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Un Magazine 7.2

Editorial: A short conversation between Jarrod Rawlins and Robert McKenzie

Jarrod Rawlins & Robert McKenzie

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Editorial

JR
Rob, I want to discuss the concept of anachronism in contemporary art with you. This is the theme we are all working on for the 7.2 issue of un Magazine. You recently mentioned to me that you had been thinking about this subject, about ‘the perpetuation of antiquated styles and the way critical discourse has tried to resuscitate these styles’. Is there anything in particular you can identify that prompted your thinking about anachronism, and may have prompted mine?
RM
For me, a lot of my thinking about anachronism came from observations of the art market, and the extraordinary art market viability of some recent contemporary art that I felt was in fact more appropriate in style to times past. The popularity of expressive abstraction is, in particular, what prompted my thinking here. Artists who come to mind are Joe Bradley, Alex Hubbard, even Wade Guyton, who all inhabit styles that recall the formalist painting practices of the 1960s and 1970s. Their popularity in the art market seems rooted in a sentimental attachment to the ‘heroic’ last days of Modernism, before our current epoch of uncertainty. Perhaps it is this failure to confront our current state of uncertainty and flux that really unnerves me about the stylistic anachronism of these art practices.
JR
I guess due to my relationship to the art market I too have seen the development of an anachronistic style if you like, or what you refer to as a sentimental attachment to heroic expression. After around 2007/2008 I started to see patterns or trends developing that reinforced this observation. I had gone from looking at work that was rooted in things like 1970s continental theory, or newer theories developing from that history, or work deeply rooted in representing sub-cultures or critiquing mainstream culture. This style of contemporary art was utterly devoid of expression or heroics; in fact, it had nothing but contempt for ideas of expression or heroics and went to great lengths to refuse any stylistic similarities. I think if you recall the 1999 Melbourne Biennial Signs of Life, that’s the kind of work I’m referring to. I don’t want to try and label it, that’s not the point; I guess I am just thinking that the type of work we saw in Signs of Life is the antithesis of what we are seeing today. So is what we have now more about stylising and design? Because I don’t feel that expressionism and heroics, as prescribed by Greenberg, simply skipped a generation and is now back.
RM
From my perspective it is simply a market phenomenon where the collector base is hungry for paintings that feel solid and familiar and they will find the artists that satisfy this. The artist-led discourse is far more multiple and one of its eccentricities is that it always seems to find a way to accommodate the desires of the collectors. What I feel is failing, at least from the American perspective, is a group of critics or curators who are willing to challenge the hierarchies imposed on them by the collectors. There are a host of artists, perhaps Merlin Carpenter might be one that is easily named, who critiqued the system that sells and disseminates his ideas. To my mind there are few critics, and even fewer curators, who really try to look beyond the system that they exist within. And for this reason, the anachronistic styles have asserted themselves without the restraint of informed critique. I do believe this will be corrected, but when and by who is quite unclear. I just fear for the artists who follow in this line of unchallenged conformity.
JR
What you’re saying makes me think of the neo-expressionists who always seemed to me to be a rather trite off-shoot of postmodernism attempting to position themselves within the market by way of anachronism. These artists were part of a wider reaction against conceptual and minimal art and were looking for a pared back, simplified form of expression which also addressed the collector’s desire for a more classical form of picture making, storytelling, etc. This phenomenon you are identifying from your position in North America, where the collectors are constructing the hierarchies rather than the curators and critics, is something I feel is also happening all over the world. I guess the issue that I want to flesh out is the one you raise above—the way ‘anachronistic styles have asserted themselves without the restraint of informed critique’. Sometimes I feel the curators and critics are complicit in homologating this new collector driven anachronism. The institutions of the art world—the magazines, biennales, art fairs, etc.—are very supportive of this approach to art making. What impact do you think the post-Lehman Brothers recession has had on the reluctance of these institutions to be part of a critique? I am just thinking about how neo-expressionism came about during the worldwide recession in the late 1970s and 1980s: it can’t be a coincidence that we saw anachronistic styles become popular during a severe economic recession and that today we see the same phenomennon being repeated, would you agree?
RM
I think what you say about the economic impact on styles of art making is very astute. There is an economic determination of what is visible and what can be shown and at this point in time, there is a huge amount of money being funnelled into the styles of art making I identify as anachronistic, most noticeably abstract painting. The galleries must pay for rent, shipping, staff and this comes from sales of artworks alone. When there is a move away from high-risk assets, such as during and after the 2008 banking crisis, for the art world this means returning to painting and a sharp move against video, installation and sculpture. I am not saying that painting is essentially anachronistic, as that is not what I believe, and many of the neo-conceptual practices that are currently given agency are equally as anachronistic as the painting practices I have identified. At this moment though, it is the painting practices that have the greatest visibility, agency and economic support and so come to mind as the most symptomatic examples of what I think we are discussing here. The economic reality of dealers, collectors, museums and artists who collaborate on the visual culture which is allowed to thrive, must be mutually supportive, otherwise it collapses. The path of least resistance for all these stakeholders, at this point in time, is large 2D abstract artworks. And I do think it is largely an economic impulse that defines this aesthetic trend rather than a larger cultural, political or ideological impulse.
JR
So what we are talking about then could be described as a type of economic retroism. But it’s not just about looking back at and emulating previous styles, it’s also a form of stasis, which goes against how we came to think about and discuss the idea of contemporary art in the twentieth century. We have both mentioned that this anachronism we have been discussing forms part of an economic determinism narrative and that these realities are not new to contemporary art at all. However, what I feel we are seeing, which may be a development, is that there may be less of a need or desire to camouflage or defend one’s position today. During the recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s we saw the taking up of postmodernist theory, used to explain and defend the growth in retro or anachronistic styles. Whereas today, there is no single overarching theoretical position that can offer an alternative explanation for the popularity of stylistic anachronism other than that of economic determinism.
RM
I was schooled in the twentieth-century notion of radical progression, whereby successive generations of artists cut down and destroy their predecessors and create everything totally anew. This was in many ways the story of modern art and it is symptomatic of a social and economic system undergoing difficult change and then bursting out with unparalleled growth. The two world wars and the radical flux in economic and social conditions seems closely linked to the radical change in styles, format and even use of art in the twentieth century. While our time is perhaps no less complicated, the political circumstance of the major art cities—New York, London and Paris—have been extremely stable over the last fifty years. Perhaps what is happening now is simply reflecting the political stasis that currently exists. Rather than anachronistic the contemporary art of our time is simply refining and reiterating minor debates without rendering any real change, conforming exactly to the dynamic currently at play in the greater political discourse. It is tempting to make the bombastic claim that our modern epoch recently entered its ‘late style’, cannibalising and parodying its youthful self. My suspicion is that, for the majority of artists working today, this might in fact be so.

Robert McKenzie is a co-author of The Ampersand Files: Art & Text 1981–2002 (IMA Brisbane/Whale&Star Press). He has written about, curated and made art, and currently works doing research and market analysis on modern and contemporary art for private collectors. He lives and works in New York.

Jarrod Rawlins is the assistant curator at The Museum of Old and New Art (mona) in Hobart, Tasmania, and the 2013 editor of un Magazine. He lives and works in Hobart, Tasmania.