It’d be fair to say that your artwork doesn’t really challenge any paradigms. Or any notions. And as sad as it makes me to say this, you haven’t addressed anything (unless you’ve just sent something through the mail). I know you set out to do that, and you wrote a really fantastic artist’s statement justifying the whole conceptual approach in a well-argued and thoroughly contextualised way, but it doesn’t – it really doesn’t.
That’s not to say I don’t respect the effort. Like many art punters, I enjoy having my opinions and attitudes reflected back to me in an environment designed to enhance that interaction. Like a good rant on social media or a pithy opinion column in the mainstream media, I like to commune with a point of view I already agree with. It gives me a warm feeling rather like a campfire on a chilly night, and your determination to say something important is the hot cocoa that completes the analogy.
You have to wonder: How did we get here? How did we end up with art as a ‘critical practice’ that is neither really that critical nor particularly good art? The problem is self-justifying histories and methodologies. It’s a polymorphously perverse practice where no outside is too outside not to be included. Step into the big tent: any medium, any form, anything that can position itself in critical dialogue with a perceived orthodoxy.
Of course no culture is complete without its exclusions: archly conservative or rightwing political views are verboten, at least if they’re staged that way, and although the contemporary art world is ready to tolerate even the intolerable, we have little time for heritage art forms, the old stuff that’s done for its own sake – portrait and landscape painting, figure sculpture, watercolours. You want to paint on a pile of sand? You want to skateboard on a modernist sculpture? You want to tie a Subway sandwich to your leg? ALL ARE WELCOME.
In this context my tastes have become perverse. I long ago drifted away from the orthodoxy of the contemporary to re-evaluate artists of bygone times who were, even in their own day, considered too much, too far gone, too out there to be serious. Artists such as Edwin Landseer, the king of Victorian-era sentimentalia, who painted pictures of pets and wild animals, the remains of arctic explorers eaten by polar bears or majestic stags brought down by wild dogs. Not only did the audience get value for money (big paintings, lots of action), they also got a bonus moral lesson not hidden in the subtext but in your face, yo.
I’m also fond of John Martin, another 19th- century painter who was like the poor man’s Turner, an artist who envisioned the end of the world like a pre-vis artist working on a Roland Emmerich disaster flick. His work was so god- damned popular that his paintings toured the world, bringing in four million paying punters, while back at home in London, as he designed an underground public transport system in his spare time, people were ripping off his work in unauthorised prints and walk-through dioramas.
I’m also partial to Martin’s spiritual cousins in the United States, painters like Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church and their contemporaries, who embraced the bad taste of the masses while simultaneously creating the groundwork for the imagery of modern science fiction. And before you say “Come now, these people were very wealthy in their day and belonged to royal academies and what-not – surely they were taken seriously?”, let me just remind you that Grayson Perry is a current member of the Royal Academy and so is David “Two Packs a Day” Hockney.
When you look at the descendants of those artists working today, you could well argue that they’re not contemporary artists by the strictest definitions, and perhaps so, but it feels tantalis- ingly like a way out of the repetition of being told things by artists over and over again, statements of the bleeding obvious I already agree with. When I look at the work of contemporary realist painters, I see a heady world of high-craft skills and dangerous lapses in taste. You can paint your pictures to look like a photograph, and that’s awesome, but do you need to add a tiger? Do you really need to include a rocket? A painting of some mattresses at the local tip? Your girlfriend as lace- collar lady out of Vermeer?
Normally that tingling sensation you feel when you look at great art is the sense that you’re seeing something that’s real – that is, you recognise the sensation, that feeling, something to commune with and value, but somehow reflected back in a way that appears new, startling. I don’t know if genuine bad taste is a cure for what afflicts so much contemporary art, but for now it feels like the real thing – and a sensation very much like great art. Let’s give it a try.
Published in Art Guide, March 2016.
Illustration: Oslo Davis