Friday, November 12, 2010

Another Reason to Love Painting

From the left hand of Titian's Venus of Urbino to Mel Ramos's Val Veeta, painting and sex have had a wonderful history together. The Freudians have described the paintbrush as a proxy phallus, and art historians have argued that Rubens painted his women as he did because there was a certain masturbatory pleasure embedded in the application of layer upon layer of paint. Hell, even Susan Sontag argues that what we all need is an erotics of art. And if Sontag says it, you know it's got to be worth thinking about.

For this reason, I am utterly compelled to point you all in the direction of a painter I know, Alla Bartoshchuk. Now, Jerry Saltz says that I should offer the following disclaimer: I know Alla, she was one of the students at the Memphis College of Art, where I teach, and I own some of her work. So, if you want to judge me and claim that my criticism is corrupt, that's fine. I don't care because good painting speaks for itself. I am simply the messenger.

At any rate, the painting that greets you at the beginning of this post is one of her most recent works, which she just posted today, Fertility, 2010. I would like to extoll its virtues for a moment or two.

Firstly, pomegranates are just plain pornographic, second only perhaps to figs. And the role that they played in the abduction of Proserpina by Pluto simply elaborates the tense sexuality embedded in the history of this one fruit. Moreover, Pluto's plight, where he was unloved by women and had to take his, ahem, wife by force speaks volumes to the danger inherent in such iconography. The devil's deal, if you will. Pluto was, after all, the Lord of the Underworld.

Looking at art is an act of forceful possession. Optical, yes, but if Laura Mulvey teaches us anything, it's that all looking is an act of possession, often of an explicitly sexual kind. And that the subject of this painting is a young woman, the eternal cipher of fecundity and seduction, I can't help but think that we're looking at one apotheosis of Mulvey's construct of gendered taking.

Now, watch the juices drip for a second. Look closely. Luxuriate in them. Don't be afraid. Looking at art is already a quasi-sexual, optically masturbatory act that we are all complicit in, whether we want it or not. Nobody's going to judge you. And if they do, they're hypocrites. This is the same reason why Wayne Thiebaud's cakes are so infinitely wonderful. The fusion of subject matter and viewing pleasure, the way that whichever neuron is responsible for the pleasure of looking is that same neuron that governs the pleasure of a sugar high, or any kind of arousal.

Now, doesn't that juice look like blood? There's a sinister side to all of this, a threatening side. Women dripping with blood generally calls upon one of two situations. Violence or menstruation. Or, if you're a Freudian, both. The good Doctor tells us that all men are roving the earth in mortal fear of having their own personal Bobbitt experience. Vaginas are nothing more than absent penises, and the first sight of this absence is the most terrifying realization any young male might have, doubly frightening when blood issues from the wound. That's why we used to make the women go live in tents outside of the city for that one dangerous week of the month. This woman, with those drips running down her arm, simultaneously pure paint, and pure menace, looks as if she's just come from the kill. That pomegranate drips like the severed head of Medusa, which only complicates the gendered danger in play. And then she offers it to you, as if to ask that you too participate in this vampiric ritual. Oh, dear.

So here we are, caught in between. The pleasures of paint. The violence of emasculation. The nubile, stolen daughter of the goddess of crops. The God of blackened death. The pleasure of looking at beauty. And the puritanical guilt of lingering too long.

As a painting, it's nearly perfect. It's both beautiful and terrifying. And that it's both simultaneously only redoubles its potency. What more can you want?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

In Case You Want to Be Like Me...

I've really been sucking at this recently.

But I have an excuse. I've been totally busy at work. And, since this doesn't pay yet, all I've got is an apology.

If it makes you feel any better, though, I've given two conference papers, went to see my parents for my Dad's 70th birthday, joined a search committee at work, and managed to be accepted to participate in a forthcoming issue of Aspect, with my friend Anne. So, I feel pretty productive, except here.

Anyway, I was in class today teaching about Mesoamerican art and, as it always happens, I was trying to explain human sacrifice to my students. Now, I'm not advocating human sacrifice, but I don't see why it's so confusing to people. So, in my crap way of being an academic, I tried to explain to them that it was just like Highlander, where cutting off someone's head gets you their powers. But, instead of a parking garage, you need to be at the top of a temple and pull out someone's still-beating heart.

Pretty simple, really. The difficult part was when I realized that most of my student didn't know about Highlander. They were talking about some movie called The Prophecy, which I've never seen, so we broke even.

So, in an attempt to make sense of each other, one of my students suggested that I make some lists of things that I think they, and by extension everyone, ought to know about for me to make sense to them. I thought that was a pretty good idea, mostly because I think the stuff I like is pretty good. Please be aware that these lists are partial and subjective. Here goes...

Ten Books I've Read That I've Learned the Most From, or Had the Most Fun Reading:
  1. Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum--Helped me make sense of Postmodernism. And proved that being a conspiracy freak is really fun.
  2. E.L. Konigsworth From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler--Turned me into an Art Historian.
  3. Dr. Seuss The Lorax & The Butter Battle Book--Taught me that we should care about the planet. And that war is stupid.
  4. God The Bible--My parents tried to raise me Catholic. Go Irish. The Bible taught me the difference between what Jesus says and what religion says. And it's really helpful if you're into art. And the Psalms and the Book of the Apocalypse may be the most amazing imagery I've ever read.
  5. Pearl S. Buck The Good Earth--Quite simply the most magnificent novel I've ever read. Stunning in scope. I don't care if you think I'm a wuss, I get weepy every time O-Lan dies.
  6. Paul Zimmerman The New Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football--Mandatory.
  7. Confucius The Analects--Proves that efficiency is the best way to write. And that you need to act right if you want your civilization to work.
  8. Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching--I'm not really one for poetry or religion, but this is one of the better examples of each that I can imagine.
  9. Gene Colan's work in the Tomb of Dracula series--If you like things with fangs, this is where you go after you're done reading Stoker.
  10. Leon Battista Alberti On Painting--It begins here. And everything else is explainable through or in relation to this.
Ten (or more) Albums I Can't Stop Listening To:
  1. Social Distortion Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell--Badass songwriting 101.
  2. Brian Eno Music for Airports--You want sound? You want calm? You want beautiful modulations? Ding. Ding. Ding.
  3. Metallica Master of Puppets (3b. Ride the Lightening)--As perfect as the first 2 Godfather movies. May not be as fundamental as Sabbath, but I would argue more pivotal.
  4. The Beatles Rubber Soul (4b. Revolver)--IMHO, the best albums by the best rock band ever.
  5. Lush Split--Can't explain it, but everything about this album strikes me as amazing. Saw them at Lollapalooza and haven't looked back.
  6. Ice Cube AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted--This is why Hip Hop is serious social critique. People who say otherwise are ignorant. Of this album.
  7. Slayer Seasons in the Abyss--If rock and roll is cocaine, this is absolutely the best freebase you can imagine. Loudest band I have ever seen live. Just fantastic.
  8. Outkast Aquemini--People who think Hip Hop is stupid or uninventive need to shut up and buy this album.
  9. Arcangelo Corelli 12 Concerti Grossi--I tried to convince my wife that this should be our wedding music. She didn't buy it, but I still think it's that good.
  10. Eric Satie 3 Gymnopedies--Imagine a small child trying to learn the piano. Imagine that that child is an unadulterated musical genius. This is the best I can describe this.
  11. Wu-Tang Clan Enter the 36 Chambers--It's true. You best protect your neck.
Ten Essays You Should Read to Be a Good Art Historian
  1. Susan Sontag "Against Interpretation"--Looking at art is best as an erotic experience.
  2. Giorgio Vasari "Life of Michelangelo"--This is the cornerstone of everything that is right and wrong with modern art writing.
  3. Rosalind Krauss "Sculpture in the Expanded Field"--Think about what art is. Now think that it's the opposite. And consider that those might be linked. Or, just read this.
  4. Clement Greenberg "Modernist Painting"--So filled with problems that it might actually be flawless. If you want to think about the last few centuries of painting, start here.
  5. Clement Greenberg "Avant-Garde and Kitsch"--Anyone ever tell you that something isn't art? Anyone ever tell you that visual culture is BS? This essay will put all of that in perspective.
  6. Clement Greenberg "Can Taste Be Objective?"--The answer is no. Except that it might be yes. Even though I know it's not.
  7. Umberto Eco "How to Write an Introduction to an Art Catalog"--Art Critics beware. The rug is being pulled out from underneath us.
  8. Roland Barthes "The Death of the Author"--Attention artists. This is why we like you better dead. Just kidding. We love you. But we don't care about what you think your work is about as much as we used to. This is one of the reasons why.
  9. Theodor Adorno "Commitment"--If your art isn't about anything, your art isn't about anything.
  10. Walter Benjamin "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"--Sometimes somebody figures it all out at the beginning. This is one of those essays that helps explain everything from photography to DJ Shadow.