All Art Is Not Politics

SixShots
SIX SHOTS by Gregg Fedchak

I had a college professor who repeated, like a mantra, “All art is politics.”

Not true.  As an artist, I can safely say that, “All art is whatever color paint I have in front of me today.”

I get the professor’s point.  We’re all embedded in a culture, our culture, the culture and time and place we live in today.  To the extent that you think politics is the most important thing in life, you’re likely to believe that politics equals culture.

Art is politics only when you consciously sit down and plan your art, beforehand, to be a political statement, and an obvious one.  I’ve tried that.  It produces my weakest art, probably because politics is weak broth for anything serious.

The strongest art comes from the unconscious gesture, an assault upon the blank canvas with whatever those paint colors are in front of you, with no idea where you’re headed.

Even then, the “all art is politics” cult would say that your unconscious is shaped by politics, and ultimately determines the nature and/or subject of your work.

No.  Besides what colors have hardened and which still flow, my art is determined by my mood, by whether the cat just threw up, by whether it’s raining out or not, by whether I’m constipated or hungry or zipped on caffeine.  Politics still hums in the background, but no more than hums my blood sugar level, flies dying on the windowsill, random prayers or oaths, how bad the Orioles lost last night, whether or not my favorite shirt is wearing out, or whatever.

LooseGrid
LOOSE GRID by Gregg Fedchak

Only people addicted to or obsessed by politics would favor politics as a bigger mover of the world than religion, family, or acid reflux.  Art reflects what we obsess over.

I obsess over color.  Therefore, I say, “All art is color.  Or the lack thereof.”

There may be Red States and Blue States.  But I live in purple.  It’s the only way to stay sane.

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One Way To Understand Abstract Art

LastMinute
LAST MINUTE by Gregg Fedchak

Above is my recent abstract painting, LAST MINUTE.

I began it the way I begin most of my paintings, by facing a fresh canvas and applying paint and materials until a way forward becomes clear.  I keep working until it feels finished, until it looks pleasing, or until I am stymied.

Sometimes, I park the painting upstairs next to the TV and keep on eye on it while relaxing, to see if it’s done, to see if it grows on me, to see if it needs more work (and to see what that work might be), or to see if I reject it and paint over it.

It’s only when a work is finished that I try to figure out “what it is.”  More often than not, I can.

I realized, well after the painting was done, that it was my abstract interpretation of an unknown graphic artist’s DVD cover of the movie “Slaughterhouse Five,” as shown below:

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I saw the movie in 1970 or thereabouts.  I went to the American Theater in Canton, NY, with my friends Mark Simpson and Steve Merrill.  Mark’s father took us, because it was an R rated movie and you needed adult accompaniment.

That alone – the nude Valerie Perrine, my first naked movie star – made the movie stick in  my mind.

But the entire movie stuck.  I knew nothing about what happened in Dresden.  I knew very little about World War II.  I was in 8th grade and about 13 years old.  I bought the Betamax version, the VHS version, then the DVD version.

The cover art on the DVD version combined with my viewings of the movie over the years.  My unconscious mind delivered LAST MINUTE when my first doodlings produced images or colors – that “way forward” – that made me move toward an unconscious image in my mind that had excited me many times over.

You might ask, “Why should I be interested in an artist’s stray unconscious images reproduced in abstract form?”  Especially images so personal and possibly so obscure.

Hopefully, the abstract art urpped up by the artist will connect and resonate with the viewer.  The viewer will feel something of what the artist felt.

In my case, hopefully you’ll feel a bit of what I felt of the horrors of Dresden, of the firestorm, of imminent death, of the culpability of the Allies, of Valerie Perrine’s incredibly distinctive breasts as played out in the mind of a forever-13 year old.  Even if you don’t explicitly know the subject of the painting.

You may come up with your own imaginings, your own ideas of what the painting is about.  You should.  They may be completely at odds with what the artist thinks is going on.  Good.  The key is that the life in the painting excites your life, your mind, your imagination.  There is no right or wrong.

The graphic artist did his or her job.  He or she made me buy the recordings.  Their image mated so well with the movie that it’s now a part of me, deeper than I can know – at least until I paint.

And hopefully, just hopefully, a little of Kurt Vonnegut lives on in LAST MINUTE, too.

 

The Strange Case of Charles Sheeler

Was photographer and painter Charles Sheeler a fan of the machine age, or did he hate it?

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GOLDEN GATE Charles Sheeler  1955, Metropolitan Museum of Art

At first glance, Sheeler’s work looks like a celebration of all things modern and shiny.  How can that not be the case when you look at something like STEEL CROTON from 1953:

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STEEL CROTON Charles Sheeler 1953, source unknown

Which, btw, was probably a distant influence on my own even more abstract work, STRUCTURE from 2013:

Structure
STRUCTURE Gregory Fedchak 2013  http://www.greggfedchak.com

Wanda Corn pretty much makes the case for the straightforwardness of Sheeler’s art in her book THE GREAT AMERICAN THING:  Modern Art and National Identity, 1915-1935.  To be honest, I think Corn is correct.  On a gut level, I think Sheeler is in love with all things modern and mechanical.

But . . . then things get darker.  In his VIEW OF NEW YORK from 1931, we are looking out from a very mechanical place, a typesetting shop, and through an open window seeing clouds, clouds of freedom from . . . the mechanical, the technological, the 9 to 5.

1931 Charles Sheeler (American artist, 1883-1965) View of New York, 1931

Karen Lucic talks about Sheeler’s ambiguous feelings about modernity and the changing scene of early and mid-20th century America in her book CHARLES SHEELER AND THE CULT OF THE MACHINE.  Like most people, he felt a tug toward the traditional, and often painted or photographed early American objects and architecture.  Also like most people, he was comfortable with his powerful new cars and the financial rewards of 20th century life.  He could go either way.

Mark Rawlinson, in his CHARLES SHEELER:  Modernism, Precisionism and the Borders of Abstraction, goes all the way to the extreme and makes the argument that Sheeler may  have been a covert critic of the machine age that he lived in.

Little things in his work are “wrong” in that objects/subjects are inaccurately portrayed in terms of lines, shadows, and perspective.  Everything is odd or edgy, “not right” as in a “Twilight Zone” episode.  But it’s subtle.

Look at STEEL CROTON and GOLDEN GATE.  wtf?  It’s so precise, so realistic, and yet . . . so wrong.  Which is, of course, why Rawlinson titles his book ” . . . and the Borders of Abstraction”.

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I know how I feel about technology in my painting, STRUCTURE.  Tech is broken, shadowy, incomplete, weak, sketchy, dangerous, hidden, evil, ironic.

As I write this, my wi-fi has gone out several times, thwarting the saving of my work.  I don’t know why.  Neither does AT&T or Apple.  I live with it.  My work could die at any moment, for no good reason except that I am working with high tech.

I no longer feel wonder toward tech.  I feel a deep sense of alienation.

We aren’t sure exactly how Sheeler felt.  I’m sure he felt good/bad/ambiguous, but, back in that more optimistic time of the 1939 World’s Fair, it’s the good that (mostly) shines through.

ROBERT MOTHERWELL In The Studio

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This brief memoir of the equally brief time that author/artist/designer/builder John Scofield spent with abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell as his studio assistant in Connecticut is similar to the Salinger books that I looked at previously.  It comes at its subject indirectly, mildly, sideways, and is as much about the author as it is about the author’s subject.

Scofield is maddeningly “protestant” is how he only hints at potentially hot subjects.  Was Motherwell an alcoholic?  Did he partake of the marijuana that his friend, sculptor David Smith, apparently favored as an aid in getting through the long Adirondack winters?

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THE HOMELY PROTESTANT, Robert Motherwell 1948 via The Metropolitan Museum of Art

We get the idea that Motherwell was worse for wear in the years 1975 – 1978, when Scofield was one of his studio assistants.  About 60, just out of heart surgery, he needed Scofield, and we see a little bit here, a little bit there of Motherwell that we hadn’t seen before.

Like the Salinger books, this is for real Motherwell fans.  I’m one of them.  The most intellectual of the abstract expressionists – Pollock, de Kooning, Kline, and so on – his work is cooler than that of many other painters of his generation.  His images are the most abstract of all, and while you can easily read the lyricism of a Pollock drip painting or the manic writing/rewriting of a de Kooning, a Motherwell takes more imagination.

When you see a Pollock, you can feel how “in the groove” he was.  When you see one of de Kooning’s classic women, on “bicycles” or otherwise, you can feel how ambivalent he was about women.

But what of Motherwell’s THE HOMELY PROTESTANT above?  That’s tough to crack.

His colleagues and rivals not-so-secretly thought that he was a lightweight, not very talented, and shielded by trust funds.  History says otherwise.

But then you see:

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in beige with charcoal, Robert Motherwell 1973, via Minimal Exposition

We are left with many, many questions.  Even more, I think, than with my own sort-of-similar painting below, PISTON:

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PISTON is an abstract notion of an engine piston.  But what is an “in beige with charcoal”?

Motherwell insisted that his art always had a subject.  I think there’s one there, and I think that Motherwell – and Scofield – respect that viewers can dig out meaning, even if the meaning varies from viewer to viewer and from time to time.