Making Art and Faking It
Mario Naves at Elizabeth Harris Gallery;
Yoko Ono revives Cut Piece
AN ART CRITIC NEEDS NO PRACTICAL TRAINING,
no personal immersion in any aspect of craft. In theory, it
is enough for a critic to know his history and to have an eye
for the particular cycle of sensibility that marks his own time.
The contemporary critic's job is to articulate that ambient
sensibility, increasing its self-awareness and confidence. And
he is expected to encourage public recognition in a language
useful at table and the lectern.
But there is more to schooling an eye than the horse races
of art history. More, too, than shelves of theory, donnish jargon
or—as an instance of same—strategies of discourse.
So much depends on the ways in which an artist's hand serves
or stymies sensibility. A good critic knows from within how
a hand functions as an extension of the eye. Without that fundamental
empathy, criticism is no more than a circle dance performed
by critics for each other. It is no accident that the most illuminating
commentaries on painting and painters have been penned by practitioners.
From Vasari to Ruskin, André Lhote to Fairfield Porter—to
name only our betters—the experience of painting is often
communicated best by those who have lived some time with the
terrors of the studio.
by Mario Naves
Mario Naves, art critic for The
New York Observer, has both an eye and a hand. That
was apparent two years ago at his first exhibition at Elizabeth
Harris Gallery. This current show confirms my initial regard
for his art and deepens my delight in it. In his artmaking,
as in his criticism, his primary concern is for the way a thing
looks, not for one or another formalist theory.
On view are nine collages, modestly scaled, their complexity
increasing as size diminishes. Paint is the starting point.
Naves admits that his collages grew out of dissatisfaction with
his own painting. It is a disarming admission, one that prompts
him to paint "by other means." And the means are simple.
Paint is dripped, scraped, scumbled, sponged, patted and brushed
on pieces of paper that are then torn and rearranged. His technique
preserves the accidental aspect of the painting process while
it subordinates all randomness to the cognitive, disciplined
basis of traditional painting.
Naves' method relieves him of every painter's struggle to achieve
a particular touch. It saves him from over-painting and the
hazards of sustained brush-work. His texture derives from the
quality of papers, their creases, folds and variety of over-lapping
edges. Color is already dry, fixed on the paper, when he begins
to manipulate it. This obviates any risk of slurred or muddy
passages. It frees Naves from the pressures of mark-making,
permitting him to concentrate exclusively on color and form.
The result is both sensuous and discreet—all calculation
hidden by the alchemy of his composition. Everything hinges
on shape and placement. His working method is nothing if not
deliberate. Yet the overall impression suggests playfulness
and the illusion of spontaneity. Each work develops by a process
of accretion, like a coral reef, around whichever color piece
was fixed at the beginning.
The delicacy of Naves' touch and the sensibility that drives
it reminds me of the work of Kenzo
Okada. A Japanese-American painter blessed with an unerring
compositional sense, Okada created intricate, gossamer surfaces
built on keen attention to nuance and a love of Abstract Expressionism.
Naves shares Okada's gift for subtle tonal shifts within each
color area. Every collage on view is a record of delicate refinements,
one inextricable from the next.
I only wish the titles [e.g. Boy Genius, Hobnob] were
less precious. The watch-while-I-toss-this-off arbitrariness
is out sync with the intuitive, lovingly observed adjustments
that accumulate into an image. An arch tone is a literary conceit
trespassing on imagery that contains no hint of irony.
Elizabeth Harris Gallery, 529 West 20th Street,
New York NY 10011, Tel. 212.463.9666
This review also appears on ArtCritical.
WHO SHOWS UP FOR YOKO ONO THESE DAYS?
Prada rabble woozy from citron martinis? Ecrivains d'art
scrounging for a pensée or two?
On September 16th, Britain's The Independent, ran this
headline: "Yoko Ono loses her shirt in repeat of drama
for the the sake of global harmony." The night before,
Ms. Ono reenacted—if that is the word—her "bold
performance" of 1964 called Cut Piece. Productive
effort is slight. Ono seats herself on a darkened stage dressed
in black flowing silk. The audience is invited to consummate
the artwork by snipping off pieces of her wardrobe with scissors
provided by the house. Shareholders are then instructed to send
the clippings to "a loved one" in the name of world
First performed in Japan in 1964, this was the lark that brought
Ono international recognition as a drop-dead art honcho. This
year's audience, in Paris, was a bit slow on the uptake. So
Sean Lennon, 27, jump-started the show by kneeling next to his
mother and taking the first cut. After an hour of audience participation,
Ono was down to her black underwear. Undies, alas, were out
of bounds. There are limits to what an aging artist can expose
for universal tranquility.
Back in '64, undressing a nubile 31 year old gave the necessary
sexual frisson to what was, at bottom, a strip show. High-minded
honky-tonk for bien pensants. Uncovering the same woman,
nearly 40 years later, offers more poignant possibilities. Cut
Piece might be effective today as a vivid meditation on
mortality. The ageless lesson of the vanitas is made
new in each generation. But black bra and panties on a 70-year
old exhibitionist, together with the self-referential bleating
about peace ["I was just here to say imagine world peace.
… I'm hoping these things will help."] kills any
chance of seriousness.
Distributing bits of her wardrobe as if they were relics of
the True Cross is so swollen with conceit, the show should draw
belly laughs. These are icons of narcissism, not—as The
Independent states—part of "Ono's enduring request
for world peace." If you get a scrap in the mail, dear
reader, have the wit to send it back. Ono's act is totally hollow,
vacant of any intrinsic meaning. It lends itself to whatever
agenda is stated in the press release. Like much performance
art in general, the act itself is blank, a backdrop for whatever
rhetorical scheme is projected onto it. It is a gesture for
hire, no more than a rental space available for whatever posture
draws box office.
One participant, an 18-year-old naif from California,
burbled respectful assent: "Scissors usually have a violent
connotation, but she turns it around to make it peaceful."
Do Californians have a gene for gullibility? Scissors, in themselves,
have no such connotation, sweet girl. All depends on how things
are used. A Bic can write a love letter or put out an eye. My
Olfa snap-blade could carve Jack Nicholson's nose if it wanted
but settles for life as pencil sharpener. Édouard Vuillard,
whose mother made her living as a dressmaker, might easily have
thought of scissors as symbols of labor, enterprise and creativity.
On the other hand, scissors are the weapon of choice in partial-birth
abortions. Try to imagine Ono's stunt packaged as a call to
stop shoving scissors into the brains of infants aborning. The
famous widow would have played to an empty house. The crowd
that came to fawn over make-believe peace-making, would have
kept their elbows on the bars in Pigalle. And The Independent
would have averted its eyes.
Grandstanding in the arts has become a habit, like church-going.
By making noises about some pretense at social redemption or
another, artists put themselves beyond the reach of criticism.
Any relation between stated intent and actual achievement is
rendered undiscussible. Right-thinking short circuits traditional
categories of judgment. It hardly matters if a "work"
is good or bad. It's about Peace, Justice, Choice or some other
fine abstraction. How could anyone find fault with that?
You can sell any flimflam if you dress it as art. Art scams
find more pigeons than three-card Monty or the Jamaican switch.
Should Cut Piece come to your town, call the bunco squad.
Maureen Mullarkey ©2003