I think she was not as beautiful? Heart in throat I said, "No, of course not. I just did not think that I dared." She disrobed. She wanted to be seen through the idealizing medium of oil paint.

Now we look at historical portraiture and see within it only the trappings of the rich and powerful. As modern artists we rummage through these trappings and symbols as through a sack of old costumes. We see in the paintings of Van Dyck, the imperial victory of capitalism and we walk away. We know better. Capitalism has been found out. It is both the monster and the master.

But what of the beauty within a Van Dyck? What of the validation, of the immortality that Van Dyck bestowed upon his subjects? You stand before his paintings of golden haired brothers, attired in satins and read below that both were killed in battle just after the painting was completed. You think of their final scene, of the mud and the blood. Yet that reality does not render the portrait before you a sham. Both are true. Anna wanted to live within this paradox. She wanted to feel that lifting off. She wanted to stand before a painting done by me of her and see herself through my eyes and as such, through the eyes of the world. She wanted to exist apart as art allows one to do.

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Flower Girl, 2009, oil on linen, 44 x 52 inches
 
Have you ever been told that as a white woman you were wrong to paint African Americans?

Yes, I have often been told this; but rarely by African Americans. And this taboo certainly does not hold true in other art forms. For decades white authors and film makers have made films and written books about African Americans.

I feel I have the right to paint African Americans because out history is combined. I grew up in a segregated South. I grew up in a world of signs on doors and water fountains that said "White and "Colored." Children know in their bones when they are in the midst of injustice. They experience the nausea that comes from the realization that the adults are not to be trusted. They grow up in a world of shame from which there is no departing.

Again, in a quote from Saul Bellow, I see the facts of this. He says "Repression is not precise. You repress one thing; you repress the thing adjacent". The white adults who raised me had no idea of what they were paying through the repression of their souls by the world order in which they lived. But damage was done.

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Twelve, 2013, mixed media, 59 x 49 inches
 
How do you feel about "identity art"?

The inclusions of more voices in art has certainly been a wonderful thing. As a woman, I am one of the voices that were not heard in the past. All of my life people have approached me and declared, "You paint like a man!". And all of my life I have flinched but realized that this, from the speaker, had been meant as the highest compliment. It is the obvious and correct statement, after all, to ascribe to a painter who has spent her entire life looking and trying to learn how to paint from men. I never thought of it in that way, not once. I simply wanted to learn what they had known so that I could try to create my own worlds as had they.

I find it depressing when artists who are not white males say that they have nothing to learn from these old dead guys. Well, there is an inherent problem here. The very language they speak, the images they see, have for the most part been created by males. Throwing away the accomplishments of these men is not possible. If you are a feminist film maker you are using machinery created by men and the very concepts you are employing to tell the story were created by men.

"Isms" are not my thing, There is always at the heart of any political act a simplifying a cutting away of the very details I find most interesting. Often political units feel to me like desperate attempts to find a center again, but sadly, this center is not one of intellectual unity but only a grab for power. I do not see change, only the replacing of one despot by another.

I teach at The New York Academy of Art in NY. It is solely a graduate school so the students we have are facing the hard facts of the market place upon graduation. In the hall I heard two of my students discussing a third. They said, exasperated, "How can we be expected to compete with her? She was born poor, if white, in a trailer in NC. She was raised by a single mother after her father became mentally ill." What stunned me was that the student to which they were referring was indeed a threat to them. She was one of the most talented students that I had ever had, but her work was never even mentioned. It was her story that frightened them. The personal story has often now become the Art. Art is not about creating something. It has become a lifestyle choice. One decides to be an artist and then whatever follows is art.

There are many artists whose work places them way above the pettiness of these facts. I was teaching from the art of Mickalene Thomas one day. I had showed images of hers to show the students about the ways space could be manipulated in the hands of a great artist. Thomas had led us into a perspectival space only to leave us circling back upon ourselves like in De Chirico. Unlike his nightmare colors of greys and browns, Thomas had lit her world with lime green and pink. She had scored her moldings with glitter. All to show us that what we believe we can enter we cannot. She shows us how easily we can be seduced by gorgeous color into entering a world that wakes us up. The class and I talked about this work, brought in paintings of Giotto to compare; we talked for nearly an hour.

Mickalene Thomas is an African American lesbian. But not once were these facts necessary in the discussion of her work.

Of course a backstory is of use in the understanding of an artist's work. But it should be small potatoes by comparison to the work itself. After all, the work presumably will one day leave home and have a life of its own without mom or dad. Or that remains my hope.  

Margaret Bowland: They Say It's Wonderful
November 14, 2014 - January 16, 2015
Alan Avery Art Company
315 East Paces Ferry Road
Atlanta, Georgia 30305