Meaning and Purpose: Chapter 5

 

Massively claustrophobic, Dana Schutz’s massive Fight in an Elevator bridges this category and the very large next one, in which we see painters working with traditional forms and social awareness. It is highly likely that you can name at least one of the celebrity fights in an elevator to which she refers. This work refers to impacts of technology today, not just the relentless coverage of scandal but the loss of a presumption of privacy. A girl just cannot count on slugging somebody in private any more. Eric Fischl invites us into his world in Art Fair: Booth #1, a world that he characterizes as “a celebration of money making,” calling out the inherent cynicism of the global art market. After visiting the rounds of the spectacles called art fairs, he observes: “The barriers have collapsed between the commercial and the art world. It is not irony—it is just cynicism.” He sees that wealth has become the spectacle, not art, and expresses great discontent at what great sums of money pursue. “What kind of culture expresses itself only in childish behavior–artists doing very expensive toys?”1

Follow the Money, 2010, Margaret McCann, courtesy of the artist

Margaret McCann treats toys among the many figures that staff her elaborately composed still lifes, yet they achieve visual significance on a par with the antiquities and architecture she also features. There is so much going on visually in a McCann painting that it can be hard to find a focus, and that is part of her critique of contemporary American life. She counts a wide variety of old masters as her mentors and writes with an obvious command of art history. In her painting, Follow the Money, Rich Uncle Moneybags, Rat Fink and Barney Rubble cavort in an allegory of avarice worthy of Bruegel. The canvas teems with characters literally following money, and dice scattered throughout the complex landscape allude to the role of risk and chance in the pursuit of riches. McCann, who was born in Ohio, has lived in places as different from there and each other as Rome, southern Maine and Atlantic City. This mobility developed her deep and wide understanding of the weird and wonderful ways we live today.2 Water cascades through her recent pictures and reminds us of its potency in life and metaphor: essential to life, it can kill life, too, and crossing the waters safely can be a transformative experience between old and new worlds.

Voyager, 1992, Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955), courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery

Plunge, 1992, Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955), courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery

Postmodernists tell us that “The logics of domination structure the world.”3 Kerry James Marshall makes art that addresses the domination that was exerted by enslaving Africans to build the New World. Voyager depicts the actual event of the Middle Passage across the Atlantic to the Americas. Plunge also shows the Atlantic Ocean, but the “Private” sign on the gate leaves us uncertain about how the descendants of the enslaved have fared in succeeding years. Who is included? Who is excluded? are questions that acknowledge that social isolation, or segregation, becomes a two way street. He has said, “As a black person I’m used to going places in which I might be the only black person that shows up there. This experience has an effect on the way you see yourself in the world and what it means to be black in the world. You don’t see black people winning Nobel prizes for physics or economics, or any of the industries or institutions that shape the way the world operates. When you find yourself, your culture and the history is of having been subjugated, enslaved and colonized, you got to fix that.”4

See Alice Jump, 2011, Henry Taylor (b. 1958), courtesy of Blum and Poe

Henry Taylor presents the first African American woman to win Olympic gold in See Alice Jump, based on a photograph of Alice Coachman. This painting requires a bit more explanation as to its significance. Ms. Coachman was proud to have “opened the gate” for African American women in the 1948 Olympics. In years since, African American women have now become the majority of the US Women’s Olympic track and field team. “If I had gone to the games and failed,” she said, “there wouldn’t be anyone to follow in my footsteps.” Her hero’s welcome in Albany, Georgia after the 1948 Games was segregated. Taylor’s painting reminds us of the distance our culture has traveled since that time.5

Bluebeard, 2013, Natalie Frank (b. 1980), courtesy of the artist

 

  1. Tim Adams, “Eric Fischl: What America wants is artists who are doing very expensive toys,” The Guardian, October 12, 2014, accessed October 27, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/oct/12/eric-fischl-america-art-expensive-toys.
  2. Further evidence of McCann’s breadth of vision is the masterful job she did editing The Figure: Painting, Drawing and Sculpture, Contemporary Perspectives (2014). Given that representational art can be as divided into “warring” camps as any field of endeavor, it is hard to overestimate what the challenge was to compile so many different ways of working with the figure into a fair and comprehensive survey.
  3. Andrea Smith, “The Problem with Privilege,” posted August 14, 2013, accessed October 27, 2015, andrea366.wordpress.com. Interestingly, in checking this quote, I learned that Dr. Smith has become personally embroiled in the politics of power and identity she studies.
  4. Hannah Duguid, “Kerry James Marshall, interview: Putting black artists into the textbook,” Independent, October 20, 2014, accessed December 1, 2015, www.independent.co.uk/news/people/kerry-james-marshall-interview-putting-black-artists-into-the-textbooks-9801055.html
  5. Alan Greenblatt, “Why an African-American Sports Pioneer Remains Obscure,” NPR.org, accessed October 27, 2015, http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/07/19/332665921/why-an-african-american-sports-pioneer-remains-obscure.