Friday, March 26, 2010

Leonard Ward: "Madimals"

Yeah well, so this particular show's already come and gone (May 22nd - March 5th) - but in retrospect it's still worth mentioning, especially as a contrast against another, different BFA exhibition that's going on at the moment (which'll be the subject of an upcoming post, hopefully before its gone). Plus one can always check out more of his work on his website here.

Leonard Ward's "Madimals" featured highly stylized paintings with distorted, disturbing and occasionally violently twisted portrayals of creatures - people and animals - cast against backdrops of indiscriminate patterns of drips and splatters. The random orgy of color (think Cronenberg vomiting on a bad acid trip) reflected not so much of an instinctual level of forethought as an accidental accomplishment: “I don’t really plan out my ideas anymore.” Aside from a couple pieces where paint is used for deliberate textural effects (see details of "Inside" to the right, and "Bwanky" below) at first it mostly bordered on irrelevant and annoying eye-candy.
This might distract a viewer from the lack of any compositional elements or to (unsuccessfully) provide some sort of a context where the figures weren't left hanging in space. Which works fine when the pieces are viewed instead from a more illustrative sense; they'd work better in connection with some other supplemental material - say in a magazine, on a website or tattoos. The paintings are strongly reminiscent of works appearing within the pages of Juxtapoze, which Ward attributes as a major influence - I'd also add it channels more than a little gonzo. The strongest aspect of these paintings is in the contorted linework: the writhing black outlines together with areas of flat house-paint spot-colors work to create a graphic contrast against the treated canvas. It creates a tightly-wrapped visual counterpoint of tension about each of the caricatures and sets up a contrasting dynamic against the unleashed background. 

But tangential to the work on display, probably the most provocative aspect of the show was instead in the considerable media exposure Ward scored. Right there in the very first sentence of the newspaper spread featuring the exhibition was a paint-covered gauntlet splattered across the viewer's face:
“Leonard Ward doesn’t really care what people think about his art. Its purpose is solely for his own benefit — a release and escape from the real world”
This begs the obvious question of why then inflict upon us, the viewing public, the vanity of self-exposure; why seek out public acknowledgment of these works or even bother creating the paintings if it’s at best an exercise in pure solipsist escapement disguised as entertainment? As is often the case, that particular statement was more the result of the reporter's editorial prerogative for a lead-in to a story, and as a disclaimer I'll use it in turn as an excuse to rant and ramble about issues not necessarily about this show in particular.

Saying something like that was not unlike letting out a big ol' art-fart in the middle of a gallery: if no-one’s there, then who really cares - why even bother getting embarrassed. But then someone usually does walk in, and there’s this lingering, offensive little stink in the air that permeates the aesthetic appreciation of the work. Point of fact, it was a cause-and-effect reaction from many people who were asked how such a statement influenced their opinion when hearing it after viewing the show. Anybody who wasn't already turned off by the indecipherable pretensions of modern art would predictably get annoyed: well.. but.. but.. why should we then even care one way or another about these pieces, this show, this artist? Ward's answer, contained in his artist's statement, sums it up best: "no fuzz off my peaches."

In a perversely refreshing moment of honest confession, the cultivated and calculated ambivalence some creators have towards their viewing public is candidly admitted. This paradoxical waltz of attention-seeking behavior and animosity to public opinion was beaten to death by Punk, but people never change and there are probably as many fans who have a deep-seated need to feel ignored as there are belittled collectors of the irrelevant. Cynical critics will note that while it takes no talent to purge oneself of self-inflicted psychological droppings and leave them scattered about a gallery – that blithe disregard for the opinion of others can be mistook for confidence and is a valuable asset in the business world. Shallow, mindless entertainment is inarguably validated with popularity and profit: there's a lot of people who don't ask or want anything more than superficially amusing diversions from their day, which is, after all, the genesis of the creative impulse that informs Ward's work.

Sharing the front page of the on-line edition of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner one can see he might have a point: compared to the concerns of the majority of the community, no-one really does care - at least not enough to comment on. Art is somewhat largely irrelevant to the casual bystander, as most folks are far more intellectually and emotionally invested in hockey scores than what's happening in the art scene around town, much less pretty pictures done by some bored college kid sequestered away within the halls of a university .

"Doesn't matter ... if I'm painting complete crap"

Besides pointing up the prudence in keeping many artists (and especially some bloggers) quiet about actually talking about their work as opposed to just doing it and letting it speak for itself, there's might be a a risk confirming some people’s suspicions about the relationship between artistic ambivalence and public opinion: it disturbs the unspoken assumption that the creator cares. When that’s peeled away there’s an uncomfortable taste left after chewing up and spitting out the mutually supportive symbiosis between creator and viewer. There's also an irony in that, regardless of any disengaged posturing, it’s probably a safe bet that most art majors actually do care what some people think – otherwise it’d make for a short academic experience. Still, it’s a hallmark of contemporary hipness to avoid at all costs any intelligible meaning, and like a lot of relationships and jobs, you wonder why anyone would invest so much time going through the motions, putting so much time and energy in something one doesn’t really quite give a fuck about anyways. When this is compounded by the overwhelming indifference of the general public we arrive at the cultural limbo of America.
It reminds me of Christmas: attending the occasional party to watch with morbid fascination the ritual of ripping up wrapping paper that’s been chosen with care and lovingly, dutifully folded and taped over all the presents. Lost in consumer lust and adolescent greed it takes only seconds to tear through it and get to the whole point of the feeding frenzy. Aside from the numbing display of pointless waste, it’s analogous to some works of art: there should be a point to what’s underneath all the pretty trappings. Instead we’re left with the equivalent of a happy meal on canvas: flavorful cool in bright packaging, but containing empty calories that leave us wanting in just a few hours. Returning repeatedly to many an art show results in that same sense of pornographic hunger: what was created to be unreal will not have any lasting impact on reality no matter how much or how long you watch.
At times many gallery attendees remind one of the local gang of ravens at the dumpster: flocking around each newly deposited load, hopping about and croaking in delight, hoping maybe for something different: they'll spend some time idly rearranging bright shiny objects or poking around before boredom sets in and another fresh batch of trash is delivered.
Every once in a while someone comes along and offers up something useful or interesting: just takes a little dumpster diving to find the treasure. Ward's work is worth a look.
"The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it immensely. All art is useless." - Oscar Wilde 


  1. I just found it endlessly humorous in the final paragraphs of this blog to watch your metaphors string out, Christmas, happy meals, ravens scrummaging in dumpsters. True enough but sometimes I wonder about the use of metaphors simply being people's inability to comprehend something without comparing it to everything else. Then again, we do define words with words. Having perused Ward's gallery several times before it's closure, I felt your opinion on his work as well as the work of other artists with similar standings regarding their art was wholly well planted.
    Didn't actually have much else to say there I suppose.

  2. Thanks – over the years I’ve observed that critiques themselves are metaphors that reveal a lot of other stuff going on in the person critiquing, that really have nothing to do with the art they are looking at. That’s one of those psychological tar-pits around both good + bad art provoking something in the viewer.
    Mediocre work just can’t do it, like the worst kind of flaccid aesthetic crap that just sits there on the wall like a crack in a log.

    And yeah, it’s endlessly amusing to verbally flail around and try to find different ways to translate impressions, and one supposes that’s an underlying key factors in doing art to begin with… communicating by any other means just doesn’t work.
    Call it a professional attribute: cartoonists flogging metaphors to death is an occupational hazard. Writing (obviously) isn’t my strong point, but like drawing, it’s fun to try even when not entirely successful, and like I said in the post, every once in a while something interesting happens. Doodling with words?

    Meanwhile, back to the dumpster…