Conversation: David Xu Borgonjon, Keenan Jay, Lauren Martin, Christopher K. Ho

The following conversation for the book Golden Age: Perspectives on Abstract Painting Today took place on March 31, 2014, at Lauren Martin's studio in Providence, Rhode Island.

Keenan Jay (KJ): I started oil painting again after 2 years. It feels good to allow intuition to play a larger part in studio.

Lauren Martin (LM): It’s like listening to an audiobook.

David Xu Borgonjon (DXB): I find oil painting obsessively cerebral. Analysis is much more intuitive.

Christopher K. Ho (CKH): In “After OWS: Social Practice Art, Abstraction, and the Limits of the Social” Gregory Sholette approaches the social as a kind of abstraction, and reciprocally abstract painting as having “concrete force or agency.” Can abstract painting and political, participatory art meet?

KJ: I am highly skeptical—highly. More compelling is David Geers’ proposal in “Neo-Modern” that modernist forms and aesthetics are coming back as a style dissociated from the ideology that they emerged from. I’ve always felt a sense of political impotence. I didn’t even see OWS firsthand. Many of my peers have relatively privileged upbringings, which gives us a fair amount of distance from the issues at hand.

LM: Sholette describes two student groups: object makers and social practitioners. There were definitely object makers at RISD, but not many political activists. Political art was almost frowned upon. Various teachers warned me that my art wouldn’t reach a lot of people, and suggested that I focused on the few that it would. Artists, at least young artists, don’t have much pull in the world—hence the lack of political engagement.

CKH: Is that the reason that you two, respectively, are investigating “genuineness” and “happiness”—terms that are positive and can be characterized as pre-political?

KJ: Genuineness is an important political issue, insofar as it must underpin any political action that is to be taken seriously.

LM: And happiness is democratic or at least relatable to by many, which gives it political potential. But anything I do concerning political topics or social issues will be observational and descriptive, rather than motivational. As Keenan said, art students are insulated, and arguably the least equipped and informed to address politics. My grandmother warned me not to go near Occupy Providence, because there were drug addicts and hobos!

DXB: Still, Occupy Providence was great because after everyone left, it consisted of homeless people, and it became a powerful homeless lobby that effected legislative change. In contrast, other Occupy sites such as OWS stressed the process of protest over its aims. If the goal is just to create a public space, all you can do is perpetuate that public space. It is important to have coherent political goals—reducing income inequality, promoting diversity, whatever. So rather than debate what is or isn't political about art we might ask what our politics are, and then make art.

LM: What are your political goals, David?

DXB: To have political goals. What are yours?

LM: Well, what do you do when you don’t have any? 

KJ: There are base goals like egalitarianism.

DXB: Wouldn’t the first step of figuring out political goals be to decide our relationship to the market, because the market is our context?

CKH: Surely there are connections between art and life other than the market, if not precisely in the way that artistic avant-gardes once sought.

KJ: Art and trend is one scary connection.

DXB: Scary and strong. The positive spin would be thinking about fashion as self-expression.

LM: Yes, we have been taught from a young age to think about art as a way of expressing our inner being and emotions. Approaching art as personal, rather than social, transformation unburdens artists from having to represent and change society, and connects art with life on an individual level. If we are better-expressed people, we are happier people, and if we are happier people, we are better citizens.

DXB: The power of that argument is that as we self-fulfill, society becomes better. What looks like a self-indulgent practice of studio-based abstract painting in fact has indirect social ramification.

CKH: Yet it cancels art’s revolutionary and subversive aspects. Artists use art to center themselves rather than themselves contribute to the field of art. And your scenario presumes society to be open, and citizenship a given—which could explain why contemporary modest abstract painting is largely an American phenomenon.

DXB: Well, not just American. It has found very fertile ground in, for example, Belgium—think de Keyser and Tuymans.  But there’s certainly a deep affinity between post-war institutional liberalism and abstract painting. And that’s the context where the distinction between self-centering and contribution to a field doesn’t hold up. I think that within the utopian project of M.A.P. they are the same. It’s like in kung fu movies. You develop killer moves not by being power-hungry and outwardly oriented, but by having sweet inner peace.

KJ: Well, self-fulfillment isn’t necessarily about begetting better citizens. It can be living in a fulfilling way. I read an interview with the Chinese artist Lily Yeh, who spoke about her training in traditional Chinese painting before she came to America. In that culture, artists generally share their work with only a few intimate friends. Art was not for public consumption, much less socially transformative.

DXB: Doesn’t this lead to the position that painting is about modesty, humility, and not thinking art can do anything? Doesn’t this lead to the annoying contention that withdrawal is the most radical act, like when John Kelsey speaks of artists striking in “Escape from Discussion Island”?

LM: No. George W. Bush, Sunday painter, is better than George W. Bush, President., Perhaps doing no harm is the extent of painting’s politics. I don’t want to be the advocate for not caring for others, but I think of painting as a string of small things, with the goal of staying two steps ahead. You’re just trying to stay sane. I can only control what I do and what happens to me, and I can’t do much about how anyone else reacts. The analogy is when you’re on an airplane, and you have to put on your own mask before putting on someone else’s.

CKH: That analogy is dire. It also intimates a second step: If centering yourself through the activity of painting in studio is putting on your own mask, what does the subsequent act of putting on your seatmate’s mask look like?

KJ: Being critically engaged. Having a better understanding of one’s self is necessary for having a better sense of one’s relationship to their surroundings and other people. After moving to America, Yeh’s practice became much more relational. Perhaps this is because her training in classic Chinese art provided a different understanding of what constituted success as an artist. Besides, what’s wrong with modesty and humility?

DXB: Online communities inspire me. I think that there is a small circle of people that you can take care of. I can’t imagine abstract painting doing anything on its own, and suggesting there is a mode of making that would have direct political impact seems misguided. Though I can imagine a society in which everyone is a committed modest abstract painter six hours a day, and devotes another four to local politics. I guess it’s really the question of defining the communities one holds oneself accountable to. For example, do you work across groups within a geographic area (neighborhood) or do you work within a group across geographic areas (subcultures)?

CKH: Tell me more about self-fulfillment as a goal. It has been 8 years since Raphael Rubinstein published “Provisional Painting,” which means abstract painting has been prominent for at least that long. Have those painters self-fulfilled and are they better citizens? Will you come to me in several years and say, “I’ve done it. I’ve self-fulfilled.”

KJ: Self-fulfillment is not a goal and that demand for progress is questionable. You’re doing it every moment you are doing it. It would mean having a painting practice compelled by something like the meditative or contemplative rather than by trends or markets. The thing about self-fulfillment is that there isn’t a specific end to achieve. There is no progress because it is an end in itself.

CKH: But there must be markers, criteria, of some sort, no? You’re defining a specific, prevalent type of contemporary painting that harkens back to modernist abstraction through the term “self-fulfillment.” This suggests to me that by approaching the activity of painting as staying centered and being content, you transfer modernist art’s timelessness onto the self-actualized or constantly self-actualizing subject. But life—aging, parenthood—will intervene, punctuate, and puncture studio activity, just as real politics punctured modernist painting’s supposed autonomy.

DXB: Do you at least concede that painting is about subject formation, if not self-fulfillment and better citizenship?

CKH: Maybe from ages 4 through14, but not beyond. Prolonged adolescence—this continuous self-actualization—is impractical and unhealthy. Within the field of art, much less society, we need more people who sacrifice their own practices—in the form of, say, sitting behind the gallery desk or art handling, of, to use Lauren’s analogy, giving up your oxygen mask entirely. Sacrifice, as much as self-fulfillment, underpins good citizenship.

DXB: That’s part of the appeal of craft and technique. Like, damn, he spent twenty years getting that medium consistency just the right amount of tacky. But contrasting self-fulfillment and self-sacrifice seems a little off to me. Sacrifice, if willing, as the word implies, is always a bit fulfilling. So the difference between you and Lauren plus Keenan is not that they believe in selves and you believe in causes but that your self suffers and theirs satisfies.

LM: Maybe things are getting lost here. I don't think fulfillment comes from the act of painting. It comes from being recognized as an artist—the desire for which is fueled by insecurity.

DXB: I'm with Lauren. We should have more publicly available rankings that we can vocally disagree with. Not in the sense of “rankings are dumb,” but of “rank me higher!” 

LM: Well, sort of, but no. Abstract painting is an available means for people to identify and commune with a peer group who then provides validation. It is not in contrast to participatory art, but rather is community-based. I don’t want to self-fulfill in a studio, alone.