Modernism and Postmodernism in Miami

by Darby Bannard



Unexpected Selections at Florida International University

Almost 30 years ago, in a book about museums and artists, I wrote that the mutual antagonism between newer and older forms of art-making, especially in our time, when they are so manifestly different, comes about only because both are born and raised in the same household - the museum/gallery complex - and that each form of visual art-making should readily find its own natural arena, audience and patronage and live peacefully together.

I still believe this, but obviously my timing was off. Today, like squabbling children who age but refuse to grow up, the installation artists and video-makers see the painters and sculptors as clueless and hopelessly retrograde, and the painters and sculptors see the installation artists and video-makers as trend-driven and hopelessly superficial. I guess the pie just isn't big enough to give everyone a good slice.

I am a painter and my interest is tied to painting. I have nothing against the other forms as such and I check them out often enough. The problem I have with them is not that they are new or different or radical (they no longer are, and I like new and different) but that they are so often dull, listless, silly, simple-minded and unoriginal, and so seldom infused with any spark of life. In our regular crits at UM we are using a text which has hundreds of "turn of the millennium" artists and large pictures of their work, mostly installation, video and photography, and the singular impression is the numbing similarity from one page to the next. It is just as uniform as the acres of Abstract Expressionism spewing forth out of the studios and into the art magazines 40 years ago, and just as uninteresting. Our culture now demands apparent novelty in art, but a demand for novelty in an atmosphere of conformity produces standardized freakishness, and that's what we get.

That the video/installation mode is the mainstream now, at the expense of other forms, for the aforementioned reasons, naturally puts me, as a painter, somewhat on the defensive. I like writing about painting, making it and being turned on by it - it's my life's work, after all. I wish I had the opportunity to see more painting that does turn me on around here. But any type of work will do, really. It just has to give me that charge I get from good art. It is disheartening to see exhibitions like "Unexpected Selections" at the Art Museum at FIU featuring work which - with one exception - elicit only a bemused wonderment that our culture will put stuff like this forward to be taken as art, much less actually amount to it. The long, excruciating explanatory labels only amplify the overwhelming aroma of self-parody which is the most singular characteristic of exhibits like this. A pedestal strewn with shopping bags, for example, has a label which explains that you may think you are looking at a bunch of shopping bags, but actually... and then you get several hundred words telling you what it is, actually. Of course what it is, actually, the label notwithstanding, is a bunch of shopping bags. I think it was Proust who said "Art with a theory is like a dress with the price tag left on it". Art must be beyond language. Otherwise, why have it? If shopping bags on a pedestal need a label to tell us why they are art they should go right back to being shopping bags. Then, at least, they would be useful. Defenders of silliness like this often invoke the old "they laughed at Cezanne" routine, which presumes that anyone who belittles "new art", no matter how preposterous, is ignorant and insensitive. Well, then, it may be time to be ignorant and insensitive. It is better than being a fool.

The exception is the video by Fischl & Weiss, shown in a small booth at the end point of the exhibit. One enters expecting little, having completed the dreary circuit around the galleries, but instead one is confronted by a delightful video of a "Rube Goldberg" contraption (if you know what that is you are dating yourself, as I am), a chain reaction of random objects rolling into, knocking over, falling down, burning and melting, slipping and sliding, jumping and twisting - an ingenious "domino" sequence devised and constructed with real complexity and wit, as if it had sucked the other rooms dry, assuming for itself all the available imagination and inventiveness one naturally asks from art.

Bofill-Fernandez, Ware and Bethea at Dorsch Gallery

Painting has not gone away, of course. Quantitatively, worldwide, it remains by far the dominant mode of fixed-image visual art. Most of that is not "highbrow" art nor will it ever be. But "highbrow" art, museum art, serious art or whatever you wish to call it, is still practiced by talented painters everywhere, and some of them are making very good art indeed. And there are some good ones right here in Miami, painters who believe in the medium and work with an informed appreciation of and influence from the great painting of the past. The irony of their situation would be amusing if it were not so unfortunate. The supposedly "conservative" nature of the art they make opposes them to an "avant-garde" which is, in fact, the mainstream by now, so the choice they make by being "just painters" puts them precisely in the position of the avant-garde artists of 50 or100 years ago: working against the mainstream in circumstances of neglect and isolation, supported primarily by a few friends and an unpopular belief in the validity of the kind of art they do. And now they are deprived even of the customary amenity of fist-shaking rebellion against bourgeois conformity in art, an attitude which, in the past, brought the best artists together for mutual support. Talent needs pressure to become genius, and the pressure must come from working against and learning from other talent in close quarters.

Furthermore, they do not get shown much, and when they do, they don't get written about. Our daily newspaper gives us very meager coverage of all visual art and the little we get of painting seems hesitant and chosen for the wrong reasons, not really about the art but about the newsworthyness of the artist or overtones of political correctness in the art, and the extent of that coverage is usually in inverse proportion to the quality of the art it features. So the modicum of straightforward good painting that does get shown goes pretty much unnoticed.

There are oases here and there. I have written before on this page about Brook Dorsch, who in his spare time runs one of the most interesting galleries in Miami. I don't care for some of the things he shows, but, unlike most other galleries in town, he does pay attention to good, straightforward "modernist" (if you will) painting, painting that presents itself as such, without self-conscious excuses or explanatory labels, painting which does not apologize for it's evolved craft and it's ambition for esthetic excellence, painting by artists more preoccupied with making art than with "being artists". I have not been uncritical of these artists, but this criticism presupposes that their work is interesting enough to criticize, that It is so much better than most else out there that it becomes a challenge to write about it.

That is the case with three artists who have been shown before at Dorsch and have recently been shown again: Ramon Fernandez-Bofill, Kerry Ware and George Bethea.

In a previous show at Dorsch Fernandez-Bofill showed vertical paintings with an evident energy of application which seemed too constrained by both the format and the repeated patterning of the composition. The new pictures are smaller and less elongated and they also use formal repetition - irregular loops and scrolls for the most part - but it is less regular, and, more important, it breaks back and forth between enclosure of form and free-wheeling line so that forms are activated rather than confined. The consequent increase in airiness and depth illusion, though slight, does much to accommodate the rich surface provided by the relatively dense, pasty pigment, the odd, unpredictable medium-value colors and the nice variety of transparency. The effect is something like pieces of old plastic toys partially melted and stirred around with a degree of thoughtful impatience. The vitality of the application and the rich surface variety are in competition, and I expect his painting will go one way or the other in the future - more fruitfully toward color and surface, I think; the color is too odd and original to subdue, and it has gotten better, especially when whites and strong value contrasts are at work. Either way I certainly look forward to more, and I have no doubt there will be more.

Kerry Ware likes to make a point of his identification with Modernism; in a current show at Dorsch he has painted the word in large letters high on the wall above his paintings. I'm not sure Modernism is something that is clear-cut enough to pledge allegiance to but if it is it certainly needs defending, and it is always good to see a sincere and principled stand of any kind in the art business.

Ware's pictures are typically quite small, with close value, low-saturation color, soft in edge and surface. The best of them have just enough detail to focus an overall atmospheric effect. On a larger scale this approach can transform, as we can see, say, in the work of Turner, Rothko, or late Monet, from a suggestion of personal intimacy to a perception of infused spirituality. Ware's new pictures are larger than before and retain softness and subtle color but have become more topographic, that is, less atmospheric overall and more divided into discrete sections. This means that the delicate suggestiveness is served up in relatively opaque and regular painted areas which occasionally end up dry and washed-out because they are not enlivened by a simultaneous increase in definition, surface/size variety or heightening of color. In art one thing requests or resists another, and every change, however small, alters the needs of the whole. Good as these pictures are, they risk placing the quality of subtlety into territory where it becomes merely inert, and the best of them are the ones in which there is the most space that one would refer to as "open", where the areas tend least to jigsaw into abutting segments. It appears that Ware either must open his larger pictures to some kind of overall atmospheric uniformity or find a way to make the topography come alive with color.

George Bethea's painting shares with Ware's a penchant for dissolving detail but here the detail is derived from something seen rather than invented, and particular colors are more broken into granular bits and therefore less tightly affiliated with the areas they occupy. he works in series from some commonplace spot, like the Impressionists he admires; two represented here, for example, are "Landscape with Blue House" and "View from Porch" The motifs are quote thoroughly abstracted, the features engulfed and largely obliterated by small Impressionistic touches of paint built into clouds of white and off-white with strong contrasting irregular patches of tints and shades of ultramarine, yellow-green and touches of ochre and sienna, with one or two features of a house or tree whispering that we are looking at a landscape. The sense of color and format is unerring.

There is also a set of still life drawings, different in subject but closely related in style and feeling to the paintings. As in the paintings, the picture surface is flooded with white, here the white of the paper rather than paint, of course, interrupted by casual marks, usually very soft and apparently hesitant, almost diffident, accompanied by sharper and darker stabs and cuts of line, coalescing, for example, into a delicate image of a centrally placed dish of fruit. The feeling in the drawings is as if fragments of charcoal or crayon had conspired to slowly gather into representation, while the paintings feel as if the representation has been gently muffled by a blurring fog of colored paint.

Bethea's theme, as set out in his statement, is "Looking into Nature: Seeing before Knowing". He takes to an extreme the Impressionist approach to reality, that one only looks and records and paints what one sees and, certainly in his case, as one sees. The attitude is reflected in the work, in the frank beauty of it, and in the refusal to impose drama and story-telling. This attitude may seem passive, but it is, in fact, peculiarly enabling, as it was for the Impressionists, a necessary renunciation of ego in which keeps the artist out of the way of the art, freeing him from the crippling responsibility of dwelling on or forcing anticipated results. In Bethea's hands the painting simply grows. It accumulates, like snow falling on the ground.

I take Bethea to task sometimes for working too far within his ambition. He has made some dynamite pictures in the past, large, dramatic knockout paintings of unchecked originality. But he is one of those rare artists who lives to paint; that's all he really wants to do. If he is that serious about it - and he is as serious about making art as anyone I know down here - it is best to leave him be and see what happens.

Posted November 30, 2002

© Darby Bannard, 2002



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