Neo-Expressionism

Outsider Art vs Insider Art by Chris Hall

Appalachia Girl (assemblage) installed in front of Old World New World (painting), 2008.

There he goes. One of God's own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.  Hunter S. Thompson, from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

This weekend I was featured by Roger Krava Art at the famous Slotin Folk Fest here in Atlanta.  It was an honor to be shown.  This occasion, however, has got me to thinking about my place in the art world.

I've always been interested in Folk aka Outsider aka Naive Art.  I first came across the concept way back, probably in 1995, when someone told me my work looked Naive.  I was at first a bit insulted, until she clarified to me exactly what she meant.  As the word "naive" still connotes ignorance and "folk" as something a bit simple, plain, or rooted in tradition, I generally prefer to use the term Outsider Art, but it is pretty much the same thing and the words are interchangeable when used to describe a particular approach toward art making.  Some of it is good, some of it is bad, but all of it exhibits the artist's heart, their individual quirkiness and such.  To me this is a much better thing than the crisp, cold, overly intellectual investigations that much of contemporary art favors these days.  

When I was in grad school everyone knew that I came in heavily influenced by Outsider Art.  A professor warned me that after grad school, I could no longer call myself an Outsider artist.  During the last months before graduation I made a piece in secret which I planned to reveal as part of my thesis show.  It was not an overt act of rebellion, just what I thought might be a pleasant surprise.  Upon seeing it, another professor told me, "I thought we beat the Outsider artist out of you!"  It was the assemblage entitled Appalachia Girl (2008).

Readers of my blog may be aware of my stance on a lot of the cold and conceptual art investigations that dominate contemporary art, "sophisticated" art that champions the idea over process, sometimes sacrificing any sense of beauty or aesthetic sense.  I would prefer a balance, a balance of concept (mind), aesthetics and beauty (body), and spirit (heart, soul, personality).  I may not always create art that lives up to this standard, but I think it is a worthy aspiration.  Perhaps my critical stance on art then, makes me (despite my education) an Outsider Artist?  I don't know.  Maybe.  At the same time, however, it seems most Outsider Art is done from a joyful place, a place I do not visit too often.  I am too critical of things, rarely satisfied . . . 

I've tried here to consider what it is that distinguishes an Outsider artist from an "Insider" artist.  What I haven't considered is my MFA degree.  To some that would be the nail in the coffin that would keep me as being an Outsider artist.  Strange.  A piece of paper.  

But here I am . . .

Too critical for Outsider Art, yet too "outsider" for contemporary "Insider" Art . . . I wonder where I fit in exactly?  

Perhaps I am one of those rare Neo-Expressionists I keep hearing about:  dinosaurs, lumbering about in the contemporary art world, left over from the early 1980's.  I hear they may be going extinct.  I hope not.  But if that were the case, then at least I would be an interesting study.  Maybe people should write books about me.  

The Last Beast in the Sky.

Or not.  

Maybe the next book in my life should be called Phoenix Rising, or better yet:  Fire Chicken!

How appropriate then, that all the good things that are happening in my life of late are taking place in Atlanta, whose motto is Resurgens and whose symbol is the Phoenix.

This story should have a much happier ending.

Pablo Picasso Part Two by Chris Hall

“There are painters who transform the sun into a yellow spot but there are others who with the help of their art and their intelligence transform a yellow spot into a sun.” Pablo Picasso.

Referencing Picasso's earlier Proto-Cubist work, the Surrealist writer and poet Andre Breton declared in a 1925 article that Picasso was “one of ours.”  Picasso had largely sublimated eroticism and psychically charged ideas in his art since 1909, when he moved on to Cubism and Neoclassic art.  After things began to go sour with his wife Olga, these themes started to return to his work.  Although he retained the spacial relationships of Cubism, he seems to have rediscovered the primitivism and eroticism of his earlier works.  Picasso's work during the last half of his career did not vary in style as drastically as it did during the first half.  Still, there are subtle differences to be found.  Picasso's work during the second half of his life is often categorized by the woman he happened to be in love with at the time . . . and there were a lot of women.

“Art is never chaste. It ought to be forbidden to ignorant innocents, never allowed into contact with those not sufficiently prepared. Yes, art is dangerous. Where it is chaste, it is not art.”  Pablo Picasso.

“The chief enemy of creativity is 'good' sense.”  Pablo Picasso.

Marie-Therese Walter

Perhaps this new found primitivism and eroticism was due to the influence of Picasso's new mistress, the blond and athletic Marie-Therese Walter.  Pablo Picasso met Marie in 1927, as she lived across the street from the Picasso family.  Their relationship began when she was 17; Picasso was 45.  Marie, with her telling blond hair, became a model for many of Picasso's paintings.  Picasso managed to keep his affair with Marie a secret from his wife Olga until 1935, when someone informed Olga that Picasso had gotten Marie pregnant.  Olga and Picasso separated.  He refused to divorce Olga, to prevent her from acquiring half of his wealth, and they remained legally married until her death in 1955.  Meanwhile, Marie gave birth to a daughter, Maya Widmaier-Picasso.  Picasso, not wanting to settle down with a family, moved on from Marie in 1936.

 "What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who has nothing but eyes if he is a painter, or ears if he is a musician . . .? Quite the contrary, he is at the same time a political being, constantly aware of what goes on in the world, whether it be harrowing, bitter, or sweet, and he cannot help but be shaped by it . . . No, painting is not interior decoration. It is an instrument of war for attack and defense against the enemy."

Guernica

In January of 1937, Picasso was commissioned by the Republican government of Spain for a mural to be displayed at the World's Fair in Paris.  By this time, there was already a Nationalist Fascist uprising being led by General Francisco Franco, which threatened to collapse the democratically elected Republican government.  On the 26th of April, 1937, Hitler showed his support of Franco by sending his Condor Legion of Luftwaffe warplanes to bomb and strafe the Basque town of Guernica.  The bombing is considered the first raid on a civilian population by a modern air-force.  

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937

Picasso had already started working on his commissioned mural, but on learning the news of Guernica, he scrapped his original plan and began work on a new painting.  The completed work, Guernica, would become a Modern Art masterpiece, and is often heralded as one of the best anti-war works of art ever created.  For many people, Picasso's Guernica is to art what Beethoven's 9th Symphony is to music.  Following the World's Fair in Paris, Guernica embarked on a world tour, fostering international awareness for the plight of Spanish refugees following the Fascist Nationalist victory in the Spanish Civil War.  Guernica was eventually entrusted to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.  Picasso stipulated that Guernica was not to return to Spain until liberty and democracy had been restored.  While living in Nazi-occupied Paris during the Second World War, one German officer, upon looking at a photograph of Guernica in Picasso's apartment, allegedly asked him, “Did you do that?”  Picasso replied, “No, you did.”  Francisco Franco died in 1975, and Guernica was returned to Spain in 1981.  

Dora Maar

Like Spain, Picasso's personal life while creating Guernica was also in disorder.  His mistress Marie-Therese Walter had given birth to their daughter, Maya  Widmaier-Picasso, but Picasso had already moved on to his next mistress, the photographer and painter Dora Maar.  Dora had met Picasso in 1936, and was documenting his painting of Guernica.  Marie became jealous when Picasso fell in love with Dora.  Marie and Dora once accidentally met in Picasso's studio while he was painting Guernica.  When asked about it later in life, Picasso said that the two women demanded that he choose between them.  He told Marie and Dora that they had to fight it out amongst themselves, at which point the two women began to wrestle.  Picasso described it “as one of his choicest memories.”  Picasso left Marie for Dora, though he continued to support Marie and their daughter, Maya, for the rest of his life.  In 1977, Marie chose to end her life by hanging.  With Marie out of the way, Dora became Picasso's constant companion, and the subject of many of his paintings.  While Marie is often shown as blond and bright, Dora is often shown as being sad, dark, and in pain.

“All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”  Pablo Picasso.

“It takes a long time to become young.”  Pablo Picasso.

Dora Maar stayed with Picasso for the nine years.  She wanted to have children with Picasso, but was often sad because she was sterile.  Dora was introspective, and Picasso called her his “private muse.”  She was his “woman in tears.”  Nevertheless, the always restless Picasso found a new mistress in 1943, Francoise Gilot.  When the relationship was revealed in 1944, the long suffering Dora entered treatment with the famous psychiatrist, Jacques Lacan.  Dora would return to art after Picasso, painting, taking photographs, and writing poetry, though she would die a recluse, poor and alone.   

“It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”  Pablo Picasso.

“To draw you must close your eyes and sing.”  Pablo Picasso.

Francoise Gilot

Picasso met the young art student Francoise Gilot in 1943.  She was 21, Picasso 62.  They would spend ten years together.  Francoise wrote in her diary that Picasso once took her to see an old woman, Germaine Pichot.  Germaine was Picasso's love interest in 1901, and the girl who had earlier spurned Picasso's best friend, Carlos Casagemas, leading to his suicide.  Picasso said to Francoise, “I want you to learn about life . . . That woman's name is Germaine Pichot.  She is old and toothless and poor and unfortunate now.  But when she was young, she was very pretty and she made a painter friend of mine suffer so much that he committed suicide . . . She turned a lot of heads.  Now look at her.” 

Picasso would have two children with Francoise, Claude, born in 1947, and Paloma, born in 1949.  During this time, Francoise reported that she was frequently harassed by Picasso's legal wife (he was still married), Olga Khokhlova.   Francoise grew tired of Picasso's many infidelities, and left him in 1953.  Eleven years later, Francoise published her book, “Life with Picasso.”  Picasso tried to stop the book from being published, unsuccessfully.  The book was printed in over a dozen languages and sold over a million copies.  Afterward, Picasso would refuse to see his children by her, Claude and Paloma, ever again.

“Art is not the application of a canon of beauty but what the instinct and the brain can conceive beyond any canon. When we love a woman we don't start measuring her limbs.”  Pablo Picasso.

“There are only two types of women - goddesses and doormats.”  Pablo Picasso.

Genevieve Laporte

Picasso began seeing the 24 year old Genevieve Laporte while still in a relationship with Francoise Gilot, in 1951.  Genevieve was a former French resistance fighter, writer, and model, and had met Picasso for the first time at age 17 in 1944, while conducting an interview for a school newspaper.  Picasso would dedicate some of his paintings to Genevieve, and when Francoise Gilot left Picasso in 1953, he asked her to move in with him.  Genevieve, aware of Picasso's reputation, refused, and shortly afterward, also left him.

“Every positive value has its price in negative terms... the genius of Einstein leads to Hiroshima.”  Pablo Picasso.

“Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.”  Pablo Picasso.

Jacqueline Roque

1953 found Picasso dejected and alone for the first time in many years.  And while his work was still in high demand, the art world's attention had shifted away from Paris and Picasso, and toward New York and the Abstract Expressionists.  The ever optimistic Picasso soon rebounded, however, and later that year he met Jacqueline Roque, at the pottery where he created his ceramics.  She was 27, he was 72.  

Picasso romanced Jacqueline by drawing a dove on her house in chalk, and by bringing her a single rose everyday until she agreed to date him, six months later.  When Picasso's first wife, Olga Khokhlova died of cancer in 1955, he was free to marry.  Picasso and Jacqueline married in March of 1961.  He would paint over 400 portraits of her (160 of which were created in 1963 alone), more than any of his other loves.  She is recognized by her elongated neck, high cheekbones, and classical features.  They were together for 20 years, until Picasso's death in 1973.  Jacqueline prevented Claude and Paloma, Picasso's children by Francoise Gilot, from attending the funeral, and she entered legal entanglements with Francoise Gilot concerning the distribution of Picasso's estate.  In 1986, at age 59, Jacqueline Picasso killed herself by gunshot. 

“It means nothing to me.  I have no opinion about it, and I don't care.”  Pablo Picasso on what he thought about the first moon landing, quoted in The New York Times, (7/21/1969).

Toward the end of his life, Picasso's relevance had waned.  Some critics thought his later work was not as strong as his earlier work.  Many thought his style had changed little since the 1930's, while others detected subtle differences in his work each time he fell in love with another woman.  Late in his career, however, he began making interpretations of paintings by other famous artists.  These later works are now seen as being more expressionistic than his earlier surrealistic work, prefiguring the Neo-Expressionist wave of the 1980's.  Once again, Picasso was ahead of the curve.   

It seems so strange that Picasso, perhaps the 20th century's best known and greatest artist, can wreck such havoc on the lives of the many women whom he loved.  It is an irony that he was so cruel and insensitive to all those around him, yet he could produce such loving, and, at times, even sensitive art.  Picasso might have been a bastard in life to those around him, but he did great things for art and because of that, I believe it is alright to celebrate Picasso today.  Pioneers are the first to explore new territory, and Picasso was a pioneer.  Picasso was also a master, producing some of the 20th century's best known art.  After all he has done for art, how can we begrudge Picasso for his personal life problems?  We can't, we must take it all together in stride.  Certainly, we shouldn't gloss it over, but we should accept Picasso as a flawed human being and an artist.  

“Others have seen what is and asked why.  I have seen what could be and asked why not.”  Pablo Picasso.

Anselm Kiefer by Chris Hall

Anselm Kiefer, The Starry Heavens Above Us, The Moral Law Within, 1969/2010

Anselm Kiefer, The Starry Heavens Above Us, The Moral Law Within, 1969/2010

Art is difficult, it’s not entertainment.  Anselm Kiefer  

To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.  Theodor Adorno


Born just a few months before the end of World War II in 1945, Kiefer grew up among the ash and ruins of postwar Germany.  Kiefer’s work directly addresses Adorno’s statement, that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” and questions how beauty and culture can continue to have any meaning.  Kiefer also wants to understand how the Nazis leveraged art and culture into killing.  In this respect, Kiefer’s body of work is primarily reflective of the new German word Vergangenheitsbewältigung.  Invented in the late 1950’s, Vergangenheitsbewältigung translates roughly as “struggle to come to terms with the past.”  Kiefer believes that one can not progress into the future until the past has been properly dealt with.  Although much of his early work addresses issues specific to Germany, his output in more recent years has expanded into more universal concerns.

Anselm Kiefer began making work in 1969 and would become a student of Joseph Beuys.  Kiefer’s first opus, his Occupations, had him traveling around to different sites in Europe, sometimes in his father’s Army uniform, and then having himself photographed giving the Nazi salute.  It may seem a bit shocking, but there is a moral heart to Kiefer’s work.  Kiefer wants to ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust remain fresh in collective memory.

Some of Kiefer's Occupations. Click to enlarge the images.

In his paintings and sculpture, Kiefer reexamines German history, mythology, and culture, everything from Wagner operas, German Romanticism, the poetry of Holocaust survivor Paul Celan, the architecture of Albert Speer, and the Third Reich, but he also references theology, occult symbolism, alchemy, mysticism, and the Kabbalah.   The weighty subject matter is often mirrored in the physicality of the works itself, which are often large scale and monumental.  Epic in size and scope, Kiefer’s work become visions of the apocalyptic sublime.  His paintings are mixed media endeavors, dense and heavy with impasto paint mixed with straw, dried flowers and plants, lead, sand, broken glass, ash, clay, shellac, gold leaf, copper wire, rusted metal, broken ceramics, woodcuts, charred photographs, and wood.  Kiefer uses a variety of application and reduction techniques, including a blowtorch.  

Some of Kiefer's early work.  Click to enlarge the image.

In the 1990’s Kiefer’s focus grew from focusing on Germany’s role in civilization to the fate of art and culture in general.  He began to explore universal myths of existence about the trauma experienced by all societies, from inevitable destruction to continued renewal and rebirth.  By examining the past, Kiefer seeks personal, national, and universal healing and absolution of collective guilt.  In 1999 the Japan Art Association awarded Kiefer the Praemium Imperiale for this lifetime achievements.  The explanatory statement reads:  

Kiefer worked with the conviction that art could heal a traumatized nation and a vexed, divided world . . . Only a few contemporary artists have such a pronounced sense of art's duty to engage the past and the ethical questions of the present, and are in the position to express the possibility of the absolution of guilt through human effort.

Some of Kiefer's later work.  Click to enlarge the image.

Kiefer is known for keeping giant studio complexes which he turns into site specific monuments with his painting and sculpture.  Most recently Kiefer purchased the decommissioned Mulheim-Karlich nuclear reactor plant.  In 2010 Kiefer’s studio in Barjac, France was the subject of a documentary called Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow.  The 35 hectare studio complex was built in the ruins of an abandoned silk factory.  You can watch the documentary on Youtube.  Here is a trailer for the film.

I first saw Anselm Kiefer's work sometime during the early or mid 1990's, either at the Cincinnati Art Museum or Atlanta's High Museum of Art.  I have always been attracted to his willingness to tackle the big subjects, life, death, and the possibility of re-birth as well as his use of mixed media and his painterly technique.  I also agree with Kiefer's stance on anti-art, that is he bemoans it, but acknowledges it's right to exist.  For these reasons I am happy to call Anselm Kiefer both an influence and an ally.

We Lost Another Painter by Chris Hall

Oscar Murillo, Untitled (Yoga), 2012

28 year old Oscar Murillo is an overnight sensation.  Born in La Paila Columbia, he moved to London at age ten where he started making paintings reminiscent of Cy Twombly and Jean Michel Basquiat.  His work, with its searching lines and bold colors is indebted to the Neo-Expressionist tradition, but also has flavors of Pop Art in that the works often have text scrawled on them, mundane words like:  yoga, milk, or burrito.  Now Murillo has his first solo show at David Zwirner Gallery . . . and guess what . . . he isn’t showing any paintings!  

The show is called A Mercantille Novel, and it’s a working rendition of a Columbian candy factory.  According to the press release, the factory is staffed with “experienced candy-making employees going about their daily work as usual.”  They are making Chocmelos, a chocolate covered marshmallow, and, if all goes as planned, the work is supposed to raise questions on immigration, globalism, displacement, and socio-economic conditions in the United States, Columbia, and beyond.  The work is a squeaky clean production line, set up at enormous expense by an outside corporation, which makes me even question whether the work can even technically be called Murillo's.  

When asked about why he chose not to show paintings for his New York solo debut, Murillo said that the work would have been “redundant,” that “this is where my practice is now.”  

It is a real shame that Murillo, with so much promise, chose to go over to the “Dark-Side” by championing the banal aesthetics of a corporation.  It seems we lost another painter.  

The gallery touts that "Over the course of the exhibition, tens of thousands of candies will be produced and given away for free,” and that "gallery visitors and volunteers are invited to take candy and share it throughout the city’s five boroughs, whether on foot, by bike, by taxi, by subway, by bus, etc., thus reflecting all modes of typical transportation throughout New York City and the diversity of its communities."  Well, at least there is free candy.

Oscar Murillo,  A Merchantile Novel , 2014

Oscar Murillo, A Merchantile Novel, 2014

Search for the Sublime by Chris Hall

I long for a spiritual revival in Contemporary Art.  The last time a formal movement championed this was Abstract Expressionism/Art Informal in the 1940’s and 50’s.  The sublime works of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and others was a refreshing antidote to the dead, propagandistic art coming out of the Eastern Bloc at the time (though it was recently declassified that the CIA secretly championed the movement to help attract intellectuals to the freedom of expression tagline, this, despite the fact that many of the artists were radicals and former Communists).  

But in today’s Contemporary Art theory, which is largely Marxist in nature, there is no room for religion or spirituality.  They too often confuse the sins of organized religion with spirituality, which is more personal in nature.  To these critics, spirituality is considered anachronistic and kitsch (not so much dangerous, because danger is sexy and inviting).  I would like to see more spirituality in art, more of the traditional notions of the beautiful and the sublime, such as described by the philosopher Edmund Burke, but interpreted through a new, contemporary lense.  Humanity needs this nourishment.  We drink eight glasses of water a day and still thirst for the infinite.  

 

Click on the images below for larger size and image details

Anselm Kiefer,  Let the Earth Be Opened and Send Forth a Savior , 2005

Anselm Kiefer, Let the Earth Be Opened and Send Forth a Savior, 2005

A Thinking Man's Expressionist by Chris Hall

Once upon a time, after seeing my undergraduate exit show, an art history professor came up to me and said that I was a “thinking man’s Expressionist.”  It was meant as a compliment, but I got to thinking, was he implying that most Expressionists are unthinking, their art solely produced through a knee jerk reaction to outside stimuli, like some kind of animal?  It distressed me that some people might feel this way, that cathartic art lacked any intelligent discourse, and that he privileged rationality over emotion.   

The Enlightenment will come to a bad end.  The head is much too heavy, and the pelvis way too frivolous.