Smart and Beautiful? Four Chicago Painters
and the Aesthetic of Beauty
dialogue, May-June 1999, pages 36-39
“The issue of the nineties will be beauty.” So proclaimed Dave Hickey, the critic who dropped this bomb on an unsuspecting art world from his perch atop the dais at the 1988 panel discussion. As Hickey tells it in The Invisible Dragon, his off-the-cuff proposal, intended to provoke, instead met with an uncomprehending, and apparently uncaring silence, as audience and fellow panel members, unmoved, quietly adjourned. Hickey, undaunted, “resolved to follow beauty where it led into the silence,” subsequently penning a series of four essays on beauty that were compiled five years later as The Invisible Dragon, the debut volume of Art Issues Press.
Although Hickey describes his initial inquiries into the subject as “disturbingly consistent….if you broached the issue of beauty in the American art world of 1988, you could not incite a conversation about rhetoric—or efficacy—or pleasure—or politics—or even Bernini,” there were certainly artist who wished it otherwise.
“When I was in grad school, saying something was beautiful was the worst thing you could say. I still feel a little sheepish,” admits Maria Tomasula, who was a graduate student at Northwestern University in 1988, resolutely pursuing beauty in her paintings.
“I don’t think anyone works with beauty straightforwardly; it’s always in quotes or parenthesis,” says Dan Devening, who was beginning to build his career at the time participating in group exhibition with titles ranging from “The Flower Show” to “Sex, Death and Jell-O” (at Chicago’s Betsy Rosenfield and Randolph Street Galleries, respectively).
Another Chicago-based painter, Andrew Young, who was a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) in 1988, confesses “In the ’80s, I had to do my work in secret; it didn’t have the apparent edge, the apparent concerns that were the talk of the day.”
“A lot of artist―well, not so much artist as writers—think of beauty as a retrograde aspiration,” says Laurie Hogan, a classmate of Young’s who was, in her paintings, already shrewdly employing art historical concepts of beauty for their subversive potential.
People may have been loath to discuss beauty in the late 1980s—let alone offer themselves as its advocates—but they were certainly thinking about it. Hickey’s book—64 pages written by a passionate, Las Vegas-based critic to whom the art world had paid relatively scant attention—pulled Beauty out of the dark, dusty closet in which it had been hidden away and threw it under the glare of the track lights. Hickey won the College Art Association’s prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism for the book, and put beauty back on the list of things that we talk about when we talk about art. It came as a great relief to the significant portion of the artist population who had been knowingly, albeit furtively, employing beauty all along. Finally, this crucial aspect of their practice was poised to be discussed by the critical community in a sophisticated, intelligent way.
But next year, as we emerge from whatever havoc Y2K wreaks and settle into the work of packaging and nostalgizing the ’90s, will beauty emerge as the issue that engaged the art world during the millenniums finally flicker? I seriously doubt it.
As central as it is to most—I would say all—effective artistic practices, beauty is slippery, elusive, impossible to quantify and therefore difficult to discuss in neat, intelligent-sounding terms. It sits in the company of “quality” and “love,” mocking our attempts to wrap it up in verbiage.
Jacques Derrida once came to address my graduate seminar class. He sat in our class room and talked about love. We, prepped for deconstruction, left the class bewildered. We didn’t know what to do with this subject he handed us. Conversations fizzled and died. Love did not lend itself to the sort of theoretical discussion we were cutting our critical teeth on—love privileges feeling over thought, sensation over speech. The subject just lay there, unclaimed and unexplored.
Beauty meets a similar fate when confronted with the standard set of critical expectations. The language available with which to discuss beauty and art is sadly stunted; it’s extremely difficult to write about beauty without coming off as sentimental, naive, or anti-intellectual. Somewhat perversely, beauty in art is often viewed as an “easy” route to travel, as attractive wrapping disguising a prosaic package. In fact, give the difficulty of translating the way visual beauty in art effects the artist’s agenda into the verbal language of criticism and theory, or even into a respectable barroom conversation, the opposite is more likely true.
Another road block that those who traffic in beauty often encounter is the perception that beauty itself is their ultimate goal. As Young points out, this view misses a concept central to the practice of each of the artists whose work is discussed here. “To think of art as ‘transporting’ is to understand it as a vehicle, not the actual thing we want,” says Young. Beauty must be understood as a means not an end; a strategy, not a goal.
Although Young no longer feels the need to do his work “in secret” (his exhibition schedule is packed with shows ranging from Idaho to Ecuador, New York to Berlin), he still encounters those who would dismiss his organic, egg-tempera abstractions of birds, flowers, and intricate geometric patterns as “too beautiful” or “merely beautiful.”
“Beauty, or ‘ripeness,’ for the eyes only arguably may not be enough of a message, enough information to qualify something as art,” says Young. “But it’s rare that I see so-called ‘conceptual’ art that doesn’t also look good. It’s a paradox that art begs for acceptance but resists being too pleasing.”
While Young agrees that beauty is ‘temporary,’ with our perceptions of it shifting relevant to our times, our culture, and our personal taste, he also believes in the ability of art to tap into universal elements of the human experience, beauty being a prime agent for such an endeavor. Exhibiting a few years ago in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Young found that his “high-art” abstractions—for which he deliberately “pillages” the Western art-historical canon as well as drawing upon his former career as a biologist—made perfect sense to the artists he met there, despite their lack of a common cultural or historical context for reference. Young speaks of a “feeling” that is communicated through the work, a feeling that he is not creating, but rather remarking upon, and of the viewer’s ability to sense something of the artist’s intentions, passion, or sincerity through the work, even without fully understanding the context from which it came. While discussions like this quickly began slipping into the murky language that has helped keep beauty away from the critical fore, those of us who have experienced it—and most of us have—understand.
It’s a visual experience; it might be impossible to articulate it,” agrees Maria Tomasula. But while she appreciates the intellectual rigor of much Modern and Postmodern art, she has pursued what one might call a “pre-Modern” sensibility in her work. “When a movement wants to identify itself with transgression and set itself apart from society at large, one of the strategies its artists use is an ‘anti-aesthetic aesthetic,’ purity…I kind of buy the turning-away-from-seduction Minimalist argument, but I’m not interested in that for my own work, I’m interested in visual lushness.”
Tomasula’s paintings—most of them highly symbolic, ambiguously narrative still lifes—are indeed visually lush, seething with impossibly vibrant color, dramatic lighting, and over-the-top depictions of sliced and pin-pricked fruit hovering jewel-like birds, heavy cut flowers, and other such allegorical subjects. Although trained in the same post-structuralist theory climate as most artists who spent their academic days in major urban art schools in the late ’80s, Tomasula’s cites her early experiences with the art of her Mexican-American neighborhood as the primary influence on both her predisposition toward a particular type of visual beauty and her strategies for employing it.
“All the art that I saw—in church, in neighbor murals—was gorgeous,” she says. “But it also had agendas that extended well beyond bathing the viewer in visual pleasure. The murals were, in general, overtly, radically political; the church imagery not only viewers’ attention, but their souls.
“One of the things about making a thing visually engaging or stunning,” says Tomasula, “is that you can slip past some really horrific content and people will still look at it. I was seduced by works in church; it was only later that I realized the images were of martyrs, getting their breasts cut off and their eyes gouged out!”
Like the muralists and church artists whose work she admires, Tomasula is seeking to engage viewers beyond those immersed in the codes and constructs of the art world. “I’m interested in speaking to a large audience so using appealing, formal means allow me to do that. Some of the people who might be appalled at my subjects [often deeply personal, painful, or visceral] will look at my paintings.”
Laurie Hogin enlists similar visual strategies—a lush, vibrant palette, dramatic lighting and composition, exquisite craft or skill, and deliberate references to a pre-Modern sensibility—but in service of a far different agenda. Her paintings—roiling compositions of barely controlled flora and fauna—are sharply critical of the very systems of patronage and connoisseurship they evoke. Her works have a sly, subversive quality that is intensely unsettling. “There is a ruse, a false pretense, a bait-and-switch. I’m interested in employing particular codes of beauty as a strategy—to gain the viewers attention, to seduce the viewer. But through those codes of beauty, I also want to invoke certain political ideas about what constitutes the beautiful—for example, notions of taste, power, wealth—in order to critique that apparatus of judgment.”
Although Hogin engages codes of beauty that refer to a particular canon—or tradition—of pre-Modern western connoisseurship, she sees Kant’s discussion of beauty as being tied to class and taste—the idea that being able to judge beauty is very much about separating those of us who “know” from those of us who don’t—as still holding sway, cutting across style and media. “An anti-aesthetic is no different from an aesthetic: either serves to separate the ‘tasty’ from the rest,” she says. “I’ve heard people talking about recent Minimalism in terms of its beauty—the suggestion being that the beauty is so subtle that you really have to be smart to see it.”
The idea that beauty might be a strategy employed by all artists seems a highly likely albeit unpopular one. We are, after all, talking about visual art here. As I understand it, we’re talking about a pursuit in which Party A (the artist) ostensibly seeks to persuade, provoke, inspire, cajole, tempt, educate, shock, trick, entrance, convert, edify, or otherwise influence Party B (the viewer) into considering if not accepting, a particular agenda. And step one is for Party A to get Party B to actually look at the artwork. It is a seduction of sorts.
“I don’t like the term ‘seduction’ so much,” demurs Dan Devening. “It feels a little predatory.”
Devening’s quasi-abstractions, austere only in this company of artists engage beauty toward the furthering of an agenda that is formal rather than personal or political. Like the others, he mentions the idea of “pleasuring the eye” of creating something the eye responds to, is attracted to, to draw the viewer closer.” But he is also suspicious of this winsomeness, setting up a complex system of checks and balances to ensure that the paintings retain a measure of the mysterious and unanticipated.
“On one level my work is very much about the articulation of the craft of making a painting, the translation of idea to object. I’m obsessed with perfection.” He says. “On the other hand, I do a lot to undermine that, to prevent it from being the subject of the work.”
His paintings are studies in opposites, contradictions made manifest, evincing this visual and intellectual push-pull. A sophisticated, elegant beauty is balanced by “dumb, kitschy imagery” that is relatively free of loaded cultural or historical associations. Organic forms are countered by synthetic colors. Representational allusions are offset by the assertion of the painting as a physical object. Sensuous forms are rendered in aggressive colors. “I’m interested in the picture plane as a threshold that pushes you away or invites you in,” say Devening.
There are those who would subject artworks into categories of beautiful or intellectual; emotional or conceptual; attractive or meaningful. Andrew Young, Maria Tomasula, Laurie Hogin and Dan Devening make paintings that maybe considered all of the above, but they all put Beauty front and center. So have they all engaged The Issue of the 90s? Unfortunately, probably not. But they’re work is beautiful. And it is also smart.
Ann Wiens is an artist and writer living in Chicago.