In early June, the artistic community in Bushwick, Brooklyn held its annual Bushwick Open Studios for the eighth year in a row, traditionally an exciting event for those more interested in art than art-world. Like its famous neighbor Williamsburg, Bushwick is an industrial landscape, an expanse of man-made material intermittently shaded by a handful of pavement locked trees. Both neighborhoods are peppered with young creatives (or at least those who take care to look so), however Bushwick remains the less colonized of the two. Unlike Williamsburg, which is fast becoming as gentrified as Manhattan and more commercial than creative in that branded “hipster” sort of way, Bushwick still gives evidence of its working class roots.
Since its inception BOS has grown enormously and has turned a neighborhood generally forgotten by the rest of New York into an “art destination”. Whether or not this is a good thing remains #TBD. As the neighborhood art scene confronts an increasing swell of attention, Bushwick emerges as a landscape in flux. Outsiders may assume that the buzz has to do with the quality of the work or innovative artistic risks and developments occurring in the area. If anything, BOS consistently reveals this isn’t the case; artists in Bushwick aren’t making work better than what you’ll find in K.C. or one of many other American cities full of artists looking for bigger work spaces, natural light, reasonable working hours and a lower cost of living. In fact, the scene in Bushwick has always been more about community than innovation, as is evidenced by the event’s programming choices: there is no selection process at BOS, any artist who wants to register their apartment or studio as a stop on the tour is free to do so.
The lack of exclusivity traditionally shown at BOS has been an important component of its consistent draw particularly because the relaxed open studios tend to happily reveal many artists making work for the love of it. This make-what-you-will sort of attitude is perfect for an artistic community representing a diverse spectrum of skill and experience, so the fact that BOS tends to offer far more underdeveloped work than one might anticipate has in previous years seemed emblematic of the community’s authenticity and hardly an issue. Yet as the volume of artists in the neighborhood has broadened due to the hype, so do community roots appear more shallow.
The Bushwick scene was originally powered by various local and artist-run initiatives such as Storefront Ten Eyck, Signal Gallery, and Norte Maar, a gallery-in-apartment run by Jason Andrew and Julia Gleich. Many additional initiatives, such as Factory Fresh, Famous Accountants, and Pocket Utopia, are no longer active in the community despite the short time frame since the original BOS in 2006. According to the Center for Urban Research, the number of white residents living in North Bushwick almost doubled from 2000 to 2010. The New York Times reports that rent for a studio apartment in Bushwick increased 27 percent from 2011 to 2013. While the gentrification of the neighborhood has brought in new businesses and a lower crime rate (down 20% since 2001), somehow a scene that welcomes tempera paint on pizza boxes and paper plates is taking on a glossier exterior. Chelsea Gallery Luhring Augustine opened a Bushwick location in 2012, revealing a glimpse of the commercial draw behind any hip new scene. In a broader sense, recent developments in Bushwick seem to solidify the fact that whether or not art is good has nothing to do with the the location of the artist.
New Yorkers are notoriously place-centric, to put it diplomatically. If there were a theoretical equivalent to speciesism based on one’s locale, the idea would be devised and propagated by New Yorkers (ironic for a city of immigrants). That the art world would eventually “discover” Bushwick as some kind of epicenter of creative renaissance is hardly any kind of discovery at all; Bushwick is literally one neighborhood away from the last hip New York neighborhood in a long chain of them, each formerly occupied by artists, presently occupied by whomever can’t be priced out. New Yorkers are a populace constantly looking around for the next best thing, but only in so far as the next best thing exists within their city limits and is available immediately. Much of the contemporary art sold and shown in New York is loaded with these precise characteristics: theoretical in a cheap-and-easy sense, something with a punch line, a Cronut™, five minutes of shallow gratification.
The status quo is a kind of work that preferences ideas usually before skill or craft. This isn’t necessarily an issue, as whether theory-based work is or is not better than craft, beauty, or whatever one might offer in opposition is debatable; the question has no “true” answer separate from the cultural condition it is presented in. Rather, the issue is that the fact that while some artists made great work based largely on ideas—e.g. Duchamp, Bruce Nauman, Felix Gonzalez-Torres—most of the work right now that is being justified theoretically is technically bad, often completely unoriginal, and is based on completely lifeless ideas, usually only a quick turn of phrase or a tiny logical jump.
This type work happens to be very sellable because it is easily explainable to buyers and can be made without the development of a skill set or mastery of a craft. Furthermore, the Western cultural populous is not a collective content to look as an exploratory activity, to hover in ambiguity and allow themselves to perceive and experience the sensory nuances of whatever artwork lay before them. No, we are a people who see something to “get it”. We demand of art that what it “is” be immediately apparent. Theoretically, if we were to read that a series of scribbles on a mass produced chalkboard were a “radical redefinition” of “art as object” because the marks that are depicted are technically non-permanent, this most likely seems intelligent regardless of whether or not we feel radically redefined or if we felt it was a complete waste of time to look at. This is a very precarious issue, of course, because the line between good and bad is quite delicate.
As time has passed in the contemporary era, our culture that only values art when it is theoretically justified has begun running out of ideas. The really big, great ones have all been taken, so everyone is narrowing their scope and getting more ambiguous. The initial purpose of making theoretical art (to make certain important points that couldn’t be made otherwise) is getting lost to the fact that everyone feels they need to justify their work, and that those with no ideas are able to justify anything if it’s written obtusely enough. This trajectory has led many to claim we have reached the “death of painting”, mostly because they cannot come up with a good intellectual justification for why one would paint. Of course, those who ascribe to this ridiculous idea seem not to understand that the act of painting is based on a variety of reasoning entirely different than the methodology necessary, say, to write this article. Does it seem reasonable to require a logical argument justifying one’s actions prior to having sex? Why is painting any different? Logic doesn’t necessarily have something to add to the work every time; there are limits to its applicability and scope in relation to art depending on the piece, medium, and intent of the artist. To not respect this, particularly authorial intent, is to project an expectation that the artist meet and fulfill the infinite possible rational assessments a work may receive from viewers without knowing what they are, a ridiculous impossibility and a hindrance to the creative process.
In essence, there is no “death of painting”, only the death of the short sighted means our culture has been using to define and understand painting–solely through empirical thinking. The idea that painting has finally been “truly” defined by the slow and methodological “advancements” of self-reflexivity through modernism and into the present era is a laughable notion: is the Western mind really so short sighted that our one idea for what makes great paintings, which not so surprisingly reflects the essence of our culture, is somehow more true than every other culture’s use of painting for the whole of human history? Aside from it’s hubris, the idea is nonsensical; the Western methodology has essentially terminated itself, it has revealed its own fallacy through its inability to offer any means forward other than the death of a medium. Painting is a tool, it can’t die. In this state of confusion, we are losing the richness of an art culture infused with some humanity. Isn’t art an essentially human activity? To divorce the two eliminates something more important than aesthetics, it eliminates the essence of true expression. To pretend like this is a modernist issue is frankly ridiculous; the work being made now has reached such a visual low it seems an insult to compare the two. There is something very different than the scribbles of Cy Twombly or Jackson Pollock, two artists who respectively developed their own unique styles of making work, and a pre-fabricated chalkboard with no life in the scribbles, no humanness, no meaning. The meaning of the chalkboard is simply to make the point that some marks are permanent, some are not. How many times have we seen this piece? And anyway, who cares?
Christopher Stout, Bushwick artist and founder of Bushwick Art Crit Group, graced BOS with more of his textured, monochromatic squares this year. A similar body of work shown at Art Basel Miami in 2013 titled Portal into an Ontological Trance can be seen on his website. Like the BOS works, Portal into an Ontological Trance is a set of chunky blobs on squares, this set in different colors and with slightly different chunks than those featured at BOS. Ontology is used in Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time to characterize an inquiry into the nature of Being in and of itself, the big-picture Being that exists primary to the subjective being of individuality or single moment awareness. In any case, little argument is needed to reveal that “Portal into an Ontological Trance” means absolutely nothing, especially in relation to the visual monotony that this almost-so-confusing-you-wonder-if-it-is-justifiable title accompanies.
Almost too conveniently, work by artist Tom Friedman titled Paint and Styrafoam and shown at Luhring Augustine Bushwick during BOS revealed a similar working approach to Christopher Stout. Friedman’s work represents the best of what you can get within this framework: more monochromes, but technically well-executed, sometimes interesting ones with a better idea behind them. Friedman’s work explores the notion of the monochrome by defying it, or at least that’s what it should say in the press release. He makes monochromatic works, but circumvents the monochrome-ness of them to illustrate a scene or depict brush strokes by carving into styrofoam and painting over it. This is neat. But then, is it?
For a timely local example of such work, consider Ethan Cook’s oversized canvas colored canvases currently on view at Bill Brady KC: canvases about being a piece of canvas, woven fabric about hand or machine weaving, monochromes about being one color.
The work epitomizes the New York status quo. Meaning, it isn’t interesting until one reads the press release, wonders if the wording is some kind of reverse psychology mind trick as it has inspired thoughts legitimizing what was initially indisputably terrible, and forgets the “theory” by the time they exit the gallery. To be blunt, no number of words can make something boring to look at less boring, regardless of how intelligently the argument is delivered. Such examples, of which there are many, have the quality of a very slow and terrifying blood-letting of art as something that ever held cultural value.
So, why do artists outside New York still consider “New-York-ness” a good thing? Keep in mind that New York is the currently the center of the art world, not the bohemian epicenter of creativity it was in the 70’s. This is also the internet age, when every potential resource an artist may want regarding the work of other artists or recent shows and exhibitions is available in seconds. The answer: who knows?
New York art world proclivities are about commerce, not culture. Most of the city is crazy gentrified, and areas like Bushwick and Williamsburg that do appear to support creativity can at times turn sour. What initially seems a charming multitude of thrift stores, local restaurants, and all-artisan-all-the-time occasionally shifts into a faux-hipster scene more about looking the part than playing it. Artists both in New York and outside of it seem too easy to forget that what sells in New York has no connection to what is actually culturally valuable. Just as the same beard worn by the Brooklyn army of hipster lumberjacks doesn’t really indicate that a man has ever chopped his own wood. This tendency has stunted a lot of artists who are afraid of making their most authentic work because it doesn’t fit into the status quo.
Artistic authenticity in our culture is slowly being subsumed by faux-intellectualism, capitalist marketing ploys, and a collective fear of voicing disapproval, which should come as no surprise. How is there room for truly original creative vision in a culture obsessed with logically rationalizing creativity, an act entirely different than the way of thinking we force it into each time we explain it theoretically? Furthermore, why must we ascribe to the projection that Western art history is a linear sequence of “breakthroughs” that an artist must continue? How is believing in the Western tradition as it was written by Westerners — as if it were somehow more valuable or true than the art traditions in every other culture — and taking on the responsibility of carrying that tradition forward not a faith based act?
Which brings us back to Kansas City, a place where all of the conditions necessary for true creative innovation already exist: large affordable studios, reasonable work/life balance expectations, a supportive community, galleries where artists of all levels can show their work, great artist run spaces/ businesses, cheap rent to invite more, and a scene where no one has to waste their breath feeding the status quo. We have the freedom of infinite possibilities because we do not live within the confines of what the broader system dictates, regardless of whether or not that choice was made deliberately. It seems obvious, but artists don’t have to follow the rules, and that includes whether or not one chooses to incorporate theory or address the “Western Art Historical Tradition” in every piece of their work, which is by no means an objective or unbiased history. Why are we supposed to care?
Artists are free to decide how they want to define art for themselves and through their own work. When more really start to, we’ll start seeing bold, exciting new ideas again. Call me crazy, but I have a feeling our culture has a lot more to offer the collective pool of human achievement in the arts than another Cronut™.