< stuckist in new york >

by Carol Strickland, originally published in NY Arts Magazine, and in Berliner Kunst

Q     Has there been a shift in the zeitgeist so that the public and more artists are interested in painting again? 

A     I hope so. I've painted since I was a teenager and have been hoping that eventually the fashionable art world would come around. The opening of my solo exhibition [at the Koi Gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, May, 2004] was well attended, and I have noticed more reviews of painting and figurative work recently, including even (gasp!) at the Whitney. 

Q     How did you get interested in Stuckism? 

A     I heard a radio piece on NPR in the Spring of 2001 and it caught my attention. I thought, 'Oh good, there are other painters tired of going into galleries and seeing underpants hung on the walls, not just me.' Up until I went to art college in England in the 1980s, I hadn't seen any contemporary art I liked. During the nine years I spent in London, I became interested in Scottish Expressionism by figurative painters at the Glasgow School of Art. So when I heard the radio piece, I emailed [Stuckist co-founder] Charles Thomson and became founder of the New York chapter. I'm the only NYC member so far, even though there are other US branches. My work will be included in an international group show of Stuckist artists in the Walker Gallery for the Liverpool Biennial this September. It's officially listed as a current art movement. 

In England, art is funded by the government more than it is here. Stuckist artists there banded together to oppose Serota [at the Tate Modern], the government, and Saatchi touting a supposedly avant-garde strain of conceptual art, which is not actually avant-garde any more. It was cutting edge in the '60s with Fluxus, including some interesting work by Yoko Ono among others. It was new then, but now it's part of the establishment. That happens here too, since art galleries are in business to make money, and they believe that only certain kinds of art are fashionable and will sell. 

Q     Can you explain what Stuckism is? 

A     Stuckism is not about being stuck in the past but about taking a different fork in the road. It's been called Re-modernism in the Stuckist Manifesto, and takes the stand that Modernism started off well, but took a wrong turn and disappeared into pure idea like a puff of smoke. So we're going back to take the untravelled fork-in-the-road to pursue art-making that's more concrete and accessible to more people, and find out where that leads us. 

Q     Is it a return to conservatism? 

A     I have seen a resurgence of 19th century, classical style painting, but the Stuckists don't do that. We don't all work in the same style or use the same themes or subject matter. We all choose to be painters, but not as if rock & roll, television, cars, cinema, jazz, and the whole 20th century never happened. We're saying, "Let's use paint to describe our lives now." We're all interested in working representationally, but not necessarily with realism. 

Q     Do you think artists again have faith in the revolutionary power of art? 

A     I hope so. We're so inundated with imagery these days, in the huge ocean of mass media. Art doesn't have the same impact and magic it used to. Yet images remain very powerful. 

Q     Is there more interest these days in hand-crafted art, as a revolt against high-technology and the virtual world of cyberspace? 

A     Maybe. Surface and texture have always been seductive for me. As soon as I saw I could push paint around with a brush, I was fascinated. I thought it looked like cake-frosting. 

Paintings have more of a sense of permanence than conceptual art. I always wondered—when you see a box of cereal spilled on the floor of a gallery—what happens to that 500 years from now? When people in the future are excavating our civilization and they see a pile of bricks on the floor, will they know it was art? It's a question of meaning more than value. 

Q     Can you characterize the Stuckists as a group? What generation do they belong to? 

A     It's a mix of younger and older artists. We're generally dissatisfied with the established state of art, especially at the start of a new century and a new millennium. In most art colleges now, many teachers stress concept more than technique, which can be frustrating if you happen to be interested in acquiring certain skills and a vocabulary for picture-making, like I was as a student. 

I started attending one university's graduate program, but wasn't satisfied with it because I felt there was a lack of instruction in the fundamentals. The final straw came during a guest lecture by an NEA grantee who gave a slide show featuring his own ejaculate. I promptly transferred to the NY Academy of Art, which was called reactionary when it opened. There I was taught techniques for representing the human figure through drawing and painting antique casts and life models, studying cadaver dissections, and doing perspective renderings by hand. I learned how to use my tools. Now I can use them any way I want. 

Q     How would you describe your work? 

A     I use oil paint on canvas in a traditional technique. I like a kind of storytelling that's not straightforward but uses dreamlike, surreal imagery. The best way to describe it is to compare it with cinema. With movies, you sit in front of a screen to see the narrative unfold over a limited time period. With story-telling through painting, the experience is different. It's like a slice, a moment, of a story. The 'before' and 'after' of the painted scene shown are left to the viewer's imagination. If you ask ten different people questions about the same painting, you'll get ten different answers. Even if you ask the same person about the same painting, you'll get different answers at different times. 

I sometimes do paintings in series. My stories come from my imagination mixed with everyday life. I don't like to examine the content of my paintings too closely when I first make them. I find the most interesting things happen that come mysteriously from the gut. I see things in my pictures now that I didn't see when I first made them. 

I'm influenced by Surrealism and Expressionism, the paintings of Frida Kahlo, Remedios Varo, Max Beckmann, Adrian Wiszniewski, and Steven Campbell. I'm very taken with movies like Charlie Kaufman's & Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I'm also very fond of Charles Addams' work, and his way of mixing humor with the darker side of human nature. 

Q     Is Stuckism reactionary or retro? 

A     In addition to painting and being an apprentice tattooist, I earn my living as a graphic designer using the computer, which is an amazing tool. I'm sure if Leonardo were here, he would check out Photoshop. Just because I prefer painting doesn't make me a Luddite. I use email and ride in elevators. But if there's another black-out, I'll still have something to do. 

Q     Is there a risk that a return to figurative art will be under-stimulating mentally? Does accessibility mean dumbing down? 

A     Figurative art is not dumbing down, it's asking art-viewers to participate and use their minds. Painting is a solitary pursuit, so is responding to painting. It can be more challenging because people will bring their own experiences and perceptions to a painting, completing what is left out with their own imaginations. 

I find conceptual art is often over-explained. Since the meaning is not always obvious and the artists want to avoid misinterpretation, they put lengthy text explanations on the walls alongside their work. I knew one conceptual group who were irate that viewers might misunderstand their meaning, so they worked only with photographs and minute descriptions in captions. The result was so spelled-out that there was little left for the audience to do. 

Marcel Duchamp, who was the father of Dada and the grandfather of Fluxus, said in the 1950s that every work of art is completed by the audience. That's more true for painting than conceptual work now, because there's more often something left to the imagination of the viewer with painting. 

Q     Stuckism says it wants to return a spiritual dimension to art. Do you agree? 

A     There seems to be a longing for spirituality in general right now, in American culture. It's been happening since the 1970s and has become more mainstream and less cultish. 

Are people looking for it through art? I can't tell you. I do know that art and spirituality have been so intrinsically connected throughout human history, it would be impossible to separate their basic impulses. Being an artist is definitely a calling, and one that requires personal sacrifices. 

I've made painting the main focus in my life. It expresses everything about me including my spiritual side. I take my life and the chaos of the world and put it into painting where I can deal with it. 

Q     Do you feel more urgency to express yourself? 

A     I think so. I saw the towers of the World Trade Center fall on September 11th 2001, from my living-room window in Chelsea. It was a wakeup call for me and for a lot of people. In the United States we have lived a cloistered existence in terms of everyday dangers, and now the thought is suddenly crossing our minds that we may all die tomorrow. I personally know several people who made big life changes after it happened: quit their jobs, got married, divorced, or moved to a different part of the country. It was a huge kick in the pants to think about what is important in our lives and to get on with it. It's now or never. 

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Carol Strickland is a freelance writer on the arts. She contributes art criticism regularly to The Christian Science Monitor and feature stories to publications like The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, The Nation, Civilization, and Art & Antiques magazine. She is author of two books, The Annotated Mona Lisa: A Crash Course in Art History from Prehistoric to Post-Modern and The Annotated Arch: A Crash Course in the History of Architecture. She produces video documentaries on art and architecture.