Book Review: The Contemporaries by Roger White

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I almost gave up on Roger White’s The Contemporaries: Travels in the 21st Century Art World (Bloomsbury) when I was halfway through. After long essays on art school critique, what it’s like to work as an artist’s assistant, and an examination of Milwaukee’s art scene there seemed little reason to go on. White, who is an artist and teacher, writes reasonably well, and doesn’t stretch his stories out unnecessarily. The problem is that there isn’t a lot of there there – not for anyone already familiar with the art world. Sure, Milwaukee has a surprising amount of small, independent art spaces; that’s news. Some of White’s anecdotes are good, and all are entertaining. But at that point, and faced with a long essay on paintings by Dana Schutz, I was ready to throw in the towel. It was too much like reading a series of magazine articles you knew you would forget a week later.
What kept me going was not any special interest in Dana Schutz – I’v seen her work and am generally and specifically unimpressed – but a determination to let White have his say. I wanted to listen to his entire presentation before getting to my critique. I’m glad I did. Although he failed to convert me re: Dana Schutz, he is earnest and fairly thorough, examining six paintings in detail and noting Schutz’s reluctance to say much about them herself. Things began to look up.

In books about art I am always deeply aware of illustrations – how many, in color or black and white, etc. I understand there are financial considerations, but when discussing art the visuals are vital. The Contemporaries has a few black and white images, most of which fall far short of conveying what is needed. For an artist known for using strong colors like Dana Schutz, this is a sad loss. I’m sure White would have preferred color as much as I.

Mary Walling Blackburn’s complex, wilfully difficult social art was a far better topic. White looked closely at her practice, with a teacher’s eye for the kind of subject that needs some explaining. Walling Blackburn’s work includes lectures, videos, performance, and installation. This multidisciplinary approach, combined with Walling Blackburn’s interest in awkwardness and embarassment, can easily combine to form experiences that leave viewers baffled but thoughtful – exactly what she intends.
Stephen Kaltenbach is White’s last subject, and ends the book on a high note. Kaltenback was a Conceptual artist who withdrew from the art world without giving up art. Instead he transformed his own work, reinventing himself as a representational painter and a maker of public sculpture. But how deep does this transformation go? White shows how Kaltenbach has been engaged in a decades-long performance, deliberately changing styles instead of following some fickle Muse. As he has been slowly rediscovered on recent years, the juxtapositions between his early works and his later ones is a fertile ground for study.

A digression on the Conceptualists and drugs explores a rarely-mentioned aspect of Conceptualism, and is one of the highlights of the book.

Of “Annotating the Elephant,” a 2007 show of Kaltenbach’s varied and eccentric works (some produced under a pseudonym, Clyde Dillon,” gallerist Cathy Stone said “Passersby unfamiliar with the artist generally didn’t stop in to look…because the show looked like something that crawled out of a mall in Laguna Beach. (p. 237-238)” Anyone who has passed through Laguna’s bustling but decidedly mediocre art scene will understand. White seems at his best with artists who are not so easy to understand, like Walling Blackburn and Kaltenbach. Their ideas seem to stimulate him; although he did not convince me so far as Dana Schutz goes, he did give me a look at her art from a different perspective. Had the book started as well as it ended it would have been one of the best I’d read all year. As it is, I think it was time well spent.

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