Archive for November, 2008

Let Us Now Praise Photorealism

images-11On a recent watercolor workshop, we were invited to bring art books to share with the group. I knew that my selection of painters would get at best mixed reviews, but I   wanted to test some nascent theories of my own about painters and painting. I choose two large-format retrospectives, one Robert Bechtle and the other, Richard Estes, both  reigning deans of photorealism. The reactions were predictable. Polite rejections of work by my fellow painters on the bases that the stuff looked just too much like photography. “What’s the point of painting like that?” This came despite the fact that almost one quarter of the plates in the Bechtle book were watercolors.

Bechtle’s watercolors of mundane suburban motifs are a path into one of the essential contradictions in the nature of photorealism painting as fine art. In those watercolors, particularly in the enlarged details, Bechtle’s mastery of traditional watercolor technique leaps from the pages. Despite the photographic effect of the image, there is no mistaking that these are nothing less than extremely accomplished and painterly watercolors. The same is true for the watercolors of another photorealist, Ralph Goings, whose back and forth between media had opened my eyes to the use of abstraction to create an effect otherwise taken for a mechanical process.

Richard Estes shows only oils, and among many figurative purists he is reflexively rejected for the photographic dazzle of his work. Unlike Bechtel and Goings, there are no Estes watercolors or drawings to force the viewer into considering why these are paintings of the highest order. To realize just what Estes accomplishes with pigments and brushes, the paintings have to seen in person. Looking at reproductions of Estes’ photorealism in oil, no matter how perfect the reproductive process, the paintings will always appear to look just like (ready for this), photographs! Duh… 

images8At a recent Estes show in New York, I rediscovered how much I like what he does and finally realized why so many fellow-painters believe they don’t care for photorealism. Estes’ paintings, no matter the subject; urban scenes, store-window reflections, forest interiors or Antarctic glaciers are always on a gigantic scale, six-feet by four-feet as an example. Looked at from five, six or from twenty-five feet back, they can pass for nothing more than gorgeous enlargements of color photographs. Get close, get very close, and you will discover that Estes’ works are the essence of, and in the traditions, of painting in the classical sense of the term. Up close, his work is pure painterly abstraction in the service of an illusion. And I would argue, that the effect of Estes work in its simplest terms is to force the viewer into considering in entirely new ways, the aesthetics of the world he or she inhabits.

If you ever find yourself in front of an Estes oil or a Bechtle watercolor, take the time to move slowly forward and back, forward and back, until the contrast between photographic effect and the technique of pure painting manifests itself, and if you are really lucky, knocks you on your ass. 

Shhhh! A Library Memory

log12The Philadelphia Inquirer recently ran photos of several of the neighborhood public libraries slated for closing due to the City’s current budget crisis. One of those libraries is the Logan branch, and the sight of that old, classical facade sent sixty year-old memories washing over me. 

Until 1949, the Olney section of North Philadelphia where we lived had no library. As newly-minted ten-year-old in the early Fall of 1947, I learned, from several of my fifth-grade classmates at the Incarnation of Our Lord parochial school, that there was a branch of the Philadelphia Free Library system within walking distance of our neighborhood. If you went there, you could get a library card, and if you had a library card, you could borrow books on all kinds of neat stuff, real books, not comic books. There were even books about the recent war, a subject I was slightly batty about. 

I somehow scoped out directions from our street to the Logan Branch Library on Wagner Avenue, wherever that happened to be. After school, on a mild overcast September afternoon, without telling my mother where I was going, I set out to find this promised land of cerebral wonders, this library, whatever a library was. 

The context of my life until then was one of physical boundaries set by the fact that we didn’t have a car, not all that unusual in Olney in the late nineteen-forties. But it meant wherever I had been outside our immediate neighborhood had been dictated by the bus, trolley and subway-elevated routes of the local transit company. Heading off for this mysterious library place, I had only a vague intimation of just where it was I was going.


Walking west from Fifth Street on the Fishers Avenue sidewalk, I was still on reasonably familiar territory. When I went under the railroad overpass at Seventh Street, everything began to change. The row houses resembled those on most of the streets I knew, and yet they somehow they were different. In fact everything was different. I began feeling like I was sliding through the looking glass. I remember turning and looking back toward Fifth Street for reassurance, and then continuing forward into the unknown.

Five blocks out, at Tenth Street, I had been told to go to the right. The street here was partially paved with bricks something that added to my feelings of exotic exploration. To my amazement a large factory building proclaimed itself the home of Fleer’s Double Bubble Chewing Gum. That the prized Double Bubble I had been purchasing at Sam’s Variety Store on Fifth Street was manufactured less than a mile from my home came to me as a mind-altering revelation. 

Not knowing whether I was closing in on, or still miles from, from my destination, I continued warily along the tree-lined and heavily shaded residential streets hoping for a sighting of this book-laden White Whale of my imagination. I had already passed a large white-columned building hidden in a park like setting before I turned and read the sign announcing the Logan Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Clueless as to library protocols, I wandered past the front desk and began walking up and down the aisles gawking at the book-laden shelves trying to force some sort of order to emerge. Stopping at a row of low shelving, I began browsing a stack of yellow-bordered magazines with cover titles of “The National Geographic.” 

I was seated on the floor with seven or eight National Geographics strewn about me when a large lady hovered over me and said that I had to leave the adult section of the library for the children’s section. I could have stayed right there with those magazines until the place closed for the night. 

I found the children’s section of the library thin gruel indeed. The fairy tales, the large-format cuddly animal books and the so-called children’s storybooks left me stone cold. I was accustomed to stronger stuff. At ten years old, I was already a habitué of the Sunday afternoon B-movie double-features and addicted to the network evening radio drama shows. Within a year I would have a paper route that introduced me, at age eleven, to a lifelong habit of daily newspaper reading.

 I never returned to the Logan Branch of the Philadelphia Free Library, and other than a cursory visit to our own Olney Branch that opened in 1949, I never went back into a library at all until well into my high school years.  One afternoon, at the age of sixteen, almost as an afterthought, I wandered into the Olney library, got a card and casually began checking out books. Ironically, while I had little or no interest in my schoolwork, my reading quickly became almost obsessive, and remains to this day, a central fact of my life to this day. Go figure.

There May Be No Precedents for This One

images61More difficulty trying to come to grips with the what’s going on in the world at large. My inability to understand the workings of the national and global financial systems that are crashing around us seems not an uncommon frustration. My lifelong, instinctive distrust of the optimistic certainties that have marked the assurances given us by life’s major players is visceral, and arises, I believe from what I call my army draftee’s “Fort Chaffee, 1956” revelation: That the human condition is essentially that of  “blind piss-ants crawling around trying to find the flat side of the marble.” (see Posting, May 3, 2008, “Military History, Chapter Two, 1956”) 

In addition, I am convinced that these times are indeed unique. Changes in quantity have become changes in quality. Everything that’s transpired in the recent past; socially, economically technogically, geo-politically, and now environmentally, is change that exceeds in its rate and magnitude anything previously experienced in human history. 

McLuhan’s line of forty-years ago holds, we are rushing into an unknown future looking for guidance in the rear-view mirror of the past. It’s as if over the recent past, blinkered, short-sighted individuals, experts and teams of experts have been assiduously at work putting up, adjusting and tying-together the complex structures and interlocking superstructures of this house-of-cards we call our world. Nobody is in charge. Nobody really has a coherent overview, and now it seems, the financial components of the whole fucking thing have collapsed. 

In the immortal words of late, great Andy Brown, “Kingfish, we’s in big trouble.”   


Another Crisis For Another Old Order

images-1In the 1920s, President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed “the business of America is business.” The stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression took some of the wind out of that one.

With the so-called Reagan Revolution, the aggressive business agendas of pre-Depression America once again asserted their hold on the country. Over the past three decades business ceased to be a subset, if even a major subset of the national purpose, but became the underlying if unstated rationale for the existence of America. We were no longer a community, no longer a commonwealth or even a polity. We were a nation of consumers, market-targets and sheep to be fleeced. And, it was everyone for themselves.

The stock market boom of the 1990s, the housing bubble and the introduction of 401K retirement accounts turned ordinary working people into the equivalent of financial groupies. Tens of millions of Americans with any money at all to invest feared being left behind when the great Wall Street gravy train began to roll. But in the national frenzy for gain, a few fundamental economic principles somehow got lost:

Index-based mutual funds were only as stable as the market itself.

The gospel that “in the long-run,” the market ultimately rights itself ignores Keynes’ sharp observation that “in the long run we are all dead.”

And finally, the absolute touchstone of investment prudence; never put any money into equities you can’t afford to lose.

The national economy went through the looking glass into credit and investment   instruments of near-infinite complexity while an instantaneous process of globalization led to overnight, overseas  outsourcings of most of the nation’s industrial production. Inside a speculative bubble, and a gluttonous consumption of third-world goods (China), the economic health of the supposedly mightiest nation on earth became so jittery that trivial things like the level of Holiday shopping or a slowdown in the surreal values of housing could cause panics. This year, the shoe finally dropped.

Arthur M. Schelsinger, Jr, titled the first volume of his “The Age of Roosevelt,” “The Crisis of the Old Order, 1919-1933.” The Obama election and the economic collapse that contributed to that victory will, I hope, lead to a new crisis of the old order, the now old order that ran things from 1980 – 2008. The sanguine, irresponsibility of the Reagan/Bush ideological approach to government oversight of the economy (an utterly un-conservative philosophy holding that the beast of human economic self interest could be kept tame without serious regulation), and let’s not forget the two Clinton terms where the only ideology was (no pun) “naked” opportunism, led to the mad dance of greed that preceded the current debacle.

The  “old order,” the plutocracy of our own time; the sharpies, the MBAs, the piggish CEOs, lobbyists, the system-gamers have had their day at the trough. My hopes for an Obama administration go beyond the GOP’s much-feared spectres of “Socialism.” I think something even stronger is on order. My own modest proposals would include a bracing dose of class warfare with the application of near-confiscatory tax rates at the country’s stratospheric levels of wealth. Think of it as a way of a rebalancing of the national equity, a way of repealing the outrageous upward transfers of money to the rich during the obscene national barbeque of past twenty-five years.

During the campaign, Obama himself said something like, “Lets’ spread some of the wealth around.” That sounds like a great idea, whose time, I hope has finally come.  

Three Days Later, A Postmortem

s-obama-154x114 In a joyous repudiation of a national politics best characterized by Eliot’s “tedious arguments of insidious intent,” the country seems to have turned the page on a dark chapter of American history, one that began nearly a half-century ago with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. 

Think about those intervening years since LBJ and the tragedy of the Vietnam War (the McCain campaign was, in one of its aspects, an appeal to the Vietnam revanchistes who are still demanding a rewrite of that sad history). There were the two successive and implausible Nixon electoral victories, the failure of Jimmy Carter, a good man in a bad time, two terms of mindless, careless, absentee government under Reagan, the senior Bush’s caretaker interregnum, and then the sleazeball immorality of Bill Clinton. Finally, we had the eight long years of incompetence, war and madness under the Boy King.  Taken   together, a case can be made for a five-decades long national wandering, eyeless in a Gaza. 

There is no knowing what’s coming. What does seem irreversible is the past Tuesday’s  turning toward a  new beginning. The emerging crises of multiple wars (within a flawed and all-encompassing war), a national economic bankruptcy that also could be political, moral and intellectual, has at last driven enough people to decide that the same old shit will no longer suffice. The larger, chanciest questions, lie like unpinned grenades upon our collective table. Does this country still have the time and the capacity to fulfill the hopes raised by the improbable election of Barack Obama? 

The re-election of a rascal like Mitch McConnell, and worse of Ted Stevens, the unsubtle, if unspoken, racism of much of the Red States map and the exclusionary, paranoiac appropriation of patriotism by the Right-Wing yahoos of what Paul Krugman termed the GOP Rump, could possibly trump in difficulty the economic and foreign policy problems awaiting the new administration.  

The potentials for good or bad or both await us, but there’s little percentage in adopting any approach than the one of hopeful realism proclaimed in CSN&Y’s 1970 “Carry On.” All together now: “Rejoice, Rejoice, We have no choice, but to Carry On.” 



It’s All Over Now Baby Red

jsm_photo_4I seem not to have been alone in using the word “gracious” to describe John McCain’s concession speech Tuesday evening following Barack Obama’s presidential win.

John McCain is a good guy. Given his Party baggage and the mess of the past eight years, he probably could not have won, no matter. I’d like to believe that had he won, he would have ditched the yahoos and reverted to type, governing in accordance with his record of independent principles and his evident sense of decency.

He never really had a chance. The overwhelming public sense of having had “enough” of the same old shit was reflected in the telling if cruel spoofs like Bill Mahar’s “Oh Grandpa!” and Tina Fey’s slightly more benign Palin takes. The post-election crowd  Tuesday night at McCain campaign headquarters in Phoenix told the final tale of the GOP; the all-white faces of privilege and reaction, the country-club crowd and their subservient help. In a country where at least one quarter of the population is now non-white, no national political party catering to racial entitlement is going to win, not without rigging the system. Don’t think they won’t try.

The die-hard states, those parts of the late Confederacy once characterized by H.L. Mencken as “the nether regions of the republic where the peasantry still sleeps with the cows” may persist in their voluntary role as the foot soldiers of what Bill Moyers calls the racist and “Reptilian” Right. But they appear to have forfeited any role in what will become the national political dialogue.

The great reactionary experiment proclaimed by Barry Goldwater and put in practice nearly three decades ago by Reagan has finally run its course, right into the ground. The past eight years of non-governance by the company of fools, scoundrels and mindless ideologues brought to D.C. by Dubya has irrevocably fouled the Republican nest.  It’s over and good riddance. Hope and faith renewed; turn the page and carry on.