Hughto's Modernism

by John Link

Juno, trapizoid shaped canvas, 56.5 x 34.5, 1988

Would a picture of St. Sebastian be the same if we did not know the story? A crucifixion? Why do depictions of nude humans demand so much attention? Why can the color of the light in a landscape provoke feeling? Meaningful subject matter has never been sufficient to make a picture great, but many great pictures feature a boat load of it.

"Meaning" taken as a noun refers to ideas that are conveyed. The medium best suited for conveying ideas is, of course, words. Converted to the adjective "meaningful", the reference expands somewhat, to include richness, significance, and importance. The media suited for meaningful expression expands as well, to include visual art. Throughout the history of subject matter in art, sometimes called content, depiction has been central to meaningful expression. But in art the causal chain by which some subject matter becomes meaningful and others does not is different from the path it takes in words. A peach, for instance, taken in itself according to its normal definition hardly seems like a vehicle of great significance, yet when one appears in Cezanne's pictures ...

This explains why one depiction of the crucifixion is profound and another is trite, even though both refer to the same historical event. What makes one meaningful and the other not, is found in the art, not the event and its factual definition. Subject matter must join with everything else in a picture. Something must make sure it all sings together. In good art, "meaning" does not exist independent of the art, like a coat one wears out in the cold to feel warm. Nor is it clearly defined like a coat, because when it is successful, it melts into the whole. It is precisely in this union that the sparks fly, and a pedestrian peach can become nearly immortal, because its picture is that good.

A rule is a condition that governs behavior. There are no rules that govern how artists incorporate subject matter into their art. It is the other way around: How artists actually accomplish this becomes, retroactively, something resembling a "rule", though it is little more than an explanation, if that, of what happened after it happens. The only general characteristic that seems to apply to all successful "meaningful" art is that it is not exclusively meaningful, that is, fixated on meaning above all else. Rather, it offers all the satisfactions that art has always offered, and does not leverage itself according to what it might "mean" as if that is its point. Fixating on meaning can dumb down art in ways that were not imaginable before the 60s (and made worse since). Many of the entries here on artCrit look at specific examples.

As a way to avoid this dumbing down, American modernism has displayed a marked tendency to avoid if not denigrate subject matter, despite Europeans like Picasso and Matisse who engaged subjects with considerable relish and great benefit to their art. Noland was the point where American abstraction married European design, but a much larger gap between American modernism and European painting in general has largely been unbridged because of this antagonism toward subject matter. Thus a deep reservoir of feeling, passion, myth and even worthwhile sentiment has been given short shrift by our best painting, while shamelessly indulged by a host of second rate efforts ranging from pop to postmodernism to conceptual art, an unprecedentedly large industry of average and worse than average painting. For some modernists, the rejection of subject matter has become a dogma, with all the usual negative consequences any dogma has on making art. For others, subject matter is simply not the path that works for them, and for them this rejection is only the necessary narrowing of focus that enables higher levels of achievement.

Darryl Hughto began his career in the latter group, eliminating subjects in his most serious painting to straighten up the path to getting better. But he never gave up depiction, making a point to practice it in his watercolor, which kept his hand skills up, a condition that is often necessary before subject matter can be successfully included in major art.

At some point in the 80s Hughto dared to include subject matter in his "serious" painting as well. I first saw Europa, a painting that seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth, while sitting in an Eames chair in the reception area of a Detroit dealer's gallery. It stunned me. It was a nude female figure with many anatomical details drawn with well-practiced technique, but the picture was thoroughly modern and major, in no way academic. No matter how many times I looked, the picture never quit. It was just good. Among its revelations was the fact subject matter and modernism remain quite compatible. Juno, reproduced above, shares many of Europa's characteristics.

Like most modernists, Hughto still forged his path with the reductionistic method that has always served seriousness well, but rather than downplay meaning, he was beginning to revel in it. The subject became one of his weapons. Unlike Picasso, whose best pictures of the model are the ones that maintain a long distance, Hughto lets himself love his subjects, whether they be nudes, still life stuff, or landscapes.

Since the 60s, second rate painting had contrived distance from its subjects to produce "edgy" art in its effort to remain within the avant-garde brand - then and now the market favorite. Part of avant-garde branding was to present "difficult" subject matter as the point of art, not one of its ingredients. Hughto's approach has been opposite theirs. His modernistic love of materials, color, and method flows into the feeling he has for his subjects as unabashed love for all of it, not the rationalized machinations pop and other forms have fed upon for decades. I can't tell where the love of the subject ends and the love of the materials begins. It is all one large love-in, joined at the hip, the elbow, the head, and wherever else it matters.

Hughto's art for the past few decades, like his subjects, has not been "difficult" at all, a fact that may be at odds with some of his otherwise natural modernistic allies. But it is also too "modern" to gain admittance into the darkly second level, content-oriented work that dominates the vast majority of the art scene. His has been a trip through no-man's land for quite some time. I suppose that might have been good for his art. If Clement Greenberg was right that the best artists must serve a 10 year exile, why wouldn't 30 have an even greater purification effect? The consistencies between one series and another certainly are a matter of Hughto's instinctive choosing, not the need to keep a customer base buying. By now there can be no doubt of his commitment to this work, despite all the questions and doubts that are intrinsic to such a twisted, troublesome road.

In the end, Hughto's professional story counts for very little, interesting as it may be. His worth is in the objects he has created. The fact they have brought into the best American painting some of the values long neglected by our best painters is worth thinking about, to be sure. In themselves, these introductions are not "original" in the aesthetic sense, but they make me realize he possesses the openness that fosters aesthetic originality. His sense of touch and paint handling convey feeling, not skill, even as his skill glows from within them. Where Pollock's abandonment of subject brought pressure to the edges, Hughto's embrace of depiction brings the pressure back to the middle, where it is found in most of the European tradition. He does not pose his subjects as much as he focuses on them - they are never positioned to fake compositional uniqueness or for other trickery. Their definition is not clarified by his paint, but rather embedded inside it. He is not an illustrator. His latest pictures are free to employ rather raw color with great abandonment, something that could not have easily happened in his early, large abstractions. This bright color spreads with joyous disregard for becoming garish, emboldened rather than inhibited by the discipline intrinsic to depicting something. He has shown us that blatant "innovation" is not a marker for superior art, that there is no need to fear felicity in painting, and above all, there is nothing wrong with making art that looks like art. Rather, these are very good methods, as they always have been, for reaching the top of the mountain.

Lake Champlain
Lake Champlain, 57.5 x 82, 2005

September 22, 2014

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