Friday, April 28, 2006

Irony I'm home.

Edna has written what I feel is an important observation on the contemporary use of irony in art. What prompted her commentary was Jerry Saltz review in the Village Voice of Amy Sillman's current exhibition at the Sikkema Jenkins Gallery. I took the time to go see this exhibition of paintings this afternoon. Although I will make some personal observations on Ms Stillman's paintings what also interested me were Edna's observations about irony and how it's pervasive use might be distorting our current perceptual approaches towards art.

Lets be pedantic about it, irony:
1. The use of words to express something different from and often opposite to their literal meaning.
2. An expression or utterance marked by a deliberate contrast between apparent and intended meaning.
3. A literary style employing such contrasts for humorous or rhetorical effect.

To her credit Edna doesn't mince words and starts off describing the problem bluntly.

"You're basically doomed because irony has fucked up your sense of what is legitimate investigation and how to communicate it honestly once you find your groove."

This is a poignant observation. If an artist looks to the past, or any other source, for inspiration, for guidance or a place to start an investigation, must this position be viewed as ironic because of its reference? While one may or may not intend such a reference to be read as ironic, certainly one cannot assume that all references are necessarily ironic. Aside from just a point of departure, a reference may also be used, without irony, as a mode of content by addressing the viewers memory or awareness of a particular context. To ascribe irony to these other frameworks strips them of their true meaning and potentiality. It is one possible point of view but not the only point of view.

"The inroad to irony is so internalized that it manifests itself as compulsory abjectness."

Another astute observation. Irony in itself is interesting. Unfortunately, instead of an insightful contrast or dislocation, often wearing the cloak of humor, irony has become an excuse for artworks of questionable quality instead of raising a thoughtful criticism of their potential weakness

It's a mannerism.

Dead on the money.

Jerry Saltz makes the observation that "There are still no memorable images in the eight paintings in her current show..." [Saltz, Village Voice]

Edna counters with several questions.

"Memorable images. Are they really not memorable, or are they just subtle in a way that doesn't register as fresh or clued-in, i.e. pertinent?"

"Is the feeling of something when the thing itself is out of reach, and the images can't present themselves in any totality, really out of date?"

"Isn't it a slower, more in-depth investigation; the opposite of the forced, quotation-like narrative we've come to define as clever?"

I am not sure that "fresh, pertinent or up to date," are qualities necessary for a "memorable image." Certainly they may be qualities possessed by a memorable image but over time these references fade and we are left to deal with the paintings as they are in some future historical moment. In this respect I would agree with Edna's observations. Certainly the application of "irony," regressive or otherwise cannot guarantee a "memorable image." To Saltz defense, he tries to infer what he means by "memorable image" by making comparisons to other paintings. The difficulty here, for the reader, is in the misreading of the inference that one style or another might possess the secret.

The problem is that language is ill equipped to define the requirements for a "memorable image." In particular because the qualities of a "memorable image" are not linguistically defined but experiential. The recent Fra Angelico exhibition at the Met is a case in point. These were terrific paintings, memorable images. In spite of the fact, for most viewers, the linguistic or symbolic meanings are not immediately accessible, the paintings still move us. We have an emotional experience, a positive response, we like it or we don't based solely on what we experience visually. Five hundred years after their creation, we are bringing an entirely new viewing context to these paintings and potentially we still can have a meaningful experience.

"Has irony disabled our ability to build formally on history in an effort to enforce some kind of time stamp for the present?"

I suspect the overuse of "irony" is another passing fad. The "wink wink nod nod insider joke" was a useful marketing tool but when everyone has one, what good is it for distinguishing one brand from another? Ironically, critical analysis should view irony as irony but also directly address other critical issues without allowing "irony" to function as an excuse for weakness in these other areas.

Finally, I want to return to Amy Stillman's paintings and the "memorable image" question as it is directly applied to her recent exhibition. There is a difficult to define quality I would use for a memorable image. The term I use is "presence" An analogy for the experience would be the awareness of a particular person who walks into a room and holds your attention. Marilyn Monroe on the silver screen (yup, I'm over 40)

What gives a painting presence? While any of the intellectual, conceptual or symbolic attributes may be part of the issue, as I described above with Fra Angelico, they are not necessarily a requirement. Neither is color, scale, or technical facility, although any of these may also contribute to the quality.

Presence occurs because the painting exists as an ontological object. It is a self contained definition of itself which does not require outside mediation for completion. Experientially, one feels the painting is insistent of itself. It declares its identity as singular and actively present in the real world of objects. When a painting has presence it holds your attention.

Presence is a quality inherently in the painting, or not. With some radical paintings it may not be perceived by all viewers but if it is there it is there. It cannot be added on by critical discourse after the fact, it has it or it doesn't. To confuse the issue I would accept that there are varying degrees of presence but what I am most interested in is "insistent presence," the case where you know you are in the "presence of."

In the case of Amy Sillman's new paintings, I somewhat agree with Jerry Saltz. I am a fairly generous observer and I thought she had a good exhibition. I liked the paintings. From my point of view, I don't think the issue of "irony" is applicable to her work at all. Sillman's paintings seem like they are an honest personal investigation of how one can make a painting. Where I think some of the paintings might be problematic is that they did not seem to have a sufficient enough presence to overcome just looking like good paintings. What I mean by this is that there is a disjunct between the image of the painting and the painting itself. By image, I mean how the whole painting appears, the "picture of itself." This may sound contradictory but "the picture" is like what you see in a jpeg, the image of the painting. This must be coincident with the experience of the physical painting itself. More attention paid to edges might be a potential solution to this issue.

Of the group, the painting in the front named "The Plumbing" was the most memorable for me.


Anonymous said...


Thank you for this. You were able to clarify many of the things I was thinking about!


p.s Did you read the Times review of Sillman's show today?

George said...


Yes, just now. In general I haven't disagreed with the reviews. Her paintings seem prescient of something to come. At their current stage they seem to address the question "can I make a painting that looks like this?" My hunch is that the answer is yes but the paintings need to be pushed farther. When one works in a mode which has apparently visible historical references, maybe in any mode, a key issue is that the paintings must establish an identity. Taken as a whole, for any artists work will go through fluctuations of intent, identity occurs when the paintings do not require outside mediation. In other words, they exist on their own terms. They become self validating and do not use external references for validation.

I think she is on the way to this, she seems to know what aspects of painting as a practice she is interested in. The critical issue is that she needs to "own" these qualities rather than borrow them through reference, either intentional or unintentional. The risk of external reference is, that in the process, it facilitates a degree of acceptance because the painting, or section of the painting looks acceptably familiar (the external reference) In my opinion she needs to break through this barrier and to my eye it appears this is what she is attempting to do.

Unlike the various "new media" painting has a long history and the external reference is always potentially present. To transcend this one must push the work into a form uniquely personal (owning the image). This requires a resolution of ambiguity, or the unambiguous use of ambiguity, which is where I felt parts of her paintings fell short. At the moment her work still feels somewhat tentative, as if she is till finding her way. For example, the drawing aspects work sometimes but in other places the drawing feels ambiguous, an artifact of the process but lacking a sufficient degree of intentionally to be ultimately convincing. Still, it's a good start.