Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Pigment and Pestles

Eye Of The Beholder
A person of the sciences (or lab rat, rabbit or monkey for that matter), cannot be defined only by the empirical world but must, at times, submerse themselves in the enjoyable realm of visual culture to rest the gaze, ease the mind's workings and have more varied topics of conversation at the doughnut shop, in the lab maze while nibbling cheese or enjoying a well-deserved carrot or banana in their well-clawed cages. I have long understood this and over time, have become a connoisseur of all things regarding the atelier, the works produced within, and their eventual display on the walls or floor of the art gallery. Be it sculpture, painting, printmaking, photography, Spirograph or Lite-Brite, I have trained my eye and mind to discern the smallest of details and the grandest of ideas applied to the canvas or carved from rock, bringing image, symbolism, texture and even odour at times, together to play upon the great themes of art. Yes, I did say odour and it is my belief that like a fine wine, artistic works must be sniffed to properly interpret and savor their meaning. This has caused me considerable trouble at local galleries and oft times led to me being escorted from the premises by security guards, but not before I could tell them a thing or two about the works adorning their walls and let me just say, many of them were amazed by my astute observations and deep revelations. I learned it all from my old friend and confidante, Professor Augustus Plimphorst, a man who taught me so much, at least before his arrest.
Famed art sniffing scientist, Augustus Plimphorst, author of the book, The Mona Lisa Whiff and Other Tales of Sniffing The Great Masters' Works, working through one of his olfactory exercises before heading off to the Louvre for a masterpiece sniffing session.
So, it came as no surprise when my neighbour from down the street, Litvack Yaplonsky, maker of such fine wines as Chateau Poulet dans le Danse Macabre and Le Oeuf Puer, that he ages in Pepsi bottles lending them a slight carbonation that both tickles the palate and singes the nose hairs, brought me over some of his recent paint-by-number pieces for viewing. Actually he was trying to sell me one of these things as his funds were running low after a visit to his favourite massage parlour to treat his irritable bowel syndrome. From just a perfunctory perusal, I must say Litvack is doing things with paint-by-numbers that few artists have dared attempt before. By straying outside the lines, breaking the colour coding and flattening the picture plane, much like Cezanne on a good day when he hadn't been drinking and cursing the rotting fruit in his pantry, Litvack is expanding the limitations of this strict medium and I'm sure will turn the art world on its head. Or beret. Or bald spot. Or toupee. Anyway, he started with the nudes because as Litvack said to me, "Hey, who doesn't like a picture of a naked broad hanging on their wall unless you're one a them funny guys. Are you?" he asked, pointedly I might add, uncapping a Pepsi bottle of wine that he'd thoughfully brought along. Ah, art and wine, wine and art, definitely an afternoon delight. I imagine he began with the nudes because of their selling point. The painting below he titled, Lulu's Mosquito Bite, and right off the bat I admired the almost cubist background contrasted with the more demure Renoir figure and may I say I haven't seen such beautifully executed drapery in a washcloth since Salvador Dali's Washcloth With Ocelots and Walnuts Cracked Between A Weeping Liturgist's Buttocks
It is the leafless, stunted tree, just to the left of the figure, that turns this piece from mere painting to masterpiece. Its grotesque form, in contradiction to the beautiful wood nymph beside it, reminds the viewer that all that is good in nature is balanced with its opposing force. Good and evil, beauty and beastliness, tomatoes and ketchup.
The next piece Litvack showed me, also part of his nudes series, was entitled Brigitte Bare-Assed In My Dreams. Again, Litvack plays with the tree theme, except this time it has all its leaves but still appears menacing, the leaves almost spiky and hovering behind the figure in a way that insinuates they might brush against her and scratch her supple flesh or worse, wrap her in their thorniness. In this case, the elegant drapery serves as only flimsy protection against the forces of nature and the two bull rushes to the right become phallic symbols, as if Mother Nature has undergone a sex change and now threatens the startled Brigitte like a mountain goat during rutting season. The only hope for Brigitte is the small lily pad near her knee that promises safe journey from any lurking evil and the divisive background colours, light versus dark, to say that balance shall always be struck and perhaps if the leaves aren't nice to her the bull rushes will be gentle enough. Never has so much been said in so few brushstrokes as in this painting. We celebrated the showing of this piece with a couple of sips of his newest wine, Un Chien Diablo avec Saucisson.
Unveiling his next painting, I could immediately see how Litvack's nudes had turned to a brighter motif. This one he called, Edna's Big Stretch, and the light-hearted approach to the subject matter and the sheer joy on Edna's face as she dips her foot in the water, emphasized by the almost pop-art handling of the exaggerated hues, shades and simplified shapes of the background shrubbery brings to mind James Rosenquist in his early days or his brother-in-law, Herbie Lundqvist, the Herring King of Brooklyn, New York and an artist in his own right who did marvelous things with dried noodles and spray paint. It is interesting to see the echoing of the two red flowers in the foreground with the red flower in Edna's hair, as if Edna has been fully integrated into the natural world and even her breasts in all their fullness appear to be blooming with little buds of nipples that most caterpillars would give an arm and a leg for (or a leg and a leg really), but the greyish area upon which she sits no doubt hides the horrible moss people and so again the drama of good and evil is played out against a pastoral backdrop. Anyway,  if I wasn't already a painting sniffer, I would've sniffed this one when no one was looking. Between the flowers and breasts and cool water I just wanted to smell and smell and smell this painting forever.   
A few more drinks and then Litvack pulled this fantastic piece out of his magician's hat (garbage bag actually), and if I didn't lose my breath I could certainly feel it catch, or maybe that was just a bit of phlegm strung across my airway. Nevertheless, this nude, titled Dolores Catching A Breeze Somewhere North Of Sudbury, seemed to be the culmination of Litvack's efforts, fusing the sense of foreboding with the pastoral serenity, rambunctious breasts and attentive nipples standing in defiant contrast to the almost American Gothic background as if to impress upon the viewer the sense of a new age coming, full of youth and vivacity and fake eyelashes if need be to reach those dreams, pitchforks and overalls left behind for parents to weep over as their sons and daughters head off to the big city to sell croquet sets and attend bassoon camp. What nails this painting to the wall, so to speak, is the addition of the artist's easel, its stark lines juxtaposed against the curvaceous figure posing yet ignoring its presence. Shades of Velasquez perhaps, the painter peeping in on the subject and imposing a hint of themselves within the painting, in effect a painter painting themselves painting their subject in a painting hanging in a place full of paintings viewed by people who wish they were painting, muddling realities and foreshadowing a postmodern movement centuries before its birth. On a postmodern note, many believe postmodernism is a term used to describe art after the modern age, but really the term comes from tying modernism to a post, tethered as you would a dog to a leash tied to a pole in the backyard with enough slack to allow him to run around but not enough to eat the laundry off the clothesline, so that the dog can only run in circles, happy but agitated at the same time but eventually he pees in the same spots so many times that the grass begins to die, and then, well, the neighbours stop coming over for barbeques and your kids develop strange rashes. The term was coined by a painter so far ahead of his time no one has heard of him yet and even I can't remember his name. I mention this only because with his Poodle Period, Litvack begins to encroach on this territory.
This piece, called Fou-Fou and Boris, comments on the male gaze in art by portraying both poodle genders with red bows in their well-coiffed pompadours. The bare-bones black and white of the dogs set against an unfinished background, as if to call attention to the act of painting itself, is both postmodern in its practice and in its theoretical base. The large eyes of the dogs almost plead to you to help unlock them from the prison of the canvas but it is really Litvack trying to unchain himself from the age old disciplines of his art. He carries this idea even further with this next painting, Maurice Chevalier and The Pom-Poms of Servitude.
Once again, the stark black and white delineates the figure but  this time the background is entirely erased and the only colouring are the few splashes of turquoise in the poodle's bow and what appears to be a neck brace. Car accident, perhaps? This further emphasizes the painting as a painting and not as some seductive trick of light and perspective, serving to disseminate the postmodern critique and inseminate the poodle equally. Disseminating and inseminating, the two cornerstones of the postmodern practice.
Not one to call it a day (or night because the two blend together so seamlessly after six or seven glasses of Litvack's wine), Litvack then pulled this out of his garbage bag. Simply titled, Arnolfblong Rassmussmunson, this is obviously Litvack's attempt at pure, postmodern portraiture, the poodle standing heroic before the abstract background, both playing off of and settling the tension between two schools of painting and then making it his own by portraying the dog's tongue and mouth as a garish and dangerous orifice of art biting power. I wanted to smell this one but was afraid to get to close, that's how convincing was Litvack's execution of pigment turned to theory and doctrine. Or should I say, dog-trine. By this point, both Litvack and I were both a little wobbly and slurring, but I still had time for one more masterpiece before sliding to the floor. Actually it was a poodle diptych and together the two paintings floored me or at least I was lying on the floor by this point.

 "And what do you call these two magnificent pieces?" I asked Litvack, my voice a little muffled from my head resting under a chair.
"Ah, who th'fuck cares? How'bout Lance and Gertie Get It On In Dr. Rangoosh's Dental Office. How 'bout that, you ugly piece'a shit? Where are you? Where'd you go? Christ, I think this wine made me blind again. Fuck, what happened to your head? You got no head."
"It's okay, Litvack," I soothed him. "The rest of me is under this chair."
"Well shit, don't do that to me again. I'll kill you if you do. I'll cut your goddamn head off and feed it to my poodles."
Speaking of poodles, in these last two paintings, or what I could see of them from under the chair, Litvack incorporated broad, masculine brushstrokes as if to extinguish the more gentle, feminine forms even though he chose a red chair and drapery to showcase the dogs and evoke a cut-rate brothel on the outskirts of Baffin Bay. The chiaroscuro (an art term and also a Brazilian meat) is in full effect, as if to negate the influence of the postmodern thingamajig, high contrast giving way to more subtle blending saying to the viewer, "Look at me. I am poodle. In shadow and in light, I shall always be. Poodle, poodle, that's me."
We finished off a third Pepsi bottle of Litvack's wine that he had hidden in his garbage bag and we chatted some more about art and life as we lay on the floor, but then Litvack became enraged when I wouldn't buy one of his paintings. We both stood up, with some difficulty, Litvack drooling, and then he came at me and broke one of the paintings over my head. I went down quickly, sitting up against the chair as Litvack broke another and then another painting over my head. Ah, the artistic temperament. That's about when I blacked out and when I came to I was on the front lawn in my boxer shorts, a police car nearby and Litvack was handcuffed and vomiting prodigiously into a can of house paint. And suddenly it all came clear to me. Litvack was taking his discipline one step further, into the realm of performance art, destroying his work and thus his own self, erasing his history until nothing remained but the tattered remains of nudes and poodles and vomit in a paint can.
"Be careful with him," I called to the officer as he steered Litvack into the back of the police car. "He's a great artist."
"Judging by what he left in that paint can, Picasso he ain't. Jackson Pollack maybe," the cop said and then he took Litvack away.
Everybody's a critic these days.

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