Everywhere a Sign
A wag once defined philosophy as unintelligible answers to insoluble problems. Alas, contemporary art can too often be defined as semi-intelligible answers to questions that are simply not worth asking.
Take, for example, the art world's preoccupation with French eggheads and "simulacra." At the risk of getting metaphysical, the supposed primacy of simulacra is a central tenet of art-think today. (For those of us lucky enough to have been educated in the dark ages, before the publication of Jean Baudrillard's trendy and obtuse theorizing, "simulacra" can be read as "images" or "signs.") Basically, the theory goes, reality has been replaced by a world of signs and images, creating a phony Disneyland reality from which no modern man can escape.
This five-dollar concept turns out to be a sort of intellectual WD-40, an all-purpose answer to almost any problem. It is also a handy rationalization and even, it increasingly seems, a set of instructions. For a whole bunch of stated reasons, ranging from Baudrillard to art history's reliance upon slides to the delicacy of certain masterpieces to the difficulty of installing, say, "Spiral Jetty" in a museum, reproductions rule. Originals, in the sense of the semipermanent unique work on canvas or (heaven forbid) in marble, are out; photos of "happenings" and impermanent art, like take-one-with-you installations of candy on the floor, are in. The only sort of originality that counts is the small, usually petty rebellion, the creation of a categorical hybrid: the sculpture that hangs on the wall or better yet disappears, the painting that breaks free from the prison of canvas and frame and loiters on the floor. These small revolutions are then documented and endlessly reproduced, and the reproductions celebrated as somehow more relevant, more authentic, more honest, than the original, one-of-a-kind work of art. The more provocative or disingenuous even argue that copies are more powerful than originals.
In this way and a half-dozen others, the paintings of Terrell James, on view at Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art, are a definite throwback. James, a Houston-based artist, produces etchings, drawings and stubbornly old-fashioned easel painting, and reproductions do her work no justice. The majority of it is imageless, full of cloudlike shapes and muted colors punctuated with bold, even shockingly colored squiggles; think Kandinsky's "Improvisations" by way of Twombly, with an occasional dash of Pollock.
James' dealer explains that the work "springs from an intense experience of the light and atmosphere of the coastal region of Texas." The paintings and works on paper do strike unusual color notes, utilizing off-tones and subtle, sophisticated combinations, often side by side. The most compelling painting, "Red August," is just what the title implies: "The dancing pattern of the sunlight was coming in from the west," the painter recalls in an interview, "as the [August] day was ending, and I just started recording it with my brush...Then, at the same time, right across the room on the table, were these clay forms, and I began drawing them into the painting." The resulting canvas contains an intense and very personal expressiveness, the sort of semiconscious stenography advocated most recently by Pollock and Rothko. In short, this is work far from the mainstream of current art vogues, for James is not someone restlessly seeking novelty of means and Xeroxing the results. Her originality is traditional, rooted in the personal, in the peculiar voice, thoughts, emotions and experiences of an individual, and in the one-time, one-of-a-kind expression of a moment. She is, in short, that most endangered of beasts: a contemporary romantic.
An adjacent gallery also displays a second, more experimental body of James' work: a series of metal plates in simple geometric shapes, treated with acids. This work is more of the moment and also more run-of-the-mill, utilizing nontraditional materials and forms to create another categorical hybrid. It is handsome work, mildly interesting and ultimately empty. Both the artist and the gallery suggest these works evoke landscape, and they do--though the landscape is less that of Big Bend than of the pricey Texas spec house, decked out in Walker-Zanger slates. Like all of James' work, however, it has the virtue of being simple and sincere, and those who advocate simplicity and sincerity as the primary values in art will no doubt admire it. And others of us simply bored to tears with the faux profundity of most contemporary art will find, if nothing else, welcome summertime relief.
Given contemporary art's wholesale appropriation of the means of photography, it seems odd to realize that "art photography" is still something of an oxymoron. While photographers out to document disasters often produce great art, shutterbugs yearning to create art usually produce disaster instead. Two largely forgotten photographers, part of an idiosyncratic show of new acquisitions at Photographs Do Not Bend, are exceptions to this rule. The first, William Rittase, was born in Philadelphia in 1894. Little else is known of his life or work until the Depression, when he ended up on the staff of Henry Luce's Fortune magazine, which in those days featured work by writers, journalists and photographers such as Rittase, James Agee, Walker Evans and Margaret Bourke-White.
Rittase's photographs celebrating Depression-era workers and industry are subtly deceptive. At first glance, the work is stylish and Sheeleresque, all ground-level views and sharp, oblique angles, looking up at industry literally as well as figuratively. But what you're actually seeing are highly manipulated images having little to do with "reality." Those perfect cotton-candy clouds against which the industrial shovel stands out? Sheer illusion; the exact same clouds reappear over and again in Rittase's work. His art is the product of another great piece of machinery, the enlarger. By combining prints and using photograms, he turned reality into abstraction, and the rarest form of abstraction, at that: interesting abstraction.
The other small miracle in this show consists of two photographs by Carlotta Corpron. From the '30s until the late '60s, Corpron taught art history, design and photography at, of all places, Texas Woman's University. For a brief period during the '40s, she worked as an assistant for the famous art photographer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy; still later she worked with Moholy-Nagy's associate, the painter, designer, photographer and theorist Gyorgy Kepes, whom Corpron once described as "the only influence on my work."
No less important a figure than Alfred Stieglitz once said that Corpron's photographs "changed the way he saw the world." Unfortunately, Stieglitz died the next year, and so Corpron remained virtually undiscovered. The two photographs at PDNB are seminal works that literally define phases of her experiments with light and form. Both are sensuous pictures in which everyday objects take on an abstract, even surreal quality. The first and most handsome, "Light Follows Form," examines the effect of light filtered through venetian blinds on undulating surfaces. The second, "Eggs Reflected and Multiplied," is from her "space compositions" series, a group of works devoted to investigating how light creates illusions of depth. The title pretty well sums up the subject of this work, which she considered among her best--which, for her, meant most original--work.
Dallas photographer Jin-Ha Huang's work, now part of a group show at Mulcahy Modern Gallery, is very much in the spirit of Corpron's experiments with light. Huang, at twentysomething a baby artist, does totally abstract photos of--well, what? Blurred water droplets on some unidentifiable surface, or clouds, or maybe some distant galaxy. The quality that saves Huang's work from the slag heap of artsy-fartsy abstract photographic meditations on who-knows-what is her tones. The work is printed on aluminum, and the results are luscious. It will be interesting to see whether she can marry interesting subject matter to this promising medium.
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