There are two kinds of artist: One kind infuses his or her artwork with energy and gesture and spontaneity, the other with detail and memory. The work of the first kind of artist I find consuming and satisfying, but the aftereffects fade all too quickly into general impressions. The second kind of artist seeks in the frozen moment a unique, summary image that becomes, for me, unforgettable in its specifics. As great a painter as Jackson Pollock was, I can’t recall with precision any one of his paintings; yes, I can talk about drips and reduced palette and the canvas’s size and energy, but these are features that apply to much of Pollock’s work. By contrast, I remember every Edward Hopper painting I’ve ever seen, with great clarity.
The young artists I have chosen for this issue of the Believer are mainly members of this second group of art makers. I saw their work, and I remembered it lucidly as if the images were burned on my brain. Maybe it is no coincidence that many of these artists work from photographs (with the possible exception of Claudette Schreuder). Cynthia Westwood paints predominantly from life, but she uses photos as well. David Hockney suggested in his controversial book Secret Knowledge that even the old masters used an optic device called a camera obscura to achieve their lifelike effects, and I’m with him. I have always used photos to make my work, and I don’t understand the bias people have against painters and sculptors using photos. The photograph is a great tool for the painter, and I’ll tell you why. First, the photo shows us stuff we didn’t see at the instant we pushed the button, even though we witnessed the image firsthand through the lens. When you cut a moment into a fraction of a second, nothing is still. A photo captures people off balance and unself-conscious, and for me that is when truth lies exposed.
Every artist must ask, “How much is enough?” How much description, how much paint, how much light or color, is enough to create a powerful and memorable experience? For artists dealing with representation, the photo suggests how much detail they need to make their representations “believable.” That’s what I like—believable representation. Magic occurs when an inanimate object talks back to you. We want to feel that the object is, for a moment, more alive than we are. During the Renaissance, the highest form of praise was to say that the sculpture was so real, so alive, that it turned one to stone. That is what I want as a viewer and what I strive for as an artist. I want an object to still the moment. Our being frozen gives us the chance, the fighting chance, to peer into and perhaps grasp the substance of meaning. Art is, after all, about revelation, and you can’t have a revelation unless you are, for an instant, pulled out of the dark flow of your life.
For the most part, the artists I’ve selected draw inspiration for their work by focusing on events or people in their personal lives or by using their bodies as vehicles of exploration and expression. Some address sex, some death, some violence, but mostly they address undercurrents, psychological stuff, repressed feelings, and disappointments. For some it is a spiritual journey, for others an immediate release. All of it is intelligent and beautifully executed. Most of it is expressed with humor or irony. My hope is that you will be sufficiently impressed by these artists that you will seek them out and experience the beauty and complex subtleties of their work “in the flesh,” so to speak.
Helen Verhoeven grew up in L.A. and Holland. Surrounded by film culture, she developed a natural and intuitive way of “picturing” her images and narratives, using a filmic sense of sequencing and POV combined with humorous ironic understatement. Verhoeven chooses loaded subjects such as nightmares or near-death experiences, painting them in a loose and immediate manner, without sensationalism. Their calm and matter-of-fact atmosphere belies a profound anxiety.
One painting I am particularly fond of is a diptych titled Olga’s Upstairs. In acidic red tones, a young teenage girl is pictured standing in a large room, possibly a living room. She wears a black training bra and black slip, and she smiles at us in goofy greeting. On one hand she wears a glove that might be made of rubber. It’s unclear whether the red underpainting still visible on her other hand depicts a shadow or blood. As you stare back at Olga in confused wonder, her goofy grin grows increasingly mad.
Cynthia Westwood grew up in Texas, was a company member of the Houston Ballet from 1986 to 1990, studied art in both Boston and New York, married, and moved to England, where she now lives and works. Her most recent paintings are of a young woman bathing in a tub. They are some of the best “flesh” paintings to be found today, by far. Westwood’s almost invisible manner of applying paint suggests an unself-conscious celebration of female physicality with all the transparency of a freshly cleaned window. I want to say they celebrate a luminous body, but celebration implies too much activity. These paintings are so direct in their observation and recording of detail that they project a cool and steadfast objectivity, yet not formal in any classical sense. They say, “Look no further than the reality of this moment.” The woman depicted is so trusting of the viewer’s gaze that Westwood has been able to capture a monumentally intimate moment, timeless and inviolable.
Chie Shimizu is Japanese. Lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Her sculpture reminds me of Japanese Butoh performance. In Butoh, naked white-painted actors perform evocative and mysterious gestures. Shimizu’s sculptures project a similar air of mystery and deep significance. The exquisitely modeled figures show her masterful grasp of anatomy. The scale of her work, about half life-size, rendered with exacting detail, draws the viewer irresistibly toward their otherworldliness. These sculptures are poetic metaphors of self-identity and spiritual struggle. Two identical figures face each other. One raises a golden mask to his face while the other stands behind a golden mask that floats in front of his face. The one emulates or imitates what the other manifests. In another work, a lone figure stands still while balancing three stacked stones on his head. The stones are patinated with gold and wrapped in a red ribbon like some sacred scroll. The figure’s eyes are closed and he is motionless, yet one senses great tension. The weight of his enlightenment both grounds him and confuses him. It is a difficult yet beautiful burden.
Claudette Schreuder is South African. She carves and then paints wooden sculptures in what one might call a neo-primitive style. These sculptures appear to be quasi-self-portraits or maybe the portraits of an alter ego. Schreuder focuses her wit and acute power of observation on normal daily routines such as sleeping, waking, doing sit-ups, going to school. These routines are disarmingly fraught with vulnerability and self-consciousness, yet in her hands, they are suffused with a playful tenderness.
Anahita Vossoughi, who is of Iranian descent, was born in Canada and grew up in Kansas. Vossoughi explores male iconography and male identity. Her most recent paintings focus on imagery of homosexual Middle Eastern males, whom she renders in glorious high-keyed colors that call to mind the traditions of Indian miniatures and mystical Hindu paintings. It is rare to find women who use the male nude or male sexuality as meditations on desire and “otherness.” Vossoughi elevates and exalts her subjects while also expressing their needs and vulnerability with tenderness and compassion. In her painting The Touching Implication of You she portrays an ambiguously gendered figure bracketed by twin male youths who lean on his shoulders. The young men mirror each other’s gaze and gesture, a gesture reminiscent of Thomas’s fingering Christ’s wound. The gesture is also one of deference to this father figure on whom they seem to depend for comfort and protection. The look on the central figure’s face is quite powerful in its resolve to accept long-term suffering and responsibility.
Rebecca Tillett: a photographer from Las Cruces, New Mexico. Tillett insists her photos are anti-artistic; perhaps they are. Her work is fueled by a naked refusal to respect the sacred object. The photographs convey her existential fury, her profound anger toward the body (hers and others), and, at the core, a chilling sense that everything is ultimately disposable.
I’m particularly fond of a seven-piece series in which she is pictured pulling up her dress to get dressed, then slipping the dress over her head to get undressed. This continuous cycle of dressing and undressing resides somewhere between a private routine, in which she is unaware of our voyeuristic intrusion, and a public performance, in the presence of which I am compelled to ask myself, “Did I ask her to do this for my pleasure?”
Natacha Merritt: San Francisco photographer-diarist-blogger who documents her sexual experiences in vivid and explicit detail. Using a handheld digital camera that she “takes to bed” with her, she discovers angles and gestures and moments of sexual expression that are truly original, expressive, and exciting. This is not pornography; this is sexuality. Merritt’s images are sexy aesthetic objects brimming with ambiguous needs and desires. The distortions and bizarre coloration she captures, perhaps due to poor lighting and fast action, have an appealing intelligence and compositional sophistication that call to mind photographs of artists such as Andre Kertesz, Bill Brandt, and Ralph Gibson.
Liu Xiaodong and Yu Hong are married, and live and work in Beijing. They were schooled at the Fine Arts Academy of Beijing, which at the time focused on training young artists to paint portraits and scenes glorifying the state and the workers, an ethos that began to break down in the ’80s. Artists were no longer guaranteed commissions and were also beginning to explore more personal styles and narrative forms of expression. Where overt critique was not yet possible, a critical eye was a valuable tool for capturing the changes influencing China’s new direction. Liu Xiaodong and Yu Hong both have a stunning facility for capturing within the personal and mundane moments of one’s life the impact of political and social expectations. Perhaps this is the skill most suited for survival in an environment of repression.
Yu Hong’s paintings focus on her life in a steadfast documentary form. The paintings begin when she was six months old and follow her through all the stages of growth and development into present-day adulthood. She paints the minutiae of her life, her quotidian routines, in luscious color. Somehow she manages to avoid the pitfalls and clichés of narcissism. She paints her experiences exactly as they occurred; nothing more, nothing less. If she is happy, she paints her happiness. If she is silly and playful, she paints that. If she is anxious she captures it. All moments are of equal significance.
Liu Xiaodong’s work is more outwardly focused, more overt in exploring the impact of the sociopolitical environment on the psyches of his characters. He works in a cynical realism that is not without humor or empathy. He captures a person’s strengths and vulnerabilities without resorting to caricature. He is a terrific painter of men and has a warm, nonjudgmental acceptance of their weaknesses and excesses. Liu reminds me of Fellini.
Tim Gardner, a Canadian, lives in New York City. Gardner works in watercolor and, more recently, in pastels. One can fairly say that he is a master of those very difficult media, the importance of which centers on the way he has wedded them so perfectly to his subject matter. Watercolor and pastel are both fragile, fugitive media (and in the case of watercolor, irreversible: one mistake and the piece is ruined). Both media are also historically considered minor disciplines. These prejudices do not go unnoticed by Gardner. For him they are an apt metaphor for the lives he portrays.
The sources of his work are snapshots of himself, his brothers, and their friends. The fact is, all the snaps everyone takes inspire the same feeling: that you had to have been there to get it. Gardner chooses to elevate to artistic significance this overly familiar world that is so close, so ordinary, that it usually passes under the radar of art. Were it not for his talent the work would be nearly dismissible. He walks a treacherous line on which he is able to balance by the strength of his sincerity and his meticulous rendering. Objectifying cliché without lapsing into it, Gardner’s art captures the idiotic frat boy, endless keg party, reckless innocence of young men in their early twenties looking in the silliest of places for the meaning of life.
Jill Musnicki lives and works in Sag Harbor, New York. Musnicki coaxes a luminous presence from her subjects—layer upon layer, brushing and combing, she animates her small, delicate paintings of bees or jellyfish, works that are both specimen tray and still life. Musnicki paints with a fascination and pleasure that holds the world up to wonder. She paints things that she finds in her garden and her bay. They are, for her, collectible yet ungraspable.
There is an edge to her work, but not in her blurry, soft forms. It is found in the way she captures the compellingly creepy. Something you know will haunt you, but it is so exquisite you cannot turn away. She floats you by her phantasms as if by a dream.
I am most excited by her paintings in which the image appears first as an abstraction, or suggests another form. For example, there is a jellyfish she painted that, at first glance, looks like a light bulb or a diode. Another resembles a tribal mask, and another looks like a figure holding an umbrella. One of her bee paintings initially resembles a scrap of crumpled paper, and there’s another that looks fetal and discarded.
The bees are always dead and misshapen. The jellyfish are always luminous and alive. In Musnicki’s art, these objects of beauty, whether used up and discarded or transformative and resplendent, realize startling metaphorical creatures that once could have, or still might, sting.