“…many think of the Art world as a sort of free-for-all, where anyone of any level of mental stability, at the slightest whim and for any reason, can jump in and call himself an artist. We sometimes fail to remember how extremely important high skill, craftsmanship, and passionate dedication were to painters of earlier times. Those attributes were far more than just admirable qualities. Art was a noble vocation and a way of life. Their skills were assumed to be divinely infused. Being an artist was their very identity, their reason for existing.”
– Richard Schmid, from Alla Prima II
When viewing certain contemporary art, you might say to yourself, “I could do that.” But if you visit the Jonathan LeVine Gallery in New York City this month, I promise that you will have a very different reaction.
For the rest of April, and into the first week of May, Jonathan LeVine Gallery is hosting solo exhibitions by Artists Anonymous (“AA”), titled Old Game New, and by Dan Witz, titled NY Hardcore. I am not an art critic, but it is fair to say that both AA and Dan Witz remind me of all the qualities that Richard Schmid thought were reserved only for the best painters of the past.
In the Archive section of AA’s website, they state, “Digital reproductions of our works, especially reproductions of paintings are not representative.” In a post last year, I wrote that I had a Stendhalian moment when I saw online images of AA’s paintings. I wish I had reserved that comment for when I walked into Old Game New, and saw AA’s paintings and afterimages in person for the first time.
From a technical perspective, AA is a talented group. In his letters to his brother Theo, Vincent van Gogh wrote, “It is impossible to attach the same importance to values and to colours.” It’s clear AA thinks otherwise, as their works demonstrate their ability to capture form and light while using vibrant colours. And after seeing AA’s art, I am even more astonished by their method of painting in the afterimage.
Borderlands, oil on canvas, 78.75 x 149.63 inches
For example, in their multiple canvas painting, Borderlands, it looks like AA uses simple brush strokes of white and two shades of yellow to create the eyes of the woman on the viewer’s right of the painting. Yet when seen in Borderlands Afterimage, those same eyes are a realistic and piercing blue that stare straight into you. And that’s just the eyes of one model – the rest of the painting is equally as impressive, and AA must have taken great care in creating it.
Borderlands Afterimage, digital C print, 59.05 x 110.24 inches
When I first saw the images of Dan Witz’s mosh pit portraits on the Jonathan LeVine website, I thought, “Wow, those are unique photographs.” Then I clicked on one of the images, and read the text next to the image: “Oil and digital media on canvas.” Dan’s paintings are impressive, and as with AA’s paintings, the online images don’t do justice to the real thing. When I saw Dan’s skills staring back at me from a six foot long canvas, I couldn’t help but appreciate, not only his attention to detail, but also his ability to paint in a realistic style without sacrificing the energy of the scenes he captured.
Vision of Disorder, oil and digital media on canvas, 40 x 64 inches
But it’s not just AA’s and Dan Witz’s painting abilities that have sunk their hooks into me, it’s also their commitment and passion. You don’t get this good by treating art as a hobby.
Dan Witz has been painting street art in NYC since the late 1970s, and his studio work encompasses a variety of subjects, including lamps, “nightscapes”, and portraits. At the end of one of Dan’s videos on his website, he jokes, “That’s all I have to say about being old and doing street art.” But you get the impression that there is nothing else he would rather be doing.
AA begins its artist statement with, “Art is always an A [Grade], otherwise it’s no art; you are either very very good, or you fail. There are no shades of grey in art, no acceptable.” That is a demanding standard, one I think they point at themselves more than they do at others. Once you are that good, you set your own standards, and you don’t display anything less than your best. As Jony Ive, the head of Design at Apple Inc. said, “We did it because we cared, because when you realize how well you can make something, falling short, whether seen or not, feels like failure.”
Most people will see Old Game New and NY Hardcore and appreciate AA’s and Dan Witz’s talents. But I draw and paint, so I now know how wide a chasm exists between me and them. It would be easy to be discouraged, knowing what it would take to be that good. But AA and Dan Witz don’t paint to haunt me. They paint for the love of it, and they are an inspiration for those of us who also love it. So instead of packing up my paints and brushes, I’ll admire the dedication that AA and Dan Witz pour into their art, and I’ll take the advice of another inspiring person,
“Modern man is conditioned to expect instant gratification but any success or triumph realized quickly, with only marginal effort is necessarily shallow. Meaningful achievement takes time, hard work, persistence, patience, proper intent and constant self-awareness. The path to such success is punctuated by failure, consolidation and renewed effort. It is wet with the tears of emotional breakdown. Personal reconstruction is art. Discovering one’s self, one’s talent and ambition and learning how to express it is a creative process so may not be rushed. What’s the hurry? Pressure to succeed according to a particular timeline comes from outside. If the goal is selfish self-improvement there is no schedule, no deadline. One’s rate of progress is influenced by the intensity used to address the task. Hard, intelligent work speeds us along the path. Neurotic obsession and compulsion may steepen the trajectory but usually lead to illness and injury. In the end, the process takes as long as it takes — you can’t push the river.”
– Mark Twight, from “Why”
P.S. For a more detailed discussion on AA’s art, read this recent Studio International interview with Maya van Malden, a member of AA and their spokesperson. And for an overview of Dan Witz and his art, read this Village Voice article. But this blog post and those articles are just words. For the real thing, visit the Jonathan LeVine Gallery this month.
P.P.S. As part of their exhibition, AA intended to have a screen that displayed a live recording of visitors as they walked through the Alice in Wonderland themed installation. Instead of a standard feed, the screen would display the negative image, so that people would “see ghostly negative versions of themselves, while the video reverses their surrounding inverted environment into the positive.” Unfortunately, when I visited, the monitor wasn’t working. But Malena, who works at the gallery, offered to take my picture with my iPhone. She then inverted the colours in the picture using an app called Negative Me. The picture above is the “ghostly version” of me standing in front of AA’s installation. Thank you for being such a kind host, Malena. And thank you, AA and Dan Witz, for sharing your ideas and talents with us.