Conrado Carrasco at Casa de Cultura
And stuff for which I have no names
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I was at Lechón Illustrado recently looking at Samara Colina’s paintings with friend and artist, Catalina Gris. What I found most interesting was how the paintings worked on two levels. Up close, you could get lost in a fantastic abstract array of color patches.
Then, as you slowly move away, the image becomes more and more representational.
When the whole scene finally comes into focus, the sheer number of human figures represented is dizzying.
“Maybe,” I said to Cati, “maybe that’s what Kant meant by the mathematical sublime.” (Sidebar: I have more than once bantered my German friends that it takes a German like Kant to see mathematics as a sublime experience.) Anyway, Kant was talking about magnitude, but here it is literally a numeric overload; as you step back from the detail, the multitude is too great to fathom or even to be contained in the frame of the canvas. Even the spatula smears diagonally across the upper left and right warp the time-space curve into something larger than what the senses can grasp.
“No,” Cati said. “This isn’t it – the Kantian sublime.” Not that she didn’t like the painting, she just thought I was forcing in the theory. She was probably right. I always try a bit too hard to wrap my head around the mathematical sublime. (Kant’s power-based dynamical sublime is easier to grasp for me.)
“Maybe if the entire wall was covered,” Cati said.
“Yes,” I said, “That’s it.”
Whether representative of Kant’s mathematical sublime or not, it is a signature feature of Colina’s work (cp. the painting below, also at Lechón Illustrado).
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The art show at Foro Cultural 81 (81 Positos, Guanajuato) featured two artists. Cati Gris’s main body of work centered on shades and variations of texture and line and shape – the geometrical building blocks of visual reality. These abstract geometrical compositions, however, are typically enmeshed in organic, textile materials.
But something more. Also a sense of palimpsest layered in earth colors, more cool than warm, subdued, a sense of hidden details, hidden bytes and bits of information, patterns lying almost unconsciously beneath the visual surface and requiring a close-in look (“Catedral el llama desde internet”).
A few of Gris’s works leaned in along the gradient from the abstract toward the representational, without giving too much on the representations side. The jittery electronic universe that almost comes into focus in “Dispositivo para presenter colores básicos” struck me as such, as did the archetypal figures emerging in silhouette from the geometry of “Chalchiuhtlicue”.
Phe Ruiz had two rooms in the exhibit with clearly demarcated themes – one room striking for its texture, one striking for its color.
The second room was full of bold colors with a childlike quality, albeit one haunted, in both style and affect, by the empty spaces of faces. The human-like figures were sometimes cast into elemental environments, either in nature (“El pino”) or in a stylized domestic set, e.g. in “El Mesero,” where we get a solitary figure learning to balance in a rudimentary social space.
Sometimes, the same figures found themselves wandering aimlessly in a more abstract setting, the child-appeal of the bold colors offset by the existentialist undertones of face and posture.
Finally, the venue itself at 81 Positos was elegant and well-lit, and did its part to highlight the power and peculiarities of the works included. And if you were lucky enough to be there on opening night, Alonso’s sangria wasn’t bad either.
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Blogmate Paul Adkin recently posted about “purposiveness and becoming.” The simplified gist of it – I partly conjecture, as Paul is ahead of me on some things philosophical – is that purposiveness is teleological or end-oriented. We get a sense of purpose by directing our attention at something “out there/not here yet” toward which we can strive. Thus, purposiveness is wedded to our process of becoming, of transforming ourselves. And if that process of transforming ourselves is in a predetermined direction, we have “purpose” in life.
After a bit of free association, I started correlating Paul’s ideas to some art shows I’d seen recently. In the arts, there is the age-old distinction between the beautiful and the sublime, sometimes cast as the classical and the romantic. Beautiful/classical is associated with symmetry, framing, a delightful rational pleasure; the sublime/romantic is associated with excess, passion, feelings of awe or of being overwhelmed by something that cannot be adequately grasped or framed.
So my tie between Paul and the arts becomes this: Beauty relates to being, the sublime relates to becoming; beauty is static, the sublime is dynamic. The beautiful artwork or musical composition comes to us framed neatly, symmetrically; it is calming and delightful, not disruptive or disturbing. Indeed, it is calming and delightful specifically because it ratifies our sense that we can frame things neatly, symmetrically, rationally, hold them in our hands and view them in wonder.
Knowing nothing of musical history, I think of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik as beautiful, the perfect expression of that delight that comes with rational pleasure. Then I think of his younger contemporary, Beethoven, composing his 5th symphony 20 years later. The 5th is sublime right from the 4-note opening, the “fate motif” that everyone knows. The ominous motif itself seems a warning shot that what is coming is not beautiful but sublime, not an invitation to relax in delight, but something disruptive, full of passion that is not easily confined or domesticated; indeed, something a little bit frightening, breaking the comfort zone of being and expanding it in a way that causes existential angst, as the listener goes beyond their capacity to keep the response within pre-ordained limits. The capacity falters, and one is overwhelmed.
Though my examples might be faulty from the viewpoint of music history, I can still take the point about beauty and the sublime and apply it to self-actualization. Beauty resonates with our stages along the path, it resonates with the pleasure we get when we can pause, look around us, and appreciate the wonderland we happen to be in at this stage of life or of reality. The sublime resonates with our moments of transformation, disruption, the struggle between stages, where one fixed stage is lost and the new not arrived. It is a period of angst – frightening, dizzying, and exhilarating at the same time. The self that has existed up to this moment is overwhelmed and swept aside and the new self not yet formed. It is not unlike what ancient civilizations must have felt at the winter solstice, when the old sun seems dying but the new sun uncertain. It is the breaking of the snakeskin as the old self is shed, its boundaries shattered, but the new self not yet secure.
I know that Slavoj Zizek, whom I admire for his politics, has had something to say about the sublime. (Full disclosure: I have not read Zizek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology, but I have read The Parallax View and a few other bits, and hey, as I said at the outset, this is free association time.) If I had to tie my thesis about the sublime to politics, the easiest point of entry would be in royal lineage. “The king is dead; long live the king.” In that paradox is the anxiety of the sublime in its political aspect. That moment between the death of one monarch and the coronation of the heir must have been one of tremendous anxiety for the body politic, the opening for bloody war and massive dislocation in the fragile civil society, the sublime moment of transformation is all its terrible possibility. Best to try close the gap to the single breath indicated by the semicolon: “The king is dead; long live the king.”
For Zizek, I know, it’s probably more of an ideological thing. Perhaps the self gets overwhelmed and lost in the totalizing ideology that swamps it. This seems especially relevant in totalitarian societies. But I like my king example for how it resonates with those transformative moments in self-actualization.
Just to finally touch on Zizek’s psychoanalytic (Freudian) angle on the sublime, as I am told that he goes there, too. Freud’s superego, of course, relates nicely to the sublime. Let’s briefly say that Freud’s tripartite schema consists of (1) the id, which refers to the dark, primitive drives; (2) the superego, which relates to the inscrutable, all-powerful (father-) figure to which the infant psyche is subjected (and which the infant psyche introjects), the enforcer of prohibitions but also the source of higher ideals for which to strive; and (3) the ego, where the rubber meets the road in terms of the id’s reckless drives and the superego’s controlling function. In Zizek (or so I’m told), ideology functions as a superego. This, to me, opens an interesting dichotomy in the sublime. In one variant, the subject is overwhelmed by the inscrutable power faced and is humbled into in state of awe by the objective power. The second variant comes with the exhilaration of resisting and thwarting the Law – “jouissance” Zizek calls it. To stick to the political framing, the first variant might the “conservative” variant (cp. Edmund Burke), insofar as the subject is humbled, resistance impossible, and the objective power source reaffirmed. The second variant might be the more “radical” variant (cp. Kant), in that the subject breaks down the objective formations of power and proclaims its own dominion.
Back to self-actualization. Beauty and the sublime. An endless series of steps, each step a pleasant resting place, with the movements between fraught with danger and transformation, fraught with the possibility that that self might be utterly lost, humbled, overwhelmed (Burke), or that the self might be exhilarated and transformed, ennobled into some entirely new being who can look back in wonder at all the steps below, enjoy the delight of the moment, and then feel the pull of purposiveness and turn the gaze back upward.
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Review of the exhibition, Entre Fusiones, by Celes Orozco, Cuarto Cresciente Galeria (https://www.facebook.com/CuartoCrecienteGaleria/). Guanajuato, Mexico: May 3-June 13, 2019.
Reviewed by Gary Gautier
The relationship between art and reality has percolated through the history of ideas since Plato (well, probably since the cave paintings of Lascaux, but I can’t vouch for anything before Plato). Some bright-eyed theorists identify four angles: (1) mimetic (art imitates reality), (2) affective (art may or may not mimic reality, but the value lies in how it affects its viewers), (3) expressive (art projects the subjective experience of the artist into objective form), and (4) objective (art builds value through its internal design and composition, irrespective of how it may or may not correspond to the minds of artist or audience or to physical reality).
Each of these angles is to some extent at play in Celes Orozco’s exhibition, Entre Fusiones, at Cuarto Cresciente Galeria. The collection strikes immediately, visually, at the question of art’s relationship to reality, but it does so through different styles. The first style I might call “the cosmic flux.” It is abstract, but not in the manner of Joan Miró’s abstract geometrical lines or Mark Rothko’s solid color zones. Miró and Rothko are working with the abstract building blocks of line and color, but Orozco’s works seem more concrete.
Untitled 1 Untitled 2
These paintings, although they do not depict anything in particular, project, more than Miró or Rothko, some concrete, almost totalizing view of reality as a swirling potentiality of form and color. This is the primal flux that undergirds the reality of discrete objects as we know it. The strokes, too, as Orozco variously applies paint to the canvas with finger or hand as well as brush, suggest something concrete and organic, but still in potential form. The only narrowing of potential that I see comes in some of the color choices, as in Untitled 2 the sunburnt coloring conjures up (for me at least) the Mexican roots of the artist, which we see in patches or hints as we move through the exhibition.
The Mexican roots appear more strongly in the second style. If the first style emphasized a primal cosmic flux, the second shades into representations of “primal culture.”
This painting, Chaos, overflows with the fundamentals of nature, with a close-in view of quasi-archetypal figures rather than on the Gestalt or expansiveness of the landscape (as we might see, e.g., in a Romantic-era European landscape). This, the masterpiece of the exhibit in my view, is not about the space of nature and culture from which we came, but about the things that populate that space. And rather than the gradient of space and color, light and shade, that you might get in Renaissance verisimilitude, here the arrangement is relatively flat, with bold colors, each figure presented in its full integrity. The presentation seems fundamentally native American, although my vocabulary is insufficient to expand upon why.
Finally, Orozco throws a few pop culture images onto the canvas – the bottle, the car, the McDonald’s balloon, the casino. It is difficult to say whether this encroachment by the artifacts of modern culture is a corruption of or an extension of the primitive layout. The bottle in the foreground and car at the center seem harmless enough. The casino atop the primitive pyramid seems a little sinister, but Orozco does not highlight the sinister. This is not the hellish 3rd panel of Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Even the McDonald’s balloon is not accompanied by anything overtly negative. Perhaps Orozco just needed the pop culture items to show that the primitive space is not to be too idealized, not removed from time, is already flowing into the vicissitudes that come after.
Whether the second style, the “primal culture” style, encompasses the paintings below or spawns them as separate styles may be the viewer’s choice.
Protecting the infant is the clearest merging of the “cosmic flux” style with representational forms.
. Protecting the infant
Whereas Chaos had only a hint of the cosmic flux style in the brush strokes of the river, more than half the canvas here is covered in cosmic flux style. The represented images are fragmented, iconographic, not holistic scenarios as in Chaos. If there is a hybrid style in Orozco’s repertoire, this is its clearest expression.
El desierto, on the other hand, is holistic, but doesn’t strike the emotional register the same way as Chaos.
Chaos gave a sense of temporal projection across eons of time, reaching back to some primeval culture in the archetypes of nature. El desierto has more the sense of a contemporary psychedelic experience of space, not unlike the sense of space experienced by your correspondent on some of his hippie-era LSD trips, with the sky thick and close, not thin and distant, with the cacti that seem to sparkle, the long smooth flowing strokes of the land, the stones themselves flowing to show hidden figures that had always been there waiting to be made manifest by the ready viewer. Here, one could almost say it is the subjective effusion into the space and its objects that defines the experience. This to me is a style all its own – I’ll call it the “spatial flux” (or “psychedelic spaces”).
Finally, El niño y la serpiente expands the pop culture idea from the periphery of Chaos, gives it center stage, and takes it in a new direction.
El niño y la serpiente
This is the closest Orozco comes to the traditional surrealism of Salvador Dalí or to pop art collage style, depending on how you look at it. The scene is holistic and quite modern, and we suspect full of political and social symbols, unlike Chaos, in which any symbols with overt political weight were kept to the margins. In fact, there are only the vaguest traces of the cosmic flux or the primal culture here, although the relative flatness of the brush strokes and representation aligns it more with the primal culture style, and also gives it a mural-like effect that keeps Orozco’s eclectic work at least tenuously grounded in the cultural coordinates of Mexican art.
Detail from El niño y la serpiente
It is not for me but for you to determine how much of this response is my own idiosyncrasy and how much intrinsic to the compositional markings on the canvas. Either way, if it provides food for thought about this fine artist and this fine show, that will be enough done.
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Bonus picture (Soñando): a holistic scenario in the true “primal culture” style of Chaos, complete with archetypal Mesoamerican fauna and flora, the close view, the pressed bold color zones, and the sense (enhanced by the title idea, “Dreaming”) that we are moving through the field of what Carl Jung calls “the primitive roots of consciousness.”
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Recently searching neighborhood live theater in Chicago as I was passing through, I stumbled across 5 or 6 venues online without much searching at all. All but one featured tales of the suffering engendered by white privilege. Honestly, I was a bit disappointed at the narrowness of theme (no knock on Chicago per se, whose beautiful people and cultural vitality continue to amaze). Don’t get me wrong. I sympathize with the underlying politics of “woke” culture. My “doublewoke” (or woke against woke) conceit is not a full renunciation of wokeness, but an encouragement to take the next turn, to take the potential for good that lies slumbering in the woke movement and wake it up to a brand new day.
I start with the assumption that the “woke” set and I share a long-term progressive ideal of a society that is equal and open, uninhibited, comfortable with diversity, and rich in human contact. But I fear the machinery of “woke” is going about it in the least efficient way, relying on two shaky strategies. First, it relies too heavily on negative reinforcement; i.e., search the people you encounter not for the good that is in their hearts but for any faux pas, past or present, that can be used to scarlet letter them as racist, sexist, etc. Sure, no one is perfect, but this approach suggests that we can right the ship with sufficient shaming and scolding. Unfortunately, shaming as a means of betterment just doesn’t work. Self-loathing among black men becomes a subject of academic scrutiny from time to time, and the consensus is always that self-loathing does not help their lot. Self-loathing, which Freud might call the introjected form of shaming, does not build character for blacks and does not build character for whites. Shaming may not be the intent, but if this is the reception you get from all who fall outside the “already woke” category, which includes many ordinary people who might otherwise be allies, you might reconsider your rhetorical strategy. Save the accusatory tone for the select few malicious racists who deserve it, and discard your broad brush with the other solid waste. Using the broad brush always places the “us versus them” line at a spot that gives far too much to the other side.
The other shaky strategy is dividing people by race, gender, etc., instead of by ideology. We should be bringing black, white, gay, straight, etc., together in a rainbow coalition to fight for that progressive vision mentioned above. The enemy is not white, black, male, or any other such demographic grouping. The enemy (at least the short-term enemy, as there are no long-term enemies, for, like it or not, we all travel the spaceship earth together) should be defined ideologically, as those whose ideas continue to lock in the disequilibriums of late capitalism. The woke folks, however, too often represent the struggle as if it were women against men, black against white. They too often suggest we should vote for, value, or pronounce someone guilty or innocent based on skin color or sex organs or gender. Drawing the battle lines along race or gender is counterproductive if your goal, again, is that “society that is equal and open, uninhibited, comfortable with diversity, and rich in human contact.” By drawing battle lines between and building walls around specific genders and races, you are impeding, not advancing, the long-term progressive vision.
Despite the problems that woke culture has in engaging all but the choir, it is rapidly becoming hegemonic in the arts. I suspect that my experience searching venues in Chicago is not unique. Wokeness can no longer claim any countercultural banner. It is, for all practical purposes, the Establishment in arts and humanities. But once any establishment becomes fixed in place, conditions are ripe for the next countercultural movement – in this case the “woke against woke” movement. It will begin in satire, and we may indeed see such a beginning in works such as those of the fictitious Titania McGrath, who turned out the be spiked columnist, Andrew Doyle. First subject wokeness to satire – but without giving any succor to conservatives. Indeed, conservatives must also be subject to the barb, else the movement is not countercultural at all but merely reactionary. When the satire starts to hit – who knows – it may trigger a Cambrian explosion in the arts, where after a (woke) period of narrower and narrower definitions of “acceptable,” the dam bursts open. Rather than circling the wagons around race and gender, restricting who can write what, suddenly everyone is encouraged to artistically explore everyone else’s point of view, everyone participating in every culture in a frenzy of mutual celebration not unlike the middle panel of Hieronymous Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.”
It will be a new Age of Aquarius. Thus spoke its prophet.
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