Wednesday, March 04, 2015

The Provisional Vs. The Dubious: An Exhibition by Shelton Walsmith

do you believe in life after love?
Shelton Walsmith - 2014
oil on canvas

Shelton Walsmith 


Shelton Walsmith is an Brooklyn artist working primarily in the mediums of painting and photography. His work has been published by The Paris Review, Knopf, Vintage, Rizzoli Books, Paris Vogue, Denver Quarterly, Unsaid Magazine and others. He has exhibited internationally, as well as widely in the United States. 
Queens College Art Center, a nimble gallery anchored in Queens and open to the world, is a successor since 1987 of the Klapper Library Art Center that was based in the Queens College Art Library’s gallery founded in 1960. In more than 200 exhibitions to date, it has shown masters like Alice Neel, Joseph Cornell, and Elizabeth Catlett, and introduced scores of artists from around the globe and emerging artists who later went on to major careers. The Art Center focuses on modern and contemporary art, presenting the works of both emerging and established artists in diverse media, in programming expressive of the best of the art of our time. 
Queens College Art Center. 65-30 Kissena Blvd. Flushing, NY11367. telephone: 718.997.3770

Please visit

Shelton Walsmith - 2014
oil on canvas

A short series of inane questions and revelatory answers between myself and Shelton:

SC: Who, if anyone, do you look to as an aesthetic compass?

SW: You, Philip Guston, Giorgio Morandi, Francesca Woodman, Andre Tarkovski, Martin Mull, Alfred Stieglitz, Wes Anderson, John Coltrane, Louise Bourgeois

SC: What is your reaction when you compared to other artists?

SW: Righteous indignation. I'm often heard to say, "Well, I never!" Then I hide until they've gone away.

after velasquez and picasso
Shelton Walsmith - 2014
oil on canvas

SC: Is the originality of your work a conscious effort or a natural extension of your style?

SW: I never set out to re-invent the wheel. Ever. I'm more of a follower really. I work in traditional genres trying to slot myself into a wisdom tradition of mark making. Is that pathetic?

SC: Are you aware of any appropriations?

SW: I steal some from Massaccio and Giotto. Again I'm heavily influenced by Martin Mull, I've lifted entire passages from his paintings. When I lived in Barcelona I haunted the Picasso Museum. They have his variations on the masters. I recently repainted Velasquez Las Meninas being as true to the original while incorporating Picasso's charicatured take and adding a figure from the youngers Spaniards' Saltimbanques.

This is how I see painting from any source, be it anonymous or in popular consciousness, unless you're attempting forgery it's always going to be your appropriated interpretation.

SC: Do you believe you have a style, a cultivated aesthetic?

SW: No, unfortunately I am like a man without a country. Wandering.

if anyone gave a hoot she didn't notice
Shelton Walsmith - 2014
oil on wood

SC: What are your thoughts about the role art plays / has in this society - or in the culture at large?

SW: I feel the best art is simply escapism. All else is political pandering.

SC: Are you trying to make "a statement"?

SW: I like what Samuel Goldwyn said although I'm sure he was bloviating and crushing someone's sincere desire to express humanity's mission; "if you want to a send message use Western Union."

But, no, I'm trying to make pictures that tell the story of their process in their finished state. The relic should be haunted.

SC: To what extent does art "make a difference"?

SW: It provides mediation between what the empirical and the improbable; like an arbitrator between what's knowable and the magic we wish was true.

SC: What is the purpose of your work?

SW: To delight and confound.

SC: What are you trying to say?

SW: That my research proves that all that glitters is, indeed, gold. AND that not only is no news not good news; it's not even news!

her name was march
Shelton Walsmith - 2014
acrylic on canvas

SC: Who is the ideal spectator of your work?

SW: Good questions like this stop me cold. I'm glad you ask because I'm pondering this for the first time.

Someone receptive who neither wants nor expects things to make sense who would rather be led down the garden path to wilder shores of love. Okay now I know; it's me or Warren Buffet.

SC: What do you want the public to think about your work?

SW: Ideally, that the work is timeless. That it's a source of humor, light and sexy solace. That it should stay off the fridge, go in a gilded frame and be will lit and well hung prominently for all to see forever. And Ever.

SC: Do you think the ideal observer is relevant to your work?

SW: Observers are imperative because they complete the circuitry. It seems foolhardy to hope or expect the ideal observer will come along. I can't manage that end of production or perception.

SC: What is your works relationship to the observer?

SW: The fifth hand in a game of four handed poker.

SC: What are your thoughts on the current scene in New York, in the US, in the World?

SW: New York is obviously vibrant and exciting and always in flux. I cannot pretend to be a part of the art scene here. I might as well be one of the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz in terms of anonymity I'll work for the witch but if she melts I'll also attend that party. Regarding the US and the world one thing is for certain New York is no longer "The Art Center". The global reality is that there is no longer a center it's dispersed into many strongholds Berlin, London, Tokyo, L.A., Bejing, Houston, Venice...

new soft op
Shelton Walsmith - 2014
oil on canvas

SC: Do you think the art world has relevancy?

SW: I think it's an economic gauge; auction prices are similar to the rise and fall of the NASDAQ.

Communities can gauge and conjecture the virility of gentrification and urban renewal by tracking artist enclaves i.e. the caribou effect. Beyond capitalistic or consumer metrics I think the real relevance is social philanthropy. Problematic probably but public museums are secular educating institutions to which kids of all backgrounds come and go daily. Exposure to cultural diversity through the art of the ages and varied social strata is relevant.

SC: What are your thoughts on the commodification of art via the galleries?

SW: Capitalism will eventually be replaced with a better system but for now it's a reality inseparable from goods and services in the western world. Whether it's a navaho blanket for $150 or a John Currin painting for $150,000 the value of art is only a commodity to those involved in the trade. For the rest of us it remains a resonant object. Art lasts longer than money. I can prove it.

SC: Is it possible for an artist to survive, for their work to attain relevancy, without participating in the social aspects of the art world?

SW: Not a living artist. It's like the lottery you've gotta be in it to win it. Unfortunately.

servants to illusion no.6; the clinicians
Shelton Walsmith - 2013
watercolor on paper

SC: What are your thoughts on those artists who create only to appeal to "investors / collectors"?

SW: My thoughts are I wish they would tell me how to do this because it's unicorn hunting as far as I can tell.

SC: Do you believe that the successful artist has been corrupted by capitalism?

SW: The whole world has. Successful artists seem to hire assistants to execute their designs.

Is that corrupt. Successful is relative term. The artist Wayne White is very successful but he claims not to have the Fuck You money that allows an elite group to do as they please. David Foster Wallace was successful but like Stephen King? Compare Jasper Johns success to John Cage; Amy Sillman to Amy Mahnick.

I guess market success and artistic achievement are not always equivalent...I'm rambling because success for me is like a rubics cube.

SC: How can an artist, an artist true to his vocation, survive in today's world?

SW: In the words of Charles Dickens his 'work must be it's own recompense.'
How can anyone survive their own desire to have more than they can make?

Shelton Walsmith - 2014
digital file, giclee print on canvas

SC: What is the relationship of photography to your painting?

SW: Like that of a crutch to an armpit.

SC: How do the non-representational aspects your work related to the representational?

SW: Like an effluvium- one thing is the flower the other is the scent of the flower.

SC: What is the role of symbolism in your work?

SW: This question is like not taking your eyes off the sun while recording what you see in White Out.

I think of Magritte's Ceci n'es pas une pipe. Sometimes paint is acting sculptural and playing itself instead of a trope or a character other times it's a painting of a pig and the pig is really me as a painting of solitary sentient figure. Symbolism plays a backstage role. It lifts or lowers the curtain for the drama to be revealed.

It's not a stagehand or the curtain itself and it certainly isn't a pipe.

SC: Aesthetically, can you speak to the artifactual qualities of your work - those elements that draw attention back to the medium: drip, smudges, tactile dollops?

SW: They call them the plastic arts for a reason. They are man made. The features you mention are for me like the skid marks you see on the road. My work is the stopping short of collision. Like what you said so long ago about the blues the player and the bottle falling off the table...the scumbles and the pentimenti are an xray into body of the process- they show it happening and it's suspended there- it happens every time you look at it.

smear camp
Shelton Walsmith - 2014
digital file, giclee print on canvas

SC: Are you trying to paint religiously or religiously paint?

SW: Yes and hell yes! Without a doubt.

SC: Is there a theological ground for your work?

SW: Yes. Because I was raised in church listening 3 times a week from Adam and Eve to the the parting of the Red Sea to Shadrach Meshach and Abednego to Job and his salty wife to immaculate conception to resurrection to the birth of christendom on down to revelations. Who could forget? Western art history re-indoctrinates and imbeds theology as a kind armature everything else goes on. I don't believe in the big guy in the sky. But as an artist dependent on suspension of disbelief there's no ignoring theology. It's actually quite a helpful bag of tricks,

SC: Is god dead?

SW: I just sent you a postcard with a quote from Tolstoy; paraphrasing- "The evil is not not knowing God but of making a god of lesser things."

Because God is a projection, like the Bat-signal they send up over Gotham when there is trouble, God will always be kept aloft. Unkillable.

SC: Is there any hope for hope? And how do you paint that.

SW: It's all unfathomable hope and irrational faith from where I'm sitting. Use puce.

SC: What role does music play in your work?

Sw: I try to make work the way classical music and jazz function; they are not describing or mimicking sounds in nature (like Flight of The Bumblebee) but rather creating an aural parallel independent of nature.

SC: What is your routine?

SW: Get up earlier than everyone else and read. Put on a classical record ( my current favorite is Haydn) Make breakfast and lunch for Giles and get him off to school. Walk 30 minutes to the studio. Make coffee. Draw until I'm ready to paint then paint until its time to meet Giles at home after school.

SC: How often do you paint?

SW: April through December I paint Monday through Friday from 8-3. January to the end of March I'm lucky if I paint at all.

SC: What is your favorite color?

SW: Merlot red, no, brownish pink, no, daquiri green...

SC: Do you like ponies?

SW: Yes, very much. I asked for one again for xmas this year and, for about the 40th time, nay, it was not to be.

Shelton Walsmith
Photo by John Pack
From Trickhouse #3

Monday, January 26, 2015

A Beautiful Lie. But beautiful... nonetheless.

A woman trying to understand the blues from But Beautiful:

- All that hurt and pain, she said at last. But... but...
- But what?
- But beautiful. 

Geoff Dyer interview in the Paris Review:

That’s a book where the joins between fact and invention really are invisible, though. There’s that moment in which Monk peels an orange and says, “Shapes.” That feels so purely characteristic it can’t possibly be made up. 
No, it’s made up, I think. The writing of that book is difficult for me to remember, except that I do recall how enjoyable it was. I look back on it now, partly because I’ve become conscious of something it lacks. I think it would be better if it ended with Albert Ayler. For whatever reason, I didn’t do that then, and lately I’ve been listening to more Ayler and thinking that I would like to write something about him. Or, more accurately, wishing I had written about him in But Beautiful, because now I’m completely incapable of it. 
How so? 
Well, first off, the Internet has made so much stuff available that one of the things that motivated me to write that book—loved jazz, couldn’t find all the stuff I wanted to in the books that were available, so wrote one myself—no longer pertains. On YouTube you can listen to Don Cherry describing his first meeting with Ayler. It is so wonderful, one of the greatest ever accounts of one artist meeting another. Which leaves me satisfied as an interested fan and somewhat redundant as a writer. Also, I just don’t have the confidence now that I did back then to write about African Americans. Relatedly, I’m too discerning now to tolerate some of the excesses that were a product and cause of that confidence. So I know where that writing came from, but I couldn’t do it now. It’s one of the things that makes the writing life interesting over the long term—what comes and what goes.

"In the West... you reach this level of playing for money, you know? But there's a few people that play for the love of God. And as a reflection from God. And Albert Ayler was one of these people." 
- Don Cherry on Albert Ayler

Ayler's interpretation of Summertime is remarkable. It's idiosyncrasy, it's insistence on the violence of translation, the blood on the floor that is interpretation. Chang Tzu's butcher slipping his blade effortlessly inside the spaces between the bones, dancing with the carcass of an ox that falls away entirely separated, a harmonic equation of blood, bone and flesh. Could Gershwin have ever imagined Ayler?

The poet Ted Joans likened the impact of this trio to hearing someone scream the word ‘fuck’ on Easter Sunday in St Patrick’s Cathedral.  
- The Penguin Jazz Guide by Brian Morton, Richard Cook

When Coltrane died, Ayler, whom Coltrane acknowledged as a profound influence, was asked to play the funeral. By all accounts, it was an intensely spiritual event, fitting for Coltrane as a man and a musician. Ayler opened with "Love Cry, Truth Is Marching In, Our Prayer" and Ornette Coleman closed with "Holiday For A Graveyard". Ayler's sax in particular becomes the voice of a Rilkean angel: simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. There is something of the Eschaton in Ayler's and Coleman's performances. Even poorly recorded, the music reverberates in a cul de sac, trapped in the apse of the Western musical cathedral, notes not so much fading as collapsing inwardly under the pressure of inadequacy into the absolute silence of the crypt. This is the haunting question: when is even music inadequate to task of surrounding human experience with meaning? Because here at John Coltrane's funeral, music a whole, always transcendent, verges on inadequacy, dissolving under the sense of an Ultimate Tragic realization : human being is not merely irrelevant to the gods, it is an unwelcome presence. The pressure of this active negation - call it malign fate or doom - is what resists the expected outward expansion of the music into the transcendent and pierces into the listener on the most primal ontological level. It is harrowing and unbearable.

In Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot has Becket state:

“When the figure of God’s purpose is made complete.
You shall forget these things, toiling in the household,
You shall remember them, droning by the fire,
When age and forgetfulness sweeten memory
Only like a dream that has often been told
And often been changed in the telling. They will seem unreal.
Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”

In other words, we live an unreal lie of the mind, in a state of active forgetting, unable to endure the brutal tragedy of the real. Nietzsche, in 1888, a year before his mind was lost, wrote in a letter:

Music … frees me from myself, it sobers me up from myself, as though I survey the scene from a great distance … It is very strange. It is as though I had bathed in some natural element. Life without music is simply an error, exhausting, an exile.

My belief is that in this god-vacated, god-absented, god-haunted world, music is losing its liberating and sobering power to "sweeten memory". Nietzsche's musical bath is polluted and no longer purifying. And life is becoming an undeniable error, an unrecoverable exhaustion and an irrevocable exile.

Edward Dahlberg in Can These Bones Live? is prescient and hopeful:

There are no abstract truths - no Mass Man, no proletariat. There is only Man. When the Pulse has been nailed upon the crossbeams, lo, Reason gives up its viable breath and becomes a wandering ghostly Error. Truth and folly are ever about to expire, so that we, like our beloved Sancho Panza, kneeling at the deathbed of Don Quixote, must always be ready to receive the holy communion of cudgels and distaffs for the rebirth of the Pulse.

Not only Reason, but Hope itself is the "wandering ghostly Error" haunting our language. For what is it when our subjunctive wishful could/would future hourly is overwhelmed by the ever-rising blood-dimmed flood that drowns every single ceremony of innocence? (Yeats) The word "Hope" has followed the recently deceased "God" into becoming an artifact of language, like "sunset" and "sunrise" and "sense of humor" and "heartache" - all disconnected fragments of bygone systems of belief. I am becoming resistant to it's use. Language and music both are increasingly emptied for me.

But not entirely. I am not so numb and dumb to the presence of meaning in my life and world. However, what I am becoming increasingly aware of is how terrible this meaning is. I once was amused by the Judaic joke: "What man calls thinking, God call laughter." Now, not so much. The sublime ridiculous is the everyday mode. Paranoia is the healthiest state of mind. The punch-line is always ready to pounce. Beauty, Truth and Justice are the usual suspects. Lesser animals, more marketable beasts such as Happiness, Pleasure and Entertainment are transient distractions: the angler-fish's glowing lure. And the Pretty and Sweet and Lovely are the over-painted whores whispering mindless temptations in my ear. There is meaning. But it is an alien, strange and monstrous creature. If we were able to endure even a syllable of its language, I believe it might sound something like Albert Ayler.

- All that hurt and pain, she said at last. But... but...
- But what?
- But beautiful. 

A Beautiful Lie. But beautiful... nonetheless.