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Noseblind in Gaza
Jacqui Fehl The Rhomasetti Triplets Always Traveled Together mixed media on canvas 30 x 40 inches
Lately the "Seventies" seem to have become for us a site, as Italy was for the Elizabethans, of emblematic depravity. Certainly, at the Caligarian intersect of Art & Commerce, it would be hard to top the fulsome merchandizing, & even more outlandish lugubriousness, of Walter & Margaret Keane.
In the new film Big Eyes, directed without mannerisms by the mannerist auteur Tim Burton, & persuasively acted by Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, et al, the conventional morality-tales of a downtrodden housewife raising her consciousness, & a wholesale fraud finally broken by a hair-raising courtroom showdown, are seamlessly melded with—more subtly, & more troubling — a meditation on the proper ends of art.
Exaggeration in portraiture, as old as El Greco or Michelangelo & as current as Modigliani or Giacometti*, somehow seems more indefensible in the case of the maudlin figures of children & baby animals painted indefatigably through the 50s & 60s by Margaret Keane. You tend to recoil from a sentimentality so overtly manipulative — to borrow Elvis Costello's phrase, "emotional fascism." (One does not think this of Guernica.)
Kitsch determinedly read as Camp, a heady spice of voyeurist squalor amidst the largest wave of affluence in human history, the beginnings (so apparent now) of Lowbrow Art evolving out of Pop, — even, a Naïve Artist (in Schiller's famous duality) embraced with all the concomitant ironies of Sentimentalists—: these are facets of Keane's success, more or less eclipsed at the time by the mere fact of the Keane Phenomenon, a shotgun wedding of celebrity culture (at a time when Dali & Picasso could keep their cred & still be superstars) & Benjaminian proliferativity (Kinkade before Kinkade).
It is instructive that they could have been hated then (e.g. by the NYT's John Canady), whereas nothing could be more timely, or essential to the Zeitgeist, today; witness the 2008 book by Blonde Blythe (& from whom the top pic here derives), Big Eye Art, which documents a whole school of epigones in the contemporary charred landscape of post-folk realness. Not only has Middlebrow been liquidated (the Middle Class soon to follow?), it has for all intents & purposes been erased from its 20c. prominence; if there remains a bit of a backlash, occasioned by the big retrospective of Jeff Koons at the Whitney, resentful against this one-man triumph of uber-kitsch per se, it only underscores how pervasive has been its overall transumption into the very air that we breathe **.
Meanwhile the artist herself, vindicated & newly cool, goes on painting daily in her eighties. Her work sells for thousands, & is sought by connoisseurs all over the world. Tim Burton is said to own "an extensive collection."
Kevin Obregon Unhinged 2007-10 acrylic on canvas 36 x 48 inches $2,000
In the unexpected afterlife of long-moribund Valley View Mall (built in 1973), artists have moved in. How this is different from what happened to P.S. 64 in Manhattan, or at any number of Continental venues, including shambles along what had once been the Berliner Mauer, only an old Dallasite can say. (Maybe it's just the idea of dilapidated abandonment set north of the Trinity River.) I have written elsewhere how nothing really dies a natural death anymore, culturally speaking; & this is even truer when applied to the idea (itself a recent creation—which would have bewildered the Renaissance) of the isolated painter, living à la vie Bohème, who awaits (like some previously uncatalogued, fissionable ore) — "Discovery."
Now, there are people who live to re-enact Civil War battles on weekends, others who strenuously recreate Medieval authenticity, not to mention subcultures who imagine they are (or dearly crave to be) aliens, elves, or small cute mammals; i don't have a problem anymore (sigh) with dressing-up-as-an-artist, as an end in itself. And if the production & marketing of artworks, on the one hand has become one of those parties only the rich & their minions are invited to, but on the other hand (by means of an internet-underground without limits or gatekeepers) has also mutated into a fairyland of fathomless kitsch, untutored genius, & too much that is hard to decide at first might be either, then stepping into a place such as neo-Valley View might well turn out to enlighten.
I went there first in the daytime, & found most of it shuttered up. There were a lot more art-colonists than i'd expected (having heard that this venture's days are officially numbered). I couldn't tell you the last time i had trouble finding a parking place there, yet this was the case when i returned on a third-Saturday event night. I wouldn't say there were more people than NorthPark has on a regular day, but there might've been. I saw food, live music, & active interest in the thirty or forty galleries that were now open. I did not, of course, expect more than a sprinkling of art worth second glances but it was findable, given a little patience & time — & possibly no sparser (alas) than other art walk nights might boast, hosted in likelier zip codes.
In particular, at StudiObregon, i had made a note to check out (on the far back wall) the odd, dark figure on a pale blue ground which, upon closer inspection, proved even more interesting. "Unhinged" has a raw, confrontational aura, monitory & regretful. Painted in organometallic precision, it is like a nightmare bug captured on a glass slide. Perhaps i shouldn't have been surprised when, stopping to look at two other striking figurative paintings at a different gallery, i saw the same name: Kevin Obregon.
There, at the Gallery at Midtown, the crown jewel (in theory) at VV, not much beguiled my ramble. I did enjoy "Dujour" by Shayema Rahim—a mustard-yellow concoction, overlaid by white that'd been busily scraped & rubbed away—for its rumbustious queasiness, a quality not often sought on purpose. (Somewhere there's a Lovecraft story looking for this illustration.)
Finally, i would say the Small Gallery has the most engaging collection overall. Jacqui Fehl's The Rhomasetti Triplets Always Traveled Together attains some of Klee's wise-child joyousness, three vertically stacked figures in red, white & green. As I left, the band was playing Billy Joel: "I'm sure that I could be a movie star/ if I could get out of this place."
Is it possible to sell art in this short-term, bazaar-like atmosphere? I remember when, a decade (or two) ago, someone i knew told me how she had been putting paintings up on eBay, & apparently, finding takers. It never occurred to me anybody might have been looking there for original work. But truthfully, it is the impulse to capture a fleeting perception, & the feeling that comes from its sudden recreation in the mind of another, that remain constant, regardless of the social process that brings them together.
Whatever madness was going on outside, Margaret Keane went on painting, "sixteen hours a day in a room with the curtains closed and the door locked." It wasn't about the hoopla, it was about the painting. Who am I to say where these journeys will lead, whether they may consist of the pursuit of a single simple idea, the earnest copying of someone else's, or something less easy to pigeonhole…? And at a time when not only the social matrix but even age-old verities of sky & sea are palpably being encroached upon, is this any stupider a geis for the tribe of mayflies?
“The beauty of the world is the mouth of a labyrinth.” — Simone Weil
Margaret Keene title unknown
More stories by Micheal Helsem are linked on Reviews by Michael Helsem.
See also: J R's 2013 story about Art @ Midtown (in Valley View Mall).
others that come to mind (from the same period): Ivan Albright, Dr Seuss, Mad magazine's Basil Wolverton, (& later) Joe Coleman
As documented in The Journey of the Highwaymen by Catherine Enns (2009) — another group not considered "art" at the time