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Eaters of Flowers

Journal entry for 10 May 2010 | Link

Aquapocolypse Now

The weekend of May Day, a failed water main caused two million people in eastern Massachusetts, including Boston, to lose access to drinkable water, just in time for 87° weather. I'm used to this from Miami, when hurricanes would routinely disrupt access to water, drinkable or otherwise. To commemorate the event, I had planned to do a few drawings in ink and aquapocolypse pura, a series of unpotable works. The MWRA lifted the boil order soon thereafter, though, and testing revealed that the water would have been safe the whole time. That would have yanked the integrity out from under the project.

To escape said weather, we fled to Salem, which was further north and more coastal, hence cooler, and not under orders to boil the suddenly mysterious clear fluid emerging from the tap. This allowed us to meet up with artist, blogger, and force of nature Joanne Mattera, who splits her time between Salem and New York. I always enjoy conversing with Joanne. She's smart, and she knows the score. One of the topics of conversation was...

Why is Art Criticism So Genteel?

Joanne maintains, mostly correctly, that blogging has flattened the critical hierarchy. (It now looks more like a Christmas tree than one of the Great Pyramids.) So why is it necessary to keep on using that polite, removed tone we associate with it?

Critics and artists alike who have been working longer than a couple of years have witnessed the die-off of art criticism. Criticism in general, of course, is chained at the ankle to the sinking boulder of journalism, which is probably going to keep struggling along (by along, I mean downward) until an extinction-level event hits the dead-tree papers and frees up the advertising revenue for online efforts. (This isn't my idea. I got it from Douglas McLennan.) I would miss the papers in paper form, but their demographics have been consistently worsening for three decades and precipitously worsening for the last five years. This has made life impossible for critics. Even Jerry Saltz, in a February Facebook rant preserved by Nashville Critical, told one of his readers that he works four jobs and gives lectures to make ends meet. His agitation was palpable.

So I note with interest what's going in video game criticism. There's a guy named Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw, whose animations review a new game each week. People are rendered as geometric simplifications, non-player-characters as rotund, smallish devil icons, and they replay the game action with the help of photomontaged props and salty language delivered at frenzied pace. Regarding Splinter Cell: Conviction, Crowshaw had this to say: "If this series so far is a stream of urine, then Conviction is the last drop that goes down your leg." It all takes place against a yellow background, as if a pedestrian crossing sign had gone horribly wrong. It's hilarious, and aside from a bit of online Go, I'm not a gamer.

Hence even with the cartoon bloodshed and the carpet f-bombing, he accomplishes one of the high achievements of criticism—the drawing in of outsiders and providing them with a framework for comparison and evaluation. I might say the same about Penny Arcade by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, which has been implicitly or explicitly reviewing video games and gaming culture in webcomic form since 1998.

There's no scrounging around for teaching gigs for Croshaw, Holkins, or Krahulik. Croshaw contributes to multiple websites and recently published a novel. Holkins and Krahulik put on the Penny Arcade Expo, which last year drew more than sixty thousand visitors—twenty thousand more than Art Basel Miami Beach. When it came to light a couple of years ago that Christian Viveros-Fauné was simultaneously writing criticism for the Village Voice and managing two art fairs, the Voice canned him for the mere appearance of conflict of interest. Somehow gaming is strong enough to tolerate similar arrangements. It's as if the audience knows by feel that certain qualities make gaming worthwhile, and the equally commercial footing of all the participants doesn't privilege anyone when it comes to acquiring prestige or influencing taste. Which is the case. Meanwhile, back in the art world, there are no shared standards except at the level of the subgenre, and a complicated system of state subsidy, tax exemption, credentialism, intellectual fashions preserved cryogenically by tenure, and ethically corrosive collusions of public and private entities makes sure that no equivalent meritocracy will ever form.

Criticism is a futile exercise in a discipline with no widely shared mores, no common mechanism of evaluation by which better practitioners rise to prominence and worse ones sink to obscurity. If the prominent echelon is a giant put-up job, and I think a case could be made that it is, no criticism will affect it. I follow the work of Michael Paraskos, an art writer based in England and Cyprus, who recently penned a fine essay (PDF) excoriating the work of Angela de la Cruz at the Camden Arts Center.

...none of her tutors thought to talk her out of giving up, and no one counseled her on other possible career paths. The result was de la Cruz had enough self-awareness to realise she was incapable of making art, but insufficient guidance as to what she might do instead. And now the Camden Arts Center seems determined to pour further scorn on her by exhibiting the half-hearted attempts at art of someone who knew very early on she would never be an artist.

Not 48 hours later, it was announced that de la Cruz had been nominated for the Turner Prize. I wrote him to say that the situation reminded me of my consistently shabby treatment of the work of a certain Miami artist, every last bit of which was justified, but it did not prevent his inclusion in a Whitney Biennial. These artists will forever be able to boast of their respective participation in high-prestige exhibitions, thus inuring them to further criticism and reinforcing the walls of the echo chamber.

Art criticism is a pleasure for those of us who enjoy this sort of thing, but there's little to gain except the public display of intellectual power and aesthetic sensitivities. This has some ancillary benefits as one attempts entree into the gallery, museum, or publishing worlds, or literal entree into the museum, and consequently it calls for museum manners: inside voices, no swearing, and no pointing and guffawing. Thus I conclude that art criticism is genteel largely out of habit, and partly because because the public burnishing of one's intellectual chops calls for a certain decorum, without which the act is indistinguishable from the public venting of one's spleen. I'm not sure those are good enough reasons.

Maybe writing is no longer the ideal vehicle for art criticism. If we look for art-world equivalents of Croshaw or Penny Arcade, both in terms of hilarity and vitriol, we find the comics of EAGEAGEAG. Its author suffers from episodes of crippling self-criticism that prompt him to abandon projects, making his longtime readers wonder whether his blog is still online at any given moment. But no one has so succinctly and devastatingly summed up how Charlie Finch is unacceptable in every respect or the full extent of the funny business at the New Museum. EAGEAGEAG, you must continue. You are the future.

The Art of the End Run

Speaking of looking outside the art world for inspiration, Jane Siberry, a musician who played RISD when I was there twenty years ago, made the news recently.

After becoming disenchanted on her last tour, Siberry decided to arrange this one mainly through word of mouth. She's using her e-mail list to invite fans to host her in their homes or other small venues, and is paying her own way through ticket sales, thereby allowing her to travel to places she might never have been able to go if she relied on a conventional concert promoter. To keep costs down, she's also asking hosts to give her a bed for a night or two, and to cook her up a dinner before she goes on.

Siberry gave up all her possessions, including her name, in 2006. Probably no active creator has fewer illusions about stardom or the industry surrounding her art, and her circumventions of both have led to one of the more interesting careers in music. (Have a look at One More Color from 1985. This sounds like a sweet Eighties pop song, but the lyrics don't fit that mode at all. "Here, all we have here is sky/All the sky is is blue/All that blue is is one more color now." Here's something more recent.)

The Pleasures of April

One of the pleasures of April is the nasturtiums at the Gardner. We missed them last year, and made sure we caught them this time. Ingenious gardening coaxes them into a long cascade of orange and green, and they look lovely cascading down the walls of the courtyard. Nasturtium blossoms, which have a peppery taste in the neighborhood of a radish, also adorn the menu at the museum café, where we ate one of the most delicious meals I've had in the last year: a salad of sake-soaked scallops, upland cress, hummus, balled canteloupe, nasturtium petals, and a pesto-like basil aioli. Dessert, captured on Dawn's iPhone below, was a panna cotta glazed in a kumquat syrup and sprinkled with more nasturtium petals. On the first bite I exclaimed praise audible to nearby tables.

Now I have a question: how to get permission to paint in the courtyard, thus capturing those hanging nasturtiums as Alexander Pope did.

Also, thanks to some generous neighbors going out of town, we got to sample their farmshare organized through City Feed in Jamaica Plain. We thereby acquired a bag of fiddleheads, which are available locally for two weeks, tops, usually at considerable expense.

This starred in a meal consisting of tempeh in barbecue sauce, sauteed fiddleheads, and sweet potatoes mashed with garlic and ginger. Both diners raved.

Newbury Street

Newbury Street is the latest installment at The Moon Fell On Me. The long horizontal didn't seem like it was necessary for this one, so I edited the drawings a bit differently and styled the CSS to produce something akin to standard comics panels. Once I had done so, I saw that the text didn't look right, each block of words in its own panel, so I went back and applied them to the images directly. Although I've never thought of The Moon Fell On Me in other terms, its looking so much like comics took a little getting used to after relying on whitespace for so long.

Annie Bissett wrote to applaud the colors. Considering that the colors were burnt umber and Windsor & Newton Blue Black, I very much felt that I had done my job as a colorist.


There has always been a certain amount of controversy regarding the use of acrylic gesso as a size and primer for oil painting. The current opinion, gleaned by checking in on AMIEN and some Googling, is that ideally, oils should be oil all the way down, and acrylics should be acrylic all the way down. PVA is now recommended over rabbit skin glue as less hydroscopic and more amenable to conservation. Earlier this year, I noticed that Gamblin has started producing its own formulation of ground and PVA size, so I bought some and took them back to the studio to give them a try.

My method is to stretch a canvas firmly but not ferverously, stapled at intervals the width of four fingers, and size it with one careful, wet coat of PVA. Sizes are not supposed to have any appreciable thickness, so even a second coat is arguably overkill. This yanks out any wrinkles from the canvas and gives you a drum-tight surface. Over this goes two coats of Gamblin Ground, which is alkyd, titanium white, and barium sulfate, applied with a knife.

The results are far superior to acrylic gesso ground, regardless of conservation concerns. The oil ground is much more simpatico with the first application of oil paint, whereas thin oils tend to look dead on acrylic gesso. Scraped areas have a personality to them that I've never seen on an acrylic surface; I daresay that the colors are more intense. The results are worth waiting around for a week for your canvases to cure. At least we don't have to wait for six months like artists of the past using linseed oil grounds.

I've never before been all that happy with the results of my stretching my own canvases, but my skills in the matter seemed to have cured over time as well. Pulling on the canvas with the strength of a young man fresh out of school is not the way. Something will bend that ought not, either the squaring of the stretchers or the surface of the cloth. It is fine to leave a few wrinkles and slack spots on the initial stretch, and let the PVA finish the job.

Readings—New in the Library

Rodney's, sadly, is closing, leaving us to console ourselves with 50% off books from its stocks. One find was Mary Cassatt: The Color Prints, which quotes Pissaro in a letter to his son Lucien:

It is absolutely necessary, while what I saw yesterday at Miss Cassatt's is still fresh in my mind, to tell you about the [colored prints] she is to show at Durand-Ruel's at the same time as I. We open Saturday, the same day as the patriots, who, between the two of us, are going to be furious when they discover right next to their exhibition a show of rare and exquisite works. (The group now called [sic.] themselves the Societé de peintres-graveur français.)

You remember the effects that you strove for at Eragny? Well, Miss Cassatt has realized just such effects, and admirably: the at tone, subtle, delicate, without stains or smudges: adorably blues, fresh rose, etc.

Another was Goya: The Frescoes in San Antonio de la Florida in Madrid. In it the magnificently named Enrique Lafuente Ferrari writes:

André Malraux has summed up the vicissitudes of Goya's reputation in one of those brief, pregnant phrases that are his forte: Goya, talent célèbre, génie posthume. Goya's contemporaries saw in him an exceptionally talented artist, a maker of admirable portraits when he was in the mood, and a man of wayward fancies who, when he turned to large-scale compositions, handled them in a highly unorthodox manner, disregarding all the art canons of the day. But his recognition as a genius was, as Malraux puts it, "posthumous";not until our modern sensibility had been attuned, by way of Romanticism, to an appreciation of certain solitary and intriguing artists of the past, was it possible to acclaim Goya as a brilliant innovator, harbinger of a new aesthetic, born out his due time.

It had never occurred to me this kind of observation was once fresh and astute, which is true of all clichées. Kathleen Hudspeth posted a link on Facebook—pejoratively—to an article by Linda Yablonsky that praises Wade Guyton:

Installed on one wall of an enormous, chapel-like gallery at the Ludwig, for which it was custom-made, it is technically a two-dimensional sculpture printed on canvas to create the illusion of a painting. A mountainous, geometric painting where color is degraded and edges do not line up.


On a theoretical level, it addresses the limits of painting, or rather the limiting way most people think about art, which depends on illusion and its perception. And Guyton's big picture is all about that.

Yablonsky knows the mind of most people, or so she would have me believe. Given what goes on in the art world, I would guess that most people, if obliged to think about art as any one thing—all art, mind you—would think of it as the random output of a small group of human oddities. And if that's the majority, the median is a blasphemy constructed at the public's expense. Let Yablonsky go find out for a fact, if she's a journalist, which is not indicated by prose of this lassitude. And hear ye: now that the presumed good of challenging the public's presumed presumptions about art has celebrated its centenary, at least, it's time to move on to a new project.

The last acquisition from Rodney's was a hardcover, boxed monograph of Mantegna's Camera degli Sposi. The text is concerned with historical, interpretive, and technical minutiae, and written in the high academic style (a casual skim revealed three usages of "There can be no doubt that..."), but the plates are gorgeous—vibrant, and detailed enough to reveal every lick of color on the slake lime.

I also dropped in on the sale books downstairs at the Harvard Bookstore and picked up a copy of True Perception: The Path of Dharma Art by Chögyam Trungpa. Trungpa was a fine dharma teacher but his writing has been the victim of editing by disciples, in which careless, talky composition is allowed to survive unimproved in the interest of preserving the flavor of the original and refraining from contradicting the guru.

Dharma art is not so much that you should be artistic, that you should paint a lot of pictures, compose music, or at least play music. And it is not that you should develop some fruition of beauty.

I'm a sentient being and that excerpt is causing me to suffer. Nevertheless, some passages look promising.

The purpose of dharma art is to try to overcome aggression. According to the Buddhist vajrayana tradition, if your mind is preoccupied with aggression, you cannot function properly. On the other hand, if your mind is preoccupied with passion, there are possibilities. In fact, artistic talent is somewhat related to the level of passion, or heightened interest in the intriguing qualities of things. Inquisitiveness is precisely the opposite of aggression. You experience inquisitiveness when there's a sense of wanting to explore every corner and discover every possibility of the situation. You are so intrigued by what you've experienced, what you've seen, and what you've heard that you begin to forget your aggression.