Taking the Whip to Art Class
Amatoritsero Ede: You are currently working on a major project, ‘Whipping the Dead Horse of Painting.’ Can you tell us more about this project? What is the philosophical grounding behind it; Why do you think art is a dead horse at the moment?
Miklos Legrady: Amatoritsero, it is a pleasure to work with you again. The title for my recent series was inspired by akimbo.ca’s editor, Terence Dick, writing of two artists who were still “whipping the dead horse of painting”. His ironic commentary on the constant resurrection of that metaphorical dead horse is a perfect title for my series. The conflict over painting divides between those who believe that art is a cultural invention, a blank slate for their manipulation, while another school looks on art as a biological process of spiritual depth that helps define and shape our future.
The original source for the death of painting was Walter Benjamin who wrote that aesthetics is a fascist invention. That painting is dead since photography and film do a better job of fulfilling art’s only genuine meaning and purpose, which is to cheer the masses in their fight against capitalism and the ruling class. Benjamin’s literary genius, his wonderful phrasing and the unique structure of his thoughts drives his influence today. Yet as a communist, he was responsible to the Soviet Writer’s Committee and his work had to follow the party line. Whereas we read “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” as academic scholarship and as pure research, it is, in fact, a political marketing tool denouncing individual creativity and promoting the dictatorship of the working class. Steam engines once amazed us but they belong in museums along with the political pretensions of that era, no matter how seductive. One should read Nostradamus with caution. But now we’re stuck with Benjamin and it’s time to shake free.
Then we need look for alternatives, foundations with a better resonance. Rob Storr of MOCA said that by the 1960’s the art world had moved from the Cedar Tavern to the seminar room. He followed that in a recent interview saying that an American version of French theory or a Frankfurt school in contemporary art criticism is of not much use to anybody. I say let’s walk out of the classroom, for there we can only debate angels dancing on a pin while relevant authorities praise the emperor’s clothes. In nature, under a blue sky, art is an autonomous function. For example, a bee’s dance describes the flight from the hive to a field of flowers. This dance includes an hourly-changing, sun-based orientation to the field, as well as the caloric value of that patch, all performed as a formal dance. The unconscious content in a bee’s dance leads to far reaching speculations on unconscious content in the artwork of the naked ape.
This speculation opens more exciting fields than subscribing to flawed beliefs born of the Industrial Revolution. A school of painting grounded in cultural psychology is a lot more fun because it allows for research and discovery. I wanted to know how the mind thinks about images. What is the visual cortex likely to do next? How will Broca’s areas express themselves? The personal is political so the importance of an individual process should not be ignored. I looked for a body of work where the creative unconscious has free reign to express itself, starting each image without preconceptions, reaction to the moment and the materials before me.
A 2007 symposium call at Toronto’s York University said “innovation and growth are seen as the result of moving into spaces between established methods, concepts, ideologies”. Taking that one step further I’m exploring how innovation and growth can be found in the opposite of current ideologies and belief systems. We look at Kent Monkman’s flamboyant cowboys and indians, Marcel Dzama who draws with root beer, or Tracey Emin’s unmade bed to note it’s the unusual and unexpected, the rejected and despised, that are seen as the next realms of cultural salvation. The rejected make good cornerstones.
A.E.: You have a radical view of art, what it should do, and who should be truly a great artist. Tell us more about this please. For example, please elaborate on your view critique of Duchamp.
M.L.: In a 1998 panel discussion titled “Vision and Visuality” sponsored by the Dia Art Foundation, Rosalind Kraus mentioned that Duchamp despised ocular art as well as artisanal work. Duchamp moved art from the visual and artisanal to the conceptual sphere. People say that this is a good think (thing). Why is this a good thing? The proper response would be to ask if you don’t like visual art why are you in the field? Why deny vision in visual art? Duchamp eventually quit making art when the logical consequence of a purely conceptual approach destroyed his motivation, purpose, and discipline and his need to make art. When you cheat and skew so the results are predictable then enthusiasm withers. We have but contempt for those who talk but never do because they evade the reality check of pragmatism. Anyone can think of an idea but execution demands effort, persistence, adaptation, retraction, discernment and the transformation of character that results from the struggle. When production is left to assistants without involvement by the author nor interest in the process then no one is transformed… they have nothing to teach us except a cautionary tale. When assistants do the work the authorship should be credited as “from the studio of… by assistants so and so.”
When considering Duchamp’s position, we know that artisanal work requires the famous discipline and loving care of the artisan. Ocular, pictorial art takes years of experience and hard earned skills… but to think of a work, pure conceptual art, given the same amount of research, obviously takes less skill and effort… as it does not rely on skill or effort. By now the contradictions are too obvious to sweep under the carpet. Perhaps we see Duchamp as a genius due to his own marketing, later fetishized beyond criticism. A deconstruction tells a different tale. Imagine if Mozart or Chopin disliked auditory art, or Stravinsky said he hated melodic art, or Shakespeare disliked the grammatical arts.
A.E.: What is your working process and how would you describe your style.
M.L.: In contradiction to Duchamp and Benjamin, my work is purposefully based in the optical, the ocular, the beautiful, visual and technical… as well as informed by thoughts and ideas driving our times. The last 40 years added an intellectual layer to art that would be pointless to discard; it’s only when the intellect achieve supremacy that it turns into it’s opposite.
I’m a bit of a flanneur. I wake up, do coffee, check Facebook, then eventually the desire to paint grows until it seizes me, the need to shape thought and feeling into a painted statement buzzes in my shoulders and chest. And then I can wait no longer, I’m in the studio sorting through cardboard to find the right shape, which I nail to the wall and then I’m ready to start. My style is a reality check. An interplay between any idea that pops up, meaning any idea that was already decided and thought over in the unconscious depths of the mind. There is no such thing as a fully formed idea or even a hint of one that just appeared by itself, ideas don’t come to life in a virgin birth, they don’t just appear. Functions deep in the unconscious communicate with all parts of the brain in a holistic interaction which takes into account biology and psychology as well as your personal fate. Various pros and cons are debated in the depths of the mind past our blind spot, in areas invisible to consciousness. Once the solution has been decided the answer pops into consciousness as a bright idea, a hunch, an intuition. Now we must act on it for that idea to encounter matter. When I start to paint pure intuition struggles with dense matter until both are changed. My inner vision is altered by the cardboard with it’s pre-existing distress of scratches, folds and dents already present as well as logos and commercial notices painted on it. Those are footprints of reality, the practical and mundane day to day affair, now contributing their bit to art. The result is a work of art that combines my deepest self with consciousness, is then changed by a reality that contributes aspects that I would never think of. The work becomes transcendent, going beyond myself, rising above the limitations of both the material world and my personal vision by uniting both.
I found myself drawn to youTube tutorials that I painted carefully on cardboard. Grounding the subject in youTube draws comparison with Komar and Melamid’s “Most Wanted” series made according to surveys of public taste. With social media here I’m skipping the surveys, going to the heart of popular culture, trashing current expectations of painting, including how dead it is.
A.E.: What was the inspiration for the current project, whipping the dead horse of art.
I had just spent a year with basic shapes, painting triangles, circles and squares. I produced at least one painting a day, sometimes three or four, an ongoing process of computation and growth. Then came time to go beyond basic geometry into imagery.
A.E.: You work in Acrylic on Canvas, well, on cardboard, really. Why Cardboard?
I’m known as a photographer and started painting in my 50s. Vera Frenkel said the Canadian art world is terribly ageist. My interest in optical and representational techniques meant my painting did not interest anyone in the current mindset nor did I get any exhibitions or funding… My financial situation went south. The fascinating aspect was discovering the creative power in art that compensates for poverty and its accompanying lack of status. If you’re seized by the creative spirit of a brilliant idea you cannot be poor nor destroyed by adversity. On a subjective level, which is the only measure of quality of life, I am amply sustained, fulfilled by the richness of art and ideas. But I could no longer spend $50 a day on canvas and cardboard is free.
A.E.: What is the eco-critical reasons for your cardboard medium?
M.L.: Cardboard is despised as the medium of street kids and the homeless. Just as my money ran out someone said to me “at least you’re not like Emily Carr, the poor thing had only cardboard to paint on”. That was a eureka moment. Chinese philosophy expressed in the writing of Kung Fu Tse always insists on the natural gradient, the path of least resistance. Go with the flow. Cardboard was the flow. Only later did I realise the street cred involved, how that becomes a brand.
A.E.: Is your approach a form of critique of capitalism and waste – or emphasis on the richness in waste products?
Objectively speaking a worthless piece of cardboard is brought to face the luxury of masterful painting skills. When best and worst unite, the highest and the lowest, or any similar extremes are brought into relationship, we have a union of opposites, a powerful energetic dynamic. The Yin Yang symbol is a visual description of this dynamic structure, an archetype or basic model of events. In one’s life just as with this painting series, a union of opposites makes thing hops, puts juice in the batteries. These paintings bring us to face the conflict of wealth and poverty, the 1% and the 99%. Another theme running through the use of cardboard is the redemption of the worthless, the enrichment of the least desired, the rejected that make good cornerstones.
M.L.: what is the state of Art in Canada in your opinion?
What would be the consequence of saying we face a crisis in art criticism and that we live with boring exhibitions that are lavishly praised then quickly forgotten? I would think that most curators and editors depend on their job and this would attack them on a personal level, hit them in the pocketbook; retaliation would not be slow in coming. As a result I have to say that the current situation in Canadian art is magnificent, admirable, can only be praised.
A.E.: How can the question of elitism in art, if any, be tackled.
M.L.: As noted in the last issue of MTLS, most fine arts producers graduate from similar schools and share the same values, which are reflected in their association, their production, and the systems created thereby… surely a cultural blindness results from such group judgments. Let us pin the problem on art journal editors, (you know who you are) writers, professors, galerists and curators who throttled the arts, poor thing. They’ve limited participation to those sharing the same outlook and language, restricting the game to believers in a common ideology, squeezing out the colors until but drab remains.
Elitism here means tunnel vision, narrow academic standards. The obvious solution is to recognize and discard ideologies that are just plain destructive, like Benjamin writing that creativity and individuality are fascist and outmoded. Mene, mene, tekel. Let’s read the writing on the wall and not fool ourselves… we need a reformation of meaning focused on clarity and function, evident standards instead of a permissive silence and aversion to inconvenient truths.
A.E.: In your essay in an issue 19 of MTLS you submit that art has become banal. Can you elaborate on this? M.L: Actually it was Lane Relyea in his Atlantic article, along with Sealan Twerdy and William Derensowitz, writing that art is now universal, the work looks similar on every continent creating exhibitions where the art is glanced at for a minute. They say the important aspect of art has migrated to the social energy, the opening night party with the accompanying marketing. Their values are so superficial that Relyea, Twerdy and Derensowitz should be ashamed of themselves. Art is now universal because it illustrates art theory… except that’s no longer art but illustration, and I would think the social energy surrounding them is like a thin balloon waiting for a pin.
A.E.: We thank you for taking time off your busy schedule to have a chat with us.
M.L.: Thank you Amatoritsero, these moments are important. Too much simmers behind the scene. As with the communist manifesto, a specter is haunting the art world today – the specter of disingenuous outmoded thinking. Our culture is in denial but the contemporary art world already has a hole in it big enough for a Roman chariot to drive through carrying Martin Luther waving 99 theses and a church door. Times like these are usually periods of rapid upheaval.