A Quick Note About Ego

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Sometimes I write that ego is an illusion. This is really my poor attempt to convey a concept that I've read about directly in Buddhist literature and indirectly in various mystical and philosophical sources. Even though some of the sources for this concept are religious, I consider the factors underlying ego and its illusory nature to be ultimately physiological.

By ego I'm referring to that set of mental faculties we use to decide who and what we are, and who and what we are not.

The self-image, which is a map that more or less governs the activities of these faculties, tends to be poorly drawn. The information it contains is very incomplete. We tend to consider it fixed when it's quite fluid.

Being is discovery. So often when we decide who and what we are it's based on faulty information as seen on the poorly drawn map of self-image. We give ourselves credit for having all the information we really need to lock down these decisions. The result is that life's intricate organic structure is cramped and warped into a cheesy topiary.

Better in my estimation to allow our actions to determine who and what we are. Let our responses to our actions and their results draw the map of self-image. And rather than rely on that map for the more minute considerations of identity, use it as a set of broad guidelines.

Some have replied that ego is the drive to make one's mark in the world. I suppose that's another side of ego, the side related more to a will to power and self-assertion.

The questions that this drive raises are, "What kind of mark, and where, and why?"

I'd think that the artist whose need to leave a mark on the world is the dominant drive should be asking him/herself the more basic question of why it's the dominant drive. What inner need does this drive to leave marks in the world satisfy?

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Smashing Holiday Wishes
from Xeth Feinberg and Papu

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Toss another log on the fire, gather the family around and pour everyone a mug of egg nog, then sit back and enjoy a warm, wonderful animated holiday special, courtesy of Queer Duck animator Xeth Feinberg.

Shouldn't every season be this smashtacular?

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Joanne Greenbaum: Paintings
at D'Amelio Terras

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I was in town with one of my daughters this past Saturday to bring some holiday cheer to my gallerist and a few friends. Almost like Instant Karma the cheer bounced back at me when I noticed one of Joanne Greenbaum's paintings peeking through D'Amelio Terras's window from the back wall of their main room.

When I began to notice her paintings as seen on the Internet in small JPEG images I think what attracted me most was the way her structures seem almost like the kind high school kids draw in notebooks.

Not the ornate pot leaves and Led Zepp logos of the stoner kids, or the magical India ink studies of eyes that the art kids never get tired of making, but the kinds of semi-structured pseudo-diagrams the smart quiet kids labor at, the kids who don't really want you to see their notebooks, and who are too busy thinking about science fiction or something else to talk to you anyway.

This show includes only four large paintings, so it doesn't give you a strong sense of the versatility that Joanne Greenbaum is capable of. Some of my favorite JPEG Greenbaum images in fact are done on paper using ballpoint pen, among other things, and are very playful. Even so, it's well worth your time; the paintings on exhibit are really stunning, commanding pieces.

Sometimes, as in the untitled image above, an oil on canvas that's 80 by 70 inches in dimension, you can almost get the sense that there's too much frenetic activity, too many marks. But Greenbaum keeps you right at that edge and never allows the clearly unstable and highly combustible contents of her works to blow apart.

In order to do this she employs a variety of architectures that seem to relate obliquely to engineering drawings, factory interiors, and perhaps even exploded diagrams. But much as these structures hold her works together, they do so with only a nod to conventional notions of structural soundness. Outermost frameworks sag or curl, 'staircases' of sorts rise to dead-ends, and objects melt with an almost Seussian playfulness.

The sheer variety of marks Greenbaum packs into her paintings is rather breathtaking. There are tiny hairy scribbles, large thick calligraphically styled lines, 'brickworks' of sorts, large block patterns, even the occasional directed splatters. Her palette reaches greedily across the conventional color table and onto a dessert tray bursting with fluorescent indulgence. In the hands of a lesser artist the results could be an eye-melting melee of consumer packaging coloration, but Greenbaum wields these radioactive plasmas with pistol-packing panache.

You'd almost guess that the occasional painting of very limited coloration might originate partly in Ms. Greenbaum's need to rest her retinas. In this show of four paintings there was one such image composed mostly of black and silver, a brooding, obsidian piece that breathed elegance, like the Chopin-playing book-reading child in a pack of noisy siblings.

Joanne Greenbaum: Paintings is on view at D'Amelio Terras until December 23. Just a few days left to scope out this intriguing and entertaining work. Catch it if you can.

D'Amelio Terras
525 W 22nd St
New York, NY 10011

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Larry Zox -- 1936-2006

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Larry Zox died yesterday, December 16. The artist was 69 years old. Apparently he lived about forty minutes down the road from me in Colchester, Connecticut.

Lately I've enjoyed seeing Zox's paintings at Stephen Haller Gallery. Often you can find his work from the '70s and '80s hanging alongside work from this century. The change over time was informative for me and brought to mind late-in-life changes in the paintings of Willem DeKooning -- an overall refining of surface tensions, the smoothing of sharp angles reminiscent of the eons-long process of river on rock, the sense of a life coming to terms with itself.

Where DeKooning's works seemed to relax into shimmering deserts traced by silky rivulets of color, Zox's commanding geometric constructions to my eyes appear to dissolve with time into wafting gossamer curtains punctuated sparely with satin strokes. I sense in them the movements of people staying close together, figures enjoying quiet familiarity, traversed and sometimes nearly bounded by lines of easy give and take.

It's pleasant to imagine that the fluid, organic grace unfolding in Zox's later work reflects the kind of calm retrospection that sometimes accompanies the wisdom of advancing years. Obviously only those who were privileged to have shared in his rich and creative life would know if this is truly the case.

Stephen Haller Gallery is holding a memorial service for the artist on February 24.

Stephen Haller Gallery
542 W. 26th St
New York, NY 10001
(212) 741-7777

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They Hold Power and They Don't 'Get' Art

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Senator Charles Grassley of New Hartford, Iowa, may exemplify people who are alienated by art. According to a NYTimes.com article, the Senate Finance Committee chairman has drastically curbed tax benefits for art collectors who make partial donations to museums.

Now I must ask this question: if he were an art lover -- if an Andy Warhol portrait were hanging in Grassley's tractor shed -- would he still have enacted this kind of legislation?

You Make The Call.

Under the old rules, a collector could donate, for example, 10% of an artwork to a museum. He would get a tax write-off for 10% of the art's current value, and the museum would have an opportunity to exhibit that artwork during the year of the partial donation -- an opportunity that was practically never taken advantage of. Meanwhile, the art continues to reside in the collector's home, warehouse, garage, wherever.

The collector could continue to make partial donations until the work was entirely donated, at which point I'd guess that the museum took possession. As the artwork's value rose, each percentage of a partial donation rose in value as a tax deduction.

So collectors had every incentive to inch those partial donations along year after year and hold onto the work for as long as possible.

Collectors point to this as a big incentive for donating to museums, and museums claim that some of the most significant art gifts they received were the result of this tax benefit. They will tell you that the public greatly benefited from this.

I will tell you that the vast majority of a museum's artworks reside in warehouses and are seen by the public very rarely, if ever. So how does the public benefit by more artworks being donated to museums, outside of the one-in-a-few-dozen that actually reaches the museum walls?

Grassley cried "Horse Apples" to the whole arrangement. In the
NYTimes.com article this morning he is quoted as saying,

“Call it what it is, a subsidy for millionaires to buy art,” he said, with his characteristic bluntness. “Where I come from the word ‘giving’ doesn’t mean keeping.”
Grassley's committee ratcheted things down rather aggressively. Now collectors have to pony up the artwork within ten years of the initial partial gift. The tax benefit is capped at that point; regardless of the increasing value of the work during those ten years, each time the Taxman comes a-callin' the collector can only deduct any new partial gift based on the value of the artwork at the time of their first partial gift.

Needless to say, the Art Collector Universe has felt a disruption in The Force, and museum directors and curators are having panic attacks and forming support groups that meet Wednesday nights in the basements of churches.

Art collectors of course have less reason to hang onto their overpriced lufa-sponge-and-cheese-dip creations yanked from grad students' studios, since, as we've seen, contemporary art as an investment isn't terribly competitive. Oddly enough, this sounds to me like it might clog the resale market as Contemporary Art collectors who purchased in anticipation of the partial gift benefit rush to unload. Contemporary Art Fire Sale -- We're Talking Deals! Deals! Deals!

Collectors of art from other periods have substantially less incentive to donate to museums and will now likely hang onto their pieces until they are pried from their cold dead fingers.

Museum directors claim that the partial-gift arrangement, while bringing in perhaps 2 to 3% of their collections, has brought in works of greater significance than simple donations. Now they'll have to wait until they are bequeathed these priceless treasures through the wills of their benefactors. I picture them chewing their own tongues in prolonged anticipatory agony at the thought of these works collecting dust in mansions, chalets and summer homes until their medically life-extended owners finally join the choir invisible. If only somehow they could hasten the day!

Wait a minute -- I just had a terrific idea for an HBO series:

I may have just made my first million. HBO? Call me.

Naturally, museum restorationists endure spasmatic fugues imagining the abrasive effects of years of Caribbean sunlight and salty air on a precious Lichtenstein or Warhol. If you've ever stood near a museum's first-floor stairwell and heard an exasperated voice echoing from the basement, emotionally blurting out the phrase, "You might as well just sandpaper the thing," you've likely had a first-hand encounter with this very phenomenon.

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Post Your Portfolio at Slideroom.com

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Chris Jagers proves he's more than just a versatile artist, skilled professor, informative blogger and famous old-school rap star through his development and deployment of a powerful, highly professional online portfolio program that artists can use to present their work, which for obscure reasons he's dubbed Slideroom.com.

Who needs the hassle of fumbling with film, hoping the developers won't screw it up, making those teeny tiny labels, and staying awake nights worrying about whether you remembered to put that stupid red dot to mark which side is TOP?

From my experience it's virtually a guarantee that any gallery, organization or juried event that insists on physical slides for submissions is being curated by someone so far behind on the relevance scale as to be completely not worth your time.

Check your watch, kids: it's the twenty-first century. You need to submit your work digitally. It's fast, it's clean, it's relevant and up-to-date -- hell, it's even environmentally friendly.

Slideroom.com makes it possible for you to upload your images and videos, label and organize them and have them constantly ready for review, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Make changes instantly.
Password-protect your portfolio to control who sees it and when.
Stay in control long after your send-out date.

Success means digital online presentation.
Success means Slideroom.com.

Register now.

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Responding to Contemporary Art
After the End of Art History

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Arthur C. Danto wasn't the first to write about the end of art history. This concept has made the rounds and is far from being news.

I'm reading Danto's After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History, and what I'm enjoying most about it is that, in spite of some disagreements I have with his analysis, he brings a great deal more detail to the issue than I'd uncovered, deliberate philosopher that he is.

He's making me think in greater detail about the roles contemporary art plays in contemporary life.

I've harped a bit lately about artists who do the same thing over and over again, sometimes for four or five decades. This kind of production fits perfectly into an era defined by art movements: Cubism, Neo-Plasticism, Ab-Ex, Pop, Minimalism, etc. Art arising from a given movement such as any of these, I think, can be described in text to the point that any reader can picture in their minds with a fair degree of accuracy what paintings from that movement should look like.

The point made by Danto and quite a few others is that this era is dead and gone, has been since -- depending on the writer -- the 1960's, 70's or 80's. It isn't as though art history's end is an event that's still making the rounds. Anyone who's paying attention knows it, feels it and can often extemporize about it.

So how can artists who churn out the same concept year after year after year justify what they're doing? Is there anything to be learned after the 150th iteration of a concept that wasn't learned by the 5oth? Is there a fetishistic purpose to this kind of production that satisfies an artist's needs beyond the aesthetic/emotional/creative?

Here's why this is chewing at me: it's rare for me to sustain an interest in a particular concept of my own beyond maybe fifty or sixty iterations. By the time number fifty appears the thing's mutated for me -- I've moved it into another medium, I've expanded or contracted its scale, it's merged with an earlier concept, or I've lost interest altogether in it, at least for a while.

The mind always works and isn't satisfied with staying put.

I know that many other artists think this way, their minds always crank, always process things. Why do so many artists stand pat?

Back to the end of art history: as Danto and many others point out, anything can be art, another fact that's been true since either Duchamp (whom Danto never brings up --? Why?) or Warhol, depending on who you're talking to.

I'll take that further and inject some leftovers from my Buddhist studies: anyone can be anything. The ego -- that set of mental faculties whereby you know who you are and what you are and you especially know who you are not and what you are not -- is a complete fabrication. It literally doesn't exist.

The limitations we set on ourselves as a result of who we think we are can make perfect sense. After all, I'm definitely an artist and not a bouncer. But these limitations can be downright restrictive of our life experiences. People once endured entire lives as electricians or accountants. Artists have made entire careers as painters or sculptors.

Really, we're all just people doing stuff.
I realize that isn't grammatically correct, but -- you get the point, right?

Relevant art, I believe, should reflect this, particularly when you consider that so many artists work a variety of day jobs throughout their lives.

I know of a few artists who have changed styles over time, and a few who seem to have no specific style and who create different kinds of works in different mediums. I think that both of these approaches are relevant to an era in which no style has authority and no object is not potentially an art object.

The way art is approached and used now should also be different and should relate to this contemporary era. Here's a quote from Danto's review of the Whitney Biennial Day for Night that I found at Brian Sholis's blog from last April:

A certain price may be paid for this pluralism, in art as in life. In art the price is that often one does not know what one is looking at, or what a work means, or why it is there. The curators have acknowledged this by providing generous amounts of wall text, helping us understand what we are seeing.
Now, how can someone not know what they're looking at, or not know what it means? A work unfolds on its own, or it doesn't; it succeeds or it fails.

If there's anything outside of a painting that's required to use the painting, it should be a part of the painting. Don't send me a birthday present that requires batteries, and then not send me the batteries as well. They should already be inside the battery compartment of the remote control to the big-screen TV when I unwrap it. (hint-hint-hint)

I approach every artwork using my reactions to my experience of that artwork. Sometimes a piece relates to an art historical work, and sometimes it fits into a multi-piece concept an artist is developing. This information can contribute greatly to my experience, and I can't advocate an ignorance of art history or of an artist's body of work. But I do strongly advocate artwork that does not require an advanced understanding of art history, or of philosophy, or of nuclear physics or motorcycle maintenance.

As we used to say in advertising, it isn't the steak you're selling, it's the sizzle. Art isn't meat, but it isn't quantum electrodynamics either. If the experience of an artwork isn't rich enough to justify my presence in front of it, it fails for me, regardless of the depth of meaning as indicated by page 233 of Janson's History of Art, regardless of the big Idiot Card the curator hung next to it, regardless of how important a collection its owner has amassed.

One result of this is that often I find meanings in artworks that have nothing to do with the artist's intentions. Some of my interpretations are downright quirky. But I'm free to use artworks in any way I choose outside of copyright issues; this I consider a particularly apt post-historical approach to art.

Hopefully my quirky observations will inspire people to approach the art from their own points of view, to make their own observations.
This probably will result in the multiplication of quirky observations, but for me this is vastly preferable to the alienation many people still feel when confronted by contemporary art. This alienation, even if it's natural, isn't really called for.

If there's one thing I've found in meeting contemporary artists and dealers, it's that for the most part they're very friendly, interesting and fairly ordinary. Everyone has a job, and some have two or more. Many of them have held a variety of careers during their rather short lives. Most have been poor for at least a couple of years. Some have been rich. A few still are.

Regardless, they're just like the rest of us.
They're all just
people doing stuff.

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Kirk Varnedoe:
A Shared Culture of Private Visions

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Dennis Hollingsworth posted a nice piece of this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, and I learned about it from him. If you're not a regular to Dennis's blog you should consider it.

My favorite part so far:

Abstract art is a symbolic game, and it is akin to all human games: You have to get into it, risk and all, and this takes a certain act of faith. But what kind of faith? Not faith in absolutes, not a religious kind of faith. A faith in possibility, a faith not that we will know something finally, but a faith in not knowing, a faith in our ignorance, a faith in our being confounded and dumbfounded, a faith fertile with possible meaning and growth.
It's encouraging when someone pierces through the confusion and brings a bit of clarity to our understanding of what art really is and the roles it plays in human lives.

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For years I couldn't bring myself to watch Napoleon Dynamite because, like Spongebob Squarepants, the name comes right out of a skater-boy college freshman's sketchbook, on the same page as a big marijuana leaf and a jagged Def Leppard logo etched in Bic-pen blue. It's a name that's so superficially cute that it's hard to believe there's anything worthwhile behind it. But this guy kept telling me how funny the movie was, so finally I broke down.

This time I'm glad I did. It's an amusing and coherent flick, influenced (in my opinion) by Fantagraphics comics and nostalgia for the 70's. It sports a respectable plot, character arc, and quite a few hilarious moments, not to mention some decent acting.

One of the things that comes off as absolutely true to life is the way in which the high school characters appear to be sleepwalking. Dialog is carried off in flattened tones, not far beyond mumble. Eyelids fly at half-mast. Decisive moments are stumbled upon inadvertently, never seized or pursued.

When I recall myself at that age, my kids when they were in high school, and especially when I look at many of the kids I work with now, it's uncanny: many of us really do sleepwalk through these parts of our lives.

For some it's probably the fact that home life is so terrible that they've lapsed into an unfeeling zombie state. Maybe they've suppressed their senses further with pot or booze.

For others, I think the sleepwalking comes because they're extremely well cared-for. Life's necessities are brought to them, like the dessert cart at Junior's in Brooklyn. Food, clothing and shelter are just a part of the package. This is pretty much the way I was raised. Want a luxury, like a boombox or pricey sneaks? Get your paycheck from your part-time job and buy them. It's not like you're going to need the cash to pay your own bills or anything.

I don't think I made my first serious decision until after I turned nineteen. And that was a terrible decision. I was definitely sleepwalking at the time.

It's almost as though there are times when you're just a placeholder for a committed, proactive person who hasn't arrived yet. You're keeping space on Earth reserved for him.

It looks like some of us are managing to carry those sleepwalking days well into adulthood, if a book review over at The Wilson Quarterly is any indication. The tome in question is titled ARTIFICIAL HAPPINESS: The Dark Side of the New Happy Class. Its author, Ronald W. Dworkin, is an anesthesiologist who laments the many ways Americans are using prescription drugs, alternative medicine and over-the-top exercise to bliss themselves out of facing the realities of their lives.

The review recounts the author's tale of a man who is clearly in a terrible married relationship, but sticks with it in spite of everything because he manages to stay artificially happy, and that's all that counts. He never faces the reality of his situation, so in a way his life's gearshift is lodged firmly in PARK.

You might also say that he's sleepwalking.

Maybe this kind of sleepwalking drifts into other areas of life. How many CEOs caught cooking the books from the late-90s until today were sleepwalking? Think of the politicians who have bragged about faking their way through college, and the short spurt of news about local politicians who were discovered to have faked their degrees entirely. Sleepwalkers? You make the call.

Another kind of sleepwalking comes from media exhaustion. Messages are hurtled at us constantly from all sides at blinding speed.

Some can't get enough of it from natural exposure, so they keep tiny music boxes in their pockets and blare Their Music continually into their heads. I've got to have My Music. Where's My Music? This is My Music. I chose it, I downloaded it, and now I can hear it whenever I want, no matter what's happening, and since I can listen to it any time, I will. It's My Music.

I realize that many intelligent people choose interesting varieties of music to play in the analyst's waiting room or on the subway or at the gym. But much of the younger I-Pod generation consists of vapid people pumping pointless messages continuously into their minds, for as many hours in the day as they possible can. It's healthy for Apple and the music licensing people, maybe even for my 401k. But I think there's going to be a price to pay for it where the kids are concerned.

Anyway, many who would like to clear their own minds of the dregs of this continual media onslaught don't have a means for doing so, and consequently the dreck keeps piling up between their ears until the subconscious mind is swamped. The shorter bouts of somnambulism that result might simply be the brain's survival mechanism kicking in, shielding it from further intrusive memes. We become insensate during these times; the decisions we make aren't generally the best.

The 2004 presidential election: was the electorate sleepwalking? You make the call.

As artists we're putting out objects into this maelstrom. How do they not become part of the raucous mob of competitive messages? Can art play a role in pushing back the boundaries, clearing off some conceptual territory? Obviously it can to some degree for the artist, since we can just shut out the noise and focus for hours at a time. Can our work do the same thing for art consumers?

Can art awaken sleepwalkers?

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