On George Orwell and J.K. Rowling

My latest contribution to The New Criterion is about what we can (and should) learn from George Orwell’s 1945 essay “Politics and the English Language.”

Ed Ruscha, Words…, 1987, acrylic on canvas, 64 x 64 inches. © Edward J. Ruscha IV

“The present degradation of political discourse is buttressed by the decline of language. This decline is nearly indistinguishable from the sort Orwell complained about in 1945—it is still a mixture of “vagueness and sheer incompetence.” When political language relies on “dying metaphors” (“a few bad apples”), “operators, or verbal false limbs” (“use our voices”), “pretentious diction” (“decolonize the museum”), and plain “lack of precision” (“defund the police”), actual meaning cannot manifest itself, and is supplanted by what Orwell called “emotional meaning”: “People who write in this manner usually have a general emotional meaning—they dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with another—but they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying.” Instead of endeavoring to clarify their thinking by clarifying their language, political actors on all sides use terms with implied (but not always established) definitions.”

Wayne Thiebaud 100 Catalogue essay

Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings, is a forthcoming catalogue for the eponymous centennial exhibition at Sacramento’s Crocker Museum. In 1951 the Crocker also hosted Thiebaud’s first solo show entitled Influences on a Young Painter.

My contribution to the volume is an essay “Nothing is Unimportant” that presents Thiebaud’s most recent circus-themed body of work, putting it in the context of his persistent focus the craft of painting and the authenticity of human experience.

The New Criterion article on Wayne Thiebaud’s Clown series

Wayne Thiebaud is about to reveal his most recent body of work: a selection of paintings and drawings from the new clown series will be on view starting December 8th at the Paul Thiebaud Gallery in San Francisco. In conjunction with the exhibition, The New Criterion just published a new article I wrote on the evolution of the series. It appears in print in December issue (special art issue), and online.

The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 4

Wayne Thiebaud,  Clown and Dog, n.d., Black brush ink on paper, ARS (Artists Rights Society).

With Wayne Thiebaud at the opening reception of “Clowns,” Paul Thiebaud Gallery, December 7, 2019.

“Forever Landscape” Mini-Course at the Laguna Art Museum

On November 13th I will begin a mini-course on the subject of landscape painting as part of Laguna Art Museum Lunchtime Lecture Series. I hope those of you within driving distance could join us for a single lecture, or for all five. To see detailed descriptions of each lecture, please click on the links below.

Forever Landscape

Landscape is at once one of the most popular and the most misunderstood genres in painting. On the surface, it seems deceptively simple: after all, what is there to the “portrait” of nature? Yet, once we take a closer look at the history of landscape in Western painting from the early 1800s to the present day, the complexity and diversity of the genre manifests itself very clearly—landscape painting has been anything but a straightforward reflection of nature on the canvas. Forever Landscape will explore the fascinating and complex development of the genre, its centuries-long evolution from decorative, symbolic, quasi-religious and socially-charged, to the technique-oriented, lyrical, expressive and abstract. Far from being a quaint relic of the past, landscape painting is as prominent today as it has ever been—its currency and necessity underscored by looming environmental threats and nature-averse technological progress.


Remizov Symposium at Amherst College

A decade after my first book Beyond Symbolism and Surrealism: Alexei Remizov’s Synthetic Art was published by Northwestern University Press, Amherst Center for Russian Culture held their second Remizov Research Symposium. The Center also mounted a concurrent exhibition of Remizov’s graphic work from the collection, first one in the United States, since Thomas P. Whitney’s generous gift of his Remizov archive to the Russian Center in the mid 1980s. This gift was marked by the first Remizov symposium, which more or less introduced Remizov’s graphic legacy to the public.

Because most of his visual art ended up in private collections, at the time of the first symposium at Amherst, Remizov’s illustrated albums were virtually unknown. Even when I started researching Remizov’s illustrated albums ten years on, in the mid-90s, he was still seen as a writer who drew “on the side.” My book aimed to show how this was not the case, and how Remizov, who could not fit his creative élan entirely within the bounds of the visual or literary, experimented with graphic art, eventually inventing a new genre of handwritten, illustrated albums that mix india-ink and watercolor drawings with collages and texts. It was wonderful to see such a rise of interest in Remizov’s drawings and illustrated albums, and to hear colleagues’ though-provoking presentations on the various aspects of his visual legacy. I participated with a paper on Remizov’s use of the fourth dimension, mediated by his readings of Pyotr Ouspensky, Gaston de Pawlowski and Maurice Maeterlinck.

Wayne Thiebaud’s Clown Series: Hour of the Clown

About four years ago, Wayne Thiebaud, the nonagenarian painter best known for his still lifes and landscapes, began to depict what he calls “clown memories.” These works in progress presently include approximately fifty paintings, twenty drawings, and six etchings. They are a response to the outside world, as well as another new segment in Thiebaud’s decades-long career as a painter. The New Criterion just published my article on the series, giving its readers an exclusive peek at several of the works in it.

“Ancient Romans believed in the “hour of the wolf”—a point on the cusp of night and dawn, when demons had the upper hand. In modern times, the concept of this magic hour was re-introduced by Ingmar Bergman’s 1968 horror movie, The Hour of the Wolf, which told a story of a painter disturbed by visions. Since then, the phrase has also been used to describe a more generic state of psychological urgency, where the only option is to face reality and to reflect on it, unsettling as it may be. The twentieth century had its share of lupine hours, but in its current incarnation, the demonic is farcical rather than sinister. As I have mentioned elsewhere, today’s evil is comparatively frivolous, and its way to hearts and minds lies through distraction and trivia. Today, it seems, the Huxleyan entertainment utopia is more relevant than the Orwellian surveillance dystopia. The clown has replaced the wolf.”

On “A ‘new’ Vermeer in Dresden”

My latest article for The New Criterion explores how one of Vermeer’s iconic paintings known for its minimalist subtlety, was, in fact, didactic and obvious. The “Girl Reading a Letter At an Open Window,” now in Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, originally contained an image of a giant Cupid painting on the back wall. The Cupid was overpainted after Vermeer’s death, adding to the mystery of the subject matter. Now the work is undergoing restoration to its original, unambiguously campy love-story state.