November 30, 2006

Figuratively Speaking

Although I cannot fully endorse the “resurrection of the figurative” heralded by many since the rise of Neo-Expression, as my own proclivities lean toward the conceptual, linguistic and interactive in art making, I will take issue with Peter Halley’s assessment that “these artists, and the art they produce, fail to recognize the complexity of the transformations that have taken place within the social.”(1)

On the contrary, I suggest that certain contemporary artists working with the figure have been informed by the eruption of investigative knowledge on the “social order,” including but not limited to the construction of the subject (Saville) and cognitive perception (Baselitz). These artists continue to make figurative painting relevant because of the supplemental and extraneous “fields of knowledge” they bring to the studio and their work bears a much more concise examination, possibly using the general parameters which I will outline here in this limited essay.

The approach to “upside-down” figures in the paintings of Georg Baselitz generally takes the tack of “gimmickry over talent.” I fundamentally disagree with this critique, partially because “talent” has meant so very little in art making since Modernism, but chiefly because I feel that his working methods are genuinely obsessed with distancing his cognitive perception from his art making. That is to say, recognizing that the human eye initially perceives reality as an inverted one and that “we know no other reality” (2), then we have to at least consider one possible entry into Baselitz’s work ought to be the supposition that he may be attempting representations of pre-conscious cognition, which has a very rich tradition in historic art theory. Then again, we might also surmise that his inverted paintings may in fact be an attempt to reproduce the “bracketing” of reality proposed by Edmund Husserl in his phenomenology, wherein:

empirical subjectivity is suspended, so that pure consciousness may be defined in its essential and absolute Being. This is accomplished by a method of ‘bracketing’ empirical data away from consideration. ‘Bracketing’ empirical data away from further investigation leaves pure consciousness, pure phenomena, and the pure Ego as the residue of phenomenological reduction.(3)

Jenny Saville’s figuration, however, revolves around representations of the “ideal self,” an image perpetuated certainly by the “social order,” and specifically by the idealized images of women’s bodies projected by the advertising industry. Saville’s paintings of herself are brutal, topological mappings of obesity in her consideration of the imperfect form supplemented by the critical guise of a post-feminist outlook. She comes armed with the writings of Luce Irigaray to deflect and reject the “male gaze,” fully prepared to further encode the French author’s words in mirror reverse text written in her Propped (1992) as she paints “a staged contemplation of the role played by gender in authoring, viewing and critiquing the body of woman.”(4)

Whether it is emergent cognition and pre-conscious perception of retroactive figuration, or a conflation of identity construction with Lacanian psychoanalysis, the human figure holds the keen interest of a scant few painters of vision. In any case, the “cost of the romantic return they advocate”(5) may well be worth a reprisal of this kind of figurative work.

Reading for 6 December: Suzi Gablik’s “Pluralism: The Tyranny of Freedom” in Has Modernism Failed? (on reserve).


1. Peter Halley, "The Crisis in Geometry", Arts Magazine, Vol. 58, No. 10, June 1984.



4. Isabelle Wallace, "The Looking Glass from the Other Side: Reflections on Jenny Saville's Propped", Journal: Visual Culture in Britain, Vol. 5, Issue 2, Winter 2004.

5. Halley, op. cit.

November 17, 2006

Contradictions in Supplemental Discourse

Much of contemporary art needs the supplement of theory to be approached, yet often a particular critical reading of an artist is rendered inaccurate by its theoretical position. Singaporean essayist Lee Weng Choy questions the privileging of “only one reading” of an artist’s work and suggests that it is the contradictions in artwork that “make it possible to speak to the work critically in the first place.”(1) I propose that even contradictions within a misguided critique of an artist can open the possibility of a different reading under close scrutiny. If we are to expand the discourse on contemporary art theory, we must question previously held yet problematic beliefs, always at the ready to re-write art history with supplemental critiques based on more stringent or diverse critical perspectives, especially points of view that counteract accepted and published critical positions.

For instance, one accepted critical perception on the performance art of Paul McCarthy has to do with the desublimation of masculinity and this will serve to demonstrate the inherent weakness within theoretical supplements that function as a validated art historic assessment but may possess misrepresentations that have not been fully explored.

According to this exemplary theory, McCarthy’s effort “to expose that which patriarchal culture represses in order to reverse the sublimatory effects of civilization” has resulted in performances of orgiastic frenzy with the artist simulating castration, sexual abuse, menstruation and childbirth.(2) Using Freud’s psychoanalytic theories, including castration anxiety, this position maintains that McCarthy “desublimates masculinity” by “reversing the processes of sublimation and repression.”(3)

While this critical position certainly exhibits scholarly research, there is the simple contradiction of McCarthy’s performances, which manifest an insistent and embodied phallocracy. In actuality, McCarthy’s work does not “reverse” sublimation as much as reinforce the patriarchal hierarchy, investing his stereotypically abject actions with an aggressive sexuality that supports male dominance over women. One might find it additionally disturbing and contradictory that McCarthy’s putative desublimation of masculinity has been couched within feminist frameworks, i.e., masculinity as “fundamentally dependent on that which it must exclude.”(4)

Judith Butler has argued that “gender is a cultural meaning that is ascribed to human bodies” and “does not derive naturally from the biological sex of the individual.”(5) However, McCarthy’s performances are wholly dependent upon the biological sex of his body (male) and the workable frisson his transgender “play” provokes. In Sailor’s Meat (1975), McCarthy wears a wig (female) while engaging in intercourse with a pile of meat; in Bossy Burger (1991), he plays chef (woman’s work?) while fornicating with various holes and doors in the set; in Heidi (1992), McCarthy plays Grandfather and penetrates a knothole while voyeuristically spying on Heidi (incest?). All of these acts are staged within the parameters of masculine biological function, based on gender identification defined by genitalia. McCarthy does not desublimate the “prohibitory apparatus of culture”(6); he denies it as a workable definition of gender, preferring instead to rely on the semiotics of essentialist difference. This kind of contradiction in a critique of an artist absolutely requires our attentiveness to the nuances within the supplemental discourse.

McCarthy’s work obviously begs for a thorough reading, possibly based on the “frustration experienced under the phallocentric order,”(7) yet it is not only male artists who have been misrepresented in the theoretical supplements. The paintings of Marilyn Minter have been viewed for some time as recalling “Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage, in which our identities are built around the desire to attain the whole and unified body we saw in the mirror as infants.”(8) True, Minter’s paintings do typically depict fragmented feminine form as body parts (feet in high-heels, toothy-mouths biting pearl necklaces) but this would seem to recast the erotic object of film theory as a static and fragmented fetish, rather than propose a longing for a unified perfection of form. Any functional display of women in a fragmented, objectified image can also be interpreted as the furtherance of the phallocentric “symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies[sp] and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.”(9)

Readings for 29 November: Chapter 2: Peter Halley’s Notes on the Paintings and Deployment of the Geometric; Chapter 4: Gerhard Richter’s interview with Rolf Günter Dienst and Interview with Rolf Schön.


1. Lee Weng Choy, Authenticity, Reflexivity, and Spectacle in Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985, Z. Kocur and S. Leung, (eds.), Oxford, 2005, 251.

2. Amelia Jones, "Paul McCarthy’s Inside Out Body and the Desublimation of Masculinity" in Paul McCarthy [exhibition catalog of Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art], New York, 2000, 126.

3. Ibid., 127-128.

4. Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex, New York, 1993, 51-52.

5. David Macey, Dictionary of Critical Theory, London, 2000, 52.

6. Jones: 128.

7. Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", originally published in Screen 16:3, Autumn 1975, 7.

8. Joshua Shirkey, New Work: Marilyn Minter [exhibition brochure of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art], 2005.

9. Mulvey: 7.

November 9, 2006

Signs Within Signs

I have written elsewhere about the more controversial issues of appropriation, i.e., authenticity and authorship, so it may prove helpful to approach our topic from the viewpoint of semiotics, to grasp the appropriative technique as a play of images. The use of images dominates advertising and the first wave of photo-appropriationists (Kruger, Burgin, et al) re-formed the quoted sign (coupled with text) as new referents to foster markedly different readings about ideological structures of wealth, power, sex and politics.(1)

Art history is rife with manipulations of borrowed imagery (from Braque and Duchamp, to Prince and Hirst) and I would like to differentiate earlier appropriative practices before proceeding. Modernist painters like Braque, Picasso and Schwitters used a formal ordering of borrowed imagery within their compositions. Indubitably, later theorists would proffer Marxist and/or socio-cultural views of these works, yet these painters treated newspaper clippings, cigarette wrappers and other bits of capitalist detritus as formal devices, particularly in Cubism.

But it is those artists who invest their borrowed imagery with different signifieds that I wish to discuss. By using borrowed signs to refer to new meanings, often directly contradicting their original signification, these artists truly engage visual art’s role as a vehicle for cultural meaning.

First, let us consider, in brief, the system of representation that is language, and let it stand in for another representing system - art. Using the structuralist views of Saussure, we can see that each sign (word) in a language gets its meaning because of its difference from every other sign, i.e., meaning arises from functional differences between the elements within the system of representation.(2) (Red means red because it’s not blue.) Thus, if we substitute this structuralist view for painting, we could also agree that certain configurations of color or brushwork will have meanings based on their recognized differences from other color themes, etc.

In this way, structuralism set in motion a process of inquiry that eventually undermined empiricism (what’s real is experienced) by questioning the acceptance of any structure based wholly on convention (not observation). Meaning, in essence, is not conveyed by the intention of the speaker (painter) but is determined by the language system.

A bit later, the poststructuralist position emerges, wherein the means are revealed as insufficient proof of the ends, i.e., meaning is never fully present in any signified (concept) but is infinitely deferred. And more importantly, the poststructuralists saw meaning as contextual, affected by related words.

Roland Barthes had written:
"We shall therefore take language, discourse, speech, etc., to mean any significant unit or synthesis, whether verbal or visual: a photograph will be a kind of speech for us in the same way as a newspaper article; even objects will become speech, if they mean something."(3)

This is what the best appropriationists will contend with, a way in which to subvert representation as an equivocal, rote system of images, and cast it in new subliminal, deconstructive ways. To intervene within the spectacle and invest it with a near unconscious misrecognition of meaning. As Hal Foster notes:

"[Barbara] Kruger has suggested that image appropriation, rather than question ‘the original use and exchange value’ of representations, contradict ‘the surety of our initial readings’ and strain ‘the appearance of naturalism,’ may in fact confirm them. Her later work evades this closure, for in its oscillation ‘from implicit to explicit, from inference to declaration’ neither photograph nor text, neither connotation nor denotation is privileged as a stable site or mode of truth; in fact the usual coordination of the two (as employed in the media to fix unstable meanings) is undone."(4)

Readings for 15 November: Chapter 8: Hermann Nitsch’s The O.M. Theatre; Laura Mulvey’s "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" in Art After Modernism (on reserve) or here.


1. John Welchman, Art After Appropriation: Essays on Art in the 1990s, Amsterdam, 2001.

2. Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, London, 1959, 15-17, 65-70.

3. Roland Barthes, Mythologies, New York, 1972, 113.

4. Hal Foster, Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics, Seattle, 1985, 221.

November 3, 2006

Lack of Command in Looking

In continuance of our class discussion concerning Victor Burgin’s video projection work, Watergate, and following lines of inquiry informed by Burgin’s earlier essay, “Looking at Photographs”, we might begin with film theory’s paradigmatic looks of the photograph.

As distinguished from the overt formalism of “point-of-view,” the “look” of the camera as it photographs a chosen scene establishes the apparatus as the other, this recording “eye” that we recognize as the camera. The second essential “look” that will be relevant to this discussion is that of the viewer as he /she looks at the photograph. I propose that we “bracket” (set aside) the remaining two “looks” of film theory – those exchanged between people, if present, in the photograph, and their “looks” at the camera – to focus our attention on the “look” of the camera and the “viewing subject.”

According to Burgin, photography “at once depicts a scene and the gaze of the spectator, an object and a viewing subject” (his italics). Burgin further equates the camera’s “P.O.V.” with the position “bestowed upon the spectator,” and delineates this “system of representation” as extending “the agency of the frame” as an ordering device representing the world’s “coherence which it actually lacks.”(1)

First, a brief description of the work, taken from the Corcoran website:

“. . . Burgin has created Watergate, a new video projection work in which he has used a computer to modify and animate images he made with a 360˚ digital panoramic still camera. Frederic Edwin Church’s famous painting Niagara serves to link the space of a Corcoran installation of American Romantic art with a modern Washington hotel room.”(2)

I propose that Burgin’s Watergate video at the very least expands upon his earlier conceptual theories regarding the frame and the viewing subject’s "lack of command" when looking. He uses the “pan” technique of film to brilliantly divert us from the “drive to master” our looking, ironically seducing our viewing act with a combination of frustration and anticipation.

Twenty-three years previous, Burgin had pointed out that “photographs are deployed so that we do not look at them for long; we use them in such a manner that we may play with the coming and going of our command of the scene/(seen).”(3) Certainly, our "lack of command" is obvious when viewing video; but the creeping, clock-wise pan of Watergate inures us to this fact, as we seem to be watching a “single image,” and this, as Burgin wrote in 1977, puts us in jeopardy of losing our command: “To remain long with a single image is to risk the loss of our imaginary command of the look, to relinquish it to that absent other to whom it belongs by right – the camera.”

Watergate teases the viewing subject with its false “postponement” of the “rule of the frame,” i.e., we seem to be “moving the eye from the framing edge,” but the edge crawls away relentlessly to the right. And we anticipate something or someone to be there, just out-of-frame, and to appear soon, so we remain frustrated, yet still looking. Burgin simultaneously steals our attention and our command, substituting his camera’s authority over our looking. In doing so, he has manifested his previous concepts of “retarding recognition of the autonomy of the frame, and the authority of the other it signifies.”(4)

Readings for 8 November:: Ch. 8: Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Statement and Interview with Els Barents; Ch. 4: Sherrie Levine’s Five Comments; plus Nicolas Bourriaud’s “The Use of Objects” and “The Use of the Product from Marcel Duchamp to Jeff Koons” from Post-Production: Culture as Screenplay (on reserve).


1. Victor Burgin, “Looking at Photographs”, in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, Berkeley, 1996, 855-856.


3. Ibid., 857.

4. Ibid., 857.