“Modern art was once deemed serious because it derived from an avant-garde, and what the garde was in avant of was the market.”
Searching for Jean- Michel, by Stephen Metcalfe, The Atlantic, July/August 2018

J-M Basquiat, “New”, 1983

The above quote is from an article in The Atlantic about the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (1961-1988). It’s a tender, heart felt search for the substance of genius and an answer to the artist’s premature death. Metcalfe turns up the usual suspects: poverty, abuse, mental illness, random circumstance that would drive the average person to despair, but against which talent and intelligence not only provide defence but turn desperation to advantage, only succumbing to the poison of excess.

A bunch of unconvincing cliches (who but a critic could say that Basquiat couldn’t draw or imagine that art derives its value from “deep study”?) riddle the piece but the history of Basquiat the person and artist developing in the midst of an art market catching fire is insightful and seems true to the times (that miserable decade, the 1980s).

By article’s end, you feel like you are standing before the paintings, stroking your chin and nodding beside Metcalfe: can’t explain it, the money is crazy, but that is truly something to behold.

Another most quotable quote, attributed to Picasso: “For paintings to be worth a lot of money, they must at some point have been sold cheaply.” But that is a topic for another day.

New Yorker cover October 17, 2011Notwithstanding its ups and downs over the years, the New Yorker remains the ne plus ultra of English language magazine publishing. Every author hopes to be either written about or published in it. It’s the Nobel Prize with subscribers.

Canadian author Patricia Pearson enters the pantheon of such  celestial and celebrated talents in the October 17th issue with her History: The Customer Reviews in the Shouts and Murmurs section, on your local newsstand this week.

If, as Twain advised, “It is the will of God that we must have critics… and we must bear the burden,” Pearson lightens that load considerably.


Pearson’s blog Good News About the Coming Apocalypse

Bad Idea

Bad Idea magazine No. 6 Summer 2008 coverIt is one of the oddities of the interface of art and publishing that you can find obscure little magazines like this one on some Canadian newsstands several years after they were published. It’s like the store buyers forget that magazines have best before dates and treat them more like books. I found this 2008 issue of the UK culture mag Bad Idea at my fav bookstore, Type, in Toronto.

Bad Idea is anything but. Billing itself as “the smart option, young journalism, ideas and opinion” it gives a neat cultural feel to just about everything. In this issue, the economy is the focus with cartoons explaining the economic fallout of sub-prime mortgages and the joys of bingo, articles on the UK’s collapsing pork industry, property investment in Romania and the art market bubble, and a special feature on the credit crunch, illustrated with exceptionally handsome photographs of Bay Street by Sebastian Meyer.

Do you know what a “deal toy” is? Known more formally as tombstones, deal toys are trophies custom designed to celebrate huge financial deals. That fact alone and the samples shown made the $12 price tag worth it. The rest was gravy.

Another super good idea about Bad Idea is that issues 4 to 7 are all available online, using the awesome e-publishing facility Issuu:

Read the current issue here http://www.badidea.co.uk/magazine/

Read about Issuu here http://blog.issuu.com/?page_id=733.

So why on earth call a magazine as good as Bad Idea “bad”? Perhaps it was what Clay Felker, founder of New York magazine, said to the precocious students at the U of California who suggested starting it back in 2006. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bad_Idea

Then again, maybe it really was a bad idea. I can’t find any copy on the website more recent than April 2010 and issue 7 is the last one to follow the 2008 issue I picked up, and email to the address listed on the website bounced back as undeliverable. Funded primarily by the British Arts Council (or so it looked to me) perhaps they succumbed to the very economic crisis they so confidently laid bare.


Flag that.

Brown Flag, Kristina Lee Podesva, 2011
Kristina Lee Podesva's Brown Flag questions the symbolic capacity of distance communications.
I’ve been thinking a lot about flags lately, red flags in particular. A red flag is an alert. It can also be something meant to provoke, like a toreador’s cape. Black flags, white flags, nation flags, naval flags, you don’t need to be a vexillolophile to know flags are meant to be read, especially red ones.

Kristina Lee Podesva’s recent work at Open Space, Victoria, part of the exhibition Like Some Pool of Fire throws the messaging capabilities of flags into doubt. Had she chosen a different colour like green or yellow or blue there might be clear associations – ecology, cowardice or optimism for example – but brown?

Podesva developed a distinctive colour palette some time ago with the project Colour School (which has its own Facebook page) and has spun it throughout her work ever since, for example this globe or this poster. If the palette were less unusual, you might say she was creating a brand. Instead, it’s more… a parody of branding, a wry reflection on communication, something sublime.

Download the beautiful exhibit catalog for Like Some Pool of Fire. (27mgs)

Questions for Julian Schnabel

Julian Schnabel's building Palazzo Chupi, New York
Julian Schnabel's building Palazzo Chupi, New York

Julian Schnabel’s back in the art world, apparently never left, has been as prolific as ever as a painter, with a retrospective on now at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Schnabel will be interviewed by Jian Ghomeshi on Q this Friday, the first time (correct me if I’m wrong) a visual artist has appeared on the show. (Schnabel’s arguably more famous as a filmmaker, his latest film Miral debuts at TIFF, so that’s a qualifier obviously, but still, it’s welcome progress in terms of recognizing the importance of the visual arts.)

Schnabel entered the film scene with Basquiat (1996) and, as Jeff House has pointed out, went on to tackle political themes like anti-gay policies in Cuba at a time when progressives were silenced (Before Night Falls, 2000) and another about persons who, through disability, have to learn to “speak” with their eyelids (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, 2007). Personally, I’m hoping Jian will ask more questions about Schnabel’s paintings than his films, or perhaps the confluence of the two, but that’s just me. Some questions that come to mind:

1. The 70s when you were starting out as a visual artist was a pretty turbulent time artistically. In music, for example, punk pretty much turned things upside down. There was a very anti-commercial drift. Your Wikipedia entry says you did the Whitney Independent study program and that your application included slides of your work sandwiched between two pieces of bread. Was that a comment on the economics of art? What were your influences at the time and how did you arrive at painting finally?

2. You emerged in the mid to late 70s along with other New Yorkers like David Salle, Germans like Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz and Italians like Sandro Chia and Enzo Cucchi and Francesco Clemente. How aware were you of each other’s work?

3. This work of this group was quickly labeled “neo-Expressionism.” Critics like Donald Kuspit and Achille Bonito Oliva and dealers like Mary Boone became synonymous with the movement. Was this in some respect orchestrated?

4. One of the main criticisms at the time was that painting was dead, superseded by conceptualism, installation art, what would soon be called post-modernism. You took a lot of criticism then and have pretty consistently since. Yet today painting stands shoulder to shoulder with other artistic practices. You’ve had major retrospectives. Do you feel vindicated? Do you think the critics back then missed the point, and that in doing so did permanent damage to their own role in the art world?

5. The art world boomed through most of the 80s but there was a major economic retraction in the 90s. Mary Boone was selling off some of her personal collection and moved her gallery in 1996. It was around that time that you started making films. Was that a kind of retreat then, in response to poor market conditions?

6. Your paintings–the stark compositions, the bold gestures–are very powerful. Is this something that just comes out of you or is it more self-conscious, like a strategy to achieve a certain aesthetic effect?

Julian Schnabel, Heidi Eggers, 2000
Heidi Eggers is author-artrepreneur Dave Egger's mom.

7. The scale and confidence of your mark making clearly speaks to mastery. And many observers remark on your personal  confidence. Yet you refer to so many other great artists, poets, writers, etc. in the titles and accompanying texts and in the subject matter of the paintings themselves. That’s often been interpreted as egotistical but it could as easily be interpreted as revealing some underlying insecurity. How do you see yourself in relation to other artists and to history?

8. The huge size of your paintings is breathtaking. They are very theatrical. Almost filmic. Is bigger better? Are scale and size synonymous for you?

9. In this country, there is a very small market for visual art. Certainly there isn’t the same kind of money as you have in the US, but also what money there is here doesn’t flow the same way. Fortunately we have a pretty good system of government support for artists and public galleries but it’s hard to imagine a Canadian painter rising to the rank of someone such as yourself. How important do you think local or indigenous artists and art scenes are?

10. The art world today is increasingly global.  Global means more than Europe, the US and the UK today and includes the far and middle East, the Saudis, South America. Is that changing the kind of art being made and how we view art?

11. Your generation was perhaps the first after Warhol to achieve celebrity early in your careers outside the confines of the art world but since the late 90s things seem to have moved to a whole other level. You had the Young British Artists (YBAs) in the late 90s, Jeff Koons in the US, Takashi Murakami from Japan. Artists like Damien Hirst have made headlines in the popular press worldwide. Does this kind of celebrity help or hinder art?

12. There’s a charming video on the Art Gallery of Ontario website about the portrait basketball star Steve Nash commissioned you to paint of his daughters Bella and Lola. [here] During the Vancouver Olympics earlier this year and since then, there’s been some discussion in this country about the careers and economic situation of athletes, which is not dissimilar from that of artists. There’s a ton of sweat equity and sacrifice that goes into becoming a top athlete and the same is true for artists. What do you guys think about the star system and the fact that there are so many talented people struggling to climb the pyramid but only so much room at the top?

13. It’s not such a new thing for celebrities to become friends and do projects together but what is interesting is that it seems to be more public these days. It’ s not just tabloid journalism either. We are seeing celebrities more publicly engaged in the world generally, supporting various causes and speaking out on various issues. Do you think our celebrities should be playing this kind of leadership role in society? And how far do you think that can go?

14. With your work in film and art, you’re clearly a Renaissance man, but we noticed in our research that you recently took on yet another field, designing and building Palazzo Chupi, a luxury condominium in New York City. As always it seems, it’s been controversial but the design is lovely, clearly inspired by Italian architecture. It’s been well-described as handmade and human looking. Early in your career, you went to Europe and were inspired by Gaudi among others no doubt. Can we expect to see more architecture from you in the future?

Review in the Star by Murray White.

Review on blog.to by Matthew Purvis.

Review in the Post by Daniel Baird.

On CBC.ca.

Banksy’s cleaning up

Banksy's maid sweeping
Banksy's cleaning up... the art world and from the art world.
Modern art is a disgrace. Never have so many people used so much stuff and taken so long to say so little.
– Banksy [Quoted in a comment on the CBC’s website]

With the movie Exit through the Gift Shop, UK artist Banksy and co-conspirator Shep Fairey set out to clean up modern art while cleaning up in the process. The movie proposes to be about what it’s not, the story of a guy, Thierry Guetta, who was supposed to make this film about street art but couldn’t. For sure, there’s a lot of good footage of Banksy, Space Invader, Fairey and others, but the unexpected twist at the end, which is literally an exit through a ginormous gallery as gift shop packed with the most preposterously derivative and directionless “pop” art shoots straight for the heart of the bloated commercialism of the art world. Pity the poor suckers who’ve paid, if the movie is to be believed, tens of thousands for the crap art Banksy and Fairey concocted for the movie.

Neither artist needs the money; they’ve done very well for themselves, having been elevated from street to “high art” galleries, but with their creation Mr. Brainwash (MBW) they have fabricated a monster of proportions unseen since Mary Shelly’s Dr. Frankenstein channeled lightening. One can only imagine the gales of laughter reverberating through their cavernous warehouse studios as they try to outdo each other with the worst possible ideas for new art by MBW.

Don’t get me wrong. My 12 year old and I loved the movie, graffiti, and stencils in particular, are a great use of both media and the ineffable, gallery-like blankness of our cities’ decaying surfaces. How can you not love cheap, lo-fi, diy reproduction that is yet full of the auratic value of handicrafts, vintage clothing or faded photographs? (And I must say, it was, having dabbled in such murky waters myself, a pleasure and revelation to learn about Banksy’s “Princess Di” pound notes.)

No one begrudges artists like Banksy and Fairey making some serious do re mi off the movie and the ersatz work of MBW. Artists live with contradictions. As Hans Abbing points out, artists will at one moment among themselves spurn the market and in the next congratulate each other if one manages to get a sale. This is, Abbing, says one of the many contradictions that make the art economy “exceptional.” So in a way it is unexceptional that Banksy and Fairey should send up the contemporary art scene while also cleaning up. There’s also a history of sending up the art “market” that’s tempting to cite. But really, do we need to regurgitate Duchamp (again?) or trace his legacy through Rauchenberg’s “erased” De Kooning drawing to Manzoni’s canned shit? Oops, I just did.

Cut it any way you like, Exit through the Gift Shop mines contemporary art’s Catch 22; you can’t entirely dismiss anything that puts itself forward with enough… I don’t know what to call it… oddness? single-minded-ness? Integrity derives from critical distance, but, as we have learned so well over the past thirty years, the market is infinitely elastic, able to absorb even the most polemical, or as the movie demonstrates, inane assaults.

At the end of the day, the extent to which the flic leaves you with a strangely uneasy, incomplete feeling testifies to a kind of success. Nobody should feel comfortable with it (though street artists come through relatively unscathed) or complacent about the state of art today.

Wikipedia is useful to learn more about street art, and the guy Exit is allegedly about, Thierry Guetta.


Vanity Fair’s Julian Sancton is on to them.

Jeannette Catsoulis in the NYT.

Katey Rich in Cinema Blend.

Kevin Kelly in Cinematical.

The Failure of Art Criticism


American Idol is flawed in so many ways. Not only does it not identify idols (nobody goes on to the spectacular artistic careers that are the implied “prize”) but it demonstrates how futile the exercise of criticism is.

Simon Cowell’s acerbic criticism may be surprising, and therefor entertaining, but really, it takes more talent, ingenuity and ego than any of these critics (or Idol performers) possess to drive the star machine.

But all this is to misunderstand what American Idol is about, which is neither fame nor art, but a mildly entertaining filler attracting advertising dollars to a moribund media corporation.

Death, with Musical Accompaniment

nyt_coverOct25_2009.jpgArt often refers to other art. Indeed, it could be argued that the best art always carries subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, reference to its predecessors. I think it was Adorno who observed that even within modernism, which we think of as being essentially about breaking with the past, there was the reference to antiquity, a melancholy longing for the aesthetic perfection of Greek classicism.

The New York Times featured this image, at left, on the cover of its Sunday October 25th edition, Continue reading Death, with Musical Accompaniment

Where Are the Wild Things?

Only the 3rd day of its release and the theatre was no more than 20% full. Nevertheless, Spike Jonze’s film adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s children’s book Where The Wild Things Are led the October 19th weekend box office taking in $32m, a promising beginning.

Where-The-Wild-Things-Are.jpgBy way of comparison, the #3 box office film for 2009 is the 3D animated feature Up, which grossed $68m its first weekend and has thus far earned $500m worldwide. While far off those kind of returns, WTWTA is likely to make its nut, Continue reading Where Are the Wild Things?