A Brief Rant on the Exhaustion of the Avant-Garde, Zombie Formalism and What Contemporary Painting Needs to Move Forward

Pierre Auguste Renoir, Nude in the Sun, circa 1875-6, oil on canvas, 32" × 25.6"
"...Try to explain to Monsieur Renoir that a woman's torso is not a mass of decomposing flesh with those purplish-green stains." 
- Critic Albert Wolff, writing about Renoir's Nude in the Sun
Hard to believe, isn't it, but Renoir's Nude in the Sun was once considered threatening: when first exhibited it's Impressionist palette violated long-standing academic rules about the use of color in shadows. These days you won't find a museum director anywhere in the world who wouldn't covet the tiny, sun-dappled nude, and the once offensive image is emblazoned on a coffee mug that can be purchased on eBay for $13.99 with free shipping. Now that its original aura of challenge and disruption has dissipated, a work of art that was once cutting-edge has now entered another category: it is a certified and fully commoditized masterpiece. Nude in the Sun should be considered "formerly avant-garde" as the cultural shock that it once evoked was exhausted years, even generations, ago.


To fully understand the original antipathy critics felt towards Renoir and other French modernists -- Wolff, for example, felt that Manet was an improviser whose work was marred by searching, hesitation and pain -- it is important to recall that the sclerotic critic was defending the aesthetic ideals and traditions of the French Academy, an entrenched and formidable cultural institution.

Now, 140 years after Wolff derided it, Nude in the Sun resides in another kind of cultural institution, the Musée d'Orsay, and the tables are turned. Modern art and its children -- Postmodern and Contemporary Art -- are the "Academy" of our time, and the tradition of the avant-garde has been elevated and enshrined to the point that you might even say that it has been embalmed. The values of the avant-garde, including individualism, experimentation and progress, are now sacrosanct, and the boards of Modern and Contemporary art museums in the United States are populated by the nation's wealthiest, most culturally elite citizens. They serve the same conservative role that titled aristocrats played in the European academies of the past: they are guardians of the dominant culture.

 This creates real problems, as truly avant-garde works of art need the tension created by opposing cultural values and institutions to sustain their meanings and put them in relief. When too many people come to embrace avant-garde works and styles, their intended purposes and meanings wilt and die quickly. As a biologist will tell you, things grow best when subjected to the right stresses, and culture is the same way. Healthy values -- including social, political and cultural values -- need constant challenge and revision to remain fresh, and it strikes me that the spirit of the avant-garde in art is exhausted and complacent: Its "progressive" values have become de rigueur. If you see the words "pushes the boundaries of..." in an art review, you have encountered a critical blandishment that has become a cliché, ready to be retired.

Digital Collage by Photofunia.com

Modernism's ennoblement of progress -- a value it absorbed from the Industrial Revolution -- made new types of painting possible while demoting others. In the United States modernism's determined march forwards opened the door for Abstract Expressionism, America's most significant and genuinely avant-garde form of visual art. On the other hand, a continuing over-emphasis on the value of the "new" has strained and distorted many of painting's historical purposes and intentions. In too many instances the notion of "progress" has stripped meaningful content from painting only to replace it with novelty and gimmickry that poses as "new."

Realism, one of the related forms of painting that would have been acceptable to the members of European Academies, has been consistently relegated to the sidelines. As artist Eric Fischl noted in a 2009 interview, "There's always been realist painting. The avant-garde ignores 99 per cent of it."

Compared with realism, the broader field of representational painting has done a bit better in finding its place in the avant-garde: I'll be bold and say that only 98 percent of it gets ignored. Generally speaking, the representational art that makes its way into the mid and upper ranks of the contemporary art field has to be credentialed as avant-garde in some fashion. "Outsider" status can work, as can a reliance on subject matter that is "deconstructed" in relation to social, sexual and political issues. Self-conscious strangeness, obsessiveness, and irony can "credential" representation, and so can Warholian strategies involving mechanical and technological methods of image making. Conceptualism, which I think tends mixes with representation very lamely, can also get you in the front door of the avant-garde academy. Sadly, a connection to wealth and/or celebrity can work too.

For representational painters whose work does fall into one of the categories above there are pitfalls to be avoided. For example, painter Bo Bartlett believes that "To be earnest is the greatest taboo in contemporary art." Any representations of conventional beauty that don't have a dose of nihilism mixed in are excluded from the avant-garde as "kitsch," but self-conscious super-kitsch is a hot ticket.

If I haven't transcribed the current rules and perimeters of acceptable avant-garde representation perfectly, I apologize: they aren't written down in a handbook anywhere, but they definitely exist. I also doubt that the French Academy had a manual forbidding purplish-green shadows on human skin, but Albert Wolff knew the rules and limits of his era's academy regardless. When a cultural system has ossified and become fragile, knowing the rules is especially important, and both artists and critics need to pay close attention. In New York right now, the matrix of unspoken rules has resulted in a vogue of abstract and semi-abstract paintings by young artists that play it safe by saying very little, but sell well. Critic Walter Robinson, who first noted the "reductive, straightforward, essentialist..." urges present in this new school of painting, gave it a grim, clever name that has stuck: Zombie Formalism.

Peter Schjeldahl, the art critic for the New Yorker, has been looking over this new genre of offhandedly abstract painting, and in his recent review of The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, he observes that the young painters represented use "tactics" which "include emphases on gritty materiality and refusals of comforting representation." He also notes that the "joys" of the works on view come "freighted with rankling self-consciousness or, here and there, a nonchalance that verges on contempt." The "joy" he describes sounds very circumscribed indeed, especially for a show presented at MOMA, the original temple of America's avant-garde.

The "nonchalance" that Schjeldahl notes apparently exists in a void that critic Andrew Sullivan believes has been created in an art world "bubble" inflated by "flipping" and the transformation of avant-garde works of art into bankable financial instruments. In a year-end commentary titled Where Does 2014 Leave the Art World, critic Goldstein derides Zombie Formalism complaining that: "The intellectual content that allowed previous developments in painting--gestural abstraction, process-driven minimalism, et cetera--to break new artistic ground is voided, leaving a colorful corpse so devoid of ideas one could imagine it craving human brains." Is it just me, or does Sullivan's use of the phrase "colorful corpse" sound a bit like Wolff's complaints over Renoir's "mass of decomposing flesh with those purplish-green stains"?

 The situations that both critics describe -- even though their tone differs somewhat -- strike me as symptomatic of avant-garde exhaustion: Zombie Formalism is an ironic, self-conscious artistic response to a situation in which academic rules have choked off the oxygen painting needs to breathe. And yes, it is also a tiny over-commoditized avant-garde zone supported by speculators. Andrew Goldstein thinks the movement is short of "intellectual content" and "ideas," but I see it a bit differently.

If the situation I have outlined sounds distressing -- and in many ways it is -- it is also a moment when change seems imminent. There are many fantastic artists out there making significant work, ready to burst onto the scene when change blossoms. There have never been more institutions dedicated to contemporary art or more money available to be spent on it, and that is a good thing. The problem is that the definition of avant-garde needs to be revised to encompass and include art and artists that are brave enough the reach backwards and forwards at the same time. The avant-garde of the future needs to feed itself with hybridization, consolidation and assimilation.

I think that painting has to look back over its shoulder to realist and academic painting before the Salon des Refusés; in fact, it can and should go all the way back to Lascaux if it needs to. I see the history of painting as a very long line with no beginning and no end. Culture has certainly created moments and movements in painting -- most recently we have called them "isms" -- and living in a media age artists can have access to all of them, although not always on a first-hand basis. I like what the painter Jean Hélion said: "All the 'Isms' seem to me to be facets of a whole that should be painting."

There is a deep need for art that is authentic, engaged with the world and more about skill and knowledge than ego. Representation, which has been so restricted for the past decade, has vast untapped potential, and can be "progressive" in countless unexpected ways. As I commented in my review of The Figure: Painting Drawing and Sculpture, Contemporary Perspective, "contemporary representation is coming on strong," and I think that schools like the New York Academy, which equip students with a strong base of traditional skills, are equipping a generation of artists who will re-invigorate and re-define the avant-garde.

I would like to think that zombie formalism is the end-point of one kind of thinking about painting; as "isms" go, I predict it will be a blip. Peter Schjeldahl believes that "painting has lost symbolic force and function in a culture of promiscuous knowledge and glutting information," but I think he is wrong. As Renoir knew, when painting finds a way to resist rigid culturally imposed rules, it can persist, become relevant again and thrive.

Jon Swihart: A Portrait of Louis Zamperini (1917-2014)

Jon Swihart, Capt. Louis Zamperini, 2013, oil on wood panel, 12" h. x 9" w.
Collection of Angelina Jolie
When you forgive it's like it never happened. True forgiveness is complete and total. - Louis Zamperini
"This whole year has been very bittersweet," says Cynthia Zamperini Garris, whose much-loved father Louis (Louie) Zamperini passed away last July at the age of 97. "Losing my dad was heartbreaking -- it's still hard to say goodbye -- but there has also been all the celebration of his life, especially with the film and the Rose Parade."

The movie that Garris is referring to is Unbroken, a feature film directed by Angelina Jolie. Released in December of 2014, Unbroken is a true-to-life drama that recounts Zamperini's rapscallion youth, his ascent as a track star and Olympic athlete, the 47 harrowing days he spent floating in a raft in the Pacific Ocean following a WWII plane crash, and the torments he faced in a Japanese prison camp. Unbroken -- as its title suggests -- is ultimately a story of resilience, transcendence and forgiveness. Regarding the Rose Parade, Louis Zamperini was its 2015 Grand Marshall in Absentia, honored as a profoundly heroic and inspiring figure.

Zamperini's long, varied and eventful life has also been the subject of two books. In 2003 he published his own book -- Devil at My Heels: A Heroic Olympian's Astonishing Story of Survival as a Japanese POW in World War II -- which was followed in 2010 by Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, the basis of the recent film. "From the day I first spoke to him," says author Laura Hilenbrand of Zamperini, "his almost incomprehensibly dramatic life was my obsession." Hillenbrand's detailed and vivid book, which stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for over four years, and the paperback edition retains a five star Amazon rating after over 18,000 customer reviews.

In the Fall of 2013 Jon Swihart, a scrupulous and preternaturally patient artist who lives and works in Santa Monica, was commissioned to create an oil portrait of Zamperini. Part of what made the commission especially meaningful for Swihart was that he had been offered the chance to paint Zamperini six months earlier, but that first opportunity had fizzled. "It was hugely disappointing to me when the first commission fell through," Swihart recalls, "as I had read Unbroken and already envisioned how I wanted to paint Louie dressed in his old WWII bomber jacket and officer's cap. Then out of the blue, fate gave me a second chance to paint him."

Jon Swihart
Swihart's second commission came from Angelina Jolie's husband, actor Brad Pitt, who planned to present the finished painting to his wife as a present. It was meant as a gift of love and also a talismanic image of the hero at the center of Jolie's film. Pitt had seen and admired Swihart's portrait of artist Don Bachardy, and that had given him some idea of what Swihart was capable of.

As a result, Swihart was offered the opportunity to paint Zamperini as he saw fit: "Brad gave me complete artistic freedom," the artist notes. What Swihart hoped to do was create a single small painting that would transmit some of the qualities that Angelina Jolie's movie had dramatized in 137 minutes and that Hillebrand's book had taken over 500 pages to illuminate and distill. It was a challenge that Swihart took to heart: "I put everything I had into this," he states.

In late 2013 Swihart arranged to meet Zamperini, then 96, for a photo session. Zamperini's wartime bomber jacket -- which had been borrowed by Unbroken's costume designers -- was brought back to his home and Louis wore it for the sitting. "He was frail," Swihart comments, "and when he put on the jacket you could see that it had once fit the larger physique of a young man who had been an athlete just before he joined the service. It was the size he once was." With the help of Zamperini's daughter, Swihart took a group of reference photos, hoping to capture just the right mood and moment:

Cynthia mentioned when I first spoke to her that there was a certain look he occasionally got in his eyes, a masculine, transcendent but determined look that really personified Louie and no photographer had ever captured. Cynthia agreed to work closely with me to try to elicit that expression when I first met and photographed Louie. Conveying that look in Louie's eyes became essential.
After carefully scrutinizing the photos that he took that day Swihart selected a single photo that he captured just the right "look" in Zamperini's eyes. Working on her own, Cynthia Garris chose the same photo. "There was this openness in his face," says Garris, "and determination in his eyes." Jon Swihart says of Zamperini: "He reminded me of the evangelist Billy Graham, who I had painted years earlier. They both exuded a quiet, peaceful strength and charisma. I found out later they were friends."

As he prepared to paint Swihart decided that the portrait would resemble -- in both mood and technique -- a Flemish devotional icon of the early Renaissance. It would measure just twelve inches high by nine inches wide. "I like small, quiet work," Swihart philosophizes. "It draws you in and creates a world that holds you. You also have to be very quiet to connect with small work."

When the painting process began, Swihart experienced the panel as being perhaps even too small. "How am I going to enter this world?" he remembers asking himself. With time the image began to take shape, the panel magically began to appear a bit larger as Swihart spent countless hours becoming sensitized to its dimensions. As it developed the portrait that was appearing didn't seem quite right. After about two weeks of work Swihart woke up one morning and realized that he needed to start over. The second attempt went better, and Swihart was able to methodically conceive and modulate the important aspects of the portrait. Zamperini's face was resolved quickly --"I got it right off the bat," Swihart recalls -- and the piercing blue of his subject's eyes remained the brightest note of color in a composition that would remain muted and sober, emphasizing umber, tan and grey tones.

Captain Louis Zamperini (detail)
Although Swihart works from photographic references, he takes considerable liberties with his images as they develop. In the case of the Zamperini portrait, there were things that the artist wanted to allude to in subtle ways. For example, the flight jacket was re-shaped to suggest a kind of Baroque dynamism: "His jacket folds became metaphors for the twists in his life," Swihart explains. "In the lower area the folds are active and writhing, but around Louie's face they open to release and frame his features."

Captain Louis Zamperini (detail)
The teeth of the jacket's zipper, which glisten and move upwards in a sinuous curve, represented a special test of Swihart's patience, but he found that by building up his powers of concentration through weeks of painting he was able to manage them. "By that point I was so locked into the painting," he says, "I was thinking about it during every waking moment." The most difficult detail of the painting, surprisingly, turned out to be the bomber wings, which measure just over an inch across. "I ended up repainting them several times to suggest an upward movement and flittering effect," Swihart reports.

Captain Louis Zamperini (detail)
Completely absorbed in his project it took Jon Swihart six weeks to complete the painting. "This is one of the most gratifying commissions I have ever had," says Jon Swihart. "The story of Louie's life is such a huge story, and I felt that I had to get it right. I was motivated by my desire to honor Louie."

For Swihart to declare the painting "finished" he had to feel that it went beyond the materials and process involved in its making:
I believe a good portrait is absolute magic and conveying someone's essence in paint is an intuitive blend of fidelity to reality and poetic license. I've been painting close to forty-five years and it still puzzles me that, what is essentially colored earth smeared on wood, can be permanently imbued with the ephemeral quality of someone's presence! A great portrait, even of someone unknown to the viewer, needs no explanation to be understood and appreciated, because it is a communication that transcends words.
Captain Louis Zamperini (detail)
Swihart was able to show Louie Zamperini the completed painting before it was presented to Angelina Jolie. As Swihart explains, he was genuinely very pleased with his portrait and said, "It's very good, thank you!" Angelina Jolie, who received the portrait as a gift in December of 2013, was equally happy and deeply moved. She took the painting with her when she traveled to Australia to complete the filming of Unbroken, and now keeps the painting in her private office. "Angie treasures the painting," says Cynthia Garris. "It was a wonderful and very romantic gift."

Zamperini was given a framed photo of the portrait for his 97th birthday, and around that time he and Jon were able to visit. "He was a great storyteller," says Swihart. "It was an honor to visit and spend time with this man who had an amazing memory and ask him specific details about his extraordinary life. He was kind, giving, sharp and had a great sense of humor." During their final visit, Jon had an iPhone photo taken with Louie Zamperini, that later disappeared when his home computer crashed. "I wish I still had that photo," Swihart sighs, "but I will always have great memories of Louie Zamperini. He had a strong, quiet presence."

With his considerable patience -- and egoless skill -- Jon Swihart managed to immortalize that presence perfectly.


Jon Swihart: Jean-Leon Gerome is his Master

Unbroken: The Film

Kimberly Merrill: 'Divine Journey' at Lora Schlesinger Gallery

From Whence We Came, 2014
oil on canvas panel
22-1/2 x 26-1/2" fr.
At Lora Schlesinger Gallery in Santa Monica, painter Kimberly Merrill is showing a group of fifteen works that explore themes of spirituality, human connection and saintliness. Painted with exquisite care, Merrill's oils demonstrate her mastery of light and form, both of which are remarkable, especially considering that she came to painting late in life after raising a family. I recently interviewed Kimberly and asked her about her background, her ideas and her subjects.

Kimberly Merrill: Photo - Jon Swihart
Tell me a bit about your early life: when did you know you were an artist?

I grew up in a middle class Minnesota family where art was not on our radar. Later, when I became a stay-at-home Mom, I did the traditional female arts: knitting, quilting, crocheting, etc. When we left Minnesota for my husband's career, I starting taking classes at the local community college. One of the first classes I took was ceramics, which I loved, but when I took my first 2D class, I was hooked. It was during that time that I accustomed myself to the idea that I could actually be an artist. It was so out of my perception of myself that it took a while. I was divorced in 2000, which forced me into making a decision to fully commit to painting. I was accepted at Laguna College of Art and Design that year, at the age of 44: it was a bit of a late start! With hindsight, I realize that the 'female arts' were my outlet for expression before I discovered the fine arts and knew that I was an artist.

Reverence, 2014
oil on panel
30 x 22-7/16" fr.
Tell me about your experience in Laguna? Did you have any particularly helpful teachers or mentors there?

I graduated from LCAD with my BFA in 2004 and MFA in 2008. During my undergraduate years two teachers were pivotal in my experience and progress: Betty Shelton and Jonathan Burke. My confidence was in a particularly low place because of the divorce and they gave me added support and guidance that made all the difference. In graduate school, Jon Swihart was my mentor, for which we have taken much ribbing! Jon likes to joke that he was paid to date me. All kidding aside, we had so much in common artistically and aesthetically, that it was a great match. People sometimes assume that Jon is responsible for influencing me with his style, but the truth is that we already had that in common. He has been instrumental in helping me evolve as a painter and has been my biggest champion.

Peacock, 2013
oil on canvas panel
30 x 24" fr.
How has your art evolved over time?

I haven't been painting all that long, but in the course of painting this show, I felt myself moving toward more simplicity. I love the emotional power of isolation and how in the isolation of a figure, the viewer can find connection to our human sense of being in this life alone, which ironically, we are all in together. In some of this work, I have used isolation from other people to focus on our connection to something bigger than us and to describe the phenomenon of being physically alone, but never alone in the true sense of the word.

Your recent work features the figure of Pierrot. Tell me about your interest in this character and what he stands for in your work.

The Pierrot character originated in the 17th century as part of the commedia dell'Arte, which was a type of Italian theatre made up of masked characters. He has evolved over the years in both appearance and purpose, but this isn't actually relevant to my work. My interest in Pierrot had a serendipitous start... We were planning a party for Jerry Ackerman's birthday and decided to do a live replication of one of Gerome's paintings, 'The Duel after the Masquerade,' in which there is a Pierrot character. This character originated in the 17th century as a part of a type of Italian theatre made up of masked characters. I was struck by the character, how in his costume and make-up he lost connection to race or nationality, or even age. He became an icon for the everyday man. To me, the white shimmering costume, on the other hand, is a generic reference to religious or ceremonial robes. The costume on the 'everyday man' is a reference to the spiritual nature, or 'saintliness' of us all. With this, I have to say, I am not associated with any formal religion, but I do believe this connection is our life-force and our connection to each other.

Man's Best Friend, 2013
oil on canvas panel
13-5/8 x 13-7/16" - fr.
You have a long-standing interest in painting animals: tell me a bit about that side of your work? My first show was, 'Unleashed,' a show of dog paintings and portraits, and a dog does make an appearance in this show also. I believe dogs and other animals are our greatest teachers. They live their lives in the moment, innately aware of a life force beyond their physical form, through the good and bad experiences. They don't worry, complain and wish things were different than they are, and no matter how old they get, they still know how to enjoy life. The most amazing thing to me is how people change with the company of an animal and how that relationship can be remarkably healing. This relationship and these creatures deserve to be honored, and that's why they are represented by Lenny, the dog.

No Dress Rehearsal, 2014
oil on canvas panel
30-3/8 x 27-5/8" - fr.
Can you say a few things about the spiritual aspects of your recent work? The stresses of the culture we live in are continually pulling us away from our own spiritual connection and from each other. I have come to see my work as a spiritual practice and contribution to countering that imbalance in my own small way. These days, the foundation of everything I paint is spiritually based, in that it brings attention to the divine connection we have to a higher power/energy, nature and each other. We are faced with so much negativity all around us; I want my work to be more of a peaceful retreat from all of that noise.

Ephemeral, 2012
oil on canvas panel
23-1/2 x 19-1/2" - fr.
What are some of your favored media and working methods?

I have focused just on oil painting for the last several years and work in a traditional academic style. A large percentage of my pieces are quite small, which suits my temperament and studio size well. I have always taken an intuitive approach to my work, but in the beginning I thought it was just being naïve. Now, I realize this is authentic for me. I'm not an intellectual painter. If I work just from my head, the work seems contrived and flat, because it lacks the emotions I feel most driven to relate.  

What are your interests outside of art? We have great friends that we enjoy spending time with and I have come full circle and re-embraced knitting and sewing, which surprises me more than anyone. I love the meditative quality of knitting and, as it turns out I'm not bad at it, so I've been taking commissions and selling my work. It's a great thing to be making money while watching TV in the evenings! I love to read, although I haven't been spending much time at it lately.
Divine Journey
Lora Schlesinger Gallery
2525 Michigan Ave. #T3
Santa Monica, CA 90404
January 17 - February 21, 2015