Sunday, August 11, 2013

William Utermohlen and the con of contemporary, by Van Gough

 "Nothing is true, and everything is permitted"
William Burroughs

I've been thinking about William Utermohlen a lot lately, and contemporary art and my 'place' in it. I do that periodically, and Poor Williams story is none better than a yardstick to beat one's self with. William-for the uninitiated- was an artist who continued to catalog himself throughout his twelve year descent into the hellish grip of Alzheimer's.

All the works above are by William-first to last , a period between 1967 and 2000. Hard to believe isn't it?  You can see all the progressions (or regressions) in between. The last one looks like the scrawls of child, or even Modern Art. What does that say about Contemporary Art then? That it is a self conscious affectation at portraying an unraveled mind? That it is the self imposed attempt at naivety? That it is the deliberate nihilism of virtuosity? All those questions share something in common. They are all predisposed intentions-a luxury poor William didn't have. Instead, he could only watch the years of bravura technique he had developed trickle away to the abstract resonance of dying brain matter, to formless, hollow shapes barely comprising substance or meaning.
The uninitiated for Post Modernist sake, might want to wank on and argue that the later renderings display more of a kind of tortured tumultuous vitality than the first portrait. Not poor William though. He would know such posturing was a lie, Sadly,William can no longer argue at all.

I ask again then, what does that tell us about Contemporary art? About the people who paint it? About the people who buy it? About the curators who peddle it? You see, I believe there's a perpetual lie being told in "Modern art" and it goes deeper than the con of the contemporary, and the sin of the cynical dollar value. It is one that forgoes suffusion for suffering.  The telling for technique. What it doesn't do, and what it doesn't want you to do, is look deeper, to think beyond the designer paint spattered facade and your home furnishings.It doesn't want you to be propelled by the rich magic in allegory, to become attuned to the symbolism of rite, because the historical power encoded in classicism,the veiled aspiration of heightened reality has been designated to become a relic collecting dust and trustees in museums and stately mansions. It is the artifact of privilege, the heritage of elite lineage. 

Why did this happen? Could it be that there is something else going on beyond the hustle of the Emporer's new clothes?

If you will indulge me for a moment longer... there's a scene in Polanski's movie the 9th Gate (based on the novel The Club Dumas) , in which Johnny Depp comes into possession of a grimoire (said to be written by old Nick himself) which contains illustrations imbued with powerful totems,capable of manifesting Satan (the light bringer) on earth.
It's a poor movie, made by a Director in recess, jaded by his own dark dabbling's no less, but my point is this-there is power in Ancient symbols. In well constructed, beautifully rendered, analogous images. One need only seek out the work of Bosch, Raphael, Carravagio, Goya or Blake to see the alchemy of inherent hermetic symbols expressed.

Where is any of that in Modern Art? If Modern life is a construct of our times, then so is the culture that informs it. But who exactly informs it? Who evaluates its worth? Is it the collectors? The so called 1% with warehouses of Hirst's and Warhol's? Is it the media, bought and sold by corporate advertising? Who are the arbiters of taste? You or I? What cereal do you buy and where did you hear about it?

Do you see where I am going with this? As my old friend John Liddy used to intone through white knuckles;

"Whats the fucking point damn it!?"

You see, I believe the depiction of anything beyond surface has become a problem, or at least diminished to the fuck you moniker of low brow or a Billy Childish ism. The other side is that the value of Art is now designated by the sterotypical notion that there are idiot savants in the gutter, comprising wizened kids under the delusion that scrawling on a wall is anti-establishment, when the irony of course is that their heroes are as entrenched in establishment as it gets and laughing all the way to the Banksy.
For that matter, isn't it also the case that if graffiti is the provenance of the street, with that democratization comes the terrible equation that skill no longer has any cachet, art no longer any value? Whose laughing then?

  Bottom line, you are being lied to: Duchamp was a chump. Pollock was bollocks. Rothko was bought by Rothschild. Your pristine hotel boardroom, Ikea Scandinavian model, with it's matching curtains and "edgy" Rothko reproduction is a crass lie and you are lying to yourselves and your notion of high art intelligence if you buy into it, because minimalism is as minimalism does-an empty shell in a vacant lot, with nothing beyond the incoherent blurt echoing the self proclaimed white box. It asks you to be a reflection of the same blank drivel, to look for relevance in the nothing and be content in its hollow. It has no cachet, no reference, no aspiration. It is the masturbatory scrawl of diminished intelligence with grand pretension. It is keeping you 'down' and it is the death and dearth of the magic and alchemical rite of artistry.

An insult in fact to the life's work of artists like William Utermohlen.


  1. Hit's bit close to home, never knew about William Burroughs. What's interesting is what I noticed trying to teach my father to draw as he was progressing through later stage Alzheimer's is the further he went the less he was able to construct lines, the more it became chicken scratching and blocky shapes of the black and whites. The range of values never got worse oddly enough.

    Maybe as he was less able to construct models of reality, it just went more and more to observing the smaller picture until he could no longer even perceive the world correctly. Shame those sketches have probably been lost in the chaos of things, if I find them I'll be sure to share them.

    Couldn't agree more about modern art, it's nothing but profiting from the ignorance to art theory and knowledge.

  2. Thank you for relating your honest experience Andy, I can't even begin to imagine watching a loved one slowly regress to the mercy of this terrible disease, and one hopes that even in the fragmenting of mind, that there is the slightest compensation or some trace of reliving a joyous memory perhaps. I'd certainly be curious if you shared those drawings of your Dads someday.