Contemporary Art as it Relates to the Past
Brian James Spies
Recently Gary Carrion-Murayari, a senior curatorial assistant at The Whitney Museum of American Art, was quoted as follows in reference to a burgeoning trend in contemporary art, “We’re at a particular moment now where there have been drastic changes across the country, so many younger artists have been looking back to history for guidance.” (NYTimes.com 12/11/09). I could not agree more, both in reference to the work of my peers and especially regarding my own work. I believe one of the defining characteristics of artists of my generation is a sort of sponge-like ability to absorb the past 2000+ years of art history as well as ambivalence to the baggage that often in the past has accompanied it. Whereas the previous generation (aka the Pictures Generation) viewed modernity and its leaders (i.e. Clement Greenberg et al) inextricably linked, my generation is able to see the sermon and the preacher as separate entities. We may not agree with the overarching message of modernism but we nonetheless see in it a wealth of inspiration and an unending reservoir of ideas waiting to be mined. So whereas the generation before us mined things such as consumer culture and mass media we apply the same post-modern sampling technique to the aforementioned 2000+ years of art history. In my own art I find it perfectly natural to cite sources as varied as Chaïm Soutine and Richard Prince, often in a single piece. I find inspiration in the use of text by artists like Ed Ruscha and Jasper Johns but will combine this with a painterly approach out of Joan Mitchell and a color palette borrowed from Jeff Koons. I am inspired by how artists both of the past as well as the present use color and form and mark to evoke a sensation in the viewer and to communicate a narrative or universal truth. I may reference a mark from say a Paul Gauguin painting without making any conceptual mention of its source. Much like Run DMC sampling Aerosmith not because they were fans of their oeuvre but because they liked the beat; I treat all of art history as an endless supply of marks and forms and color palettes to populate my work with. Furthermore, unlike previous generations that railed against the museum system that they saw as out of touch with a post-modern ethos that eschewed the sacredness of the “art object”, I feel as comfortable at a Blockbuster Retrospective as I do at an alternative space. Although I define myself as a painter I nonetheless have a broad definition of what a painting is. I don’t feel limited by the constraints placed on previous generations of artists. At the same time, make no mistake, I am a painter and I make paintings. I am not interested in dipping my toe in many ponds; I merely feel that as a painter I approach every work of art that I produce as a painter would so regardless of the medium or method the work I produce is a painting because I, a painter, produced it.