BY BRAD PHILLIPS
AN ESSAY ON THE WORK OF ARTIST MARK DELONG
The Rusty Toque | Art Essay | Issue 6 | May 30, 2014
I was recently told that the American artist Kerry Tribe has described the making and presentation of artwork as a “tiny bit radical”–radical in that making and exhibiting art is tied into slowness and contemplation, things that are not popular in the contemporary culture we’re living in.
When I first met Mark around eight years ago, he was making work that was somewhat popular in Vancouver, or at least the sort of thing you might see around. Artists like Jason McLean and Keith Higgins and Marc Bell had become sort of West Coast affiliates of a Royal Art Lodge methodology, but made unique in a Pacific Northwest way in which their drawings were not twee, or precious, but more psychedelic and intuitive; messy and unpretentious. Some of those artists are still making some of that work. That is just fine.
Mark’s work now consists of ceramics and abstract paintings. Completely abstract paintings. No wishy-washy abstract figuration, zero ‘investigation’ into anything. He’s just picked up a Modernist interest and run with it. Because I suppose there is still more, at least as far as he can see, to be done with Abstract Expressionism, or just Abstract painting, or Action Painting, Automatisme. The only other male artist that I know of working with ceramics is Grayson Perry, who was momentarily popular and won the Turner Prize for his fairy tale type ceramic works, usually decorated vases. They were quite beautiful. I don’t hear much about him now. But Grayson Perry presented as a cross-dresser. He picked up his cheque for the Turner Prize in a gaudy, campy dress, accompanied by his wife. So inherent in his work were multiform gender issues, I suppose. Ceramic being women’s work, ostensibly. Perry’s ceramics in that regard were political, whether he/she intended them to be or not. If you make ceramic vases, and you walk around East London in a wedding dress, people will obviously start to make connections about gender politics, male v. female art–I don’t know exactly what point he was trying to make if any, but his manner suggested a politicization of his product.
Mark is a father of two. He has large muscles. He is working class. And he makes ceramics, egg shaped ceramics, wonky bizarre ceramics that look like oversized versions of what a child might make (in the 1970’s) as an ashtray for their parents in art class. They are very beautiful. They’re neither feminine nor masculine. They’re artefacts he makes by hand. The need to even attach gender labels to the production of art in 2013 seems unnecessary. It’s been covered. Boring. It could be said then, that Mark, as a heterosexual male, working class father of two, producing ceramics that are fragile and delicate, is somewhat radical. Denying the idea of this ‘craft’ being the sole domain of female artists.
But this isn’t the case. What is inherently radical about Mark’s work is his complete and utter disinterest in any of these issues. He’s making sculptures post-gender. Essentially with each ceramic he is creating a product which communicates the idea that the issue has been dealt with. I think Mark works in ceramic because he’s found that he enjoys doing it, that he’s good at it, and that sometimes, a ceramic egg is the most appropriate vehicle with which to deliver whatever aesthetic he’s interested in at the moment. So in this sense to me the work is radical, in that he is so far removed from the politics of the work he makes. It is a radicalism of complete nonchalance and disinterest. He’s not saying this work is not female work, or hey look I’m a man making work primarily designated to be created by female artists; what he is saying (or rather doing)–is demonstrating that ceramic is a very nice way for an artist to make art. Regardless of what’s inside your pants. An egalitarian gesture which denies the issue even being relevant anymore. To me this is a radical gesture.
Again with his paintings. There aren’t a whole lot of people making fast abstract paintings right now. Save the few who have become re-interested in minimalism, and again are using the most awful word in contemporary art: “investigation”. There are many artists who are still, seeming to not understand that DeKoonig dealt with this half a century ago, dabbling in abstract figuration. Look here’s an abstract painting, but wait! I see a face in it! Cicely Brown likes to bury her pornography in abstract painting. It’s a bit of a Where’s Waldo trope. There are words for this in psychology. Apophenia is the experience of seeing meaningful patterns in random data. More specifically, Pareidolia is literally what children do when they look for anthropomorphic imagery in clouds. What do you see in the sky honey? I see a bear Mommy etc. In fact it’s just water vapour, but you need to keep your kids entertained. There is a surfeit of this work being made right now, and in the recent past, so my contention is that there is no need to make more of it.
I feel that making completely abstract paintings right now is compelling, in that everyone thought that was all over. Looking at Mark’s work I imagine they are mostly done in a day, one sitting. The white is raw canvas. If I were forced to compare them to any genre, I would say that he is making Ab-Ex paintings. Some look like early Albert Oehlen paintings, and some look a bit like Stuart Davis (I realize both are not Abstract Expressionists)–but Mark somehow, even if there is a minute resemblance to those artist’s work, has managed to morph his own into what look like good old Clement Greenberg approved Abstract Expressionism. So some people might say that in 2013, to reengage with Abstract Expressionism is a radical gesture. Again this is not what I feel is radical about the work.
Ab-Ex art extolled the artist as mystical shaman, a serious thinker, tortured (Mark is hilarious), heavily involved in Poetics and Eastern Religion and just having an awful time in their head feeling quite tortured and unhappy. All the weeping in front of Rothko, even he had to kill himself. If you’ve spent time at Mark’s house, it’s not the Cedar Tavern. It’s a good time. The only visible clock is Garfield, his googly eyes trailing you all over the room like Mona Lisa and his tail swinging back and forth like a pendulum. I don’t see much angst in his life. He does not appear to be tortured. I don’t think he is suggesting his hand is a conduit between the canvas and God.
Here are the titles of some Cy Twombly paintings (mystical genius, exiled in Rome, multi-million dollar paintings, born in the wrong century, cliché cliché cliché…)
Leda and the Swan
Venere Franchetti (completely washed out painting that looks like it took about two hours)
The Bacchus Series
The Supplement, 2006 – Sotheby’s Estimate 8 – 12 million USD
Bacchus Psilax (?)
Nine Discourses on Commodus
Poems to the Sea (how will they hear these poems?)
Why does Cy use Italian so much? Everyone knows he was born in Lexington Virginia! But, don’t get me wrong. Cy Twombly is a very good, important painter, and influenced many people. Without Twombly there would have been no Jean Michel Basquiat. His work is important. I like it. It’s messy and strange, drippy, hastily crafted, and once in a while he likes to write a word on the picture from some Greek Myth or something out of Dante. That’s fair, there was a time for that. But in doing so, he was, like Jackson Pollock, an exemplar of the artist as Gnostic and Mystic and Guru on the Mount.
Here are the titles of some of Marks’ paintings, which are messy, and sometimes drippy, and hastily crafted, and full of dashes and blotches of strange colour and weird forms and confusing geometry;
Dan is So Stupid
Tall Grass no Phone
Portrait of Mick Jagger (completely washed out abstract painting that looks like it took about two hours)
Pour me out the Window
The Branch hit the Window
Grapes (there is no purple or green in this painting)
Twombly notoriously lived in a castle outside of Rome. He had a lot of statuary. The gardens were sublime. Long strolls reading Diogenes in the original Greek. Perhaps an obscure tailor made hat, the name of which only a handful of people in the world can pronounce.
Mark lives in a coach house in Strathcona. Next to his front door is a framed photograph of the actor Denzel Washington. DFW. David Foster Wallace? Denzel Fucking Washington!
On its surface the work is straight Ab-Ex painting. But the radical nature of what Mark is doing lies in the way he undercuts the arch-seriousness and pomposity of that genre of work with his titles. Dan is So Stupid could be called Elegy in Green and Yellow, For the People of Pompeii, something in Greek, For Frank O’Hara, Eulogy at the Funeral of Holofernes. But it’s not. It’s called Dan is So Stupid. I know Dan, he’s not. And again, if Mark were consciously trying to undercut and satirize the mystic self importance of rich white male abstract painters from America in the 1950’s, there would be an angle there to explore, a hook for people to hold onto. But I don’t believe that’s what he’s doing at all. So again the work is radical in its absolute and complete indifference to the history of the very painting he’s working on.
It occurs to me that this might appear that I am saying that Mark is naïve. He’s not. He is a self-taught artist, this might be why his work is so good. He isn’t encumbered by the manifold expectations of the audience, worried about the issues inherent in his work, concerned with awful things like investigating, and interrogating painting. Self taught is best taught. Mark is a smart guy. That intelligence is apparent in his complete and total dismissal of ‘issues’ in art. Art about issues, it doesn’t work. What we’re doing is Visual Art. Does it succeed visually is really the only issue that matters. And Mark’s work does succeed visually. He makes very beautiful work.
The possibility exists that his paintings and ceramics can be viewed as political, but that’s not his fault. Don’t blame Mark for that. The beauty of art is it’s polysemic nature in which everyone’s reaction is a correct reaction, and the intention of the artist in completely irrelevant. Political art tends to be stultifyingly boring. And rarely succeeds as visual art. You really only need to look at one Barbara Kruger to understand all of her work. This is not to discredit her work. Felix Gonzales Torres made political work that was beautiful to look at. Mark however isn’t a woman struggling to be noticed in a male dominated New York art world, Mark isn’t a gay artist who has died of AIDS. The politics of a middle class white male living in a world class city; there’s not much to work with there, and were he to attempt to approach it from that angle, it would be tired white guilt, or amelioration, or apology art. The reason that Mark’s work is unique and interesting is because he is doing it the old fashioned way. Because he has to, because he enjoys it, and because he does it well. And in 2013, to make work from this position, is also a tiny bit radical.
Brad Phillips – January 24, 2013
View more of Mark Delong's work here.
Brad Phillips is an artist and writer born in 1974.