In praise of punk rock, Impressionism and the motivating force of technology
This episode of Artipoeus was delayed because I couldn’t find the right music.
I wanted to use this:
That’s Straight Edge, from Minor Threat, one of my favorite bands. But Artipoeus doesn’t have a music budget — actually, we don’t have any budget — so we can’t afford music licenses.
Music is actually a big part of every Artipoeus episode. So is procrastination, but you can’t put that on air. Because it would sound like this:
I had Minor Threat stuck in my head because I had just been to see American artist Austin Lee’s solo exhibit Tomato Can at Peres Projects.
It was an unseasonably sunny day, but seasonably cold. The paintings are big and colorful, and I spent about an hour in the gallery with them; when I walked out of the exhibition, I found myself thinking about the Impressionists; thinking, those guys were kind of punk, actually: flying in the face of the Academie des Beaux Arts, using synthetic colors, not blending their brush strokes, evoking movement instead of stillness, the speed of life over the slowness of the establishment, man.
And that got me thinking about punk in general, my favorite punk bands, the punk shows I used to go to… and Punk Rock Matinee every Sunday at CBGB’s, where I worked when I was in my 20s. Dennis the lighting guy used to let me do the stage lights for the punk matinees: Red green blue infrared — RGBI. That’s what one of Lee’s paintings reminded me of: stage lighting, and the excitement and intensity of a live show.
So I needed the punk rock music.
Making an Artipoeus episode goes like this: I visit an art exhibit, and then I take a few days to think about it and figure out how I feel. I look for other times in my life when I’ve had similar feelings about stuff, whether it was 30 years ago or yesterday, to explore the reasons why I feel the way I do. Then I write a very rough draft of a script, and while I’m writing, I’m starting to think about the rhythm of what I’m saying, and the art I’m talking about — is it fast, slow, sexy, scary, nostalgic?
Or I just start listening for a song to show up in between the words, from the jukebox of music inside my head. We all have one… don’t we?
Once in a while I see some art that hits me so hard, I don’t need a couple of days to think about it. I love it, or I hate it. But the feelings are clear. Sometimes I see some art that has its own rhythm and beat, and a song starts playing in my head right away. But most of the time, not. Most of the time, the art, my reaction, and even the music, take a little while to experience, to feel, explore, articulate, hear.
I asked my friend Sam is she could help me out. Sam runs Sofa Salon, a house concert series here in Berlin, so she knows all the bands. She could, and she did. She directed me to these guys, Berlin-based Dead Sentries.
The drummer used to live in the same building as Peres Projects.
Peres Projects is a large gallery on Karl-Marx-Allee, the grand boulevard in former East Berlin that visiting dignitaries were paraded down to show off just how amazing life under the Soviets was.
The gallery’s poured cement floors gleam, reflecting the pristine white walls and whatever is hanging on them at the moment. The space is suited for showing off work like Lee’s: large canvases, brightly colored, bold. There are only ten paintings in this exhibit, big and brash as though they’re shouting to each other across the gallery.
Dead Sentries are classic punk, with a soupcon of the grandmasters to their sound: the Cramps, Black Flag, a little Joy Division, Gwar. But it’s the lyrics that keep them classic and smart.
Punk lyrics tell it like it is, in no uncertain terms, straight and in your face. There’s no mincing words, no innuendo, no hashtags for subtext.
Anchoring one end of the gallery at Peres Projects, is Lee’s painting Lean. A boxing match. The background is black, and the crowd in the stands are nothing more than fuzzy blue and red shapes. A boxer hangs his arms over the ropes, colored red, white and blue. The boxers gloves are an unnatural shade of red, and dead center in the painting, the focal point. In fact, it seems like nothing matters as much as those giant gloves, the boxer himself fuzzy and blurred, as though we’re looking through the eyes of the guy who got knocked out.
Austin Lee’s impetus for making art capitalizes on his obsession with a digitally and technologically advancing world, the impact this has on contemporary culture, society, politics, and how it affects the way we look at art.
That’s what the exhibition text said about Lee’s first Berlin exhibit, and it’s what got me in the door. Also:
Lee’s choice of color is based on the purpose of stimulating light and creating intense vibrations, reminding the viewer that the primary way of thinking about color today is in the context of the digital realm.
Anyway, that’s why I was thinking of the Impressionists.
When French critic and humorist Louis Leroy first used that term in 1874, it wasn’t meant as a compliment. It was the first formal exhibition of the artist collective of Pissarro, Monet, Sisley, Degas, Renoir, Cézanne, Guillaumin and Berthe Morisot: Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape. That’s how he described Monet’s Impression, soleil levant.
He went on, sarcastically,
Impression — I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it!”
And that’s how the term was born.
Leroy was kind of a jerk.
Hanging next to the boxer is a painting called Hang. This painting is of a dog. A yellow cartoon dog, hanging by its front paws from a metal bar, like it’s going to do pull-ups, a lit cigarette dangling from its mouth. It looks pleased with itself. There is a lot of yellow, not a lot of depth. It’s all so bright, it seems very happy. The cigarette, the smile curling on its face, turns it ironic, like the stupid-smart sophistication of a Ren & Stimpy cartoon. I… have about as much thought for this painting as Lee appears to have had for the title.
When LeRoy published his review, the artists quickly adopted the term Impressionism for themselves, and it went on to become the name of one of the most influential movements in art history.
Not that I’m saying anything, but I’m just sayin’.
Around the corner from Hang, four undefined figures move across a canvas, a couples dance in shades of red, pink and plum, titled “Pairs” as in P A I R, although PEAR would at least suggest… something. I do like the very bright colors used in the painting: the red that is more than red, the pink that is more than pink. I like the soft, pear-shaped bodies and the movements they convey, and I like the composition. I am not happy to see faint outlines of their simple smiley-face features, transferred over from Lee’s iPad sketch, blurred under layers of pink paint. But as long as I don’t get too close, I like it.
Would it kill anyone to get a little more creative with their titles?
Next to this one is a reclining figure, a bald pink face, hands behind the head, one leg crossed over the other, laying on a field of grass. The figure is smiling. It looks like it’s from a children’s book — the kind written for toddlers, so no words. The painting is called RIP and I imagine Lee means that to be taken literally — the figure is clearly not dead, merely resting. In peace.
I don’t know if it’s supposed to be funny, or cute, or what. But it’s not funny to me, this literal representation of resting in peace. It’s simplistic and one-dimensional. The title adds a little injury to something that is already close to insulting. (Of course, now there’s a more suggestive title and I’m still not happy! Get off my lawn, you damn kids!)
Maybe it’s because I’m older, and I know that somewhere in your mid-40s, your losses start to increase with alarming persistence: your parents, your coworkers, your classmates, your friends.
And you know that’s just going to keep happening now, and it sucks. Even if you’re ok with death and mortality and all that, the losses are losses — you feel each of them, they stay with you. Lee’s RIP strikes me less as being innocent and naive, as being simply callous — RIP depicted only in the way someone who has yet to experience that specific mortal ache, urging everyone around them to just accept death as a part of life, be cool with it, man, without understanding that acceptance isn’t the hard part at all.
The Impressionists were living through an era of great technological advancement. Not as great as ours, but still. Pretty great. Thanks to technological breakthroughs, they could purchase pre-mixed paints, in handy portable tubes, which allowed them to set up easels in fields and parks and paint away, and revolutionize painting.
The Impressionists were, in fact, children of the revolution — they were actually the children of several revolutions, because the French were constantly revolting.
But I’m referring specifically to the 1848 revolution, that overthrew the monarch Louis Philippe. Louis Philippe was a successful businessman who self-identified as one of the petite-bourgeousie, promoted nationalism and was supported mostly by landowners and industrialists, and eventually accused of being “generally indifferent to the needs of society, and the citizens revolted.
Not that I’m saying anything but I’M JUST SAYING.
On the other end of the long Peres Projects gallery, Lee has taken a sketch Donald Trump did some years ago of the Empire State Building, back when he thought he owned it, and which recently sold at auction for US$16,000.
Lee puts it on display in full schadenfreude. On a background of red white and blue, Lee has simplified the sketch itself, preserving only a mimicry in black outline of Trump’s sketch of the building. Lee surrounds the building with action lines, little dashes to indicate movement — a favorite detail used in graffiti and street art, adopted both by Keith Haring and Basquiat, but that goes all the way back to early comics, and the Impressionists, and even Byzantine religious paintings, where golden lines emanate from teh heads of saints and holy figures to indicate their halos of goodness, their auras, well… their vibes, man.
But Lee’s painting, that pares thousands of years of art history down to a few lines and primary colors, is meant to underscore the absurdity of Trump, of the absurdity of a country where this sketch would fetch $16,000 dollars at auction because Trump is president, of the fake news hagiography being rewritten about Trump and his backstory, even as he rewrites the future of American democracy. With this painting, Lee is mocking the president and the entire culture that put him in the White House.
By the 1870s, when Monet, Cezanne, Renoir and the rest of the young painters met up, France had recovered from the recent revolutions vv and stabilized, thanks to Louis Bonaparte, who ushered in a new era of immense social, civil and cultural change, and economic expansion.
Things were pretty good in France at that point. In fact, the biggest threat to the young Impressionist painters, besides the Franco Prussian War, was the invention of the camera. The public’s embrace of this new technology’s ability to capture life in the moment, threatened to make the pain-staking Realist style the artists had all been trained in at the Academie obsolete.
So they came up with the daubed, unblended brush strokes, using intense synthetic colors and suggestions of form, to capture life in motion — to be faster than the camera itself, to be better than the technology.
When you’re threatened by technology, all you can do is threaten the establishment that embraces it, right?
Or is that alt-right?
Lee is obviously a smart guy — he went to Yale, where he got a masters in painting, and holds a BFA from Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia. You can see his degrees in his work — the Renaissance, Impressionism, Surrealism, all the way to the title of the show, Tomato Can, referencing Andy Warhol and his thoughts and observations about pop culture. But Warhol’s tomato cans weren’t just about seeing the beauty in every day objects, he was also making a comment about American comfort and nostalgia, and how synonymous it is with easy.
Lee’s art echoes this nostalgia as well, going back to the early days of Windows Paint and MacPaint to trace, free hand, the sketches of his paintings onto a tablet. If you ever did this back in the day while screwing around at work, for example (not that I would know cough cough), you might remember that the early days of using computers to create art were a lot jerkier and awkward: smooth curves and circles were hard to draw, restricted as everything is with the tiny cubes of pixels.
If you’re anything like me, eventually you’d just get frustrated and scribble… and go back to good old paper and canvas and paint. Lee does this, too, in a way: he transfers the tablet-sketches to canvas and executes them with paint, the final step in the process from analog to digital to analog again. Maybe Lee also longs for les temps perdu, remembering his first drawings on computer when he was a kid.
But the culture that put Trump in the White House has a lot less to do with Andy Warhol’s tomato cans than it does with Warhol’s “in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes,” his most famous, most nuclear statement, exploding everywhere and ultimately mutating from being a wry prediction to an entitlement that has encouraged at least three generations of Americans to behave like assholes.
Punk rock was born at the end of post World War 2 economic expansion. Times were tough — the Viet Nam War was spinning out of control, jobs were scarce, there was a pretty severe recession throughout the Western world — in America, people stood in line for gas for their cars.
Punks were left with the aftermath of the baby boomers who sold out to make affordable blue jeans or unaffordable ice cream and were now at home popping out Generation X babies. Punks were the generation squeezed in between, kicking at the walls and screaming.
Now that I put it that way, I’m not so sure the Impressionists were that punk after all. They weren’t protesting the injustice of an unfair system. They were just loud and colorful, trying to stay relevant.
I think… I think that makes them Glam.
Glam rock never took off the same way Impressionism did.
I find the work in Tomato Can childish, but not silly and fun like glam rock. It’s more like that kid who sits next to you in school and draws caricatures of teachers and fellow classmates. It’s funny, until it’s not, because you realize on day, it’s always the same picture, it’s always the same joke, and the kid never gets better or improves, willfully remaining ignorant, sarcastic, and peurile. Because you also realize the jokes are mean, the drawings cruel. And you know that one day, they’re going to be about you.
I guess that’s what bothers me so much about Lee’s work. Not that it’s immature, because that can be ok when trying to capture a certain essence, and not that it’s poking fun at current culture — although what the point of making fun of Donald Trump and American absurdity is to the 1% crowd that already thinks the same way is a little beyond me.
What bothers me about the work is that it’s wilfully immature, like so much of American masculinity.
In the middle of the gallery, near the reception desk, hangs a painting titled ApplePick, one word, no hashtag. On a green background, a cartoon figure reaches up to pick computer-red apples from one of two trees. The figure is in the middle, in the foreground, wearing blue trousers, a t-shirt and a cap. The two trees — brown trunks, gray puffy clouds meant to be the trees’ foliage, flank the figure on either side, in the middle ground. Red, amorphic looking apples are falling down, have fallen down, are on the ground. None of them are actually in the trees, and the figure doesn’t seem to be picking them so much as disturbing the trees and making the apples fall.
I hate everything about this painting. The shade of green for the background — the green of slightly overripe avocado meat. The flesh tone chosen for the figure, the orange-y sand-y peach of the old “fleshtone” Crayola crayon. The figure itself, with spaghetti arms and no joints or eyes, but nostrils and a simple black line for a mouth, all one side of the face, like something rendered by an overconfident four year old. The red of the apples, the simplicity of the trees, the basic, flat composition — all of it. I hate it.
I don’t know what it’s supposed to be about, but it doesn’t make me stop and reflect, try to figure it out. It is so simplistic, so childish, that the fact that I traveled all the way across town just to see this makes me feel like I’m the one being made fun of here, I’m the butt of the joke.
Punk rock came from economic stagnation that led to a deep recession, and it railed against grim futures, the cold war, the nuclear threat. It tells us, in no uncertain terms, where we’re going wrong and how to make it right, but you have to listen closely to the words because the music competes, distorts the passion of the lyrics.
In the world of art, you can’t go from Impressionism to Surrealism and just skip over Fauvism and Expressionism, both characterized by harsh colors, flat surfaces and emotion distorting form.
That’s what the work in this exhibit is most like: harsh, flat, emotions distorting form, like America’s gun debate… like adolescence.
I read somewhere that music is also important to Lee’s creative process, and that his tastes are eclectic. He’s of a younger generation than me, and all the music in the world is accessible with a swipe of his finger, the same one he sketches onto his iPad with. He can trade mixes and tracks with friends all over the world in a heartbeat, connecting to sounds in Sierra Leone as easily as to beats in Baltimore.
The kinetic energy of music is in the work — that was evident to me, especially in the painting Lean, the only piece I actually had a 100% positive reaction to, the painting of the boxer — alone in the ring, leaning on the ropes, catching his breath, worn out by his own efforts.
Original tracks used in this episode are What You Need, from Dead Sentries’ Topos EP, and Drowning, from their second EP, Polemos. Tracks used with permission of the artists.