Thursday, June 28, 2018

Defying Gravity and Time: George Baselitz at the Hirshorn

Yesterday I visited George Baselitz’ (well-known German artist) massive retrospective at Hirshorn Museum in Washington, D.C. The exhibit takes up the entire middle floor, exterior circle of the Museum and traces his initial efforts, initially declared pornographic by German officials in the 1950s all the way up to his more ephemeral late works. Interestingly, much of his work is initiated from photographic sources that he translates into gestural, and mostly very raw expressionistic large-scale paintings. One cannot help but feel overwhelmed by the brutality he exhibits in much of his mark making. If one is looking for something subtle, well it perhaps can be found in his very selective color choices.

Two questions for me going into this show were, how many upside down paintings can one view without it getting tired and furthermore, is that all they have going for them? I wonder how many viewers look at his work and want to see them right side up. For me, I had no such desire. It does seem odd to me that his efforts in sculpture carry his signature brutal approach, but they stand erect with normal gravitational forces at play. The sculptures are monumental and heavy.

One painting that was particularly powerful was The Gleaner ( Die Ă„hrenleserin ) painted in 1978. According to Cornelia Lauf, “…Georg Baselitz’s monumental, somber work was painted during a decade of well-being in Germany, when the generation of the wirtschaftswunder—the economic miracle—was interrupted in its relentless quest for stable prosperity only by the occasional political scandal or terrorist attack.” ( accessed 6/28/2018. The figure, inverted in a strange space of gestural brushwork and shapes seemed hauntingly familiar; Millet drew and painted a similar figure in the nineteenth-century.

Since gleaning has precedence in European history, biblical references, and traces back through art history to Millet’s interpretation, it is not too far fetched to think that the subject is a potent one given today’s climate in the United States where a substantial portion of “middle America” has gravitated toward a political figure determined to reset the perceived scales of unfairness.

Like Germany after it recovered from World War II, the United States is now in a period of great economic prosperity; and yet, substantial portions of our population have only part-time employment opportunities at low wages without benefits and basic health care. They, like the figure in Baselitz’ painting, are suspended in a place that is difficult to navigate and understand; they too, accept what is leftover. Baselitz’ painting causes me to consider survival in a situation that is potentially impossible and perilous at best.

Of course, I have seen Baselitz’ work from time to time for a couple of decades, now. So the upside down factor is something I’m familiar with. By the end of this extensive show, I’ll have to admit that “upside down” wasn’t even playing in my thought processes. Gleaning may be similar; if one has been gleaning all of one’s life, you simply don’t think about it anymore.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Coulter/Szmagaj In Conversation at James Madison University Duke Hall Gallery of Fine Art

Ever since I learned about this show, I have been looking forward to seeing it. For one, getting to see a show by a couple of very serious painters is a rare event in this day and age. Even on this past Thursday at a meeting, I was once again reminded by an art historian from King University that painting is dead and that every venue on the planet is embracing video and installation art. So, fortunately, The Duke Hall Gallery of Fine Arts at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia found room in its brief summer schedule for a couple of remaining painters who also happen to be two powerful teachers who critically challenged my own painting attempts while pursuing an MFA there.

To start out, nothing about these two painters, Ken Szmagaj and Jerry Coulter is even getting close to being dead. I’m personally on the brink of turning 60 and these were two of my teachers, so Szmagaj must be somewhere in his 70s and Coulter is in his early 80s; yet, their work, some of it created two decades ago, and much of it created in the last year, still reveals paths of intense critical and creative inquiry. I am not seeing some last gasp - “oh give them a final resting show - they were fine professors”  - no, I’m seeing a couple of painters who are still inventing; I still draw inspiration from their attitudes.

Now before you think I have missed the concept of this exhibit, it is called “In Conversation” and sure enough, whether it was self curated by the two artists, or perhaps guided by a curator, everything in the exhibit features paired or juxtaposed works that at least relate formally. This opens a dialogue of comparison and contrast between two painters who led the painting side of JMU’s art department for decades.

In Coulter’s work, there is a tension between the figuration, draftsmanship, perceptual accuracy, and pursuit of beauty with his larger modernist concerns of formal arrangement/composition. Technically, Coulter is comfortable with oil paint glazing over carefully constructed layers of drywall compound. In other cases, whether it be a bird or that perfect female figure, his draftsmanship is carefully rendered over a toned ground that disappears once it approaches the external edge of the paper. In every case, I am reminded that Coulter’s work is a construct of artifice, not an illusional Renaissance window.

Szmagaj, at first glance is as playful as his artist statement indicates. Staying open to possibilities, inventions and surprises are his trademarks. Sure enough, there is a signature quality in his work that borders on magic. How can all of these small shapes that rarely overlap even cohere? Given all of the modernist abstraction that has preceded him, how can his work still have a signature voice to it?  Incorporating fragmentary particles and objects from his studio in austere compositions adds an air of personal authenticity to the work. This work initially strikes me as completely non-objective until I ocassionally realize that there is a "real object" included in the composition.

Both of these artists serve up reminders that painting is still a thoughtful enterprise and using elements sparingly can pack a punch. Careful color choices and color restriction are paramount. In dialogue with one another, Szmagaj and Coulter both demonstrate the effectiveness of black and also, white. Each of these artists finds a way to get viewers to consider the relationships between what is real and what is abstract. The austerity and rigor of their work reinforces that economy can speak volumes. Lastly, another takeaway from the show is that ambition and professionalism are still relevant additions to the final delivery.

(The exhibit at Duke Hall Gallery of Fine Art at James Madison University ran from 03 May to 23 June 2018 - I was fortunate to view it on its final day)