ArtSlant: In Bed with Zhang Xiaogang

16:9 Zhang Xiaogang (Curated by Leng Lin)

Today Art Museum, Pingod Community, No.32 Baiziwan Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing

December 9 – 26, 2010

With an artist as well known as Zhang Xiaogang, it’s perhaps difficult to move audience perceptions on from the clichés of “Chinese art” which his work has, for better or worse, become an image for. This problem is equally true for the artist themselves in their quest to develop their work. Zhang’s solo show at the Today Art Museum in Beijing demonstrates a development of his signature stylistic forms into a space which may energise those forms.

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Seth Siegelaub

Seth Siegelaub: It was my lack of economic means and l’air du temps which created the relationship that existed between the kinds of shows I did and the artists with whom I was involved. It was an attempt to get away from the gallery because my feeling at the time, as it is now in the case of publishing, is that a space becomes sacralised. The economics of the situation is such that you need to fill a space with eight or ten shows a year, and it is inconceivable that you can do that and remain interested in all of the work you show. You didn’t run a gallery, the gallery ran you – it was just another form of alienated work experience. The gallery came to determine the art to the extent that painters would paint paintings to fit the walls of their dealer.*

  • Buren, Daniel and Siegelaub, Seth (1988/89). May 68 and all that. Interviewed by: Claura, Michel and Dusinberre, Deke. In Bickers, Patricia and Wilson, Andrew, eds. Talking Art: Interviews with artists since 1976. London: Ridinghouse 2007, p.298.

Marlene Dumas: Gesture and Eroticism

My work is about the body. My figures are never engaged in dramatic physical battles, it’s about the little gestures between bodies…The imaginary interests me. Eroticism is when something hasn’t yet happened…»

Meyer Schapiro and the cultural contradiction of Abstract Art

Time for a meaty quote about art, I think:

Paintings and sculptures, Schapiro pointed out, were ‘the last hand-made personal objects’ within a social order dominated by the division of labour. In a world in which the life of most individuals was subordinate to unsatisfying practical activity, ‘the object of art is, therefore, more passionately than ever before, the occasion of spontaneous or intense feeling’. Abstract art met this need best, because it refused ‘communication’ in a world in which communcation had been utterly instrumentalised and reduced to a notion of the most efficient stimulus to produce a given response. More than any other art, it corresponded to ‘the pathos of the reduction or fragility of the self within a culture that has become increasingly organized through industry, economy and the state’. Although it had no specific political message, abstract painting was the ‘domain of culture in which contradiction between the professed ideals and the actuality [of our culture] is most obvious and often becomes tragic’.1,2

  1. HEMINGWAY, Andrew (2006), ‘Meyer Schapiro: Marxism, Science and Art’ in HEMINGWAY, Andrew ed., Marxism and Art History: From William Morris to the New Left, London: Pluto Press. p.142
  2. Quotes taken from SCHAPIRO, Meyer (1957), ‘Recent Abstract Painting’, in SCHAPIRO, Meyer (1978), Modern Art: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, New York: Braziller. pp.217–8, 222–3, 224.

WRITING—The Idea in Art

Picking up on another subject from the previous post, touched on in this quote:

. . . the [late nineteenth-century] avant-garde saw the necessity of an escape from ideas, which were infecting the arts with the ideological struggles of society.1

What’s interesting to me, upon re-reading that passage, is the denigration of ideas as ‘infecting the arts with the ideological struggles of society’, which is precisely (it seems to me) where certain strands of conceptual art took art in the late ’60’s – looking particularly at Adrian Piper.

On the course we are looking at Greenberg along with Clive Bell’s The Aesthetic Hypothesis (1914) and Roger Fry’s An Essay in Aesthetics (1909) as the developers of formalism in art theory in the early twentieth-century. So I reviewed the texts we are reading by them for other instances of the subordination of ideas, but it seems that for Bell and Fry it goes without saying and so there are only oblique references to it.

Clive Bell:

. . . for the purposes of aesthetics we have no right, neither is there any necessity, to pry behind the object, into the state of mind of him who made it.

For to appreciate a work of art we need bring nothing from life, no knowledge of its ideas and affairs, no familiarity with its emotions. Art transports us from the works of man’s activity to a world of aesthetic exaltation.

To appreciate a work of art we need bring nothing but a sense of form and colour and a knowledge of three-dimensional space.

But if in the artist an inclination to play upon the emotions of life is often the sign of a flickering inspiration, in the spectator a tendency to seek, behind form, the emotions of life is a sign of defective sensibility always.2

Roger Fry:

It is only when an object exists in our lives for no other purpose than to be seen that we really look at it . . . and towards such even the most normal person adopts to some extent the artistic attitude of pure vision abstracted from necessity.

We must therefore give up the attempt to judge the work of art by its reaction on life, and consider it as an expression of emotions regarded as ends in themselves.3

Being prior to the development of conceptual art, Fry and Bell’s judgments are historically tied to an understanding of art as object based, so their concept of ‘idea’ seems to be one of subject-matter. Conceptual art on the other hand conceived of the idea as something that isn’t necessarily represented, so the return of the idea, post-Greenberg, was not a return to a previous practice, but a new way of doing art.

  1. Greenberg, C.(1940). Towards a Newer Laocoon. In Frascina F., eds. Pollock and After: The Critical Debate. London: Routledge, 1985.
  2. Bell, C.(1914). The Aesthetic Hypothesis. In Frascina F. and Harrison C., eds. Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology. London: Paul Chapman Publishing, 1982.
  3. Fry, R.(1909). An Essay in Aesthetics. In Frascina F. and Harrison C., eds. Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology. London: Paul Chapman Publishing, 1982.

Defecating Dogs in Dutch Paintings

At the risk of seeming crass, I noticed two paintings at the Dulwich Picture Gallery which included fairly prominent images of dogs defecating.

One was in Rembrandt & Co: Dealing in Masterpieces, the current temporary exhibition at the Gallery and the second was in the permanent collection. It seems a quite bizarre subject to include in a painting. What was the artist trying to say with these dogs? What purpose did they serve?

Looking into the matter further, defecating dogs seem to be a minor theme in Dutch art of Rembrandt’s period. The painting in the Collection is one I mentioned in my previous post as having caught my eye (for a different reason) – Adam Pynacker’s Landscape with Sportsmen and Game.

The catalogue makes no comment on the meaning of the dog, but states that:

The defecating dog seems to derive from the work of Ludolf de Jongh (R.E. Fleischer, Ludolf de Jongh, Doornspijk, 1989, p.57 and fig.48).

Works by Ludolf de Jongh (1616-1679) are present in the Getty Collection and the Royal Collection of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. An example of de Jongh’s work with said dogs can be seen here.

In the Rembrandt exhibition the relevant piece is number 43 – The Good Samaritan which apparently is in the Wallace Collection, although they only illustrate an etching taken from the painting on their website. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has another state of the etching. Here the presence of the dog is described in this way:

Among Rembrandt’s additions here to the largely empty foreground that appeared in the painting is the defecating dog that adds a note of everyday reality to the biblical scene.

Robert Hughes, in the Guardian, echoes this interpretation:

Sometimes Rembrandt’s subjects are too connected to the commonplace world for everyone to like them. There is an extremely vulgar side to Rembrandt. This in itself is no surprise, given the bawdry for which 17th-century Holland was notable. It may well be that giving vent to it was Rembrandt’s compensation for the anal obsession with neatness and cleanness that characterised Dutch domestic life. He did etchings of a man peeing and a woman defecating. A dog, tensely extruding a large turd from its backside, appears in the foreground of The Good Samaritan. . . .

There is apparently an essay by Goethe about The Good Samaritan which also talks in detail about the dog. I’m trying to source this text and will update this post when I’ve read it.

So, the dogs bring an element of real life to these idealised scenes and epic activities. I also read somewhere that they can be included to pass comment on the commissioner of the painting, but now cannot find that reference, so again, I’ll update this post when I find that information.