Part Three: Peter Devine

Devine-Trawler
Peter Devine, Dragger, 2018, oil on linen, 30 by 50 inches

THERE IS A QUOTE attributed to Chuck Close, which for many years struck me as an articulation of the guiding mindset of the contemporary art market. It goes something like this: “If it looks like art, it’s probably somebody else’s art”. This statement can be read in a variety of ways. But coming from Close — whose Brobdingnagian photo-realistic headshots loomed in the New York galleries in the late 1960s – early ’70s just as the Modernist revolution was finally exhausting its potentials — it felt like an industry rubric for winning critical attention and market share. What Chuck seemed to be saying (and mainly to other hungry young up-and-comers like himself) was: “look guys, nobody is gonna pay attention to you if you make anything that looks remotely like the old stuff; if you want to make something really catchy, something ‘important’, it better be different from anything anybody has ever seen before!”

Thinking of art, and especially of painting, as an act whose justification is contingent on its capacity for total novelty contradicts thousands of years of practice built on art historical reflection, re-interpretation and re-use. A skilled, historically astute painter cannot look at Manet without also seeing both the hand and spirit of Goya, as well as those of Valazquez, Hals or Rembrandt — not to mention the figurative compositions of Georgione or Raphael. Perhaps it was felt by Close and others in his generation that overt references to such a long line of precedents was fundamentally at odds with modern art’s mission to reflect the present moment and its most immediate experience — to forbid any entry of the potentially corrupting influences of pre-digested idioms into the lifeblood of the Now. If that was the case, the strategy succeeded insofar as Close’s early work, along with that of many of his contemporaries from that time, is as firmly fixed to its fleeting era as a fly trapped in amber. Where Manet, arguably one of the most provocative innovators of his day, can yet be seen very much within the longer historical continuum noted above, which stretches back for centuries. Curiously, the historical depth of Manet’s pictures also makes them more accessible in the present, by widening the scope of his vision out to something more universal than a fixed and fashionable cultural moment.

There is, however, a way in which Close got it exactly right, and to be fair to him, one should allow that his meaning may have been more nuanced than a mere formula for winning recognition in the art world. Throughout the Modernist age, we can find a long procession of painters who made completely innovative work, while yet reaching back, as Manet did, into painting’s history: Pierre Bonnard, Andre Derain, Giorgio Morandi, Fairfield Porter, Alice Neel and Jane Freilicher are a handful of examples in that line, though there are also many others. These painters are not the authors of titanic, epoch-defining statements. They are the quieter searchers who pursued unique, personal visions that were certainly innovative, yet also often at odds with the reigning zeitgeist. Bonnard’s liquid, light-filled interiors and windows, which were made at the height of Cubism’s more seemingly robust breakthroughs, felt at the time like a throwback to Impressionism. But today, as some of Picasso’s most iconic innovations have begun to feel jaded, bombastic, drenched in a self-conscious male machismo that today’s painters have long since abandoned, he begins to look a bit old fashioned, where Bonnard grows ever more Modern to our technologically fragmented eyes and our less explicitly gendered sensibilities.

I first saw Peter Devine’s paintings in 1977, when I began taking classes with him at my high school in Vermont. They were unexciting, even a little bit uncomfortable to my adolescent eye, which was steeped at the time in the facile and picturesque confections of illustrators like NC Wyeth, J.C. Leyendecker and Maxfield Parrish — or else dazzled by the painterly virtuosity of John Singer Sargent and the crisp perfections of Johannes Vermeer.

A painter in those days of interiors and still lives, nude and clothed figures and the occasional landscape, Peter was a realist in a period that had still not fully shaken off the idea that paintings had to be abstract in order to be taken seriously. The result, given his prior Modernist training, was that he made a formal abstraction of observed reality that was scrupulously faithful to some un-romanticized thing-ness which he seemed to be seeking in his carefully mundane subjects. His pictures were also analytically distant from any overtly emotional interpretation. By then, the Pop artists had already challenged the high-minded aspirations of pure abstraction, as did photorealists like Close and Estes; so a return to representation was already in the air. But Peter’s work didn’t fit into any of the clearly defined camps of the moment. Like Bonnard had been in the Cubist age, he seemed to be looking back at something in the recent past, but (at least to my immature eye) not making things that looked the way that art was supposed to look. “Your Paintings are really drab!” I complained to him at one point. “Yes Chris! That’s exactly what I want! I’m going for full drabness!!” he replied.

It is only in looking back now that I can see how Peter was in a sense transposing the formal ideals of Modernist abstraction — it’s abandonment of illusionistic narrative in favor of a near Platonic ideal of the purely material — onto the observed world. His perfection was not, however, that of either the elegantly rendered motifs of traditional representation, nor the bravura gestures of the action painters, but a studiously reduced, sometimes even awkward imperfection in the un-adorned truth of the ordinary.

As the years went by, the intellectual coolness of Peter’s compositions gradually shifted towards more intentionally poetic and playful interpretations, particularly in the landscape and maritime subjects he took up after he and his wife Nancy purchased and renovated a farm house on the south west coast of Nova Scotia in the early 1990s. The “Nova” paintings initially followed on Peter’s long still life practice in a series of pictures of bottles and vases on table tops in front of a window overlooking the sea. Eventually though, the water seemed to draw Peter out through that window and he soon began ranging up and down his coast, painting the bluffs, rocks and cloud-filled skies over the stands of pines and gentle swards of grass that slope everywhere down to the water, punctuated here and there by the ramshackle wood-frame houses, barns, fish sheds and trawlers of Canada’s coastal vernacular.

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Peter Devine, Trees and Fog, 2018, oil on linen, 61 by 45 inches

As difficult as it is to imagine anything fresh coming out of such an over-painted subject as the northeastern coastal scene of the Americas, this is somehow precisely what Peter Devine achieves in his pictures from Nova Scotia. They simply do not look like anybody else’s art, even as they subtly reference a whole lineage of both modern and much earlier painting that we know. With an almost zealous focus, he resists again and again the most comfortable, appeasing formulae of the genre, rendering the intricacies of the familiar in a language that is idiosyncratically new. The proof of this statement is, as they say, in the pudding of time spent with one of Peter’s canvasses. I have one in my studio, a still life that he probably painted not long after I was his student 40 years ago. It is a small, deceptively simple arrangement of ceramic bowls, a bottle and a blue glass vase in what appears to be an enameled tin basin. A large spoon or ladle hangs upside down off the basin’s edge and a hand mirror peeks over the back of the whole arrangement like a child peering over a fence. The objects sit atop a mat or hand towel with a woven design of concentric rectilinear figures.  The whole composition is muted, still, and yet somehow vibrating with some contained life force and a trace of whimsy. I don’t ever get tired of looking at it. Over the years I have learned to see that Peter’s determinedly simplified, even seemingly crude marks and planes of color hold the most delicate kind of elegance. As Close would have it, he makes an art that doesn’t look like art, at least not by using all the well-worn devices we know so well. His work is new and as old the hills at once. Like Cezanne, Peter understands that a rediscovered, re-invented language of the everyday can transcend through careful and dogged practice to the sublime.

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Peter Devine, Dishes with Mirror, ca 1982, oil on canvas, 11 by 13 inches

 

Part Two: Anthony Terenzio

A.Terenzio-Blue-Studio copy
Anthony Terenzio, The Blue Studio, 1976-77, oil on linen, 50 by 40 inches

Two years after the painter Anthony Terenzio died in 2000, I went to his studio in rural Connecticut with his friend and former student – and my own long-time mentor and friend – Peter Devine. The line of connections between us three painters made the trip into a reunion of sorts. I hadn’t met Tony when he was alive, but had heard about him often from Peter, who owed much of his own complex aesthetic sensibility to this former teacher’s example. The core of Tony’s mindset, blending the draftsmanly figurative European tradition with a more gestural American Modernism, had in turn been passed on to me as a young art student many years before. Now in my forties, I would at last meet the man himself, if only by way of the works he had left behind.

The purpose of our visit was to make an archive of the artist’s drawings and paintings for his estate. Tony’s daughter Lisa had recently lost both her parents to untimely illnesses and was struggling to figure out what to do with the material legacy of a prolific and respected painter who had never sought commercial success. I was hired to help sort through and record a sampling of works spanning Tony’s long career. Instead of using the customary small-format slide film, we decided to photograph the work with an 8” x 10” camera. This would give Lisa high quality source files for a set of detailed reproduction prints that she could then take to galleries and museums. It would also enable us to produce a book at some future time should it ever prove practical to do so.

Peter and I met at the Terenzio house on its wooded hillside in Connecticut on a Saturday morning in the late Fall, just as the last leaves were falling. Lisa greeted us with coffee, then led us down to her father’s studio. The room had a small footprint but soared to a high ceiling with windows to one side for the natural light that painters covet. On entering, it was clear that we were about to excavate a lifetime of work: paintings, notebooks and folders full of drawings were stacked everywhere, crowded into racks and leaning against walls and on one-another. We stood up an easel in front of the camera and began to pull things out of the racks.

I didn’t know much about Tony’s history before that day, only that we were there to record the life’s work of a man who had left most of what he’d done in that room. This kind of posthumous archiving is a daunting task for an artist to take on, in part because one is responsible to curate a selection of things that may go on to define that person to others, but also because it is difficult to face the reality of what might happen to our own work after we are gone. Beyond the inner rings of art world celebrity and success lies a vast plane, heaped from horizon to horizon with the efforts of lesser-known, now departed talents. Confronting the evidence of a life spent accumulating achievements that went unnoticed by the public is difficult; worse still if that effort was spent without the artist having attained even some private success. I feared the latter possibility in this case. My friend admired his teacher so and plainly hoped I would appreciate what he had brought me there to see. What if I didn’t like Terenzio’s paintings?

Though not at all a self-promoter, Tony Terenzio was a dedicated, serious painter — known and admired by many in the art world, including some of his more celebrated peers. He was a product of the Modernist age that had begun in Europe in the late nineteenth century and taken root in the US soon after. Born in the small Italian town of Settefrati in 1925, he emigrated to the US as a boy and spent his formative student years in New York during one of the most inventive periods of American art. Tony’s painting career began at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn just before the Second World War. After taking time off from school to serve overseas, he returned to complete his BFA, then went on to earn a Masters degree at Columbia University.  He also attended the American Art School, where he studied with the painters Raphael Soyer and Jack Levine. In the late 1940s and early ‘50s he showed with the Creative Artists and ACA galleries in New York, where his exhibitions won positive critical reviews. In 1950, he was included in a Biennial exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Fine Art. A later solo show, also in Connecticut, was favorably reviewed in the New York Times

Terenzio began to teach in the early 1950s, and in 1955 he was offered and accepted a position on the faculty of the University of Connecticut in Storrs. The job held out the prospect of a kind of financial security for his family that the uncertain life of a gallery artist simply couldn’t provide. Though now removed from the action in New York, Tony continued to paint and to show in regional galleries and museums in New England. Some time after the family moved to Connecticut, Tony’s wife Stephanie, also initially trained as a painter, but by then an art historian, took a job at the William Benton Museum in Storrs. In 1980, the Benton mounted a show, accompanied by the publication of a book written by Stephanie, about the painter Robert Motherwell. While working on these projects, Motherwell became friendly with the Terenzios and soon grew to be both an admirer and a booster of Tony’s work. On Motherwell’s recommendation, Tony was included in an important survey show at Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum, titled Connecticut Painters 7+7+7. Motherwell also nominated Tony for the prestigious Francis Greenberger Award, which he received in a special ceremony at the Guggenheim Museum in 1986.

This biographical history was told to me by Peter and Lisa as we photographed the paintings, giving a sense of the evolution of the work as it was being revealed during our archiving. Since that day, I’ve often thought that I know something of how archeologists like Hiram Bingham or Howard Carter felt when they discovered the treasures of Maccu Piccu and King Tut’s Tomb. As each painting slid out of the racks and came to the easel, my initial apprehensions gave way to surprise and pleasure. It was clear that we were handling the legacy of a significant artist — one whose work deserved to be known and recorded.

It was particularly striking to see how much Terenzio’s painting stands apart from the familiar “isms” that were making news in the years when he worked. He was an erudite student of the art of his own time, and yet his work is not easily plugged into any one movement within it. It neither resembles the meticulous formalism of early European and American Modernism, nor the aggressive Action Painting of the later New York School. Where many painters of his time sought to distance themselves from the past, Tony’s work incorporates the ideas that were current when he was working, as well as an interest in the whole sweep of art history that preceded him. It does contain some recognizable influences — a bit of Bonnard here, or of Guston there — but at the end of the day, he feels entirely his own man.

terenzio-1
Anthony Terenzio, Untitled, 1999, oil on linen, size unknown (approximately 20 by 36 inches)

In 2002, Tony’s unique pictures were refreshing to see. American painting was still mostly eclipsed at that point by the idea art of the 1980s and ‘90s. Students at top art schools like RISD, Columbia, and to a lesser degree at Yale, were being taught in their history classes that the line of descent leading most directly to Conceptualism was the single manifestly destined path traversing the Modernist age: a procession of culturally critical, aesthetically iconoclastic artists that began with Manet and Cezanne in Europe and continued through Duchamp and Pollack to Warhol in the US. This narrative was sketched-out by mid-century critics between the 1960s and ’70s then nailed to the church door of our college fine arts departments in the 1980s. The arrival of Postmodern Conceptualism, it was said, heralded the end of art history, the death of painting, and the triumph of pure thought over aesthetics. In this worldview, philosophy had finally, and righteously, killed art.

But the stories that academics and critics tell one another don’t always reflect all that is going on in the world outside the confines of their inevitably narrow sphere of influence. The feeling in the art world at the height of Tony’s career in the 1970s and 80s was that the works of the past were obsolete and could have no relevance to a contemporary audience. Postmodernism ostensibly opened the whole of art history to re-use, but only as so much deflated detritus that could have no autonomous authority beyond a “de-constructed” contemporary reading that sneered at the past rather than revering it. This triumphal linearity seemed to echo the revolutionary stance of the earlier Modernists. But many of them —including that prototypical Modernist, Paul Cezanne, who wanted nothing so much as to be a grand painter of the museum like his beloved Poussin — embraced the liberating ideas of their age without condemning all that came before. In the 80 years since the abstract painters of the New York School staked out their vision for a new and historically unencumbered language, other less lavishly celebrated modern painters, people like Fairfield Porter and Jane Freilicher, reflected a more expansive reading of painting’s history, as well of its contemporary potentials. Tony Terenzio comes from a different but similarly alternative camp — one more directly descending from Cezanne, Braque, Giacometti and other near abstractionists from his youth. As we waded through his pictures that day, it felt that we were looking at things that had come down a divergent path from the one that I at least had been taught about in college, as if we had stumbled on the works of an important artist from a parallel universe – one much like our own, yet governed by subtly different values.

Another way in which Tony differs from the mainstream of his time is in his utter disinterest in the kind of art world “buzz” and celebrity that has became such an obsessive preoccupation of younger artists since the 1980s. This may sound strange to us today: the culture’s conjoined fascination with fame and money has made it all too easy to confuse artistic recognition with artistic success. If it’s famous art, we think, it must be great art, and vice-versa. The painters who began winning this sort of attention in the Postwar period in New York conditioned those who followed them to expect that they could (or even should) also become superstars. Alongside their mainstream acclaim, the Ab Ex painters became big, noisy, self-obsessed characters — operatic personalities as much as working artists. Even when their work was sincere, it incorporated a marketable persona on which their canvasses could hang like a lavish Mardi-Gras costume. That certainly made for some entertaining public personalities, but the qualities that make artists popular don’t necessarily insure our ongoing engagement with their work. Nor was all of the past art that we admire today once popular. As often as not, an artist’s popularity wanes with the passing of the era that acclaimed it. The works that outlive such shifts transcend the ephemeral tastes of the moment and evoke responses that can be felt across the great spans of time and difference which otherwise divide one age of the culture from another. Great Art made centuries ago is described as such precisely because it retains the power to move us despite the passing of all that time. Apparently, fame was not as alluring to Tony Terenzio as the goals out at the end of that longer range of focus. This is a way of thinking about the life of art that needs desperately to be rekindled — not only in the hearts of the makers of artistic things, but also in the experience of those who look at and collect the things that artists make.

 

015 Scylla II

Anthony Terenzio, Scylla II, 1983, oil on linen, approximately 60 x 24 inches

 

 

The first in a four-part essay on the practice of contemporary painting

Part 1 – History:

In 1975, when I was a fifteen-year-old juvenile delinquent and considered by all to be an academic dead loss, my divorced and otherwise estranged parents conspired to send me off to boarding school. The place they sent me to, The Woodstock Country School, was among a handful of alternative liberal arts prep schools that had popped up in the 20th century, often on the grounds of reconstituted farm compounds located in liberal bastions like New England and California. These institutions were listed in the briefly ubiquitous 1980s Preppy Handbook with the description: “There is a Black Labrador retriever on campus; he wears a red bandana; the students have given him drugs.”

(There was, he did, and we had).

WCS was founded in the 1940s, in part by a married couple who had studied and taught at the legendary Black Mountain School. It was a free-wheeling, bohemian, co-educational place with a horse barn/farmhouse campus set in an idyllic Vermont valley along the tiny Kedron River. It favored subjects like the great books, political science and journalism, creative writing, botany, dance, theater, weaving, ceramics and painting. If it accomplished nothing else, one thing WCS did dependably well was to groom many of its students for a life of skeptical and idealistic nonconformity, thus ill-equipping them to navigate the economic and socio-political realities that would greet them as young adults in Ronald Reagan’s conservative, corporate utopia.

In my Freshman year at WCS, I broke out in a torrent of independently-guided oil painting (I was not a cooperative student and ignored the instructions of the then resident arts and crafts teacher who wanted me to make linoleum block prints along with the rest of the class ). Eventually I completed a big mural recreating a Renaissance battle scene originally drawn in one of Leonardo daVinci’s sketchbooks. This was a near life-size melee of fighters on horseback that I painted in a stairwell leading to the art department. Despite the project’s inflated ambitions, it was an example of an overall unwillingness to do assigned work that characterized all my other academic subjects, and which led to my expulsion at the end of the year due to chronically failing grades. After that, my parents washed their hands of my aspirations for a private education and I spent the following fall semester languishing at a local public high school in Rhode Island, where I soon saw what I had thrown away. On a trip to visit friends in Woodstock that fall, I plead my case to the new headmaster — a charismatic, indulgent sort — who found a family in the Midwest (parents of a deceased former student) who together seemed ready to forgive my ungovernable creative inclinations and pay my tuition and board on the strength of assurances that I would henceforth strive to be more a dutiful pupil.

Upon returning to WCS in the Spring semester, I fell in immediately with a new art teacher named Peter Devine, who had, in my absence, overpainted my ostentatious mural and transformed the dusty hay loft where our visual arts classes were held into a neatly whitewashed artistic operating theater. Peter rounded up a core group of dedicated visual arts students and proceeded over the next two and a half years to give us a comprehensive, college-level, introductory course in oil painting materials and techniques, with a smattering of art history thrown in for good measure. An earnestly serious painter himself, Peter also managed to communicate to us the fundamentals of the Modernist view of painting as a deeply intellectual vocation of practice — a path one chose (or more likely was called-to) purely for the purpose of following it well and thoughtfully. A commercial career as a painter was far less the aim of his instruction than an indoctrination into the distilled Zen-like spirit of the discipline.

On graduating from WCS in 1979, I enrolled at RISD, a small art and design school in Rhode Island that had, up to that point, hewed to a pedagogical philosophy that was not so different to Peter Devine’s. But as I arrived, the school was undergoing a shift that was orienting its instruction more acutely to the kind of Art World celebrity and commercial success that contemporary stars like Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns had recently begun to attain in New York. RISD’s growing orientation to the fashionable downtown New York scene was compounded with the simultaneous introduction of an idea-based avant-gardism brought in by a new painting department head who had taught at the highly Conceptual Cal Arts school in Los Angeles. He in turn recruited a cadre of like-minded instructors who began to supplant the aging Modernist true-believers still lingering on staff. This new conceptual drift — coupled to the fashionable zeitgeist of the rising tide of Neo Expressionists then making a splash in Soho galleries like Leo Castelli’s and Mary Boone’s — set the confused template for the kind of artistic success that RISD, and a great many other art schools, thereafter encouraged their students to pursue: a curious self-cancelling formula of theoretical pretense married to market-targeted gimmickry.

This was the era in American art colleges that produced the generation of instructors, historians, critics and curators who today populate what is collectively referred to as “The Art World”. That idea of a separate realm specifically about art coalesced at the end of the 1970s in a rebirth of the kind of institutional order against which the Modernists had rebelled in their rejection of the French Academy and Salon a century earlier. Between these two institutional phases there was the globally chaotic and rapidly transforming modern world as a whole, within which some people also chose to make art. The innovative ideas that defined Modernism as such were firstly that art had a life of its own which should be defined by artists rather than by institutions; secondly, those artists who embraced Modernism believed that the subjects that should most concern them were not to be found by looking within their own cloistered realm, but by looking out to the bigger non-artistic world around them. The 100-year period that elapsed between the exhibition of Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe in the 1863 Salon de Refusés, and the creation of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box in 1964, was a generally anarchic creative age when a fantastic variety of artists made whatever inventive things they wished to make and did so for whatever personally or collectively defined reasons happened to drive them. They recognized no authority beyond that of their internal reflections and the private debates of their café and tavern culture. They also worked, as often as not, in the full expectation of a life of obscurity and even poverty. More perversely still, they would sometimes follow a creative path that was calculatedly self-destructive to their own commercial success by scorning the desires and tastes of patrons or sneering at the institutions that hoped to entomb their achievements as so much dusty cultural treasure. The principal figures in the great movements of Modernism, all the way from Edouard Manet to Eva Hesse, were its questing knights, subversive bomb-throwers and Zen Masters. Only at the end of that era did they begin to become celebrities and seekers of commercial success. When they did so, the movement ended.

The breed that came up in the 1970s and 80s — Andy Warhols’ kids, from whose ranks have risen the art fair and auction house sensations of today — were a differently motivated population from their Modernist forbears, though not so much as they imagined themselves (as the torchbearers of a differently defined, but still-daring avant-garde) but as a far more docile generation of conformists. What I experienced firsthand at RISD in the early 1980s was a dramatic shift in how artists my age and younger began to see themselves. Rather than being called-to the disciplines and lifestyle of art as a potentially enriching path for the spirit, they were instead beginning to self-consciously parrot the institutionally defined postures of contemporary art and put them on like a costume or uniform in preparation for engagement in a profession that might bring them critical recognition or commercial rewards, and hopefully both.  Bit by bit, as the decades ticked by, the market in contemporary art — propelled by the extraordinary inequities of wealth that began with Reagan and Thatcher and which have lately reached an astonishing inflation in the oligarchic imperia of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin — have become ever more single-mindedly focused on the making of money, of which art itself is now merely an emblem. In the process, a pervasive dumbing-down and hollowing-out of the objects of art has taken place and we are bombarded in rapidly cycling fashionable phases by a cornucopia of slickly-produced, consistently turned-out artistic “brands”: product lines that affect an aura of philosophical gravity or cultural consciousness, but contain none of the risky subtlety accumulated through lifetimes of searching practice which characterized the work of the genuinely great Modern movements. There is no expansive or transcendent core of reflection in the vast majority of contemporary works that festoon the booths at Miami Basel, the Armory piers or the contemporary galleries of Chelsea today — only a seamless cacophony of variegated surfaces betraying no underlying depth.

What ended with the rise of Postmodernism was not art history, but our willingness, and even our ability to recognize what art really is. The stuff went on being made despite those institutional shifts, and there is plenty of it both inside and outside the walled enclosures of the self-obsessed, self-congratulatory art world. But just as was true for both artists and for the general public at the beginning of the twentieth century, we need once more to abandon the institutional narratives and look with our own eyes and study our own responses in order to find the genuinely great art of today. It is once more time to heave a generation of academic thinking into the dumpster and begin the kind of direct, personal re-imagining of art’s purpose and place in our lives that is never a merely linear historical progression, but the cyclic re-awakenings that are the heartbeat of aesthetic consciousness.

 

 

Money and Art — a response to (the documentary HBO film) “The Price of Everything”

At this point, the majority of my friends who make or are otherwise involved with art have seen HBO’s new documentary about the corruptions at the top end of the roaring contemporary art market. The title itself says a lot about the content of this film. The Price of Everything is a truncation of a quote from Oscar Wilde, who had one of the characters in a play state that a cynic is a man who “. . . knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”  The creators of this exposé made a dutiful, if feeble attempt to raise the subject of the second half of that sentence in the person of the aged former art world insider — later turned outsider, and now re-surfacing prodigal — Larry Poons. But the crotchety old Poons, in his paint spattered pants and Bowery drunk’s knit turban, isn’t enough of, or as thoughtfully examined an example to override the filmmakers’ clear fascination with the spectacle of wealth that they lay before us. The triumph at the end of the story is Poons’ portended re-embrace by the very sharks whose existence we have been told throughout that his whole being contradicts. What exactly is that meant to tell us?

Making things by hand and eye, whether they be pictures — painted, mechanical or digital — sculptures in three dimensions, or all the different kinds of handmade things that have traditionally been identified as “craft”, are all processes that incorporate the  thoughtfulness, skill, personal involvement and transference that we have come down the centuries to think of as “Art”. This is no less true of a hand-carved colonial gravestone, an Eastlake chair, or a letterpress printed and hand-bound codex than it is of Michelangelo’s David or deKooning’s Montauk Highway. Genuine art has never been limited by the kind of thing a person chooses to make, but by the quality and intensity of the care, attention, emotional investment and intelligence of its maker — for all of which nebulous, even metaphysical contents, the physical object becomes a fixed repository and potential translator in the material world.

It doesn’t matter if these made things are traded for money, given away, or simply left in an attic or warehouse to be forgotten and perhaps discovered later. The exact manner or value of the trade that conveys them from maker to whatever owner or place in which they land, is completely distinct from the objects themselves, which will outlive all such fleeting transactions until they too pass from the world by way of neglect, outright destruction or a slow deterioration. The genuine value of art is not determined by what it costs, but by the degree to which it is loved and preserved over the long haul by people who have completely forgotten what it cost in the first place. This is why it is such a hopeless project to assign a plausible value to contemporary works; we haven’t figured out yet if they are valuable or not! We still have the once completely unknown Johannes Vermeer’s paintings three and a half centuries on from when they were made, not because they were identified as having exceptional monetary or cultural value at the time (which they were not), but because they were such powerful objects in themselves that all those generations of individuals who found themselves in possession of one thought them worthy of preservation. Only time will tell if the emanations of a Richard Prince, Damien Hirst, or Jenny Holzer will be treated with similar reverence going forward.

Money does not confer real value or quality to the things of art any more than a lack of money denies it. Therefore, deciding arbitrarily that some object is worth tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars only stores that arbitrarily monetized figure in the object for possible later retrieval, gain or loss. In all such high-flying transactions, the object’s real artistic merit (or lack thereof) is obscured by its incarnation as an analog of the poker chip, which is nothing more or less than a symbol of trading and purchasing potential.

“The Art World” is a misleading name for the network of institutions and retail outlets that collectively comprise a thriving multi-billion dollar industry in art-like commodities, some of which are genuine works of art, and a great many more of which are relatively shallow imitations of such things. The whole circus is enabled by the enormous volumes of personal capital that have been extracted from our economy, especially in Britain and The United States, over the past forty years since the deregulatory, greed-adoring Thatcher and Reagan eras. All that money has gone into the hands of a vanishingly small minority of players — people who have more cash than any individual could rationally need or use, and who must therefore invent things to do with it, and places to put it, which reinforce the grotesquely egotistical notion that having gotten hold of it in the first place was either a meaningful or an admirable human achievement (without which justification, they might run the risk of actually looking in the mirror).

So where does that leave real art? In the past half century of its hyper-inflation, the contemporary art market has arrogated to itself the authority to pronounce a desired value for the assets it sells, based entirely on nebulous cycles of taste and fashion of which it is itself the principal author. The perverse paradox at the heart of this activity are the conjoined ideas that anything CAN be a “great” work of art, but that only a tiny handful of self-proclaimed experts are equipped to tell us which ones ARE. This hokus-pokus of pretended expertise cannily circumnavigates the deeper truth that real artistic quality is discernable to anybody sensitive and educated enough to be interested in looking for it on their own. This is not to say that art is not a complicated topic, or one that does not genuinely require expertise to understand. The best artists are the masters of skills, both manual and perceptive, that are extremely hard-won and which it takes a substantial amount of education and exposure to successfully deduce. That kind of understanding is what we used to call connoisseurship. It takes work to know this fine stuff when we see it, just as it takes work to learn how to make it. But all of that expertise is available to anybody who is willing to take the time to learn it. Relinquishing it to some expensively hired interpreter is both a forfeit of the pleasure of direct knowledge, and an open invitation to be swindled.

The relationship of money to art is neither as mystical nor as moral as we alternately crass and puritanical Americans want it to be. Artists deserve to be paid, and paid well, for real skill when they have successfully accumulated it — no less so than good doctors, lawyers or chefs are entitled to a rewarding fee in exchange for giving us something we need or desire and cannot make for ourselves. The relative comfort or security of the livelihood that a skilled professional can command is entirely justified by the hard work it took to become that skilled in the first place. But celebrity status and fortunes that are inflated beyond such a rational level soon become ridiculous parodies of the original acts that gave them birth, and inevitably undermine the real quality of the essential one-to-one exchange between maker and viewer that rests at the heart of this curious vocation. If the prices an artist is paid for her or his hard work become fraudulently inflated, that artist (or athlete or rock star) is somehow tainted with that fraud by accepting it, whether they want to admit it or not. This may not impact the quality of the first works sold at such a scale, but if one goes on manufacturing things in pursuit of ever more inflated remuneration and recognition, that hungry motive has a way of creeping into and diminishing the work. If the price I get for a canvas as a life-long and relatively skilled painter is sufficient to keep a roof over my head, support my family and give me more money to paint on, then I have been paid well. If my reputation as a good, or even a great painter grows to the point where I don’t have to work as hard at selling my things as I do at making them, that too feels entirely fair and balanced. But, if I am getting enough money for a single painting to bankroll 20 other painters like myself at that originally rational scale for many decades into the future, well . . . something is out of whack. This is not a point of moralizing so much as it goes to the central critical issue of our age, which is the ideal of sustainability — or of being content with enough, rather than craving too much.

The fact is that we are living in an age of unprecedented excess: excess extraction of our precious resources; excess damage to the ecosystem on which we depend for survival; and above all, excess numbers of human beings overcrowding and using up the fragile world of which we are an embedded part. The whole project of human survival into the future (if it is possible at all) will depend on retreating from such excesses and finding a more sustainable scale at which to live and be human. Art is, as it has always been, a mirror of our realities. At the moment it happens to be reflecting all these fatal excesses. The now numerous documentary exposés which chronicle the corruption of the art market, such as The Price of Everything, Netflix’Blurred Lines, or the late Robert Hughes’s much earlier The Mona Lisa Curse are entertaining, and can outrage and titillate the audience with gusto. But none seems to offer an alternative. They all appear to be saying “This is how it is folks!  Get used to it!”  And with the exception of Hughes’ film, they also clearly delight in the excess they are reporting, and covertly praise it in a sort of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous fetishism of this preposterous wealth.

This artistic incarnation of human excess has rendered a lot of what was once manageable almost impossible to sustain. There isn’t much we can do, until the bubble bursts, about the way in which the long historical legacies of art that are the province of the great museums have been pushed out of their reach by being too monetarily valuable to acquire or insure. But in terms of contemporary art — art being made now — there has always been an easy antidote to the dilemma portrayed in all those damning documentaries: we just have to stop being enthralled by that giant glowing head within the art world’s lavishly decorated proscenium and take a look behind the curtain at the real wizard of this overblown, technicolor Oz. The reality is that the gorged art market, alongside its supporting network of galleries, auction houses and museums is as tiny and cloistered a realm as the population of absurdly rich patrons who enable the whole intertwined and conflicted network of interests to exist. There are, in fact, legions of artists and makers working outside that universe, who never get any sort of “traction” within it, but who are making things as good as, and often infinitely better than, what it has to offer. The most genuine and best art today is additionally being made, bought and traded at a far more rational economic scale (meaning a scale at which the maker is able to achieve a reasonable livelihood while the buyer is able to attain a very fine thing without bankrupting him or herself) completely outside the precincts of the high-end art market.

In other words: If you are an artist and want to have some success, don’t be discouraged by the awful art world. Ignore it altogether. Instead, put everything you’ve got into learning how to make things that are incredibly hard to make, which make you feel good, and which excite somebody else who you can relate to, to the degree that they are willing to pay you a fair fee to own them. If, on the other hand, you are a sincere lover of art and despair at the corruption or financial obstacles of the market — quit looking for it there. The good stuff is out here in the real world, and easy enough to see if you simply train your own eye and trust it to see the things that matter to you.

Leslie Parke at SUNY Oneonta

Advanced Projects Dance Class, Bennington College, Fall 2009
Leslie Parke, SILVER LIGHT, 46 x 94 inches. Silver pencil, chalk and chalkboard paint on canvas

I have often heard it said that if Christ were to come back and deliver his message of peace and tolerance today, he’d be crucified all over again by his most rabidly intolerant followers. The same could be said, in a different way, of many of our most revered artistic masters. Imagine a painter as changeable and inconsistent in his method as Henri Matisse attempting to get a show in a New York gallery today. Not a chance! The operating standard in the currently market-dominated art world is product consistency above all. You could fill a booth at Miami Basel with little piles of thumbtacks, or 20 airbrushed photorealist paintings of blown-up details of inflatable beach toys, and nobody would bat an eye — but by god they’d better all be similarly conceived and manufactured! A whole generation of artists, gallerists and curators appears to have forgotten — or perhaps never learned in the first place — that the greatest works are often arrived at by dint of a risky, uncertain experimentation that is completely antithetical to the strategies of market-ready design.

But engineering a stylistic or conceptual “look” that can be dependably turned-out and then patented with an artist’s name and identity is the opposite of what the best art does. It doesn’t project anything at us, but rather invites us in to the sharing of a visionIts purpose is not to be looked-at, but to be looked through in order to see something else — as we see through a lens, or a window, or simply our own eyes, on the way to discovering the unfolding world around us. That seeing begins with the artist herself, who, if she is genuinely searching, will find something at the intersection of the external world and her internal process that she can look at, and thereby discover meanings not previously realized.

All the dead painters I love best made a great many awful pictures in their careers. There are the occasionally ham-handed royal portraits by Goya, with skin that seems like a burn victim’s on the verge of sliding off its sub-strait of muscle and bone; there is the patchy viridian goulash of Manet’s attempts to paint the sea; or JMW Turner’s slug-like invertebrate figures: There are O’Keeffe’s more cloyingly precious Southwestern still lives; Hopper’s often clumsily rendered roadside scenes and putty-fleshed hotel room denizens. On and on it goes. All the best painters make bad paintings alongside their finest ones. It is when every work that issues from an artist’s hand precisely conforms to his or her most fully realized standard of excellence that we should begin to be suspicious. The greatest successes are built not only on a willingness to risk failure, but on multiple failures or near-misses actually having occurred along the path to that highest achievement. But if a painter feels compelled to make something perfect every time she picks up the brush, well…she will never get there at all.

Leslie Parke, a professional painter with a long and steady career of gallery and museum exhibitions stretching back into the 1970s, is an exemplary artist of this exploratory kind. Like so many American painters who came up through the second half of the 20th century in the shadow of New York’s various postwar movements, she has spent a lifetime attempting to reconcile the still-estranged parallel universes of representation and abstraction.

Parke’s way into this struggle was, from the outset, to tackle an abstracted formal order via representationally identifiable, but fundamentally disordered contents. Initially this exploration led her to copy and reinterpret masterworks by classical figurative painters, ranging from Giotto to Matisse, Ingres and Goya — work she developed through the 1980s and 90s and in a five-month residency in 1994 at Monet’s studio in Giverny in France.

Still grappling with the figure after that sojourn in the land of Impressionism, Parke turned to the battered landscape of prize fighter’s faces, captured from photographs of ongoing bouts. These echo Bellows and other gritty Ashcan-era painters of the urban scene who were, in their time, also trying to find a distinctly American rejoinder to the Impressionists’ sun-dappled modernism. But Parke soon realized that both the light and the natural environment she’d been exposed to at Giverny had planted their seeds. A growing interest in understanding nature by way of the effect of the sun’s rays reflected off and through the interstitial spaces of its organic forms — its waterways, hoarfrost and tree branches — led her back into a series of land and waterscapes.

Eventually, Parke settled into a still life object-based realism, rendered in vertical compositions that strike a delicate balance between moving chaos and grid-like formalism. The most fully realized of this series, which she painted through the mid 2000s, feature cluttered topographies of china cups and saucers, immersed in unspecified bodies of water that could be anywhere from the kitchen sink to forest streams or tidal races along the beach. These paintings of baptized crockery, as well as a later series of compacted trash and plastic-wrapped commercial and industrial products, all are rendered with a robust paint application which feels nearly Impressionistic up-close but resolves at a distance into an exacting observational realism.

Despite that one senses a clearly directional chronology to these explorations, Parke is a painter who works all her different avenues of interest simultaneously — tackling one kind of picture for a time, then breaking off to leap into another parallel track on a related but distinct form. And yet, like her realism, which resolves its clarity at a remove, the strength and urgency of Parke’s formal eye settles as the dominant theme of all her work when one stands back to review the whole of her career.

Now in her fourth decade as a painter, all Parke’s many languages have broken loose of their moorings to the literal and have fully embraced a new kind of representationally-founded abstraction that is entirely her own. Over the past several years, she has embarked on a vigorous amalgam of constantly diverging and re-integrating themes from each of her principal forms of the past two decades. These include the densely forested landscapes of tree-branches, some vertical bodies of uninterrupted sea, plastic-wrapped bales of trash, a sprawling mountain-scape of what could be a Baroque wedding dress draped across a bed, and various other, often mysterious forms. As has always been the case, Parke’s many visual languages are marinated in art historical precedents. The tree pictures pay an unabashed homage to Pollock without feeling derivative. A giant, vibrating, horizontal chalk-board of repeating white circles on a black background evokes Cy Twombly, but only by showing us what that artist never mastered himself: a tightly-sprung, electric calligraphy evoking the rhythms of the spheres, of gravity swirling around and through black holes, and charging at the viewer from out of the sublime vacuum of the cosmos.

Returning to the opening observations in this review, the strength in Parke’s work is enabled not only by her ample skill, but by the risks that do not fear to challenge its most dependable formulae. Not every one of her new pieces is a flawless tour de force, but the occasional stumbles, or odd divergences, are precisely what enable her greatest successes, just as similarly reaching but faltering exertions enabled many of the best paintings we know from history.

For anybody who loves not only painting, but the true ethos of its eternally questing process, this latest body of Leslie Parke’s work is arrayed to great advantage in an ongoing exhibition titled Continuous Flow, which is on view until December 18th at SUNY Oneonta’s Fine Arts Center.

For information or directions, contact The Martin-Mullen Art Gallery at 108 Ravine Parkway, Oneonta, NY 13820.

Phone: 607-436-3456  or  607-436-2445. Open Monday through Friday, 11am to 5pm and by appointment.

The exhibition can also be viewed by looking at the artist’s dropbox gallery at https://shwca.se/SUNY-PARKE