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And You May Find Yourself Living In a Shotgun Shack

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[Ed. note: The artist Richard Patterson often writes out his thoughts in a kind of meditative letter form to various friends. Also, Adam Curtis is a BAFTA-winning cultural theorist/BBC documentary maker. Also, Patterson is from England, hence the spellings.]

Here is a response to Peter Simek’s Howard Beale-style round-up of 2014, which I liked.

But first, or last:

The brilliant British cultural critic and documentarist, Adam Curtis as featured in the Guardian and interviewed in The New Statesman. Required reading. He talks about “static culture” and “zombie culture”.

He talks about music, art, journalism and politics and wants to make a new film about the relationship between entertainment and power.

Curtis expounds upon the deep, deep conservatism that our culture seems trapped in. So Dallas is not alone. It also echoes some of my statements over the last few years, such as: are Dallas hipsters Republican (conservatives)? Does Dallas have a resonant culture? Discuss. Etc.

I just saw the 1980s show at Fort Worth Modern with Christina [Rees, of Glasstire]—I only went out of guilt and it was the last day. Couldn’t stand it, except, interestingly, I thought the women in the show were far better than the men. The only memorable work in fact was female—Cindy Sherman in particular, but also Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, Nan Goldin and Laurie Anderson. The men were mostly vain posturing tossers with nothing to say. Had they not been painters, they could have been Dallas chefs. Julian Schnabel actually was one in fact; worked at The Grape on Greenville Avenue I believe.

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Allan McCollum

I didn’t even like the Basquiat very much, although the work on paper was good. There was a truly abysmal room with a Clemente, a Fischl and a Salle that was off-the-charts bad. Koons was dreadful, Prince was okay. Okay-ish. The only male artists I could respect at all were Allan McCollum, which I liked a lot, and interestingly, Peter Halley, for a resason that I’d struggle to explain. The rest of the show—the Haring, Kenny Scharf, etc.–was just tawdry, feckless shit from start to finish, and especially the Mary Boone painters in the painters-who-can’t-paint room. Oh, Schnabel looked quite good, in a nostalgic post-Tàpies/Twombly manner, but they were carefully chosen for this effect. A different selection could have made him look far worse. Big paintings on carpets and oily tarpaulins and stuff—credit where credit was due—saved by the crassness of the materials in a very U.S. sort of way. Not transcending the materials, as I’m sure Schnabel would hope, but indulging them.

But in general, it was awful. I’ve never seen the Modern look like such a junk shop. The 1980s was the beginning of what Adam Curtis would call “static culture.” It was mostly very self-conscious and almost completely devoid of talent. Where the women lacked talent they at least compensated with sincerity and a dedication to a cause.

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George Caleb Bingham

Then we went to the Amon Carter and saw the bizarre paintings of boat men by George Caleb Bingham. Seen retrospectively through the lens of John Currin and George Condo, these are hilarious, almost comedy paintings. American Whig proganda that strikes the oddest note precisely in between intense amateurism and academic professionalism. There is no grime, sweat or toil in the paintings, only polished cherubic cheeks and overly drawn characters; joyous moments that project from the studio into theatrical watery backdrops. Like china dolls at play. A very odd vision of old weird America that at the time was meant to be New Normal America. Propaganda not unlike the way the Henderson Art Project in Dallas a few years ago co-opted the idea of art to make an area seem more feasible and, well, “nice;” the kitschification of society through questionable art that Dallas frequently practices today, has its roots way back when. If—as the museum’s blurb is right—the way in which the waterways were used and controlled also affected the society around them, then Bingham was further trying to depict this in an idyllic, pastoral and goodly manner. There is an obvious parallel with Dallas’ highways, present and future, and their fragmentation of Dallas, and the way in which art is used in the city to pacify a bored and directionless public who would otherwise only have Arlington’s stadium and the Whole Food’s bar in Lakewood for solace and reflection. Bingham’s depiction of shiny-faced, squeaky clean boatmen looks not unlike Dallas’ art scene.

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George Caleb Bingham

It was at least a compelling show to look at, perhaps for the reason above, as much as anything for its dedication that through painting, the artist believed he could change society. He wanted the river cleansed of its debris as well, and when he failed in this endeavour, he depicted a rather clean and tame river debris in the paintings as a type of silent protest. (On the scale of river debris gruesomeness– as described thematically by Charles Dickens in Our Mutual Friend about the Thames at a similar time— Bingham’s river scores barely a one out of ten.) Bingham was far from a realist.

Sociologically, it was a fascinating show that had me remarking out loud, to the extent that various museum docents engaged immediately and rushed over to provide further background detail. One docent even followed us downstairs, beating us to the ground floor via the elevator, in order to stop us at the front door: “Sir, sir!” she said of our earlier chat, “I’d never thought of it like that… ,” and then talked to us for several more minutes about the meaning and intent of the paintings, before letting us museum-hop down the hill toward the Kimbell. Looking eastward over Piano’s new roof (and seeing the setting winter sun in the reflection of the other buildings through the haze created by the black gauze sunscreens on Philip Johnson’s Amon Carter facade) made the Fort Worth skyline look momentarily and oddly like a blurry Richard Prince re-photograph. Funny old place, Fort Worth.

So we walked across the parking lots and the lawns and entered the Kimbell’s new pavilion to see the Impressionist portrait show (much of it actually pre- and post-Impressionism) where I was literally moved to tears on the spot by the first Cézanne by the door, followed by one-two punches from some early Degas and Manet paintings. One after the other: bam bam bam. It left me speechless within about 45 seconds.

There were many paintings in that show that I found to be deeply affecting, more than I could take in one visit in fact. The late Renoirs were the only paintings I passed on. But many of the other paintings filled my eyes with tears and left me struggling to compose myself amongst the large Sunday afternoon crowd. All the chatter fell away. There was nothing to say. These were some of the same paintings I studied in books as a teenager, and in many cases saw at the Musée d’Orsay just a couple of years after it opened, probably in a venture across the English Channel in about 1989. Anyway, the same things that struck me back then still strike me, only even more strongly now. And I knew exactly why they were affecting me so much: they were everything one wanted to be but couldn’t be. Not because they were better painters or the paintings were better, but because of who and what they were, when they lived, what they ate, how they dressed, how they sat. All these things… .

And here I am in January 2015 on Camp Bowie, in Fort Worth, Texas. Powerful, powerful stuff.

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by Degas

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by Cézanne

Anyway, the Degas and the Manet. I realize that Curtis’ articulation about static culture is born of a feeling that I had way back in 1984 at art school. The feeling that everything had been done already, and that Duchamp had had the last word. And now, 30 years on, Adam Curtis is saying the same thing. The 1990s temporarily became what Curtis describes as angular—particularly in the UK—but it was more a death rattle than a primal scream.

Since then: Silence. Soft pedaling and back pedaling, filling in gaps with PC revisitations whereby artist gimmickry is replaced by curatorial or collector gimmickry. The raison d’être of some shows being more about identity politics than anything else. Hence retro faux sub-genres of abstraction, flavours of abstraction, essence of abstraction, eau d’abstraction, whereby the whatever they did before they were an artist bit becomes more important than the artist bit: disaffected youth-abstraction, illustrator-abstraction, street-art abstraction, blog-ready abstraction. Just add water, makes its own sauce. In the end, most of the work follows a similarly conservative path, and ususally ends up in a gala event or a non-profit in Dallas, Texas.

Dallas is not alone in all of this, as Adam Curtis is obviously saying. For many years now—almost a decade—I’ve been studying the return of the Edwardian beard on the urban hipster.

Even J. Crew sells clothes to suit the look. The idea is, you look like someone out of an early Degas painting: someone with a short, cropped, narrow-shouldered wool jacket for the winter, and a workman’s French Blue cotton jacket for the summer. If you’re not reading Zola or D.H. Lawrence, carried in the wicker basket on your black or Brunswick green vintage bicycle with unfeasibly large Edwardian wheels, then you are surely at your easel in your top-lit Bloomsbury studio, where a petite ballet dancer with perfectly formed and separated orb-like breasts is pinching her cheeks before reclining again on a carefully stage-managed swirl of disheveled oyster-coloured bed linen, while she teases a few strands of hair out of her chignon, after sharing a piece of Chaumes and some fresh tomatoes and nectarines with a still-warm baguette and a couple of glasses of Côtes du Rhône. Wallace the black-and-white cat repositions himself on the Rud. Rasmussen-produced, Georgian-era-inspired couch in Niger leather, which is next to the bed, while you slip on your tapering vintage painting shoes as worn in France but less so in England, and continue where you’d left off before lunch, instantly realizing you need to scumble the overly harsh line between the blouse’s lapel and the shadow on the neck, to soften and assuage the abruptness of the gradations created by the neckline of the blouse and the falling hair disappearing around the model’s neck and into a deep umber against the pillow. And all the while you tame the urge that’s constantly threatening the afternoon’s painting progress, the one that keeps rearing its head inside your dandyish painting pantalons with their subtle but large over-check, circa 1865. [The pants are circa 1865, not the urge- ed.]

The reality of course, is that the contemporary urban hipster has only the beard (unless he’s a she) and he’s actually nose down in a laptop in a coffee shop in East Dallas. Or East Hoxton, or East Williamsburg, or East Portland, or East Thames Ditton, or East pretty much anywhere.

Howard-Beale

Peter Finch as Howard Beale in “Network” (1976)

And so, to actually see the real stuff—the stuff that Modernism was so excited to re-claim as the starting point for its new beginnings—only to look back from the Fort Worth Modern and think, as David Byrne once said: “My god! What have I (they) done?”

The combined contents of the Urban Theater show can’t touch a single small Degas.

And, if we’re to split hairs about the 1980s, there isn’t a single piece in the Fort Worth Modern show that is as poignant as Talking Heads’ song “Once in a Lifetime.” (Although Cindy Sherman’s suite of photos in the exhibition is the stand-out, real art work there—perhaps the only work that feels fully authentic, approaches the legacy of the painting tradition, and actually presents some sort of new meaning.)

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Cindy Sherman

also by Richard Patterson
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8 Responses

  1. Ha. Nice! I agree about 80s show. Sherman’s early work is hauntingly beautiful. This is my favorite era of her work. Have you ever read Rosalyn Deutsch’s essays on her early work? Very interesting. Reading her back in school is where I first learned about Sherman. I still like the carpet painting by Schnabel. A lot.

    1. Peter Ligon

      Speaking of shotgun shacks, be sure to stop by RE Gallery and see the current exhibition of handcrafted artworks by Peter Ligon thru Jan 10.

  2. Even though I strongly disagree with you about the Urban Theater show, I basically respect your take up until you mention the Talking Heads. There is only one other laughingly colonialist pop act during the same era: Paul Simon, in his exploitative use of African pop to save his withering career arc at the time. David Byrne was basically a poor man’s Simon.

    Barbara Ess is one of the artists included in Urban Theater, and her music in the group Y Pants (along with much of the other related No Wave being made at the time) makes the Talking Heads seem like the extremely safe Dad Wave that it is by comparison. I would hope that you would choose a better pathetically quaint radio song next time you decide to validate your show critique with a music note.

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