- ENROLL ASAP as ART classes can fill (and close) QUICKLY! — the early bird catches the worm ;-)
- Get all your required ART 100 level courses out of the way, pronto! It is also recommended that students take ART 125 before ART 126.
- Take no more than 3 studio or graphic design courses in one semester; aim to take at least two each semester.
- Remember that you may repeat FOR CREDIT all 400-level studio art courses; in GD, you may repeat 487 for credit. ART 391, Selected Topics in Art History, is repeatable for credit as well. Please see the attached course catalog for details.
- JUNIORS: Take Professional Practice, ART 392 during your junior year in the major. (By junior, I mean when you’re about 2/3rds- 3/4s through the Art/GD major, with several studio courses and the two 100-level art history courses under your belt.)
- SENIORS: If you’re planning on graduating during the 2015-2016 academic year, check with your art professor or advisor about which capstone course you need to take. For “general” art, you should take Critique Seminar, ART 497; for Graphic Design, you should take Design Portfolio, ART 487; for Art with Concentration, you need to register for Senior Studio, ART 493. (For ART 493, you will need to submit paperwork to me, since I’m leading the course this spring.
What Does It Mean to Be a Grown-Up Painter?
Isn’t it time we begin putting things in perspective? Ever since the term entered the vocabulary via Raphael Rubinstein’s article, “Provisional Painting,” in Art in America (May 2009), a lot of attention has been focused on paintings that look tossed off, unfinished, and casual, as if that alone were enough to make us grateful. According to Rubinstein:
At a certain moment, in a certain studio, it appears that great painting may be impossible, that painting of any kind may be impossible. Nonetheless, for whatever reasons pertaining to a particular painter at a particular time, painting must be done, must go on.
A growing number of younger artists (and a few who have been showing for longer) are entertaining the idea of impossibility in painting. This has led them to reject a sense of finish in their work, or to rely on acts of negation.
With the emphasis on “impossible” and “negation,” Rubinstein is suggesting that the painter no longer needs to think about making a great painting, but simply “must go on,” as the voice whispers at the end of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable.
This is how Peter Schjeldahl ended his recent New Yorker review of The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World at the Museum of Modern Art, New York: “Painting can bleed now, but it cannot heal.” According to Schjeldahl, “[…] painting has lost symbolic force and function in a culture of promiscuous knowledge and glutting information.”
These lamentations by Rubinstein and Schjeldahl — and there are many examples by other writers I could have given — about painting’s fallen status, its descent from Olympian greatness, remind me of people who preface everything with, “back in the good old days” or prattle on about how “you can’t paint like Rubens” anymore, as if that is what the world needed most.
It might be sad that no one and nothing can live up to these long-ago standards, but I am not going to start crying crocodile tears over what cannot be changed and may, in fact, have never even been true. Instead of being a professional mourner enumerating what painting can no longer do or hasn’t done, I think it is time to focus on what painting can do, and more importantly, has done.
This is where Merlin James, one of the best painters around, comes in. James was born in Cardiff, Wales, in 1960, and currently lives in Glasgow, Scotland. His exhibition, Genre Painting, is currently at Sikkema Jenkins (January 28 – March 7, 2015). Anyone interested in painting should go see it.
Modest in scale and done in acrylic, which he applies in so many ways, the paintings include still-life, landscapes, architecture and abstractions. These genre paintings are complemented by what James calls “frame paintings,” where he uses a stretcher, often securely held within a found frame, to make a shallow box whose interior armature (or stretcher bars) is visible through the semitransparent sheet of nylon or silk he has stretched over the bars, to create a picture plane. In the “frame paintings, James might paint on the surface or add a house-like structure made of pieces of wood behind the semitransparent gauzy material.
Although James works on a modest scale, and focuses on traditional subjects, he is a fiercely ambitious artist who can take a familiar, almost hackneyed subject — a plant on a table or a footbridge over a river — and by using muted colors and different viscosities of paint instill it with both a materiality and a sense of the ephemeral, which seem commemorative and mournful, special and ordinary, strange and curiously familiar. What makes the paintings all the more striking is that James doesn’t repeat himself, doesn’t become rhetorical. He is not going to rely on style to carry his work.
James doesn’t fall into the familiar art market camps being heavily promoted by curators and critics alike these days. He isn’t into copying, pastiche, faux improvisation, contempt, kitsch, irony, abstract lyricism, didacticism or literalism. There are no allusions to Abstract Expressionism in his work, no parodies of the gestural. He doesn’t pull back the canvas to simply show you that there is a stretcher behind it, which is to say he doesn’t come across as a teacher who underestimates the intelligence of his audience. James’ paintings are not platforms where gestures of contempt are deposited as some kind of meaningful residue. Such familiar negations strike me as proverbial outbursts of testosterone-fueled male adolescence. To his credit, James doesn’t want to be the latest manifestation of a male adolescent painter, a clichéd archetype that gained traction in the Neo-Expressionist ‘80s, with the rise of Julian Schnabel, and has not been thrown over because lots of people still find this sort of chest thumping entertaining. He is the only artist that can introduce whimsy into a work without devolving into the whimsical.
There are twenty-one paintings and “frame” paintings in the exhibition. By last count, at least six were my favorites. In the best works, James tests the limits of perception and its tenuous connection to language without devolving into affectation or didacticism, which is rather remarkable in this jargon-riddled age.
In “Red” (2013-14), the artist has stretched distressed plastic red netting over a bright white, stretched piece of cheap cloth. Other than his initials and the date in the lower right hand corner, it is hard to tell where the paint is deliberately applied and where it might have landed on this material grid by accident. By dissolving such familiar categories as objectivity and subjectivity, found and made, James advances the possibility that various levels of reality cannot be disentangled and analyzed without regard for the rest. Made from castaway materials, the modestly scaled “Red” does something that far larger pieces made on found surfaces often fail to do: it remains unpretentiousness and visually interesting.
In the “frame” painting, “Old Kiln” (2012-15), there is a little wooden, block-like structure, with a black smokestack mounted on top of the frame on the painting’s left side. A semitransparent material has been pulled over the stretcher bars, which fit tightly inside the stained frame. With the paint, it is sometimes hard to tell if it is applied to the gauzy surface or to the obverse side. They seem to be dried or stained passages of painting and something more — but what that is no one can say, and that is their staying power. The tiny kiln-like structure on top of the painting might be about change, and the bond between craft and art, but the statement does not comes across as heavy-handed. Merlin seems to be suggesting that isolation is necessary to creativity.
In this and other “frame” paintings, James assembles the material elements of a painting (stretcher bars, cloth-like material, and frame) without becoming reductive, didactic or literal. It is not an act of negation and it does not look tossed off. Rather, the opposite happens; we don’t see stripped- down forms, but a framed space that is both enclosed and vast. The semitransparent surfaces define a palpable atmospheric light (think Robert Ryman) that is evenly cast over a desolate realm. With a few pieces of constructed wood attached to the stretcher, James is able to evoke windows and cosmic spaces populated by a lone house. The desolation is fundamental, something we all share. We may have empathy for others, but the gauzy surface becomes a screen preventing us from reaching what is very close, but immensely distant.
In the “frame” painting, “Sunset” (2014), the sides of the black frame are bowed inward, the result of an unseen pressure. Formally speaking, James is committed to endowing everything in a “frame” painting with a function. James’ economy brings to mind what William Carlos Williams said about poems and machines:
There’s nothing sentimental about a machine […] A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words. When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem, I mean that there can be no part that is redundant.
Done on unbleached canvas, while leaving the bottom half of the painting untouched, “Abstraction” (2002-2015) hovers between being a brown cloth surface on which paint has been applied and a deep space terminating at a far wall. James’ ability to make a painting that slips through language, rendering obsolete such terms as legibility and illegibility, representation and abstraction, is one of the wonders of the show.
James seems to believe that painting is not about categorizing and possessing but about seeing and experiencing the inchoate, often disturbing feelings we face in the most ordinary of situations. He can reinvigorate a subject as stale as a full moon above a landscape and water. In “Silver Birch” (2014-15), he divides the composition into distinct planes that oscillate between flatness and space. A slightly curving silver birch rises up from a blue plane, dividing the painting into two distinct realms, which feel connected but separate. The paradoxes feel necessary rather than artificial, arising from the recognition that reality is a puzzle in which the pieces do not fit together, even when they do.
James likes to use muted colors, though there are enough exceptions in this exhibition to let the discerning viewer know that it is not a shtick. Everything seems to hover between form and dissolution, suggesting that reality is constantly slipping away. The level of specificity he attains in each painting surpasses mannerism and rhetoric, which are the limitations many painters, even good ones, never get past. James is much more than that. How much more he will become, I cannot venture at this time.
Keith Schweitzer of ART(inter) in conversation with artist Rebecca Morgan.
KS: I’d like to talk at length about your ceramic works. I’ve watched them develop over the years, and they’ve become increasingly interesting. But first let’s discuss your drawings, as they seem to be the very essence of all of your work. Would you say that is a fair statement?
RM: I feel that I identify most with drawing, and that it is absolutely the basis for all my work. It is an almost intangible, utter attraction. I love that you can get such variety and character out of line quality; you can say a lot with just a few hatches or economical decisions. My large, life-size graphite drawings suggest a tone and mood that I wouldn’t necessarily be able to convey in a painting. I draw every day, whether it is a drawing with ink or a drawing with a stylus on my phone; all of the work that I do finds its source in drawing. My phone also serves as a sketchbook: I make small cartoons and post them on Instagram. Cartooning is a break from the formal thoroughness that the large graphite drawings and the substantial paintings demand.
All my paintings are realized out of drawings. First I make an elaborate and thorough graphite underdrawing on a smooth gessoed wood panel. I then paint over the graphite, but in thin layers with glaze so that the drawing is still visible. Unless I build the paint up it’s rarely obliterated, so the viewer is able to see the drawing underneath the painting. I love to be able to see the drawing working in tandem with the paint, giving the subject dimension and volume in a direct way.
KS: If I were to describe your style of work, in words, to someone visually unfamiliar with it, I think they’d have a difficult time imagining how astonishingly successful the works actually are. There’s a heavy dose of cartooning, a pinch of Flemish Baroque, and a heaping spoonful of what I can only describe as Rebecca Morgan. How do you describe your work and what’s the secret recipe?
RM: There’s no secret recipe, but several themes define all of my work.
Comedy is very important to me. I’m obsessed with it in almost all its incarnations. I don’t have an agenda or formula for making something funny or whimsical; I mostly make humorous characters for my own relief. Real life is messy and abject. Real life isn’t usually slick, easy, or aesthetically beautiful, but comedy softens the blow. There are so many horrific things in the world that sometimes the only way I can cope with them is to make a funny cartoon.
Growing up in rural Pennsylvania has always been the foundation of my aesthetic. I’ve always admired small town fun, traditions, and slowness, and I take pride in being a country girl. A lot of the images I make include props from my upbringing: hunting camps, blue ribbons from the fair, hunting dogs, the deep woods, the downed dead buck—the list of archetypes goes on. Aesthetically, for me, there wasn’t much not to love.
Though I take great pride in my roots and have reverence for the country that inspires me, in a lot of ways it’s constricting. Central Pennsylvania is very conservative, and its isolation made it pretty difficult to come across new things or pursue my wide-ranging interests. I always hoped I would get to live in New York, but when I finally attended graduate school at Pratt Institute I found myself situated liminally between the romanticism of the urban and the romanticism of the rural. I want my work to enact this dialectic between a defense and a critique of rural living, and everything that I make comes out of the bittersweet discomfort I feel as I navigate between these two zones.
I feel very close to the Old Masters, particularly Northern Renaissance and Flemish genre painters such as Frans Hals, Peter Rubens, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and Adrien Brouwer. I like how the artists of the Northern Renaissance celebrated aspects of everyday life, commemorating the bourgeoisie and honoring the gritty rural folk. They embody a sense of timelessness, weirdness, cheekiness and reverence for the common man that I hope to emulate in my own work. I am also very inspired by American folk art and outsider art, especially Pennsylvania Dutch crafts, historical ephemera, and early American ceramics. At the same time, cartooning and the grotesque have always been profoundly important to me. The ‘low art’ of MAD Magazine (artists like Al Jaffee, Harvey Kurtzman, Don Martin, and Jack Davis) was deeply influential to me at a very young age. I loved how they could present brutal satirical truth in a playful, sick, and elegant way. Robert Crumb might be one of the highest gods in my pantheon. I feel very close to Crumb in that he put his diaristic, self-loathing, perverted personal imagery to the fore, exploring carnal indulgence and detailing his highs and lows in lurid, intimate accounts. He is an incredible draftsman and makes great decisions; I love the way his vernacular imagery complements his formal execution. I am very attracted to both that Old Master touch and outsider sensibilities, and I have tried to nestle myself between them.
I want to communicate the rawness of our everyday lives – the tender and maybe grotesque moments of our private existence made public. I deeply value brutal truths and being genuine; I think there is a real freedom when you expose what’s not socially acceptable, owning and reclaiming it. I am interested in bad behavior and giving in to desire and Dionysian pursuits. I like the idea of my characters blissfully doing whatever they want—pleasure-seeking, wild men and women indulging in their every desire. Like my characters, I am a pleasure-seeker in all arenas. Food, relationships, humor, living a life of ease: these things may not be a reality all of the time, but I fantasize a life of unrelenting pleasure—a personal utopia!
KS: Your characters, the subjects in your works, are beautiful and bletcherous at the same time. There is something very honest and innocent about them, but they are far from virtuous. They seem blissfully naive and uninhibited. Who are they?
RM: There is the expression in art: ‘paint or make what you know’. I know myself very well—in fact, I am hyperaware. I use myself as a diaristic model; even when the cartoons or figures are not outrightly me, they represent a veiled self-portrait. As a tween I had huge bushy eyebrows and a faint mustache, so it’s like a little homage to the awkward shit that ultimately defined me. I think comedy works in that way, too: making fun of yourself and telling the world your own shortcomings before anyone else can get to you first. The more you embrace your own flaws, the less ammunition others have against you. Be it emotional discomfort, feeling trapped between the urban and the rural, self-loathing, indifference or confidence, romance and lack thereof, or living in my childhood home in my Pennsylvania hometown, illustrating intimate scenes and scenarios of my life lets me reclaim power and ownership of those hard times and weird emotions. Humor is cathartic for me. Embracing the discomfort, flaws and oddity is a way to turn it into lightness. I think most people can identify with that, and hopefully it makes other people relate and laugh at themselves (and me) through the work. I am endlessly fascinated by humans; the body is so potent as a vessel to convey all kinds of narratives. This is why I am a figurative artist.
The face jugs, cartoons and paintings represent a kind of blissful ignorance: they’re totally fine with looking so hideous and awful; it’s of no consequence to them. In my mind, that empowers them. Though covered in acne, wrinkles, and blemishes, their confidence and contentment is the ultimate acceptance of self-love. These characters are blissfully unaware, unruly, wild and untamed. They live off the grid and free, unaffected by anyone or anything’s influence, and I’m very attracted to that concept. I am always interested in the anti-hero, the underdog, the unlikely winner. I root for them and I see a lot of myself in them.
The art world can be a very serious place, and in that context sometimes it simply feels good to make a cartoon Mountain Man vomiting. To make others feel good is one of the greatest responses I could elicit from an audience, offering repose from all the nuttiness out there. As artists and as people, we’re constantly in a cerebral, overthinking froth, and very often I just really wish I could indulge in this stereotype of absence.
KS: Now back to your ceramic works, the jugs. The history behind this form of pottery, which are more formally known as Ugly Face Jugs, shows influences from differing European and American time periods, much like your own work overall. They’re mostly associated with the American South, having been introduced here by African slaves and later adopted as a Southern Folk Art. What first interested you in this form of pottery? When did you first start creating them?
RM: Growing up, face jugs were a common image and presence in museums, homes, and antique stores, especially in the South, where I have spent some time. Slaves used face jugs as grave markers designed to scare and keep the devil away. If they broke while exposed to the elements, it meant the soul was restless, or wrestling with the devil. I always knew face jugs as personally crafted vessels used to store liquor; their features would frighten children so they would not to try to meddle with the contents. I think of my work as an extension of the face jug tradition, expounding on a familiar ‘art’ object from the country as an homage in my own visual vocabulary.
As a child, I was not exposed to fine art. But all around me I saw hex signs, antiques, handcrafted tchotchkes, utilitarian objects, and all sorts of unique ephemera which informed the aesthetic I eventually developed. The jugs reclaim that vernacular. To that I added my own personal language of mark-making, evoking the style of my cartoons.
I really view these as treasured objects, magical and highly revered. I absolutely created them with the idea that they personified an intangible reverence for the pastoral. When I think of them animated, they are right at home with the country spells, secrets, history and traditional storytelling of Early American tales and Appalachian mysticism. Though an ambiguous narrative lurks behind them, I think they are fundamentally utilitarian objects for people. Yet they are autonomous creatures as well, as if they’ve always just been sitting in the woods existing on their own. In a lot of ways, I feel like they don’t belong to anybody. That is putting a lot of narrative weight on them, but they definitely come from some weird intense place and enact some sort of story.
KS: I’ve observed, with enthusiasm, a clear evolution in your ceramics over time. I imagine that it is a fun format to work with. The earliest works seemed looser than your recent pieces. I see more of your drawings in the newest jugs, as if your flat works have leapt out into the physical world. There is a tremendous amount of detail now, and it seems that you’ve truly found yourself in this medium. How has this progression felt? What do you have in store for us?
RM: One of the things I like most about the ceramic work I am doing is that it doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, when it comes to my face jugs and sculptures, imperfections are welcome. Unlike my paintings or drawings, which often have to capture a specific mood or likeness, in this medium there is less pressure and need to be convincing. Over time, my jugs have become more detailed, reflecting the evolution of my cartoon style.
This summer was the first time I experimented with the firing process of raku, and it had a big impact on my work. Raku is a glazing process that leaves much of the results up to chance. The glazed piece is fired to 1800 degrees before being pulled out of the open kiln, exposed to oxygen, and immediately plunged into a metal bucket filled with newspaper or sawdust. The final piece will be metallic, rainbow, sfumato, matte or brilliantly glossy, depending on a multitude of factors including the glaze, technique, and how it reacted to the contents of the bucket. When I pulled out my first jugs it was an epiphany. Left to chance, there was so much individual variety in the surfaces. Raku is primordial; instead of choosing what color the jugs would be with commercial or studio glazes, for the most part the final result is entirely unto its own making. You can’t buy these surfaces in a bottle, and raku just felt so much more honest than using commercial glazes, closer to the heart of how I always envisioned the jugs. I have always created busts and figurines, and in the future I intend to concentrate more on non-jug sculptures. I also plan on highlighting the jugs as content in my two-dimensional works as well, creating new paintings and drawings that transform their meaning and context.
Keith Schweitzer is a New York City based arts organizer, curator and producer. He is Co-Founder/Director of The Lodge Gallery, located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He is also Director of Public Art for Fourth Arts Block, the nonprofit leadership organization for Manhattan’s officially designated Cultural District in the East Village. You can find him on Twitter as @Keith5chweitzer, and on Instagram as @pseudohaiku.
September 26, 2015–January 17, 2016
Fred Stonehouse’s paintings are instantly recognizable. Each caricature-cum-dreamscape is simultaneously maudlin, whimsical, shocking but distinctly Stonehouse-esque. Stonehouse’s work puzzles and intrigues and is not easy, but that is because his mind is like a big sponge wrapped in sticky flypaper. All manner of disparate people, places, artwork, literature, and experiences get stuck in his brain and are absorbed and tumbled around in his dreams. Then they find form in his paintings. The Promise of Distant Things is a major retrospective of Stonehouse’s work, taking visitors into the artist’s psyche and asking them to share their own surreal subconscious stories with the world.
September 26, 2015–January 17, 2016
Sofia Arnold, Kim Benson, Tom Berenz, Melissa Cooke, Ben Grant, Alex Jackson and Claire Stigliani. Seven very different artists who all have one thing in common—they studied with Fred Stonehouse at UW-Madison. None of their work remotely resembles Fred’s—as it should be. These are young artists who have developed their own styles and voices and are now successfully pursuing their art careers “out of Madison.” This exhibition brings them and their mentor under the same roof for the first time.
Meet the Artists
Thursday, October 22 | 6:30
Tom Berenz and Ben Grant discuss their work, their careers, and how they were influenced by their time spent under Stonehouse’s tutelage.