Thursday, June 10, 2010

Holiday in Heaven

To visit the work of Robert Rahway Zakanitch in "From a Garden of Ordinary Miracles" at the Samuel Freeman Gallery in Santa Monica is to find oneself suddenly and unexpectedly adrift on a mighty cloud of joy: we're blessed, we're blessed, we're blessed, we are blessed.

There is a particular sensibility in this work, a way of looking at the world with love, a way of allowing magic and light to slip into your consciousness, which, along with the underlying tone of assuming the best in all of us, reveals a habit of mind that is enchanting:

Those who see all creatures in themselves
And themselves in all creatures know no fear.
Those who see all creatures in themselves
And themselves in all creatures know no grief.
How can the multiplicity of life
Delude the one who sees its unity?
These massive (96” x 72”) displays of flowers and creatures
(it's even more of a surprise in person!) allow one to become so absorbed in the experience of joyful seeing and awareness that one forgets oneself:
. . . in those moments when we forget ourselves—not thinking. “Am I happy? Am I having fun yet?” but completely oblivious to our little ego –we spend a brief but beautiful holiday in heaven.

But the forgetting is a sort of divine paradox, because in the forgetting, one feels most oneself in this intimate connection with nature and beauty and sheer goodness.

By “goodness,” you understand I mean moral goodness, and by “moral goodness,” I mean what is beautiful in the human spirit, from even the tiniest impulsive act of generosity or kindness or mercy. I mean take-my-hand goodness; I mean Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Maud Martha Spares the Mouse” goodness:

Maud Martha could not bear the little look.
"Go home to your children," she urged. "To your wife or husband."
She opened the trap. The mouse vanished.
Suddenly, she was conscious of a new cleanness in her. A wide air walked in her. A life had blundered its way into her power and it had been hers to preserve or destroy. She had not destroyed. In the center of that simple restraint was–creation. She had created a piece of life. It was wonderful.
"Why," she thought, as her height doubled, "why, I'm good! I am good."
She ironed her aprons. Her back was straight. Her eyes were mild, and soft with loving kindness.
Through some amazing grace, these works nudge you to spread your wings--to be a better person--to put a little love in your heart.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Inside Out

Last year, I read Daniel Goleman’s
Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception because I was thinking about the inner being and the face one presents to the world. I was thinking also about Paul Ekman’s work with micro expressions--how one might be able to deceive with words, but how one's true emotions will leak out and give one away. Now I am reading Thomas Moore’s Soul Mates: Honoring the Mysteries of Love and Relationships which, in spite of the title, mostly concerns coming to a deeper knowledge of one’s self and one’s own soul—the desires and fears and dilemmas and mysteries with which we struggle. Our demons and our angels.

All right. So we have (or we are) this soul, this heavenly and demonic being, and we try to fit it into this world that demands from us certain obligations. We must work or marry or raise children or all of the above. We take this big inner being, this chaotic, passionate, inspired, crazy, impulsive, beautiful, ferocious mess of humanity, and squish and shove and squeeze it into some kind of semblance of what might pass for convention so we can get jobs/make friends/find mates/not scare people/not get arrested. We tell lies, to ourselves and others. We construct a self that is presentable/suitable/appropriate. We keep our real selves in check.

Like wily toddlers, some of us occasionally escape through the screen door when no one’s looking and run out naked through the sprinklers in the front yard shrieking with joy. Some of us create a life in which we get to have an alter ego or two. Some of us let the angels and demons out in our art or writing or music or dance. Some of us can’t bear the strain and we get a little neurotic. Or sink to the bottom of a bottle. Some of us are so wounded by the struggle that we sort of give up and our soul flattens out a little, lying down resentfully in a corner like a dog that never gets let off the leash. In a lifetime, we might try all of those things.

Last month, I was helping Bob Debris, a friend who is a photographer (if by “helping” we mean telling people they looked beautiful and tucking in shirts and pushing strands of hair out of faces and draping shoulders with glittery fabric and fastening a corset around the voluptuous waist of one beauty) as Bob took pictures of masses of humanity on Members’ Family Day at Lotusland in Santa Barbara. Not to suck up to Bob (though it might be a good idea, being as it is summer and he and his lovely wife Caroline Allen do have a pool), but first I will say that to watch this kind of artist at work is fascinating.In some of the photos, the models just did whatever they wanted. Other models seemed to inspire Bob, and he would start telling them what to do, how to move or turn, how to hold a hand up or shift a leg. Those images were the best, the most fun and the most funny, the ones that took on a new life. It was so interesting to see how some models would submit entirely and give themselves up to Bob’s vision. Others resisted flatly. Still others brought their own visions and inspirations to the image.

And then, if you can look past the fake fur and Mongolian armor and spears and plastic flowers and toy skulls and all the other props (or maybe the props are a means to the revelation), some of the images clearly present the mystery of the soul; that is, you see in the image the inner being, what seems like a previously hidden essence of the person that emerges in the flash of the bulb. How do that happen? You can see the Lotusland images here in all their glory. (You can see more of Bob's work here.)

Which brings me to the Alice Neel show at LA Louver. What astounds me about Alice Neel's work is that you walk away from the paintings and you actually feel as if you know something about the subjects--about who they are as human beings. Sometimes it's beautiful, sometimes it's ugly. Sometimes it can't be put in those terms, it's more of a sense or a mood. It's as if the artist has the ability to turn us inside out and reveal our secret selves to the world.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Coming to your TV set: So You Think You're An Artist?

Forget summer returns. Art is now being turned into the next reality show. "Work of Art: The Next Great Artist", which debuts on cable channel  Bravo on Wednesday, June 9, pits 14 very different artists against each  other in weekly challenges and awards the winner a $100,000 prize and a  solo exhibition.

The question is, can highly personal, visual art be judged like a  gourmet dish or a ready-to-wear collection? And is the rarefied world of  art ready for a reality TV make-over? Another question the producers dodge is how the "artists" REALLY were chosen. Can we trust their judgment on art when, when, judging by the above photo, the artists are all young, attractive and quite photogenic. What - there are no good artists over, say, 50? No older men or women? Louise Bourgeois would have never made it through the first round; neither would most of the artists whose works now grace our museums and whom we value - the list is endless.

"The whole point of the show is that there is no right opinion.  Everyone has their own subjective view. But it is amazing every week  that there is a consensus about the quality of the work, and what's good  and what's not," said Dan Cutforth, one of the executive producers. So, does this means that the show has already been taped and the "contest" already decided?

"Good art really moves people and inspires a reaction. You know it  when you see it. The old chestnut 'I don't know much about art, but I  know what I like' is true," he told Reuters. How about some..oh, I don't know.. .smidgen of art history or background as to why people like what they do. How do you define good art - by only a reaction? Whose reaction? And what kind of reaction?

"Work of Art" comes from the same Magical Elves production company  that blended personality and the process of fashion design in "Project  Runway", and helped lift the lid on how food goes from good to great in  "Top Chef." 

In the first challenge, contestants ranging from 23 to 62 years-old  are randomly paired off and asked to produce a visual work that captures  the essence of their partner. A three-person panel of judges decides  who has responded best to the challenge, and who will go home. In future episodes, the contestants must create unique pieces in  mediums such as sculpture, photography, collage and industrial design.

"When we started reaching out to the art community, we were worried  that people would be against the idea of a reality show. What we found  was that people were pretty receptive," said Cutforth.

Or maybe they were desperate for a way to make a living; let's face it - if a contestant "wins" one of these shows, he or she has a shot at sales, a gallery and a huge step up in the competitive art scene. Artists don't live in an ivory tower, or, at least, those who have to pay the rent and put food on the table don't. I don't blame them for participating in this but it certainly can lead to a further degradation of any method of judging what's good and what's not. Far too often now, we judge solely by price; if a piece of art sells for a lot of money, it must be good. No sales equals bad art. By that standard, Van Gogh was a failure as were many artists whom we now value.

More than 2,000 people from oil painters to conceptual artists and  silk-screen experimenters applied to take part, reflecting the hunger  for a larger public canvas for an often misunderstood form of  expression. But will the show encourage more people to seek out art or simply be satisfied with what may be a visual version of McDonald's?

"One of our goals for this show is for people to realize that art is  all around them. It shouldn't frighten people to have opinions," said  Jane Lipsitz, Cutforth's Magical Elves business partner.

"People perceive art as being possibly elitist and a rarefied world.  So it would be amazing if we were to bring art more into the  mainstream," she said. Unfortunately for this laudable goal, the artists presented in the PR photo look, for the most part, young, attractive and today's version of hip. They don't look unique but more of the glossy, standardized model that we get on every other TV channel. Maybe the show will prove me wrong. I was appalled by the idea when I first read about it and I haven't seen anything that makes me feel otherwise. Or at least, not yet.

The TV show has been embraced by some professionals.  Mixed-media artist Jon Kessler and photographer Andres Serrano are  among the guest judges, while the permanent panel is made up of New York  gallery owners Bill Powers and Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, and New York  Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz. What? No 800-dial-in-your-choice-for-this-evening's-contestant? Any bests as to whether they will have a text messaging option set up by the end of the first week?

Art auctioneer Simon de Pury acts as mentor to the contestants, and  the series winner gets a prestigious solo show at the Brooklyn Museum,  the second-largest art museum in New York City.

"I think the art world is definitely risky. It would be very easy  for people to think this show is not for them. But I think people who  actually watch will be sucked in," said Cutforth.

I will watch. After all, it's summer and the TV pickings are slim. But I'm withholding judgment, which one does anyway with a new show. It just seems wrong that something that can be as life-affirming and soul satisfying as art is turned into a spectator sport in this fashion.

One wonders what Louise would say.