Critical Notes

by Darby Bannard



Making Art in Miami at MoCA

Most people are not aware that it is a common practice for museums to rent exhibitions from another museum or from an exhibition professional. This is not a bad thing; it saves a museum a lot of time and money and can bring in something good they hadn't the resources for in the first place. But curating is what serious museums do and museums who originate exhibitions are the ones taken seriously by museum professionals whether the public knows the difference or not. I doubt the Miami art public fully understands or appreciates what Bonnie Clearwater and the Miami Museum of Contemporary Art, or MoCA, have accomplished in the last few years in this regard. You may or may not care for the concept or the content of their shows but it looks to me as if MoCA is the only place in town making an all-out effort to bring us real self-generated, well-curated exhibitions of recent art.

Two exhibitions stand in evidence: Making Art in Miami: Travels in Hyperreality and Mythic Proportions: Painting in the 1980s. I have a lot of problems with the art in these shows but they are shows which should be seen because they are well-organized by the museum itself, have a point of view, reflect (or try to create) history and have well-produced (and, in the case of the 80s show, very expensive) catalogs. Of the two, the 80s show is more interesting because the art is more vigorous and ambitious.

Making Art in Miami is, in essence, an attempt to patch together a group of younger artists, apparently well aquainted with one another, working in mainstream postmodernism, much of it installation, with the "subtext" that because young artists in Miami are doing what artists in New York (and everywhere else) are doing Miami should be on the Big Art Map, and, indeed, there has been some attention from the national and big city media. The art itself is sweet and inoffensive (also not a bad thing; there's quite enough stagey grit and gore around these days). As Ms. Clearwater says in the catalog, the work displays a sensuous, subtropical Miamian "experiential stimulation" as compared to the sturm und drang we see in New York and London. Nothing in the exhibit jumps out qualitywise (Wes Charles's carved bowling balls would were it not for the gratuitous "environment" surrounding them). In fact, despite extreme differences of medium and material from piece to piece, the exhibit is strikingly uniform in feeling. That such nominal variety can evoke such consistency of effect is why art always carries the look of its time and it is one of the prevailing mysteries of style.

My specific criticism, apart from the overall insipidness and lack of dynamic coherence of much of the work, is that a lot of it is incompletely thought through and worked out. There's an evident carelessness which, although quite consistent with the de-emphasis on value judgement implicit in Postmodernist thought, is not at all in sync with the exacting reflective judgement necessary for artmaking. Time after time I found myself thinking I could do better: a plastic curtain should not have overlaps; poor painting skills should suggest that an artist do something else; a fade around a photo should relate to the subject matter; it should be clear what the viewer is supposed to look at, and so forth. If I can improve a work of art on its own terms when I don't even work in those terms in my own art there's something wrong. I want art to knock me out, not ask for repairs.

Mythic Proportions at MoCA

The subsequent show at MoCA, of 1980's painting, is quite another matter. In terms of the painting which came strongly to the publlc eye the 80's is one of those decades, like the 40s, 50s and 60s, which include in their span a kind of art identified with the time. In the case of "new expressionism," as it came to be called, it can be said to have begun with Julian Schnabel's show in 1979 and end with the general financial problems in the economy and consequent sell-off in the art market around 1990. As the 60s turned into the 70s, although very good art was being made, there appeared to be no dominant "nameable" style or trend like Abstract Expressionism or Pop. There was installation, protest art, body art, earthworks and so forth but the process seemed one of dispersal rather than cohesion. In many ways the 70s was a decade of bumbling spiritlessness, a time of Watergate, fuel shortages, inflation and Jimmy Carter. The large, ambitious expressionist ("brash" is a favorite adjective) painting of the artists we see here was a reaction to that and struck a chord in an art public weary of rarification, anti-everything, irony, theory and "issues" - a public, in short, longing for the heroics, even if leavened by postmodernist mind games, of Abstract Expressionism. They wanted something to buy and look at, not think about. And I can't blame them. "Neo-expressionism" blasted into the scene and had a good run. The paintings got very expensive very fast and the art press went all out. It ended dramatically, as these things will; by the 90s there were quite a few beached whales and a few that sustained or recovered their market. Most of the artists are alive and well and still painting.

That the Neo-expressionist painting of the 80s is now in disfavor may well have been part of a MoCA strategy; it is easier to mount a comprehensive exhibition when the principals are needy, after all, and there is much to be said for showing interesting unpopular art intelligently and comprehensively. These are the virtues of the exhibition. The catch is that most of these artists, for all their boldness and bravado and ambition, are not very good, and many of them have chosen to make work which exposes, rather than hides, their weaknesses.

The crusade against craft, technique and standards in the name of "freedom" and "openness" which has worked its way up through the art of this century (and which is a progenitor of the now institutionalized relativitism of postmodernism) manifested in the 80s as "bad" painting - "bad," of course, meaning not really bad but free of all that nasty "taste" and "craft" which stood in the way of genius and impeded its recognition. Of course by then nothing could be "bad" any more; every change in art for the last 100 years has seen "bad"turn into "great." Even the art public was onto it. In fact "bad," for these artists, was an effective avant-gardist cover for what was really a move onto the retro (and pleasingly familiar) art form of painting, and it went over big time. But, sad to say, art still has its nasty demands, and doing "bad" right, as it turned out, is just as tricky and difficult as old-time craft. If you don't know how to do it, "bad" is just plain bad.

An example: paintings by Basquiat and Baselitz hang close enough together for comparison. Basquat is a "bad" painter; his figures and letters are scrawled with straight-from-the-can flat colors and have an aura of halluncinatory childishness. There is no attempt to paint "well," no concessions, not even street-graffitti polish. Baselitz, on the other hand, looks like an artist who went to school. His paintings are full of hot licks out of AE and Cobra and German Expressionism. Nothing wrong with that. The problem is that Basquiat had talent and Baselitz doesn't. There's no hiding it. Basquiat was not a genius, but his pictures are set up well and have power, sparkle and flair. (Judging from this show only, he and Kiefer are the best painters in it.) Baselitz just doesn't have it. One of the paintings (used for publicity for some reason) is so bad (not "bad") it never should have left the studio. Baselitz - and Salle and Fischl and others - don't understand that if your skills are weak it is deadly to try to compete with the great painters of the previous generation on their terms, and positively suicidal to try to paint like the old masters (those fish in Salle's Bryon painting! Good grief!). "Bad" doesn't work if you do that. It is better, easier and, in the long run, safer, to cop out with geometry (Halley), cartoons (Scharf), one-liners (Wool), appropriation (Levine), gigantism (Schnabel) or any of the other handy gimmicks available to artists now. Recognize your limits and make a virtue of them, like Warhol did. Don't put yourself on the firing line with a popgun.

Jordan Massengale and Ramon Fernandez-Bofill at Dorsch Gallery

At the Dorsch Gallery there's an interesting side issue to the 80s show. I heard from someone that Jordan Massengale was "selling out" by painting "trendy pictures for collectors," but when I saw the show it was obvious that if this was Massengale's intention (and I have no real reason to think it was) then he was making the wrong move, because the paintings, if anything, were cousins to the 80s work at MoCA, and, I would assume, just as susceptible to the perception that they are out of fashion. They are all about the same size - about six feet square - and hang nicely around the walls of the back gallery, facing several of his excellent expressionist drawings. The subject matter is singular and centered, and rendered in a surreal comic-book style - violent, extreme and colorful - not unlike what one could see in the galleries in New york in the 80s. I heard people say they were put off by the subject matter. I can understand that; some of it is pretty awful. But as paintings they were all of a piece; the subject matter is quite consistent with the rendering, and the pictures, likeable or not, had real visual integrity and the occasional bravura charge one associates with mastery. Massengale has talent and it shows here as it has not in any other work I have seen of his. What he seems to lack, if I can put it this baldly, is seriousness. He is too good for his own good. When he decides to bear down and work it out we will see some real stuff from him, but to do that he has to want to do it, and maybe he doesn't. With his talent he can get away with anything as long as he wants to.

The new Dorsch space is as cavernous as the old one was confining, and this seems to be having an effect on the artists who show there. Kerry Ware made his first large work in years, Massengale jumped up in size and ambition and Kyle Trowbridge's large deadpan installations (which should have been in the Miami show at MoCA) would not have worked at all on the old space. Ramon Fernandez-Bofill's vertical pictures, shown at the same time as Massengale, are not significantly larger than before but there were a lot of them and they have gotten much better. There are touches here and there - such as a slash of white in one of the Eggun paintings - that betray a real talent which may be supressed by his rather uptight procedure of repetitive patterning and overlay. As an artist who has wrestled with his own self-generated limitations for years I would advise him to find some way - any way - to take his talent off the leash and let it run.

Miriam Schapiro at the Lowe Museum

The Miriam Schapiro show at the Lowe Museum is one of the rented kind, which, again, takes nothing away from it in principle. Ten years ago, after Ira Licht left the Lowe, before MoCA started, before MAM became a collecting museum, and before Dahlia Morgan's ambitious programming began at FIU, the Lowe museum had a real shot at becoming the premier showing and collecting museum in South Florida (along with the Fort Lauderdale Art Museum, which had just hired Ken Moffett to put it back on track). They were so advised, but for some reason they backed off, and the opportunity passed to others to exploit. There are few, if any, large curated exhibitions at the Lowe, and the rented ones have an unfortunate bias for a kind of expensive tchotchke: Faberge, silver, glass, Russian Imperial Porcelain, Princess Diana's evening gowns and a current small exhibit of perfectly hideous Dali sculpture which forms a gauntlet one is forced to pass through on the way to the Schapiro show.

Schapiro is one of our current culture heros. I am told she has people falling all over themselves to write about her and give her awards and shows and honorary degrees. I assume this is for her declared feminism (she makes "femmages" and the like) because the art itself is pretty grim. This is is a retrospective of about 40 years of work. The career dutifully reflects the times it went through: Abstract Expressionist in the 50s, Hard-edge in the 60s, Pattern in the 70s, Neoexpressionist in the 80s. There is a "Warhol" multiple image picture and several portraits of Frieda Kahlo surrounded by gobs of stuff. Now she is into feminism and issue art, using doilies and lace and other "woman-related" materials.

She is not a particularly good painter. The brush is awkward and the color harsh and jarring, in contrast to the "soft" materials and avowed message. There are some nice technical touches in some of the recent pictures, such as masking to confine pattern within an area, but these are lost in the welter of effect. And there are a few fairly good pictures: the early transitional (AE to hard-edge, ca. 1960) painting in the front room isn't bad, and there are a couple of later pictures which are boldly designed. The "femmages," whatever their meanings and "larger"implications, are not interesting as art. And I am puzzled by the equation of "womanly" materials with feminism. How does that work? I thought feminism was an effort (which I find altogether admirable, by the way), by women and sympathetic men, to put women on an equal personal and professional footing with men. Doesn't the use of lace and doilies just point right back to woman-as-domestic? And if the idea is to raise the art status of lace and doilies, why shoehorn them right into the male-created, male-dominated form of modernist artmaking? I don't get it. A vastly superior woman artist - Helen Frankenthaler - who simply went out and beat the boys at their own game with nothing but talent and paint, gets admiration and grudging respect, but she is certainly not the icon of feminism Schapiro is. But then Frankenthaler is tough and uncompromising and doesn't give a damn and Shapiro, I understand, is sweet and grandmotherly and loves the family feeling of it all. Too bad she is not a better artist.

Posted March 28, 2001

© Darby Bannard, 2001-2002



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