Sunday, January 10, 2010

Coupling Dramas and Unknowable Others (with apologies to David Humphrey)

8 – 10 January 2010

I never did talk much about the Almodovar film, Los Abrazos rotos (Broken Embraces), did I? Nor for that matter much about The Lives of Pippa Lee, and Robin Wright Penn’s brilliant performance (with a deftly eccentric assist from Keanu Reeves towards the end, and of course yet another brilliant supporting performance from Julianne Moore (I have to wonder if most film directors and casting directors simply think of her now as Julianne “Can-Do-No-Wrong” Moore.), which also had outstanding art direction; and I wish I had (though I’m not going to get back to that right now) because it came up in conversation at dinner with a collector and artist pal after a couple of art events this past evening; but it’s clear that Opera Buddy and I weren’t the only ones who were blown away that the film disappeared after about a week here in L.A. (one assumes for Oscar consideration). Apparently it’s going to be re-released; so I’m giving myself permission to resume my commentary (if that’s what this is) when that happens (or maybe sooner if I have a moment.)

In the meantime, as I said, I was out this evening and, aside from the driving, I enjoyed it – though I must give an enormous credit to my pal, Marlene (who has appeared in this blog before as The Other Marlene (as in not Dietrich or Dumas) who practically set RAID Projects ablaze with her indefatigable curiosity and wit and had us roaring with laughter over sandwiches at Philippe’s to the consternation of a tableful of L.A.’s Finest right in back of us. She informed us that the preferred nomenclature in these circles today is “law enforcement” personnel; and she should know: although her native habitat is the wilds of the art world, like any writer (which is only one of her talents), she has explored a wide variety of turfs and terrains, making friends everywhere (and maybe a few ‘unfriends’ – you can’t have everyone you have to walk over fall in love with you; she has no enemies – it is impossible not to be charmed by her), and more or less getting what she wants.

Sometimes that’s information (we have that curiosity in common), and sometimes it’s stuff (we have that in common, too). This past evening, we both set our acquisitive eyes on watercolors and a video by Jennifer Levonian, an artist from Philadelphia, who may be a kind of genius. Her painting – which is figurative and naturalistic – has a rough, unpolished yet verismo quality about it – finely tuned to gesture, expression and social, cultural and emotional context. Really finely tuned, as it turns out – she turns out suites of such quasi-narrative watercolors and gouaches (and collage apparently) into brilliant short stop-motion animations that segue from American coffeeshop/consumer culture (à la Starbucks), to odd film clips, to American evangelical Christian culture to American courtship rituals and.what might be called the bleed between the quotidian pedestrian actuality of everyday/Everyman’s life and fantasy. One such stop-motion video was exhibited at RAID, You, Starbucks, which featured individually customized watercolor and collage covers for the DVD cases. The price was so astonishingly low that I won’t repeat it here; and I only hope there’s one left when I call Ryan and David back this week. I almost wrote a cheque on the spot for the Magnificent Marlene; but, well aware of my bad track record with Wells Fargo Bank, she stayed my too-willing hand.

The evening began with a book launch at the Edward Cella Gallery, which is right across the street from LACMA. David Humphrey, who many of us West-Coasters first came to be aware of through the graces of Gary Kornblau and the late, lamented Art Issues, has published an anthology of his criticism (much of it culled from those issues of Art Issues, as well as Frieze, Tema Celeste, and other art publications), interspersed not only with illustrations of the art that is the subject of his reviews and essays, but his his own art. I want to say, ‘accompanied’ rather than simply illustrated or interspersed, because with Humphrey, generally, and, I think quite vividly in this book, Blind Handshake (though I had no more than a cursory examination of it), you get a sense of the dialogue and counterpoint between his approach to his painting and studio art generally and his approach to discussing and criticizing the work of other artists. His own art is so distinctive, so utterly his own slightly skewed, almost whimsical, and very painterly style; yet there is almost no perceptible bias in his critical writing, except within the terms dictated by the art and artist under discussion (though, as he himself pointed out during his gallery chat, he is not unwilling to question the validity and limitations of those terms).

There is probably enough dialogue and dialectic within the book itself, without having to generate another dialogue surrounding it. But here he was, in the cozy confines of the Cella Gallery here in L.A. (he’s based in New York), and there was no reason not to have a taste of it directly from him. I had met David in person at least once before (at a dinner at Fearless Leader’s house), where he was relaxed and convivial (he writes/curates the “Barrage NYC” feature for Artillery). But I could see that, under these slightly more formal (and explicitly commercial) circumstances, he might need to be drawn out a bit; and Benjamin Weissman, a local fiction writer (Dear Dead Person) who also writes about art and artists from time to time (including in Art Issues, as I recall) was on hand to amplify the dialogue by another dimension or two. I wasn’t aware (not really thinking about the Art Issues nexus) they went back a bit together; but they do and Weissman proved to be an ideal interlocutor. Mr. Cella gave a big assist, not only with his gallery space, but by being the perfect host – including full bar and a bit of nosh for those of us on empty or near-empty stomachs. David and Benjamin had apparently already had the benefit of a ski trip (somewhere near Tahoe, I assume) to warm up to David’s book tour and warmed up further with a cocktail shaker of martinis (olives – dirty); and you could sort of tell that they needed it, David perhaps more than Benjamin. I think most of us were expecting the dialogue to focus on the book itself, but the book was as much a springboard for a series of exchanged questions and comments about the dual pursuit of making art alongside writing about art. (It’s clear, though, that Weissman’s primary pursuit is writing; Humphrey’s painting.)

What came across in the dialogue was the sense of someone not so much writing (reviews or critical essays) in a determined fashion (though a good deal of determination is certainly involved here), but making the writing ‘happen’ sometime after the encounter and intial response in a way not unlike the way the book was constructed – as an “organized wonderment”. But if the book was thus organized under an “umbrella of variety and levity”, Humphrey characterized the process of writing the individual reviews and essays as “painful.” “I truly hate it,” he flatly admitted. That his art writing – from his earliest work for Art Issues to the present – has always conveyed so much “wonderment” and so little pain is testimony to a great capacity for invention and extraordinary skill – qualities which, it could be said, are also found in his painting. Looking at the painting (and there were some good examples of Humphrey’s work in the rear gallery space), though, you see the evidence of a freer hand, a freshness and exuberance that need no coaxing or organization. When he is writing on assignment, Humphrey says, painting feels like a “truancy” – which may sum up the qualitative difference in freedom and invention. Painting takes him to a place of his own – something either appropriated or entirely invented.

It was interesting that the two writers whose names came up – as influential or simply objects of admiration (for both Humphrey and Weissman) – were William Gass and Mary Gaitskill – interesting because I’ve read so little of either (and, incredibly, almost nothing of Gaitskill), but more importantly because it was hard for me to make a connection between them and Humphrey’s (or for that matter, Weissman’s) work, written or painted. The only Gass I’ve read has been some of his essays in The New York Review of Books (and possibly elsewhere) and a few stories in (I think) The New Yorker). Gass is obviously brilliant on so many levels and I’ve always wanted to read some of his novels, but is he really, as Humphrey put it, “the living incarnation of Gertrude Stein”? As someone who made a study of Stein at university (I wrote a thesis on Stein and Picasso) and read her in some depth, it’s hard to make a direct connection; but then I haven’t read Gass’s novels (though reviews I’ve read convey little of the sense of the kind of perceptual field available in Stein’s fiction and poetry). I haven’t read Gaitskill either; but obviously I’m aware of her work and I could easily see the affinities Humphrey might share with some of her work to date – especially as it’s expressed and packaged in Blind Handshake. “Mixed up love acts” seems to describe the kind of cross-pollination that takes shape between the art and essays of the book. It’s as if Humphrey were finally recognizing how his work as a painter and writer might dovetail in an enterprise that draws on both but takes him into a far broader, more encompassing cultural sphere. Humphrey draws his subjects – which include Lucian Freud, Amy Sillman, Mary Heilmann, Tony Oursler, Richard Prince and John Currin (and many more) – into loosely (but very perceptively) themed sections which include “Coupling Dramas”, “Unknowable Others,” “Collective Solitudes,” “Prosthetic Selves” and “Good Liars.” (Interesting that the aforementioned affinities they cite with Gass and Gaitskill seem to float up to me out of these section headings.)

It was funny watching David wrestle again with issues he has obviously addressed many times before and in considerable depth – but that again echoes a kind of circling (and occasionally annoying) non-judgmental quality we take from some of these reviews. But, as he said, he’s willing to accept the possibility that one might positively judge something on the same criteria as another (possibly himself) might reject it. Although Humphrey evinces a slightly edgy distrust of the kind of post-historical ‘anything-goes’ contemporary art world of the last several years, Blind Handshake (and, I would venture to say, most of Humphrey’s critical writing) manages to present a kind of overview of the on-going evolution of art and cultural criticism in the kind of post-canonical/post-historical context that has taken shape since Warhol. I’m not even sure what Humphrey meant by ‘blind handshake’ – but it is a kind of ‘blind handshake’ effect that transpires between the artwork and/or artist and the culture that we find ourselves addressing again and again as cultural and technology continually and sweepingly ‘refresh’ the perceptual ‘screen.’ It is liberating and unsettling in equal measure. Pour me another, David.

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