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.

Jacob's Retreat 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 peace.

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

HOME        CONTENTS                 RSS logo RSS FEED