An Artist Against the NEA, Part 1: The Case of Karen Finley

Karen Finley: This is what you get when art and politics mix

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“All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

-Benito Mussolini

The wailing commenced as soon as the numbers appeared. After decades of threatening noises from concerned conservatives and fiscal hawks, a Federal government budget was produced that eliminated funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

As an American artist, I think this is a wonderful development, long overdue.

Defenders of the NEA make the usual accusations, conflating being anti-government intervention in the arts with being anti-art. They justify the expense by pointing out how little the expenditures are out of a budget now reckoned in trillions. And they make the great leap to define withholding state funding of the arts as censorship. All of these assertions dodge accountability for results. How has the NEA improved the artistic life of America?

The NEA was the creation of the corrupt President Lydon Johnson in 1965. One quick measure of the program’s success is whether the visual arts are in better condition now than they were then.

On the contrary, contemporary art is undergoing a crisis of relevance, with hardly any interest and engagement from the public. I would suggest it’s the top-down direction of arts development encouraged by the NEA and its fellow traveler, grant-giving foundations which have helped cause this great alienation. Far from encouraging a vital, thriving culture in the United States, the handout and non-profit mentality is propping up a sick and decaying model of art as an elitist virtue signalling endeavor.

Make no mistake, the cultural institutions supported by such programs hold the values and founding principles of America in contempt. It’s key for acceptance. The long march was so successful that the entry to the establishment now requires allegiance with globalism, Post Modern relativism, and Cultural Marxist deconstruction. It’s the partisans of these ideologies that get the funding and support.

The art world has been warped by the priorities of the subsidizers. If you want their checks, better get on board with their agendas. Leftists have to taint everything with their politics, their own petty little version of God, and their fantasy of the all powerful state as a benefit dispensing Utopia. There’s no way I want anyone subject to such delusions in charge of recognizing artistic achievement.

Many years ago, I had my own special encounter with a NEA star, a typical example of what elitist culture has to offer.

She’s nothing but a historical footnote now, but in the early 1990s performer Karen Finley was big news. She was one of the so-called NEA Four. These controversial artists were up for the federal agency National Endowment for the Arts grants, and came under intense political criticism. The artists had their grants vetoed, although they eventually won a court case about it, and got paid.

However, as a result of the firestorm the NEA ultimately stopped funding individual artists. At least Finley can take credit for helping end that particular abuse of tax payer resources. But at the time I encountered her all the legal maneuverings were still in flux. When she came to speak in Richmond, at Virginia Commonwealth University’s  sculpture building, Finley was still notorious as a casualty of the Culture War.

Finley is a performance artist. Her claim to fame was hooting obscenities while smearing her naked body with yams. I wish this was a joke or an exaggeration, but it isn’t. Of course it was all about gender roles and social critique and whatnot, so that made it Serious Art.

We students didn’t know what to expect. Would we be spattered with tubers? Should we wear raincoats like we were going to see a Gallagher routine? Anticipation ran high.

As it turns out Finley kept her clothes on, and no vegetables were applied anywhere unusual. I suppose a group of mere students didn’t warrant the full Karen Finley experience.

She addressed the standing crowd gathered around her from a podium. I can’t tell you anything she actually said, as nothing she said was memorable. But we weren’t there for an insightful or intelligent lecture, we were there for a Serious Art Performance. And after her remarks, still standing behind her podium, Finley let us have it.

A Serious Art Performance, to Karen Finley, apparently meant yodeling, rolling her eyes and whipping her head around for a couple of minutes.

It was an annoying and mannered display. I felt the burning sensation of folly receiving the institutional stamp of approval. If that was art, then I’ve seen plenty of schizophrenic meth addicts hanging around convenience stores dumpsters that must be undiscovered geniuses.

Coming from her, it was all so phony. Her actions didn’t seem passionate or intense at all. It was clearly a ploy, a unconvincing simulation of being in a shamanistic frenzy.

My problem with Karen Finley’s art wasn’t because it was immoral; it was because it was stupid. There wasn’t an issue with obscenity, the issue was the failure to present a genuine and creditable work of art. And this is representative of the cultural experience our Washington elites wanted to throw money at.

As a bit of compensation for the dumb histrionics, Finley did show us a few nude video clips. She apparently liked to strip down in museums and pose next to actual art. That was kind of funny. The University was obviously putting all our student fees to good use, bringing in talent of such caliber.

During her fifteen minutes of fame, Finley got to play cultural martyr. She became a symbol, the fulfillment of the art world’s conceit of itself as an oppressed band of brave rebels.

The fact that what she called her art was a contrived, pathetic display was overlooked in the rush to the barricades. Her stated political agenda trumped any concerns about quality.

Finley has drifted into obscurity now, safely cloistered away  in New York City’s Tisch School of the Arts (annual undergrad tuition over $53,000.00), still trying to spark some interest in her sagging shock art. Museums are willing to throw her an occasional opportunity. In 2014 she did AA one better, and came up with a 13 step program for artists whose “lives have become unmanageable because of art.” Here’s a helpful hint: I wouldn’t blame art for the need to seek attention through grotesque displays.

Finley serves as a nice bit of trivia and nostalgia, a walking wounded veteran of the culture wars. The establishment takes care of its own. What they haven’t been taking care of is our society’s need for real art.

The NEA has failed in its mission. They’ve squandered their credibility. We will be better served by trying to find new ways to express an authentically American culture, one than the bureaucratic ideologues of the NEA never believed in.

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“It is quite clear to anyone of an uncluttered mental disposition that what is now put forward, quite seriously, as art by the ruling elite, is proof that a seemingly rational development of a body of ideas has gone seriously awry.”

-The Remodernism Manifesto

“I was not expected to be talented.”

Karen Finley

Update: Welcome Instapundit readers! Please see other articles here for more commentary on the state of the arts.

STUDIO: Stretcher Construction

Stretcher 2

A stretcher support for a new canvas, 36″ x 36″

I’ve written before on starting a new painting from scratch: Creating a Canvas.

It’s an elaborate process, involving lumber and quarter round, wood joiners and brad nails, a miter saw and a staple gun, gesso and sandpaper. It’s a big savings over buying prepared canvases, but that’s just one facet of it. There is a sense of thoroughness and craft I get from working on a support I built myself. I will use store bought canvases as well, but my most significant pieces were done on stretchers I’ve constructed myself.

This time I’m taking the process back a step further, and showing the underlying framework.

Today I’ve built another stretcher for a major painting, another 36″ by 36″ piece. The key to the way I build stretchers are these vicious looking little metal plates, which are called wood joiners:

Wood joiners

More than once in my painting career I’ve carelessly knelt on one these while building a stretcher; I don’t recommend it.

These days I’m using poplar wood for my supports. It’s an inexpensive soft wood which takes the wood joiners well, and it’s usually straighter and smoother than the pine wood I used to use. After using my chop saw to cut 1″ x 2″ lumber to the correct lengths, I use the wood joiners to fasten the pieces together. Then I nail quarter round molding to the outer edge on one side of the frame.

quarter round

Quarter round molding

This will elevate the stretched canvas material off the wooden supports, creating a smooth surface to paint on.

Stretcher 1

Detail shot: quarter round nailed on 1″ x 2″s, held together with wood joiners

This was the method I was trained in when I went to art school at Virginia Commonwealth University. I’ve experimented with other methods in the years since, but I never found anything else that worked as well.

I intend this new canvas to be a companion piece to the painting I covered in my last series on a work in progress, “A Tale of the Forked River.” It was enjoyable to share the developments as I worked out painting issues of the course of many weeks, running from March 15, 2015, to July 1, 2015. See the entries here:

Creating a Canvas

Painting in Progress 1

Painting in Progress 2

Painting in Progress 3

Painting in Progress 4 – Completion

A Tale of the Forked River

The finished product, completed June 28, 2015:

“A Tale of the Forked River” acrylic on canvas 36″ x 36″

I have the vision for the new painting. For the moment it exists only in my mind, so there is nothing to show yet. But the title will be “What Does It Take to Make a House Haunted?”

I can’t wait to get it going, so everyone can see what I was shown.

PAINTINGS: “The Determined Sailor” and the Art of Perseverance

Determined Sailor036

Richard Bledsoe “The Determined Sailor” oil on canvas 48″ x 36″

circa 2006

I must admit, there was a point I didn’t keep very good records. So I find myself uncertain of the exact timing of a certain troubled interlude in my life. The best I can reckon it, it probably ran from about 2004 to 2005.

I graduated with my BFA in painting from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1993. In all the years since, I’ve never stopped painting; but during this dark period, my production slowed to a crawl. I had become fascinated with working on wood panels, a  rigid, unyielding surface to paint on. When things were clicking I had made some really inspired pieces in this format, but during this ebb of my artistic energy I couldn’t overcome the resistance of the medium, and even worse, the resistance in my spirit.

I made some truly terrible paintings during this period. If I get really brave some day, I will post those incompetent, blighted images. There are a lot of unfinished panels, and even the ones I called completed are in no way resolved. I haven’t gotten rid of them. They live in my garage now, safely out of sight.

But worst of all, the visions ceased. The basis of my art, the fully formed pictures that come out of nowhere, the profoundly meaningful images that are revealed to me in unexpected flashes, stopped appearing. It was like losing the key to Wonderland.

It could have been the end of my art. Things were really that bleak and frustrating. But it’s not the way I chose to approach life, to be a passive recipient, battered by forces out of my control.  Once I saw the real jeopardy I was in, I took action.

I decided no more wood panels. I went back to first principles, and constructed a canvas  in the same format I had been taught in my first semester of Beginning Painting, back in 1991: a wooden frame 3 feet by 4 feet, the canvas stretched by hand, and stapled, and gessoed.

For the image I also reached back to an earlier time. I remembered an idle doodle I had once drawn in ballpoint pen on the back of a flier, during a dull afternoon of gallery watching many years before. That was the icon I needed now.

The result of this effort at renewal became the painting “The Determined Sailor.” This was how I felt then. There’s also some Popeye in there, and some Winslow Homer. So much gets poured into each painting, it’s impossible to summarize all the inferences and connotations.

The example of this sailor I summoned worked. I found my way back into my art. In time the visions began to creep up on me again. Now the problem I have is I have too many ideas, which is a great problem for an artist to have.

That was probably about 10 years ago. For several of those years the painting hung in my studio, but ultimately it sold. A lady who had overcome some major difficulties in her own life saw the image online, and was so taken with it she made it her computer screen saver.

Naturally her husband sought me out, and bought it as a surprise for her.

I miss the painting, but the way it found a new home and family remains one of the most touching experiences of my art career.

“A true art is the visible manifestation, evidence and facilitator of the soul’s journey. Spiritual art does not mean the painting of Madonnas or Buddhas. Spiritual art is the painting of things that touch the soul of the artist. Spiritual art does not often look very spiritual, it looks like everything else because spirituality includes everything.”

-The Remodernism Manifesto

 

 

ARTICLE: The Death of University Arts Programs, Part 1: Eric Fischl

These days, prestigious artist Eric Fischl paints what he knows

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ARTICLE LINK: Artist Eric Fischl on art education priorities

The current status quo of the art world is dysfunctional and unsustainable. Aspiring artists are indoctrinated into the belief that path for advancement lies through the minefield of dogma higher education has been reduced to.

The reality of the situation is that the assumptions and biases of the elitist academic approach probably did more to create and sustain the crisis of relevance the arts are undergoing than any other factor.

The end of the current system is inevitable. What will take its place will be determined by those who can see past the dreary conformity that inflicts the credentialed creative classes.

Eric Fischl got his schooling during the hippie-dippie days of the deconstructive 1960s. As he puts it, “There were no classes that taught techniques, no classes focusing on the business of art, no financial counselors.”

However, he managed to overcome the obstacles of such experimental academic shenanigans to become one of the most noteworthy and successful artists of the 1980s New York art scene.

Coming up in an age dominated by abstraction and minimalism, Fischl managed to rediscover the power of human drama inherent in figurative painting. He specializes in the dark, seamy and sexual, but hey: there’s lots of drama to explore in those recesses of mankind’s frailty. His artistry punches through the tawdriness; he makes epics out of fallen humanity’s misadventures. He’s a very bold and generous artist.

Now Fischl has commented on the newest forms of higher education trendiness, and he sees the path of destruction they are on.

“…do you acknowledge that the nature of art making has changed, the pressures and expectations on young artists are different, so you adjust your methodology to address their reality?

“No, no, no, no, no, NO!

“Art education should not be a degree program. It should be dropped from colleges and universities—or at the very least, the tuition should be scaled in such a way that students are not burdened with debt in a field that cannot in any way guarantee an income commensurate with the ability to pay it down.

“It should provide a student with space, time, techniques, and critical standards, in a safe and competitive environment, so that they can handle and profit from being constantly challenged, broken down, debased, and ridiculed. Make damn sure that within this structure of frustration, confusion, and humiliation, they are nurtured by your profound sense of purpose, wisdom, experience, and your unshakeable belief in the meaningfulness of art.

“Art should be embraced as a journey. Result-oriented, not product-based. Understood as a process and a dialogue with history, culture, and time.

“For what it’s worth.”

-Eric Fischl

Just imagine the if the cry bullies of today’s college campuses ever found themselves in a challenging and competitive environment. The hysterical stampede for their safe spaces would be highly unsafe. Cue the helicopter parents, the SJWs, and the partisan hack media to launch their rituals of shaming and outrage.

It seems these days University art programs are more geared to training future cogs for the elitist sycophant combine than to teaching students the craft to express a personal vision. There’s already a legion of dolts out there that can’t tell the difference between a marketing scheme and a work of art; every year more graduate into a world that shrugged off contemporary visual art as useless long ago. The priorities  learned in these cloistered environments will work only in other cloistered environments. The goal is keep the art world small, isolated, and easily controlled.

This toxic combination of an extremely narrow niche field of endeavor, unethical professional cronyism,  hair trigger emotional status seeking, and rigid ideological conformity is just the way the arts establishment wants it. It plays into their status as power brokers. But it’s really no good for anyone else.

It’s entertaining in a way to watch the ivory tower crumble. Once we get the rubble of fallen reputations and squandered credibility cleared away, humanity can re-engage with the true purpose of art: the skillful communication of spiritual states and realizations that unite, not divide.

“Remodernism is inclusive rather than exclusive and welcomes artists who endeavour to know themselves and find themselves through art processes that strive to connect and include, rather than alienate and exclude.”

-The Remodernism Manifesto

Update: Welcome Instapundit readers! Please see other articles here for more commentary on the state of the arts.

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ARTISTS: Ron Throop and the Russian Stuckists

Throop Miller

Ron Throop “Henry Miller Went To Paris in 1932” 2016. Acrylic on canvas, 18′ x 14″

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I first noticed the works of painter Ron Throop on the Facebook page for Stuckism: The Ant-Anti Art Movement.  There’s always lots of fascinating works getting posted there, but his stood out to me for several reasons.

Stuckism is truly an international phenomenon, but here was another United States artist, from Oswego, New York, puzzling his way through  the dynamics of the independent art scene.  He was very productive, constantly putting up images of new paintings. When I see someone so dedicated it sparks my interest; it resonates with my own compulsive approach. I always say painting is my healthiest obsession, so to see someone else with that drive gives a sense of camaraderie.

Even more intriguing were the painting themselves, spontaneous, boldly colored, freely rendered, and full of stream of consciousness musings and humorous asides. As Ron and I began to communicate I was not surprised to discover he was also a fan of author and painter Henry Miller. They tap into the same kind of liveliness, cheerfulness and velocity in their work.

Throop Squirrel

Ron Throop “Is the Squirrel My Spirit Animal, or Am I Just Hyper-paranoid?” 2015

Acrylic on canvas, 14″ x 11″

I invited Ron to take part in Spineless: The Invertebrate Art Show, an exhibit I curated in Phoenix, Arizona. He sent a couple of pieces that made a big impact. During the opening, I witnessed one visitor experience a revelation. This shy young girl could not stop speaking about how blown away she was by the show, the energy in the pieces, how the colors just popped. When we asked her to pose next to her favorite work she chose one of Ron’s.

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Inspired by Throop

I would not be surprised if a new artist was created right there on the spot. Her eyes had been opened to the possibilities of painting.

Recently I learned of an exciting new development in Ron Throop’s career. Using the global connections of Stuckism and the power of contemporary communications technology, he started a project with a group of Russian Stuckist painters. He is tracking their interactions in his new blog, Round Trip Stuckism.

Throop Snow

Ron Throop “Which China Snowflake Is Wrong?” 2015. Acrylic on canvas, 24″ x 18″

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 Ron Throop took some time to answer a few questions about art, life and collaboration. He also shared some wonderful images from his Russian painting partners.

How did you initially get involved in the visual arts? Who were some of your inspirations?

Ron Throop: As a younger man and aspiring writer, I often dabbled with paint at the suggestion of Henry Miller. He would suffer writing, its joys and frustrations, to a cracking point, and then he would gather his watercolors, paper, and brushes, and go on a painting jag for however long it took to feel like writing again.
So I did this too, as practice. Over time I realized that painting is so much more joyous than writing. It allows for tremendous variation, can be spiritual, silly, expressive like fireworks—and still play the music loud. The viewer decides her own feeling (or not) without needing the imagination hand held and maneuvered by the writer.
Miller also introduced me to the picture poems of Kenneth Patchen. I copied his style to flow text in my paintings. I still do.
I raised my girls, tutored them myself, up until their teen years, when they enrolled in school. I cooked in restaurants to make ends meet. My children came first, always, so my lust for expression (which is terribly strong), always sat on the back burner until it boiled over. In my 30’s I began to nurture it into a regular regimen. Found a feel so to speak, and haven’t looked back.

How did you discover the Stuckist movement?

RT: My good friend who is the most enthusiastic educator of visual art I know sent me a video one day of a Stuckist show in London, which led me to the Stuckist manifesto.

What makes an artist a Stuckist?

RT: I don’t know if I am one entirely. I would tell someone who paints regularly to read the manifesto. Does he/she agree with most of its precepts? I do. I paint recognizable figures mostly, but am open for change. I think my limitations keep me where I am, which is good for now. Still, I believe the word “whim” should be printed above any creative door.
I like this from the manifesto:

“The Stuckist paints pictures because painting pictures is what matters.”
“The ego-artist’s constant striving for public recognition results in a constant fear of failure. The Stuckist risks failure wilfully and mindfully by daring to transmute his/her ideas through the realms of painting. Whereas the ego-artist’s fear of failure inevitably brings about an underlying self-loathing, the failures that the Stuckist encounters engage him/her in a deepening process which leads to the understanding of the futility of all striving. The Stuckist doesn’t strive — which is to avoid who and where you are — the Stuckist engages with the moment.”

And my favorite:

The Stuckist is not mesmerised by the glittering prizes, but is wholeheartedly engaged in the process of painting. Success to the Stuckist is to get out of bed in the morning and paint.

 

And I do. Until I drop dead.

Throop Paint

Ron Throop “Like de Kooning, I Set Out To Make Something Very Ugly With Lots of Paint. Unlike de Kooning, It Took Me Only a Few Hours” 2015. Acrylic on birch board, 24″ x 24″

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Tell us about some of the art events you’ve created locally.

RT: This upcoming project is the first group organizational effort I will sign my name to. I open up my house twice a year to show my own work. I have had some luck getting admitted in galleries, both group and solo shows, but truly I prefer the home show over all the rest. A bar would be okay. I like cheerful noise. I like being a happy host. Galleries are just rooms. The social psychologists have been telling us all along that it is others who authenticate achievement—rarely oneself, the achiever. I like to think I am crazy enough to love what I do, and what I have become as a man cut up into many roles. If some gallery wishes to invest in me, wonderful! I also like money, no matter how never easy come, always easy go it is for my family.

You’ve launched an international collaboration with a group of Russian Stuckist painters. How did this come about?
RT: This is about reverence first and foremost. I met Alexey Stepanov through the Stuckist Facebook page. I messaged him to ask if he would be willing to sell me one of his beautiful paintings. He suggested we trade instead. Voila! A painter-to-painter relationship was born.  (See Ron’s post on the topic: When a Stuckist Trades, Does a Tree Fall in the Woods?)

Alexy

Alexey Stepanov “FPS Russia in St. Petersburg and Leningrad. Execution of Sentences. Wednesday / Cloudy evening ” 2016

From that day on I became very interested in his work, and discovered through social media (mainly Facebook and VK) that Alexey did not do all his work in a frown-bubble like I did. He hosted figurative painting sessions in his studio, and went out plein-airing Moscow architecture, people and nature. The Russian Stuckists had shows, friendly auctions, painting parties, what have you. I “friended” several of Alexey’s friends (painters too) on social media, and continued to cheer on their works and exhibitions from my lonely writing desk of woe.
Then they had a show in the woods, and posted pictures of paintings hanging on trees. I was smitten! Kindred spirits at last! Over the past few years I too had taken my paintings to the woods and hung them on trees. This was the culture I had longed for all my life! Non-existent in my town and country. In the U.S., avarice seems unavoidable in the arts. Avarice, and even a creeping arrogance. And among artists! A gargantuan oxymoron. (Ron’s post: Homage to Painters Alive Who Understand What I’m Getting At)
So, I kept finding myself wanting to travel to Moscow to paint with Alexey and friends. I came up with the idea to ask The Russian Stuckists if I could sit in on some of their sessions through Skype.
I applied for a New York State Decentralization Grant as an individual artist, and got it. A modest award of $2,500. Giving myself an imaginary minimum wage, by project’s end, I estimate I will have “spent” in lost wages, over $40,000, maybe more. All artists understand this labor of love, at least in some point in their lives.
I informed Alexey and friends the day after I received the award. By week’s end I was nervously participating in my first international live painting session.

Girlfriends

Lena Ulanova “Girlfriends” 2016

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How are you working together? What are your goals for this project?

RT: I would like to paint with The Russian Stuckists via Skype possibly 10 times by August. Meanwhile as painters we keep painting, individually, in groups—any way we can, while I keep to my promotion. In no time we will amass 50+ precious works to exhibit. I will have their chosen pieces shipped to the United States, and hang our work for public show. There will be movies, photos, written accounts, a showbook, artist talk and education on Stuckism. I will do extensive outreach to fill up the place. I will also apply their work to established galleries (whether the galleries like it or not). I wish to promote Stuckism of course, but I am mostly intrigued by the work of these painters. Still, if it wasn’t for Stuckism, I never would have met Alexey and friends, and I would continue to rot in that frown bubble I spoke of.

Kassandra

Alena Levina”Cassandra” 2016 Oil on cardboard, 25 x 30 cm

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Colors

Andrew Makarov “All the Colors In the Field. The Ministry of Defense”

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Bridge

Peter Generlov “Bridge” 2015

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What is happening in your own art now?

RT: After the first Skype session, I realized how much I need to improve. I persuaded a master to let me audit his figurative drawing course at the local college. This is a huge leap for me. I have always been a confident and joyous painter. Last week, after attempting to paint a model on demand, I got smacked upside the head with a blast of overwhelming confusion. Already this grant has proven its potential. It made an old dog seek a new trick. (Ron’s post on the collaboration in Round Trip Stuckism: Nero Lyred While Rome Burned But Was He Any Good And Did He Know?)

Why does art matter in the 21st century?

RT: Not everyone is born to be a dentist or a plumber. Rather than a blank slate, I think that all of us moderns are born misfits seeking communion. Unfortunately in our time, the dentists and plumbers can always find a pal to drink with. Not so with painters. Yet we abide, desperately at times. I guess the more art that gets made, the more communion artists will share with one another. Working with and admiring the work of the Russian Stuckists has already improved my life significantly. I feel I can arrive in Moscow wearing my Walt Whitman hat, push my hands down into my pockets, and head over to Alexey’s flat to gesture draw and share a round.
Painters need to know painters. Social media is a good introduction, but something more must jump from that, or else all acquaintance turns stale.
Stuckism is the most modern, human painting movement on earth right now. Nothing else comes close.

Norway

Ron Throop “The Mysteries of Norway” 2015  Acrylic on canvas board, 20 x 16”

 

ARTISTS: Charles Thomson is Stuck in the Remodern

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Charles Thomson “Top Hat”

The Stuckist is not a career artist but rather an amateur (amare, Latin, to love) who takes risks on the canvas rather than hiding behind ready-made objects (e.g. a dead sheep). The amateur, far from being second to the professional, is at the forefront of experimentation, unencumbered by the need to be seen as infallible. Leaps of human endeavour are made by the intrepid individual, because he/she does not have to protect their status. Unlike the professional, the Stuckist is not afraid to fail.

-Billy Childish and Charles Thomson, The Stuckist Manifesto

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In October, the international art movement Stuckism will be the subject of a significant exhibit at the University of Kent, Canterbury England.

It’s not easy to gain such institutional recognition when a large part of your reputation comes from directly challenging the pretensions and presumptions of the arts establishment, instead of conforming to their elitist notions of socially acceptable targets. And yet, over fifteen years after the first group was founded, Stuckism is gaining a grudging acknowledgement as a relevant and historic part of the ongoing continuum of art.

I had no idea: Conceptual art
I had no idea: Conceptual art

In 1999 London was arguably the art capital of the world, and there was sensational hype around Conceptual art: the idea that an idea was all that mattered, and the more off putting the idea was, the better. Conceptual artists mostly aren’t talented enough to create their own art, which is farmed out to technicians and craftsmen. The main functions Conceptual artists fulfill is to act as loutish PR agents for their own awesomeness, suck up to high roller investors, and enact the exhausted and hollow rituals of shocking the bourgeois. They are enabled in these charades by a compliant media, the thoroughly compromised academy, corrupted cultural institutions, and ignorant, trophy hunting tycoons. In the Post Modern age, admittance to the New Class aristocracy of the well connected requires capitulation to their nihilistic and decadent world view, in addition to the usual grovelling and throne sniffing. The results of all this collusion are hideous.

But confronted by this festering pit of cultural suicide, some chose to articulate the promptings from the still, small voice inside. The voice that pointed out art is not about money, power and celebrity. Art is about seeking integrity, accepting responsibility for our own struggles for personal growth, and sharing that process so others can see. Art is a tool for communication and connection, and to treat it as an exclusive toy for an arrogant ruling class is an insult to humanity.

Such ideas led to the founding of Stuckism, codified in a manifesto written by two English creatives, Billy Childish and Charles Thomson. The first group exhibit of these independent artists was held in September 1999. Since then, over 230 Stuckist groups have been established in 52 countries all around the world.

Stuckism made a splash by embracing the kind of urgent, expressive figurative painting considered unfashionable at the time by art world technocrats. There’s not one set style of Stuckism; it’s more a matter of motivation. Instead of aiming to create slick commodities, a Stuckist is more concerned with trying to trying to honestly engage with the process of creation, making both mistakes and discoveries along the way.

Childish and Thomson took their ideas a step further in the Remodernism manifesto. There they identified the elite have broken their credibility by favoring materialistic, relativistic Post Modern thought. The neglect of the spiritual nature of life is corrected by recognizing the experimental nature of Modern art as an expression of the soul.

Like Groucho Marx, another infamous mustached iconoclast, Childish wouldn’t be a part of any club that would have him as a member. Billy soon left the group that he helped to define, although he continues to paint, with increasing success. He now describes himself as “an armchair Stuckist;” while he appreciates the ideas, the tasks involved in organizing and maintaining a global network of artists aren’t for him.

However, his co-founder Charles Thomson has remained committed to providing a structure in which idealistic artists can operate and network. Since starting Stuckism, Thomson has continued to perform as an arts activist and advocate.  He writes, speaks, protests and critiques, as well as creating his own Cloisonnism inspired paintings; his most recent solo exhibit is being held this fall in Prague. His efforts have provided a much needed perspective on the dysfunctional establishment art world.

I was honored to be asked to take part in the Kent exhibit, and wanted to take the opportunity to find out more about Charles Thomson’s thoughts on the past, present and future of the arts and culture. We completed the following interview in email exchanges.

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Founder: Charles Thomson
Founder: Charles Thomson

How did you initially get involved in the visual arts?

Charles Thomson: I did a coloured crayon drawing of my teddy bear and sold it to my grandfather for a penny. I was about five at the time. It’s carried on from there. I have – with occasional lapses – always been involved in a creative field, poetry or painting.

How did you come to found the Stuckist movement?

CT: It was a vehicle to promote a group of artists who paint contemporary pictures with ideas, emotion and meaning, as opposed to exhibiting a dead shark and calling it art (whereas most of the rest of the world calls it a dead shark). I had the idea for the group and co-founded it in 1999 with Billy Childish (who left after a couple of years).

Why do you think it has gained such an international following?

CT: It embodies the values that a lot of artists have, but who find themselves sidelined by a Postmodern ethos that puts celebrity, cynicism and commerce above any spiritual or deeper human values.

What makes an artist a Stuckist?

CT: They appoint themselves, in the same way that people became Impressionists or Surrealists etc.

You collaborated on two major manifestos: Stuckism and Remodernism. The Stuckist Manifesto directly addresses the mismanagement and excesses of the contemporary establishment art world. The Remodernist Manifesto evokes a larger social context with vast implications. It provides a positive alternative to the sophistry and manipulations of the Post Modern mindset so prevalent among cultural elitists. How did the writings of these two works develop?

CT: With great difficulty. It’s not too difficult to know what your values are. It’s a lot harder to express them. It’s harder still to express them in a meaningful and memorable way. That last part was quite an ordeal. Fortunately both Billy Childish (with whom I co-wrote the manifestos) and I had worked for many years in writing and poetry, so we had a lot of verbal resources to draw on.

Another issue was that Billy and I came from very different directions. I would say that he was rhetorical and I was analytical. The meshing of these approaches was very trying at times, but ultimately very rewarding.

Why do you think the cultural elites advocate such dysfunctional art?

CT: Because they are dysfunctional elites, cultural in professed aspiration but driven by a realpolitik of kudos and cash.

The arts and media elites reacted with hostility when the Stuckists were founded. But now it seems whenever the press wants a comment on the latest conceptual art outrage they seek you out. What has your relationship been like with the establishment cultural industries? Has there been any change through the years?

CT: The situation has not substantially changed. In the UK, the press in particular – and the media in general – is divided into two sections, namely art criticism/review and art news, the former mostly written by specialist critics, i.e. collaborators of the art establishment,  and the latter mostly written by standard journalists, i.e. opponents of the art establishment. Arts journalists speak to a much wider readership than the arts pages at the back of the paper, and they provide a much more rounded view.

The art establishment has softened slightly, but is still very much opposed to Stuckism. What is happening now though is that a new generation is growing up with an acceptance of Stuckism as a valid entity, embodied in, for example, the Penguin Modern Classics book, “100 Artists’ Manifestos: from the Futurists to the Stuckists”, edited by Alex Danchev.

There seems to be a connection between Stuckism and alternative music. Black Francis of the legendary band the Pixies founded the Amherst Stuckists, and is represented in this exhibit. Kid Congo Powers of the Cramps has expressed his admiration. And movement co-founder Billy Childish is a prolific garage rock recording artist. What do you think inspires these musicians about an artistic philosophy like Stuckism?

CT: They basically have the same philosophy – of making art that is genuine, expressive and inspiring. The music world interacts with its wider audience, as does Stuckism, whereas the established art world ignores its audience and interacts with its power brokers.

Stuckist protest at the Tate Museum 2002
Stuckist protest at the Tate Museum 2002

The Stuckists were infamous for protesting the annual art event the Turner Prize, but now have discontinued the process. What were some notable things about the protests? Why have you discontinued them?

CT: One notable thing was longevity – we protested from 2000 for 15 years. Another was the spectacle and ridicule. We dressed as clowns initially and walked through the gallery like that. Last year we were there handing out leaflets to apologise that we weren’t protesting because the exhibits were so bad they weren’t worth protesting about. (That amused the press.) The protests struck a deep chord with the general public and also the news pages of the press. The protests were a lot more meaningful than the exhibits. We may have discontinued them, but then again we may not.

How did this show at the University of Kent come about?

CT: The students of the MA Curating course invited the Stuckists for a show as their end of course project. I collaborated with them on the form it should take, which is a representation of Stuckism now, based on UK Stuckists but showing the relationship with Stuckists internationally.

Are you optimistic about the direction the arts are going in? Why?

CT: I do my work and I see my colleagues doing theirs. This has been a collaboration stretching back in some cases to the late 1970s. This is the direction art is going in as far as I am concerned. As for the wider picture, I recommend a study of history. We are in a mirror image/parallel world to the nineteenth century, where an ossified establishment was opposed by pioneering radicals.

What is happening in your own art now?

CT: A mini-renaissance. Finally after about three decades, I am painting the way I have always wanted to, which marries the opposites of free expression and disciplined definition.

Why does art matter in the 21st century?

CT: It is an aspect of human experience that is valuable and cannot be accessed through other means in quite the same way.

If someone is concerned about the state of the culture, what should they do?

CT: I guess that depends on what they are concerned about exactly. From my perspective, they should support Stuckism and seek to understand what is really driving it, not what its media reputation is.

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Stuckism: Remodernizing the Mainstream

Studio 3 Gallery, Jarman Building, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent CT2 7UG

1 October – 11 December 2015

Artists include: Philip Absolon, Floyd Anthony Alsbach, Virginia Andow, Richard Bledsoe, Godfrey Blow, John Bourne, Nick Christos, Jonathon Coudrille, Adam Crosland, Mark D, Elsa Dax, Hamed Dehnavi, Artista Eli, Eamon Everall, Black Francis, Andrew Galbraith, Ella Guru, Paul Harvey, Jiri Hauschka, Wolf Howard, Edgeworth Johnstone, Jacqueline Jones, Jane Kelly, Shelley Li, Joe Machine, Terry Marks, Peter Murphy, Bill Lewis, Persita, Justin Piperger, Emma Pugmire, Farsam Sangini, Frank Schroeder, Jasmine Surreal, Charles Thomson, Marketa Urbanova, Yaroslav Valecka, Charles Williams, Odysseus Yakoumakis, Chris Yates, Annie Zamero.

EXPLOITS: The Unexpected Reappearence of an Early Painting

Dissolve with Veil

Richard Bledsoe “Dissolve with Veil” oil on canvas circa 1990(?)

In 1987, I left my home to go to art school at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. It was a natural transition for me, as I had spent my entire youth enjoying creative expression in various forms: drawing, writing, reading, and watching movies. I wanted to not only be a consumer of culture, but a producer of it as well.

While I was there I shifted majors several times, trying to find the best fit for my interests and talents. I went from art to theater to writing intensive English courses, working hard in each discipline, hoping to find the way to best to express my vision.

Finally I realized that of all the things I studied, it was painting that intrigued me the most. I finished up with a Bachelor of Fine Art degree in Painting and Printmaking, and I can honestly say I have never stopped painting in all the years since I graduated.

While I was studying at VCU I became friends with a girl from my same hometown who was also attending the college. Christy was a talented actress and writer, and just a fun, warm person in general. We had many classes together, and shared many adventures outside of school too.

I don’t remember the occasion or the time frame, but at one point I gave Christy one of my student paintings as a present, a small canvas in oils. “Dissolve with Veil” was painted in my room from a still life I set up with a clamp light and a crumpled white sheet. Even though the fabric was white, I rendered its shadings and highlights in moody blues. In front of this backdrop reproduced from observation, I added an element of my own invention: a series of suspended colored spheres, subtly decreasing in size.

This was an important piece for me. When I showed it in class my professor praised it, and even announced he was going to steal the idea of the items hanging in space. He did too-in the incredibly elaborate and detailed paintings he did of ruined buildings, he started include pieces of debris in mid air, as if the image caught them in the moment of falling.

Of course there is no theft in this at all, just the passing on of inspiration. I was inspired by other art when I made my painting. Probably there is some Magritte unpinning this work of mine, with his surreal floating fruit and businessmen.

Later I repainted a larger version of this same drapery and spheres image. It became the first piece I ever sold.

After graduation I lost touch with Christy, and I probably hadn’t heard from her in 20 years. But just recently, though the omnipresent outreach of Facebook, we friended each other and sent some nice updates on our current lives.

I was blown away when Christy sent me a picture of my painting, which she still has. I find it to be a beautiful and mysterious piece. And I can see elements in it already that continue to factor into my work now.

It is wonderful to see something from the early days of my attempts to reconcile ideas with execution, and vision with skill. That is what painting does so effectively: it creates a visible record of the human quest for cohesive expression.

I am grateful for this experience, getting to see a moment from the beginning of my journey. Thanks Christy!