Per Contra

Summer 2007

Visual Arts

Back to Archive

Still Against The Grain by Donald Kuspit



Thus Chimes finds beauty even in Artaud’s distorted, emotionally ugly face, and in the physically anomalous, not to say perverse, face of Mona-Duchamp.  Unlike Duchamp, Chimes is not an anti-esthetic artist making pseudo-scientific experiments in perception, as Duchamp did--they are all esthetic failures (their failure is disguised by calling them anti-art; Duchamp himself said that their concept mattered more than their execution), however much the latterday spectator--which is what Chimes is--finds them esthetically profound.  He is an esthetic artist who sees the beauty in unsightly avant-garde art, or rather avant-garde art that was once unsightly but has now become one of the “must” sights to see for cultural tourists.  Chimes’s theater of absurdity saves his avant-garde figures from a fate worse than death--becoming tourist attractions, waxworks figures in an entertaining museum--and the academic fate of being repeatedly exhumed for a new art historical autopsy.


The simple point is that, polished to perfection--a sort of melancholy perfection, as their atmospheric gesturalism, at once murky and luminous, faded and frantic, suggests--the portraits announce the pearl-like preciousness of the avant-garde personages depicted.  The complicated point is that they invoke and re-validate, and thus in principle restore and revive, the creative spirit that informs their art, a spirit that has collapsed into historical memory.  Chimes in effect re-realizes already historically real and socially legitimated avant-garde art--avant-garde art that has taken its grand place in art history--in order to recover its original intention.  In a sense, his portraits are conceptual paintings, for their paint and grain conceptualize avant-garde originality while demonstrating it.  


The original avant-garde intention was radically transgressive, that is, it articulated the the transgressiveness at the root of modernity.  To be modern is to be against the past, against what has been and old, against tradition, against superficiality, against what Saul Bellow called the society of distraction.  The paradox of Chimes’s portraits is that they celebrate a transgressiveness that has become a shallow cliché and distraction from the seriousness of life.  Chimes portrays the seminal artists of what Harold Rosenberg called the tradition of the new--an ingenious way of saying that the new has become the old--and of the modern tradition that Baudelaire prophesized.  Apollinaire regarded Baudelaire as its first member, as he states in “The New Spirit and the Poets.”  Chimes’s portraits re-affirm the significance of an avant-garde that has become passé, a superficial memory, but that nonetheless endures in the present--that we attend to, if only in passing, because we respect, even as we resist, the existential authority it once had.  It is as though it continues to reveal the emotional truth, as Apollinaire said it did, that we hide from ourselves yet subliminally feel.  We refuse to accept what avant-garde authenticity tells us about our own inauthentic lives--lives so focused on the objective that they have forfeited subjective depth (I think one of psychoanalysis’s tasks is to keep us aware of it)--lives like those in Warhol’s mechanical portraits, all grounded in objectifying photographs.  Chimes’s avant-garde figures refused to live the lives of quiet desperation that Thoreau spoke of.  They rebelled against quiet desperation, and preferred noisy expression.  Warhol’s and Thoreau’s people seem not to have realized that the subjective and objective are the crossroads of existence, and that one must finally prefer one or the other, whatever the consequences.  Chimes’s avant-garde figures clearly chose the former, implying that their works offer us a sort of “sentimental education”--an education in feeling.  But we are afraid to follow their lead--the lead of the feelings they expose in their lives and art--no doubt because many of them were mad--certainly Jarry and Artaud were--as Ronald Laing and Louis Sass showed in their analysis of the avant-garde mentality.   


For Chimes Jarry is the exemplary representative of modern transgressiveness, all the more so because his subversive pursuit of the radically new dead-ended in nihilistic madness--complete negation of the exterior world and with that negation of the self that depends on it.  Their madness was that they tried to be parthogenetic.  They thought that creativity was self-fertilizing rather than fertilized by the world.  The artistic autonomy and emotional independence their adverserialness supposedly gave them was illusory and self-destructive.  Jarry was an initiator of the adversarial culture, and the subversive figure of Ubu Roi continues to be one of its heroes, although, ironically, it has been domesticated into an alternative culture, that is, the adverserial stance--it is no longer a stand--has become farout entertainment and as such decadent.  But Chimes makes it a new revelation by giving it ironical form through his adulatory esthetic perfection of its representatives.  He dialectically distills it into cunning abstractness--takes it underground into the medium, as though returning it to its hidden source, while leaving its representatives aboveground, locked in their photographs as though in the prison cage of history, looking somewhat shopworn and everyday as they take their historical bow.  Chimes has anointed them, but he may be unwittingly implying that they achieved their photographic fame at the expense of their creative spirit, that is, following Milton, their longing for fame--the photographs  embody it--reveals the infirmity of their noble minds.  But, as I have emphasized, their genius continues to live in Chimes’s ingenious handling of the medium.  It has become an abstract presence.  I am arguing that Chimes eternalizes avant-garde transgressiveness, liberating it from historical contingency--represented by the photograph--through his imaginative handling of the material medium.  He is a modernist painter, however imagistic.   His imagery is in fact given existential urgency through his persuasive articulation of the material medium--the against-the-grain wood of his frames, intensified into esthetic conspicuousness, and the subtle fluidity of his painterliness, with its unexpectedly dense expressionistic passages.


“Modernist painting,” Clement Greenberg wrote, “calls attention to the physical properties of the medium, but only in order to have these transcend themselves.”  It quintessentializes what great painting has always been:  “The great masters of the past achieved their art by virtue of combinations of pigments whose real effectiveness was ‘abstract’.”  Their “greatness is not owed to the spirituality with which they conceived the things they illustrated so much as it is to the success with which they ennobled raw matter to the point where it could function as art.”  For Greenberg, “art explains to us what we already feel, but it does not do so discursively or rationally; rather, it acts out an explanation in the sense of working on our feelings at a remove.”  


I will try to explain how Chimes’s art acts out an explanation of the wish to transgress --to go against-the-grain--that we all have but tend to repress, and that was acted out by the irrepressible avant-garde--which is the way Roger Shattuck describes them--and is re-enacted in Chimes’s portraits of avant-garde celebrities.  I use the word “celebrities” deliberately, to remind us once again of the ironic affinity between Warhol’s portraits of celebrities of popular commercial bourgeois culture and Chimes’s portraits of personages in the once unpopular anti-commercial and anti-bourgeois artistic culture of their day--this despite the fact that such major avant-garde artists as Cézanne and Degas were bourgeoisie with private incomes, and Baudelaire addressed his salon reviews to the bourgeois reader.


Chimes does not embalm photographic appearances but rather esthetically transforms them with a reflective patina of lively surface, causing them to resonate expressively--emanate feeling.  Chimes is not a photo-copiest--a conceptual appropriator of famous artists, for example, like Sherrie Levine, who used their reputation to achieve her own.  Chimes’s internalizes his figures by painting them--which simultaneously gives them internal reality--while Levine destroys the internal necessity of the works she appropriates by treating them in a shallow external manner, thus turning them into hollow signifiers.  In his essay “The Style all’antica:  Imitation and Appropriation,” E. H. Gombrich distinguishes between a “transmuted motif,” that is, a visual theme or idea used innovatively or inventively, and “faithful copying degenerating into sheer repetition of the model.”  On the one hand, transforming the model “as the bee transforms the nectar into honey, or as the body assimilates its nourishment,” an idea from Seneca--and an idea that reminds us of Duchamp’s notion that the historian refines the molasses of raw art into sugar.  On the other hand, “the mechanical imitation of one model or style,” which Quintillian opposed.  Chimes transmutes the photographic motif by painting it, in effect liberating the creative subjectivity of the avant-garde artist from photographic objectivity.  The degraded, fashionable posterity conferred by the photograph is subverted by the uncanny posterity conferred by the vitalizing surface. 


In a sense, the corpse in the conscious photograph is brought to unconscious life by Chimes’s painterly handling.  Mechanically reproduced or copied in a photograph, the avant-garde artist is dehumanized and loses originality, but the painterliness rehumanizes him and preserves his originality, if only as a trace of creative spirit.  Chimes is not a mechanical imitator of mechanical reproductions--his work does not serve the trendy thesis that there is no originality, only an infinite regress of copies--but rather an artist who regenerates a “degenerate” photograph by bringing it to expressive life, implying that it is creative nourishment rather than dead matter.  Chimes’s paintings criticize and subvert the photographs that are their point of departure, suggesting that his oeuvre as a whole is a rebuke to the dominance of mechanical reproduction in our society.  For him, a photograph is incapable of the emotional richness that can be achieved through paint.  For Chimes, paint in effect de-reifies the photograph and the person reified by it.  Art and life may have run out of history, as Warhol’s thesis of fifteen minutes of world fame suggests, but Chimes shows that painting can still make esthetic and emotional history.       


In short, Chimes seems to be integrating painting and photography, but he is taking the side of painting against photography:  his painting goes against the grain of the photograph.  His panel portraits in effect argue that a mechanically made photographic portrait is an inadequate likeness because it is unable to convey inner life as convincingly as abstract modernist painting.  At its best it embodies the spontaneity and subtlety--primary energy and rich nuance--of selfhood at its most intensely subjective or inward.  I am extending Susan Sontag’s objection to photography by calling attention to the uncanny power of pure painting--the power to create a sense of interior reality that can hold its own against exterior reality.  It does this in part by bypassing factual appearance, which is what photography records, however inadequately, and by intensifying the medium, so that its material seems to embody feeling.  The photograph’s naive realism is replaced by pure painting’s subjective realism.  Photography offers banal objectivity while pure painting offers feeling sophisticated into abstract enigma--modernist painting is haunted by uncanny feeling--suggesting that it is ontologically puzzling.  Photography gives us an outer likeness which demands an explanatory context--although we know the likeness is a routine machine-made record of a transient appearance (suggesting that human being is also a routinely machine-made token of time, like the photograph)--while painting can “communicate feeling directly from mind to mind, with no intent to explain why the impact occurs,” to quote Edward O. Wilson.


Unlike Duchamp, who admired what he called Dada’s “purge”--not to say destructive devaluation--of the past, Chimes’s creativity is dedicated to remembering its subjectivity in inner tranquility while identifying with it as a source of contemporary creativity.  Duchamp himself, the exemplary anti-esthete, is esthetically validated by Chimes’s treatment of him, suggesting that the “tasteless” America Duchamp celebrated, as in his famous remark that the only good art in America was its plumbing and bridges (he and Picabia thought the Queensborough Bridge was great art; it is not clear that this was meant ironically or nihilistically), is in fact paradoxically tasteful and, more pointedly, profoundly creative, for its “art in a raw state”--dare one say practical art?--reveals an original intention.  One might say that Duchamp--more insidiously against-the-grain than the anarchistic Jarry (although also an Ubu Roi)--sides with America against Europe.  In a sense, America is a critique of Europe, and subverts it--a view implicit in Grant Wood’s attack against French art, reiterated, in very different terms, by Rosenberg and Greenberg.  The idea of American art as against-the-grain of European art is implicit in Duchamp.  He was transgressively American, as it were.  Another Chimes paradox:  by portraying transgressive European artists Chimes assimilates them into American transgressiveness.  America was in fact  more hospitable to Duchamp’s brand of transgressiveness than France. 


What do we know about Jarry and Artaud?  They were perennially psychotic adolescents--psychosocial misfits who became tragic visionaries by way of their annihilative anxiety, that is, their paranoid sense that their existence was constantly threatened by society.  They lacked perspective on themselves and society, and there is an aura of futility and resentment to their violence.  Chimes gives them a certain maturity by painting them in the grand manner.  They look majestic--indeed, monumental--in his portraits, unlike the vulnerable, hostile characters they were.  Best understood in terms of Melanie Klein’s theory of the paranoid-schizoid position, Chimes puts them in a depressive position, suggesting that they had a certain insight into their own emotional situation--that they were self-reflective--which is debatable.  Certainly the evidence is more on the side of acting out than self-knowledge. 


I suggest that by idealizing them Chimes dis-idenfities with them even as he identifies with them.  They are members of his family of internal objects, but they are bad as well as good--mad as well as creative, pathological as well as visionary.  Chimes suggests that they should be remembered for their creativity not their pathology, implying that creativity is not an expression of madness however mad it may look.  It is the hidden health in their madness, and Chimes invokes it without denying the madness.  But is there not madness in the dynamics of the self-created grain, a sort of organized chaos, whether a creative matrix or not? 


Re-imagining Jarry and Artaud--and other seriously disturbed artists such as Edgar Allen Poe, whom Baudelaire admired and wrote two essays about--by putting them in the pantheon of perfect art, Chimes avoids their fate while realizing his own visionary creativity.  Showing them to be human--if also emotional monsters, psychic horror shows--Chimes shows his own deep humanity.  Chimes’s portraits are a triumph of his maturity and care over their immaturity and cruelty, of ripe art over nihilistic intention masquerading as artistic experiment.  However precarious the balance between madness and creativity--between compulsive malevolence and seductive charisma (or is it the malevolence that gives them charisma?)--in Chimes’s portraits, they redeem the avant-garde madmen for society.  But Chimes can’t save them from themselves.  They were, after all, their own victims rather than bourgeois society’s victims.  They have been said to be barbarians storming the gates of civilization, but their barbarism was suicidal however much it anticipated the barbarism of twentieth century European society.           


What do we know about Jarry (1873-1907)? As Elizabeth K. Menon writes, Jarry is “mainly known as the creator, at 23, of the grotesque and wild drama Ubu roi (1896, ‘King Ubu’), considered the first work in the tradition later to be known as the Theater of the Absurd....Jarry had exploded the common vision of the world and introduced the notions of absurdity, incoherence, and defiance to all forms of authority.”  Ubu roi  was “a dramatic sketch first conceived by Jarry at 15, with some schoolmates, to caricature a schoolmaster.”  Mauricio Lazansky, a great printmaker, said that “Throughout history there have always been two kinds of artists:  those who work for beauty and those who use art as a means of revenge for life.”  Clearly Ubu roi is an act of petty revenge by an angry schoolboy.  The schoolmaster’s crime is not clear, but the schoolboy’s aggression is. 


The rage and spite blow up out of all proportion in the 1896 Ubu roi, suggesting that the 23 year old Jarry remains a 15 year old adolescent at heart.  He is clearly a case of arrested development.  Caricatural revenge becomes an ideology:  Ubu roi  appeals to all of us because we all resist superego authority however much we want its approval.  We are all children who resist adulthood however much we have to grow up to survive in a world we never made, as James Farrell said.  The 1896 Ubu is “a monstrous, pompous, puppet-like character, who becomes king of Poland, [and] came to symbolize the crass stupidity and gross cupidity of the bourgeois, driven to atrocious cruelties by his lust for power.”  I suggest that Ubu is a projection of Jarry’s own will to power, indeed, a condensation of his own primitive feelings of omnipotence and omniscience as well as unregulated appetite and insatiable desire, acted out in atrocious cruelties.  Ubu roi is what Freud called the imperial infant. 


But the point I want to make here is that Jarry destroyed himself, suggesting that his hatred of the bourgeois--a target of opportunity, like the schoolmaster--backfired on to himself.  His hatred found a temporary target in the bourgeoisie, but it was self-hatred.  After all, he was born into a bourgeois family, and lived off his family’s money.  Did he hate his family and the fact that he was a bourgeois himself?  Is his hatred of his origins responsible for the originality of his art?  He died at the age of 34, after “spirall[ing] into anarchical existence, ending his life in utter destitution and alcoholism.”  “Liv[ing] on a small inheritance” after coming to Paris at the age of 18, where “he cut a bizarre and eccentric figure around town, mounted on his bicycle, carrying and often exhibiting revolvers”--it has been suggested that Breton’s assertion that firing a revolver into a crowd is the ultimate surrealist act was inspired by Jarry--but “his fortune was soon dissipated,” and him along with it.  Did he hate money because it was bourgeois?  It is worth noting that Breton’s assertion also seemed to be inspired by Nietzsche’s advice to “live dangerously.”  In today’s dangerous world, with its drive-by shootings, Breton’s assertion and Nietzsche’s advice seem stupidly anti-social and pretentiously exhibitionistic.  One wonders if Chimes’s obsession with Jarry and Ubu have something to do with his own adolescence, for they appeal to the out-of-control adolescent in all of us.  Are Jarry and Ubu symbols of Chimes’s own youth, his way of remembering it and mourning for its loss?  Haunted by them, he re-finds his own rebellious adolescence.


Previous                                            Next

Links to Works by Thomas Chimes:

Portrait of Alfred Jarry

Antonin Artaud