Thursday, April 19, 2007

"Flat", April 13 - May 27, 2007

Playing, or harping, upon Clement Greenberg’s influence upon our mid-20th century’s modernism art scene, the first exhibition in the new temporary home of the Art Gallery of Alberta asks prominent local artists to render their representation of Greenberg’s idea of the “flat” surface.

The theory goes:

“From Giotto to Courbet, the painter’s first task had been to hollow out an illusion of three-dimensional space on a flat surface. One looked through this surface as through a proscenium stage. Modernism has rendered this stage shallower and shallower until now its backdrop has become the same as its curtain . . . we may feel a certain loss. It is not so much the distortion or even those spatial rights which images used to enjoy back when the painter was obliged to create an illusion of the same kind of space as that in which our bodies move. This spatial illusion, or rather the sense of it, is what we may miss even more than we do the images that used to fill it.”*

Greenberg’s influence and his relationship with Edmonton continues thirty decades later as one both revered and uncovered. For those who know (or care), the tradition of modernism continues on in all its esoteric magnanimity. For the rest, the comprehension of the city’s aesthetic remains apathetically endearing and completely void of context. With “Flat,” one hopes to shed some light on why Greenberg still matters when discussing contemporary art--in Edmonton and elsewhere.
From the basic and inevitable representation of flatness, portraying the surface of objects everyday and erudite, to its conceptual configuration, the underlying theme emerging from this group exhibition hinges on balance: balancing the tense compression of the flat line. There is a bound energy in most of these pieces, one that is often found in modernist pieces, a tepid restraint of great discernment.

The most interactive piece, Catherine Burgess’s, situates a small boulder adjacent from its apparent 2D shadow with only a U-shaped steel post acting as a double-sided frame. Looking into the frame from either side, whether from the 3D real object or from the void flat circle of a shadow, what is most clear is that the frame is not a mirror for reflection, but a portal into a completely other realm. The boulder and its supposed shadow are not mirror opposites; they are different shades of the same matter. That is, or was, the goal of modernism: to emerge into a new world, and not to reflect the existing and exhausted one we live in.

“Flat”, April 13 - May 27, 2007
Allen Ball, Catherine Burgess, C.W. Carson, Jim Corrigan, Peter Hide, Ryan McCourt, Daryl Rydman, Mitchel Smith, Arlene Waslynchuk, Barbara Astman, Aganetha Dyck, Jules Olitski.

*Clement Greenberg, ”Abstract, Representational, and so forth,” from Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon, 1961), pp.133-138, from a paper delivered in 1954, reprinted in Theories of Modern Art, ed. Herschel B. Chipp (Los Angelas: University of California Press, 1968).

26 comments:

Tam said...

A fantastic blog. Bang on about Catherine's piece, it really is like looking through a "portal" - by far the most engaging work in the show.

MC said...

For those who know (or care), the tradition of modernism continues on in all its esoteric magnanimity.
Magnanimous, I'm with ya, but, this may be a silly question, but what on earth is "esoteric" about Greenberg's ideas? They're precisely the opposite of 'esoteric'...

MC said...

Oh, and sorry for the two-in-a-row, but...

With “Flat,” one hopes to shed some light on why Greenberg still matters when discussing contemporary art--in Edmonton and elsewhere.

Wha? Why not just read the guy's own writing? That's where his value is! He has nothing to do with this show! Is this really so hard to figure out?

Really, people have such romantic notions about art. Why should this show tell anyone anything about Greenberg. The guy's been dead for over ten years. He likely has never seen any of this work, except maybe the Olitski prints. So, he could hate all this stuff, as far as we know! Yet, we want to make pronouncements about Greenberg, based on this? Yeesh...

Marcus Miller came up for the idea for this show... is MM a Greenberg scholar? no, of course not. His ideas about Greenberg are just as muddled as most peoples... Did you read that essay of his? Jesus! It's ridiculous!

amy said...

I suppose I'll address that 'esoteric' and magnanimous and which ever other adjectives was used in reference to the general movement of 'modernism,' not just Greenberg's theories. The show, as I understood it, was suppose to be a modern interpretation of his theories, which was strongly present in shaping the arts scene here many decades ago. Again, I don't know if it's relevant whether he would like the art or not, as it's suppose to be an interpretation of his ideas and that's as out of his control as any reception an artist may receive for his/her work . . . but I may as well ask: with all due respect, what were you trying to communicate since clearly, nobody seems to understand you, Greenberg, or the show?

MC said...

Hi Amy,
I hope (but, I'm unsure) that we can have a grown-up dialogue about this.

You're right, you characterized all of Modernism, and not just Greenberg, as 'esoteric'. To me, that's worse than how I put it... I mean, you are saying that basically all art from Manet, to about the '70's, say, is 'esoteric', when I would say that it is the opposite: accessable though a simple act of attention, a direct experience of the work itself. What's esoteric, here?

My point about Greenberg's tenuous connection to this show, is precisely in response to the idea that one might draw conclusions about him, through this exhibition. Of course, Marcus Miller could be wrong about Greenberg, just as I, and any of the other artists could be wrong, or misunderstand him. So, my point is simply that the essay tells you about Marcus Miller, and the works tell you about the artists... if you want to know about Greenberg: Read Greenberg.

Not so crazy, is it?

MC said...

I wonder if anybody's impression of my work in that show would be different if I mentioned how much other artists, like Allen Ball, liked them, so much that he insisted I trade one with him, for my choice of one of his paintings... He understood just fine, it would seem.

ahab said...

I don't worry about trying to understand muddy writing when the concepts being outlined are themselves of dubious worth. But when a topic I care deeply about is under scrutiny I want to understand the writer's point, so I can by agreement or disagreement learn more about it.

Clarity in writing, the efficacious conveyance of meaning, matters to all of us, I presume. So:

For [those who don't know or care about the tradition of modernism], the comprehension of the city's aesthetic remains apathetically endearing and completely void of context.

For me the comprehension of this sentence is impossible.

... The underlying theme... hinges on balance: balancing the tense compression of flat line."

I says, "Pardon?"

Anonymous said...

Praise be to great men

Greenberg was a great man, as was Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. Historical revisions shouldn’t lose sight of the canon when excavating for lost or unrecognized gems. On the other hand Marx figured Germany for the revolution, not Russia (and he had this little clause about the dictatorship of the proletariat), Sigmund didn’t pay enough attention to the possibility of a radically different feminine psyche, and Clement was likewise, a product of his times. These great men were all mortals – their genius and life-works are wonderful gifts, but they have limits. When their work becomes codified (always by an elite coterie of devotees), and promoted as an obdurate template for the righteous, it shrinks and mutates into a weapon for fanatics.

Its 2007, and the idea of ‘flat’ pushes buttons here in a way that it couldn’t in any other artistic centre in Canada. That speaks to a very particular institutional history and (I’m only a soft structuralist) the personalities of a few key people. I take Marx and Freud as springboards (‘who’s paying the bills’ and ‘what is who anyways’ are pretty good questions), but I don’t gulp them down whole.

History is great, but let’s remember that it’s history – what now?

Marcus Miller

ahab said...

With respect, come off it Marcus. Neither Marx' nor Freud's writings can be reduced to a ringtone. The "idea of 'flat'" is contentious simply because it presumes to reduce Greenberg's writings to the same.

In contrast to your veiled assertion, there is no "elite coterie of [Greenberg] devotees" in Edmonton. There are women and men who knew the man personally (and who hope, reasonably, to protect his memory); as well as those who were looking at art for how good it looked long before being introduced to his writing.

If you really knew the particular institutional history you hint at you'd also know how little agreement there has historically been between them. That they agree Greenberg got it right more often than not does not amount to the obsessive fanaticism that is suggested.

Let's remember not to ascribe motivations or make emotional arguments for ad hominem fingerpointing.

MC said...

With respect, let me add my own "yeesh" to Ahab's.

When their work becomes codified (always by an elite coterie of devotees), and promoted as an obdurate template for the righteous, it shrinks and mutates into a weapon for fanatics.

Ok, let's parse this nugget: When Greenberg's work became "codified"... ok, let me check my dictionary... that means "Systemized, or Classified"... ok, check... This systemization or classification is "Always by an elite coterie of devotees". Hmm. Well, just taking that, I'd say it doesn't stand up to critical scrutiny. Hell, not even John O'Brian, the editor and compiler of Clem's collected essay's and criticisms is any kind of "devotee" (Surprise! There's that religious-tinged smear, again!).

I will agree with this though: When Greenberg's ideas (or, even Modernism as a whole, if you can believe it) is "promoted as an obdurate ('inflexible') template for the righteous, it shrinks and mutates into a weapon for fanatics." I would ask back, just who is promoting it as an obdurate template, anyway? Certainly not me. Who's using this conception of Greenberg as a "weapon"? Again, not me... so, who's the true fanatic?

Mary Christa O'Keefe said...

Greenberg's legacy - the consequence of many different minds across several generations encountering him through direct or indirect contact with him - was, to me, the major theme of the show. Flat shows a progression and variety of creative activity that can be interpreted as using ideas Greenberg introduced to the culture.

I never personally knew Clement Greenberg, so I can't divine his will, but I'm wondering if any writer would want to offer the culture his or her most cherished ideas with the intention that they remain completely static. That's an intellectual mausoleum. Sterile ideas are a dead-end for cultural enrichment. The source always deserves consideration, but ideas evolve through interpretation and expression.

MC said...

Excellent, Mary! I agree with basically all of what you just wrote, although I would make a minor quibble, about 'flat' showing a "progression", which I either don't think is really true, or I just don't understand what you mean by the word "progression".

I never personally knew Greenberg, either (I think I only went into the visual arts after he died), but, for me, telling the difference between what Greenberg truly wrote, from what others often write of him, is all too easy, since usually the latter bears hardly any relation to the former, whatever.

I wish people could just admit that their knowledge of Greenberg usually consists entirely of having been handed a photocopy of "Modernist Painting" back in a BFA art history seminar, along with the disclaimer that "we don't believe this stuff anymore" (indicating to the students that only a perfunctory skim is needed), before getting back to the TRUE theoreetical geniuses of the day, like Baudrillard and Derrida. I know this to be the case. I've experienced this, my peers experinced this when we were in school, and I would be very surprised if some form of this is not still in effect at the UofA, and other schools, to this day, as it likely has been for the last 30 years or so...

MC said...

Oops, I should clarify: Understanding of Greenberg, for many, includes the perfunctory introduction in Art History, of course, but relies in the main, of course, on what other people, dismissive of him, offhandedly write. This is how we come to know Greenberg first and formost as a Dogmatic Formalist Art-Pope, a vile demagogue who forces artists to do his bidding, who presumably grows hair and fangs on the full moon...

This caricature abounds, but it's pretty tough to find any sign of this guy in any of Greenberg's own writing, though.

J@simpleposie said...

Greenberg’s influence and his relationship with Edmonton continues thirty decades later!!!!!???!

ahab said...

And I thought I was reading the piece critically. 30 years, 300 years, wrong is wrong. Greenberg only passed on 13 years ago.

MC said...

Nice going J... three cheers for close reading!

amy said...

so it goes on. and on and on.

whether you'll agree or most likely disagree and belittle my syntax with great savvy, thirty years was consciously marked as the approximate length of time passed since Greenberg still held any swag in the contemorary (international) art world.

word to the wary: I don't post comments or reviews that I wouldn't say to another person's face. I can only suggest you hold the same courtesy. perhaps you don't mean to, I can only give you my reasonable doubt, but this gang-ish behavior will not make your arguments any stronger to anyone else. I appreciate your time and your thoughts, but you're making it very hard to respect them.

that said, keep commenting away. I certainly didn't mind you, MC, poking around the site. added some much valuable comments.

ahab said...

Actually, I think that a lightly humourous typo like that (it was easy to infer the true meaning, of course) allows for some serious consideration of the statement: e.g. "Greenberg's influence and his relationship with Edmonton" is not thirty years in the past.

The whole point of having blog comments enabled is to allow for further discussion and clarification of the topic, which I would be surprised to hear you're opposed to. Please don't respect my comments for the sake of nicety - just if they make sense.

MC said...

word to the wary: I don't post comments or reviews that I wouldn't say to another person's face. I can only suggest you hold the same courtesy. perhaps you don't mean to, I can only give you my reasonable doubt, but this gang-ish behavior will not make your arguments any stronger to anyone else. I appreciate your time and your thoughts, but you're making it very hard to respect them.

Whoa, Amy! First, Trevor Harold Stenson (or whatever his name was) came on OUR blog, and left the kind of comment that, if said to someone's face, would get them punched in the nose... and you said you agreed with it. Meanwhile, on another post, Tam, and AEL took their cheap shots at us. Now, you're gonna sit there and complain about the rudeness of our comments, or that we're ganging up on you?

Come on... you can't be serious. What on earth is there about my comments (other than their contrariness) that makes them difficult to respect?

ARGH! This is maddening! Can we just skip ascribing motivations althogether, and address the statements themselves? Please?

amy said...

I don't know who Trevor Stenson is, I just agreed with him, and I haven't seen your site since I posted my initial comment.
I would love to skip this stuff and just get back to broadening the discussion of art in this city. that's why this is here and why I spend time on it.
Don't feel that I will censor any comments, because I won't, but I want to maintain an environment where anyone can come in and make a comment and not feel that they will be torn apart for it.

and to be clear, I have never respected anyone because they were nice or out of nicety.

J@simpleposie said...

Amy,

From the outside looking in - it is great to see such heated art discussion in a public forum.

ahab said...

There's a distinct difference between tearing words apart, and tearing apart the person whose words they are. The former is a necessity if we are to understand one another, the latter nonexistent in this thread.

Delivering flack for pointing out errors does more to inhibit honest comments from readers than does insistence upon clarity in the writing.

You're right, Amy, I'd never say these things to your face, but only because I edit myself so extensively when composing a comment. Were we to sit side by side at two computer terminals, though, I would type them at you just the same.

MC said...

I don't know who Trevor Stenson is, I just agreed with him

I know, Amy. You 'agreeing with him' is unfortunate.

Ahab, and J@simpleposie, agreeing with me (if and when they are) is, on the other hand, nothing but fortunate.

In either case, "ganging-up" simply doesn't apply... Ok?

MC said...

As an olive branch, this suggestion:

Amy, why not edit your post (taking out the "decades" remark which you must agree is in no way accurate) and change it to say something to the effect of "45 years after Greenberg wrote these words, his influence remains in Edmonton", or something like that?

Such a statement would then be factually correct. As you have it now, it is clearly not. Agreed?

kitschy said...

I'm not a real person. I'm more of an alter ego . . . much like Raoul Duke.

Think of me as a collective figment of your imaginations.

My flesh is, however, very real. And I doubt that any of the particularly sensitive and fey artists that post on this blog would punch me in the nose if they met me. By the way that is assault - I'll be contacting Dr. Bloor of CSIS immediately.

Some of you are easily goaded, and quickly rise to the bait. However, there are some things that you'd either RISE ABOVE or not rise from.

Sincerely yours - for those with a sense of humor:

Trevor

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