Monday, September 28, 2009

Un-Learning Modernism

Recently I began noticing that interest in Modernist aesthetic approaches seemed to be cropping up. The trends that interest me are described not by what they are, but what they are next to. Not a “return,” “re-examination” or “re-evaluation” but something near that. Certainly not “re-vival” or “re-birth.” Maybe “resuscitation.” But then, only of very specific elements. In my schizophrenic statement for my recent exhibition at 65GRAND, I stated:
That is the condition of art, and painting in particular, that most weighed down and burdened of all the media, a consciousness of its own history and its need for, or habit of, self-criticality. So Modernist, but is that not what art after Modernism does too? It is almost exclusively engaged in self-criticality. And it seems there is a generalized trend brewing, not a return to the Modern, but an increasing interest in sifting through the trash heap and salvaging, repairing or reconsidering aspects of the Modernist project that have promise of a new relevancy.
Basically, I believe art is always in a condition of self-examination and evaluation. At different times it is called different things, indeed this is because at different moments there are different aims and ends, different areas being scrutinized. A lot of it is contextual and situational.

Even in the short time I have started to notice this sort of instinctive examination of the bits and pieces of Modernism many colleagues are doing, it has become overwhelming. And unfortunately it is confused. There is now a wholesale wave of Modernism crashing down to such an extent that it as though it never went away. And all the generic understandings are returning with it. Modernism, or any other moment can never really return because time has moved on.

I was, and perhaps still am, interested in the idiosyncratic approach to Modernism. For me it is at times the personal aesthetic mindset of living inside a Barnett Newman, an imaginary one that embodies all the best Newman’s, and then having that sort of overlay in how I look at the world. That is the kind of use Modernism has. Not a tired re-hashing of the conflation of architecture and art or talking about the Bauhaus. And especially not the na├»ve utopian ideals about the world-healing power of the perfect marriage of art and design. There is nothing new or useful to dragging those ideas from the back of the top shelf of the closet.

Admittedly my aesthetic fascination with Modernism, and my taste, are limited to a very narrow period with a very narrow number of artists. This is based in an accurate understanding of said artists and their period—as accurate as is possible for anyone looking to a historical moment they didn’t directly witness—but I quickly go astray. Not out of laziness or ignorance, something I would accuse sincere proponents of a re-release re-mastered re-issue of Modernism, but out of an internal necessity to mine the past for use in the present. That is the point of art, if there is to be anything gained from looking at Modernism, it is in its use as material. And so when I am interested in Modernist art, and I am interested in the work of certain artists at present utilizing it, it is in a moment of synthesis.

Looking at bits and pieces of the Modern to use in one’s own practice is not based on prescribed historical criteria, or accuracy. It is based on an intuitive and personal understanding eccentrically related to one’s own aims and agenda within an artistic project. In short it is the synthesis of Modernist and Postmodernist approaches to art making, that is neither nor.

I am not interested in some sort of reverent resurrection or some violent antagonism. Those are safe and established zones in which to act and it would be very hard to come up with anything useful in either mindset. In both cases it is a mistake to think of Modernism as one thing. Modernism had many nuances, sidetracks and variously opposing elements. So Modernism is not one idea you can bring back, or one you can kill. That is why I would encourage any discussion around Modernism to be as specific and precise as possible. That just might not be possible though, because these days when we speak of art, we only speak in generalizations.

As it stands at the moment I am inclined to purposefully distance myself from “the Modern” in general and painting in particular.


Corinne Halbert said...


Anonymous said...

No paintings in "Learning Modern" (Sullivan Galleries, through January 9). I'd say the exhibition addresses Modernism as a collaborative way of living and learning rather than as a style or aesthetic movement. I like that. Hope you checked out the show. //John Eding, SAIC