I call it ORANGES

Art Reviews, Cultural Bric a Brac, Jargon Free

Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

I am an independent writer living in Los Angeles. I write Visual Art Reviews, General Cultural Essays, and Book Reviews.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Jeni Spota

Jeni Spota
Santa Monica Museum of Art
Through August 22nd 

Jeni Spota plucks magisterial scenes from soups of oil paint, which in her hands, is more like primordial clay. They are usually layered religious visions, heavenly hierarchies much like you would find in a mosaic in Ravenna, in Bellini paintings, or in Giotto’s frescos. Giotto, in particular, played a large role in her last show at Sister, when she displayed a series based on Giotto’s dreams and the Arena Chapel in Padua. The paintings started with a scene from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Decameron where Giotto has a vision of what eventually became the Arena last judgment panel (still from the Decameron shown below and here is a link to the actual movie scene). Spota takes the film version, the dream version of the chapel scene, and riffs this starting point into paint, ripping and shaping hundreds of figures from an ooze of colors and formlessness.

Giotto’s painting is given its dream life in Pasolini’s set and camera, the representations on the chapel wall live and breath inside Giotto’s dream, a dream that solved not only his problem of financial existence (he was pressured to get the job done), but also gave his work a meaning beyond the commission, a meaning that came from elsewhere. In Spota’s versions, the heavenly hosts we see arranged on tiers in Pasolini and at Arena dissolve into a whirl of painterly energy -- a daub, a smudge, or a quick palette knife slash of paint is enough to render a body or the firmament itself. The paintings hold their images seemingly momentarily, tentatively threatening to disappear.

These are not ordinary religious images, neither in the past nor present. They have none of the fixity and comforting strength of altarpieces, none of the earthen value of gold. They are visions in flux and if all visions are in flux (which they may be) they even call into question Giotto who, all those many years ago, worked from one. The imagery is no mere stock footage. They seem to take more than pageantry for their subject matter. This is sticky territory and Spota seems to be mindful of the dilemma that she is in. Perhaps in response, she displays two new works as almost a corrective currently at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. The first is called Don’t Tread on Me, a flag made of coats of arms and streaked paint, a clear reference to Jasper Johns’ flag. The other piece is a bronze cast of one of the religious paintings (a strategy that Johns also used with his Flag).

I was immediately skeptical of Spota’s works, despite how much their apparent skill and aesthetic impact seduced me. I was smitten with the works but wondered why, I wondered where these paintings could take me and if they hold up under the pressure of their content. Could they properly dialogue with Pasolini, an extremely complicated and misunderstood figure, a person as mired in the past as he was desperately engaged in the action of the present? To cut right to it, are Spota’s works ironic? Are they unapologetically spiritual? If they are critical, what are they critical of? Is it possible to be spiritual in the arts at the moment, when the official stance seems to be the promotion of the exact opposite? Do the works try to have it both ways, presenting a religious face while undermining it at once? If the work does exist between two competing viewpoints, is it rigorous, critical, and most importantly, is it engaged with all the subjects at level beyond caricature?

I think the place to start with these questions is Spota’s decision to cast a work in bronze and to make that reference to Johns. As objects, these works are weak at the moment (though I am optimistic about Spota being able to take things further in the future), but the idea behind this move is fascinating. It was as if it was 1954, the Castelli Gallery, and Jasper Johns’ first show all over again, a moment where fevered dreams of belief met up with raw material and the physical status of objects, where people started to wonder what one had to do with the other. You could call it the day that art lost its innocence.

Let me be more clear, imagine being at that Johns opening (let’s just assume we all know what is going on at all times) and being used to the existential planes of the Ab Ex, playing out their human dramas before us mixed with a lot of super-formalist rhetoric. Suddenly you see a simple symbol of a flag in the gallery, actually not a symbol but a constructed symbol that covers the entire canvas. You would be tempted to think (under the circumstances) that Johns is playing a joke on all representation by showing that everything is in fact a representation, that your symbols are just that, just symbols. Again, the flag is the canvas, the canvas is the flag. It is not a picture of a flag, it is somewhere between a picture and an object.

Johns, however, was not playing a mere joke. He was putting everything in crisis – enter the clearest expression of doubt in painting and art volleyed since the Duchamp’s urinal. It was a powerful moment, a sort of moment that should, when you stop laughing, put you in tears. At that moment, the questions on the table were dread coupled with even more dread – “Are you people making this stuff up?,” Johns’ was asking, then he asked an even more horrible question, "And if you are making this stuff up, why should I believe you?”

In referencing this moment (and if I am over reading into the work, I don’t really care), Spota is not just being clever but is mindful of not only the trouble with representation but also the trouble with the representation of religious images. Like the flag, Spota turns a representation into an object when she casts it in bronze, pulling out of the realm of the visual (with its ability to dream and its requirement that you believe that representation is an adequate embodiment of ideas) into the world of objects, the world where there is nothing behind the curtain but what you have put there, a world where there are no secrets. Spota does try to have it both ways – she gives us representation of a religious vision and takes it away by turning it into an object. The moment of revelation (the moment where we see what is behind things) is turned into an object without secrets. It is almost perverse to think that in the Spota work, the moment of transubstantiation is the moment when the work is most secular.  

Pasolini takes a similar approach in the Decameron, a movie which presents moments of religious belief and subsequently shows their origin in the dirty world of material life. Johns and Pasolini, combined in the work of Spota, become interesting confederates. In referencing Pasolini and Johns, she is aligning herself with people deeply concerned with the line between hard material reality and the dreams that spring from it. And from this fraternity of doubters, you can finally start thinking about Spota’s paintings in a way that matters beyond materials, paint, movies, and art. There are issues presented in the work that are unspoken and reach beyond the distinction between symbol and embodied spirit, between metaphor and transubstantiation, to a place where a battle occurs about whether or not these are still valid things to think about. This is still a question in the arts, this distinction between life brimming full of essence and an existence that is determined only after life is set into motion. Galleries are not purely secular sites, but a place where valid looks into the fabric of things are still possible. The questions remain unsolved.

This is a controversial view, I know. A certain part of the artworld, those reared on second hand Marxism and critical theory, would emphatically say, "of course, galleries are secular sites – we’ve spent the last 50 years trying to void art of this spiritual mumbo jumbo and put it purely in the world, purely in a material reality from which we can try to get things done. That’s why we worry about painting that remains representational, because it still holds onto the belief that representation can do something when we know that it cannot.” Another part of the arts, perhaps, may think this a little dramatic, that the terms just mentioned are a bit silly, and casually sit back as the art “grounded in material reality” fails to inspire, fails to offer any insight into a human condition that not only lives but dreams, not only fucks and eats but also imagines and desires and creates and lives according to those dreams though they maybe a mere fantasy. Call this artworld the “uncomfortable agnostics.” There may even be, if we allow ourselves to step away for a second from our opening night parties and our dog eared copies of Adorno, a third artworld of unapologetic believers who exist though they are ridiculed, an artworld that may include more numbers than the first two combined and squared.

To think completely in the arts and to think completely about the world and the people in it is to confront all three visions of art, and I like Spota’s work because it necessarily speaks to all three and does not let anyone off the hook. Spota’s work is a dream but a horrible one in my opinion, equally capable of wild imaginings as it is of crippling doubts. The dilemma of Spota’s work plays multiple realms of belief against the others. For a careful, skeptical, and tortured believer like me, this work is troubling and allows me to call out to a quiet sky, wondering why we’ve been abandoned and whether or not that abandonment is the truth. For an outright believer, the form of these paintings might also be inspiring, forms able see visions come forth from soup and be pictured briefly before fading into nothing, like a prayer to the darkness that offers a fleeting comforting second before reality closes in. For the non-believer, Spota’s paintings must rehash the essential material questions offered by Johns and Duchamp and must be a curiously inventive way to reenter the realm of painting, an entrance based on doubt but catalyzed by the temptation of belief.    

I wonder whether or not this is a new reality for us or whether or not this has always haunted humans, whether or not Spota is clever in a post-modern, art historical sort of way, or whether or not she is simply being sympathetic to a doubt and crisis that artists may have always known. Pasolini trafficked freely between high camp, just plain bad cinema (seriously, watch it again all you crazy eyed fans), and some very profound thinking on some of the deepest issues. Pasolini placed the sacred ambiguously in the realm of the profane, playing high minded spirituality in the same hand as abject human/bestial circumstances. Nothing Pasolini did ever directly canceled out the tension inside of him, he could not help but connect to his Italian past. I like that Pasolini, an atheist, sympathesized with Giotto, and I think that the questions Pasolini asked in the Decameron are eternally relevant. Spota seems right there with Pasolini and Giotto, sharing their doubts, their beliefs, and their fevered dreaming. It will be interesting to see her take this project further. It is important work.