A version of this article first appeared in the
New York Sun, May 22, 2008 under the heading "Back to Basics"
What should be made of the conservatism of artists such as Walton Ford and Neo Rauch, who are subjects of shows of new work in Chelsea right now?
The art world that prizes these men’s work is a self-consciously cutting edge milieu that is far removed from political conservatism, and yet these artists’ success is thanks in no small measure to bravura displays of skill in traditional idioms, to a fond nostalgia for past worlds that produced such styles and the competence to execute them.
Pictures by Mr. Ford in particular would feel at home in a wood-paneled gentleman’s club, amidst brandy, cigars, leatherbound volumes, even if right now they are to be seen in well-lit white cube art gallery that betokens very different cultural values.
While there is an element of irony in both men’s work, this comes across in specific instances of wit rather than in relation to technique. Theirs is not a camp act of adopting a passé style in order to poke fun at style, per se, as might be the case with, say, John Currin, or with the conceptually-driven, deliberately anachronistic style revivals of the 1980s, which themselves looked back to early modernist provocateurs like de Chirico and Picabia, not to mention Picasso. Games with style were key to modernism and postmodernism alike, whereas an artist such as Mr. Ford seems beyond postmodernism in his willingness to inhabit a stylistic past.
He is an animalier who works in watercolor and other graphic mediums to render exotic or extinct creatures in meticulous detail and an old-fashioned hand that recall historic sources from between the 16th and 19th centuries. His creatures, who include in his show at Paul Kasmin Gallery a Persian tiger, bison, bears, a rhinoceros, and game birds, are placed in tableaux appropriate in different ways to each.
Sometimes it is a diorama-like backdrop, such as the snowy vista that is home to the bison in “Tur” (2007). Other times, the scene provides the narrative element, as in “Loss of the Lisbon Rhinoceros” (2008), which imagines the poor animal, tethered to a mast, about to go down with the ship transporting him to the Pope in Rome. This was the beast subsequently depicted from secondary sources by Dürer whose print would serve as prototype for representations of the animal for hundreds of years afterwards despite its zoological inaccuracies.
“Malmaison” (2008) has two game birds — a southern caissowny and a dwarf emu in battle — as a legend on the picture in the artist’s characteristic copper plate handwriting informs us. That the birds a jousting in the grounds of Malmaison reads as an allegory for the Napoleonic Wars.
The chief formal characteristic that prevents these images from registering as mere pastiche is scale. “Malmaison” for instance, is a page of five by ten feet, a size unprecedented for a drawing of the time in which this bird fight might have taken place. The six works in the show are roughly this size, which is typical for the artist. These are sumptuous works, but their principal appeal is to the craft with which they were put together, or else to a raw sense of pathos or identification with the animals depicted. That the images are invented rather than merely appropriated adds kudos to the artist’s skill and imagination, but still, at the risk of missing the point and sounding philistine, this project seems more about artistry than art.
Neo Rauch Der Garten des Bildhauers 2008, oil on canvas, 118 x 165-1/4 inches. Courtesy David Zwirner Gallery
The phenomenal rise of Neo Rauch, a painter who trained at Leipzig’s Academy of Graphic Arts under the old German Democratic Republic, adds a historical twist to any consideration of the new appeal of artistic conservatism. Like the awe reserved for Chinese artists trained by sometime socialist realists, there is a perverse nostalgia at play for the disciplines of totalitarian art in the special welcome accorded to former East German painters. A misplaced sense that the graduates of these reactionary academies really knew how to paint and draw even if the murals they were trained to produce were a hideous anachronism recalls the old line about fascism, that at least the trains ran on time.
Of course, there is also a liberal triumphalist sense that, freed from ideological strictures, these artists can now uniquely exploit the ironic implications of their received skill sets.
Mr. Rauch’s idiom is primarily 19th century, with a heady brew of realism and romanticism, while the time frame of his dramas is mostly mid-20th century. “Der Garten des Bildhauers” (2008) (The Garden of the Builders) depicts sinister goings-on amid farm buildings with corpses being carried away under an ominous night sky. To those who have followed the artist’s development, this picture is a self-reflective commentary on his stylistic shift from mid-century illustration to more old masterly and painterly look, although in this image, in a funny way, the “progress” is in the opposite direction. A projected light is seen to peel across the canvas, from the bottom left corner, as it were cleaning the surface, transforming the scene from painterly realism to graphic illustration.
Mr. Rauch is a prodigious talent. His canvases are lush with painterly dexterity, compelling characterization, and compositional intrigue. But, as with Mr. Ford’s animal portraits, there is more about these costume dramas that transports viewers back to the amalgamated past they never knew — the very definition of nostalgia — than truly puts them in touch with a sense of being here and now.
What belongs more to the 20th century are the dislocations of time and scale, though even in respect of these, the viewer is still safely within a stylistic comfort zone: in “Entfaltung” (2008) (Development) — like many of the 11 canvases in this show an elaborate if confounding allegory of art making — there are figures of differing period costume, size, and spatial position, with weird cutout shapes repeating across the image, whether proffered by disembodied hands popping out of the sky or cut from a page by an earnest youth in boy scout uniform. But the point of reference here is as much Renaissance painting as it is Surrealism, Pop Art, or postmodernism. Even when he is being disconcerting, in other words, he offers a familiar experience of the disconcerting.
Walton Ford until July 3 (293 Tenth Avenue, between 26th and 27th streets, 212-563-4474).
Neo Rauch until June 21 (533 W.19th St., between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, 212-727-2070).