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tom moody

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Gerhard Richter, painter of emotionally-distanced images and even-more-emotionally-distanced abstraction, is currently being rehabilitated as Gerhard Richter, warm and fuzzy lover of children, pets, and beautiful women. First came the portrait of his infant son, clutching a spoon and cutely smeared with baby food, on the cover of the January 2002 Artforum. Then came the Museum of Modern Art's retrospective (which opened last week), emphasizing portraits over abstractions and quality over quantity. Then came Michael Kimmelman's gooey New York Times review, comparing Richter to Vermeer and waxing sentimental over the painter's family pictures. (Postscript: Strangely, none of the skepticism in Kimmelman's contemporaneous New York Times Magazine profile--which made Richter out to be a freak on the family level--found its way into his review.)

MOMA curator Robert Storr has chosen to focus the viewer's attention on individual "masterpieces" rather than highlight Richter's relentless, factory-like production. In an interview in the same Artforum, Storr expresses a preference for "the many things that can be said about individual works," rather than "the few things that could be said about large groups of paintings." This contradicts Richter's own view of his work, which can be divined from various early catalogs, the artist's self-produced catalog raisonne, and most importantly the Atlas--an encyclopedic, gridded compendium of photos, abstract brushstrokes, and studio experiments, which filled an entire floor at the Dia Foundation a few years back. In the latter work, as interviewer Tom Holert describes it, the "single picture vanishes in the ordering system; the grid, the context of the images, reclaims the individual work."

Atlas: Panel 8, 1962-66

This more radical--and accurate--view of Richter could have been conveyed by including more works in the retrospective, and by hanging them less respectfully: by using the Atlas as a model, in other words. In the past, Richter has shown his 48 Portraits, grisaille images of mathematicians, writers, and other dead white dudes, in an imposing grid; at MOMA they wrap spaciously, in two rows of 24, around the inside of a stairwell, exactly as they might be seen in a institution that meant to celebrate them. Richter did scores of "color chip" paintings in the '70s, elegant enlargements of the gridded colors you find in paint stores, and it would be hard to find better icons of ambiguity towards the work of modernists such as Mondrian and Kelly. Presenting, or interspersing, a profusion of these paintings (or more abstractions in general) among the other works would have given the show the clinical, confused feel that it is the paradoxical essence of Richter: the artist as lab technician, studying image overload and seeking its underlying "rules." Instead, MOMA showed only two color chip paintings (one big and one small), presumably those the curator thought were "best."

Storr's hanging led directly to Kimmelman's treacly review, which fawns over Richter's "tender" brushwork, traditional subjects (landscapes, portraits), and eye for the beauty "that's still out there" after one "strips away the cliches and false rhetoric" of mass culture. Not a word is said about Richter's compulsive use of the squeegee to smear and eradicate imagery--one gets the impression that it is used only as a tool to make abstractions. Kimmelman ascribes to one work, Richter's painting of his father Horst holding a dog on his lap, the quality of being "under water," like a memory "surfacing but being sucked back down." But couldn't one could also say that Richter attacked the image, by dragging the half-dried paint across the canvas, as if trying to scrape away that same "memory"? Or perhaps that his father was just one more smeary image in the overcrowded mass media darkroom?

Richter's 70, and a big gun in the art world, so late-career flattery and hagiography is inevitable. Thus, it was extremely refreshing to read Donald Kuspit's artnet piece criticizing the show. Of course, Kuspit's a grouch who lately judges all art on the basis of whether it has "healing power," but he's also knowledgeable about contemporary German painting, and after Kimmelman it's exhilirating to hear the Great God Richter described as "the dregs of the German Wave, the last ripple in what once seemed a riptide." Discussing Richter's East German-ness, and the presumption of authenticity it gives the artist in rich Western art circles, Kuspit reminds us that the East was also a zone where state-sponsored "Socialist Realism" thrived. This leads to a discussion that raises far more interesting questions than the Storr/Kimmelman attempt to reinvent Richter as a humanist:

Richter's work takes Socialist Realism as its point of departure and continues to be Socialist Realist in modernist drag. Socialist Realism is people’s art. It uses the styles of the acceptable past, cutting them down to the reproductive terms that are comprehensible to the people. Their vision is cancelled in the name of the Great Cause--the People--and they are banalized into instruments of ideology and propaganda. Richter does the same thing with abstraction and representation. They are reduced to dumb shows of art--a kind of visual mummery--or, to put this another way, a visual sound and fury signifying nothing, whatever its subject matter. They are reduced to people's art, simplified and trivialized. All one has to do is to look at his mock Mondrian to get the point. It is people’s abstraction, just as Richter's Abstract Expressionist paintings are the people's platitudinous idea of Abstract Expressionism--a Socialist Realist scam on Abstract Expressionism.

Kuspit omits to mention that Richter, early on in his career, attempted an ironic reinvention of Socialist Realism for the West, calling it "capitalist realism." Whether this was an ultra-serious form of Pop or "Socialist Realism in Modernist drag" is a question still worth debating. It may be, as Storr says, one of the "few things that can be [discussed] about large groups of paintings," but surely it's more interesting than talking about Richter's search for beauty in the face of his own pessimism.

- tom moody 2-26-2002 11:15 pm [link] [7 comments]

New York painter Jack Featherly has a show opening March 22 at Team Gallery. His work has gotten a fair amount of ink over the years, but none of it (so far) has adequately accounted for his mercurial shifts in subject matter: is he an appropriator? a "color field painter"? a dj? (well, he did paint turntables a couple of times). With that in mind, and as a kind of warm-up for a brochure to be published next month by the gallery, we conducted an interview online that ranges over his career to date. The text for the brochure, a short critical essay condensing a number of topics discussed in the interview, appears here. Below is a reproduction of one of Featherly's newer paintings, Barbiturate (enamel on panel, 72" X 60").

- tom moody 2-09-2002 9:51 pm [link] [add a comment]

The teenage synth-goth duo Shell made its debut at Team Gallery in New York in January 1999. Marianne Nowottny (right, in the picture below), who also has her own solo career, performed with her friend and sometime songwriting partner Donna Bailey (left). The pair brought an entourage of their high school friends, who hung out on the periphery of the much older, black-clad art crowd. Shell's concise, minor-key ditties, played on cheap Concertmate keyboards and echoing early-'80s neuromantic pop (with a major dose of goofing around) were a hit with the audience, and the girls went on to play a number of New York area venues, including Tonic and Maxwell's. They're living in separate cities now and future gigs seem unlikely, but fortunately a number of their songs were documented by the Abaton Book Company on the CD Shell is Swell (available through

Below is a retroactive design for their CD cover. I did the drawings a couple of years ago with MSPaint as a bit of spontaneous fan art (working freehand from photos by Mark Dagley); they were considered for the CD cover but ultimately rejected by the girls (sob) in favor of a drawing of Marianne's. Abaton came up with the idea of abutting the pictures and centering them on the cover. I added the type recently and suggested the alternate title ("Mausoleum" is one of Shell's more characteristic songs). The package looks a bit indie-corporate for the pair, but the drawings were a true believer's way of conveying his enthusiasm for two swell musicians.

Tom Moody Shell

- tom moody 2-09-2002 9:34 pm [link] [12 comments]

Back in 1999, Angstrom Gallery in Dallas asked me to participate as an artist in a group show devoted to Op art-influenced painting. Hard up for an exhibition title but wanting to be cheeky and up-to-date, the gallery came up with (ouch) "Optopussy." I had just been re-reading Rosalind Krauss's book The Optical Unconscious (see these excellent notes for a summation) and told them that the title might not be as dorky as it sounded. This led to the following text, which went out with the press release (and was greeted with the usual dismal silence from area critics):

"Although 'Optopussy' is, on one level, a double-groaner based on one of Ian Fleming's most desperate book titles, it is also intriguingly consonant with some recent theory on the subject of vision. In her book The Optical Unconscious, art historian Rosalind Krauss discusses how optical art was the undoing of the rationalist model of seeing, rather than its apex, as many people believe. Tightly-spaced parallel bands, stereograms, and depth perception experiments exposed glitches in the visual apparatus (for example, 'internal colors' generated by the body in response to scintillating stripes, or pairs of distinct images 'assembled' by the brain into awkward 3-D composites), which led to our current view of the eye as an organic computer constructing reality piecemeal--instead of merely reflecting it, like a camera, into the disembodied Cartesian mind.

"Krauss makes a persuasive case for the carnality, or what she calls the 'cuntishness,' of vision, in contrast with Clement Greenberg's view of it as something cerebral and asexual. She praises Marcel Duchamp--with his vibrating colored hearts (Couers volants), lewdly pulsating rotoreliefs, and most especially Etant Donnes, his shrine to voyeurism now permanently installed in the Philadelphia Museum--as an early proponent of this view. Based on an analysis of the latter work--a not-very-convincing simulacrum of a splayed female nude, visible only through a peephole--and its elaborate system of perspective, the French theoretician Jean Francois Lyotard argues that there is a symmetry of viewpoint and vanishing point (a pair of inverse, intersecting cones), which places the voyeur and vulva in a kind of parity. 'Thus, when the peeping eyes think they're seeing the vulva, they're seeing themselves.' Lyotard concludes that the piece is another arch joke by Duchamp on the history of optics: 'Con celuit qui voit (He who sees is a cunt).'"

Hence, Optopussy!

- tom moody 2-07-2002 6:19 am [link] [7 comments]

The New York Times has an article this week on Japanese animation ("anime," or as the Times helps us pronounce it, "AH-nee-may"), timed to coincide with the release of the new Rintaro film Metropolis (thanks to dratfink for catching the essay). The piece, by Dave Kehr, is aimed at non-initiates but gets into some of the theory (it mentions Susan Napier's book, which was discussed on this page a few posts back). The following excerpt, however, is problematic:

"Though Metropolis emphasizes the contrast between the dated, naïve figures in the foreground and the high-tech design of the background, it isn't unusual to find a similar, if unarticulated, dissonance in other anime. Originally designed for the low budgets of television production, anime--like the American style pioneered by Hanna-Barbera for Huckleberry Hound and The Flintstones around the same time--uses fewer drawings per second than the vintage Warner Brothers or Disney cartoons, which were made at a time of lower costs and greater theatrical exposure. Even so, now that computers have made it possible to create smooth, fluid animation for a reasonable cost, the Japanese films hang on to the jerky, discontinuous movements that characterized the earliest work in the field. This is something that can pose a problem for Western viewers, who risk seeing the anime style as something inherently inferior to the sleeker Hollywood product.

"But there is much in the work to suggest that this jagged, flip-book quality is an effect that Japanese viewers find desirable and pleasurable. Accustomed to manga--the massive comic books published in Japan for adults as well as for children--the Japanese public does not favor movement over composition as a principle of expression. As more than one commentator on manga has pointed out, the most direct precursor of the form is ukiyo-e, the woodblock prints--themselves often erotic or rudely caricatural--published in 19th-century Tokyo. Here, the artists often strove to convey movement--crashing waves, raging battles, swirling geishas, kabuki performers in high dudgeon--in terms of static line drawings, in ways that powerfully suggest the contained dynamism of the anime style.

"Perhaps the best way to appreciate anime is as a series of still drawings with moving details. Even a film like Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke, with its clear aspirations to Disneyesque detail and grandeur, animates its characters with only slightly more grace and fluidity than a low-budget television series like Angel Tail. The figures themselves are as flat as the backgrounds, given only a suggestion of dimensionality by solid wash shading. Where Western animators struggle to create a convincing illusion of life, Japanese animators are more interested in capturing single expressive gestures, or in evoking a particular mood through the careful use of color. Unlike Hollywood animation, anime does not aspire to the condition of live-action cinema; it remains its own stubborn self."

My thoughts on the above excerpt: "vintage" Disney and WB cartoons may have more frames per second than the average anime feature, but the character animation in current Disney products such as Beauty and the Beast and Hercules looks just as cheap as Hanna-Barbera, computer or no computer (when a character's head turns, the mouth moves a split second later!). I strongly disagree that the hallmark of anime is "flatness": the action often takes place within dizzyingly deep, perfectly-realized perspective spaces. The phrase "jagged, flipbook quality" also somehow doesn't nail it. It's more like a slide show, where the "camera" pans across frames, slows down to a crawl so the viewer can absorb a given drawing, and then suddenly speeds up into a lightning-fast action sequence. As one animator (I think it was Toy Story's John Lasseter) observed: "No one does action better than the Japanese."

Kehr finds the attempt in Metropolis to integrate hand-drawn figures with artificial-looking, Tron-like computer graphics to be awkward--and he's right, it looks terrible--but then says more conventional anime has the same clumsy disconnect between foreground and background, which just isn't true. Hand-drawn figures and hand-painted backgrounds work well together, it's only when the animators cut into the frame to show off all the cool wireframe stuff they can do that problems crop up. Computers may be useful for generating continuity drawings in conventional-looking animation, but whenever the programming calls attention to itself, as it does in Metropolis or even a smaller-scale project like Richard Linklater's insufferable Waking Life, it's distracting.

Elsewhere in the article, Kehr talks about anime's underground popularity in America. No joke! Someone's buying those $29 tapes off the racks of every chain book and record store in America. I think the average consumer's about 16, and each has put up a web page devoted not just to a particular show but to his/her favorite character. Anime Web Turnpike has an amazing collection of such fan pages, although dead links pop up frequently. (Junior-san goes off to college, Mom stops paying the host server...) I'm fortunate to have a video rental place nearby with a huge selection; some titles I've enjoyed are: Armitage III, Cowboy Bebop, Ranma 1/2, Gunbuster, Iria: Zeiram the Animation, Evangelion, Blue Seed. I've even done some fan art! (See above.)

- tom moody 1-23-2002 12:53 am [link] [3 comments]

Artist Diana Kingsley uses a Hasselblad camera to make her images; she's as picky and exacting as a high-paid product photographer, but instead of putting all that energy and care into the service of crass commercialism, she takes the little slippages that drive art directors crazy and turns them into content. Her photos have that creamy, so-seamless-as-to-be-slightly-otherworldly look common to high-end retail catalogs (and Robert Mapplethorpe), but there's usually something wrong with them. To her credit, the "errors" (and they're not just photography errors, but screw-ups suggesting a whole range of human dysfunctions) don't leap out at you like Mad magazine gags. They're subtle, so subtle that you sometimes don't even see them.

In Net, 1997, a woman in tennis whites has collapsed face-down on the court, ball resting near her head. She's wearing a red wig, and in a detail that's barely visible in the photo (and completely invisible online), the hair is parted to reveal a kind of netting--a super-tacky echo of the unseen tennis net and racket. In Sensitive Son, 1997, the "error" is more obvious: a cute kid in a knit cap who might or might not be a sportswear model posing for the perfect catalog shot sheds an unfortunate (time-, film-, and money-wasting) bead of sweat. The offending fluid is shaped like a teardrop, suggesting a subliminal, Oedipal message to a pushy off-camera stage mom.

Ultimately, the "errors" occur within a much larger comedy of visual manners. In Diane, 2001 (below), a female conventioneer has a name tag with ink smeared so badly it slides onto the fabric of her top. This is a joke at her expense, but then she's not really a person in the photograph, just a superlative pair. One of the more amusing features of the picture is the water bottle in her hand--a sexual pun, of course, given its location in the picture, but also a sly comment on contemporary mores. Everyone seems to be carrying around quarts of Evian and Poland Spring these days: at what point did they not become ridiculous?

Diana Kingsley, Diane, 2001, lambda print, 30" X 30"

Kingsley's website

- tom moody 1-18-2002 1:46 am [link] [8 comments]

The George Romero zombie picture is alive and well and its name is Black Hawk Down. Ever since Saving Private Ryan, stuff filmmakers couldn't possibly get away with in a wide-release horror film (such as the dangling viscera excised from Scream) has become perfectly acceptable as long as the movie wraps itself in the flag and pays token homage to our Brave Fighting Boys.

Each of Romero's films (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead) features an intrepid band of survivors fighting off an army of implacable marching ghouls. The gore factor is straight through the ceiling, and the audience gets a lot of vicarious thrills watching the depersonalized zombies get offed in creative ways (Hey, they're already dead, right? So it's OK!). Also, the audience has no idea which of the (barely sympathetic) good guys will buy the farm, either, so tension is at a maximum throughout. Romero's films are resolutely antiestablishment, and the viewer is constantly reminded that things are going to hell because the people who are supposed to be in charge f-ed up.

Well, same with Black Hawk Down! Instead of zombies, it's hordes of "skinnies"--which is what the Rangers and Delta Force guys called the starving Somalians--who just keep coming and coming no matter how many of them are cut down by machine gun fire. Charges of racism have been leveled at the film because the "skinnies" are all black and the American military guys are all white (save one); inconveniently for the forces of political correctness, that's exactly how it was in Mogadishu in '93.* And gore? You bet! A soldier sees a severed hand (with wristwatch) lying in the dust and he picks it up and stuffs it in his flak jacket; an inexperienced medic plunges his hands into a soldier's ripped open lower abdomen, trying to find (and close) a spurting femoral artery.

And for incompetent leadership, it would hard to find a better image than Sam Shephard gnawing impotently on his knuckles back at HQ, watching his boys get wasted on a live video feed (from surveillance helicopters hovering uselessly over the battleground).

Black Hawk Down, an intense kinetic experience that is beautifully filmed and utterly ambiguous politically, was recently screened for Donald Rumsfeld and various military brass. It's being touted as a patriotic film with great relevance to our recent military adventures.** Maybe when Rumsfeld watched it he was thinking: "We didn't let our troops down the way Clinton did in Mogadishu, by God!" But you can't help but wonder if part of him wasn't also asking: "Exactly what does this candy-ass Hollywood Brit pinko Ridley Scott think he's pulling here?"

*Bootleg copies of the film are reportedly drawing big crowds in Mogadishu. According to an AP story, "the young men cheer...whenever an American [i]s hit, but there [i]s no reaction from the audience when a Somali character [goes] down. [Somali] Mohamed Ali Abdi, who had been living at Bar Ubah junction, where the battle took place, says, "The reality of the Somali character is captured in this movie, but there is not a single word of the Somali language, no Somali music, nothing of our culture. This is absurd, but still they reproduced our sandy streets and battered buildings and the crazy way Somalis just kept on fighting."

**Or maybe not. For an excellent summary of how the film gets it right and wrong, see this essay.

- tom moody 1-18-2002 1:39 am [link] [5 comments]

Yesterday I visited Jack Featherly's studio in Williamsburg, in connection with some catalog writing we're discussing for his upcoming show at Team Gallery in NYC. His new paintings are sophisticated, dumb abstractions on large wood panels. "Dumb" because they're amorphous, solid-color blobs made with One-Shot sign-painter's enamel, blocked in with spectacularly crude, brushy edges (none of that intricate, Mark Rothko over-and-under stuff here--what Featherly brushes is pretty much what you see). "Sophisticated" because the blobs cover an underlayer, also abstract, that is selectively revealed through sharply delineated windows, created with masking-tape stencils. The stencilled shapes have a focus and precision the blobs mostly lack, although the subject matter--amoeboid ovals, looping, mock-calligraphic scribbles, molecular chains of dung-ball "atoms," and the artist's ever-present signature (rendered big, in various typebook fonts)--is ultimately just as dopey.

By combining the quest for pure form characteristic of mid-20th-Century abstraction with a cheeky graphic sensibility reminiscent of downtempo electronica packaging, Featherly manages to be sincere without being either starry-eyed or smarmy. The paintings have all the pleasure of a spontaneous "first draft" without indulging in AbEx pretensions about the meaning of same; they take the viewer into an alternate universe of hazy spectral forms without being in denial about the work's status as a "cultural product," to use the artist's term. An old-school purist like Clyfford Still might be appalled by the disjunction of tones, but as Featherly reminds us, one generation's idea of sincerity is not the same as another's. To admit a painting's connections to a stream of commerce, to "lifestyle," to the surrounding visual world of advertising and design, is generally a more honest declaration of intentions today than claiming it is somehow "apart" from such things.

- tom moody 1-10-2002 6:48 pm [link] [add a comment]