Art Review: Death and Shame: Two Artists Wrestle With Themselves

I visited two shows last week that, by total coincidence, were each composite self-portraits of the respective artists: Michael Bise at Fort Worth Contemporary Arts in a show called Epilogues, and Michelle Rawlings at Oliver Francis Gallery in one called Empathicalism. The first was a wry, deeply thoughtful and searing look at a private life lived with the constant threat of death; the second was a self-dissecting, self-deprecating mash-up by someone who’s maybe never had anything to be afraid of and hates it.

Michael Bise’s huge graphite drawings on paper depict domestic interiors cluttered with kitsch figurines and portraits of Jesus, grade school pictures, and fervor-filled evangelical moments that drip with perverse hedonism. There is also a series of Bise’s smaller, comic-style drawings called Life on the List, that he made recently for Glasstire, which chronicle the artist’s struggle to come to grips with his perhaps imminent death as he waits for a heart transplant (which, thankfully, Bise received a few weeks ago).

Michael Bise, ‘Children,’ 2011. Graphite on paper; 42" x 63" (Courtesy of Moody Gallery)

Bise’s pictures are sophisticatedly rendered.  There’s a photographic quality to them, in the spirit of Chuck Close, but then they are also rooted in a 1980s retro sensibility that palpably conveys the feeling of being a kid in a wood-paneled room where you’re trapped with grownups that are all smoking cigarettes. You want to cough, but it might come across as disrespectful.

Through his confident and dense mark-making that remembers cartoons, snapshots and television, Bise captures that ineffable aura of childhood, with all its confines and lead-black limits.

Apart from Bise being an incredible draftsman, he’s also an incredibly astute cultural critic; what he condenses in a single image is enough sociological fodder to chew on for a long, long time. Take, for example, the piece called Revival which depicts a swelling bevy of females in a tent, all swaying and contorted in ecstasy as they ostensibly revive their commitment to Jesus. The picture is tremendously big – over 84” wide and every inch of it filled with flawlessly described characters of all types: the young and old, the beautiful and mangy, fat, skinny, tall, short, fashionable or homely. And almost every last one is closing her eyes. More than the picture describes any sort of sanctification, it depicts a sort of bacchanalian frenzy that looks more painful than it does, er, reviving. Robert Longo’s spasmatic suited men and women come to mind; so does Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (the hell part). What we’re witnessing in Bise’s Revival — as indicated by the lone woman with her eyes open, staring at the mayhem – is a kind of spiritual mob mentality. It’s a pressure-filled space, replete with artificial and genuine fervor, and, more than anything, committed showmanship. Separating the chaff from the wheat, let’s say – the real believers from the phony ones — would be a doozy of a task. Bise chooses to essentially damn them all, and, through proxy, so do we.

Michelle Rawlings, installation shot at Oliver Francis (courtesy of Oliver Francis Gallery)

Admittedly, seeing Michelle Rawlings’ show right after Bise’s skewed my perceptions a little. It was jarring to go from the quiet, wide FWCA gallery, where visitors were humbled a bit by Bise’s candid but deeply witty portrayal of his life and struggles, to the small space of Oliver Francis Gallery where the artist’s well-heeled friends and relations (not to mention a security contingent – Rawlings is daughter of Mike Rawlings, the mayor of Dallas) were crammed shoulder to shoulder noshing cheese cubes. Outside, the mayor had hired a valet service, which had the neighborhood dogs barking as runners ran to and fro fetching Porches. I knew going into it that all of this veneer was really part of the show – that the artist and the gallery itself had orchestrated the extra stuff to up the ante on the art work, which, compared to Bise’s, was an autobiographical horse of a different color.

Where Bise chooses to tell his story though visual narratives and vignettes that strike at the art of being alive, Rawlings has parceled out her life here in the gallery with visual cues and self-effacing jabs, in all manner of media—video, painting, and installation-ish accents — that describe a young woman coming to grips not with the eternals so much as the surface of everything – the titles, the accolades, the body parts, and the accoutrements of privilege, with all the stereotypes that come with it. Rawlings is using herself as a whipping boy (girl?) upon which the lower classes may strike with all their judgments: spoiled brat, pretty girl, cheerleader, daddy’s girl, etc.

Michelle Rawlings, installation shot at Oliver Francis (courtesy of Oliver Francis Gallery)

That Rawlings is a lovely blonde that may, in fact, be all of the things above is entirely the point. We’re supposed to hate her a little and want her all the same, as the painting of naked female genitalia (hers, I presume) that hangs front and center in the gallery and is guarded by red velvet curtains and indoor houseplants (palm trees) suggests. You hate her for her securities, but you praise her for the fact that she’s confident enough to hang them all out like wet (but really clean) laundry.

There is a tapestry here embroidered with Rawlings high school yearbook picture, her selected quotes from the yearbook by people like Van Morrison, and her stats – sports she was involved in, awards she won — as well as some cute pictures of her as kid. To the left of the tapestry is a diagonal line of five small paintings with smiley-faced crosses painted in a naïve, outsider-artist style. There is also, among other things, a video of the artist in a Nativity play as a kid. The camera zooms in and out, its focus always on Rawlings.

The wholesomeness that Rawlings is mocking herself for – her Christian, school-girl regularness and her life as the art-student daughter of a third-tier city’s mayor (and the former CEO of Pizza Hut) — is clearly that artistic “thing” that preoccupies her. I gather she’s never quite felt comfortable in the role, and it’s clear she’s working out what that means and who it makes her. She can’t very well “un-be” any of it, just like Tracy Emin and Sara Lucas, conversely, couldn’t undo their blue-collar, sordid pasts. But there’s something wanting in Rawlings work, something a bit more unhinged or revolting; or something more elegant and studious. Either way, Rawlings is learning how to tell the truth about herself. Her work here at Oliver Francis is a start down what will be, I suspect, a long road toward real discovery. But for the time, like Emin and Lucas before her — and Cindy Sherman, for that matter, Rawlings is laying everything about herself out on table, though perhaps without the poetry and suffered insight of those other women. But, if Rawlings is serious about wanting to unpack her life as an artist, that will be suffering enough to steer her in more fecund and honest directions. This show here, as I say, is a good place to start, and an even better point of departure.

Image at top: Michael Bise, Revival, 2009. (detail) graphite on paper; 41 1/2″ x 84 1/4″ (Courtesy Moody Gallery)


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  • Sorry Lucia, though I do agree with you mostly- the painting of genitalia is a study made after Gustav Courbet. It’s a pretty well-known painting, maybe that it is a copy of a 19th century artist known for his controversial jabs at socialites adds more layer to Michelle Rawlings show.

  • Lucia

    @Eli: You’re right, of course, though the reference eluded me. (head smack head smack). And yes, it does add a layer to Michelle’s work. Thanks for the artistic hand slap. I genuinely appreciate it.

  • Lucia, that’s cool. I’ve just seen the painting recreated by many a art student. Although, to be honest, the social reference didn’t occur to me until your article put it in to context. I liked the show, and I’m glad you reviewed it.

  • E.S. White

    Lucia – Your comments on Bise’s drawings hit the nail on the head for me; I was silent as I explored the work, then at a loss for words as folks came up to chit chat. Several drawings sucked the wind right out of me. I simultaneously felt a deep connection to the 1980s awkwardness of his subjects and stunned by the honesty they embody. I’m just not accustomed to that level of insight into an artist’s personal life, with no irony in sight…I think?

  • Page

    I appreciated Rawling’s unique visual sensibility, and willingness to investigate the relations between her own position in the world through art history, myth, gender, and social institutions.

  • HHorkheimer

    The painting by MR of RISD is a little bit more than just a ‘reference’ to the Courbet – it’s a relatively faithful copy and, therefore, should be approached as deliberate appropriation (one that is grounded in artistic tradition). This version, and its placement in the context of the other work at OFG, is loaded and punning. Rather than narcissistic – or merely immature – it might be a statement (or small provocation) that seeks to address something more expansive – such as the nature of the relation of Conservatism, social conservatism and the artistic traditions to the origins and maintenance of social constructions. Gender? That too. The spectacle of the event, the social status of the artist, is certainly relevant within this context, but understanding the art historical lineage of the work in the show is absolutely crucial to the effective critical assessment. These little details are minimally essential to any critical analysis and help establish the smarter scene that Dallas seeks so urgently and with so much ‘sincerity’. FRONTROW is not FRIEZE and I do understand that it doesn’t aspire to that status, but the little errors begin to undermine any real claim to authority – as they should. It’s important. The ‘legitimate’ claim to authority is at the center of the struggle around here right now and so these little things, like the histories and contexts, become increasingly important. Much is at stake in the minutiae. Right? Perhaps the role of the new art writing now is simply to provoke the highest number of comments, to be the first in the string of a series of text events; that’s fine too for working these things out, but it’s too labor intensive. I hate writing. Anyway, the title of the Courbet is L’Origine du monde; it is canonical in the west. Sorry to scold; I feel like a cop now. And rather than Sherman, please see Haake; it’s relevant to the show. With all due respect and much empathy, H

  • Ben

    Hhorkheimer, I sort of see your point from a scholarly point of view, but is the inevitable conclusion that art is meant to be closed off to anyone who hasn’t passed a certain number of comprehensive art history exams? Isn’t there room for thinking about how a work of art strikes someone who happened to miss one or more references, as we all do from time to time? Should the Musee d’Orsay quiz people on art history before letting them in the galleries?

    I would agree that a lot of online writing (Huffington Post, Gawker, etc.) can be fairly described as trying to generate comments above all else, but I don’t think that’s quite a fair characterization of this review or of FrontRow as a whole.

  • HHorkheimer

    Hi Ben,

    Okay, I suspect you’re willfully missing my point, but I’ll answer.

    1) No, but art is always closed off to one group or another.

    2) There’s always more room for thinking.

    3) No, no art testing. Never, ever.

    On the last point which seems to be genuinely misunderstood: I was unclear, I didn’t mean to characterize FR in that manner. I think the comment section is actually quite useful; I was being a little facetious. Art is often messy and misunderstood, like comment sections.

    Thanks for the Haake link. lol.


  • Ben

    HH, thank you, no, I am being 100 percent serious here.

    Yes, I think a scholar or curator needs to know all the references and cover all the bases, but as for critics, I’d rather read one with a sharp eye and a strong voice, regardless of whether they miss an allusion here or there.

    If I’m reading a dance review (I know absolutely zero about dance), I have little interest in analyzing all the references in the dance performance; I’d rather read a review that tells me what it is like to see the dance performance, than a piece of dance scholarship that covers all the bases.

    So my position is:

    1) criticism is related to scholarship but proceeds on a different basis, that of judgment as opposed to research

    2) speaking as a critic now, if a work of art (in any medium) only speaks to those who were undergraduate majors in the field, or have grad degrees, or are already experts, that’s a lost opportunity. I still hold onto the ideal of the “general educated reader/viewer”

  • Hey Ben @ 3:38 pm on February 2, 2012. Thanks much for your sincere answer. Frankly I’ve got to say that it seems a bit weak to me. Works of art ‘speaking’ to people, ‘ideal’ spectators, ‘sharp eyes’, ‘strong voices’. The language is as empty (and alienating) as corporate jargon; it suggests you’re happy to be the arbiter of taste for the middle-brow. And so I’m not sure what to say further except to reiterate; I wasn’t talking about scholarship or research, just the most basic knowledge for propping up the ‘judgements’. Again, FrontRow claims a certain level of authority; that could mean something real, but you guys have to, I dunno, back it up. I’m not suggesting that you deliver up a dissertation every day, just do a little more offline reading or something. It’s not hard, considering how much is at stake. Smart people are seeking to administer your art scene for you dude. You should seek to strengthen your position if you want to get in on that project.

  • Lucia

    HHorkheimer. Thanks for all of your frank comments. You’re right on a lot of levels: the parts about authority and propped-up judgements. Indeed. But let’s remember that the blunder was mine, not Ben’s, and that my blunder was a moment, not a recurring offense. I’m not sure that my failure to pull from the canon of art history and properly identify Courbet’s painting eats away, in any real way, at FrontRow’s project, Dallas’ much-discussed insufficiencies, or a wider critical dialogue. Nor should it injure or make nervous the “smart people” whose art scene project I suppose writers like myself, and Ben, are a part. Some of us will never blunder; others will. It’s the nature of the vulnerable beast that is writing or art-making of any kind.

    Look, the red cheeks should be mine, in embarrassment, not anyone else’s in frustration. Let’s move on.

  • Okay, nothing further.