Sometimes, life can surprise you. You learn things that you strongly believed from childhood can be wrong. Other times, these ideas are reinforced more strongly than you would have thought possible. The latter was my situation when I visited the National Gallery of Art last week. When I was younger, I had previously visited art museums and studied the pictures within. I was left with the impression that the 20th century artists were pushing a load of crap.
Once again, my beliefs were reinforced. From the reproductions of Warhol to the blatant rip-offs of Roy Lichtenstein (boy, that’s original. Take two or three panels from a comic book, copy it word for word, line for line onto a canvas, and call it art. Some call it art, I call it at least plagiarism, if not outright thievery). They all sucked. Most looked like finger-painting from my kindergarten class.
There were, of course, one or two exceptions. I was particularly impressed with Gerhard Ricter’s Abstract 780-1. Having admired many computer-generated works of art (it’s amazing at what can be done with over 16 million colors to play with), this guy has blended colors on a canvas that I find absolutely impossible to describe with words. I was also taken with Frank Stella’s Zeltweg. A strange, multi-colored, multi-piece work, it almost seemed like the pieces were jigsaw puzzle pieces. Both of these works can be found on the bottom floor of the East Building.
I left the 20th century artists and went to the West Building (if you want to go between buildings, be sure and take the underground passage; the waterfall is simply astounding), home of the 17th, 18th and 19th century artists. In particular, the galleries with the landscape artists were fantastic. Having tried my hand at some type of art, I was simply at a loss for words (although the anal-retentive guards weren’t. They made everyone stay at least 12 inches away from the paintings, and you were not allowed to bring your fingers anywhere near them). The detail in the paintings was incredible, but the most exquisite thing about them was the use of color. The remarkable depictions of sunrise and sunset on river valleys were breathtaking.
I understand that modern artist think this avenue is played out (although I don’t ever think I’ve seen successful depictions of automobiles or high-rises). However, that doesn’t give any excuse for the crap they claim to be art. I’ve heard their claims that their way is easier to convey emotions, but that’s bullshit. They’re just screaming with their hands, and if I want to be screamed at, I’ll pick a professional, like Kurt Cobain or my mom.
So where is good art being done these days? Well, I’ll tell you: comic books. Yeah, you heard me. Now with comics, as with everything else in life, Sturgeon’s Law applies: 90% of everything is crap. That includes most of your average super-heroes, your Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and the like. The 10% that’s good, though, must be seen (and read) to be believed.
So who are the modern masters? Well, my current favorite is Jim Lee, head of Image’s Wildstorm Studios. His book is WildC.A.T.S., a story about an independently operating covert group (unaffiliated to any government) that helps to save the world. His detail and line work is incredible, and it’s his influence that is responsible for the increasing use of cross-hatching in today’s comics.
Another great artist is Barry Windsor-Smith. Barry first came to attention in 1972 with the first graphic adaption of Conan. Barry is a classically trained painter and left comics for a decade to focus on his own studio, issuing portfolios every couple of years to make money. He returned with a vengeance in the 80’s, and his exquisite organic work has been long sought after. He is currently working for Malibu’s Ultraverse on Rune, about an alien vampire who preys on super-heroes. It could be campy, but in his hands it’s an eerie horror story.
Also great is Frank Miller. He came to notice during his run on Daredevil in the early eighties, then achieved his greatest acclaim with Batman: The Dark Knight Returns in 1986. His dark and gritty portrait of an over the hill hero coming out of retirement set the tone for years of hero makeovers. He took a vacation from comics to write screenplays for RoboCop 2 and 3, but came back recently with a new style. The black and white technique Miller uses in Sin City manages to evoke the classic forties mystery story with a nineties flair.
But I digress. The art in comics moves me so much, I have to go back a century to find that same depth in art. It seems like the modern artists aren’t even trying, that they’re turning in McAssignments. If they’re that apathetic, why don’t they just get a different career?
It’s not like I don’t love the cutting edge. I like it in music, film, comics, TV and cars. But at the same time I get the sense that the people who create these, care about what they do. Modern artists give me the impression that they care about how much money they can make if they’re the next Van Gogh. Most forms of expression in this world give me a great feeling; modern art leaves me feeling like I have to hurl.
[Originally published in Expulsion, an independent George Mason University student newspaper]