A week in June


On Monday I found myself sitting in an unfashionably baroque dining room in a West Village townhouse encircled mainly by old, but slight acquaintances. The use of “baroque” is inaccurate, but seems appropriate in a perplexing way to describe this room of dated brown nineteenth century furniture crammed with contemporary paintings and drawings; a better word might be maximalist. Still, there was the evocation of an earlier era, the powerful scent of entitlement and elitism. This force seemed to adopt a communal life of its own when we had moved into this humbler front area of the house facing the street, gossip and unabashed laughter bounced from the walls and the flicker of candlelight was reflected multiple times in this room dense with glass picture frames. On the sidewalk outside the homeless and the office workers shadows seemed to float by with willful disregard. The tight group of artists, collectors and filmmakers here offered the ambience of a salon, faces flattered by the soft up glow from the flickering lighting, gatherings like this still providing a comforting and superior purpose, evoking continuity, something vaguely historical.

The art adds gravitas to the occasion. Depending on how ingrained in the New York art world you are much will be at once recognizable. Even none interested parties might see something intriguing, for example, placed dismissively at the foot of the stairs the bold lines of Mick Jagger’s face with pink and gold blocks, even a silk screened print like this where there are hundred, maybe two hundred and fifty more the same, being a Warhol it holds significant value. His might be the most easy to place image, along with the Mapplethorpe’s and Hockney’s, but most of the works here are well known to insider’s and highly desirable but not so much for a wider public. The artwork raises several questions each time I visit this house, their wider historical relevance as opposed to their value, the context of the placement, the sense that they are restrained and tamed in this cozy domestic environment which surely had never been the artists intent. This collection has a known and respected discipline, unlike many collectors who speculate and quickly sell work, this is one that features a small group of artists and acquired in both in depth and at different points in their career to follow the trajectory of their careers. But neither is it charitable, and there is a shrewdness to the purchases which are carefully considered, however there is no central theme that I see other than aesthetic appreciation and a love of painting itself, surface textures and handling are more notable than content or style. If there is any political element at all, it is sexual, and many of the artists like the two collectors themselves are gay, this vein runs through the work, but not comprehensively.

We had arrived about an hour earlier and sat in the lounge with two bright yellow sofas flanked by a pair of Eames recliners, my wife commented that she felt we had walked into a mid-career Hockney painting. A documentary film maker and her artist husband were already there talking to the hosts and a French house guest. The presence of the artist, who endures severe disability, answers one question about their collection – he is happy to be part of it, to have his work breathing life onto these walls instead of being hidden in museums and their storage vaults. His practice has had an intriguing evolution driven at least partially because the disability, working within the confines of a studio  using a straw to blow ink over an oil based surface creating fantastical landscapes that have an sophisticated kinship to low brow fantasy offering our imagination a journey through panoramas with the insight of the elements of chance and failure. There is skill also, and therein lies the tension; between control and lack of control, making them so compelling and intricate. I was reminded of the work of the seventeenth century engraver Hercules Segers who rarely left his studio in Amsterdam but made spectacularly detailed landscapes from his imagination and think of Tolkien also, who only ever saw the war fields of France and the Alps once, but created a unique world from these slender observations.

Then from imaginary journeys to real ones; the co-host suggested that he might want to visit England during the summer, he had only been to London before. This is not unusual at all, a little tiresome, many visitors limit their experience to the capital and may add Bath, Oxford or Cambridge to the list and these he also asked for my recommendations. It was a difficult question to answer without getting a little impassioned. I love the English countryside for multiple reasons, its diminutive scale and apparent fastidious management, a proud containment of its biography. Wealth and ownership are also a sly, unspoken, component of our appreciation…intermingled with taste and class. The simplicity of what we see can be understood by a child and has a truth and a hungered for credibility, a direct line between observance and understanding. And the weather plays its part, the inevitable rain turns the mood of the place into dark introspection, while the days of sun are even more adored because of their scarcity.

The market towns of southern England are historic gathering places, satisfying for their commercial logic and organization, places of socialization after extended periods of hardship and solitude. Many are barely touched since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the building styles, methods and materials tell us without ambiguity their solid intent and ambition, their politics’ and demographics’. How do I persuade my host, someone who I speculate might get easily bored in such an environment, to let in the nuances and quirkiness? How much is my appreciation based upon nostalgia? I am weighed down and biased by my own history when the open fields led to distant places rich with infinite promise, mystery.

We offer twenty first century enticements; recommending good restaurant’s, comfortable accommodations with lovely views….the usual distractions…all the while knowing that the beauty lies not in comfort but in the opposite; salt wind blowing onto your face while walking along a gusty shoreline, the wildness and muted visual tapestry of cross country walks, of being momentarily lost in the somber silent antiquity of a primeval forest. Yet foolishly I take the doubt in his eyes and the air of casual indifference personally. We have a long history and I scold myself when I have a mild sense of hurt that England’s beauty is unconvincing only because it is me, the non-creative one, describing it. I am alert to something. I sense his enquiries are made showily to illustrate to others within earshot (who know his true feelings) sociability and benevolence and I’m defensive towards threat of sarcasm. In turn I do not seek his approval, both our minds were made up long ago based I think on a certain weakness that we hate in ourselves and which we recognize in the other, only apathy prevents deeper analysis.

A few days later Mary and I go to the New York Armory for an art opening, warned in advance that the artist showing there is fashionable and, based upon a breathless monologue of her complex high minded practice as we walk up Park Avenue, I’m already reluctant. The Armory space itself is one of the most gorgeous in the City, built around the end of the eighteen-eighties for and by the National Guard, it has an extraordinary wide open space for the drill hall but also has several reception area’s which have been lovingly preserved, containing work by Tiffany, Stanford White and others in the aesthetic movement. The lighting is romantically dim and shields much of the established art which glorifies combat and the paraphernalia of war. I imagine that the wealth behind this building (put up by the great wealthy families of Park Avenue) purchased their silk stockinged family members away from the actual horrors.

It’s never a good idea to judge an artist by their opening, when the wine flows freely and hor d’oeuvres are pursued with anxious determination, where there is a commitment circulate amongst, and in some cases strategically avoid, players in the art world. The chance of having a meaningful engagement with the art itself is not great and when the rooms are abundant and migratory with embraces and air kisses it’s jarring to come face to face with sociopolitical commentary. The German artist, Hito Steyerl, is concerned about the truth, and in particular how it is represented and mis-represented through modern media. Aren’t we all? She is a cultural critic and film maker, now professor of New Media Art in Berlin’s Museum of Art, prior to that she obtained a PhD in Philosophy in Vienna. Her core interest is the impact of visual images, how new technology allows the world to be viewed in a different way, testing our ability to trust what we see. At first when you encounter the variety of video’s it all seems didactic and overly serious, particularly the political posturing with intellectual nodes to be joined and connections to be made. I was told there is a wry humor to some of this and in one work I detected early on the heavy pathos. This was a project based in Camden New Jersey a small downtrodden city on the other side of the river from Philadelphia, one I have occasionally driven through. Few places illustrate the failure of capitalism better. The streets have a raw, fearful, unpoliced energy both day and night. The film focused on a group whose job is to paint fake windows to replace broken ones in abandoned houses, the underlying goal to support the theory that broken windows lead to more broken windows. The sadness is in the visual fakery which replaces doing the correct thing, (replacing the real ones and maybe using the abandoned houses for the countless poor and homeless on the streets?) we see the defective morality, it inevitability thanks to our system of governance where most tax payer’s money is drawn into fueling the military complex. The root of many of our anxieties. This spending in turn ignites technologies that we struggle to comprehend, all of which directly or subversively is embraced in her work.

Walking around the exhibition we are struck by how sudden and fresh these concerns have become, how rapidly they crept up on us and how contemporary and alien their visualization. We are affected by the violence in children’s video games, the manipulation of political imagery, the sometimes unabashedly personal nature of these attacks, of the invasion of privacy from drones and surveillance equipment and the pace and accessibility of new technology…all these things can be seen or imagined. But is it art? I keep asking myself walking home down Park Avenue, a little drunk. I know the answer that our art collecting hosts from earlier in the week would give; absolutely not….there is no beauty here, but I argue back, in their thirty years of collecting our society has lurched and rattled forward, more than a little out of control, and I was struck how eloquently this had been captured in this swirl of animated video’s and pseudo documentaries none of which provide you with optimism for the future.

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