“A Painter of Our Time” by David James

A little less than a year ago, a painter named Lance Gravett had his paintings exhibited for the first time in over 30 years. They were only up for one weekend, and I myself did not get a chance to see them in person, but it turned out that one of my oldest and best friends, the poet and scholar David James, had written a poem for Gravett as well as some artistic commentary inspired by his memory. With David’s permission, I share this material with you and urge to type Gravett’s name into your browser and follow the links.


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A Painter of Our Time

by David James

X–you know his real name–was initially a neo-realist, so I guess he went to school in the mid-seventies. He probably studied with someone who studied with Robert Bechtle or John Salt or Ralph Goings, people like that. His early paintings were unremarkable, all variations on your basic “old car outside a diner in the mid-west” routine. I’ll just tell you about one of them. It was of a Chevy Biscayne, coming in diagonally to half-fill the picture-frame with its hood. It was meticulously painted with intricate reflections on the chrome and in the window glass. Two things distinguished it. First it had a “For Sale” sign in the passenger window. I read this as referring to both the car and the painting, and so expressing a wry recognition of the latter’s own commodity status, not exactly resistance to the compromises of neo-realism and its collusiveness in what was clearly becoming a reactionary art world, but perhaps a self-consciousness about them. The other thing was the color. The car itself was a kind of pukey green, a real fifties pastel, but since it was rusting, the green was eaten away in spots and generally edged with brown, so it looked like the paint was coming off both car and canvas.

I mention this one because it came to my mind whenever I saw X’s later work, the work that made his fortune. These paintings moved me strongly, even though I was not sure whether they too were not compromised, whether the various sublations they mobilized ever really worked. I used to argue about them with my friend Stephen Eisenman. He was clear in his understanding of what, following Adorno, he called “the echo of their untruth,” but I could never get my position satisfactorily worked out. I always hedged by saying that all good work didn’t have to be politically correct.

As the eighties set in, X’s training in neo-realism stood him in good stead. Following the revival of melodrama that made jerks like Robert Longo blue chip, he started painting people under various kinds of duress or terror. But they all had something extra. The first one I liked showed a couple of shadowy figures in raincoats, plotting under a lamppost. I can’t see it too well now, but I remember it could have been a scene from The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. It was painted in a dark, metallic blue, something like the color of the mohair suits Ray Charles used to wear around the time he was secularizing gospel music. It had a general feel of depression and violence, but running across that a weird exhilaration. He called it “Conceptual Terrorists.” I liked the pun.

He did several more in the same vein. Men in danger or anxiety, mostly in blue, highlighted or cut through with streetlamp mercury. But then he started juxtaposing this melodramatic realism with areas of virtually straight Frankenthaler or Olitski color field. I know that pastiches and quotations of previous eras in art essentially floated eighties’ painting, but these didn’t seem arbitrary rip-offs like David Salle or Julian Schnable. Rather than just jamming references together in an abrupt, collagist, ungrammaticality, these works very deliberately constructed meaning from one part of the painting to the other. The articulated compromises of the one mode supplied the preconditions of the other and vice-versa, so that the painting became the scene of translation between what otherwise were two mutually incompatible –and incomplete– languages. It was as if he had found a way of reclaiming the idealism of the color fielders by narrating the man-in-nature cosmic location through the dangers of modern social life. Let me just describe one. I think it was the first in which this synthesis was fully articulated.

The canvas was about eight feet tall and four wide, essentially one square on top of another. The bottom half showed a corpse being handled into a police van and a man being arrested. It was at night and evidently one macho artist had wasted another in a warehouse district on the wrong side of the tracks. The internal light of the wagon illuminated a long slash all down the guy’s gut. The scene was lurid and gross, with shadowy police uniforms standing around. But in the top half of the painting–almost like a paradise the unfortunates below might ascend to–floated this soft field of pale green edged round with a fleshy earth tone–the green and rust from the neo-realist Chevvy! Again the relationship between the colors was more than formal. It was as if the paint were slipping off the canvas to reveal something more fundamental, or as if maybe canvas couldn’t hold paint any more.

X completed this painting just around the time he was having a studio show. I don’t know if it was a studio sale; I doubt it could have been since the melodrama paintings had been well known for three years or so and the combination paintings were beginning to get heavy-duty critical attention. Maybe it was just a show for dealers or friends. But in any case, he stood this painting in a corridor off the main studio and put a notice on it that said it wasn’t for sale. I remember seeing it, half-covered with a sheet. I looked at it briefly, but without giving it much thought I went in to the party.

The next time I went to his studio it was there with maybe a dozen more, all with essentially the same structure. But what was new about this series was that in the interim, he had realized that the “not-for-sale” notice was not something outside the picture, but rather inside it. And in that border-zone between the top and the bottom of each painting –between heaven and hell– he had stenciled in the sign: THIS PAINTING IS NOT FOR SALE.

The rest you know. They were thought to be very hip and the museums all wanted one. He sold them for a lot of money and then quit the whole art-world scene. He started making small oils, sublime landscapes and sunsets, which he gave away to friends.

As he did so, his practice came to resemble that of Lance Gravett, who was torn apart by the tensions this tale illustrates and in whose memory I wrote it.

The Eyes

(for Lance Gravett

The chief practitioners of seeing
these days are cultic
Most rigorous in the finesse
of their cultivation, they are
our only true epicures
but awed by their inexorable pursuit
of more exact discrimination
we forgive them this excess

For the rest of us
the eyes are a neglected function
largely theoretical
made gross by Xerox
& the instamatic clickery
of fotographers who are without doubt
our least interesting seers
They remain useful
only as a kind of starter
for the profound narcosis
of tv & like the nose
they will soon be obsolete
a life support system
unnoticed till it fails

But by then
there will be nothing left to see

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