Writing Archive

Different Players, Same Team: A conversation with Neil Whitacre and Franklin Einspruch

Miami Art Exchange, January 31, 2002

Neil Whitacre: This is in response to seeing your work on the web and your review of "Skins".

It seems you are a combination of corny and bitter. You have seen some of these trendy slackers make it to the top of the art world. It likely makes you mad. It sends you into attack mode at anything new and different. "New and different" does not include old fuddy-duddy brown figure painters like yourself. This may scare you and cause you to write wacky, bitter-sounding reviews.

You certainly look strange and troubled enough to do something interesting, but such is not the case. You may be a full and interesting human, but you force your art to be one narrow band of that.

You may actually be past the period in you life where you are capable and curious enough to learn new things. Your work is not evolving. It is very scary that you have reached artistic maturity and landed on this plateau of period pieces. There are no "ideas" in your work and you are not selecting anything—you simply pick something to represent by slathering paint on canvas. Franklin, this is not art; you are just hacking out images. Your work really lacks humor and complexity.

What new information or ideas are you covering? And of course you have a "studio"—you dinosaur. These paintings are exercises in a lonely studio. They are analogous to a lame grunge holdover band practicing in a basement—they should never be allowed to play out .

There are usually 2-3 painters almost indistinguishable from you in every undergrad painting department across the country and many coffee shops. I am serious about this. I can provide names. There is no way I would look twice at this ultra-academic stuff; it just represents a step in learning about art for art students.

You should stop painting for about a year, at least with any color of brown. Maybe look at some other painters. Take some walks.

Franklin Einspruch: This is a marked improvement over the gay-baiting and threats of violence I received from you and/or your colleague. But like the last letter, it doesn't attempt to defend the work in the Skins show, which convinces me further that it was as bad as I said it was.

It must comfort you to think of the source of the Skins review as a repressed, cranky throwback who makes derivative non-art. But caricaturing me is too easy. It would be harder and more worthwhile to come up with a case for the work in the Skins show so convincing that even I would have to agree with it.

NW: The attack from Luis was a bit goofy. I was not the least bit involved with that e-mail, and I didn't approve of it's tone or content. I may have to agree that the Skins show was bad. It is the angle with which you approach it that troubles me.

Do you assume that art must contain some high degree of skill or quality to communicate an idea? You have to be old-fashioned. Based on your work, how can I assume otherwise? Of course you are going to hate the show. All one would have to do is look at your work to see that.

How can your paintings show me anything new? Didn't you see anything in China you could make art about? Anything challenging? I just don't see what you think sets them apart from the scads of students in the Midwest painting like that. At least I get the sense that the people in Skins show are trying to push things a little.

FE: Do you assume that art must contain some high degree of skill or quality to communicate an idea? No. That's why the communication of ideas, in and of itself, doesn't interest me very much. Writing, advertisement, and graphic design do it much more efficiently than art does, so if art was only about the communication of ideas, it would be an inferior medium.

What art can do better than those media is communicate certain kinds of feelings that are profound and hard to put into words.

How can your paintings show me anything new? ... I just don't see what you think sets [your paintings] apart from the scads of students in the Midwest painting like that. There must be scads of Midwestern art students doing work like what we saw in the Skins show; I can be sure of it from reading the art magazines. I paint in a style that is reminiscent of Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossof, and David Park. It wouldn't surprise me if many others do as well. If everything always had to be new, Auerbach would preclude my art, the classical Chinese (who combined text and images) would preclude yours, and so on. In fact, the second guy who wanted to do a still life painting would have been taken out. No one would be able to get any work done.

The issue for me isn't new or old, but good or bad. The effort that went into to making the Skins show work look contemporary, what you call trying to push things, was misplaced. The result is that the show was bad - on this we agree. On top of it, it was bad for the same reasons that make some kinds of traditional art bad, which means that in some sense it even failed to be contemporary.

Style is also not the issue. There's good non-traditional work - David Rohn comes to mind, whom I'm writing about for my next Accent Miami piece. And there's plenty of traditional junk. Examples of good and bad and in-between abound in both.

There's two kinds of originality: superficial and inner. You can achieve superficial originality by making something people haven't seen much of before, and it isn't that difficult. You get inner originality by being brutally honest with yourself, by searching your depths. I have sacrificed the former in an attempt to catch the latter. The work in the Skins show did the reverse.

NW: I mean ideas to be a very open term which includes emotions and feelings - things that are transferred to the viewer.

Your work may show a certain level of craftsmanship, but you are not making a big enough jump in your work. My opinion is that it is bogged down in tradition. It seems to be building directly on traditional factors which are like heavy chains. Tell me what makes the work unique to you.

I don't feel in this particular instance, the Skins show, that you are the best man to dish out a critique. But truthfully it is hard for me to defend it.

I am new to Miami and a bit critical of the layer of the art world which I am involved with.

I don't mean to propose that work cannot be eclectic. Nor do I want to dive into an argument about post-modern theory.

I hope there are more than two kinds of originality. I hope this area is so abstract we can't even touch it. I don't think we all need to make paintings about dark, personal masturbation secrets and the like to make original art - if that's what you are implying by brutally honest.

FE: In what direction should my work be jumping? The idea of progress in art is hard to support in our pluralistic world. Gerhard Richter said that art doesn't progress, it only exists in different states at different times. That's a little extreme but he has a point.

Brutal honesty isn't masturbation and darkness and whatnot - those things are merely personal or bleak. Brutal honesty is asking yourself whether you care about what you're doing, and whether it's good. That sounds banal, but it's the road that takes you from what you think you should be doing to who you actually are. I think as long as you're doing that it doesn't matter what style you work in, or how many other people are doing it, or how many have done it before. It's new to you, and that's enough.

I don't think of the tradition as binding. It's a gift, a huge vocabulary of skills which I did nothing to create but which I can use to my heart's content to do what I care about.

Was I the wrong man for the job when it came to reviewing the Skins show? I might not have been inclined to sympathy, but if I saw something with genuine life in it, I would have said so. I would have thrown out my thesis in an instant.

NW: Truthfully, I may be projecting a little. I have talked with crusty painters ever since I started making things. And I also realize that we are two very different people essentially playing on the same team.

Maybe you should change your name to Mr. Serious. Don't you think of your work as entertainment? Something to make someone's life a little more bearable or surprising?

Brutal honesty isn't masturbation and darkness and whatnot - those things are merely personal or bleak. Merely personal, merely bleak?

It's new to you, and that's enough. I can't agree with this statement - I'm pretty sure that it's not enough. I feel like it's evil to mull over the same terrain as other artists.

I don't think of the tradition as binding. It's a gift, a huge vocabulary... I think it's a stale vocabulary. I don't think you care about much over and above showing us you can paint. Is this an indirect way of telling you care about your subjects?

Your thesis - how corny is that? Will you toss out your beret as well?

You said things like the Viola-like video, prints on foamcore, etc. were trendy art-world clichés. How could there be a bigger cliché than figure painting? You are guilty of being a member of a much bigger and older trend, and you call it a vocabulary.

FE: Most of us are on the same team. Darby Bannard said as much when he pointed out [in a letter of comment to the MAEx] that the two camps in this argument were accusing each other of the same thing.

At the risk of sounding even more serious, the audience I have in mind for my painting consists of my masters - the figures of art whom I revere. There's a scene in the movie All the Mornings in the World in which one of the characters says that the reason for music is that you have to leave out a glass for the dead. I understood that instantly. I go around with the same feeling. So if my work entertains anyone it's a happy accident. I do not - repeat not - think all art should be made this way.

The vocabulary includes video art, photos on foamcore, e-mails - every method of art making starting from the first scrawls with a burnt stick on a cave wall to stuff invented ten minutes ago. None of it is stale, not a crumb of it. None of it is automatically valid either. It can be used well or badly depending on the talent of the wielder. That I think was the major fallacy of Skins - that the newness of the media, methods, and intentions would redeem the lameness of the work. Nope! It was just the vocabulary used poorly, and better luck next time.

I'd like to challenge that statement you made about the evil of mulling over old terrain. On the one hand, there is no old terrain. There's a saying in Zen that when you die, Mt. Fuji dies with you. Even if you're rehashing Dutch flower painting, if you do it self-critically, you're going to make a valid painting. On the other hand, there is nothing but old terrain. The vocabulary consists of all of art history in its entirety. Nothing at all in Skins was utterly free of precedent, and here I can provide names.

Neil Whitacre is an artist who moved to Miami from Chicago and Milwaukee a year ago. When not fishing he writes song lyrics under various pseudonyms (Jacques, Juan, Amber, Luis) for 0tv.com. Franklin Einspruch is an artist and writer and former editor of the Miami Art Exchange.

Word count: 2063

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