Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy, the Graydon Parrish Gallery Talk

The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy, the Graydon Parrish Gallery Talk

Thursday evening, Sept 10,2015, New Britain Museum of American Art

Considering that I had written a preview review of the newly reconstructed NBMAA galleries, I wanted to visit them first hand and also attend the Graydon Parrish gallery talk to attempt to understand what he might be referring to when he labels his work Post Contemporary.

His large canvas called The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy is something I had encountered in previous visits. It's a memorial piece eulogizing the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and it was commissioned by the NBMAA and the parents of someone who lost their life in the events of that day.

Art takes on significance in many ways and memorial works acquire emotional and sentimental value for those who express their grief and orphaned love through them. It's important to respect those emotions as projected into the symbol such a memorial represents.  That said, I want to offer a wholly artistic critique of the work.  This critique is not a critique of those who are emotionally coupled to the piece.

In my previous visits, I simply disliked the piece because it failed to connect with me.  I didn't like the scale, the painting style, nor could I decipher the obvious narrative elements it contained. I had hoped the gallery talk by Parrish might change my mind.

Graydon Parrish looks very much like a prima donna and his demeanor is punctuated by humorous quips that have been vetted in previous talks.  A search of YouTube produces a near identical monologue delivered some years ago in the same venue. During his talk, I warmed up to him a bit. He's forever saddled with a beast of his own making and there's a real burden in that.

A lot of his gallery talk sounds very patronizing to his bread and butter audience - the true believers. They refer to the piece as a masterpiece and to Graydon as a genius.  Graydon is more than happy to milk that sentiment and compares aspects of his painting to Picasso and Michelangelo.  In both cases, the similarity is wholly wishful thinking but hey, you have to kill time somehow in these gallery talks.

As I listened to him explain the painting I found that I disliked it even more after the explanations than when the thing merely confused me.  Parrish uses the painting as a blunt instrument. He claims (and promtional material echoes) the idea that the painting is "allegorical" - representing a historical snapshot.  He also claims it is complex. And he has a cultist fervor for its realism, "beauty", and old-fashioned aesthetics (I'm guessing this is what he calls Post Contemporary).

Parrish is a fine, skilled technical painter and his painting is filled with dozens of examples of academic virtuosity.  Young and old human figures, flowing cloth, atmospheric effects are all abundantly represented. It is the kind of realist illusionism that was common hundreds of years ago when Western Art's central theme was Christian scenes and more Christian scenes. In the context of a memorial painting about an event that often used Christianity and the Muslim religion as counterpoints and given the cultural diversity of the victims, the theological implications of the work are dubious.

And Parrish is correct in feeling uncomfortable as a Contemporary artist. Both his narrative layers and his black and white religious kitsch are difficult to logically reconcile.  Unlike well curated PostModern appropriations of symbol, icon, and metaphor, Parrish's piece is a mishmash of self-promotion ("postContemporary" advocacy), misunderstanding allegory for fabulism, and in his fabulism he conflates the cycle of life with the political invention of a "cycle of terror and tragedy". This reduces the piece to little more than a monumental visual gravestone whose sentiments are not universal but slapped together to satisfy a grieving audience.

The narrative of the piece, rather than representing a natural cycle of life interrupted by a sudden tragic event asserts that the cycle of life is little more than a sequence of innocence, terror, tragedy, then wisdom and a reincarnation of the cycle yet again.  This is a philosophical Stockholm syndrome in which victims embrace victimhood as an explanation for all of life.  Parrish claims the scene of three grieving women (likely lifted from just about any illustrated crucifixion painting from the golden age of crucifixion paintings) in fact represent the three Greek fates (destiny's beginning, middle, end). His audience finds this profound to one degree or another but the conClation of Christianity and pre-destiny is little more than oxymoron.  To make matters worse these destiny symbols are grieving (instead of just observing and saying "that's what I'm talking about"). To add insult to philosophical injury, Parrish points to the woman with the handkerchief to her mouth and says that has to do with the chemical/biologic attack.

The narrative is a victim-hood fiction, start to finish and it contains flourishes of Disney-like fable. To the very right in the painting is a yellow smudge that stands out of the chaos like a Tinkerbell, "That", Parrish asserts, "is the glimmer of hope!" as he rolls his eyes and twists away for dramatic effect. Just below is a ribbon that shapes the infinity symbol ("Infinity AND Beyond!"). The color palette is red, white, and blue. There's a black woman and white women. The men are the towers and the women (in classic realist glory) are supporting props. There's an hour or more of Parrish explaining all this and its jaw-dropping in many more cases.

The ultimate failure of the piece however lies in the choice of choosing Grayson Parrish as the artist. Parrish is an evangelist for a return to realist painting and claims to allegorical painting in his own work.  The attack of September 11 was not an attack on individuals or even the United States, the attack was an attack on Modernity - technological progress, Contemporary Art, religious differences, human dignity that transcends class of birth, and so on.

The irony of the piece is that Parrish's evangelism is the same cultural attack on Modernity and in many ways his audience are philosophically more coupled to the terrorists than they imagine themselves to be. It is noteworthy that in Parrish's painting the narrative concludes with a survivor whose lesson from the event bestows wisdom.  This fiction conveniently ignores the fact that the terror of 9/11 was followed by a decade or more of random and directed vengeance and retribution, not wisdom.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

21st Century Art, contemporary yes, Contemporary no

The New Britain Museum of American Art (NBMAA) has added a new wing to its facilities that includes the McKernan 21st century Art gallery. Susan Dunne, the Hartford Courant's art reviewer wrote a sneak-preview piece about this additional space in the August 23, 2015 Arts section of the paper.

I grew up in New Britain and I'm familiar with the museum and its many incarnations. But for decades the museum has operated with a discomfort and disdain for non-representational, (let's generally call it) abstract art. Yet the art that made American Art globally recognized is difficult to find and when you find the trace material, it is usually unrepresentative of the best or iconic work of the artist.  The one Jackson Pollock painting is a tiny seascape.  Even Pollock is reduced to the scenery painting that is near ubiquitously collected and curated by the museum ad nausea.

Susan Dunne writes that finally, "There are now dedicated spaces for surrealism, abstract expressionism, conceptualism, photorealism, pop art, photography, even 'bad art'. The museum has owned Warhol, Wyeth, Man Ray, Nevelson, Indiana, Gottlieb, Sage, Avery, Tooker, LeWitt, and more. Dunne writes, "while it is invigorating to see the work of time-honored masters - many of the artworks haven't been exhibited in a long time" without the slightest hint of irony. The masters have been in mothballs and the museum instead served up decade after decade of kitsch and geographically provincial absurdity and the museum has the gall to dedicate a gallery to presumably even worse art. Hopefully they're only recycling what's been on the walls too many years. If that's the case you can be sure it will be carefully guarded for the inevitable retrospective of the good old days when the masters were in mothballs.

The true subject of this essay is not the lack of vision that has plagued the museum in the past, it is the lack of vision described by Dunne in the Contemporary Art category. I know. You can see it coming already, can't you.

The McKernan Gallery is dedicated to 21st century art 2000 - present. The idea of categorizing Fine Art by year is absurd at face value. Historicity is a very outdated way to even think about past art, so we are already in troubling waters. A gallery dedicated to the Contemporary and PostModern is no more evident than the masters in mothballs pieces were all these years.

Dunne describes what will be in the history-biased gallery and it is little more than a litany of political commentary, "The exhibit offers an energetic array of styles and media, and the 40 works, installed side-by-side, point out a common thread in the NEW/NOW series that might not have been obvious in each artist's individual show; its longtime dedication to presenting art that makes a social statement". If your eyes aren't rolling yet they will be soon.

Some of the pieces Dunne describes, "Hung Liu's 'Relic 12' shows a bored woman with bound feet, a commentary on the limited role of women in traditional Chinese society". Dunne understandably misses the point just as the museum does. The bound feet are not about lack of opportunity, an American feminist meme - the bound feet are more likely about China's birth control issues (the last thing American feminists might complain about).  Not all Chinese women lounge around.  Visit on a search engine a high-tech manufacturing plant in China and take a look at their deformed hands sometime. There's no lack of opportunity in the sweat shops. But that American angle to the work isn't there.

Dunne goes on to list a litany of politically charged subjects, feminist statements, over-saturation of commercial imagery, immigrants trying to navigate the United States, post-911-ism, internment, pop-Christianity, guns and video game statements.  Taken as a whole, its a show of over-sized political bumper stickers collected as "statement art". FIFTEEN YEARS (or more) of statement art! Its enough to make a grown artist cry. And it explains why the art is categorized as it is by the politics du jour.

The most American thing about this state of affairs is that the museum has become a collection of stuff, lost causes, causes that never were, causes that bored us into inaction like a cluttered basement of a political activist with an obsessive love of kitsch.

American Art is more than this and the museum needs to re-evaluate the myopic obsession with representation, politics, and intellectual intolerance for Modern and Contemporary Art. I'm not optimistic. Graydon Parrish whose Cycle of Terror and Tragedy (yet-another-911-memorial-commission) is holding a discussion about his piece with a group of other artists who paint in similar style.  They call themselves PostContemporary artists.  What are PostContemporary artists? Well the work is an awful lot like pre-Renaissance, Cartesian-subject matter. You can't make stuff like this up but never confuse the label with the thing.

- Frank Krasicki, 082715

Saturday, May 30, 2015

This is a Peter Karp photo of me in front of my two entries into the Williamsburg Art & Historical Society's Bridges Self show in May of 2015.