Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Crossing Out A Signature Style

I was recently discussing an artwork that was by a major artist but regarded as not indicative of their “signature style”. I asked an artist whether or not he felt there was a need for artists to visually develop throughout their careers, and he responded that in his opinion this approach had actually held him back in the market.

Think here, if you will, of a signature style. In creative fields, we often talk about chameleons – Madonna, Bob Dylan, even, if you will, Robert Rauschenberg. Then, at times, we find that artists visit and revisit their breakthrough styles, even if it seems that over time this could perhaps work them into a visual corner.

Barnett Newman speaks of the revelation he had when he painted “Onement 1”, widely regarded as his breakthrough painting. He says, perhaps metaphorically, that he stared at the painting for a very long time. Months. What came next was a body of works punctuated and articulated more than anything else by a “zip”, a vertical band dissecting the canvas. Some paintings had more than one zip, but they all had at least one.

This signature style allows viewers to develop a shorthand for artists – “that’s a Warhol, that’s a Pollock, that’s a Newman,” they might say, “that’s an Agnes Martin, that’s an On Kawara,” and so forth.

Each of these artists has in some way developed an aspect of their practice that allows viewers to enter into their works. At the same time, this doesn’t imply that their works are any more or less valued, or any more or less understood. It just implies that a silkscreen painting with a slightly askew registration is more often than not a Warhol, and that a painting of a date, in white, on a solid ground, is more often than not a Kawara.

What this also means is that for certain artists this can become a limitation, a straightjacket. Not so much for the artist themselves, but for viewers who have an expectation that art is always both recognizable and immediate.

I believe, in fact, that comfort and immediacy may have replaced analysis and challenge as some of the key aspects of viewing art. In a field in which there is a constant desire to expand audiences, and a concern about alienating what must necessarily be a dwindling audience, is there an argument that signature styles lead viewers to view artworks? I think so. This checklist, which becomes dangerously close to simply marking a scorecard of classic or contemporary works, leads both artists and curators into a place in which recognition becomes synonymous with experience.

I am not sure that this is necessarily so. I am also not sure that a signature style is either good or bad for art. What I do know is that artists themselves ponder precisely this question, as to gallerists, auctioneers, and collectors. The idea that a work is marked by its maker in such a way that everybody knows leads us all into a space in which breakthroughs become tentative and experimentation is in danger of marginalization.

This also doesn’t mean that Gilles Deleuze’s statement in Plato and the Simulacrum leads us to an answer – it is not viable today to merely posit this question under the rubric of the postmodern dictum, “only that which is alike differs, and only differences are alike.” Instead, I would think more of the words of Leonard Cohen in “Everybody Knows”: “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded/everybody rolls with their fingers crossed.” No doubt that artists, at least are rolling the dice and crossing their fingers each time they take a tentative step away from the styles that they, or their dealers, believe ‘made’ them who they are.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Full Screen Infothesia

Somehow the idea of an “endgame” essay about art seems to hearken back to the heydey of the eighties. Yet it seems that for whatever reason, we should perhaps be thinking about the implications of technology, information creation and dissemination, and the ubiquitous resolution of the 72 dpi image. It is as if apart from the impossibility of actually experiencing most works, I think there may be an “infothesia” happening. What I mean by the term is the idea that not only is the experience of art becoming more and more difficult as it becomes both more globalized and more fragmentary, but there is a belief that is exactly the opposite of the one proposed in Museum Without Walls.

Perhaps we are now at the edge of an abyss in which the experience of art is deemed to be as valuable whether experienced personally or digitally. The stigma of the reproduced image has, in a generation, been replaced by the expectation that this is precisely how one will see a work.

It is as if the expectation that our experiences will be compressed – MP3 files replace .WAVs, more information gets squeezed onto a personal media player of whatever type, and somehow that smaller and smaller image, that slightly altered audio experience, suddenly becomes the norm.

This is not to suggest in any way that this is necessarily problematic. When the cover of the New Yorker magazine can be created entirely on an iPhone, or when a series of squelchy, glitchy chords can transform into a genre of music – glitchcore, anyone? – then what both creators and critics must understand is that the baseline experience just simply isn’t the same. It’s simply the result of pressing the “full screen” button.

So what does this necessarily mean? I wrote recently about a pheonomenon I had termed “microsaturation”, and I think perhaps “infothesia” is its necessary outcome. Artists of all types will have to struggle against this perception. When the entirely of your visual experiences come from a Nintendo DS or an iPod Touch in landscape mode, your expectations simply must be different.

One of the great experiences in life could be the transcendental experiences of viewing a painting. But maybe, just maybe, that same image, enlarged, pixellated, transformed, might also be transcendental too.

Apologists can argue all they like about the death of art, about its ends and its implications. Maybe, instead, we should be talking about the death of the medium with a nostalgic wave to its demise.