JOE ANDOE: WRITING IN THE WIND
The University of Oklahoma Museum of Art
Oct. 14 - Nov. 18, 1990
Joe Andoe's work displays an approach toward art that is typically American, not just in its imagery but in its economy and pragmatism as well. The essential Americanism of Andoe's work recalls an article Donald Judd wrote as a response to Clement Greenberg's "AN American Type Painting." For Judd, American art was born not out of a struggle against European art, but rather out of the vastness and uninterrupted space of the American landscape, which is uniquely American with no European equivalent. This debate concerning what makes American art American is no longer heard today. It gave way when the dominance of American art eventually turned into the universal model for all western art per se. Though unstated, this shift in paradigms (from the school of Paris to New York school) is part of the attitudes and issues that have accumulated over the last 40 years that inform the present moment. Implicit in this shift is a fear left over from the days of abstract expressionism that American art is provincial. It is used to instill in American artists the dominant desire to make art that is tough, engendering the act of painting with a male/macho quality. The corollary to this was to turn the term decorative into the most derogatory statement one could make about painting, implying weakness and femininity. Such an ideal, of course, was countered in practice, if not in critical language, by pop art with its emphasis on commercial imagery, artificiality and social reflectivity. It jettisoned Angst, existential doubt, and the sublime as a necessary part of culture. Pop's success further exacerbated the split between abstract art's "otherness" and representation's ability to represent criticality. It is through pop that representation has been reinvented as the act of recreating images rather than representing the appearance of things. Alongside pop's attacks on abstraction's ivory tower, minimal art gave us an alternative view of the non-representational: The abstract was made concrete and phenomenological by focusing on art's objecthood, the literalness of process, and its context. From there, it was a short step to conceptual art, the criteria of which are that art should be philosophical, immaterial, and critical. To this list, add all the residual truths of modernism and its formalist interpretation. This constituted the inheritance bequeathed to artists of the 1980s. To them, it seemed like a history ready for reinterpretation and recycling. The real questions were, by what means and by what ends.
Andoe's approach is refreshingly modest. His imagery includes not only familiar sights from popular culture such as the harvest moon one finds on calendars in rural areas or the flowers on Hallmark greeting cards, but also creatures of the sky, the fruits of the earth, expansive landscapes of the west, as well as an occasional sign like an Indian arrow or Brancusi's Endless Column. At times, Andoe's means are so simple and endearing that they appear almost sweet, again placing him in opposition to the uncritical stance of "toughness." Andoe's style is direct, his drawing genial, his methods explicit, if not overly obvious. We cannot, however, be sure if Andoe is conscious of the game, the very rules which he inscribes into the surface of the paint, or whether he is engaged in a parody of tradition, or alternatively, whether he is attacking the most sacrosanct pretenses of painting.
What little cuing Andoe provides regarding his concerns can be found in his imagery. The "pictures" in his paintings break down into such categories as landscape, nature (plants, birds), and culture signs (Brancusi's Endless Column). In addition, each painting contains Andoe's name as part of the design, functioning both as signature and image. In a painting like Untitled: (Corn), which perhaps is his most "naturalistic" (but nowhere near realistic) work, the letters of Andoe's name appear as if they were labeling each leaf, giving it the appearance of a botanical diagram. Mysteriously, the size of the letters makes the plant appear to be in the extreme foreground or to be very large. In a similar manner, the monochrome salmon pink ground and the dark green color used to indicate the plant do not so much represent dawn or sunset as symbolize it. Immediately we are confronted with the questions of how do we compare the scale of the word and the image? How is it they occupy the same space?
In picture after picture the same ambiguities arise: each inconclusive reading makes us conscious that we desire closure so we ignore this situation by giving each painting a generic name- landscapes, birds, etc.- or we dismiss the encounter as an intentional manipulation of the audience, or alternatively, we engage in the production of speculative answers. Our responses are often contradictory stories concocted from the confusing material at hand: are Andoe's paintings merely constructed of empty signs meant to be read only formally or are there secreted messages encoded whose meaning lies in their being secret? Perhaps they are nothing more than Andoe trying to lay claim to his memories or hide them. The only way to resolve these ambiguities is to declare that these images are not representations and therefore refer to no other scale than their conceptual space, and consequently, to retrieve their meaning, one must deconstruct the painting.
What comes of this speculation is the knowledge that Andoe's paintings-not his images-are texts meant to be read and re-read, interpreted and re-interpreted. What they are not is as important as what they are. After all, Andoe is not a landscape or genre painter involved in simple narratives. His images derive their metaphorical content not from the absent objects portrayed but rather from the very means of their making.
By rejecting the purist "spiritual" or "transcendental" position of formalist abstraction, Andoe gives us paintings that insistently propose virtual and contradictory contents, while materially the paintings stay constant and self-evident. In a Wittgensteinian manner, Andoe, as he portrays the act of portrayal, exposes the language games of modernism, self-reflectively and self-critically. He makes apparent that one cannot divorce the formal procedures from the impetus to give them structural or syntactical meaning. His means maintain their literal characteristics. Paint is paint, a scratch approximates nothing more than itself, additive and subtractive processes do not become disguised as attempts to approximate the appear and of some other surface. The resulting gestalt, though, is one of recognizable images. This shift between the material appearance and mimetic engages us in a form of post-structuralist fluidity by transgressing the exclusionary principals of formalism's dictum of no mixed signals. Andoe’s message is sent in a singular code by rooting out and presenting the contradictory results of modernism’s deconstruction of painting. He returns to painting its polymorphism, not as a tongue-in-cheek, ersatz construct, but as comprehensible assemblage of approved views. Given formalist and idealist criteria, sentiment, taste, differing regional and class values have only been addressed snidely, with a snicker and a wink. Such subjects come with a punch line, whose irony differentiates those in the know from those who are the butt of the joke. If nothing else, we can be sure that Andoe is no snob given to high-minded academic solutions. The fact that all of this is done in a folksy way confuses our sensibility to determine if this is all theatrics or a heartfelt attempt at resolving the contradiction between high and low in an non-ironic manner. Andoe restores play and intrigue as an essential part of art's discourse.
Behind his scant narratives about nature and artifice (flowers, geese, and the look of the artist's signature) Andoe has been able to conceal a discourse on the means and the meaning of his means. In secreting his intention, he also reveals the potential of the multiplicity and simultaneity of painting's means of signification. His paintings are not about information, social reflectivity, artifice, or authenticity. If they can be said to be about anything in particular, they are about the indeterminacy of ontological or epistemological knowing. If not consciously, then unconsciously. Above all, Andoe resists having his paintings become merely illustrations of a theory or source of information.
Central to my argument is a variation of one of the "catches" in Catch-22. A character called Major Major does not want to be responsible for any decision making so he tells his aide, "If anyone comes to see me, tell them I'm in only when I'm out. If I'm in tell them I'm out." As author, Andoe is never in, nor is he ever out. He supplies us with no master narrative, instead leaving a trail of codes by which to decode his text. These trails, however, do not allow us to derive a definitive interpretation of his intent. Rather they furnish us with just enough ambiguity as raw material, enabling us to move in any direction we might want to go. It is as if Andoe has intuited that the more specific you want to be, the more general you get; that the simple proposition must be, by its very nature, the more complex.
New York City
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