MCA Talk: On Painting, Michelle Grabner + Angel Otero

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In this series of talks we invite artists and art historians to discuss the history, aesthetics, and contemporary state of the practice of painting. In the last of three discussions, Michelle Grabner and Angel Otero discuss art history in their own practices and in the work of Kerry James Marshall.


Michelle Grabner: So I asked Jose if we could actually start in this gallery because, for me, this gallery and the juxtaposition of paintings really unravel Kerry’s thinking and his practice. What you’re looking at are four different works that deal with four different kinds of vocabularies, ideas, philosophies. We can unpack those and you can see which choice – where he ended up going. As we walk through the other galleries we’ll talk about that. So this is a real pivotal place for me in terms of thinking about Kerry as an artist and the decisions artists have to make.

I want to talk about those, but before we talk about them, and just a reminder that this is super casual, so raise your hand if you have any questions, if you want us to elaborate on something. Please let us know. But I want to talk first about something that is called hermeneutics. It’s kind of a terrible word but it actually is about the study of interpretation; how do we interpret artwork. There are many ways of interpreting artwork.

For those of you who’ve been in this exhibition before and read all the didactics, all that language that accompanies each piece, that addresses what? Subject matter. That’s going to and unraveling and looking at the narrative, for the most part, of each one of those works. So I did that when I first came to the exhibition. I went through, kind of understood that context. But then I walked through again and looked at the paintings, looked at the construction, thinking about formalism, and often, as Jose knows, when we think about formalism in contemporary art we think it’s kind of uninteresting. It’s the juxtaposition of things. It’s maybe color. It’s composition. But it’s important to know that formalism is actually very political. Form has a job to order things, to make order and any kind of ordering by nature is political.

Kerry James Marshall talks about how important formalism is in his own work and how he thinks about it and how he analyzes and makes judgments of quality based on formal decisions. So really important. So I think Jose and I will really talk about that because that’s something that’s really important in both of our work as well. Again, it’s not just this neutral set of vocabularies. Think of it as being political by the fact that it gives order and what kind of order. It points out positions of power. That’s something that we know that Kerry deals with.

So think about interpretation. Think about a formal analysis. Think about deep analysis in terms of subject. We can go through that narrative. So if I ask any of you, "What is the subject, the overarching subject of Kerry’s paintings, what do you think that would be?" Anybody?

Audience: Everyday life.

MG: Everyday life. Come on. Come on.

Audience: Identity.

MG: Identity, yes.

Jose Angel Otero: That’s a big one.

MG: Race, thank you. Yes, yes. Right, right.

JO: Also to sort of highlight this idea of politics in the work is also to bear in mind – even though he was born in the 1950s, at that time there was definitely a split between what was considered figurative work, which was associated with particularly with the Soviet Union and work that were being done in the Soviet Union, and with a kind of – I suppose an appeal to sort of lefty critique at that point. In the West, abstraction was being treated as, "This is our art. This is what we championed for." Actually, America was kind of invested internationally with the idea of abstraction being at the forefront. It gets really murky because then the other art was seen as more popular and yet less legitimate.

I think that background is sort of interesting to bring forth because it kind of – it lingers. By the time the issues that he’s dealing with in the nineties, a lot of figuration steps back into analyzing a lot of these WPA works that lingered and stayed over behind the Iron Curtain only. So there’s something really interesting taking place that is bigger than the paintings; that is a kind of our ethos versus theirs, our way of seeing.

MG: Right, and that’s something obviously that we’ll talk about in terms of context and historical references. Kerry talks about it all the time. We will see examples of American trompe l’oeil in some of these paintings and we will see very specific examples from the Renaissance. We will talk about the context in which what Jose is saying, these ideas come forward. So that’ll be something we can address, too.

Going back to subject matter as well, Kerry said it’s not for artists to deal with subject matter. It’s about dealing with that context. So we want to get at some of that context today because the subject matter and the institution and the power of the institution wants to tell a damn good story. Kerry is a pretty good story.

But each one of these paintings tells a story. You can break it down. You can break down the iconography. You can read it. You can look at. But I’m interested in what, again, a kind of how these pictures are ordered, how they come together. Space, color, we’ll talk a little bit about materiality. Jose and I were already talking about materiality and how those things point to positions of power. So not just that little narrative description next to the work. Utterly important, very important, right? We know what’s important, some of these issues that he’s taking on in terms of race and disenfranchisement. They’re happening today.

So we know that they’re important. If you ask me if these paintings can change those things, if art can change those things, uh-uh. It can’t. It can create awareness. But there’s some other kind of power system that Kerry is playing with and that’s very important.

So Kerry looks at the power of the institution, this place that we’re standing on, the MCA. The power of the artist, whether an artist can change or not, regardless of what I think or regardless of what Jose thinks, that is another kind of institution. You know very well, you art students in the crowd, he rails against MFA programs and art education right now. This is something – we used to teach together at UIC and we used to go out for coffee. That was right when he started to understand that this is not the place where he wanted to be, that this is not necessarily the content that is being given over.

The places that we teach—Jose and I stand in front of you as teachers—is not about making a dedicated artist for the course of one’s life. So there’s institutions that he’s been pushing at. So power is another subject matter and it’s not as specific as race always, even though the information next to the paintings talk about that. So let’s talk about the paintings a little bit. Let’s talk about the work.

JO: All right.

MG: Sorry.

JO: Where do you want to start?

MG: I want to start – so again, I strong-armed Jose, again, to coming into this room. I just want to show you – point out the trajectories that could have happened for moving this way, right, as we go chronologically through the exhibition. Before I talk about this painting, which is very important to me, let’s just look at – quickly turn around and look at the photographs. This is an example of a conceptual art project. You can read the didactics next to the work where he’s using the motif. He’s using the motif of a locket as a surrogate for a noose. This is looking at a lynching that happened in Indiana not too long ago in the 20th century. But instead of putting the victims in the locket he’s showing those who witnessed, those people who were there at the lynching. An important history, absolutely an important history. Conceptually, what is he using for language? Photographs, metaphor, signs. So we understand that.

So we have something that’s illustrating that history. We have the painting to the right that is this kind of super patterned frontal, this kind of scrim that hangs over this grisaille painting. Grisaille, as we know, is technically grounded in the Renaissance as the beginning of a painting. But this is so interesting because pattern really usurps that subject matter. So all of a sudden you have pattern, you have surface, you have glitter, you have these other kind of symbolic things that are happening.

Then the painting on the other side—then I’ll let Jose kind of pop in and give us his understanding—is kind of what he deals with in terms of a kind of space, a kind of figure, that subject again that we’re talking about, a lament of great civil rights leaders. A little bit of language. We can talk about how it comes together in terms of different kinds of visual vocabulary. So I would say that the painting that you’re looking at now is kind of a quintessential Kerry James Marshall painting.

The painting here which has some of the – this big painting on the front wall which blew me away when I saw it in 2003, right at this institution. I could not get my head around it, and to this day I can’t get my head around it. That is this phenomenon that’s going on. It’s a light phenomenon. There’s a couple moments – if you guys walked around and looked at paintings carefully there’s a couple moments of paintings showing movement. There’s one at the very end where there’s that I think a stripper, the woman who’s wagging her finger. So there’s that movement.

There’s movement here in the blurriness of the car. But this, what is this? This is about photography. Phenomena, light phenomena. So there’s something going on here that’s very different than a kind of piecing together of perspective, of that subject matter we’re familiar with. It’s something else. It’s kind of magical. It’s these spectrums. It’s where painting breaks down and it’s what painting does not do well. Photography can capture light. Painting can kind of, but it’s always static. So it’s such an interesting thing. This painting still befuddles me and I will just say that right out there and I’m always compelled to it because something else was drawing him. What do you think?

JO: I agree with you. I agree with this idea of sort of the prismatic effect being – I suppose the focus, the locus of it. To me the most important thing is this Rothschild thing because I always tend to go towards the kind of social information. I know there was a Rothschild liquor in Chicago and I’ve always been attracted to that idea of, "How does that name came to be associated with a liquor store and become central to this thing?" and if you think about the history of painting and patronage, here’s probably one of the strongest sort of forces behind a lot of the art that was done after the 17th century. So I don’t know if that was something that was integral to the picture. I’m sure he was aware of the sort of associations. Formally, I think this is an amazing painting. It’s probably my favorite painting in the show in terms of I suppose surface because it really just shows how good this guy is. There’s a lightness to the touch in it and I’m really taken with that.

I suppose some of the other paintings I would like to talk – also, by the way, I was supposed to be watching the Mónica Puig final right now. I got a call this morning. So I’m a little bit pissed off. It’s our first chance for gold in Puerto Rico where I’m from, ever. So it’s a big deal. So maybe we can walk over –

I love the punctuation of the bars that act as a jail and act as a sort of – as a curtain, of course. But what I like about this is there’s a – gold leafing is usually a system of highlighting a figure by using the background. In this sense, there’s a kind of our own contemporary version of gold leafing by using kind of cheap craft material. I think that’s something that he uses quite – he’s quite – very deft in using these sort of craft materials to evoke something else. Now there’s kind of rhythmic quality to the way these things fall and they bend. I think they add that kind of musicality to the piece.

But to me what’s most important is what’s in front and what’s in back and how do you establish a kind of primacy in a picture plane? What is – obviously here, the thing that jumps out the most is this stuff. This stuff, in a room, probably would just be a kind of interruption. Here it’s just kind of central to the whole thing. It’s being articulated, double-articulated I suppose, by projecting. You don’t see a whole lot of projections in his paintings.

He’s a fairly illusionistic painting. So there’s this fight between the thing that is sculpture and the thing that isn’t sculpture in the painting. What I mean sculpture is what is coming forward physically and what is coming forward logistically. These things mean something. I mean there’s a reason why these things feel so physical and you want to hold them.

I’m taken in by the Kennedys and the sort of idealized family and also what it used to mean I suppose for any minority to be associated with the Kennedys. I think today we wouldn’t think of them quite in that light. I think the associations that one has with, particularly John Kennedy, is very different in the last ten years. I kind of like how the painting is alive and its sources. Twenty-five years ago it would have been the perfect icon that you would have seen in an African American household. I don’t know if today that would be the case for that. But that’s what the President looks like.

MG: I’m just going to pop in a little bit. As we get to the blot paintings, the paintings that look like abstractions – we’ll talk about those; they’re at the other end – that there is something similar that’s happening. I think some of those ideas were incubating in this particular painting in terms of what is seen and what is not seen. So what Jose brings up is so interesting when you start thinking about in terms of a psychology. What is behind, what is private, and what is public?

We’re public, right? We don’t have access to that in this case a kind of mourning, a kind of Grisaille emotional space, this lament that’s happening behind there. The figure in the middle, dead center, breaks that. Ends up being that conduit between the public and the private. Then the use of text, which is so interesting because the use of text sits on the surface. It’s a flattening device. We read it. It helps with our understanding of the content of the piece, but it pushes forward. We see how that pushes forward the same way that the grid structure of this glittered scrim comes forward as well.

Then of course, as what Jose was saying, in terms of signifiers, signifiers of power, the idea of gilding but in this case it’s silver glitter. So different kinds of power structures. It’s craft. It’s not fine metal and so forth. So looking for that as well. We can even talk about that in terms of the amount of un-stretched canvas with the grommets that he ends up using. There’s this kind of pulling back from the authority of the geometry of the painting support—that thing that painting is on typically. I mean we will see some of that as we move through. But at this point, almost circus-bannery like. We can talk about that. He was in Chicago and circus banners and self-taught artists, as important as they were to the Imagists, they were very important to Kerry and influenced his work as well.

It’s really worth – we can use this painting but certainly as we go through and see how space develops in the other room, how he thinks about pastiche, how he thinks about appropriation, and how is he appropriating. This is what’s so interesting. When you listen to what he says, when you read his writings, read interviews, how important art history was for him. Like I said, going right back to the Renaissance, Proto-Renaissance, very important. Has always been important to him.

But also what was going on in Chicago when he was here starting to paint in the nineties and being influenced by that work, but also people like Rauschenberg. You see the printing elements. You see these juxtapositions that are happening. Different kinds of paint, paint handling. We’ll get to talking about material as well.

So you really get this – David Salle, somebody else who comes to mind – just in terms of how language was used. There is this kind of appropriation of different languages, of different kinds of signifiers and so forth. So we’ll talk about how those add up, too. I think right now – I kept telling my husband as we were walking through that first part, it’s like, "It feels so nineties. Oh my god." It was always like reading content in Kerry’s work that only when you start seeing it en masse, in chronological order, do you actually start seeing stylistic sensibilities really come on very strong and seeing where those influences are.

JO: Now you’ve brought up Rauschenberg, because I kept thinking of the shadow paintings in relation. I don’t know if you’re familiar with those—completely white—in relation to these and how the body projects into them and sort of – I suppose a creepiness that’s generated by the absence of the figure in this one. But I think Rauschenberg is, in this room particular, a very important artist to bring up.

MG: A little bit about psychology again or actually the straight-footed, nearly flat-footed approach to painting. We can talk about that in terms of material, juxtaposition of different visual languages, painting languages. But what’s interesting is when he talks, it’s about clarity, you guys. It is really about being clear to the viewer both in subject matter, both in signifiers, both in language, in material. He points to these power structures. He’s very straightforward. He’s not being ambiguous. He’s never coy. I think he gets a little baroque in some bodies of work as we go forward. It gets very complicated in terms of the signifiers that he’s using, but for the most part he has tried to be clear and to communicate. That’s, again, why this painting I think is interesting to me because there is this kind of ambiguous inside/outside.

When you start thinking about that thing that I’m calling hermeneutics, sort of study of interpretation or asking yourself, "How do you look at these paintings," and I am just standing in front of you, encouraging you not just to understand them and their historical references—again, very important—but there’s so much else going on in terms of how he’s taking on such a language of painting and thinking about other ways of measuring it. Pulling way back, deep reading, putting your nose in close but also pulling way back and being able to see consistencies. One way for me, helping me walk through the show, was looking at how he treats shadows and light.

How does he use light? Here we have a kind of breaking down of light, that kind of light being bounced off of reflective buildings and so forth. But look at shadows. Shadows are so interesting. They’re often very cartoon shadows. We’ll look at those maybe when we go into the landscapes next door. Shall we do that, in the gallery –

JO: Before we go I just want to talk a little bit about these in relationship to the paintings. Just to keep in mind how Michelle spoke about these as conceptual pieces and I think these are conceptual pieces and they read very much like that. To sort of consider the information that happens here, which can be broken down into four or five different parts and its sort of – and its components. So you might have the idea of the baroque – of the frame around the frame. So an inside frame, an outside frame, the sort of – the gilded chain.

The silk-screened image that sort of evokes – I don’t know – Warhol and pop art and printing. Then the white image behind it. So you break these – these are four or five elements that sort of make up this thing. Now imagine this times 50. That’s what’s happening in the paintings, that there’s – this is a kind of condensed version and what goes on in the painting. That’s how – if you start bouncing back and forth, this is a sort of endless game of like references and mirroring and it gets mathematical and very interesting.

MG: Landscapes or should we go – should we start back – go to the –back here?

JO: You want to go – let’s see if we can go back and –

MG: Downstairs.

JO: We’re going to bounce back and forth just like the paintings do.

Is there something here that –

Audience: When I first saw the [inaudible] I thought he was emulating yin-yangs.

MG: Yeah, they’re metaphors, yeah, yeah.

JO: Okay, so Portrait of the Artist and a Vacuum, which is this piece here and it starts with kind of an obvious pun at the start. If you – I mean – because his works lends towards institutional critique, not in an obvious way, but it’s every painting sort of deals with that. It’s like, "How do things fit in this building, in the structure of this building, in terms of socially, not necessarily in this space when you see this idea, sort of an artist in a vacuum, an artist sort of decontextualized, a kind of pure idea,” that becomes a very frontal joke, a kind of attack on this idea of: How do you read these things? How do you read them in isolation? How do you give it the kind of [Clement] Greenbergian treatment of “just read the damn painting, read the paint that’s in front of you?"

Whereas at this point we wouldn’t consider that a possibility. I think when – the vacuum also acts as a kind of double movement if you put it in those sense. There’s a nice print that kind of highlights the idea of manual labor in a household. That’s also associations with race, of course. But in his generation, the vacuum cleaner is associated perhaps most with Jeff Koons and the kind of – I suppose perhaps what was called Neo-Geo or pictures generation or people that were – had strategies for objects that were kind of common everyday objects. I think this becomes much more of a kind of generational attack, sort of a typical thing that – not typical but a good way of artists sort of engaging with what comes right before you and give it a nice kick. So I don’t know this for a fact but this is interpretation and this is kind of how these things get read.

MG: Yeah. This is another really interesting gallery when you think about what is being incubated as a young artist. This is early, early work. We started out in a place where it’s almost mid-career and transitional. Now we’re back at the beginning. There’s a couple of things being conflated here and one is the power position, not only of race in the illustration of the Invisible Man, a piece of literature that was hugely important to Kerry, but also the authority and power of the artist himself. So those two things are starting to quake.

It is in this space that he is going to move forward and always include the representation of black figures from here on out. Yes, that is about race and injustice but it also is about making correction to a history, a problematic history. There’s the great books out there. You can kind of see these other kinds of histories that need to happen simultaneously. So that is another position that he’s dealing with.

So you see even this is an older photograph, not as old as this work but he’s working on a painting that you’ll see elsewhere. But it’s a riff off of Bruce Nauman’s very important video Fat Chance John Cage in which he is documenting his studio at night. Bruce Nauman puts an infrared camera in his studio at night to see what happens when he’s not there, what kind of magic happens. You get nothing but cats and mice. But he’s very aware – Kerry James Marshall is very aware of that Bruce Nauman piece that is all over the place, permanently installed at Dia. So kind of playing with that and bringing in some of these concerns that he started to develop early on and has hung on to and riffing on that.

Then you see this other thing that’s happening in this painting over here with this figure and you see that column, those four squares of abstraction. Those four squares of abstraction should remind you a little bit of the motifs that Hartley has used, Marsden Hartley in the 20th century, an important American abstract figurative painter, an important American painter. Starting to play with those ideas. So you have abstraction. You have the figure and the power of abstraction and how that plays out and, "Can that be represented in terms of representation and diversity?" So he’s thinking about all those things.

So you see, again, the kernels of things that he will move forward with that are both, again – they’re all political but one dealing with race, one dealing with the identity and the authority of the artist itself, one dealing with language, representation, and/or abstraction, the place of the studio, the place of the everyday, the domestic scene, the everyday, that normal, the normative, the conventional. Very important institutions that he starts to look at and pull into how he thinks about making a painting. Let’s go into this – we’ll just walk to this little space. Is that okay Jose, just because of –

[Crosstalk]

MG: So this painting over here, everybody – I like this string of galleries especially well and this is an example of really good curating in terms of giving these – constructing galleries by the curators that actually are pivotal in artist thinking or launching an artist into coming to understand a relationship in an arc to one’s work. But also in this case, something that’s very formal and that is spatial development. So as we walk all the way down to the end and look at that fantastic painting in the beauty parlor and think about what’s happening here and what’s happening in the space at the end and see how it develops in such an interesting way as we move through.

So here it’s very flat and he’s using the stage and the backdrop of a stage, right, that curtain, to kind of push everything forward. All these floating signifiers, some elements of collage going on. There’s that little American trompe l’oeil painting thing happening with the kind of dice where it almost looks almost like real size and so forth. So you have a relationship to something that’s kind of very American or you can go through Dutch still life and that kind of realism as well. Again, signifiers, these floating signs, cat, snake, love.

Then if you look at this kind of beautiful transparent dress, that’s coming right out of the Renaissance painting – look at Botticelli. You have this kind of overpainting that’s really gossamer and lacy. So he’s starting to look very carefully at Renaissance painting. But when he starts to look at history painting, what he’s looking at first is, again, symbols, signs, how it comes together as meaning. Then he starts looking closer and closer and he starts to think about how paintings are constructed, the space, how the figures work in that space and how space can become a position of power and how it will pull us in and help us read those narratives he was interested in.

So that’s a – so keep this painting in mind as we head to the very end. But just a note with some of these early tarpaulin-like paintings, this goes back to what I was saying about being in Chicago painting in the early nineties. This is the same stuff that I was looking at or the same kind of handling of image, of juxtaposition, of appropriation, of the inclusion of text. To name a couple people who I thought about when I walked in here: Phyllis Bramson, a Chicago painter; Hollis Sigler, unfortunately, she died a handful of years ago, another important artist; Howard Finster, a self-taught artist; Leon Golub; Gladys Nilsson. So again, a lot of the Imagists, a lot of the visionary artists or self-taught artists that were coming to prominence and being brought to prominence by the Imagists in the nineties, really important. So you start feeling that happen here in this room. But again, think about space as we evolve, as we move that way.

JO: I think we’re going to move over there. I do see echoes of Jensen in this painting, which I sort of love, and of course, Manet in the bottom. Something that I think is interesting is about the paint handling in relation to – I suppose the objective of a Renaissance painting is very different in terms of what you’re looking at. These are very modern paintings. I guess a treatment is very much right on the picture plane, right on the surface.

There’s a – even though they’re thin, they’re not a super – with the exception of that one over there they don’t project as much physically right into real space. But the treatment, the sort of – it’s almost like the layering is limited, which would be something that you would have seen in Renaissance is constant laying or transparent washes to create the sort of dimension. This is much more frontal and aggressive in the way that it sort of projected. I do like that in – I suppose when you’re quoting it’s good to leave two things out and take one in from whatever it is that you’re quoting. So I think it adds strength. It adds directness to the work and conviction, I suppose.

MG: Right. Also think about imagination. Remember, I keep bringing up those self-taught outsider artists that you can get a sense of this kind of naive juxtaposition that doesn’t really exist in space. So think about what this imagination is. He’s pulling together all these various vocabularies. Some come to the surface. Some float. Some are collage.

But as we move on, as space develops perspective—right, it’s linear perspective that develops—what happens to the narratives is that they become genres. He is absolutely okay with genre. Genre is an interesting thing and maybe when we get to the end I’ll talk about how genre is important right now in contemporary art, hugely important and is doing us a great service in terms of how we think about contemplation. But just briefly, what is a genre?

Yes, landscape is a genre, still life, portraiture, which we’ll all see. But genre is important because we all agree on it. That we all kind of, "Yes, that is landscape. Yes, that is portraiture."

JO: And history painting.

MG: And history painting, absolutely.

JO: That’s a big one, sort of.

MG: That is a common denominator that he’s not afraid to take on. Again, it’s a kind of institution but it also can communicate to a lot of people. Then we can participate in constructing its meaning, meaning that is different far and beyond the little didactic text that’s next to it. That’s important, but there’s other things that are happening in terms of the language. So keep that in mind.

See space develop, perspective develop, and genre develop. All those things, again, have positions of power. They’re located in institutions. We can agree on those things. So let’s keep moving. Let’s maybe just keep go right down to the very end of this long gallery.

JO: I suppose as we walk, in the days of the salon and all the way through the early 20th century was history painting was the very pinnacle of painting. No one ever thinks about that anymore. So while you’re looking at these things, keep that in mind that that is what the institution was sort of associated with most strongly in the 19th century and in the 18th century.

MG: Look at how perspective is developing as we’re walking to the end in these larger paintings. Look at how perspective is developing. So you start seeing it in some areas. So it’s not really landscape but maybe the construction of the tent. You have a little architecture happening here. You have the bed. You have the couch. So you’re starting to see some of the elements, the tropes that he’s using, starting to occupy space, perspective. They’re being put into perspective. So let’s go all the way to the very end.

JO: Yeah, what is this? He’s moving from flatness to –

MG: Yeah, exactly. That is interesting that he’s moving back in time as he gets older. So this is a great example because you have an absolute sort of projection of space here and it’s a very sort of believable space that you’re in. You enter it through a window essentially, a kind of oddly framed window but it does work that way.

So there’s associations with Hans Holbein and Las Meninas as the text explain. If you’ve seen the skull, kind of anamorphic skull, it’s a very famous sort of image in The Ambassadors, it’s a complicated image because we still don’t know a lot about that painting. But a lot of it has to do with sort of – I suppose religious wars that were going on at that point, Catholic versus Protestants. As you know, these things were supposed to be viewed from a staircase that was high or in the bottom. Here it doesn’t make quite as much sense, but the quotation still applies. I think it’s Sleeping Beauty. So that also adds to it – a kind of – if you’re looking, there’s a central mirror, associations with Las Meninas and therefore you are the person taking the picture. You are the photographer. You’re the viewer. But you’re also – if you know Las Meninas you’re also the king and you’re the subject. You’re the painter, the king, and the viewer—all three at once. I think that’s an interesting position to have particularly in terms of an institution, where you have multiple roles here.

MG: Can I just jump in a little bit in terms of the space? So what’s happening, you see this development unlike the magic fellow on stage suspending the female figure. Here you actually have a real space that’s depicted through perspective in which the figures are occupying it and actively occupying it. So it pulls us in in a very different way. We can actually move around the figures, their kind of enthusiasm, the kind of performance that their bodies are engaged in with each other, looking around.

So it’s become an active stage as opposed to a sign of a stage where things are floating. So everything, except the quotation, the Holbein quotation and this kind of funny play, right? What are we looking at here? This floats on the surface as well, very much like that element. Right? But what this is is the bottom of one of the chairs that’s flipped up. But he’s very aware of that. Instead of pulling it into the kind of naturalization of space that’s happening within the beauty parlor, he allows it to sit somewhere on the surface the way this little element – or it’s not so little – but this kind of optical element sits as well as a signifier, again. So you have Velázquez. You have Holbein. But then you have figures in space, complicated Reubens-like space. But again, something very vernacular. It’s not mythical. This is what one knows. It’s very much like that vacuum cleaner to a great degree. It’s kind of that everyday. It’s part of an everyday, a process of the everyday.

JO: I love the Chris Ofili quote right at the end. I don’t know which one that is. It’s not The Return of Captain Shit but it’s sort of that era of paintings. If you know Las Meninas, there’s paintings in the background, which are copies of Rubens who was Velázquez’s friend and favorite painter at that point. These are copies made by his son-in-law, by Velázquez’s son-in-law.

So these are – the copies are of the Myth of Arachne. Essentially, paintings that told you that you have to know your place, you couldn’t challenge the gods like the Myth of Arachne or – I forgot what the other one was. But I think it’s interesting that he places this poster there as a stand-in for a copy of a copy.

MG: Yeah, it’s not only a poster. You see where that exhibition was. So that’s 2010, Tate Modern. Very important institution. We, as artists, all aspire to have solo exhibitions at the Tate Modern in London. So he’s playing again with the everyday and these structures, these power structures within the art world. Very aware of that. Yeah.

Audience: So in the video, I know Kerry’s kind of [inaudible] this facility [inaudible] exhibition [inaudible]. There’s a line where he says he doesn’t use painting to express himself. That all stood out to me. He’s such an amazing [inaudible]. I was just kind of curious as to how [inaudible].

MG: Right. Yeah, yeah, thanks for bringing that up. That’s really important. So did everybody hear that? That Kerry says he doesn’t use painting to express himself? I don’t know if those are the exact words. But basically, he’s not an expressionist is what he’s saying. So he’s not trying to communicate his authority, his body, his movement, his emotions, the affect, the affection of his body through the touch of paint like we think about the abstract expressionists –

JO: Yeah, I mean that –

MG: – or de Kooning, that touch. What he’s trying to do – this goes back to how he wants to be very, very clear with us. He could care less about his own – he does want to communicate that to us. We all have our own bodies. That’s not interesting to him. Something bigger than that. I would say something bigger than that is both representation, race, politics, but also painting. So he’s not expressing himself in painting but painting is a way of communicating those things. He’s very interested in it. That’s why he can’t stop looking at painting.

He looks and looks again and looks at the structure of painting. He asks himself these important questions about, "Outside of taste, what kind of judgment do we bring to a painting? How do we do that?" His taste is subjective. So what is excellence? What is virtuous in terms of making a painting?

These are ethical questions that he engages in. They’re ethical above these other important political questions that he evokes. So that’s – again, I kind of get a little frustrated and I’m sure he does too and, not that we’ve talked about this, but that the art world will – he’s embraced and he’s embraced boldly for the histories he’s presenting. That is important. But he’s doing so much more for all of us just in terms of elevating how we think about painting, how it can communicate, what it can do, how spaces can communicate. That’s hugely important. But thank you for bringing that up because typically that’s another authority or that’s another institution—that gesture of just expressing one’s self through that act of painting.

JO: That to me is a very complicated statement because it’s almost – I understand the sort of capital “E” expressionist thing. My first association is that, is that he’s sort of perhaps creating distance with an idea that we have to read into the brushstrokes a certain personality trait or a certain emotion or – that to me fits within expression. But then again, you cannot read these paintings without analyzing the surface and the expression in the surface. What’s worse or what’s sort of more important is how what did they – what artist does it quote in its application?

So not only in the object, not only in the narrative, but also the way that you paint. Is your paint flat in a kind of matter of fact way? That already has certain associations. You’ll see in some of the other paintings that have perhaps stronger links with someone like [Cy] Twombly it’s almost impossible not to think of expression. Maybe someone else’s expression, but it’s still an – it still borrows something.

Or the palette paintings that so much want to – it becomes a kind of joke on expressionism and exclusion but there they are. It’s clearly a kind of expressive palette used to not make an expressionist painting but a painting of an expressionist painting. So that’s the distance that becomes critical to understand, like we are in on the joke.

MG: If we can look at this painting, the beautiful juxtaposition here. Again, kudos to the curators. What are we looking at? The same kind of space, right, a beauty salon and a barbershop, pretty vernacular, pretty much in the same space. But again, look at how congested that space is. Look at how compressed that space is.

Feel how those figures become and hold the space very much like some of the accoutrements. They don’t really have the space to act. They are juxtaposed with other signs, other signifiers, other means of communication that are familiar to us, but you can just feel the tension. It’s much more flat and shallow, that space is. I would say if there’s any – I don’t even like using expression but what’s happening here is this kind of movement again into genre where he’s – I wouldn’t say he’s purging some of the information out, but what’s happening is he’s opening it up.

Here you see all of this juxtaposition because it’s very claustrophobic, very tight. It’s hard to kind of navigate that space with our eyes. We can’t even figure out how our bodies could step into that space. We just can’t. There’s just too much material in there. But this painting over here, the beauty shop, we could see how we could move around and trip over a kid. Right? We could envision how our bodies are moving through this space.

So really trying to figure out things here in terms of how space can be used, how color can be used. He’s a colorist. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not just symbolic color in terms of red, green, and black. He’s using in this case red, yellow, and blue and thinking about De Stijl and thinking about abstraction. So that’s being played out as well.

JO: But that’s why the space is so shallow in this one and it pushes so much. I think the figures, the sort of stark black of the figures, have a stronger association with sort of Dutch abstraction where you would have the black as a significant element along with the primary colors. So I think it’s a very interesting take.

MG: Yeah. As we’re going through and as we stop blabbering on and you’re looking, again, hopefully slowly, closely at these paintings, start asking yourself different questions about how you can enter your space and when you read things. So I have a tendency when I’m looking at this canvas here to read it. I read what all of those elements are signifying. Maybe they’re just props to indicate the barbershop or maybe it’s something else. That clock, what does 4:35 mean, right? Start breaking that down. What does those little K7 floaters mean? So you start reading it linguistically.

JO: Yeah, but –

MG: But here you can both read it and you can navigate it. You can move through those spaces. So really different – and again, once you go to genre, this is what genre does. You just accept that space of that genre. Then you can get into sticky, difficult, political subject matters. You can negotiate them. He’s opening up a space for you to navigate your own relationship to race, to the politics of race, to the contemporary problems when we opened the newspaper today or a history.

So he allows us a space to bring that in as opposed to reading it. I think the early works were really about reading it, were really about gathering these signifiers and distributing them in a very interesting way of his time, of a context that we were doing that in the nineties in terms of painting. But how he’s coming again to opening things up and allowing us to move through and build meaning.

JO: I think the later paintings, they’re far more seductive in terms of surface. So they allow you to also, in addition to what it’s reading – and I think reading is the correct way to look at these things, like what you are doing is bouncing between signifiers and trying to connect ideas, trying to connect quotations, time periods, and what these things meant in their original context and what they mean now. I mean these are complicated things and we could literally – if we sat in front of this thing we could spend a whole day talking about it because even stuff that I’m sure like it’s happened with my paintings people just know stuff that I didn’t even think about. So we don’t know everything about we make. So everyone has something to add to this thing and it happens in the reading. So more than looking, read.

MG: We’ll keep moving this way. Do you want to step on landscape?

JO: Sure, whatever you want.

Audience: He worked as a sign painter.

JO: That’s correct.

Audience: Do you know if he has experience with sign painting?

JO: I don’t know. I know he worked using – rolling linoleum, which is interesting that he quotes in a few paintings. But it seems like he would have had some experience in that. He paints in a kind of enamel-like quality that’s typical of sign painters and the scale and the tarps.

Audience: Right. It’s not bad. The skill’s there but I just was [inaudible].

JO: That’s a great observation. I really – I would have to ask him. Sorry.

MG: I’ll just say a couple, two things.

JO: Would you like to open it to questions, too? We’re almost done.

MG: Yeah. No, I just want to say a couple things. Let’s maybe go all the way – let’s do this and then we can walk towards the end by the abstractions.

JO: Oh yeah, that would be good. That’s all right.

MG: Just a couple things. We were talking about spatial development in that last gallery, right, from flat, floating signifiers to creating a perspectival space. What’s happening here is so interesting – he’s starting to think about light a little bit and he’s using landscape. It’s a very different kind of space. It’s landscape space.

I wouldn’t say he uses atmospheric space. He’s very much reliant on line. If you start looking at how faces are contoured, how even the modeling and clothing is contoured. Line is very important. So you’re thinking about flatness. You’re also thinking about color. He’s starting to think about color, again, beyond a kind of symbolic use of color.

But I want you to see what’s happening here and you can see, of course, immediately the reference to Seurat and Manet. Obviously this kind of leisure situation. But think about lighting. Lighting is so interesting in these works for me. He shows illuminated skies, but again, look at the shadows. I think one of the more sophisticated evolutions that’s happening as we’re moving forward is actually the shadow that’s being cast on the gingham tablecloth by the basket and the boom boxes.

So it does feel like a shadow because light is changing the color of that red gingham. If you look at any of these paintings behind you, look at the shadow. The piece on the left, these two figures walking in the housing complex, that shadow is nothing but a cartoon black blob. So it’s a very flat, very cartoon-like.

So light is starting – he’s starting to think a little bit about light and how light can open up a space as well as perspective. If you start also looking at how he breaks apart the compositions – if you look at the figures and we can look at this, this painting here, if you look at, for instance, this girl’s dress. So there’s modeling going on. There’s a kind of understanding of how this garment fits over a body.

But then you also see this kind of flatness. When one depicts black skin, when he’s depicting black skin how that flattens out. That goes back to being the emotional idea and the psychological idea of invisibility, that kind of flattening, that graphic quality that happens. So you see that as well. Then you see these kind of little floaters here that push forward.

JO: I think light is a very astute thing to bring up because it’s unnatural in most of the painting. If you see the light source happens in the back. Then none of the background actually has a light source. Only the individuals that are foreground have a light source. Even the light source doesn’t match all the time which indicates – I mean not in practical terms but in terms of signifying this would be what would look like in an artist’s studio particularly in a historical painting where you would set up multiple light sources on something and it would feel naturalistic and real and completely alien at the same time. So the figures would feel almost pasted on and there with you.

MG: One more quick thing about this painting and then that painting that we started with, the painting that befuddles me with the spectrum light depiction, is how he thinks about sound. Clearly painting, though we see regularly in contemporary artists and Jose as well, thinking about bringing audio, some kind of audio component into the relationship of painting. But finally, without that external mechanism paintings are quiet. They’re static things.

So we have here what’s emerging from these boom boxes and the same thing, what’s emerging from some of the towers, the city towers in the other place you can see musical notes coming out. So the idea of actually trying to solicit sound but also speaking to the limitations of the language he’s embracing. So it’s this kind of beautiful thing that he can only write it out, paint it out. We have to be able to kind of use our own imagination to kind of understand, read notes or actually read lyrics.

JO: Yeah, that’s the – sorry. I mean I would agree with you and that that’s also our quotation of – not quotation but that’s also a device that was used in paintings from the Renaissance on, which particularly if you were doing a morality sort of takes on things or you wanted to have a liturgical piece of music that would drive the whole narrative in a particular way, you would include the notes. People back then could read music. I can’t read music. It could have "Funky Town" there and I wouldn’t know.

MG: I think there’s a question.

Audience: Yeah. I’m just curious about like their expressions. It’s very like [inaudible], very serious. You have like the imagery so in the dress and kind of like a Kodak moment and they’re living this wealthy lifestyle. It just seems like a really strange juxtaposition between the expression and then the actual scenario, the scenery in there.

MG: Yeah, which is different then I think the figures that were really enjoying being within the space of the beauty parlor. Right? There was movement in those bodies. There was a lot of – there was work going on. There was a participation that was happening where these figures seem stayed. Yeah, I would agree. Do you want to venture in telling us why you think that’s the case?

Audience: I don’t know. I feel like maybe it’s as if they’re not comfortable with their own skin or the activities that they’re partaking in. They’re not – I don’t know, something about it just doesn’t quite fit in. It’s kind of hard for me to unpack exactly why that stands out but –

JO: Well to me, it goes back to art history and kind of what you have is two levels of application of paint that drive in sort of an opposite way, a kind of expressionist mode and a Renaissance mode at least in a sort of quiet and, I suppose, un-agitated state. I think that’s an interesting thing to bring up. You have a kind of, almost a stillness to it, a kind of very dignified, almost like – like nothing can disturb this moment. The rest of the moment is painted in a quite agitated expressionistic mode that’s moving in what would be I suppose anywhere between late 19th century all the way through postwar painting.

I guess that’s a good way of sort of encapsulating what I think he thinks. He thinks in the present and the distant past constantly. They’re always together. They’re fighting each other.

MG: Can I just circle it back to something that I’m encouraging you all to think about and that is interpretation and modes of interpretation. So Jose and I are really giving you a formal walk through. We’re acknowledging other content to the work, important content, but we’re also pulling that content into another power structure and that is of the formal. But what you’re bringing up is the psychological again.

We talked a little bit about that with what is inside, what is private, what is public. We can do that. That comes through and this is actually a very academic way of thinking about work. Strangely enough, it’s become a little conservative – I’m not at all suggesting your question was – but that is – we refer to it as the hermeneutics of suspicion or suspicious interpretation. That means that there is meaning lying in this painting that we can’t see.

So we really have to kind of unearth it. We’re exhumers. We’re pulling in. We’re looking deep in meaning that’s not pictured. Some kind of latent information that we really have to work. What’s so interesting about that, there’s critics who make livings, there’s whole departments in academia that have professors who do that with literature, with painting, and so forth.

It’s really interesting but often it’s a fiction. Often, it’s not there. That’s us bringing something – something exists and then this interpretation is second. We can’t do that interpretation without a piece of literature or without painting. So then we go through and we create something else, this other thing. We can really look at that and start thinking about not only history as Jose brings up but psychology or the condition of attention and boredom, something that we deal with as contemporary people outside of Kerry’s paintings.

So that could be another way of thinking through this. So there’s all kinds of ways of weaving and moving in and exhuming something. I would say that whether it’s Freudian psychoanalysis, Foucaultian spatial relationships to power, like all these crazy academic things are really – there’s interesting potential here. I can just tell you that Kerry would give a shaister about what any of that is. That’s about us. He doesn’t care.

Remember, I keep telling you he just wants to be clear with this. But that is something else. When you guys are looking at art, whether it’s Kerry’s work or whether it’s other work in this institution of wherever you are, those are all possibilities of moving through and understanding and thinking about work. I think those things should be named. I think it’s good to know. This is what I really appreciate about Kerry as an artist is because he’s very clear about how these things should be read. Not all of us – then he’s also clear that he has earned the privilege to not care and he is aware and thankful that he has reached this status within the art world and how he’s contributing to not only contemporary art but painting and painting as a discourse that is – it is a privilege and it is his responsibility to keep hanging out there. So I went way off your question. It’s a very good one.

But it just helps us understand that there’s so many interesting ways of interpreting work. Again, it can be fictional. It doesn’t have to be the artist’s intention and it may not even be what’s in front of your eyes. It may be something that is affecting you or culture or society here and now like boredom or what is leisure or class issues. This is about class.

JO: Right. But historically, this scale was reserved for action-packed things. So boredom is a good thing. If you think of history painting in the 18th and 19th century it would have been all about wars, about sort of dramatic events. Isn’t boredom a good thing to have then in a painting. I guess you can take it back to Seurat, like you mentioned. There’s a link to that, but traditionally this is not supposed to happen and it works well.

MG: We are an hour in and I got the time limit. We wanted to say something about the blot paintings. Do we have time? Can we walk out that way or should we just cut it off here?

Audience: Sure.

MG: All right. So we’re going to go to the very last gallery and then we will say goodbye.

JO: I’ll just start by mentioning something about the paintings that we just passed. Those of you who went by this set of paintings here on the right-hand wall of – were slaves captured in the Cato Rebellion and they’re placed in this sort of – like Catholic martyrs. It’s sort of fitting given the history of the Cato Rebellion and these were slaves that were trying to escape towards Florida at that point where they would have found freedom and they were caught halfway. I do like the device of sort of associating it with Catholic iconography.

So I will join that with this with the kind of [Frank] Stella painting, the woman holding the Stella painting, the paintings that are most self-referential, that reference the edge, the paintings that are the most about painting. She’s sort of holding onto it. I know it has something to do with the liner, with the boat, the ship. But it’s also Stella means star. It’s a great sort of – a perfect pun and a perfect take on what would have been the cult of flatness. Yet he completely disrupts that with the figure. So we’re moving towards abstraction and this is a good way to kind of end.

MG: Yeah, the blot painting. So Kerry does not acknowledge these as abstractions, that their figures. The blots, we know what a blot is. It’s a figure. It’s no longer the figure of the black body. It’s something else. It’s a figure, quite literally of abstraction and the power of abstraction when one thinks about painting, the 20th century, and abstract painters. He’s made quotes along the way. We’ve seen those things. Warhol and Rorschach tests come to mind immediately. So these are not a technical feat. He’s not folding them together to get that blot affect. He’s actually painting them.

Then the idea of text where he’s looking at Barnett Newman, Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue. He’s looking at who’s afraid of red, yellow – excuse me – red, green and black. Again, dealing with symbolic color and dealing with, again, a powerful situation regarding representation and using text to do that. Again, the flattening of text.

So just something to keep in mind as we walk you through. We gave you different kinds of readings, different kinds of takes and very different works. You saw very different arcs and developments in terms of space, in terms of light. Always still dealing with the ethical importance of issues around race and history. Very important. But he, again, other things – he’s pulling other things along with that. Two of my favorite paintings we didn’t get to talk about. One is the portrait of the artist with that absurd, huge, large palette holding it in front of him.

JO: I love that painting. It’s so good.

MG: It’s very, very funny. He’s using humor in a way in that piece I think more so than any other work. It reminds me a little bit of a [Philip] Guston’s "big feet". Something absurd is going on. Also just the authority of the artist staring at you in the eye is undeniable. That’s really terrific.

Then there is also another kind of portrait. This kind of goes back to the early work when there was something kind of magical going on, something not linear, not Western in terms of thinking about representation even though it does actually evoke the kind of Etruscan paintings. It’s an image of Nat Turner in a stained – on a piece of wood found in a stain, in a water stain.

So kind of the magical thing of how images – how we come to see images and that as humans we always look for the face. That’s part of just the human condition. We’re looking for the figure and that piece reminds us of that, in addition, to being just a really kind of beautiful – somewhere between both naive and conceptual. A really great image.

I’m thankful that Kerry keeps flogging it out. I would want to say one last thing about kind of some of the galleries on this side get really kind of convoluted and mannerist in terms of thinking about ideas of meaning, race, subject, authority, power. They get really complicated. What’s really complicated are those paint-by-numbers paintings. That’s really – there’s something – he’s opening up – even the motifs, the ones with the kind of vignetting going on. I’ve been thinking about cliché.

So he keeps moving. I mean this is what’s so interesting about an exhibition like this and this is why it’s so important to just spend a lot of time in monographic exhibitions because you get to see shifts in the artist’s thinking. You get to see when they’re trying something out. You get to make that judgment where, "He went too far here. This didn’t work out." But something else happened. Maybe it was color evolving or something else that he could carry on. So again, really important exhibition.

I’m really eager to see it when it goes to the Met because Kerry went through the collection at the Met in New York and is pulling historical work. There is – hold on; I wrote some work down. But everything from de Kooning to Dürer. So he went through the collection and there’s – the work that he’s looking at he’s bringing forward. So you’ll get to see that direct juxtaposition there. So just because you see an exhibition in one place and you happen to land in New York don’t say, "Oh I’ve seen that in Chicago." You need to see it again because new juxtapositions and new meaning will be made. So that’s really important.

JO: Oh and I suppose to close, this has been mostly a formal analysis of his work. We sidestepped a lot of other issues in the work, but because the work really – in some sense it deals with the big issue of art in the 20th century and the big sort of fight that happened between representation and abstraction. In his work, he sort of breaks down that sort of dialect, the false sort of division that in the end postmodernism sort of did away with. But if we think about abstractions and its sort of aims of purity and we sort of associate it – it was classicism that sort of kind of got the stench of fascism and social Darwinism, for instance. All these things were tied together to a kind of class aesthetic.

It’s interesting that he goes back to that. But it’s also interesting to think that abstraction in its most developed state also had a kind of impulse towards purity that was problematic. It’s something that we should think about in terms of race. It’s also not a surprise that a lot of African American artists, Latino artists were not abstract painters. Most of them remain within the figurative tradition, perhaps due to Catholicism, perhaps due to a sort of emphasis on iconography. But I think purity troubles people. There’s nothing wrong with contamination.

MG: Thank you guys. Thanks for taking the walk.