Investigating Art and the Spiritual, Week 10: Subversive: Soutine, Italo Scanga, Rirkrit Tiravanija

Chaim Soutine, (a painting very similar to Group of Trees; unsure of title).

Italo Scanga, Rabbit, 2000, cast bronze.

Italo Scanga, Lion Head Fountain, painted bronze, 1997.

Untitled (Still), 1992, Rirkrit Tiravanija

Untitled (Free), re-construction, 2003, Rirkrit Tiravanija

Subversive: Soutine, Italo Scanga, Rirkrit Tiravanija

As we've investigated over the past two months or so, finding the spiritual directions, aspects and focus of artworks, especially in the sometimes convulsive early-modern era, can take many different forms. Some of our aspects have been more traditionally aligned with spiritual meaning or purpose: transcendence; contemplation; timelessness – others have been more unexpected or controversial – formlessness; revolutionary. Our aspect for this week, the final one we'll look at, would most likely be in the latter group – especially at first glance. Subversiveness, like revolution, has both its pejorative and more positive spins. Revolution, seen positively through Pippin or Redon, has the power not just to purely revolt, but to allow us to tap into an ongoing, universal channel and pattern of personal and societal renewal. A question which arises from this realization may point us towards a positive side to subversiveness: what or who, if anything, allows us (or helps us) to tap into that renewing, refreshing universality? A subversive figure, folk hero (or trickster, as some cultures know them) or action may be just what is needed – a revolutionary to foment a revolution; a subversive personage or artistic practice to subvert the staled, powerless or harmful establishment, and reverse or revert things towards spiritual betterment and change. In his book Trickster Makes this World: Mischief, Myth and Art, author Lewis Hyde gives at least three culturally-diverse examples of tricksters: Coyote, the trickster figure of several Native American peoples, who is always being tricked and tricking; a figure who both activates and reveals through tricks into positive change and upheaval; Frederick Douglass, the African-American folk leader who was always alternately subverting and accommodating for the betterment of his people and his society; and Christ, the subversive Jewish teacher (rabbi) who recognized an authority separate from the established, earthly one, and invited people to, pied-piper like, follow him and together subvert, societally and spiritually. (Relatedly, Christ also obviated the fact that one's view of society influences your spiritual health and perspective, and vice-versa). All three of these examples were definitely vectors, or vicars of a sort, in the sense of a figure who channeled for our benefit, and objectified as an example, positive and powerful subversion of the Establishment for us. (The idea of a vicar may not be familiar outside of its ecclesiastical context, but its primary definition simply means someone or thing who is “serving as a substitute or agent”; we are generally more familiar with the related form “vicarious”). Our investigation begins with the preceding examples as images of what positive and successful subversion looks like, but our artists will specifically show us three ways of how the spiritually-linked idea of subversion might look in art and what that “look” means in reference to their spiritual insistence, voice and call. All three artists, as we will see, operate(d) as vicars, but each one takes a different tack with the idea of subversion – especially with defining what it is that needs to be subverted; and why and how that is to be done. Some did it deliberately; others more unconsciously, but each one fits into the category of spiritual, subversive fomentation one way or another.

We'll begin looking at our artists, and continue to unpack the idea of subversion as we go along. The first artist we'll look at is Chaim Soutine, here in Gallery 11 (Group of Trees on left; Landscape of Gourdon on right). Soutine has, in a way, become synonymous with a particular approach to painting, which was bold, unabashed and often deeply conflicted. Naturally, one would assume that much of this comes naturally from the artist's life situations and artistic questioning, rather than any particular self-imposed, subversive posturing or message-driven cause. Yet, to understand how Soutine might be concerned with a particularly subversive practice, let's consider the origins of the word itself. The Latin word “subvertere” means literally, “to turn from beneath”. So, here is that non-negative, un-baggage-laden beginning: to subvert means to simply turn over, as in new sod; a new leaf – the possibility of a new beginning. To develop this metaphor, think of the metaphor of plowing up the ground: this is a thoroughly positive direction for the idea of subversion – preparing a fertile area for renewed growth. The old layer is being put under, and the possibilities and fertility of another layer are replacing it (denoting a sense of purer originality beneath; an ancient untainted source). As far as Soutine goes, and his subversive action in paint, this is primarily a horizontal action, much like plowing – he is physically plowing the picture plane, turning over the paint to encourage new textural (and contextual) possibilities. Look at the tortured, overturned surface of these two paintings; its almost as if the previous generation's paint traditions have been plowed through, creating a new field for a new aesthetic. In much the same way, just as how the contemplative work we looked at (e.g. Tobi Kahn) with its gradual layering and piling on of paint begins to suggest an ancient, timeworn and carved/eroded surface, and causes us to become alert to the cavernous or carved feel (which is, in fact, its actual opposite), so this paint application also suggests its psychological opposite: after being piqued by the insistent and bravura application, one is drawn to its contrast – the thinner areas where it seems the paint has been turned over from. This contrast draws attention to the subversive act. (The reason I point towards the metaphor of plowing, rather than carving or erosion, is because plowing firstly, directly suggests new growth, and the metaphor is established by Soutine’s repetitive, insistent, parallel lines of application and attack, as is characteristic of plowed fields.) A second way that Soutine subverts aesthetics and thereby the psyche is through form: these are barely “trees” as we know them, but they are vicars of the idea and emotion of trees; they carry the twisted motion and emotion of a storm-tossed tree, and push it towards its psychological possibilities.

Not only were Soutine's paintings subverting metaphorically and formally through landscape, but he was also psychologically subverting the trope of portraiture. In Gallery 19, north wall, Soutine can be seen psychologically subverting the prevailing portraiture through these two flanking pictures. Again, Soutine seems to be plowing through the obvious surface (mask, top layer) of the sitter's psyche, and reaching down to something more essential, more primal and telling. He is subverting the traditional idea of a portrait being a record; a legacy; a promotion; an image-maker; or even advertisement (e.g. the Cranach in G 14) and turning it over into a psychological study, the likes of which had not been developed up to this point, in quite this powerful and combative a way. (This tradition will be continued by painters such as Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud, and Alice Neel: each subverted traditional portraiture in one particular direction or another, but all to more intense psychological possibilities). The distortion in the sitters' hands and faces; the similarly “plowed-up” paint surface, still revealing but covering over the previous layers with a new layer; the unrealistic movements and placements of the heads and features – all these elements belie both Soutine's new subversive pictorial aesthetic, and the mirroring of his own conflicts and psychological issues. If it is true that one often is agitated most by another who is most like oneself, then perhaps Soutine was as much subverting artistic tropes by looking inwardly as outwardly. A third aspect which Soutine begins to subvert almost simply by ignoring traditional color relationships is the overall color palettes of his portraits. Each one has a certain colored “cast” over it; the left with a bilious green haze over it, suggesting a deep-seated, depressive dis-ease or disenchantment; and on the right, a color scheme taut and tense, with a heating redness, alternately suggesting a high blood pressure; the sitter's face and position belying an intense stress of sorts. We are seeing opposite humors; extremes of human disharmony: implosion versus explosion.

Through all of this, Soutine continues to subvert the very tropes he chooses – landscape and portrait; imparting portrait-like qualities to landscape, and landscape-like qualities to portraits. In a way, all of artistic convention is game here for plowing under, and beginning again, to move past a spiritual barrenness and void sensed by Soutine in current art practice. However, he doesn't simply dispense with all convention – he keeps material and approach (i.e. application of a plastic material to a flat surface) largely intact. But as far as subject matter and psychological use of the formal means, he subverts freely the traditions of art, and of psychological revelation. He is metaphorically, formally and psychologically plowing under the pictorial and emotional planes, so as to plant a new order in the field of art – the fruit of which may be seen even now in artistic approach.

The second artist we'll be looking at displays another metaphor through which we'll investigate his particular type of playful and introspective subversion. Italo Scanga was an Italian émigré, who developed his sculptural craft in the United States in the middle of the last century (he taught briefly at Penn State and Temple's Tyler School of Art among others, finally retiring in California). Much of his work was made with a “found” sensibility; that is, he would harvest junk or discarded odds and ends, much like Rauschenberg began doing around the same time, and then either utilized them directly as material in his work, or cast whole ensembles of them, as he did with his much later work, in the form of bronze sculptural candlesticks. These candlesticks retain a very real sense of “collected meaning” about them – amalgamated, rather than monolithic. He occasionally worked within a decorative or communal (i.e. the collector participates) means, with something like a fountain or vase; incorporating movement and sound of water, and vessels of glass, and the interesting overlap created there between decoration, aesthetic function and utility. The work we'll look at for its subversive possibilities is from the series “Candlesticks”, his last series before his death in 2001. They are bronze casts, made up of stacked, balanced and seemingly-teetering found objects: they have a definite material and “contextual” commonality encouraged by the execution (i.e. bronze), but still ask provocative questions about the clash and interaction of contexts latent in the disparate objects and their sources. The piece is called simply Rabbit. There are various qualities which could be ascribed to this piece: whimsical; playful; precarious and, I would add, wryly subversive (as much of Scanga's work was – in a neo-Dada way, juxtaposing found materials for both their humorous and revealing properties.) We'll return to Rabbit in a moment, but firstly a quote, and then on to our second subversive metaphor. About Scanga's use of objects one essayist said,”…one finds not only the objects of his memory, but the scraps and fragments of the external world as well…they collect, stratify and, as if by some spell, begin to transform. The fragments that Italo gathers and amasses in his chosen spaces are not the 'objet trouves' beloved by the Surrealists; in other words, they are not objects which were consciously re-created and redefined through the action of the artist. In Scanga's case they are basic elements that represent the first stage in a creative process that is engendered by a fascination with marginalized, commonplace objects which eventually find connections” (Bonuomo).

For Soutine, we used the metaphor of plowing to investigate the subversive qualities of how he made and approached his work. For Scanga, however, we'll consider another metaphor related to the act of subversion, or “turning over from the bottom”: mining. The format and look of Scanga's work, predominantly vertical, recalls the subsequent form of totems, or totem poles. Totem poles were made traditionally (this is one interpretation) as hierarchical records of tribal ancestors or stories; it was a time-bound and historical “core sample” if you will, of that particular tribe's sensibilities, history and sense of themselves, past present and future. And the poles’ form relates directly to the form of the material itself; a tree, being a form which “mines” the earth for its purpose and strength. Scanga's Rabbit can be seen as relating to these metaphors of mining, core samples and totem poles, by the fact that it is made of “collected” objects laden with meaning and metaphor, placed together vertically as a collective statement of possible subversion (a turning over for positive change). This is an action analogous to plowing, but with different results in mind: whereas plowing is using old forms, agitated so as to plant in them new possibilities, mining is searching for leftover treasure with which to make talismans which in turn may point to a new arrangement: a new trope. Both though, it's important to realize, suggest a returning to ancient ways or means; not something entirely new, but newly re-constructed, or re-discovered.

Let's investigate the concerted possibilities of these forms for a moment. Each object in Rabbit has its own movement and purpose which contribute to the whole: the upside-down teddy-bear is a directly subverted symbol (suggesting an emotional “blood rushing to the head” of a prototypically cute symbol of childhood); the rabbit, conversely, is nudging up gradually and curiously as its nature calls for; wondering, but allowing the seemingly innocent bear to ask the difficult questions...then the spread-winged crane is a balancer between the cool wonderer (rabbit) and the hot actor/questioner (bear), his wing placement balancing out the two forces into a tenable, prolonged investigation into a subversive idea. Then the final (pinnacle) purpose of this exercise can be seen in the top urn (the business end of the candlestick) – the container of knowledge, history and light (candle) – a light by which to continue this renewing and renewable pattern of questioning (subversion) through all conditions. In a way, like the totem, and like Soutine and other subversive artists, Scanga's object “keeps the faith”; “keeps the fire burning” for the benefit of all those who will keep coming, ready and willing to turn the tables, plow up the fields for fertility; mine the earth's treasures; subvert the status quo in all directions, for a refreshed and renewed place to plant a new order, and to make a new future. Bonuomo says of Scanga's oeuvre, “In every work in his series...there is always a dimension of pathos that causes irritation, anxiety, and thought” – three emotions encouraged by (and encouraging to!) spiritually-renewing subversion.

Our third and final artist works less with traditional, tangible artistic material than he does with the stuff of relationships, sharing, memory and possibilities of the collective. Rirkrit Tiravanija is a Thai artist, who has lived and studied throughout the world and is currently based in London. His primary mode of creation is what might be called conceptualist happenings. A famous example is his Untitled (Still), an event which was held over several weeks in an emptied gallery, which consisted of the artist, and the occasional assistant, cooking Thai food for anyone interested in participating. And this raises a fascinating connection to the totem poles with which we associated Scanga's work: traditionally, at the completion of a year-long totem project, there is a potlatch (communal meal) held in celebration and honor for the project's completion. Listen to what a 1996 review of Untitled (Still) says: “Tiravanija is a Potlatch Conceptualist. The Native American potlatch banquet lasting several days, given by a member of the tribe: artistically speaking, that's what Tiravanija does for his art-world tribe. He cooks, you come; he gives, you take. The word potlatch means “big feed,” hence Tiravanija is a 'big feeder.' In the dialect of the Northwest Haida tribe, potlatch also means 'killing wealth;' in other words, to give something for free is to undermine wealth. Tiravanija seems to suggest that as wealth is accumulated, fewer and fewer people can enjoy it. To buy means to strike a deal. Things are clearly understood – a stasis occurs. A gift is different. A gift is more mysterious than property. The weight of a gift continually shifts from giver to receiver, creating reciprocal obligations” (Saltz). Compared with Soutine's metaphor of plowing, and Scanga's metaphor of mining, Tiravanija's tactic seems to combine both into one happily, wittily subversive movement: he plows into the surface of society (facile wealth and power on the skin of a true life); mines into history for its subversive possibilities (potlatch, totem ceremonies) and makes a nearly ephemeral, but extremely meaningful and powerful gesture. Much like a heartfelt and sacrificial dinner party, you have little left afterwards, tangibly or tactilely, but the impress of the event, relationships and conversation imprints you and will impact your perception for your entire life. From the review again: “It turns out giving things away isn't so easy: it's viewed as a subversive act that undermines notions of property and value” (Saltz). And this comes back to the image of the Trickster motif: someone receiving a free meal may think they're getting the better of the offerer or giver – but what the consumer takes away will most likely never leave him or her; persisting long after the food (the message's vector) is digested and disposed of. The receiver is the one tricked; the artist has the last laugh, but no one is the lesser: both are better off than before. Saltz again says of Tiravanija and Warhol, also a trickster of sorts, “Things happen around them: they are ciphers, drifters, village idiots who change the village.” The participant may enter feeling confused, and the food in the stomach may only last a few hours, but the inter-relational consciousness and widened world-view gained will be etched on the brain of those who consider it seriously. And isn't all subversion obvious mostly to those who are really paying attention? Those who miss the light allusion may question the need for subversion at all – that is it seems, why we have people like Soutine, Scanga and Tiravanija – to frame our questions for us, and posit life-altering, overturning, subversive possibilities to us, in the form of art.

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