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On Not Fitting In

   The first time I saw Neil’s work, and we’re talking about many years ago now when he was exclusively an etcher and graphic artist, I was struck by the singularity of his vision. Here was a man who, while clearly having  absorbed many influences, was already producing work that was instantly recognizable as his own. He had done what a lot of artists, and I’m referring here to successful and accomplished ones too, find very difficult, which is to look inside themselves for inspiration rather than associate themselves with some group or  tendency, some prevailing current.

   In an art world which has been dominated for most of the last century by  “movement-ism” this is a brave thing indeed because belonging to a prevailing, or even better a soon to prevail, direction does much to help an artist towards social and financial success. Neil had clearly chosen back then that the voice he was primarily interested in listening to was his own, and the resulting payoff in authenticity and power can be seen, I believe, in the works on display in this monograph.

   It’s not that there aren’t any loners in the canon of modern art. Painters like Balthus and Francis Bacon, Edward Hopper and Frieda Kahlo, come immediately to mind. But they are exceptions, the vast majority of “serious” modern artists being paid up members of one or another of the movements that make up its story. A seriously different artist like M.C. Escher who never paid any lip service to the theory of Modernism has never been accepted, despite being far more interesting than any number of, let’s say, conceptual artists.

   The price then is a high one that an artist pays who tries to go it alone. I’m not saying here that this state of affairs is exclusively a modern one, rather that with the advent of Modernism – and I’m using the term here to stand for a  specific collection of attitudes and ideas and not as a synonym for all the art of modern times – the situation becomes a lot more marked. Modernism is in fact an ideology, not some kind of natural given, and it emerges, first of all in an indirect and implicit way but by the time we get to Duchamp in the 1920’s in a clearly elaborated form, from the same 19th century cultural brew as Communism, with which it shares quite a few features. It’s essential and defining feature is – like any self-respecting revolution – hostility to what it seeks to replace. Put baldly we have an elite troupe – an avant-garde – gifted with the ability to see where our culture is heading who lead the rest of us forward in a kind of continuous revolution, resistance being useless because progress is inevitable anyway. The important thing becomes the extent to which art breaks new ground, all the other things it might do becoming progressively insignificant, and so we have that self-referentiality that both insulates and trivializes so much of the art of our times.  Just consider all those terms of approval like advanced, radical, cutting edge, breaks new ground and of course progressive itself, or the negative equivalents like retrograde, conservative and reactionary that have so saturated art discourse ever since. They are all words that imply progress and entertain no doubt about who’s in charge of it, but the idea of progress that is involved here is one that is exclusive to the world of art, defined as it is by movement away from the “academy” of conventional 19th century practice.

   I don’t want to get into an analysis here of what progress actually means and whether we have it in the arts in anything like the form it occurrs in science and technology, though I’ll admit to doubts that what is customarily sold to us as progress in art might not be rather more the kind of thing we would describe as change in the world of fashion, and therefore of considerably less interest. My point is instead that being based as it is on the quasi military notion of the avant-garde and with its contemptuous attitude to “counter revolutionaries” the ideology of modernism makes life very difficult indeed for non-members. This would not matter so much if it were one of a number of competing theories, but the Bastille of art was captured a long time ago and has ever since been staffed by Modernist functionaries. We thus have an academy more hegemonic than any in the past that is obliged by its founding charter to pretend not to be one, and whose job is to break all the rules except those that it sets itself. Needless to say, the “frontiers” have not in reality been pushed any further out than those established by Duchamp’s celebrated urinal, and what began as a a movement of liberation eventually hardened into a dogma whose central tenet, that the value of an artist’s work is measured by the extent that it “explores new territory” has had a withering effect on art, apart from involving its protagonists in the difficult acrobatics of continuing to pretend that the same old thing is new time and time again.

   This state of affairs has been around for so long now that it’s easy to believe that it’s perfectly natural, that that’s just how art is, but in my view this is not the case. Any ideology can be overthrown, even one as entrenched as Modernism, though it’s ministries of propaganda long ago established a tight monopoly over the writing and promulgation of art history. In this context it’s worth making an aside that the central concepts of Modernism, contrary to what many outsiders might imagine, are extremely easy to understand once you accept their  internal logic. This is to a large extent the secret of it’s success amongst generations of art students because familiarity with the framework of theory which holds it all together is a lot easier to acquire than the highly demanding skills required by the traditional crafts of painting or sculpture. It should be noted that this “theory” only emerged gradually in the beginning and that the great protagonists of early Modern Art were artists first and rebels afterwards, but over time it became a structure, a vast and ubiquitous scaffolding of ideas, in which practice instead of leading came to  follow the and art finds its raison d’ètre in exemplification. Sadly, there are whole swathes of contemporary art that it’s  not necessary even to see; they can be fully described in words.

   And it’s here where my friend Neil’s work might lend us a hand, because no amount of denunciation of a moribund system will have any effect unless there is a viable alternative. What work of this quality does, with it’s unmistakable location in the present  and simultaneous pedigree from the pre-Modernist past, is open up new possibilities that there might be other forms of arrival to modern times than the narrow track that Modernism has dictated. The irony of course here is that the real revolutionaries of the moment  might be dissidents like Neil  (another who comes to mind is Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum) – whom I know to be far more interested in building than in knocking anything down, and who has often advocated a return to a kind of art which is structured around the creative transmission of tradition.

   I’ve titled this brief meditation On Not Fitting In because Neil once told me that a question he often has to field but has much difficulty in answering is “what category does your work belong to?”  Not being able to come up with a ready answer to this is clearly a handicap anywhere, but here in Italy where no artist ventures anything without the covering fire of one or more critics it’s almost inconceivable! But what do we mean by fitting in? If we mean the lack of membership of an accredited movement then of course he doesn’t, and it might even be something to be proud of. But we can choose to stand back and from a more distant vantage point larger features come into view. Modernism is a historical entity with a beginning and just as surely will have an end, and don’t believe it when they tell you that it’s been superseded by Post-Modernism because in reality that’s just more of the same. What Neil’s work surely does fit into is the bigger picture; you just need to step back a bit to see it.

Gian Gennaro Honorato

Sant’Eufemia a Maiella

(Translation by Neil Moore)