he came to the door one night wet thin beaten and terrorized a white cross-eyed tailless cat I took him in and fed him and he stayed grew to trust me until a friend drove up the driveway and ran him over I took what was left to a vet who said,"not much chance…give him these pills…his backbone is crushed, but is was crushed before and somehow mended, if he lives he'll never walk, look at these x-rays, he's been shot, look here, the pellets are still there…also, he once had a tail, somebody cut it off…" I took the cat back, it was a hot summer, one of the hottest in decades, I put him on the bathroom floor, gave him water and pills, he wouldn't eat, he wouldn't touch the water, I dipped my finger into it and wet his mouth and I talked to him, I didn't go any- where, I put in a lot of bathroom time and talked to him and gently touched him and he looked back at me with those pale blue crossed eyes and as the days went by he made his first move dragging himself forward by his front legs (the rear ones wouldn't work) he made it to the litter box crawled over and in, it was like the trumpet of possible victory blowing in that bathroom and into the city, I related to that cat-I'd had it bad, not that bad but bad enough one morning he got up, stood up, fell back down and just looked at me. "you can make it," I said to him. he kept trying, getting up falling down, finally he walked a few steps, he was like a drunk, the rear legs just didn't want to do it and he fell again, rested, then got up. you know the rest: now he's better than ever, cross-eyed almost toothless, but the grace is back, and that look in his eyes never left… and now sometimes I'm interviewed, they want to hear about life and literature and I get drunk and hold up my cross-eyed, shot, runover de-tailed cat and I say,"look, look at this!" but they don't understand, they say something like,"you say you've been influenced by Celine?" "no," I hold the cat up,"by what happens, by things like this, by this, by this!" I shake the cat, hold him up in the smoky and drunken light, he's relaxed he knows… it's then that the interviews end although I am proud sometimes when I see the pictures later and there I am and there is the cat and we are photo- graphed together. he too knows it's bullshit but that somehow it all helps.
Carroll Dunham’s latest exhibition at Gladstone Gallery in New York closed December 4.
Bill Powers: The inclusion of animals in your new paintings was a surprise to me.
Carroll Dunham: It’s almost like animals allow me to represent personality. The horse, some birds, a dog—it’s not that I have a zoological obsession with the animal kingdom, but after I finished these paintings, I realized that the animals appear to have more of an inner life than the people do. It’s given me a lot to think about.
BP: Maybe because animals don’t have a developed language the way that we do, so there’s more invested in their expressions.
CD: Also, their absence of language allows you to project onto them. I’ve always been interested as an adult in thinking about how animals behaved in the cartoons I watched as a kid. Bugs Bunny did all kinds of crazy, violent stuff.
BP: Is it hard making a painting of a horse without thinking about Picasso?
CD: A lot of the dialogue I have in my studio is with dead artists. There was a show at the Guggenheim of Picasso’s black-and-white work, including one painting he did of the rape of the Sabines. The horse in that picture really stayed with me. There’s a farm down the street from me in Connecticut, so I walked down the road once to stare at their horse, and I just thought, “There’s no way this is going to help me at all.” My plein air moment was a complete bust.
BP: Another new development in these paintings is the self-portraiture.
CD: For three or four years now I’ve been making little drawings of what it would be like if I woke up looking down at my own naked body.
BP: But you have painted the male figure before.
CD: Yes, in a very dominant, over-determined way, which I eventually grew out of. Then, with the “Bathers,” I kept wondering how maleness could re-enter this world. And then the idea came to me that I’m always in the paintings, so that’s how it started.
BP: The perspective of the new male figure—the headless body looking down at itself—has a sort of locked-in quality.
CD: Yes, you’re not looking through two little eyeholes. Your mind is distributed across the entire painting, which is beautiful and somewhat disorienting.
BP: The way you speak about the male figure in these paintings, it’s almost like he’s waking up from a blackout—as if he’s coming to and not quite sure of his surroundings.
CD: I thought about it partly that way. Or do you know the Philip K. Dick story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”? The idea is that in this moment you can’t be entirely sure of anything else, because it’s either based on memory or projection. I started to wonder if you could make a painting about that. So the whole group of paintings is called “Now and Around Here.”
Carroll Dunham, Horse and Rider (My X), 2013–15, mixed media on linen.
BP: Tell me about your “Big Bang” series.
CD: Two years ago, I started making these yellow inflated abstractions, and it occurred to me that thinking of them as the birth of the universe was a way to get crazy about scale. It’s a completely insane subject to imagine painting and at the same time such a great metaphor. I liked leaving the dates all over the face of the paintings because they have to represent time and space.
BP: It’s also very sexual, naming these after the Big Bang.
CD: Yes, except it’s also such a given. Anyone reading about cosmology will come across the term.
BP: So you don’t project sexuality onto the outer-space phenomenon we see depicted here?
CD: Well, if the world has an anus, it might very well be a black hole.
BP: Who are some of the other dead artists you’re having conversations with?
CD: I think a lot about the Australian modernist Sidney Nolan. I mentioned Picasso earlier. Another artist is the Brazilian Tarsila do Amaral. She made these almost faux naive paintings that were part of the Tropicália movement. And then I have lots of French artists on the brain: Courbet, Matisse, Renoir.
BP: Your piece Horse and Rider (My X) has very pronounced geometry. Were you using the golden ratio here to map out her proportions?
CD: I’ve been very interested in center points for a long time. It’s a way for me to orient myself in the space. So when I got this canvas, I snapped a chalk line corner-to-corner to form an X. I used it the way other artists might employ a grid to go from drawing to painting at a much larger scale. Originally I imagined I’d paint out the X, but then I realized how much it’s determining the relationships within the painting. It felt disingenuous to cover it up.
BP: Tolstoy said that our sense of beauty comes from identifying the infinite or the universal in the finite. Does that register with you?
CD: When I finish a painting that I can identify as beautiful it’s because I see it as being true. To debate which goes deeper, truth or beauty—all I know is that they’re significant to the free play of the human psyche.
BP: In an article for Artforum you talked about the “anarchic lust” of Kara Walker.
CD: There’s so much libido in her work, deployed in the most horrific and politically incorrect social landscapes. It’s amazing.
BP: What about the Michelangelo prayer, “Lord, grant that I may always desire more than I can accomplish.” Is that both a painter’s dream and a painter’s nightmare?
CD: I have very ambitious fantasies about painting. It’s a toxic soup of ego and higher callings. I certainly see paintings ahead of me far beyond what I’ve done so far.
BP: As a married man with two daughters, how do you hold onto your masculinity?
CD: Living in a house with all that female energy has been very challenging to my sense of self at times. I don’t think of my paintings as being connected to my day-to-day existence, and yet clearly they have to be. If I’m really honest, I started focusing on the female body and women in nature as a viable subject right about the time my older daughter finished school. I was very interested in the idea of female empowerment. It’s quite different from the female ideal that Renoir was working with as an old man.
A version of this story originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 18 under the title “‘It’s a Toxic Soup of Ego and Higher Callings’: A Talk With Carroll Dunham.”
Copyright 2015, ARTnews Ltd, 40 W 25th Street, 6th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10010. All rights reserved.
BILL POWERS — Does the title of your new book, Pagan America, come from the idea that once art is divested of its religious content then it becomes pagan? Does that also mean secular?
DAVE HICKEY — No. Secular doesn’t exist. Art’s still a religion, just a pantheistic religion in which we sacrifice rather than are sacrificed for. Anytime you pay more for an object than it’s worth, that’s a sacrifice to the power of the object. When you buy an Armani, what you are paying for is the power of that suit. Basically that is a pagan sacrifice. Christianity doesn’t have as much leverage anymore because it’s built on guilt. You’re born and somehow you already owe this guy for killing his son for you. Jesus, I’ve got a mortgage already?
BILL POWERS — How do you see religion in America?
DAVE HICKEY — America has some very peculiar aspects that make it congenial to paganism. There are 2,800 Protestant denominations. How many gods does that require? Also, America has no culture. It’s a mercantile society that isn’t very big. It’s got about six cities and a whole lot of really boring small cities. But all the small cities are virtually the same, so we form cults around stuff. When I was in school the world was divided between Beatles people and Rolling Stones people. Now, we didn’t speak to each other, but among Rolling Stones people you could speak about Rolling Stones shit. That was the objective correlative. The best thing about these cults in America is that they are nonexclusive. You can belong to as many cults as you want to. I belong to the Warhol cult, the Miles Davis cult — all these different cults.
BILL POWERS — In the art world, it’s easier to gain membership if you have cash.
DAVE HICKEY — Not really. You do need good judgment. There’s a rule in the art world that the person who contributes the least to the value of the work gets the worst deal. In other words, if you are a great big collector and Larry Gagosian is a little bitty dealer, then you get the best deal. If you’re a little bitty collector and Larry Gagosian is a great big dealer, then he gets the best deal.
BILL POWERS — Would you agree that the first rule of art dealing is that you have to get off on something personally if you expect others to buy into your product?
DAVE HICKEY — You can sell anything. When some of the galleries were complaining about Conceptual art, my friend Max Hutchinson said, “If you can’t sell a handful of air with an idea in it, then you’re not a fucking art dealer!”
BILL POWERS — By the same token, if there aren’t people you won’t sell to, you’re not really an art dealer either, right?
DAVE HICKEY — That’s the definition of being a real art dealer, as opposed to a merchant. Popular art is defined by the size of its market. High art is defined by the exclusionary quality of its market. It doesn’t really do you any good to sell a good piece to a nobody.
BILL POWERS — Rudolph Stingel says that great art is generally made during an empire’s decline. Do you agree with that assessment?
DAVE HICKEY — Yes, but most of the great art I know achieves its complexity because of the presence of repression. How did Shakespeare write? How does John Dryden get around the fucking king? You know what I mean?
BILL POWERS — John Currin says American art is doomed to be folk art because no real masterpiece can be made in a democracy.
DAVE HICKEY — Well, I think the John Chamberlain sculptures being shown right now are a pretty great example of masterpieces being made in a democracy. And besides, John Currin is a Republican. I loved John when he was painting babes with big boobs, but once he went into nymphomania he lost me. Also, I don’t like a picture of anything, period.
BILL POWERS — Unless it’s a babe with big boobs?
DAVE HICKEY — You are correct about the folk art thing only in this sense: Braque and Picasso were outsider artists.
BILL POWERS — I get the feeling that outsider artist today has been reduced to those with either severe drug problems or emotional instability.
DAVE HICKEY — Or you live in some little bitty town and you paint the American flag with the entire text of the bible scrawled in the white stripes. Outsider art is basically a naive form of high art. Outsider art is usually naïve Rauschenberg or naive de Kooning.
BILL POWERS — What do you mean when you say, “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus!”?
DAVE HICKEY — That’s from Tom Dowd, who produced “Layla” — and also produced Coltrane.
BILL POWERS — Could that apply to art criticism? Or is the real problem in American culture that we are, in fact, only interested in choruses and not verses?
DAVE HICKEY — That’s a reasonable presumption, but if there’s no verses, there’s no chorus except for maybe “Bang a Gong” and a few other songs. I wouldn’t say there’s no art in America because it’s democratic. I would say there’s no art in America because it’s all school-marm art and stupid. I hate student art. I hate student writing. I hate student basketball. I hate student football. I hate anything that isn’t fucking professional.
BILL POWERS — Isn’t that a troublesome position to find yourself in as a teacher?
DAVE HICKEY — That’s what I’m fucking teaching them! I try to tell them stuff that’s useful.
BILL POWERS — Why did you leave Las Vegas for New Mexico?
DAVE HICKEY — Because my wife got offered a tenured job in Albuquerque. She was working for Steve Wynn and all these gangster types in Vegas, where she did well because she’s tough, but she just got fucking tired of it.
BILL POWERS — And were you tired of Vegas?
DAVE HICKEY — No, I never get tired of gambling and staying up late.
BILL POWERS — So what’s your game: poker, blackjack, roulette?
DAVE HICKEY — Lately I play video poker, mostly because when you play Texas Hold’em in casinos you eventually learn that half the people there are raptors who want to win and the other half are just herbivores who want to sit at the table and lose. Also, It’s hard to play with people who don’t know how to play. That takes a lot of the fun out if it.
BILL POWERS — What are you after?
DAVE HICKEY — Hell, I want to win, but I want to win the way you win at bridge, which is by knowing shit. When you play Hold’em at a casino in Albuquerque you deal with a lot of people there who have money, who will always stay in the game to see the flop, which means the flop doesn’t mean anything so you never know what the fuck you’re up against! I’d rather play with Doyle Brunson than some fucking hillbilly. It’s like golf: you want to play with people who are approximately as good as you are.
BILL POWERS — But not, like in tennis, with people who are better than you?
DAVE HICKEY — You can learn from people who are better than you are, but you still want to win. Also I don’t have a great face — too many tells. My business is expressing myself, which isn’t great when it comes to poker. For cards you want to be like a fucking Navajo.
BILL POWERS — Did you once say that history happens because people save the things they love?
DAVE HICKEY — I probably did. When I was at Southern Methodist University, I used to study differential equations with these two Zuni guys. They were off the reservation. Their tribe had been sent to engineering school to learn how to build roads back home. They couldn’t understand why you would ever need art in a museum because Zuni art hasn’t changed in five thousand years. We are historical people and the crisis of criticism arises from the basic fact that we get bored. When you’re bored with it, it’s over. That’s what drives the machine: ennui. What survives and still eludes ennui, survives — the live pattern and adaptability of a painting over time. I have a bunch of Ellsworth Kelly paintings at home and they don’t get old. They are just the way they are.
BILL POWERS — As a counterpoint I would argue that some things survive because they can go it alone. For about a century the Alhambra, in Spain, was basically a homeless shelter before the Spanish figured out it could be a tourist trap. That’s an example of a culture surviving without any custodianship.
DAVE HICKEY — They degraded the Alhambra because they were Christians, but they didn’t have the balls to tear it down. Think about the hierarchy of street tagging where you measure the value of a tag by how long it is able to stay intact. If it stays untouched for a week, that’s fine. If it lasts two weeks, that’s great. If it lasts a month, you’re fucking Raphael.
BILL POWERS — In the noir writing class you taught, you pointed out that the protagonist in most of, say, Raymond Chandler’s stories, is actually a void, an empty suit. Some people have made that same observation about the Don Draper character in the series Mad Men.
DAVE HICKEY — My theory about all genres of fiction — and noir fiction especially — is that we’ve gotten to the point culturally where serious literature is defined as such if it’s about your mother or your sister or your drinking problem. Genre fiction is defined by people who deal with strangers. That has nothing to do with literary quality. I read this book recently, The Emperor’s Children, about the family of some famous New York journalist and it was so boring, all this family shit. I don’t think people have families anymore — except poor Mike Kelley, who died of an apparent suicide at 57 in February 2012. Someone should have warned him that memory lane is a one-way street. He just drove himself back into nothingness.
BILL POWERS — I heard someone define self-acceptance as the ability to stop wishing for a better past.
DAVE HICKEY — I really don’t do the past.
BILL POWERS — You’ve made a correlation between Cindy Sherman and Andy Warhol, saying that Cindy Sherman doesn’t ask what comes after Warhol, but what should have come before him.
DAVE HICKEY — What is the precedent for Warhol? The publicity still. I think Cindy is the closest thing we have to Andy today.
BILL POWERS — Should there be a moratorium on Andy Warhol? Is he too ubiquitous in conversations about contemporary art today?
DAVE HICKEY — Andy was my friend and one of the primary reasons for my being here, but people still don’t understand that Andy was talented. He was an artist. A lot of people don’t understand that Kobe Bryant is talented because they never saw him play. A lot of people don’t understand George Washington was talented because they never saw him ride a horse. There is a physical gift that saves these creatures and that comes from another place.
BILL POWERS — So in your estimation we aren’t oversaturated with Warhol?
DAVE HICKEY — We are oversaturated with popular culture. The mistake people who try to follow Andy make is to assume that Andy’s exploitation of popular culture was what his work was all about, when actually his painting was really closer to mimicking 18th-century portraiture.
BILL POWERS — My friend says that he likes Warhol but hates seeing his influence in other artists’ work.
DAVE HICKEY — I agree. Ed Ruscha warned me that you can’t forget that you may be living in a real bad time and that everything people value is crap.
BILL POWERS — Maybe the whole 20th century is a wash? It’s all one long 1970s.
DAVE HICKEY — Which was great and theatrical for rock and roll. It was crap for art, so art could be going through a sandy patch. There’s really no way to be certain.
BILL POWERS — Would you say that an artist is someone with the ability to embed thoughts or feelings in material?
DAVE HICKEY — There’s nothing embedded in art I like. I would say art is largely defined by its ability to transgress the patterns of contemporary culture and still offer a new pattern in it that might change the future, because pattern is visual survival. Pattern is the mother of memory. David Hume said culture is that which outlasts the lifetime of its maker, and I think that’s a pretty good definition. I also like my friend Morris Peckham’s assertion that what happens with a species is that you become so safe that you forget how to confront disorienting behavior. So we have invented art, which has rules designed to be broken and then we break those rules and come to terms with that rupture and that’s our way of going out to fight the tiger. Art is there to train people how to deal with disorientation, that’s its primary social function.
In some societies that practice shamanism there is a preference for the practitioners to be female. Evidence from archaeology in the Czech Republic indicated that the earliest Upper Palaeolithic shamans were in fact women (Tedlock, 2005). Descriptions of female shamans describe these women “…as invokers, healers, herbalists, oracles and diviners, ecstatic dancers, shape-shifters, shamanic journeyers, and priestesses of the ancestors.” (Dashu, 2006). Female shamans or ‘shamankas’, are located among the Tungus people, the Buriats, Yakuts, Ostyaks, and among the Kamchadals “…the place of the shaman was usually taken by especially gifted old women.” (MacCulloch, 1918).
Altay shamanka with drum. Kharkas ethnicity, circa 1908.
In Siberia, in the steppes and central regions, the female shaman possessed greater power than the male shaman and “…in general the feminine element plays a very prominent role in sorcery among the Yakuts.2 (Maddox, 1941). Female shamans are found in Tibet and Afghanistan, with female mikogami in Japan, and an Aleut ivory statuette (1816) depicting a “…woman shaman wearing an animal mask.” (Dashu, 2006).
Female shamans are dominant in some cultures where they ate to the forefront of the cult practice. Whether in ancient China or Japan, or Korea, South Africa, Okinawa, the Philippines, from northern California to southern Chile, female shamanism is a widespread tradition “…from Buryat Mongolia to the Buriti religion in Gabon, that the first shaman was a woman.” (Dashu, 2006).
Reconstruction of a Mesolithic female shaman, 7000-6500 BCE, Bad Durrenberg.
The Ekven burial of a female shaman was found at Chukotka on the Russian side of the Bering Strait. Some 2000 years old it was the grave of an elderly woman with a wooden mask at her knees as well as other ritualistic and shamanic artefacts.
The Ekven burial. Source: public domain.
Recurrent artefacts and examples of female shamanic practice are amulets, medicine bags, mirrors, and head-dresses shown by excavated regalia, as well as drums. Examples can be seen in southern Chile where female shamans of the Mapuche Nation use drums called kultran. Korean female shaman drummers use mudangs. Drumming would be accompanied by chants and invocations as is shown by the Mexican Indian shamans.
The Mesolithic interment at Bad Durrenberg occurred some 8,500 years ago. It was a woman around 25 years of age accompanied by a child of some 6 to 12 months of age. The grave goods and artefacts comprised those assumed to have a ritualistic and shamanic function.
Bad Durrenberg burial. Source: public domain.
Evidence of the primordial origin of female shamans is shown by the excavated burials. Such burials have been found dating from the 5th century before the present. These include the Priestess of Ukok ( as well as remains from south Kazakstan, and the basin from the Ukraine to the Tarim. Archaeologists have determined that these ancient female interments in central Asia were shamanic priestesses. The mummified remains of a female shaman was from the 5th century BCE, and a kurgan of the Pazyryk Culture of ancient Altai.
Mummy of the Ukok princess
Discovered and excavated in 1993 (Polosmak, 1994; 1997)) she has been dubbed the Siberian Ice Maiden. This woman is also variously known as the Princess of Ukok and the Altai Princess, or Ochy-bala after the Altai heroine.
Illustration of the Ukok shamanic burial
The burial of a female Natufian shamans discovered in a cave site at Hilazon Tachtit (in Israel) was dated to circa 12,000 BP (Grossman, 2008). The Natufians of the southern Levant of 15,000 to 11,500 BP were a nomadic people who lived along the east Mediterranean (Tharoor, 2008).
The excavated remains were those of a diminutive, disabled ‘shaman’ woman of advanced years, in a specially constructed grave. The interment represents the ritual burial of one of the oldest human spiritual figures.
The interment ritual and technique indicate a shamanic burial with especially placed animal bones, some 50 tortoise shells, the tail of a cow and the wing of an eagle. The grave suggests that the people living with and around this woman of some 45 years held her in high regard. As a shaman she would have been a mystic imbued with animist powers and revered social status.
Among north Amerindians medicine women are as common as medicine men, especially among the Dakotas and the Creeks (Maddox, 1941), with both occurring among the Inuit. As with shamans the medicine womanand the practice of healing is not restricted to members of the male gender.
North American Medicine Woman in Prayer
In ancient Greek mythology, in the temples of Argos, , the goddess Hygeia was the daughter of Aesculapius. The fact that the great Mother Goddess Hera, as Lucina, propitiated at or presided over childbirth, and that the original goddesses were probably real medicine women indicates “…in remote antiquity women were engaged in the practice of medicine.” (Maddox, 1941).
Blood Medicine woman, Calgary circa 1900.
In central Australia the medicine is ranked equal to the medicine man just as the female shaman is the equal of the shaman. Women shamans as medicine women propitiated the spirit world and practised the healing arts towards their own sex. Medicine women were thus equal to the medicine man. Not only in the way they became such but also in social status, their role and function, but in all other respects.
The role of the ‘witch detective’ was often combined with that of the medicine woman and in central east Africa the medicine woman was also a witch detective and prophetess.
Menomonee medicine woman
As has been shown by both female shamans and medicine women in many times, climes and cultures “…it not infrequently happens that the female idea of the Shamanate prevails to such an extent that the most powerful shamans are women…” (Maddox, 1941). The antiquity of the shamanic role of women is illustrated by the evidence of surviving rock and cave art which can be interpreted in terms of shamanism, fertility ritual, and rites of passage.
Rock art in southern Africa can be analysed from two approaches (Eastwood, 2005), one that incorporates women issues within a framework of shamanism, and secondly one that treats it as outside the understanding shamanism. Depictions on cave walls can be interpreted in terms of the shamanistic nature of the puberty rites of girls (Lewis-Williams, 1998; Lewis-Williams, 2004).
A distinction has to be made between the meaning of the terms ‘shamanic’ and ‘shamanistic’. The word ‘shamanic’ refers to the and practices and experiences of shamans, whereas ‘shamanistic’ refers to general beliefs and practices (Whitley, 1998). The analysis can be, and has been, extended to an interpretation of cave paintings claiming that the art was the work of women.
A recent study by Dean Stone of Pennsylvania State University produced results that “…indicated prehistoric female artists also helped create the famous ‘spotted horses’ cave mural and various others.” (daily Mail, 2009). The hand prints on the mural were dated to 25,000 BCE. Many of the hand prints were smaller than female hands as established by analysis of digital ratios.
The ‘spotted horses’ at Pech Merle, France. Source: public domain.
The evidence appears to show that a large number of Upper Palaeolithic cave artists were women confirming that the “…women’s role in prehistoric society was much greater than previously thought.” (Daily Mail, 2009). It is most likely, considering the role of women in primordial society as shamans, that ancient art was mostly the work of women (Webb, 2013).
Hand prints on cave walls were analysed by Dean Snow who showed that there was a gender difference between relative lengths of fingers. Men and women’s finger lengths are different. Even though another theory claims the hand prints may be those of adolescent boys some 75% of cave art hands are female.
Hand prints from Cueva de las Manos, Santa Cruz, Argentina
Examples of hand print art in caves have been found in southern France, in Australia, Argentina, Africa and Borneo. In northern Spain hand prints were believed to be some 40,800 years old (Subbaraman, 2013) where of 32 hand stencils 24 were female.
The hand prints from the Gargas Caves in the Pyrenees, 27,000 years ago.
Hand stencils support the theory that, not only were women actively involved in cave art, but that they were in their role of shamans leaders in ritualistic, fertility and magical practices, many of which were also linked to rites of passage for other members of the community.
References and sources consulted
Balzer, M. M. (1996). Shamanism. In: Levinson & Ember, eds.
Daiily Mail. (2009). Prehistoric Cave Paintings Made by Women as well as Men. 6.7.2009.
Dashu, M. (2006). Suppressed Histories. On web.
Eastwood, E. B. (2005). From Girls to Women: female imagery in the San Rock Paintings. Before Farming. 3 (2).
Grossman, L. et al. (2008). A 12,000-year-old Shaman burial from the southern Levant. Proc.Nat.Acad.Sci. 105 (46). USA
Hastings, J. (1918-28). Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics. Edinburgh.
Levinson, D. & Ember, M. eds. (1996). Encyclopaedia of Cultural Anthropology. Henry Holt, New York.
Lewis-Williams, J. D. (1998). Quanto. South African Archaeological Bulletin. 53.
Lewis-Williams, J. D. & Pearce, D. (2004). San spirituality roots. Double Storey, Cape Town.
MacCulloch, J. (1918). Shamanism. In: Hastings, J. ed.
Maddox, J. L. (1941). The Medicine Man. Yale UP.
Polosmak, N. (1994). National Geographic. October.
Polosmak, N. (1997). BBC Documentary.
Subbaraman, N. (2013). NBC News. 15.10.2013.
Tedlock, B. (2005). The Woman in a Shaman’s Body. Bantam, New York.
Tharoor, I. (2008). 12,000-tear-old Shaman Unearthed in Israel. Time, 11.11.2009.
Webb, S. (2013). Earliest artists were women. Mail Online, London.
Whitley, D. S. (1998). Cognitive neuroscience shamanism, and rock art of Native California. Anthropology of Consciousness. 9.
What will I look like in a coffin?
Will my nose look big?
Will you see my pores?
Will you see my scars?
Will my eyes look sewn shut?
Will I look thin?
Will I look fat?
How will my side profile look?
Will my makeup be good?
Will my roots be dyed?
Will unruly hair be plucked?
How will my hands be placed?
What will I wear?
Please put perfume on me.
The beast in me Is caged by frail and fragile bonds Restless by day And by night, rants and rages at the stars God help, the beast in me The beast in me Has had to learn to live with pain And how to shelter from the rain And in the twinkling of an eye Might have to be restrained God help the beast in me
Sometimes It tries to kid me that it's just a teddy bear Or even somehow managed To vanish in the air And that is when I must beware Of the beast in me That everybody knows They've seen him out dressed in my clothes Patently unclear If it's New York or New Year God help the beast in me The beast in me
Dana Schutz and Katherine Bernhardt are among the liveliest American painters to emerge in this country in 15 years, and both opened big new shows over two nights a few weeks ago. Before we get to the exhibitions, a little history to help explain why the reputations of these two painters have careened so much over that time — they’ve been celebrated, passed over for big shows, and become dark horses, all while helping to shape the current charismatic painting moment.
Schutz and Bernhardt were born a year apart, in 1976 and 1975, respectively. Both hail from the Midwest — Schutz from Livonia, Michigan, and Bernhardt from St. Louis. Both got their MFAs in New York: Schutz at Columbia, then approaching the height of hip; and Bernhardt at SVA, always an underdog school. Schutz had her much-noticed New York debut in 2002; Bernhardt had hers in 2000 — although to almost no fanfare. In different ways, each has been instrumental in a transition that painting has made since then, from the more traditionally skillful, twisted figuration practiced in this country, especially by John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage, and Elizabeth Peyton, among others.
Perhaps more interestingly, they have also side-stepped many of the other micro-movements that have unfolded in painting since. Neither Schutz nor Bernhardt employs photographic tools, digital approaches, or outright appropriation in her work, in the manners of Peter Doig, Wilhelm Sasnal, and Luc Tuymans. There’s no sign of the glitzy digital flatness of Takashi Murakami, or the never-ending European river of imitative post-Richter painters. Neither deals with reproductive issues in the veins of Wade Guyton or Kelly Walker. Nor has either of these artists gone down the super-popular, yawn-inducing “critique of painting” rabbit hole — the perennial syllogistic “It’s paintings all the way down” painting about painting about painting, and so on. I have in mind the many artists who cut holes in canvas or paint likenesses of cotton or linen weave, as if to say, This is a painted surface on painted painting of a painted surface that is a painting; or the many more good little postmodernists who make art-historical references or paint in known styles, so the message is something like, This is a nod to other works of art, which tells you that this painting knows it's "a painting" … put me in a biennial. This is a time in which art history has been simplified in order to be gentrified so that it’s palatable to the widest market share, so anyone can look at a painting and say one of the magic names of Warhol, Richter, Kippenberger, Krebber, Koons, Guyton, or some preapproved artist or -ism. By now, not only could most of this work have been made anywhere anytime since 1945, much of it looks like it’s from one small painting mill churning out collectibles. It's as if artists, academics, curators, and critics are comfortable in a tractor beam of nostalgia that draws them forever back to some imagined wound in painting, a scab to peel back, and the same problems can forever be solved in similar ways. I imagine that when money goes away, so will this pious minutia of eternal return.
Contrary to these sentimental journeys, Schutz and Bernhardt have been endlessly idiosyncratic, always creating wide bandwidth variances of material, scale, surface, touch, tools, technique, color, and figuration. Schutz creates unsteady cornucopia compositions that build out of paint, creating shifting spatial planes that flip-flop, flickering in confetti color and, until recently, with creamy paint, which flower into bucolic clusterfucks. Hers is an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to space. Bernhardt is much looser, her color more electric and intense, bordering on tropical fish that pool in psychedelic lagoons, thinning out, then building up in gluts that turn into brambly palimpsests and clammy reservoirs of iridescence. Her mode of composition is more organized than Schutz's, taxonomical in nature, with everyday images, like toilet paper, fashion models, and shoes, spray-painted, laid out as if found in a pop-culture specimen bed. Forget narrative around Bernhardt; a spitfire magpie, she follows Warhol's credo of "liking things," and paints what she likes the way she likes to paint it. At their worst, her latticeworks break down into wallpaper and place mats; at their best, they become rich visual tidal pools.
But while wildly admired among artists, neither has ever been in a Whitney Biennial or a Documenta, nor an Istanbul Biennial or any of those big international cattle-calls. (Schutz was included the vast 2003 Venice Biennale, among over 300 artists.) Nor was either included in last season’s MoMA foray into contemporary painting, though they are the two names most often cited as artists whose work should have been included. Even if you think, Maybe their work is just crap, let’s still see if we can look into the why of these rejections.
The short answer, I’m afraid, amounts to something like a crime — the crime of being a woman. Long careers of female bad-boy painters have always been rare — in fact, there have been so few of them over the past 50 years that I can count them on one hand. And the art world has never really known what to do with them, mostly responding from fear. For 5,000 years, art has been almost the exclusive domain of men. As Linda Nochlin famously pointed out in 1971, for centuries women were excluded from even attending the academies, never able to learn the skill-sets and tools of painting, and were persona non grata among those who defined the status quo and controlled the flow of ideas and capital. Men were the geniuses and ordained shamans of art; women were the flesh that made muses move, or they were just witches. Or cast as regressive or crafty or corralled in erotic and girly ghettos. (Georgia O’Keeffe’s groundbreaking abstract paintings were derided as “great painful and ecstatic climaxes,” an “outpouring of sexual juices,” “loamy hungers of the flesh,” “the very essence of woman as Life Giver.” Clement Greenberg ridiculed her work as “little more than tinted photography.” Or imagine the discourse around the highly lauded blood paintings of Austrian actionist Herman Nitsch had his name been Helen.)
In this nightmarish way, almost all Western notions of beauty, form, technique, color, composition, subject matter, skill, surface, scale, and narrative have been shaped and controlled. Thankfully, over the last few decades women in the art world have rebelled, redefining painting again and again—meaning there are probably plenty of women whose names might spring to mind as examples of true path-breakers. But there’s still a significant restriction in place, one almost never mentioned. Very few of the female painters who’ve won long-term careers have painted in expressionistic or more unleashed ways, deploying high-keyed color or ropy surfaces, or painting in ways that strike people as irrational, out of control, or non-cerebral. For a woman to paint in any way excessively, loudly, using thick paint or brash color, is a near taboo. (A great contemporary sculptor like Jessica Jackson Hutchins may currently be suffering some of the same prejudice.) Even more than a half-century after Abstract Expressionism, this kind of art is seen as male. When it comes to women painters, the art world is chroma-, gesture-, and effluvia-phobic. Unless — and this is key — the woman, say, Charline von Heyl or Jacqueline Humphries, both of whom deftly deploy gesture, color, and expression, is said to do so because she is doing so self-consciously, “using painting's languages” cerebrally, with conceptual underpinnings and art-historical structure. (As if all art doesn't have varying degrees of these things.) By now this year's republished Thames & Hudson's Abstract Expressionism only has two reproductions of paintings by women among its 172 pictures: Both are by Lee Krasner. Thus, these prohibitions and strictures filter into and infect the present. Whatever else she did, Schutz — along with Nicole Eisenman — was among the first women of late to cross these invisible lines. Indeed, when I wrote about Schutz's great 2002 debut, I speculated that her work was so wildly out there and unexpected that she had “an extra wrinkle on her frontal lobe.”
But that daring has made many people wary, especially when combined with the second factor: the market, and the way its fluctuations can transform the careers of even the most exciting and independent-minded artists. In this respect, you could call Schutz the Artist Zero of the '00s art boom. She shot to overnight fame in 2002. Her first solo show in a small new gallery (LFL, now Zach Feuer), of different-size canvases of high-keyed, unfixed color, depicting collapsing scenes of noses exploding, faces fracturing, figures in combat, and lanky men with droopy dicks, sold out and were widely written about. A blast of air blew open a door in the House of Painting. People noticed. Artists first. Then collectors — which is where the complications set in. Almost immediately, news spread of speculators buying and selling her work for huge figures. Soon her paintings were being sold at auction for almost a half-million dollars. At the same time, almost anyone who’d met Schutz claimed to have "discovered" her — teachers, dealers, art advisers, everyone. It got to be a creepy joke. But a telling one. Something in the art world was splintering, and people sensed it.
What happened to Schutz happened fast. She is among the most open, honest artists anywhere (everyone adores her), and yet her fate over the next decade was, to my way of thinking, sad. The art world has a place for sensations, of course, but it offers a much more comfortable home if those sensations have dicks — that is, if they’re men. See Nate Lowman, Urs Fischer, Joe Bradley, Mark Grotjahn, Dan Colen, Paul Chan, and many others who emerged about the same time. Schutz had a less happy fate; she was the canary in the market coal mine. While the optical power in her work, her wild imagery and color, even helped free artists who were her elders — able painters like von Heyl, Humphries, Amy Sillman, and many others — Schutz was cast as a "market artist,” somehow not part of the art community. (This happened to Cecily Brown as well.) Meanwhile, as these other artists deservedly gained more attention and ended up in important group shows and biennials, curators almost entirely bypassed Schutz for these sorts of exhibitions.
That’s not the sad part, though. The sad part is the way the market backlash and prohibitions against wildness in women painters now seem to shadow what she's actually doing. I love Schutz’s work. Yet in her current exhibition — her first since 2013, it is at Petzel gallery — she seems overly self-conscious, tighter, caught between urges, alternately cartoonish and figurative but also more abstract and all-over. Few artists her age are as fearless when it comes to color; here, a profusion of citrus colors, Creamsicle orange, Lik-M-Ade yellows, violet, pear shades of green. Her shattered, multicolored, disjunctive compositional fields are rivaled only by elders like Peter Saul, Elizabeth Murray, David Salle, Jörg Immendorf, and James Rosenquist. She can seemingly master any space and scale. In the mural-size Shaking Out the Bed, figures, seen perhaps from the side, maybe lying down, reaching to the painting’s right side to the dials there to adjust perspectival vantage point, appear from above, slip into different pictorial spaces, or try to get outside the frame. It’s a kind of history painting unmoored and with no history. In two of the best works here —Fight in an Elevator, which looks part Harlem Renaissance and part Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and the square-looking but not-square Slow Motion Shower — Schutz forces two of painting's major formal subplots to the fore. The first is how everything in any painting is always pressured, held in, defined, or in dialogue with the edges of frame. See the shower as an allegory of painting. A figure, let’s say an artist, is held in and turning within the borders of the shower curtain — a.k.a. the canvas. The figure is also bathing in liquidity — a perfect metaphor for paint — naked, in pleasure, but also abjectly covered in smudges, swiveling, scrubbing, identity blurred. Everything outside the tub, however, is black and white; maybe that way, for painters, reality becomes less real than the one they’re trying to render.
I think that the fracturing Cubo-Futurist construction and structure of these works, the ways she's crossing the glittery temporal and planar shifts of Boccioni with Peter Saul's insane, all-over narratives in blazing acrid color, is an artist undertaking a remarkable painterly feat. There is a lot going on in every one of these works. However, except for a couple of canvases, I’m not sure that there’s any one thing going on. This is a problem. (I would kill for any one of her drawings, however.) We are in awe of Schutz’s immense skill at mustering frontal energy and painterly verve. Yet, as active as everything is, too many times I felt like I was mainly looking at parts. Never a whole. Too often the work tightened into something like a New Yorker cover illustration. I remember a great 2004 work of hers, another allegory of painting, a huge horizontal figure being dissected by doctor types amid a large number of onlooking heads. The picture was busy, but it was still so iconic that it tattoos itself permanently in the mind as an image. The work here is cartoony, crazy, exuding fabulously unfixed visual pheromones. But taste has changed around Schutz; painting has gotten more abstract. This at the same moment that Schutz's work has gotten more figurative, controlled, illustrative, and defined. Not in a good way. I miss the mushy subterranean rhythms and uncanny all-over abstractness of her work. This makes her current paintings feel somehow more isolated than before.
Which brings us to Katherine Bernhardt. One of the most exuberant, almost feral, slashing painters around, Bernhardt — whose new large canvases pulsate like hallucinogenic magnetic fields and have the retinal bite-force of crocodiles — is, with a couple of dozen solo shows since 2000, something of a veteran around town. Yet many people haven't heard of her. Why? Same as Schutz, she hasn’t been in the big shows, no Venice or Whitney biennials, and all the rest. This despite being the name most mentioned as the artist who “deserved to be in MoMA’s 'Forever Now' painting show.” Her new paintings — groupings of hammerhead sharks, fronds, cell phones, toucans, plantains — bring something of Basquiat’s mind-boggling border-to-border busyness, combined with Bernhardt's spray-painted, psychedelic phosphorescent fields that transform into fossil beds of modern life. Whatever is going on in these paintings, they exude obsession, endlessness, and germinating optical power.
As much as her career parallels Schutz’s, and as loved among artists and shunned by curators as she is, however, Bernhardt’s market story is very different. On the upside, this has shielded her from the kind of backlash unfairly aimed at Schutz in the early 2000s. On the downside, as recently as 2007, she said she was working on “one side of my bedroom, about four square feet.” It was only that year that she finally got a proper studio. (Like Schutz, she now has a son; she also married Youssef Jdia, who is Moroccan, and together they buy and sell incredible Berber rugs, sometimes bringing them to her gallery, Canada, piling them on the floor, hanging out, as people come and go, just having tea or playing, with all the kids hanging around. Whatever it is, its pretty old-school. And wonderful.)
Almost all of Bernhardt’s two-dozen solo shows, some of which saw her covering walls with advertisements from Spanish bodegas or collaborating with Jdia, oftentimes — as in her current exhibition — activating the space by covering the floors (in this case, with burlap coffee sacks), have been downtown, in small group shows, and around the globe. Until now, she’s never shown uptown at a great posh gallery like Venus Over Manhattan. Nor has she sold to that strata of collectors. I’m glad to hear that, with her work in these environs and her not leaving her Lower East Side gallery (more artists should take a page from this book and not just go to megagalleries for the payday), these bigger-fish collectors have finally caught on. When I asked if any of our local museums had gotten onboard as well, however, the person behind the desk just blinked knowingly and shook her head as if to say, Of course not; they like their newer painters more predictable. More cerebral. Not so wild.
As with Schutz, Berhardt’s work is more untamed and eccentric than much of the current crop of all-over, almost monochrome, process-based abstraction and more ironically minded painting that is rocking the market, mesmerizing curators and collectors, and that has already spawned legions of imitators and so-called Zombie Formalism (Pace artist Walter Robinson). All this predictable painting now fills art fairs, galleries, art schools, auction catalogues, and more than a few museums. This may be why Josh Smith's current handsome show of paintings that look pretty much like Cy Twombly's work can sell out, be included in museum surveys, and be fawned over by collectors: His work says to these people, "These paintings look just like Twombly, but they're good because I know this, and the paintings also exist as ideas of paintings, and you are in on it." (This isn't to say I wouldn't mind owning one of these pretty pictures; if only they were priced below $80,000.) You'd think that younger artists would now want to turn the page. But maybe not. This kind of institutionalized, petit-bourgeois, agent-provocateur painting confirms what we already know about painting, digital media, appropriation, theory, art history, the neo-avant-garde, the market, and generative techniques. It astonishes me that brainy curators and academics don't recognize that even cave paintings are information storage and retrieval systems. Berhardt's paintings are information stored in amber-glowing paint; Schutz's via the "one million colors" and imaging programs available to the only thing as complicated as the universe itself, the human mind — especially one that might have an extra wrinkle somewhere. But none of this seems to matter to those who only like their painting if it has air quotes around it or somehow "makes sense" — that is, fits into the canonical read of history and is founded in the Pop-Minimal-Conceptual academic-industrial complex.
But the faithful among us see signs that painting is escaping this genericism lately; batons are being passed. Let’s hope that a little of whatever’s in the work of Schutz and Bernhardt is a part of the mix. And that we’re finally wise enough, and open enough, to celebrate it for what it is.