Visual art no one sees is like a tree falling in a forest no one hears. This makes a great Zen koan. But that has no impact. Art is an experience, not an idea. The curators of the Sarasota Art Museum know this and strive to put art in front of human eyes. For their ongoing exhibitions, they pulled powerful pieces out of storage and hung them on the walls. They also feature paintings and installations by artists from across the country who rarely travel to our area. The result is definitely an experience. Here’s a taste.
‘David Budd: movement in stillness’
This exhibition celebrates the rarely seen work of a local artist. David Bud was a Ringling College graduate who studied with Syd Solomon. The Abstract Expressionist movement captured his imagination. But Budd, who died in 1991, arrived late to this party. The big names in the movement arrived early and had already set their signature styles. Their art made the covers of Life and Look. Budd didn’t want to look like a Jackson Pollock knockoff or a fake Willem de Kooning. He needed to define his own unmistakable style. And he did.
This exhibition reveals the artistic territory claimed by Budd. It is organized by Tim Jaeger, chief curator of Ringling College of Art and Design, and Emory Conetta, assistant curator of the museum. They put together this show with paintings by Budd taken from the Ringling College collection. Those powerful pieces in storage we mentioned? They are the ones.
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So how did Budd stand out? By standing apart.
Budd created his own abstract expressionist art. He never imitated other Abstract Expressionists – especially celebrities. They had all found their own way. Budd took the road less travelled. As a result? You would never confuse his work with theirs.
Whatever the big names did, Budd did the opposite.
The nationally acclaimed Abstract Expressionists loved to put you in the face with artistic pyrotechnics. Budd avoided setting off fireworks in your eyeballs. He also avoided color. No gestural splashes of red, yellow, blue that caught your eye from across the room. His work was almost monochromatic. It was also dark.
Walking into this art exhibit, you might think Budd’s paintings are all black. They are not. They are dense with variations and variegations. But to see these details, you have to be close. Standing across the room, you won’t get the picture.
Up close, Budd’s “Easter Island I” resolves into discrete forms. It looks like a stained glass window created by an artist who wants to paint it black. A seascape, perhaps? The curve at the top could be a horizon line, a dark sea below, a darker sky above. The concentric swirls at the bottom could be a sea serpent – whose head appears in the distance. Or it could all be just shapes. But your mind can’t help imagining a scene.
Two-dimensionality was also the height of Abstract Expressionist fashion. Art critic Clement Greenberg said, “Flatness is the defining characteristic of modern art. (And Tom Wolfe laughed at him.) That said, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and other artists have tried to limit their dreams to Flatland. Not Bud.
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Budd worked with a palette knife. He was laying a large canvas on the floor. Knife in hand, he attacked it, smeared it, wiped off sections and piled on more coats of paint layer after layer.
“Impasto” does not begin to describe the results.
Budd’s paintings look like topographic maps made of thick paint. They are marked with ridges, gouges and grooves. His work is resolutely three-dimensional. There’s nothing flat about it.
“Coffee Pot Island” is a perfect illustration of this, something the late Kevin Dean pointed out during a Budd exhibit he curated at the IceHouse in 2014. We stood in front of this painting. Then Dean had that familiar look on his face. The gaze of a Sphinx sifter.
“Look at this,” he said. “What do you see?”
The scales of a black dragon, perhaps?
“Keep watching. What do you see now?”
Uh…like a wall in a burnt out building that’s all blackened and blistered?
“OK. Now stand here and watch it.
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I did. And finally grasped Dean’s lesson. A painting by David Budd is never just one painting. Each canvas contains a multitude of them. In a single room you will see countless paintings, depending on the light, time of day and where you are. But to see them, you really have to be there. A four-color reproduction in a catalog is not enough.
Here ends the lesson.
Seeing Budd’s art again, I know that’s still true.
‘Judith Linhares: The Artist as Curator.’
Judith Linhares herself curator of this two-part exhibition, with a strong contribution from Emory Conetta. It opens with an overview of the powerful work of the artist/curator.
Linhares made his way to San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s. This part of the exhibit traces the milestones of his long-distance run from there. It combines a breakdown of Linhares’ artistic evolution with a portrait of the artist as a person. Not a lone wolf, but a member of the Bay Area’s creative community. “No artist is an island.” If this show has a theme, this is it.
Linhares’ art takes the form of large, bold canvases, usually oils, with a few acrylics, lucid wall art revealing influences from other artists in his San Francisco circle. At the time, many respectable art critics thought these influences were bad.
It was a time of rebellion. And Linhares belonged to a rebellious tribe.
This tribe included fearless feminists like Judy Chicago, and underground cartoonists like R. Crumb and S.Clay Wilson. Chicago and others have opened up an artistic arsenal to combat male power. The crude cartoonists proved the joy of breaking the rules of artistic respectability of that time.
These rules were largely unwritten. And included severe limitations for acceptable representations of women in the visual arts. Naked women must be sexy or holy. Women should be defined by their relationship to a man (or men) in the artwork. Women should not seem too relaxed.
These are just a few of the rules. But Linhares didn’t want to play that game. His naked, languid women have big eyes and legs that don’t let go. In a Playboy magazine, they’d be sexy, but they’re not centerfold. They are not there for you to look at. And they look really relaxed! They hang around like they have nothing to do and all the time in the world. No children shouting “Mom”. No patriarchal boss snapping his fingers. What planet is it? It’s funny you ask.
Linhares vistas are truly foreign. And “Cove” is as supernatural as it gets.
Ribbons of rusty clouds in a clockwork orange sky. Three suns shine on two women lying on a crystalline rock. One is seated, the other lying down. They are naked and vulnerable. These women should be terrified in this strange realm. But they have no care in the world – whatever that world is. They are as calm as the woman in Henri Rousseau’s “Dream”.
No accident. Dreamers have a family resemblance.
And Linhares has been dreaming about it for decades. She doesn’t just remember her dreams. She writes them in a dream journal and also illustrates them. These nocturnal visions permeate his paintings. What do they mean? Don’t ask me.
I do not know. And I can live with that.
Dreams are a mystery, not a code to decipher. Linhares’ dreamlike paintings are too.
And it’s a lot more fun.
The second half of this exhibition presents five other artists: Bill Adams, Ellen Berkenblit, Karin Davie, Dona Nelson, and Marie Jo Vath. All belong to the rebellious tribe of Linhares. They strongly influenced each other. If their work goes in very different directions, that’s to be expected.
If you walk towards another drummer, you will not participate in any parade.
These meditations may seem detached and academic, whether you read my review, flip through a catalog, or view the art online. Experiencing this electrifying art in the real world is a different animal. You feel an instant and personal connection with Linhares and his rebel tribe.
When it comes to art, there’s no such thing as the real thing.
“David Budd: movement in stillness” is visible until March 20. “Judith Linhares: The Artist as Curator” until April 3. Sarasota Museum of Art, 1001 South Tamiami Trail, Sarasota; sarasotaartmuseum.org
“Effigy: Hemric: Works of Danner Washburn.” This “refuge” installation evokes the family life of tobacco farmers and their families in North Carolina, the artist’s home state. This barn-like structure of tree branches is dense with found objects, effigies and tobacco leaves. It evokes the richness of the living spaces of these families, but also the ephemeral nature of their lives. They hang on day to day. The dominant culture ignores them. Washburn honors them. Until May 8.
“Untitled Installation: Felix Gonzalez-Torres.” The artist’s pyramid of wrapped hard candy is a bittersweet metaphor for the death toll of HIV/AIDS. Each candy represents a lost life. Visitors take, eat and remember. The sweets are then replenished. An equally bittersweet reminder that life goes on. Until May 15.