Nekkid Statues and Fallen Girders

The other night I got into an interesting conversation with another family member who might be taken as a pretty good example of the average Chattanoogan: born-again Christian, a Union man, not a big reader or college grad but with a good mind, father and grandad who raised two kids, and then got married again and adopted a little girl. He asked me how the art biz is going, or some such usual polite question, and somehow we got on the subject of my having served on a committee for public art in Chattanooga a year or two ago, and how surprisingly hard it had been.

I got picked for the committee because I had been president of Olde Towne Brainerd Neighborhood Association, plus I purport to be an artist. Being a sort of local Neighborhood Organizer turned out to be rather a downer in the end, because it became inevitably inmeshed in local politics, and that turns out to be nasty business, but this was fun. It involved attending several meetings with numerous other committee members and a nice lady who worked for Allied Arts of Chattanooga which organization I think partly funded the proposed sculptures. And I think part of the money, which was at least as much I have ever made in any one year as an artist on my own, also came from the state and the city. We were shown portfolios of about a dozen sculptors and sculpture groups from across the country. Hardly any of them followed all the rules for submission; we got rid of several of them because they didn’t submit any work that was even remotely suitable.

The sculptures were supposed to convey something about diversity, living together, and something else which I have forgotten, but you get the idea. Oh, yes, it was Community and Diversity. All very politically correct and uplifting in a corporate sort of way, but there’s nothing wrong with that. I really tried to get into the spirit and all. Some work submitted was very beautiful, and I would have liked to get it for my own sculpture garden if I had one: for instance, a series of white marble twisted tentacles which brought to mind a bunch of albino Cthulus being tortured. I thought they were actually really neat in a Goth sort of way, but didn’t think they would look so good in front of the Brainerd tunnels. Neither would the 50-foot-high steel outline of a nude woman whose enormous perky breasts instantly brought to mind Brainerd’s beloved Diamonds and Lace strip club. And we silently passed on the stone phallic structure whose creator had thoughtfully supplied Photoshopped images of how his work would appear in front of the enormous tunnels; the 5-foot statue looked, well, a bit inadequate even on top of its pedestal.

Later I learned that one of the more pleasing sculptures was by a Chattanooga artist I’ve met, but we didn’t know the artists’ names at the time. Part of our difficulty in choosing was finding two sculptures which looked good together, although looking back I wonder why we thought that mattered. The whole experience reminds me a bit of my one experience serving on a trial jury: the fear of doing the wrong thing, making the wrong decision.

I admit I came to the committee meetings with an agenda: to veto any sculptures which resembled a pile of steel girders. These hideous civic sculptures are everywhere, in every city, apparently chosen by art committees like the one I served with, but why?  I have a theory:  because they are abstract, they can’t really offend anyone. They are Big, and that is Good. They are perfectly meaningless, at least they are perceived to be, although to my eye, they represent a sort of unconscious symbolic representation of the destruction of Western culture. I know, I’m being a touch paranoid.  But look at them!  I know you’ve seen them! They’re everywhere, and to me they resemble nothing so much as the remains of a skyscraper, twisted and thrown to the ground by some enormous Destructor. I succeeded in stopping the inevitable desire of some committee members to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a pile of bent steel girders. What we got may not have been a whole lot better, being flat,abstract, and made of painted steel, but they at least addressed the themes, and were colorful and uplifting and maybe fun: Rolling Dancing Moons, by Reven Marie Swanson, and Winds of Change, by Cecilia Lueza. Plus the artists were women. Woo hoo!

After listening to my whiney complaints about the state of public art in Chattanooga, the relative asked me what kind of sculptures I did like. I immediately mentioned Daud Akhriev’s bronze statues The Four Seasons at the Market Street Bridge in downtown Chattanooga. Here one of the statues, which is admittedly, nude, but IMHO about as tasteful as a nude statue can get:

When I said that the atmosphere in the room immediately went down to a few degrees above freezing.  The family member was very disapproving of the statues, not quite shocked, but definitely he felt that nudity in art, no matter how high-flown, is a no-no in public places.  “But they’re very tasteful, very beautiful, very well done,” I disagreed mildly. “How do you explain it to children?” he asked.  He had been very embarrassed recently when he and his wife took their very young daughter to the Hunter and there was a nude male statue with a penis for crying out loud, right in front of the museum for all to see.

I’ve been in front of the Hunter several times in the last year and I can’t even remember a nude statue of a man or a penis, but then maybe I’m just completely calloused. There have been a number of letters to the editor in the local paper which disapproved of Akhriev’s nude statues, one of them written by a little girl who found herself offended by their sleaziness.  Of course, the standard answer among Chattanooga’s intelligentsia (yes, they’re here, I know them! It’s possible someof them have even been to my house!) is that Chattanooga is too conservative and full of fundamentalists and that’s why the town has its head thrust up its bum. But I’m not sure if there is a connection between prudery and the prude’s politics or even religion. Now, the family member in question is very conservative socially, but I don’t have a clue how he votes, and I wouldn’t dream of asking him, but if I had to guess, I would say maybe he’s a Democrat, since he’s a union guy. But I could be wrong. Certainly naked statues would have shocked a lot of folks I grew up with in Pikeville, but my parents had lots of art books with nudity from the time I was very small, and no one thought anything of it, and I can’t remember noticing it very much.

My parents were conservative politically at that time, although they became much more liberal later, but they stayed pretty puritanical about sex; yet nudity in art didn’t bother them. And we went to the Church of Christ every Sunday. I’ve become somewhat more conservative politically in the last 10 years, but naked statues don’t bother me and never have. My husband is more conservative politically than I am, and he isn’t bothered by nude statues either. I remember fondly being in Europe right after I graduated from college and there were nude statues everywhere, including bronze statues of naked little Putti urinating water into public fountains, right there in downtown Rome, which I admit did shock me a little and made me giggle, but I was only seventeen.

Naked lady statues hardly seemed worth raising an eyebrow over, though. Even at the Hunter in the 60’s there were marble statues of pretty Sylphs with a stray boob slipping out of their nighties, which everyone seemed to be wearing in Classical art. And in Rome, Michelangelo’s naked women looked like men with bad implants, and I’ve read since that his models were men, so they could sit right there and not bother anyone. Is it just a level of sophistication, cultural urbanization? I find myself thinking that Chattanooga is headed for a rude cultural awakening, maybe having to do with its love for representational, traditional art. You just can’t have realistic art without eventually having nekkid statues to contend with. Otherwise, you just have Thomas Kinkaide.

Chattanooga has had quite a few Thomas Kinkaide galleries, and I bet he’s still very popular in spite of his recent downfall. The galleries used to hire local artists, most of them women, to dab paint on Kinkaide prints to turn them into one-if-a-kind “originals,” and I went to the mall once to check out a job and found it was for that. I needed the money but I wouldn’t do it. I have some standards, even if I have painted winged kitties and my son as a zombie.

Babette’s Feast: An Artist Is Never Poor

Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 9.09.11 AMAfter I came back from the gallery show, I met Ken driving up at the same time as me, and since he’d already eaten dinner, I warmed up some of my 96/4 meatloaf and sat down in front of the tv to watch the rest of Babette’s Feast, a movie in Danish, taken from a famous story by Isak Dinesen, one of my favorite writers.  BTW, it was fun listening to the movie and reading the subtitles because it’s amazing how much Danish you can understand — I’d say about 25%.  Sounds sort of like the Swedish chef.

I’d already watched part of the movie and hadn’t paid much attention to it, because I’d already read the story and I sort of remembered what it was about. Babette, who has lost her husband and son in civil unrest in 19th century France, comes to the home of two elderly spinster sisters who live in an isolated village dominated by a harsh, barren shoreline in Denmark (Jutland, actually, I read on Wiki).  The sisters have devoted their lives to their widowed father, a minister in a strict religious sect.  Both of them were beautiful and talented young women who could have married well and left their father; both fell in love and were loved in return but they remained with the old minister, helping with his dwindling flock.  Babette cooks for the sisters and for the old members of the church.  They appear to eat very little except some awful breadcrumb porridge.

After 14 years, Babette receives word that she has won 10,000 francs in the lottery in France and she makes plans to spend her winnings to prepare a wondrous feast.  When the ship docks and she goes to fetch her live turtle, cage of birds, wines, and truffles the sisters fear the worst:  Babette’s feast is surely from the devil.  But the feast is marvelous beyond words and somehow heals all the old enmities between the members of the dwindling sect.  The soldier, now a retired general, who loved one of the sisters, is also a guest, and the feast seems to erase all the years that have passed.

BabettesFeast1987Babette, it seems, was once the greatest chef in Paris and the general, along with the other sister’s lover, a famous singer, were among her patrons. After the dinner, the sisters learn to their horror that Babette has spent every penny of her lottery winnings on the food, but Babette says, “An artist is never poor.”  When I heard that I put down my fork and started listening carefully; it had been years since I had read the story and I had forgotten this completely.  Babette explains that the artist’s heart cries out to give the world the very best. They embrace and the sister, who could have left her father to become a famous opera singer with the man who loved her, says, “In paradise, Babette, you will be the artist God intended you to be.”

Somehow hearing that healed something in me, the part that feels like a failure because I never made a lot of money.  In some ways I’ve been very selfish in my life;  I was willing to be poor as long as I got to be an artist, or try.  Some people might not see that as selfish, but it was, because my children suffered.  But I always tried to give the world my very best.  That is true.  I hope I don’t have to wait for paradise to be the artist God intended me to be. Maybe it is not too late for me to create my Babette’s Feast.

Edgy Is As Edgy Paints: Michael Vasquez and Rose Freymuth-Frazier at the Cress Gallery

A few weeks ago I got a postcard in the mail about a new show at the Cress Gallery at UTC by up-and-coming painters Michael Vasquez and Rose Freymuth-Frazier. Vasquez’ half of the show, “It Comes With the Territory,” and Freymuth-Frazier’s “Whispering Sisters and the Female Figurative Image” use their figurative art to explore gender roles and identity in their own lives. The show and artist lectures are sponsored by Friends of the Gallery and are part of the UTC Diane and John Marek Visiting Artist Series, which has brought a number of exceptional artists to Chattanooga in the past few years. Curator Ruth Grover should be commended for her work in getting these first-rate shows to UTC.

WhisperingSistersA couple of years ago, New York figurative painter Steven Assael  had a show at the gallery, and his work blew me away. When I realized that Assael had been in town and I’d missed the reception and the chance to meet him, I was filled with angst: The postcard had only shown a rather fuzzy detail of one of Assael’s monumental works, and not being familiar with his name at the time I foolishly tossed it into a pile of junk mail. When I saw the much nicer reproduction of Freymuth-Frazier’s 60″x52″ oil on the postcard invitation for this show, and read that Freymuth-Frazier had studied under both Assael and Odd Nerdrum, my current painting deity, I made plans to attend this reception. Plus she’s a woman doing figurative work. I’m there!

It would be fair to say that Vasquez’ work didn’t initially draw me as Freymuth-Frazier’s did. The postcard shows his impressive 48″x36″ Guarded Entry, from 2008, an image of two tattooed African-American men, arms crossed, facing down the viewer with hostile and suspicious expressions. I hope I can be forgiven if Guarded Entry is not a painting I want in my living room. For many years, I lived in a neighborhood with a gang presence and twice witnessed family members held at gun point. The painting calls for a large foyer in a much more upscale neighborhood where it could bestow a fashionably avant-garde aura and yet be as far removed as possible from anyone like the men pictured.

2010-09-20-031It’s hard to tell if Vasquez is a gangbanger wannabe or the real thing; although an article on the internet described his time in the Young Bloods, at the lecture he appeared to be a fresh-faced young man, perfectly groomed, dressed in nicely pulled-up baggy pants and a spotless ballcap. In his slide show presentation, he started out showing unexceptional early student work: installations with representations of his missing dad, and explainations of his personal symbolism of fences and houses. Engaging and open, Vasquez spoke of his close relationship with his mom, who was in the audience. He moved on to more recent and much more fluent work on canvas and paper, with a lot of overlaying of spatters and streaks over the figurative work, but it didn’t really grab me from the screen. When he talked about looking up to the gang members in his neighborhood because he didn’t have a father at home, that rang true, but the audience shifted nervously when he said the models were his friends, then dodged questions about how, or if, he got out of the gang.

Then Freymuth-Frazier took the stage. Like Vasquez, she started out showing early work that appeared unexceptional, although charming, and talked about her general themes of women’s roles and beauty, with a lot of her models being women who seem to have been roughed up by life in one way or the other but have fought back.

Bruised

The artist, a striking young woman, seemed more guarded about her personal information than Vasquez, so I couldn’t tell if her painting of a woman with a black eye [Bruised, 2009]  was merely formulaic  “woman as victim,” real empathy, or a reflection of personal wounds I couldn’t see. Caregiver, also from 2009, a woman in profile wearing a hospital mask,  struck more of a note with me since it reflects my life right now, but maybe also because it  was more subtle.

When she described Nerdrum’s idyllic farm in Norway with its miniature horses and goats, a painter’s utopia that sounds like Mary Engelbreit channelled through Rembrandt, I hope no one caught me drooling. I asked her later during the questions about Nerdrum’s palette, but she wasn’t very forthcoming, telling me pretty much what I knew from my internet wanderings: he uses juane brilliante for flesh, and mixes a warm gray out of burnt sienna and another color she couldn’t remember. Rats, foiled again in my fruitless quest for someone who will actually tell me something!

At the reception, the artists were busy talking to everyone, and I realized that it would be necessary to stand in line to speak a word to either of them. I decided to relax, drink some lemonade, and let the crowd thin out. In the meantime, Vasquez’ mother was standing alone and I talked to her. She told me that her son had originally wanted to be a comic book artist, which didn’t surprise me at all. Comic books provide the only place most kids can see the human figure drawn well now, if only in miniature and reproduced on newsprint. She said his friends were nice boys, always courteous and not in trouble.

2010-09-20-028When I talked to Vasquez, I asked him if he was influenced by urban figurative painter Kehinde Wiley  and he bristled a bit. Wiley’s works are, like Vasquez’, larger than life-size portraits of urban subjects, but less painterly in execution, with classic influences from Italian Renaissance sources. After I spoke with Vasquez for a minute, I went into the gallery to check out the paintings again (I’d quickly cruised the gallery earlier when I’d arrived). A huge wall sized depiction of two men with an automatic weapon (The High Flag, 2009), the canvas running with Bloods color, involuntarily engaged me — the painting triggered my PTSD and actually made my heart pound.

When I forced myself to approach closely, the almost photographic rendering from across the room suddenly dissolved into fluent masses of mark-making. Nice. It reminded me of when I visited the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. a few years ago and saw the John Singer Sargent show. Sargent’s huge society portraits melted before my eyes as I walked up to them, transforming into masses of dazzling virtuouso brushwork. So, OK, maybe I don’t know if the kid’s a poser or a thug, but he can paint. I hope he doesn’t get too entranced with the mark-making — it’s a little less successful in the smaller works where it can begin to overpower the figurative aspects, but he’s already been a semifinalist in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Exhibition, so maybe he won’t get derailed at this point.

Then I talked to Freymuth-Frazier and mentioned how happy I was to see really good figurative work by a woman, and we had a nice discussion about the percentage of women artists to men. She thoughtfully disagreed when I asserted that only 1 in 10 figurative artists are women, if that; she said that most artists of any kind are men! She’s right when you are talking about big galleries in big cities, but I think there are more women in the lower echelons of the art world. The higher you go, the more artists are men, whether in the world of illustration or fine art. Smaller galleries are clogged with polite work by genteel ladies, little of it figurative. It’s just too easy to get shows without it. You have to want to “paint real” really bad. When Freymuth-Frazier said during her presentation that she didn’t give many talks because she was always painting, I knew she spoke the truth. Learning to paint figurative work even passably well takes a great deal of time, and a lot of “painting hunger.”

2010-09-20-027Later, I looked up Freymuth’s work on the internet. I had been a bit puzzled when Matt Greenwell, the head of the UTC Art department, had asked her about the sexual themes in her work: She had one hermaphroditic nude in her presentation [Reclining Hermaphrodite, 2009], not so shocking if you know she studied with Nerdrum, and her female nudes are voluptuous and have tattoos. So what? Or was I missing something about the fish in Woman Caught Fishing (2007)?
I can be awfully naïve sometimes. On her website, though, she had a much more blatant hermaphroditic image, or maybe it was a dildo [Shortest Distance Between Two Points, 2010], and then an amusing sort of “Still Life with Dildo” [Artificial Insemination, 2007]. Skimming her reviews from the big art journals and papers, I scanned the words “sensuous confections” and “feminine.” Acck!  Splutter! Then I recalled how during her talk she had shown a painting of a tightly swaddled newborn, influenced by Nerdrum’s somewhat disturbing images of infants lying swaddled on the ground. Freymuth-Frazier’s painting shows an infant alone on a flat surface, its face barely visible. Yet when it flashed on the screen, the entire audience swooned and emitted an “ahhhhh” in unison. She might as well have painted a basket of kittens. That, folks, is why a woman figurative painter with any dignity at all who wants to get noticed has to paint a still life featuring a dildo. Sigh. Suddenly I understood the sly wit in her other work, too: Until then I hadn’t  really picked up on the 76″x40″ Woman Fighting Bull (2007).
Like I said, sometimes I can be kind of dense. Monumental humor is hard to pull off, but she manages it with a po-po-po-poker face.

2010-09-20-026Freymuth-Frazier, as a matter of fact, possesses a dazzling talent — dare I use that maligned word?  Her images of woman battered by life and caregiving or woman as grotesque mechanized milk cow [Litter, 2009] can be a little pat, and betray her wariness about her roles as a woman and artist. And she is wise to be wary, because woman as artist is a tricky balancing act no matter what anyone says. Her wariness brings with it a certain lack of engagement at this point: Sometimes she seems to be groping for her real subject in a way Vasquez is not. But he is only showing us flashes of the real world on the other side of town; Formuth-Frazier gives us intruguing hints of the ability to create her own world, a world that the viewer can inhabit, as Nerdrum has. Creating a world that seduces the viewer requires a seductive paint surface, but so many critics are profoundly distrustful of beautiful painting, because it can be cheaply used. But not always. World-building, in the end, might be the only reason to spend years learning to paint well;  certainly, it’s the reason that appeals to me the most, for what that’s worth. An artist’s own inner world is a different thing than pop psychology; it springs from the unconscious and is valuable and interesting because it is timeless. Although Freymuth-Frazier has not fleshed her world out just yet, I am sure she will find her way.

I painted a kitten once and I was very, very sorry. People are still asking me to paint more kittens. Edgyness, meaning just shocking enough, just a tad transgressive against traditional values, decisively non-bourgeois, is the only place to be if you want to be taken seriously in the big city, and it’s harder for a woman. A talented young man who paints flashy “society portraits in the ‘hood” can position himself as edgy quite easily: He hints vaguely that he just might have been taking resource snaps with his cell phone while out carjacking tourists. Odd Nerdrum painted his self-portrait with an erection [Self-Portrait in Golden Cape, 1997]; after that he could live on his bucolic farm and paint any number of swaddled infants if he pleased. But what does a powerful woman figurative painter do to get out of that satin-lined, coffin-shaped trap labeled “sensuous confections?”