November 10, 2006

They Live

Daniel Mendel-Black Painting.jpg

Daniel Mendel-Black: The Paintings Are Alive opens Friday night, December 1st, at the the Mandarin gallery, 970 N. Broadway, Suite #213 in Chinatown. The show is up through January 6th. For directions and gallery hours here's a link to the Mandarin. What follows is the statement for the show:

The Paintings Are Alive

1. The paintings are not dead. They do not celebrate ruin, they are what is still standing after the necrophiliac bloodbath, they are just as alive as everything else culture tries to destroy.

2. In horror movies like Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive (1974) or John Carpenter’s answer to Ronald Reagan’s death culture, They Live (1988), it is much more thrilling when things are alive that shouldn’t be.

3. These paintings are meant to convey unstable, collapsing spaces whose highly charged and perilous depths beg for empathy, even if they are images one might want to think twice before entering.

4. My intention is that the paintings are totally unapologetic, and, yet, their outcome is undeniably fragile. Chance is a major factor. Each painting is really only an accumulation of possible events. It’s hard, for that reason, to take full credit for their final outcome. My only honest claim is to invent the set of circumstances that ultimately allows the painting to happen.

5. The paintings are vertical like figures. There is something very human about being able to put your arms around something very intense.

6. These paintings are reconceived in terms of the larger cultural spectacle without allegory, or any idea that looks backwards for its own relevance. I want them to be the symbolic language object come-to-life, the way it is impossible to ignore something that stirs in the ashes, not dead, but rising from the death of everything that has been poisoned and made extinct around it.

7. The idea of painting as an ahistorical symbol, standing outside of time and thus able to comment on painting as a whole, can only exist if history is not dead. You can’t have it both ways.

8. Today's Neo-classical worshipers of objectivity can keep their eternal, loveless vigil over the history of abstraction for themselves. Beauty is not something deep-frozen and passive in a sacred vitrine, like the antagonist’s collection of virgin corpses in a horror movie. I want these paintings to demand one’s attention like an intelligent consciousness alien to one’s own.

9. Ugly painting is not more democratic and humanist than any other kind of painting. Any argument that makes its claim of being radical solely by way of taste can only do so by means of outdated social theories that willfully ignore the singularly enfranchised sensibility that mainly supports such art. These paintings are meant to be flawed perfectly like anything else one would want to grow to love.

10. I want my paintings to be dramatic. These paintings are made with the belief that deep down inside we must know that nothing but death stands still. The transcendental object love of the exterminating angel is over-rated. For me, it seems that any idea of drama in abstract painting would want to embrace the potential vertigo such painting offers.

11. I am drawn to extreme contrasts, often contradictory, like, for example, the polarity between innocence and brutality, discord and balance, insides hung out, the guttural and rational, or the sympathetic dissonance of super high- and low-registers in bands like the Melvins or Thrones.

12. These paintings are meant to challenge the basic psychoanalytical faults underlying our most trusted mythologies — as an affirmation of the idea that concepts always already contain their own opposite counter-meaning. In order to lend significance to their own point of view, the ideologue must love their enemy as much, if not more, than they love themselves, which is a self-hating principal. These paintings have no ideology.

13. I am interested in representing the collapsing and derelict sense of form that is particularly characteristic of the dilapidation of fixed structures and its correlation in the larger cultural debate — underscored by our ongoing national political crisis of conscience — around the fundamental dysfunction and fragility of the belief systems we most freely subscribe to.

For those of you who have never read Salle’s “The Paintings Are Dead” I am including all thirteen points bellow. I don't think I have as much cheek as that bastard, but read it for yourself.


1. The paintings are dead in the sense that to intuit the meaning of something incompletely, but with an idea of what it might mean or involve to know completely, is a kind of premonition of death. The paintings, in their opacity, signal an ultimate clarification. The paintings do this by appearing to participate in meaninglessness.

2. The movement towards meaning contained in the uses of the subject matter is a sign of the approach of death. It is the viewer’s will to make sense which brings the painting down (as the hunter brings down the bird). This is similar to the mechanism of man’s inquiry into his own nature which brings about his undoing in Greek tragedy.

3. I’m interested in work which makes you think that you’re going to have to keep paying out for the rest of your life.

4. The works are connected with the erotic life in more than just subject matter. They align themselves with the state of being in love; there is nothing more involved with prefiguring its own end than love and sex. Each new affair, each new fixation already contains the fantasy of the next — of the bittersweet sensation of bringing this affair to an end and, more importantly, of surviving it, and being able to recreate it mentally; to exist in the perfect tense by seeing the object of fixation recede in the distance; becoming fragmented and untrue.

5. The way this art works is to make you want to disappear so that you can mourn its loss and love it more completely.

6. The operative method of the work is like the spurned lover, clinging to someone or something when no longer wanted. These paintings are to life as the overzealous lover to the loved.

7. The paintings measure our feeling that images control our lives. The images in the paintings take over our own because of their similarity — much the way commies took over government jobs by infiltrating through the subtle ways they understood what was required to fulfill those jobs — because of their sensitivity to “modes of presentation”.

8. To redeem the present tense time of looking at them, the pictures have to disappear from that time — recede into the distance. The work has to go away (reject the present) in order to redeem the present from a meaningless “looking at something.” This is connected to loving someone who is nothing. A beautiful paradox — to love someone or something you know to be nothing, or of doubtful existence. There is a way that knowledge fuels the love and allows it to be a record of futility.

9. Connection making is seen as replication or renewal for the soul. We pursue metaphor to understand the first thing compared. What we love most is for something to be “put into words”.

10. I am interested in infiltration, usurpation, beating people at their own game (meaning scheme). I am interested in making people suffer, not through some external plague, but simply because of who they are (how they know).

11. I am interested in the elevation of the arbitrary and contrived to the level of ineluctable; not ineluctable in the sense of some higher purpose, but just arbitrary and inevitable at the same time.

12. I am interested in the pictures’ ability to make felt a “you” addressed by the picture… an idealized nonexistent “you” which nonetheless takes on a certain credibility. The pictures’ strength is in making the real “you” congruent with the “you” addressed by the picture by a process of complicity — which becomes surprising in this case because, paradoxically, it is what we expect a picture to do anyway.

13. The pictures present improvised views of life — normalized, but, in fact, as it is never seen. The pictures imitate life to find a way out of it.

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Complicated Simplicity

Ed Johnson.jpeg

A critic reviewing Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio — since ranked among the unique landmarks of the vernacular style that best exemplifies American literature — praised it as having “that strange air of seeming inconsequence that only life has, that conscious art strives so hard to avoid.” The review appeared way back in 1919 when the book was first published. It’s safe to say the world has changed since. And yet, it is still common enough to hear the same criticism: that “conscious art” fails to deal with the “seeming inconsequence that only life has”. The terms may have changed. There is no longer the same sense of progress that permeated Anderson’s newly industrialized American landscape with a nascent optimism and self-importance that would last well into the Cold War. Anderson’s story is about a world divided between the longings of those who could take advantage of the immanent technological changes underway and the lost dreams and disappointments of those who would be left behind. It is a history of a fictional any-place in the best tradition of American storytelling, like Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973) — a revisionist Western in which Bob Dylan can do a cameo as a Symbolist cowboy, or Monte Hellman’s Cockfighter (1974) — a picture of the hopes and aspirations of Southern male fantasy. Everyday reality intervenes in the halcyon nostalgia of small town respectability and the American myth is revealed as a sham. Winesburg, Ohio initially met with the same kind of criticism; Anderson’s rejection of the inhumanity of a psychology of moral truths as a false representation of the human condition was at first bitterly resisted by readers. Such criticism has long since gone the way of an optimism for total solutions, and has found its place on the scrapheap of the great all-encompassing, unifying global think of times gone by. But whereas other artists are content to take a casual approach to these profound themes left for dead on that junk pile, advocating a faux-naïve slacker attitude of simple complexity, Ed Johnson takes an opposite approach: like Anderson, Johnson, whether in his paintings or his writing, chooses instead to do all he can to complicate simplicity, bringing all that he can bear to subjects so common they might otherwise go unnoticed. H. L. Mencken said of Anderson’s style that it was a will to “pure representation”. Johnson’s work expresses a similar compulsion. Only, the artist is a child of media spectacle where the bucolic authenticity of revisionist small town America is lost in the manic shuffle of glittering imagery. Johnson is forced to seek out his inspiration in mediated fragments, in glimpses of a world already over-represented, in the overlooked odds and ends of popular culture — folk culture relegated to kitsch, movies like Hard Country (1981), broadcast alongside reruns and infomercials on late night TV. In Johnson’s work, those things in life that pass us by almost unnoticed and “without consequence” are omnipresent. For the last decade, or so, Johnson has been painstakingly painting from stills he took from a couple of these movies that bear traces of a revisionist American lore, spending up to a year at a time, sparing no effort, to represent the selected picture as faithfully and completely as possible, right down to the inevitable breakup and distortion that comes with photographing the glowing picture-tube, then working them, until they look almost effortless, into the most insistently complicated simplicity. These paintings are a rare exception to the charge that “conscious art” is incapable of representing that “strange air of seeming inconsequence that only life has”. Johnson has, in his own idiosyncratic way, managed to update Anderson’s American tradition for the present.

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