Each issue the New Art Examiner will invite an art world personality to write a speakeasy essay on a topic of interest. Al Jirikowic lives and works in Washington DC and is our DC Editor. A long-time reader of the New Art Examiner, he ran the famous bar in Adams Morgan, ‘Chief Ike’s Mambo Room’.

Phillip Kennecott of the Washington Post reviews Martin Puryear at the Venice Biennale

Philip Kennecott reviews Martin Puryear quite favourably as the American contribution to this year’s Venice Biennale, ‘May You Live in Interesting Times’, however in my opinion Puryear’s was a highly conditional, contradistinction to so many other entrées in the Biennale that this quality in itself was almost as disturbing as Kennecott’s  review.

The world scape of the Biennale unwraps around the many venues of Venice with clusters of exhibitions espousing social justice, all, of course, at the behest of freedom. Shows demonstrating for dignity, clean environment, justice for one and all in your face are suggestive of a warning call. The quest of such art spared the entries of very few countries. The Biennale took on the mantle of a world-wide temperature-taking of the current social and global discomfort of our abuse of planet earth and its human animal. All it demonstrates is a jockeying for position among artists. The loud and painful cries for help were like fingernails, scraping on a blackboard, screeching at a mega pitch. Entry after entry, country to country, pavilion to pavilion; all to present the artists of the Biennale as being so in touch with the fury of our planet as a social justice theme cry, that, of course, if we heed the warnings we are all on the road to Nirvana at last. Our pleas for help from the art gods will be met and we will jet home with a good feeling in our stomachs that at last art is relevant.

One of the Martin Puryear installations in his “Liberty” exhibit in the U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale

As Daniel Nanavati points out in his coverage, this is all bile, fantasy and feel good guilt tripping of the most pathetic, liberal nature. Social justice art can never change the world nor is its intent on doing so, as it is trapped in an expensive art fair that caters to a privileged class that if anything, ironically, this class, in their material splendour, contribute more to the dysfunction of the social world than any other class in so many ways and faults—environment, political distress, racism, hunger, war and drone on… Therein lies an immense problem itself; what does art do to be sensitive to the writhing of planet “Art” on planet Earth? This is especially so at a Biennale that attempts to demonstrate it is sensitive to our “mess”, as do the good people who visit, although ‘the people’ i.e. the “little people” are really not invited [except those who run a well to do gallery and that might be able to foist some of this oh so sensitive, feeling art on the “suffering masses”, who are ready to bathe in the glory of the pressing cause of nature]. Amen, says Venice. Listen and we are saved, once again. The Sermon on the Island.

Of course the American entry with Martin Puryear’s work did not swim with the hoopla of the masses or the hoi polloi of the lucky attendees. No, according to Phillip Kennecott we were above the rabble this year, despite our unctuous, politically irritable, irascible selves (a situation which emanates from our current administration whose thinking is so infectious globally). We showed some cool above this rapturous world and presented some “settled” art, contemplative in nature and realized in craft and maturity.

Martin Puryear, Big Phrygian, 2010–14, installation view
photo – Ron Amstutz

Martin Puryear’s selection as the representative of American “settled” art was a bold pick against the blistering sounding, howling, from our art world to “our” indifference and sordid international planning. And we may be proud as we did not succumb to the blasting, keening of social outrage and environmental intemperance that exemplify the other pavilion selections. Instead, those works compete for the sensitive “feeling” brains of artists in just enough pain to create art but not quite enough to make a difference, by not shipping art around the world and by not taking money for it. It is certainly not by dancing with billionaires from city to city and delighting in the handshakes of wealthy galleries.

No, America prevails with settled art like settled law, firm, truly contemplative, with a crafted sensitivity that never gives itself away in a single glance or a snap judgment. Our representative, a mature African American, who cedes his work often in wood craft, who explores the raucous history of the American state that is not given to insta-grasp or fairytale but a conscious slow burn of historical-will, of deep introspection of form and material. This work of settled art, aesthetically conceived and executed, is brimming with the hardships of the making of the American state of mind, combined with its slowly suggestive burying. His work will never unleash specifics, just layered myths of complexity and complication. Hence, his work has a sublime and mature nature, as opposed to the “in your face” art that populates the show.

This is our answer to the braying world of hurt and art social fantasy justice and dream quest, like we know something more than other nations with our maturity and depth of understanding. The rest of the world is now wishing it had our answer to all those issues about which artists clamour and scream.  We are digesting our history in time and maturity, contemplatively; we are the adults here in our “time”.

Wow, what a switch.

Puryear’s New Voortrekker cart sculpture (Antonio Calanni – AP)

In Phillip Kennicott’s mind, Mr. Puryear is refreshing as he is almost classical compared to the retinue of youngsters experimenting with feeling, techniques and style, cramming themselves into Venice to get noticed. Which of them doesn’t want attention, markets, fame, glory and respect from the Venice Biennale. They can move their sensitivity on as the earth burns.

The Washington Post did what the Washington Post usually does. It created a liberal lozenge to be swallowed with the pre-digested acceptance that ensures liberal palatability. The reviewer is safe at home with no disputes and the score wins the game of ‘acceptance given, acceptance taken’. The lozenge goes down easily and completely as Phillip Kennecott engineered the review with the liberal acceptance of the “catcher’s mitt”, completely in mind and execution; no trouble, no bad calls, no complications except the aesthetically non-determined, no finger pointed specifics of our  “experience” , just the sonorous  soundings of Mr. Puryear’s echoes of history. Such echoes can easily be accepted as being “aestheticized” by the meanderings of time and distance. Yes, we will acknowledge we had slaves, long ago; oh yes, it was bad and painful, but now muffled and contemplative and no pinch but our social ache that will once again refasten itself to our liberal, deep concern.

And we do suffer for “them”, our sins, our frailties and our misgivings, as we do at fancy art shows in Italy.

Al Jirikowic

1 thought on “Speakeasy

  1. He is an artist who knows more about shape and form than he does about materials. Some of his riveting displaced the flow of the form and his joins ruined the effects of his shape when close-up. Leaving me with the conclusion he works best when seen from a distance.

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