Risk and Reward
“Risk and Reward” the old poster stared up at me from the flat file in my office. Months ago, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire hosted an exhibition of contemporary painters, all of whom incorporated the physicality of paint and material into their artwork: Richard Aldrich, Jane Callister, Pia Fries, Quintin Gonzalez, Yago Hortal, Carrie Moyer, Monique Prieto, Lesley Vance and Terry Winters. The paintbrush, isolated on the poster with its bristles and handle tip both dipped in yellow, stared back at me reminding me of the discussion I’d had with students in my painting class recently. In one reading, assigned for the discussion from The Rebel, Camus suggests painting is ultimately about choices—what a painter puts in and what a painter leaves out are equally important. Either way, an artist takes a chance to emphasize what she wants the world to see.
The idea of choices seems particularly relevant in the work of Thomas Nozkowski, one of the more successful abstract painters working today whose deliberate canvases consistently surprise. His intentional eschewing of the massive canvases popular during his formative years among painters taking their cues from the abstract painters creating monolithic art to court corporate and museum buyers actually emphasizes the element of choice even further by demonstrating an interest in a more intimate and modest approach. Many of his paintings are about formal tensions and divergences and silent collisions. Where an area is established as smooth and bright, he introduces another element that is rough and gray. His paintings keep a viewer off balance by indefatigably producing formal arrangements that strike a viewer as foreign or unconventional. The reward for his efforts is a somewhat indescribable visual experience that speaks especially to those who have stared at a canvas facing the daunting task of coping with the ocean of history that the act of painting evokes.
The flip side of choice is, of course, the idea that certain art movements or choices are inevitable. The mantra—if man can do it, he will—comes to mind. In 1999 I was in New York City completing my art education at the School of Visual Arts when the Sensation exhibit visited the Brooklyn Museum. Before I had a chance to see the collection of artists, mostly supported by the collector Saatchi from Great Britain, a row erupted from figures like the then Mayor Rudolph Guiliani over the content of some of the works, specifically Chris Offili’s portrait of the Virgin Mary. Some of the best contemporary art created in that period went unnoticed by the media (I’m thinking of Rachael Whiteread’s casts of the negative spaces beneath chairs) as critics flocked to object to dung and severed animals that evoked vivisections. Conservative critics of art lament the loss of moral direction in art, but I think moral obfuscation in art is a symptom rather than a catalyst. Staring at Damien Hirst’s work, A Thousand Years, 1991 the cynic in me did feel a slight inevitability to the work, as if, eventually, after Duchamp had mounted a toilet on the wall, someone was predestined to display a severed cow’s head. But the cycle of carcass, maggots, flies and death did provoke a reflection on life’s cycle for me. I will not deny the work had power. Perhaps the choices made by Hirst are not as subtle and contemplative as Nozkowski’s. I can attest that his hand is certainly not as present (the replacement shark at the Met can fuel that discussion further than I care to take it).
A third artist comes to mind when contemplating choice and risk—the Scottish-born artist, Charles Avery. In a rather brazen act, Avery has for some years dedicated himself to the creation of an island and its inhabitants which he illuminates through drawings, paintings, sculpture and writing. His drawings of people and creatures—which evoke the narrative approaches of Hogarth, the energy of Daumier and the honesty of a da Vinci study—run the risk of being attractively illustrative and divergently narrative, both anomalies in contemporary museums. His Noumenon is a mythical creature that takes its cue from Kant who attempted to define something that cannot be perceived by the senses but only believed in. Never mind that Avery satisfies some would-be-postmodernist critics with allusions, references and structures that deal with philosophical conundrums, the real risk in his work centers around its ambition, scale, and projected verisimilitude. His work is no less and no more of a risk than Hirst’s, I simply find the risk more empathetic, more personal and every bit as curious and profound. And then there is the indescribable personal attraction that Avery’s work holds for me. Maybe it is the fact that he invents elusive beasts with their own mythology or other beasts that look a lot like dogs. Maybe it is his self-conscious narrative or his thinly veiled yearning for undefined things.
In her book, Storming the Gates of Paradise, Rebecca Solnit explains why video games attract legions of devotees. The games offer the illusion of freedom and the ability to make choices while not actually requiring any consequences or risk from those choices. As an instructor in an art department, I can appreciate the concept of risk without consequence. But as a member of the human race in the United States in 2013, I understand that risk without consequence does not exist. My son plays video games, and as I have observed him I have noted this to be true. How do I teach him what risks are worthwhile and what risks are ignoble?
I am reminded of the wolf hunt now transpiring in Wisconsin. Pictures appear of hunters lofting their kill up for the camera. Many of the hunters have stated they want the challenge of besting North America’s largest and most elusive predator. But many shot their wolves dead as they struggled in steel traps. Others used electronic equipment to lure unsuspecting wolves that haven’t been hunted in decades to their site. Where’s the risk in this? What they really seek is a shortcut to the reward of bragging rights that our shrinking biodiversity can no longer afford. Like America’s wealthiest sons, they seek to be lauded for their risky investments that have resulted in capital, but their safety net of wealth has prevented any risk.
In The Rebel, Camus speaks of a struggle against nihilism—a struggle our society still wages sixty years after the publication of his book. One of my students questioned the meaning and origin of the word nihilism. Soren Kierkegaard spoke of a period of suffering or despair called leveling. Kierkegaard suggested that unless we experienced this leveling, a loss of hope, despair, a dark night of the soul, we could not know that the things we believe in are real and true. The danger, Kierkegaard suggests, is that we might not return from that despair.
Maybe in the end, the only risk worth taking is to believe in something good and true, whether that thing is a Noumenon roaming the landscape of an invented island, or a wolf in Wisconsin trying to survive the men who would demonize it beyond all evidence. And through the risk of believing, our reward and risk become one.