Thursday, January 17, 2008

Bad boys

Originality may not be all it’s cracked up to be

published in the Weekly Volcano, Jan 17, 2008

I’ve been in a really bad mood all week. I should find some local art to review, but the way I’ve been feeling lately I’ll probably hate anything I see. Here’s the thing: I go to see local art exhibits, and what I see is stuff that’s been around half a century or more. It seems like nobody’s doing anything original.

But then I look at the so-called art stars in major art centers such as New York and London, and I think that maybe what passes for cutting edge isn’t so hot after all. Since the early 1980s, the hot stars of the art world have been the bad boys of contemporary art: Julian Schnabel, Eric Fischl, David Salle, John Currin, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons. Bad because they brake the rules and the boundaries of good taste.

One of Fischl’s most famous early paintings, in fact, was titled “Bad Boy.” It’s a tawdry and overly dramatic painting of a prepubescent or barely pubescent boy staring between the legs of a naked woman, painted with overly dramatic lighting and harsh shadows. Fischl is a moderately talented painter, but his subject matter is overly dramatic and titillating.

Pretty much the same can be said for Salle except that I think his painting style is rather clumsy. It was considered radical of him to combine unrelated images in a collage fashion — as if Picasso and Braque and the Surrealists hadn’t already done that a thousand times. Mainly, Salle paints pictures in which the parts don’t fit together. And that’s considered avant-garde?

Schnabel is somewhat out of fashion now but has become a film director (Best Director Golden Globe for “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) and may prove to be better at that than at painting. Early on he was hailed as the leader of the so-called neo-Expressionists. His greatest claim to fame was putting broken plates on canvas. Now they are a curator’s nightmare because they are falling apart. I have to admit that there is a certain impressive boldness to some of his paintings. They are big, brash and sloppy. But he has absolutely no artistic sensibility that I can see.

Jeff Koons has tried, like Andy Warhol before him, to make his whole life — his carefully crafted persona — into a work of art. I’ll give him this: he is witty and inventive, but he’s no Andy Warhol. Among his more enduring images are “Michael Jackson and Bubbles,” an 18th-century, rococo statue of a white-faced Michael Jackson with a yellow-bearded monkey, and a 43-foot-tall puppy made of soil and blooming flowers over a steel frame. He also did a famous series of sculptures of he and his wife (a famous porn star) having sex. Talk about taking self-aggrandizement to the limit!

And then there’s Hirst, most famous for putting a dead shark in a huge tank filled with formaldehyde. I’ve never seen it in person. I imagine it is rather formidable, but it seems to me this is something that belongs in a natural history museum, not an art gallery.

John Currin is the latest of the bad boy painters to take New York by storm. The funny thing about Currin is that the critics universally dislike his subject matter but praise his marvelous technical skills as a painter. I find his technical skills a small step above mediocre at best. Now I’ll admit, I can’t paint that skillfully, nor can the average amateur painter. But there are thousands of artists who can do much better. Currin first became famous for painting semi-realistic sweater girls that look like the real-life models for Betty and Veronica from the “Archie” comics — only these girls have breasts that make Dolly Parton look like Calista Flockhart.

Sorry, you can’t go to your neighborhood art gallery and see any of these artists. But they’re easy to find on the Web. If you have some time to kill, I’d suggest you Google them.

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