Everyday Sheeple: Alex Gross 'Future Tense' at Jonathan Levine Gallery

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Shopaholics, Oil on Canvas, 37 x 37 inches

Every now and then, artist Alex Gross surprises someone by telling them that yes, he does own and use an iPhone: he doesn't see himself as being above or outside of the culture that he nails in his current show Future Tense, now on view at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery on West 23rd St. Alex Gross is one of us, so we can all relax now and check our text messages.

Gross has a sharp, satirical sense of who "we" are now, and Future Tense lays out his tainted vision with big-screen LCD clarity: he sees a tsunami of consumer culture that is drowning our collective soul in a sickly-sweet flood of lattes and Double Gulps. We are clones with phones, guarded by drones, grimly satisfied by the perks of consumerist culture and just distracted enough to avoid introspection and all its inconveniences.

Interested in our disinterest, Gross has a certain sense of humor about materialism's consolations and signifiers. One of his recent canvases, Narcissism, a mass-selfie that shows his own smug mug multiplied towards the horizon, staring outwards as he indulges while he can. It is a funny -- Hell, very funny -- painting that is both a confession and an unflinching rumination on the interminable, materialist present. God has blessed us with many fine brands, it seems to say, even when He is nowhere to be found and purgatory at least offers a cornucopia of fast food treats and all the latest Apple devices.

John Seed Interviews Alex Gross:

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Alex Gross

Tell me about your childhood and your early artistic proclivities.

 My childhood was pretty normal. I grew up on Long Island, in New York. We used to go to the Natural History Museum regularly with my school. I loved going there and seeing the dinosaurs, as well as all the stuff from ancient Egypt. At one point, the Tutankhamen exhibit came through New York and we saw that as well. My artistic passion as a kid was mostly centered around comic books. I read them constantly, and that's more or less where I learned to draw. I copied figures out of comics relentlessly. I would create my own comics, but usually run out of gas an hour or two after starting.

Around age 9, I saw Star Wars, and that also inspired me a great deal. I always loved science fiction prior to that, things like Planet of the Apes, which was always in reruns on television, and Star Trek. But Star Wars was a whole other level, and I bought all of the toys and action figures. But when it came to drawing, I was still most heavily influenced by comic books. I guess seeing another person's way of drawing that was so powerful and stylized really appealed to me, and made me want to try that myself. After Star Wars became a phenomenon, they came out with a book called The Art of Star Wars, and that was perhaps more influential on me than the film itself, just because it was full of amazing drawings and paintings. Throughout all of high school, I thought that I would probably end up being a professional comic book artist.

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Spores, Oil on Canvas, 50.5 x 73 inches

When you attended Art Center in Pasadena, were you classified as an "Illustrator"?

Art Center has two very separate departments, Fine Art and Illustration. I was an Illustration major, in spite of not really knowing what that was. But I suppose it sounded more practical, and I had an older brother who was just starting a career as a freelance photographer, so the idea of being some kind of commercial artist seemed doable, and appealing. Plus, at that point, I still thought I wanted to pursue doing comics. I was not particularly interested in Fine Art. Growing up, we visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MOMA often, so I had been exposed to plenty of world-class art, and I always preferred representational painting to anything else. And when I had visited Art Center, before applying, the most impressive work in the student gallery, to me, had been paintings by Illustration department students. The Fine Art department was not very interested in representational painting at that time.

 At Art Center, the two departments had a strange relationship, something like stepbrothers who don't get along. Illustration students were required to take some fine art classes, with teachers from that department, who often resented having to teach us. At that time, the Illustration department was far bigger than the Fine Art department, and they depended on Illustration students to fill their class rosters. And then there was the Foundation department, whose classes we also took, and who had several faculty members that were fine artists too. But looking back on it now, and seeing how many successful fine artists have come out of the Illustration department, it seems pretty clear that it provided a well rounded education that covered both technical skill development and conceptual thinking. This was largely due to the Chairman of Illustration, Phil Hays, who had transformed the department in the mid seventies from one based solely on technique into one based on concepts as well as technique.

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Candy Crush, Oil on Canvas, 48.25 x 33.5 inches

What were some of the ingredients that came together to help you mature as an artist?

Experience, persistence and poverty, to name a few. Honestly, I only feel that it is in the last 5-10 years that my work finally reflects my feelings about the world around me. It took me quite awhile to figure out what I wanted to do and say in my work. And decades of practice with my tools, both digital and painting ones, have also helped me technically be able to accomplish what I want in creating an image, which is very important.

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Distractions, Oil on Canvas, 60 x 42 inches

Your show at Jonathan LeVine portrays the de-sensitized denizens of consumerist culture. How did you become interested in that kind of imagery?

In her seminal book, No Logo, which dissects how and why the branding phenomenon has taken hold of our world, Naomi Klein wrote about some innovative and intrusive new ways that companies were foisting their brands upon regular citizens. What is truly astonishing, now that the book is already 15 years old, is how much of what she described has become commonplace. She wrote, "Calvin Klein stuck... perfume strips on the backs of Ticketmaster concert envelopes; and in some Scandinavian countries, you can get 'free' long-distance calls with ads cutting into your telephone conversations." Neither of these sounds nearly as disturbing as it did then, now that we are all accustomed to watching ads before videos on YouTube, or picking up the LA Times, and finding the entire front page is actually an advertisement. We have gone so far, so quickly, it's frightening.

My generation, people born from the mid sixties to the mid seventies, has a unique perspective on the world as it stands today. We are old enough to have been adults for awhile before there was an internet, or cell phones, and perhaps even before computers were a necessity. But we are also young enough to have adapted to the many technological and 'lifestyle' changes that these things have brought, and even embrace some of them.

The same can be said for the parabolic rate of increase of branding that has occurred since I was a child to now. Our generation grew up in a world where most companies still sold (and made) products rather than brands. Ballpark names did not feature names of corporations. Of course, everything is changed now. Younger generations have grown up in a world where everything is sponsored, and all brands promote "lifestyles," and they have never known another way. Ask a 25-year-old what selling out is, and see if they can come up with an answer. For my generation, it might have been a late night talk show host doing a credit card commercial, or a musician being paid to mention brand name items on her album. But that doesn't seem to bother most kids anymore.

I think this gives me an interesting ability to view this stuff both from afar, and from within. It's a fascinating subject for me. I often get the feeling that all technology has been developed or at least directed with the sole aim of promoting consumption and spending.

Ultimately, what I see nearly everywhere, are "de-sensitized denizens of consumerist culture," as you so aptly put it. And I am trying hard not to become one myself, or raise one in the future. And I fear that I am fighting a losing battle.

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Narcissism, Oil on Canvas, 28 x 28 inches

Tell me about your painting Narcissism.

 What preceded Narcissism, was another piece entitled Distractions. It's a similar image, except that in Distractions there are a multitude of different men and women, mostly holding either food, drinks, phones or cigarettes. Narcissism is an extension of this idea, except all the subjects became me. In the piece, I am eating a burger, reading a tabloid mag, eating ice cream, texting, talking on the phone, drinking a double gulp, a Starbucks, etc. Just generally consuming things, like many of us do.

Once, about four years ago, at one of my exhibitions, someone looking at a piece I had done with zombie-like people staring at iPhones, said to me, "So you obviously don't have an iPhone, right?" When I told her that in fact I do have an iPhone, the look of disappointment on her face was unmistakable.

I get this from time to time: people think that because in my work I am looking critically at aspects of our current popular culture and lifestyle, that I am somehow above it or better than it. I am not. Although I try not to walk around staring at my phone, and I try not to watch ads or television commercials, I am still living in the same world as everyone else, and I am not immune to the overwhelming power of technology, social media, and most of all branding. So, I feel that it is important to also turn the lens on myself from time to time, as unpleasant as that may be. I suppose if Narcissism were more personally accurate, instead of a burger it would be a salad, and instead of the Double Gulp, it would be a Konbucha, because I don't really eat junk food. But that would be more about 'me' and less about 'us.'

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Service Industry, Oil on Canvas, 29.5 x 46.5 inches

In your current work is it fair to say that humor and pessimism balance each other out? 

That's a completely subjective statement, but yes, it is fair to say. There is no question that I am not optimistic about things in America, or on Earth right now. But I would say that I am a realist, more than a cynic, or a pessimist.

When I hear a musician or a comedian expressing similar views to mine, it makes me feel that I am not alone in feeling this way, and that maybe there are others out there who also connect with these thoughts. And, in fact, there are many of us! Although these ideas can be depressing, such as the knowledge that our own government has, for years, been illegally spying on all of us, I find it helpful to know that there are many others out there who are unhappy about this and who also feel powerless to do anything about it. By expressing some of these critical ideas in my work, I think that many viewers find a strong connection to their own feelings about things, and take strength from it, rather than finding it overly negative.

Incorporating humor into some of the work perhaps makes it more palatable, less heavy-handed and as you say, balances some of the unpleasant ideas. It's hard not to have a sense of humor about these things. I think it's the only way for many of us to stay sane.

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Food, Oil on Canvas, 26 x 26 inches

What are you passionate about?

I'm passionate about all of the things we've been discussing today. Most of them have to do with the fact that things are very messed up right now, and getting worse. I'm passionate when someone like Adbusters gets out there and tries to raise awareness and inspire people to take action to make change. I'm passionate when I read about Edward Snowden and just how much he has sacrificed for the rest of mankind. I'm inspired now by the student protests continuing in Hong Kong. These are the things I am most passionate about today. And I'm also passionate about the new AT&T family plan for talk and text!*

*(This sentence sponsored by AT&T)

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Anything else worth mentioning? 

I have a new book that I hope people will check out. It's called Future Tense, sharing that title with my current gallery exhibition in New York, at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery. The new book features paintings that I have done over the last four and a half years, and includes some of the new work, though not all. I don't want to sound purely self-promotional, but the book was a lot of work, and I am happy with how it's turned out, and I hope that folks who are interested in my work might check it out.

Alex Gross: Future Tense
October 8, November 9, 2014
Jonathan LeVine Gallery
557C West 23rd Street New York, NY 10011

Work by Alex Gross is also on view in:
Masterworks: Defining A New Narrative
The Long Beach Museum of Art
October 23, 2014 - February 1, 2015

Dave Hickey: 'I Will Never Retire From Art or Writing'

"Of what use is a philosopher who doesn't hurt anybody's feelings?" -- Diogenes

 Whatever you think of writer/critic Dave Hickey, you have to give him this: He speaks his mind. Retired from "The Art World" but still more than willing to talk about art, Dave has been experimenting using Facebook as his water cooler but feels that as a medium Facebook has defeated him: Perhaps that is because his musings are often too wide-ranging, esoteric and paradoxical to simply "like."

I recently interviewed Dave Hickey via e-mail. I am posting his interview unedited, except that I did add a few French accents and hyphens where he had missed them...

John Seed Interviews Dave Hickey


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Dave Hickey
In 2012, you announced your retirement from the art world. In October of 2013 Pirates and Farmers was published. Would it be fair to call you "semi-retired?"

No. I am retired from the art world. I will never retire from art or writing. Art is the way I think. Whenever I can, I fly to New York, stay in a midtown hotel, get a limo, and go look at art. The art never tells anyone that I have been looking at it. Nobody recognizes me.

In Pirates and Farmers you offer the metaphor that pirates - who you favor over farmers - tear fences down. What are a few of the cultural fences that you feel need tearing down right now? 

I would like to tear down the vestigial fences that remain from the segregation imposed by "identity politics." The class barrier between blue chip artists and no-chip artists could be removed to everyone's benefit. I think the gentle womb of academia could do with a radical Caesarian. I think tenure should be abolished, and graduate schools, as well. I think the wall between 'high' art and 'low art should be demolished too. Since neither is any better or worse than the other--since everything, high and low, is blended in the same digital fastness, why bother? Counting by my clock, Art was obligated to abandon digital means twenty years ago. Technology is not a raison d'être.

You recently stated on Facebook: "I depend on the first person singular as a badge of modesty" and then went on to characterize yourself as "just this guy writing in the desert." As an internationally known critic and MacArthur prizewinner how modest can you really be?

First, except for a couple of Polish dudes, I am not internationally known. I have never been reviewed in any major publication. I have never had a good review. My books sell 100k copies at best. I don't get invited to book fairs. My writing is grounded in Victorian belle lettres, in Ruskin, Lamb, Carlyle, DeQuincey and Dickens. Out of tune with the times? Ya' think. I have six new books about art criticism on my desk. Having writ on water, I am not mentioned in any of them. My phone doesn't ring.

About the MacArthur award? I think it's bullshit. I was grateful for the honor, since it measures the respect of one's peers, but the money was crass, and condescending. I don't fucking do money. I make a living. The whole inference that I couldn't support myself made me look vulnerable, since the idea of supporting oneself is the first prerequisite for an independent critical voice. If you can't support yourself, they can touch you, so you maintain solvency. Now, everyone sees me wallowing in the largess of a poncey foundation, and I have hitherto been free, beholden to nothing and to no one.

I am Dave the Writer--no foundation--no institution---no artist friends---no connections---and no family. I write words and I am not a public servant. I want to be a purist because I do not believe, and I do not belong. So I got this award. I got this new constituency of dudes and dames on the dole. I got this tainted money that I used to pay off my wife's student loans, to buy her some cool stuff, and to refine my game of Texas Hold'em. Five years later, I was trying to put up a giant piece of art-graffiti under the Westside highway in Chicago. It was part of a sculpture show. The alderman went ballistic. The mayor went ballistic. I called up the MacArthur to curry a little hometown juice. The Foundation said, No. We can't help. We don't do that sort off thing. No, no, no, no, no, and don't call back. Today, I like my Peabody Award way better. It looks like a plus size penny.

Neurological research is discovering the mechanisms by which a viewer's brain interacts with art works, including intense reactions that are precognitive (sophisticated interactions with art happen before we analyze them). Have the past decades of art criticism put the cart before the horse by championing the primacy of language and text over visual understanding and aesthetic empathy?

Art starts where language stops, where the word stops and the gesture continues. Language is easy. Theory is easy. Critique is very easy. Art is very difficult. I have been saying this for fifty years. I majored in theoretical linguistics in graduate school to learn my palette, as a painter might study color, but also to learn where language stopped and the mystery began. The mystery of writing, I finally decided, resides in the phonotext--in the music we hear as we read---the sounds and silences. Since most people don't hear this music, I will always be an acquired taste. Also. I am less a critic than a theorist. The simple decision to write about something is an evaluative gesture. Then I theorize about that conditions under which the art might sustain itself in vogue.

 You certainly aren't alone in disliking Jeff Koons, who makes pieces that you feel "... just stand there under the Christmas tree, dead out of the box." Have you read Jed Perl's piece on Koons in the New York review of books? 

Jeff Koons manufactures objets trouvés. Robert Gober manufactures objets trouvés. They are oceans apart. You pick 'em. I find Koons lead-footed. I read Jed Perl's review of Koons: It sounds like a jejune, Manhattan catfight. I can't see why publishing in a periodical publication should mitigate the essential seriousness of what critics try to contribute, but Koon's myopia keeps us gazing down into the cocktail zone. You can't fly a lead balloon, so, if the cards fall right, I think Koons could achieve total oblivion in his own lifetime. His opening game was beautiful but I don't see him managing the endgame that well. He gets over-invested in retro-Fitzcarraldo technological projects. But what do I know? When I was running a gallery in Soho. I hung with Jeff a little in Fanelli's. I was always disappointed in the slow-pitch thud of his wit. So, maybe I find Koons a bit of a pedant. Koons does a lot of things that I like and I hate the art. Robert Gober does a lot of things that I hate, and his art has a diaphanous heart. Go figure.

How do you define beauty in today's art? Or the sublime? Are any contemporary artists achieving either? Beauty is that which elicits precognitive affirmation. It is an indispensable asset to artists who have embarked upon difficult and transgressive career paths. I would pick DeKooning, Bradley Walker Tomlin, Warhol and Mapplethorpe as artists who needed beauty and managed it. So maybe I'm interested in "difficult" beauty---beauty that flies in the face of "the beautiful." Since the art world today is an amoral clusterfuck, not much beauty is really required. The sublime is beauty for boys---anti-sissy beauty---an irrelevant category in this moment.

You recently stated on Facebook: "I think craft, or working within a craft, is probably over." Why do you feel that way? Don't you think that there are some artists who might just come along and prove you wrong? 

That was a stupid, old-guy bullshit thing to say. Craft and technology exist in an extra aesthetic dimension. We can do art with them or without them. My reservation about craft derives from the "Deus ex machina" nature of technique. Lets say you develop a way to make everybody cry, because you want people to cry on this occasion. The question is this: Can I use these devices to make people cry again, not because I care, but just because I can? I would say no. Art making creates a constant demand to subsume technique to the urgency of the occasion, to create more refined technique: fragile meta-techniques of which Edward Ruscha is the master.

You say: "The demotion of Pop Art into Visual Culture is the most outrageous misprision and re-purposing of art in the twentieth century." Can you break that down a bit? Just exactly how and by what process did Pop Art get demoted?

This observation dates me, because, with the exception of Jasper Johns and Robert Indiana, I knew the pop artists fairly well and I found them to be very serious artists. I always found their company very refreshing, very refined and very Beaux Arts. They had taken on the job of redeeming and refreshing popular trash by using premodern genres and imposing the high-art graces of size, scale, color, form, and gesture on popular drivel. When German sociology won the field in the seventies, the image was just the image. Size, scale, color, form and gesture counted for nothing. It was all "picture" for the Germans, so Pop art disappeared into muck of cultural theory. The artists all left town and the kids started collecting Donald Duck dolls. Under the guidance of German thought, art became culture.

As collectors of pop artifacts, I should note, the pop artists sucked. They just didn't do it. Tom Wesselmann wrote hillbilly songs but he knew more about the odalisque than anyone else in New York. Wayne Thiebaud painted cakes but his conversation was all Proust and Joaquin Sorolla, the deft Spanish impressionist. David Hockney painted swimming pools but he was never without an art catalog devoted to some obscure brand of painting--Scandinavian landscape, the last I remember. Ed Ruscha has a good collection of rockabilly records but the images pinned on his studio walls are all 19th century paintings: John Everett Millais, Caspar David Friedrich, and Thomas Cole's "The Course of Empire"---a subject Ruscha would address in paintings of his own, exhibited in Italy, the mise-en-scène of Cole's "Progress."

Roy Lichtenstein painted cold, high-modernist Pointillism. Rauschenberg collected junk, but he liked history paintings. He liked Harnett and Peto who inspired his early work. Rosenquist and Warhol liked fancy drawing and painting from the ancien régime. The last time I was in Andy's brownstone, there were four red-chalk drawings by Dante Rossetti of the blonde Fanny Cornforth. They were hanging in the entry hall on forest-green silk wallpaper: "Marilyns après le lettre." I would suggest that none of these obsessions or enthusiasms has shit to do with "visual culture." As a consequence, soggy-thinking and slovenly- looking stole the birthright of 21st century art.

You seem pretty active on Facebook. What do you think of Facebook as a medium of being in touch and hashing out ideas?

 Facebook turned out to be sour gruel. I wanted a Toontown Chautauqua: smart, funny, dry, and just a little chippy. I offered up bite-size bits of wisdom cropped to the attention span of Millennials. I was hoping for responses in that mode. I didn't get them. I tried and tried again and all I got was lame excuses and obsessive money envy. It just didn't work. My present project is to mount a wiki-page to which we all can contribute using our names, and from which we all can all redact anything using our names. My bet is that the page will go black everyday, totally redacted. Maybe a cat picture will survive, but Facebook, as a medium, has defeated me.

A Quiet Place: The Windhover Contemplative Center at Stanford

"The concept of wings as metaphors for the soaring of one's mind suggests a sense of contemplation, a sense of spirit..." - Nathan Oliveira

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A panoramic view of the Windhover Contemplative Center
The newly opened Windhover Contemplative Center, a 4,000 square foot rammed-earth and wood structure which occupies the former site of a parking lot, wouldn't exist without a deeply held conviction of the late Nathan Oliveira (1928-2010): that quiet contemplation feeds and fuels the imagination.

Years of working in the silence of his own studio and also the solace he found during long walks in the peaceful Stanford hills -- where he delighted in watching soaring birds -- convinced Oliveira that each of us has an inner imaginative world that blossoms through observation and meditation. "If you persist and you believe in it your world opens up to you," Oliveira once stated. "Sometimes that takes an entire lifetime."

Beginning in the 1970s Oliveira worked on images of birds and flight that culminated in the paintings now permanently on display at the center. These images, in turn, led to the idea for the Windhover, which will extend the artist's uplifting vision into the future.

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A detail of Nathan Oliveira's Diptych

Oliveira's Windhover paintings take their name from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), that uses the flight of a falcon as a metaphor for spiritual striving and realization. A portion of the poem is etched into reflective glass visible near the building's entrance. The imagery of the four Oliveira paintings on view at the Windhover includes wings, catenary curves and a kestrel, all presented on semi-abstract grounds.

Designed by Aidlin Darling Design, the glass-enclosed center shows the influence of Japanese architecture. As they approach the building, visitors will pass through a long stand of bamboo that delineates a kind of barrier between the outside world and the center's meditative space. In the building's interior are three rooms that feature four Oliveira paintings -- Big Red, Diptych, White Wing and Sun Radiating -- all of which are visible from both inside and outside the building. Skylights and motorized louver drapes provide carefully modulated natural light. The thick rammed-earth walls, made from soil excavated directly from the site, help moderate heat and sound.

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The Reflection Pool
A reflection pool near the building's entrance features two concrete monoliths that are in fact pieces of architectural debris from the university's boneyard. The sound of running water, which flows into a rectangular fountain, helps dampen outside noises. A pebble-floored Zen garden rimmed by benches appears at the building's opposite end, sheltering a single tree and another small fountain.

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An Interior Fountain
Stanford's Office of Religious Life is overseeing the Windhover, which will provide a quiet alternative to Stanford's relatively busy Memorial Church, which hosts services, weddings and concerts. The center fits in well with two of Stanford's current initiatives -- the Wellness Initiative and the Arts Initiative -- and compliments the display of three Oliveira paintings in the new Anderson Collection at Stanford. The Windhover Contemplative Center joins Houston's Rothko Chapel and James Turrell's "Twilight Epihany" at Rice University as one of a slowly growing number of American structures that meld contemplative practice with the visions of modern and contemporary artists.

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The Reflecting Pond
In a 2009 speech in Vancouver, the Dalai Lama offered his opinion that "The world will be saved by Western Women." During my visit to the Windhover Contemplative Center a group of Stanford women chatted on the benches of the Zen garden and shared their sense of excitement about the new center. I couldn't help envisioning these young women growing into adulthood, their imaginations sheltered and nourished by the Windhover, to fulfill the Dalai Lama's prediction.

Visitor Information:

Windhover will be open daily from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. to students, faculty and staff.
A Stanford I.D. card is required to enter.
 Docents will lead tours for the public from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Tuesdays.
Visit the Cantor Arts Center website for more information.

Visitors are asked to refrain from using cell phones, tablets, laptops and other electronic devices while inside the center.

Links: 

Windhover Contemplative Center Website

Nathan Oliveira on the Windhover Project (SFMOMA Video)