The Sublime and the Struggling Artist
Randall Stoltzfus @ LIMN Gallery, San Francisco, Spring 2009
Art objects reflect society. They are time capsules, spacial beings, they are what they are:handmade relics celebrating existence according to a cult heroic tradition, a set of rules and directions according to the history of great works made before it. Exhibitions celebrate the joy in each new work's break from the rules and repetition of the past and the discovery of new directions, wherein lies each object's originality and source of power. They are ideals in the form of goals chased by committed players in the timeless space of a sacred visual game known as Art.
But if Art is Life for the committed artist, then according to the latter statement Life would be a game and while it is fun to imagine Life in such casual terms, we all can admit to losing perspective in the heat of the moment, especially those committed to excellence or even the concept of perfection, and therein lies the artist's struggle.
The struggle along the artist's path is well defined throughout history, potentially exaggeratedly so, and more often than not, resulting more from each artist's own detrimental psyche, I would argue, than any outside source or physical condition. Yet the inciting struggle presented as a real psychological demanding and even suffering for the artist, no matter how self inflicted or apart it may be from actual physical challenges or financial stress the artist may in reality maintain, is something traditionally regarded as nobel, heroic, or even a prerequisite for public or historical acclaim.
Whether the artist's suffering results from a vague and theoretically unobtainable ideal that striving for endlessly, in the form of Sisyphus, would drive anyone mad, or if its cause is simply the alienation felt from an otherwise indifferent or even scornful public, their suffering seems to be a function of the intellect, or to reappropriate an art world term, their struggle is conceptual. While most artists can be assured of failing to support themselves financially from the sales of their work alone, these are not the struggling artists history has honored as heroic martyrs, nor will they be addressed in this essay. Naturally, it is the successful artists that we speak of and nearly all posthumously celebrated artists had been acknowledged and supported by the public within their own lifetimes despite this unfailing reputation of the tortured soul.
Nevertheless, the mythical legend of "the starving artist" with Van Gogh's self portrait with bandaged ear as the unofficial poster boy image remains to this day in a first world society saturated in creature comforts that can complain of basic cable and a slow internet connection. If that isn't contradiction enough, above all else, the artists that have survived the true test of time, or rather, the work that has survived, uncannily share the general characteristic of sublime beauty. Which brings me to my main question(s): How is it that so much struggle inevitably yields beautiful timeless relics?
Or more specifically: Where is the bitterness represented? Where is the compromised vision? Pettiness? Where is the aesthetic equivalent of the ugly divorce so common in contemporary society's otherwise "comfortable and successful" lifestyles? The fact that an artist has access to such divine vision might lead one to argue that their life lacks true hardship all together.
Undermining this seemingly hypocritical perspective of the art historian is tempting, yet, in spite of myself, I find that I am all that much more impressed and inspired by a work after I've read the tragic background information on the artist. Therefore the conceptual struggle of the artist becomes for the viewer a work of conceptual art. It is a tireless dramatic effect to be faced with a work of art of such perfect beauty that it effuses a sense of peace to your normally distracted mind, only to find that it was forged in a cauldron of steaming hot passionate struggle. In fact, historically, the more painful the process usually created the most serene effects.
Matisse for example was criticized in his day for not expressing visually the violent atmosphere of the two World Wars in which he painted, always seeming too aloof and indifferent for the popular image of the struggling artist. Meanwhile, closer sources insisted he was perpetually tormented throughout his career despite being a celebrated international artist. Across the Atlantic the Abstract Expressionists made it their manifesto to fulfill the image of the great creative struggle demonstrated quite literally on canvas. It has been theorized that their work reflected that which Matisse seemed to have ignored right outside his studio door: the destruction and trauma of the Second World War. In the end, after winning the war and reaping the spoils as the world's undisputed heavy weight champions of art, arguably the two most sublime bodies of work of the Expressionists came from the two most legitimately tragic artists of the movement, Pollock and Rothko.
It is true that soon after the Expressionists movement subsided and a new generation of American artists living in New York took over the critical limelight the sacrificial image of the artist as martyr was challenged. Rather than an art reflecting the blood, sweat and tears of its maker and materials a new image of the "conceptual artist" was ushered in with its critics exclaiming painting was dead and in some cases materials of any kind seemed unnecessary. The work relied on ideas that were mainly ideas of other professional fields all together, as if the artist could masquerade as an expert in any profession he pleased and still present his experiences in an exhibition, as if the mere displacement of concepts created intellectual novelty. The relics they left behind are ordinary objects, dry of emotional expression and clean of any human blemish. The artist had washed his hands clean of the intoxicating romance of oil paint and replaced it with banality. The struggle was gone and the only suffering seemed to be an overwhelming existential boredom. Thank God the critical coup against painting was never complete, (though perhaps it introduced the first real obstacle) and so the struggling artist remains.
Having been recently referred to as "a struggling artist" myself, and while the economy in general is in the tank and business has been slow, it is still difficult finding anything in my life worth calling a struggle. I can only attest to blindly striving for that unknowable perfection of an artist's true masterpiece, and so when I see this in a contemporary peer I am inspired to write about it.
Having recently experienced the exhibition of recent work by Randall Stoltzfus in San Francisco, I found myself not only absorbed in its immediate ambient calm, but was also left with a lingering curiosity, not unlike inspiration itself. Indeed his paintings of splintered light at once resembling sunspots, starbursts and twinkling moonlight create an atmosphere suggesting deeper thought than the everyday buzzing and bickering between the busdriver and his passengers I had to endure on my way downtown to The LIMN gallery. It was quiet and empty once I arrived, save for the yammering of a gallerist's business negotiation over the phone and the sudden visual explosions of impasto paint from the canvases that echoed in my brain. His handling of paint is expressive, if not impressionistic, and multi-layered, the globules of paint of high tonal contrast scattered like marbles that in the end combine to create monumental, austere compositions. My eyes focused and unfocused on the natural space the paintings drew me into while also repelling my eyes like the bright light they portrayed, calling attention to their agitated physical surfaces. There were signs of a struggle having taken place or like what so many artist statements call "tension."
Stoltzfus engages in a painterly fight between representational landscape, as simplified as it usually is, and the groundless matter of atmospheric light, each painting finding its own place within the complex spectrum. Some offer a reflective surface that appears to be water, dancing between its darkest depths of pure pigment and the most blindingly deceptive glossy reflections flecked with sparkling gold leaf. Others portray a tree form as a foreground element in silhouette standing in a pictorial effort against being consumed completely by the glaring light behind, engulfing its every delicate and wavering edge. There is the element of optical illusion combined with the more straight forward gestural application of paint that comes across as a near scientific experiment of imaginable trials and errors of painting layer upon layer. At times the smudges of impasto are outlined with crudely brushed circles adding to the illusional character of the paint. For that reason and perhaps because of the fond memory of the last time I was in the area to see a Chuck Close exhibit spurred me to query if Close's paint handling was an influence. (After so much ranting about the struggling artist I bite my tongue just thinking of the irony.) Stoltzfus deflected my suggestion of Close and rather cites Pousette-Dart as a personal favorite, another painter caught in history under the umbrella term Abstract Expressionist. Like Pousette-Dart, Stoltzfus intends to translate the sublime experience in painting, an abstract concept indeed, while maintaining an optically seductive pictorial space. Needless to say, staying true to historical form, despite the calm and pleasurable experience his paintings offer the viewer, after years of working on any given canvas, Randall Stoltzfus still finds himself struggling to call them finished.