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Last Sunday night, on the occasion of the exhibit Chagall: Love, War, and Exile on view at the Jewish Museum, Jordan Kantor a painter and professor at California College of the Arts, hosted an intimate panel looking back at painting since the death of Chagall to the present. He was joined by fellow painters-cum-professors Amy Sillman and Peter Doig for a casual dialogue in the first of a three-part series, titled Painting Beyond Belief, which will wrap up in late January.
Sillman and Doig were asked not to prepare but to “come fully exposed for a friendly conversation” and to select a few favorite images of each other’s work. Both the art of Chagall and current topics circulating around painting were touched on as Sillman and Doig discussed their own decades-long development and day-to-day practices as painters.
Narrative being a strong component to Chagall’s work, Kantor started the evening off by asking his guests to reflect on the relationship of storytelling and multiple time zones within a single frame in relation to their own work. Doig and Sillman both admitted that their appreciation of Chagall’s folksy scenes and sincerity had warmed over time after having been less receptive to his art when they were younger. Sillman, who is Jewish and grew up in Chicago, was on guard to received cliches of Jewishness which could be discerned in sentimental depictions like the movie Fiddler on the Roof or works by Chagall, like his large “Four Season’s Mosaic” public art work. Similarly, Doig came to reconsider Chagall’s villages and whimsical vignettes in light of the horrors of World War II. As an war-torn, artist in exile, there was an earnestness but also darkness to the paintings, he said, a yearning for joy and a higher calling that was in no way a pose. Doig appreciated Chagall’s broken-up picture plane and “wicked, witty imagery” as not unlike the work of German painter Jörg Immendorf. With so much modern art concerning itself with existentialism and angst in the form of high-minded abstraction, Chagall comes off as accessible and human, his work laying bare a desire for love, affection, and kindness.
Kantor mentioned that at a time in history when so much art is delivered with citation and irony, it was good to see students exposing themselves in a direct way, even expressionistically, in the vein of Chagall. Sillman countered “expressionism” was still a fraught word; although students are inclined toward story-telling, they have been taught to eschew narrative. Kantor then asked how, as artists who teach, did Doig and Sillman steer students toward realizing their own visions? Both concurred that they didn’t so much see themselves as teachers but rather participants in a larger conversation. As a co-chair in the graduate program at Bard College, Sillman said her contribution was collaborative with many other artists doing different things. Doig compared experiences of teaching in different cities. In London, students work tended toward products to be packaged and delivered to the outside world. In Dusseldorf, the experience was more raw and open-ended according to Doig, and he encountered a lack of ceremony and production that has stuck with him. “There were big rooms, filled with stacks of canvases everywhere and one couldn’t tell what was finished or not,” he said.
When Kantor asked the panelists to talk about process in their own work and how they would begin a piece, Sillman recounted drawing figurative couples from memory working their bending and leaning poses into architectonic abstractions. This changed in 2010, when she relinquished the drawn line for “quasi abstractions” of overlaid shapes in the form of digital animations influenced by the sequencing and timing in experimental film or inventing pictures that accompanied poetry. Sillman reiterated a preference for extracting the raw and real stuff of life as grist for her work and fending off the preconceived and pre-packaged. She referenced the painter-cum-film critic Manny Farber’s famous essay “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” which differentiates techniques of pompous and vacuous spectacle from lean mean resourcefulness that could make or break a film. Likewise, with a wariness towards design, Sillman likened herself to a spider spinning a web; she starts by drawing a line and builds from there. The scale of her work might be determined “by what size canvas would fit through the door.” She mentioned the importance of handling her works personally often with a certain lack of control; a metaphor for trying to make a painting in spite of limitations inherent to the medium in a multi-disciplinary art world.
Doig followed up by mentioning he might not know what Sillman’s paintings were necessarily about, but they were strongly constructed. This brought to mind for him the paintings of Balthus, currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “whether you like them or hate them, they are incredibly made things demonstrating what can be done with such a mundane medium.” Doig talked about how with his own paintings he makes up scenarios of things he has actually seen. He referenced having lived in Trinidad at different times and wanting to do justice to memories of the culture’s brightly painted walls, “a symbol of everyday violence.” His process involves waiting for something to happen to a composition, surprising himself, and letting items fall into place — “like finding a character for an empty stage.” Visitors to his studio have referred to the space as a “graveyard of paintings,” a by-product of letting canvases lie around for years; “I like the way things age,” he says.
When asked by an audience member about the plethora of text often accompanying painting today, Doig explained he was more interested in a canvas talking back at the viewer, “then you can choose to agree or disagree with it.”
When the conversation turned to traveling, the artists on the panel discussed how their careers often lead them to different cities and how the context of a place can disrupt familiar habits. During this topic, I couldn’t help but think of Chagall’s travails as an émigré moving from Russia, then Paris, New York City, and upstate New York, where apparently, he was never really quite at home. It made me wonder what real impact it had on his imagery and work.
It is encouraging to know that the formal and psychic powers of Chagall’s art is rubbing off on a younger generation in various way. It will be interesting to see what further ground is covered in the next two panels in January 2014 where artists as diverse as N. Dash, Carroll Dunham, Jacqueline Humphries, Sanya Kantarovsky, David Salle, and Charline von Heyl will consider painting in proximity to Chagall’s achievements. If there is something universal about great artists it is that they always encourage interesting conversations.
Dialogue and Discourse: Painting Beyond Belief 1 was held at the The Jewish Museum (1109 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) on Sunday, November 24, 2013, 6:30pm–8pm.