«KATHLEEN GILJE at FRANCIS NAUMANN GALLERY It [contemporary art] is confiscating banality, waste and mediocrity to turn them into values and ...»
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FRANCIS NAUMANN GALLERY
It [contemporary art] is confiscating banality,
waste and mediocrity to turn them
into values and ideologies.
Baudr l a
by Miles Mathis
I quit critiquing the Art Renewal Center Salons a couple of years ago, I was so fed up with new realism.
But I stumbled across something today so incredibly awful, so outlandishly horrible, I had to return to my attack on realism. For those of you who don't know, I am myself a realist who paints nudes, so don't read this as one more assault on figuration or classicism by the avant garde. If you think that is what this is, not only are you not keeping up with my writings, you aren't keeping up with art history.
New York decided to embrace realism about five years ago, after flirting with the idea for decades. It had already gotten a toe wet with Lucian Freud decades ago, so it then decided to test the waters with a couple of other fish like Fishl, Currin, Saville and so on. This test was so successful that at last it just let down the gates. At that point Odd Nerdrum walked through, and then hundreds of others followed.
The National Gallery in Washington had a National Portrait Competition in 2006 as a signal of what they wanted from new realists, and it goes without saying that they found a gaggle of aspiring artists willing to do anything to make it. That is why people go to the big cities, of course: to find the biggest, flabbiest, richest butt so that they can attach their lips directly to it, like a remora sucking on the belly of some billionaire shark.
As it happens, this was my introduction to Kathleen Gilje, since I singled her out in my review of the National Portrait Competition. At that time, she had the surpassingly sycophantic and obsequious idea of painting a series of portraits of critics and curators. Her entry was a portrait of Robert Rosenblum, the curator at the Guggenheim, with his head pasted on Gilje's copy of Ingres' Marquis de Pastoret. So the portrait was two bad ideas in one: 1) suck up to an overbearing and tasteless curator, 2) suck up to said curator while bastardizing and thoroughly defiling a great work of art. Of course Rosenblum, being tasteless, found nothing wrong with that. These critics and curators don't love art. They actually hate art, as they have made clear by all their actions in the past century. So the fact that Ingres' portrait was defaced with his own face seemed to him just as it should be.
These curators do things like this all the time. In 2003, the curator of the Tate Britain allowed a contemporary “artist” to wrap Rodin's The Kiss in string. It was good there was a public outcry, or the next thing we would have seen would have been Millais' Ophelia tagged by a graffiti artist, or the Rokeby Venus slashed in a period recreation of feminism**. In 2004, Constable's The Haywain was cut into a mosaic and transported from various parts of England to London, where it was put back together in front of a screaming mob. The fact that it was not the actual painting that was cut up does not make this less vulgar. My point being that contemporary critics, curators, and other administrators of art actually care nothing for art. They only care about spectacle, and this portrait of Rosenblum as Pastoret is just another very clear example of that. Gilje could have stolen into the Art Institute in the dead of night and painted Rosenblum's head on Ingres' actual painting: Rosenblum would only have chuckled and preened. He would have said to himself, “That is the true sign of the power of the curator over the artist! If I had told her I would give her a show if she ate Ingres' painting, including the frame, she would have done it.” You would have thought that Gilje had scraped the bottom of the barrel of vulgarity, transparent toadyism, and artistic miscalculation with that, but no. She was back in 2009 at the same gallery with an even worse idea: take some great historical portraits of women and “restore” them. You see, she had worked for a while in restoration at New York University, so this is what she knew. But she didn't want to work in the conservation department, doing necessary work. She wanted to be an artiste. Since she had no ideas for paintings of her own, she thought, “Why not piss on other people's paintings? They are dead and can't stop me. The avant garde have already proved that 'quoting' and 'sampling' are a goldmine, and are protected by the courts, so this will be seen as progressive.” As, of course, will shallow politicization and nodding to culture as a sign of relevance.
With this in mind, she “restored” Petrus Christus' portrait above by adding multiple piercings in ear, brow, nose, and lip. Wow, that is exceedingly clever, as you see. This is what Gilje herself has to say
Marring her appearance in this way is a shock to the viewer. It is incongruous and causes us to reexamine our contemporary view of ‘beauty’. It moves the impression of a regal, 16th century figure into the realm of contemporary punk culture. The ‘restoration’ is subtle, but profound in its impact.* No, it doesn't, and isn't. It causes any sensible person to re-examine contemporary levels of how low an artist will stoop to get into a gallery, how low a gallery will stoop to be part of the game, and low a writer will stoop to get an article in print. Moving a regal portrait into the realm of punk would only be interesting to punks, one would think, and what punks have money enough to buy paintings out of Manhattan galleries? But wait, we remember that the rich people in Manhattan have made their money in so many boring and dirty ways, they are desperate to look cool to eachother. Even being as cool as a punk is better than anything they have ever achieved or ever will achieve, with their expensive haircuts and sneakers and destressed jeans. They don't have the balls to wear their pants below their buttocks, so this is the best they can do. Won't the party guests be impressed by their verve and daring, buying such a painting and putting it in the living room, next to the big plastic cube and the 40-foot technicolor popsicle?
Forty eight of Gilje's “restorations” are affronts to Sargent. That's right, 48. The one above is a redo of his The Countess of Rocksavage. I will use it to sharpen my critique a bit. In all of Gilje's paintings, including the one of Rosenblum, the head looks pasted on the body. She is terrible at transitions. We see that again here, where the face isn't even lit like the body. The face has dark shadows to one side, but the body doesn't. And what happened to her skintone? It isn't even close. In Sargent's painting we have lovely alabaster skin lit by natural light; Gilje gives us skin heated up by modern lightbulbs. The lovely touchlights in the eyes are gone as well, so that where Sargent's lady sparkles, Gilje's looks dreary and almost stoned. There is much more dark under the eyes of the copy, and this also adds to this heavy, enervated effect. All lightness is gone. Gilje cuts the hands out, because, well, she doesn't have time for that, but why lop off the top of the head? She does that on all of them. Some bit of veiled aggression? Gilje also tries to mimic Sargent's bravura brushwork, but doesn't have the skill to do it. It is bad enough in the face, where we just get slop (look at the lid fold, oh my god!), but in the body we have a trainwreck. Gilje tries to stay loose in the wide open areas, like above the breasts, but when she gets near a line, she reverts to her old tight style. The arms are nothing like Sargent; they look more like Hockney with his lenses. Witness those elbows. One is a noodle and one is an amateur block-in. And what is the line under the right breast? The shadow is on the other side, so that must be a scar. Why would Gilje add a large chest scar to someone she was “empowering”? [More on that below.] All her Sargent redo's look like she was on a deadline. They are extremely lazy and rushed. Couldn't she find more than one nude model in all of Manhattan? In the three posted with the article*, we find the same sagging breasts, flabby belly, and formless arms. Don't believe me? Look here, Another disaster. The head is too big, the skintones are again ghastly, and the figure has been outlined.
Why wouldn't she try to match those gorgeous skintones? Why wouldn't she just copy the lovely hands that are already there? And where did that green come from, Army Surplus? Gilje couldn't use Sargent's beige background with a nude, but did she have to give us this olive with way too much yellow? It just proves how lost Gilje is when she isn't copying or restoring. More evidence is the brushwork in the background, which is square on one side and jagged on the other. She should be told that if you are going to let brushstrokes show, you should let more than a couple show. Five or six chicken scratches is not bravura.
And there are worse ones than these. I post only a few thumbs from the gallery page:
In reviewing Gilje, I also have to review the writer of the piece I read*, Richard Friswell, and the publisher, Artes Magazine. Friswell says, Kathleen Gilje liberates many of these women of the past, empowering and enabling them in ways that both magnify and celebrate what they could have or did accomplish in their own time.
So showing your tits or getting pierced is now an accomplishment? C'mon, I'm a painter of nudes and a supporter of feminism, but even I don't buy it. To start with, you can't liberate dead women: they are dead. Unless Gilje or Friswell is also a voodoo re-animator, that clause is illogical. In the same way, you can't magnify or celebrate something they did not accomplish. And if they did accomplish it, they don't need to be empowered or enabled by Gilje and Friswell, do they? The presumption of both artist and writer is incredible. I bet neither one of them bothered to do any research on these women, to see who they really were. Perhaps they weren't in need of any restoration. Perhaps they could paint better than Gilje. Maybe they funded the suffragettes. Most likely they could write better than Friswell. He doesn't even know how to put together a sensible sentence. He is just trying to sell us something by stringing us along with platitudes and political correctness. Same for the magazine. The heading tells us that Artes is “passionate for fine art,” but I see no evidence of that here. Anyone who was passionate for fine art wouldn't publish articles like this.
I had finished this article and was about to post it when my fiancée happened to take a look at Gilje's restorations. She saw some things I didn't. Not only did she point out that the crowns of the heads were cropped off, she noticed that the restorations actually looked much less empowered than the originals. And it has nothing to do with the nudity, it has to do with the way the poses have been subtly altered, with a shortening of the neck, an increased slouch, a yellowing of the skin, a stress added to the eyes and countenance, and a cropping of limbs and crown. She suggested that Gilje didn't make these women look worse just because she can't paint as well as Sargent. She made them look worse because she hates them as much as she hates Sargent. It should be clear by now that Gilje didn't choose Sargent because she wanted to create an homage. She chose Sargent because he is considered to be regressive, the last painter of aristocrats. As such, he and his sitters are fair game. “We can and should paint over their paintings, since they are outmoded and politically incorrect.” That is the political reading, but the psychological reading is even grubbier. Those who can read the signs can see the veiled aggression.
Gilje hates Sargent, not because he painted the rich (she does, too), but because he could paint better than she can. And he actually got paid well for painting the rich, while she has to paint these curators and critics for nothing. They didn't commission the series, she did it on speculation. Is that empowerment, for women or artists? No, it is prostration. As for her attitude toward her sisters of the past, it, too, is black in all ways. She's not empowering them. That is just misdirection. She never intended to empower them. With her lopping of their crowns, she is psychologically scalping them.
Nor is she stripping their bodices off to empower them, she is doing it to try to shame them. If she had wanted to empower them, she would have made them look better nude, not worse. These women look ridiculous, and it isn't because they are nude. It is because of the way they are painted, cropped, and presented. This presentation was not an accident.
If I blame the writer and the magazine, I have to blame Francis Naumann as well. As it happens, he is also an easy target, leaving himself wide open for deconstruction and psychoanalysis, as we can see from his photo and his email moniker LHOOQ@francisnaumann.com.
Notice that smug, overfed look, like a cat that just ate too much kibble. Also note that he is holding a chesspiece, looks like a queen. And LHOOQ means “She has a hot ass.” Could be avant garde porn lingo, but I assume he is just telling us he loves Duchamp. Why is that important? Duchamp defaced the Mona Lisa by drawing a mustache on her and writing LHOOQ below her.
That is how much Naumann loves art. Naumann shows Duchamp and Picabia in his gallery, as well as realists like Gilje (but he only shows realists if they slather themselves in contemporary pseudopolitics, as we have seen, or deface works by greater artists, like his hero Duchamp did). Duchamp quit art early on to play chess all the time, and for some reason Naumann finds that compelling. He sells Duchamp's book on chess on his front page, just below a book called The Visible Vagina.
This vagina book tells us that pictures of the vagina are “intended, in almost all cases, for the exclusive pleasure of men. The goal of this publication is to remove these prurient connotations, implicit even in works of art, ever since the pudendum was prudishly covered by a fig leaf.” Since Naumann and a guy named David Nolan put the book and exhibition together, I guess we are supposed to think they got no “prurient pleasure” from it.