Monday, December 2, 2019

Kudos by Cusk and Two Important Reads


I finished the third book in the trilogy I have been writing about here by Rachel Cusk.  In the final book Kudos there are two passages about female artists that struck a nerve.  First, a character is describing the work of Louise Bourgeois:





And then she goes on to some commentary on Joan Eardley:





Very powerful.


I was then excited to read a recent article by Cusk in the New York Times about similar topics:


While I found some passages important, I did not like the format of more or less pitting Celia Paul's experience against Cecily Brown's.  Paul having negotiated the complicated existence of being Freud's muse and lover and the fall out and Brown sort of mimicking the existence of a man in the arts.  She finds nuance but is there not a third, fourth, fifth example of what it means to be a woman painter?  It can feel limiting to try to carve a career as a female painter but to simply draw that binary of options does not feel useful.  And as her discussion of Bourgeois and Eardley points out there are examples of women tackling the art world in other ways even if they are denied the attention they deserve.

The really satisfying follow up I read was Zadie Smith's review of Celia Paul's new book: 


Here is an excerpt:

"This debate is usually posed in the banal form of an either/or. As in: Can I still love X great artist given that he or she behaved in Y way? Or must I shun them? In the case of misogyny, this mode of argument may miss the point. Lucian Freud’s art, whatever its merits, contains within itself the fundamental limitation of misogyny, which is a form of partial sight, a handicap with precise consequences if you happen to be a portraitist whose subjects were often women. For example, the Celia Paul whom Freud believed he saw, whom he set out to paint—that pretty, mild girl with her eyes downcast, “meekly ‘there,’ for him to do whatever he wanted with me”—was not really the person lying before him. This is not to claim that Freud’s portraits of Paul are either “wrong” (whatever such a word could mean in this context) or even bad, but simply that they are notably partial, being blind to so much, indeed, to the essential quality of the subject in question. Freud thought he saw it all, purely, clearly, without distortion—that was his fame.
Painter and Model, 2012; painting by Celia Paul
Celia Paul/Victoria Miro, London and Venice
Celia Paul: Painter and Model, 2012
But, when it came to women, he did not see. Misogyny, whatever else it might be, is a form of distortion, a way of not seeing, of assuming both too much and too little. It was beneath—or beyond—his notice to capture that the pretty, apparently passive body lying naked before him thrummed with painterly ambition, just like his, and intended to save itself for the purposes of art, just as he did. And even when Freud realized, belatedly, that Paul was a painter (rather than a muse or a mere art student), he was blind to the idea that this person, the “woman painter,” might still be a whole human, capable of erotic passion, just like himself, and not a fake man, with a set of violently phallic toes. (Perhaps to demonstrate this, Paul shocked Freud, two months into new motherhood, by having an affair with an eighteen-year-old student she met on a train.) Many years later, after Freud died, Paul painted her own Painter and Model (2012), in which she need make no choices between being a woman and an artist:“I have it all. I am both artist and sitter. By looking at myself I don’t need to stage a drama about power; I am empowered by the very fact that I am representing myself as I am: a painter.”


Thursday, October 31, 2019

Sylvia Plath on No Man's Land

Image result for alice neel drawing
Alice Neel, Alice, 1932 (same year Plath was born)




This is a really excellent podcast episode reclaiming what is most valuable about Sylvia Plath.  I always feel there is an explanation needed in loving her work, its often thought of as melodrama, attractive to people similarly prone to what we know best about her depressed and suicidal mental state.  But that's not it and finally someone explains it.  Here it is, this is the secret: 



"You realize you've been distracted from the best of Plath which is her actual work not her biography...She wasn't necessarily a confessionalist but a surrealist."

Suicidal Ward, Philadelphia General Hospital, 1931, Pencil Drawing by Alice Neel(who I think can be similarly misunderstood)



I have read where both Plath and Neel commented that they were not mentally ill artists who were making work while sick.  And I don't think they were making work in spite of their illness.  I think they were brilliant, sensitized people making brilliant, sensitized work who also struggled.  But in the struggle they were not able to work, they were completely paralyzed by sickness.  And I think that is an important thing to remember, and respect, and not romanticize.  The work may touch back to personal experience but it is not just a mad retelling, it is altered and crafted, controlled expression aware and studied in the form of each artists' chosen medium.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Gertrude Abercrombie


Pink Carnations, 1939

Pink Sand, 1964



Shell and Drapery, 1952


Still Life, 1945


I present to you Gertrude Abercrombie's charged and haunting still lives.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Describing the Self from the Outside

Okay, I've been trying to synthesize what feels like a really big and important thought for myself and my work.  It's been months and its still forming but I want to try to put down some of it.  I just finished Rachel Cusk's sequel novel, Transit, and simultaneously finished playwright/actor Phoebe Waller-Bridge's series Fleabag.  Two women who in other creative forms are tackling the notion of self in really searingly new ways.

So I listened to a bunch of their interviews on podcasts and here are some of the things:

The interviewer/podcaster/novelist Elizabeth Day remarks to P W-B on her How to Fail Podcast 'as a female novelist I have often found that when women write about families it is always assumed that it is their family and they don't have the intellectual imagination to make the cognitive leap into real fiction.  Whereas when Jonathan Franzen writes a family novel like The Corrections its about the state of the nation."  This.

When my show hung a few people remarked to me, 'are you okay, did you have postpartum', one person actually diagnosed me with D-MER, some kind of hormonal imbalance that occurs during breastfeeding.  And I just laughed it off. Which I sort of hate now, but that is my go to when I feel uncomfortable but want to avoid confrontation.  What I really felt like saying afterward was 'none of your business, and also I'm good, but motherhood is insane and everyone must feel changed by it and also none of your business and also that doesn't have anything to do with the paintings'.  But I know my paintings are about intimacy and derive from personal experience so when they hang in a public space those things can feel permissible.

Nursing(Boot), 2018, Oil on Panel, 24 x 18 inches

But every painting is by its nature a fiction anyway --so these questions are just missing the point entirely which I guess makes it ultimately okay to just laugh them away.  I don't want people to feel like I'm not approachable but I do want them to make an effort to focus on the fact that they are looking at paintings, which may be derived from my lived experience, but must be altered realities and about something beyond an unexamined itemizing of my life if they are to be any good.

I agree with Day, there is a very real gendered response to subject.  I find that if a contemporary male painter and is painting something tender and personal there is much more critical interest. I think this is because it butts up against the stereotype of a heteronormative man's perspective, especially in the history of painting.  This kind of painting by a woman is more expected so it feels safer and therefore somehow less important. Which begs the question, should I, as a woman, have to be conscious of my identity and reactions to it to make a painting?  I want to live in a world where the answer is no and when something speaks truthfully it is noticed for that power alone.  But we are not there.  So how do you make a painting/writing/film do that in our current state?  I think the answer is in the form, awareness of the form and breaking of the form.

Night Fridge(Milk), 2019, Oil on Panel, 30 x 24 inches

Which brings me back to my current obsession, author Rachel Cusk.  Her character becomes so real because she is describing herself through her perception and witnessing of others.  Describing the self by looking at yourself through someone else, hearing how they talk to you, what they feel they can say to you.  I think Phoebe Waller-Bridge is also thinking about this and it is why her character addresses the viewer directly.  She is aware of how she is being perceived and watched.

Cusk spoke on the podcast Canadaland of her earlier works being memoirs.  She wrote in that genre because the subject matter was personal.  However, she felt people reacted to them as if they were below examination, a woman's feelings about life ultimately brought only questions about her life and relationship and motherhood, not her art.  So she went on to write these new novels, of which I have read Outline and Transit.  She said she 'is always trying to put lived experience back at the heart of art which is where its always been until recently.  To reconstruct the idea of the writer as a person who lives and then tells the tale.  The relationship of that living to the tale that I tell is essential...  But everything is form and if someone breaks form it is very noticed.'  Which I think is why these books seem to say more clearly what her memoirs also attempted.  The world brought assumptions to her memoirs and she needed to find a way that broke the form so that the same content would actually be read anew and digested.

(Littpod)"I wanted to dispense with conventional narrative, the book doesn't have a narrator it has someone who is observing things but because there's no omniscience, there's no god, there's no prior knowledge in the book you never actually find out anything about this person.  Just as perhaps you don't find out anything about yourself simply by being yourself -- you find out about yourself through a process of reflection, so the book is composed of various things, she is seeing that give her a reflection of herself.  And to an extent the things people say in the book, the stories they tell about themselves to her they describe the person listening which is a point about perception and reality and how we see the world in terms that related to us and what does that make of identity. Reality itself is something constructed by other people and by the time you're in the middle of your life it can start to look a bit shaky."

I think this form is especially appropriate because it also gets at her point about how women are often spoken at, the ones listening, the ones whose true inner thoughts remain unshared.  What is not said by the main character says a lot.  This kind of wit in reimagining narrative in a way that also aids the content is impossible to shrug away as expected.  It allows Cusk to then express her truth and experience and be taken very seriously.

(Canadaland)"What a woman feels with a 6 month old and tell people she's enjoying it vs. 20 years later about the deceptions she went in for.  People accumulate some significant moral burdens in their lives and the people that interest me are those when they have a moment of elevation and are able to get a view of themselves are able to see that and are interested in finding out what the truth is.  People wanting to find out what they truly think and what appears to be."

Family Vacation, 2019, Oil on Panel, 48 x 48 inches

Friday, August 2, 2019

Outline by Rachel Cusk



In the review of my recent show on Hyperallergic by Lev Feigin he says, "Looking at her paintings, I couldn’t help but think of the autofictional books of Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, and Karl Ove Knausgaard, which focus a microscope onto the everyday minutiae of the authors’ personal lives. Like these novels, Levinthal’s paintings create a sense of unmediated access to their creator’s world and interiority." 

I knew Heti and Knausgaard, although I haven't read their work but admit I had never even heard of Cusk.  So I figured this summer that would be a good place to start my reading.  I just finished Outline, the first in a trilogy by Cusk and I'm so thrilled.  First, I loved the book.  And also, if my paintings could be writing I would like them to have a lot of what is here so I'm flattered.

It's a really unique take on a simple subject.  The narrator takes a plane to Athens to teach a one week writing course.  She tells the story by sort of retelling the conversations of people like her neighbor on the plane, a coworker, students in her class.  

I identified so strongly with her and yet she tells almost nothing of herself or her opinions.  She creates this complex character through erasure.  She's barely there yet you identify so strongly with her, she isn't easily definable but she is specific.  And through this way of writing the form becomes the function -- she is showing us what it is to be a mother, woman in a literary (art) world where men are constantly telling her things, people are speaking at her to impress her, students are challenging her authority.  

Cusk clearly wrote a book about her own 'everyday', unremarkable life and it is anything but expected.  While being highly aware that the book is about the form, its never just to show off her ability, its absolutely to make a bigger statement about her main character.  It's hard to explain the style, here is an excerpt where she is speaking to her seatmate from the plane:

“All the same, it seemed to him now that that life had been lived almost unconsciously, that he had been lost in it, absorbed in it, as you can be absorbed in a book, believing in its events and living entirely through and with its characters. Never again since had he been able to absorb himself; never again had he been able to believe in that way. Perhaps it was that – the loss of belief – that constituted his yearning for the old life. Whatever it was, he and his wife had built things that had flourished, had together expanded the sum of what they were and what they had; life had responded willingly to them, had treated them abundantly, and this – he now saw – was what had given him the confidence to break it all, break it with what now seemed to him to be an extraordinary casualness, because he thought there would be more. More what? I asked. ‘More – life,’ he said, opening his hands in a gesture of receipt. ‘And more affection,’ he added, after a pause. ‘I wanted more affection.”


Friday, July 12, 2019

Foujita












I really can't get enough of Foujita.  Probably partially due to how rare it is to see his work, I have never seen one in person and the books are very rare and expensive.  There is just one in the library that I keep on renewing and pray no one else ever requests.  I absolutely feel this work.  His interests are unapologetic and require no artist statement -- looking intensely, self-portraiture, cats, line, composition.  Its so steadfast you think well what else could there be...nothing.  You are in his universe so you can't question it.  This is a painter.